A/N… So I said I'd never add to this series, but yet…here we are. Plot bunnies are evil and pushy. LOL This will be the longest of the opening chapter A/Ns, so bear with me for just this one time, okay?
When I realized this would actually happen, I wanted a few things to happen…or really, I needed to push myself to make shit happen. I didn't want to lose the chemistry, and I didn't want to simply put another in the series if it was not going to be worthy of Mercward. I most definitely didn't want to lose any continuity from the other stories or character traits/flaws in this series, so this is a test for me, truly.
WARNINGS: This will be a part of a long line of a series, so yes, you absolutely should read the first four in the series before attempting this one. There will be violence, possible character deaths (read my rules before panicking), and foul language, because Mercward is a mouthy fucker. :) Actually, I think he gets it from me, but he just uses it better.
Last thing, there was a long thread in my FB group about the possibilities of how this would start, and you're all kinda wrong. LOL This one will build a little slower than you're used to, but you'll want a seatbelt and an airbag for this story.
I'll let you get to it. Let's go see Mercward after 3 years (2 years their time)…
"Mom! Where's my sweater?" I heard through my bedroom door.
"No, it's not… Oh, yeah it is."
Grinning, I shook my head as I dressed for the day. The older my daughter became, the more she was Edward made over. She was almost eleven, going on twenty-one, but still every bit our little girl. She had a touch of his temper, although she maintained hers better than he usually did.
I stepped out the bedroom into the hall, reveling at how she was almost to my shoulder in height. And some things didn't change. Bethy clung to her colors just like she had as a little girl. Everything had to match. It seemed today's color was blue. Blue Chucks, blue sweater, and blue fingernail polish. The latter was chipped, because despite how she'd grown so much, my baby girl was still a bit of a tomboy. She was my sports-playing, roughhousing, pilot-wannabe strong girl.
She rushed out of her room and down the hall, telling her brother to hurry up.
Passing by Sammy's room, I caught my son riffling through papers and notebooks and textbooks. If Bethy was like her father, then Sammy was my mini-me. He loved school, he loved reading, he loved computers. And he was my quiet, introspective one.
"Buddy, your homework is on the kitchen counter where you left it last night," I told him.
He sagged in relief, looking my way with eyes that matched my own. "Oh, yeah…"
Raking his fingers through his hair, a habit which clearly came from his father, he stuffed all his things in his backpack, and I followed him into the kitchen. He was almost seven, and he was long legs and feet that grew so fast I couldn't keep up.
However, my whole heart and soul swelled every morning in that kitchen. It was in there that we all sat still for at least a few minutes. The reason was leaning on the other side of the counter with his coffee and newspaper. It was Edward who liked all of us to stop "for five fucking seconds" before we scattered to the winds for the day.
The thought made me smile as I reached for his coffee cup.
"Sweetness, we have at least fifteen coffee mugs in the cabinet…" he growled teasingly, just to hear the kids laugh.
"Yeah, but those are empty. This one you made," I countered sweetly, smiling at him before I took a sip.
Edward leaned a hip against the counter, smirking my way, but he leaned in to kiss my forehead. Some things about us, about him, never changed. He was still up before the sun, he still ran at least three to four times a week, and he was still the best cook in the world. This morning, he'd gone for a run, which was obvious with how he was still in just his basketball shorts and backwards baseball cap.
Giving a glance at the kitchen floor at two passed-out dogs, I guessed he'd taken Lock and Load with him.
"Eat, baby," he commanded softly against my forehead before he pressed another kiss. "I think you'll need it today."
I grimaced, nodding in agreement. Today we were interviewing for a new Gravity employee. We'd tried our best to fill the hole that Kurt had left when he'd resigned after the whole thing in Russia. He and Irina were doing very well living in New York. And even though it had been two years since we'd told him good-bye, no one really wanted to replace him. However, we needed the extra person. We'd had a fair amount of security details in Seattle, not to mention the normal, everyday cheaters, missing persons, and cold cases, that we were starting to feel overloaded.
"Are you sitting in on those?" I asked him, taking a seat next to him. "I know Alec will, because one or two were his idea."
"Yeah, I can. After I take them to school."
"Are we still going to Aunt Kate's this summer?" Bethy asked us, getting up from the counter to take her plate to the sink and sitting back down next to her brother.
Smirking up at Edward, I waited for his answer, because I knew what she wanted. School was almost out. Bethy lived for Aunt Kate's – the animals, the farm, but mostly the flight there. Bethy lived to fly with her dad. Occasionally he'd let her take the controls, but really, he taught her everything else. She wanted so badly to take flying lessons, but she had to be seventeen. He'd promised her if she learned everything before she reached the right age, he'd pay for lessons. I think he was testing her to see if it was something she truly wanted or if it was a "little kid" whim. My guess was the former; Bethy had been eager to fly with Edward since she learned to walk.
Edward's face was impassive, raising an eyebrow her way. "I believe you promised Gamma and Poppy a few days in Seattle first, right?"
"Yes!" Sammy snapped, looking up from the book he was reading while blindly stuffing a piece of toast in his mouth. "Bethy, you promised. Poppy was going to take us to the zoo and the movies and that market place."
"I know, I know! I was just checking. Jeez! Go back to your book," she ordered, and I shook my head at the sound of her father coming out of her mouth. Even better was the slow eyeroll Sammy gave her back, which was identical to my own.
Edward nudged my foot, essentially telling me to shut the hell up. "If we go to Aunt Kate's, there's no soccer, Bethy."
That was the key, right there. Bethy had discovered girls' soccer and was pretty damn good at it. She'd played last summer and had mentioned doing it again. Bethy and Abby, her best friend and Alec's stepdaughter, had signed up together. Abby had liked it okay, but Bethy had excelled, playing aggressively, which amused Edward to no end.
"It's one or the other, little sweetness," he explained gently. "Going to Aunt Kate's cuts into the sign up for soccer."
Edward and I had already discussed it, and Aunt Kate had already invited us up, but we were going to leave it up to the kids, or really, Bethy. If she wanted to play in the summer soccer league in Forks, then we'd stay close by. However, if it was Aunt Kate's, then most likely all the crew and their kids would go.
"I'd rather go to Aunt Kate's," Sammy said softly, shrugging a shoulder and barely glancing up from his book.
I finished my breakfast, took the plate to the sink, and refilled the coffee cup. I stood next to Edward, watching Bethy struggle with wants. Sammy had cast his vote, and therefore he was done with the conversation. That was my son in a nutshell. He was quiet, and maybe a tad shy, but he was sure of where he stood on some things. He finished his breakfast and took his own plate to the sink before heading down the hall to brush his teeth. He'd let the chips fall where they may with this debate.
"Everyone's going to Aunt Kate's, aren't they?" Bethy asked us.
"Yeah, pretty much," Edward answered. "Bethy, if you're wanting to fly, we'll fly. Even if we just fly into Seattle to see Poppy and Gamma."
Bethy's cheeks reddened.
"Busted," I said through a chuckle. "Bethy…" I laughed a little more. "Baby, just pick. It's okay if you don't want to play soccer. I don't think Abby's playing this year."
"You won't be mad?" she asked Edward.
"Why on earth would I be mad?" he asked her, stepping around the counter to take Sammy's stool.
"Well, you played sports, and you wanted me to…"
Edward's eyes warmed so sweetly, and he reached up to cup her face. "I want you to do what you want to do. If shearing sheep makes you happy, then Tom and Obie will have an extra set of hands. If you want to play soccer, then I'll be cheering from the stands, little sweetness. But mad? Not a chance."
Leaning on the counter, I frowned that she'd think that. Edward was her biggest fan, I was damned sure of it. "Pretty girl, why would you think we'd be upset?"
"Colin's parents get mad when he says he doesn't want to play."
Edward shot a confused expression my way. "The boy with the stutter?"
Snorting, I nodded. "Yes, Edward. The boy with the stutter." I turned back to Bethy. "Colin's parents are pushy people…which probably explains the stutter." I mumbled the last part under my breath, which made Edward chuckle. "They tend to put Colin into situations that they want, rather than what he'd be interested in. That's not this house, Bethy. Pick one, and neither choice is wrong. The only thing you need to honor is your word to Poppy and Gamma. You promised them a few days in the penthouse."
Bethy nodded, looking up to her dad. "You'll let me fly? No matter what?"
Edward grinned. "Since when have you ever flown with me and not been my copilot? Hmm?"
She took a deep breath and nodded. "Aunt Kate's."
Edward leaned in, pressing a kiss to her forehead. "Aunt Kate's it is. After Seattle." He took her nose gently in his fingers. "And yes, little sweetness, you'll fly with me both times."
"Thanks, Daddy," she whispered, and it came out all nasally with his fingers still on her nose.
"Brush your teeth, little soldier, and then load up for school." Edward grinned at her eyeroll, because I'd told him more than once that "little soldier" wouldn't work on her much longer.
"Yes, sir!" she giggled, kissing his cheek before darting down the hallway.
Chuckling, I walked to Edward, and he pulled me to stand on the bottom rung of the stool between his legs. "No, you don't need to talk to Colin's parents. They're twitchy people as it is. You'll scare them."
Grinning, he nodded. "Fair enough, sweetness." He pulled me in for a kiss, his fingers threading into my hair. "I-I c-can't b-believe sh-she th-though I-I'd b-be m-mad," he whispered in his nervous stutter.
"You were her biggest cheerleader, Edward. You were her secondary coach, too. So maybe she read into it that you'd be disappointed should she pick differently," I explained to him, reaching up to take his cap off and run my fingers through his hair.
"Never." He shook his head vehemently. "Dad did that shit to me. I'm not doing it to them."
"I know, baby."
Suddenly, Lock and Load sat up, almost groggily, running to the front door. Load – the bigger of the two – pushed out a soft, "Boof."
"Alec's here." I kissed Edward again. "Go on and take them to school. I'll get with Rose, plan only enough work to keep us busy until school lets out for summer. When you're back, we'll interview the handful of people I have allotted for today."
"Yes, ma'am." He kissed me soundly, causing all thought processes to come to a complete stop for a moment or two.
He stood up in front of me, and I couldn't resist pressing a kiss to his Air Force ink on his chest and a brush of my fingers across the Cullen crest cuffing his arm.
"You might want to put a shirt on when you head to the school. The new crossing guard has a crush on you. No need to tempt her."
Edward's smile was crooked and deadly. "Jealous?"
"No. I just don't feel like shooting a bitch today."
Edward laughed. "When I get back, we'll discuss the kid at the grocery store."
Rolling my eyes, I walked to the door to let the dogs outside. "No, we won't, Edward. He goes to Forks High, for heaven's sake."
"Yeah? So did I!" He tapped his temple, telling me silently that he knew what boys that age were thinking.
Grinning, I shook my head, but he shot me a wink.
"Bethy! Sammy! Let's go, let's go, let's go! Load up, little soldiers!" Edward rattled off in his commanding tone.
"Yes, sir!" they yelled from down the hall, and the sound of sneakers on hardwood floors came thumping into the room.
"Bye, Mom!" both gushed, giving me quick kisses after snatching up their backpacks. "Love you!"
"Love you guys. Be safe."
"You, too!" Sammy added, tugging open the back door of the Volvo SUV.
"See you in a bit," Edward said, pulling a T-shirt on and picking up the keys. "I'll shower when I get back."
He held the door for me, and we left the house together. I made my way across the yard to Gravity's office to get ready for a long, damn day.
Stepping into Gravity's office wasn't unlike stepping onto the floor of the New York Stock Exchange, a thought that made me smirk Alice's way, due to her history, but she was too damned busy to even notice I'd come into the office.
Rose was on the phone as usual, Makenna and Alice were in the computer room watching some sort of news report, and Jasper and Emmett were at the conference table on their cell phones. The latter two were simply waiting for word on whatever we were working on next.
Rose jerked her chin toward Bella's closed office door, and I nodded, giving the door a quick tap before walking on in. The two chairs in front of my wife's desk were taken up, so I opted to lean against the filing cabinet just behind Bella. She blindly handed me a file folder as Alec asked a woman with severely dyed red hair a few questions while I flipped through the folder in front of me.
The information in my hands was much deeper than the usual background check for an interviewee. Most places of employment only wanted to know whether someone had been convicted of a crime; some did a credit check to see if the person could be bonded, and employment or other benign background issues.
When Alice ran someone's background, it essentially cracked open the person's life and spilled it out onto the pages, and that included financial, military, and criminal history, along with past employers. Wendy Pearson, born in Las Vegas, Nevada, thirty-two years old, no husband or kids or pets, not even a significant other. The last few years she'd been taking care of an ailing father while working for a small law firm researching cases. The father was now gone, and she was looking for something new.
Wendy lived about an hour away in Port Angeles, where she rented a small apartment for too much money. She had a license to carry a concealed weapon and an extensive background in computer research. She'd enlisted in the Navy right out of high school but only did the minimum, and she'd never left US soil. She'd been trained, but she'd seen no action. And that was the point Alec was touching on when I closed the file and set it back down in front of Bella.
Folding my arms across my chest, I listened to Alec give a watered-down version of what we do.
"Here at Gravity Investigations, we work on a few things – lost persons, cheating spouses, the occasional cold case where the client has nowhere else to go to find answers. We also take on security details, providing almost a bodyguard-type service to people in the entertainment industry, politics, or witness protection, though the latter isn't the norm," he explained to her, but I could see his face, hear his tone, and he wasn't keen on her, so his next statement wasn't a surprise. "We'll be interviewing people the rest of the day, so we'll be in touch. Thank you so much for coming all this way today. We'll be making a decision in the next week. Okay?"
Wendy smiled, because that's just what Alec did – charmed the shit out of someone while simultaneously dismissing them.
He walked her out, and once he was back in the room, Bella simply said, "No."
Alec and I chuckled, and I took the chair next to him.
"Why, Bellisima?" he asked her, sitting forward to take the next file folder.
"She's too nervous. She hasn't done much." Bella sighed, wrinkling her nose. "That sounds terrible, but honestly, I think she's still…grieving for her father. I don't know if she could handle the fast pace. She comes across as someone completely comfortable behind a desk, not speaking to people, and I need her to be both."
"Fair enough, sweetness."
The next few interviews weren't much different, and something about each one of them didn't quite click for Alec, Bella, or me.
Zack Snider was a cocky, Cross-Fit motherfucker who couldn't keep his eyes to himself – not one woman in the building was safe. The answer was almost immediate, but we interviewed him anyway. His ego took a beating from Bella when she thanked him for coming but told him he wasn't qualified.
Jasmine Cummings – a rather unfortunate last name – had been trained in martial arts, but she was dismissive of Bella, and that was her undoing.
Chad Wright was about Alec's age, mid- to late-forties, and he was intense as hell. That man had seen some shit, I was sure of it. His military background was impressive, his criminal record was clean, and he was experienced in protection and weapons. But the guy was gruff and no-nonsense, almost to the point of rudeness.
When he left, Bella snorted up at me. "And you said you couldn't work with the public."
Grinning, I shrugged a shoulder. "I said I couldn't deal with customers if I opened a restaurant, Bella."
She waved me away, smiling. "Same thing. He's too much…too intense."
Alec picked up the last folder. "This is the last one, guys. Dean Carver. Actually, this one is the one I wanted you to talk to the most. I met this guy in Seattle while pulling a protection gig." He handed the folder to me. "The guy is a former Marine. He's been stationed every-fucking-where – Afghanistan, South Korea, Japan."
I glanced through his file, shaking my head. He read like one of us – special ops, hand-to-hand combat training, weapons specialist, even a bit of sniper work. After the service, he'd been employed with a few security companies and even gone through the Seattle Police Department's academy, but he didn't stick with it. Financially, he was fairly average – rent, car payment, utilities, cell phone. My mouth quirked up in a smile at the car – a refurbed, '69 Dodge Charger… Essentially the great-great-grandfather to the Charger I had parked out by my woodshop.
"The car, right?" Bella asked with a laugh. When I nodded, she chuckled again. "Yeah, I saw that. It's gorgeous – metallic blue, with two white racing stripes from bumper to bumper. Carlisle would lose his mind."
I continued through his file with a grin at that. Bella and I had inherited a love for muscle cars from our fathers, it seemed. Old, new…it didn't matter. Bella's silver Mustang was still around, as was my Charger. The gun-metal-gray Camaro my dad had bought her not too long ago for her birthday was temporarily Alec's, because his older car had finally bit the dust. He hadn't had the chance to get something new yet.
Dean Carver was not married, but he had a son about Bethy's age – Marcus – who lived with the mother in Portland. It seemed Dean only saw his son during the summer, winter, and spring breaks, which would've been heartbreaking for me, but not all parents were full time.
I took a deep breath for this last interview. Alec seemed pretty intent on this guy, so I nodded his way, saying, "Let him in. Let's see if he's as good in person as he is on paper."
Alec opened the doors to quite the loud discussion in the main room of the office. Everyone was gathered around the conference table with Alice and Mack. IGOR was up and running, showing comparison videos of some of the more recent mass shootings all over the world.
"Look, look, look! They're not all the same!" Alice argued, pointing from one holographic screen to another. "They're not telling us the whole damn story. You can't just place blame on a single group. There's more to it, I'm telling you!"
"So…you're classifying each shooting?" Dean asked her, and it was honest curiosity. "Domestic terrorism versus…what? Other?"
"Maybe," she hedged. "All I know is the ones deemed to be from a religious backing aren't adding up. There are some that are more organized, and they seem to have a pattern. I know patterns."
"The more erratic the behavior, the more it seems to be…I dunno…personal. Personal meaning an agenda for a higher calling," Makenna stated, pointing to each screen. "And you can't count school shootings, because…just no. That's a different level."
"They're all erratic," Jasper said, his brow wrinkling as he studied the videos. "They're clearly chaos and anarchy designed for attention and cleansing, despite the innocent victims. The end will never justify the means with these attacks, darlin'. What are you lookin' for?" he asked her, but she shook her head, continuing to do what Alice did when something caught her attention – she studied.
"I'm so glad you've moved on from serial killers," Emmett muttered wryly, glancing from one video to the other. "But really, your hobbies are disturbing, pixie."
"I have to agree with her, though," Dean countered softly. "There are more threats than just ISIS and angry white men. There are some groups out there whose backing runs deep, and they work silently behind the scenes until they make a move, and when they do, it's nearly impossible to track it. But if you can spot the pattern, then you'll outwit most of the think-tanks all over the globe."
My eyebrows shot up on that, because it seemed Dean had seen some hefty shit at some point.
"Dean," Alec called him, and the gentlemen in question turned to face us. "C'mon in, man."
The interesting thing was to watch my crew with Dean. We'd been interviewing all day, but no one had uttered a damn thing to the people prior to this guy. However, they'd been deep in discussion with Dean, which meant he would at least mesh with us. That shit was important, and it wasn't going unnoted.
Once the door was closed to Bella's office, Alec gestured to each of us. "Dean Carver, meet Edward and Bella Cullen. They own and operate Gravity Investigations."
"Nice to meet you," he greeted, shaking our hands.
He waited until Bella sat down before taking a chair across the desk. I resumed my position behind her, leaning against the filing cabinet. He was younger than me at thirty-two, but only by about five years. He wasn't all that big of a guy, but it was obvious he kept in shape. I suppose he'd be considered a decent-looking man, but his eyes were sharp as hell. He was assessing us just as much as we were assessing him, which I could admire. With light-brown hair and fair skin, he had a youthful look, which would come in handy with some cases.
Alec had been leading the interviews all damn day, so he continued to do so here, but I noticed he was a little tougher with this guy than some of the others.
"I brought you in here today because I think you'd be a good addition to this crew, Dean. I've seen you work, and it's similar to the way we do things. I know you've had some training. Tell us a bit about it," Alec requested, sitting back in his chair.
Bella stayed quiet on this one, opting to listen as she flipped through his file.
"I was born here in Washington, played high school baseball until I discovered martial arts," he started, and I could see this guy wasn't loud or gruff. He was a bit like Jasper, soft-spoken and observant as fuck. "I joined the Marines right out of school. I did two tours, and I was stationed in Afghanistan, Japan, and South Korea. I was a part of an elite team. It didn't have a name until about two years ago – Raiders. Navy has their SEALs, Army has their Green Berets, Marines classify themselves as elite to begin with, but they needed a recon team. That was us."
"You've seen some ugly shit," I pointed out, glancing over Bella's shoulder at his file again.
"Ah, yeah, definitely, but so have you guys. Chopper pilot in Afghanistan. You've seen action, too."
Alec grinned, nodding that Dean had done his own homework, and Bella tilted her head at the guy, finally speaking up.
"You trained to be a Seattle cop. Why didn't you continue?" she asked him.
"I wasn't a good fit, Mrs. Cullen."
"Bella, please," she said, sitting back in her chair.
"Yes, ma'am," he answered, and she grinned at my soft chuckle. "Ma'am" wasn't a word she liked all that much, but she was used to being surrounded by military-minded men who couldn't or wouldn't answer her any other way. "I'm not built to issue speeding tickets or separate marital/domestic disputes. I'm not black and white enough for that. I tend to think a lot in gray areas."
"And what do you know about the mass shootings out there?" I asked him, because he seemed to know his shit.
"Plenty. The hardest place I worked was Korea. There were threats and problems all over the place. We went into North Korea to get as much info as we could, but the volatile feel is everywhere. We'd use drones most of the time, but occasionally we'd go in as a black-ops recon mission. The people are so…suppressed. Even their radios are preprogrammed to specific news. The information they're allowed to have is lies and propaganda. Never mind how they treat women and children."
Dean went on to answer a few more of the basic questions – what computer skills he possessed, what he could bring to Gravity, languages. He could understand a bit of Korean, not a lot of Japanese, but it was because he was stationed at those two places the longest.
Alec smirked because Dean had been his pick from the beginning. I could tell Bella approved, because she sat forward and started to explain Gravity.
"Gravity started out as simply a PI service, but with the addition of these guys," she started, gesturing to Alec and me, "we've been able to work other things into our abilities. We still do missing people, old cold cases that the local authorities couldn't solve, and yeah, the occasional cheating spouse. But we also have the capability to provide some protection services here and there. We work mainly with Twi Tech – Edward's father is the CEO – and he'll request us to protect entertainers, political figures, or himself should he need it."
I smirked at the last part, because Bella sugared up and glossed over some pretty ugly history, but it was true nonetheless.
"I think you'd be a good fit, Dean. I think you'll bring a different and more global perspective to the table," she concluded. "Alec will go over everything with you and get you set up with Alice."
Bella glanced up at the clock on the wall. "It's time to pick up the kids from school."
We both shook hands with Dean, welcoming him to the crew. When we opened the door to step back out into the main room, I could see Alice was still grumpily studying the screens.
"Sweetness, hang on," I told her, sitting next to Alice, who gave me a disgruntled side glance. "What's got you all in a twist, Alice?"
"I dunno, I dunno, I dunno," she chanted softly in her usual three-time manner. "Something isn't adding up. What they're telling us isn't matching to what I'm seeing. I've been going over a few of the mass shootings over the last couple years. Something feels like it's…a chess move?" she said, but it ended like it was a question. "I'm not crazy. I know there's something there."
Nodding, I barely gave the devastation on the screen a glance, but I gave her shoulder a squeeze. "No one has ever doubted your abilities, pixie. If you think you're on to something, just let me know."
The last thing I'd do was underestimate Alice. She was an intellectual force and a mastermind at all things technological. Honestly, I was glad she was on our side.
Nodding again, I stood up and reached for Bella's hand. "And Alice, we need you to set up the new guy with IGOR."
"Ah, a newbie!" she said with a grin. "Excellent. IGOR, engage…"
"While we're out, we need to talk about the next job we're taking," I whispered to my wife.
"Yeah, there are a few. We just have to decide, but you and Sammy need haircuts today."
Grinning, I surrendered to her wishes, pressing a kiss to her temple. "Yes, ma'am."
A/N… Well, we're back to it. Some of the usual faces are here. Some come later. Like I said up top, this will be a slower build than some of you are used to, but that doesn't mean this is all unicorns and rainbows. ;)
I'm gonna thank my team now and when this is all said and done. A huge thank you to my pre-readers: Suebee, inkedupmom, DrivingEdward, Smusic, and maplestyle. Much love to JenRar, who read this first chapter and said, "OMG, I've missed Mercward! This was like coming home to comfort." LOL (It felt like that writing it.) And to Beffers87 who has made some amazingly pretty banners and manips for this story.
I think that's it. This will update once a week, mainly on Sundays. I wanted to do the usual two times a week thing, but I simply can't make it work with my RL schedule. And these chapters are hefty/meaty…you'll see. So I'll probably tease on Thursdays/Fridays and post on Sundays. Until then… Mooches, Deb ;)