A/N: Hola, my friends! I hope the new year is treating you well.
A week went by, and Edward watched. There wasn't much more he could do. Despite his repeated offers to help, Bella preferred to have him on a leash. Literally. His usefulness began and ended with keeping the baby quiet, and from the frowns she occasionally cast at him, he would bet Bella didn't think he was good at that.
Watching her was frustrating and fascinating. She had a timeline in her head, and she worked tirelessly from sunup to sundown to get them all where she thought they needed to be. She hunted, fished, and collected plant-life. She built drying racks and sewed sacks. Edward was never more shocked than when he realized she'd retrieved his pack from the woods where he'd dropped it the day he attacked her. She'd patched up the weak stitching and worked out how to hang an extra sack off each side.
Carrying capacity was definitely Bella's priority. She'd rigged up a carrying sack that would keep Aaron at Edward's chest, leaving him protected but Edward's arms free. She'd also made him holsters for the knife he carried as well as one she apparently intended to give him. She'd even made two tiny bags to hang off Aaron's wrists.
"It'll give him something to play with. You can put a few herbs, small whetting stones, or store your bullets in there," she'd said.
Night had long ago fallen, and Edward was, as always, watching. There was something in the way she moved—her every stride full of purpose and strength. She was graceful and sure. It was exactly the opposite he'd felt since this world had gone to hell.
She crossed the cabin to him and knelt beside the bed where he sat. She pulled his shirt up without a word, and brought the candle she was holding closer to his skin to examine his skin. Setting the candle and its holder down, she began to remove the bandages, intent on treating and redressing his healing wounds.
Edward watched the way the candlelight played on her features, caught by the strange intimacy of the moment. She touched him with familiarity, her gentleness as usual incongruent with her rough attitude. Across the room, Aaron made a soft noise in his sleep.
What a strange, warped facsimile of a little family they made.
As though she'd heard his thought, Bella raised her head, catching him staring. For whatever reason, he didn't look away. Several seconds ticked by, and the heat in the room seemed to climb up. A strange energy crawled along his skin.
He wanted to know who she would have been if this thing hadn't happened to all of them.
"What were you before the virus that you know how to do all this?" he asked, breaking the intense silence between them. "You're so graceful about it."
She sucked in a breath and looked down, returning to her work. She was quiet so long he thought she was going to ignore him. It wouldn't be the first time. His attempts to drag her into conversation were largely unsuccessful. He had a 99% failure rate when it came to anything personal.
But nighttime, in the candlelight, had always had a special kind of magic.
She laughed. It was a small, tired sound. "What I was had nothing to do with all this." Another few beats passed as she worried her lip between her teeth—a strangely vulnerable tic for a woman who otherwise seemed to be made of oak. "My father used to take me fishing and hunting. Camping. He taught me a few things. The rest I got from books. I raid every library I find, and I try to commit the helpful stuff to memory." Another beat, and then she spoke quietly, her tone wry. "No one would have called me graceful."
"Not a dancer then?"
She snorted. In the flickering light, the weary warrior faded away, replaced by the young woman she was supposed to be. A bare hint of a smile tugged at the corner of her mouth. "I had my share of bruises. Stitches a few times. I think I was in my own head a lot." Her tiny smile fell. "Now, I know where everything is. Every tree or rock someone could hide behind, the sounds all around me. Hard to bump into things or trip over them when you know exactly where they are."
Edward processed that as she wordlessly guided him to his feet. She slid his pants down just enough to check on the wound there. He tried not to think about her proximity to other parts of him.
It had occurred to him more than once that he'd watched her clean and dress his wound often enough that he felt certain he could do it himself. Yet he never stopped her from helping, and she never pushed the items he needed into his hands. So far from home, and separated from the people he'd been traveling with, he wasn't unaware of his own loneliness. He liked when she touched him like this. Not because it turned him on—though if he let his thoughts drift that way, it wouldn't be difficult—but because he'd never been this long without a soft touch.
He didn't think he'd ever get used to the coldness of this new world. But then, it made moments like these all the more poignant. In his life before, how often had these moments passed him by. Moments when he connected with another human being, lost for whatever reason and found for a minute in the time they shared with him.
For now, he had no one to consider but her. For all they knew, they were the only people alive for miles. Maybe that was why he wanted so badly to know her—this one person who was the world to him at that moment in time.
Not for the first time, he thought about how powerful the night was. When he'd been lost, especially in a place like Yellowstone with its strange, deadly landscape, the night was a place of terror he couldn't see. Tonight, though, the darkness softened the harsh reality of the day. Bella's defenses were down, and she was looking at him like he was a friend instead of someone who could hurt her if she gave him half a chance.
"Were you far from your family when it happened?" He knew the question might break the spell of the night. When she sucked in a breath and glared at him, he almost backpedaled.
Then, she sighed and stood, her task done. "I was with my father, and a...friend." The last word came out acerbic.
"How—" he started and cut himself off. He was already pushing his luck.
"You want to know how I ended up alone even though we survived the virus together." Her tone was flat, and it wasn't a question.
"I'm not trying to pry."
"Yes, you are." Surprisingly, she sat down on the floor, her legs drawn up to her chest as she looked at him. "This is the new socializing, isn't it? This is what I've been missing. Where were you when? Who were you with? What do you think happened?"
"If that was all we talked about at the compound, life would get really boring."
He couldn't read the look that crossed her face then. "Are you trying to say I'm boring?"
Edward quirked an eyebrow. "Oh, sure. Being held captive by a woman who's almost a foot shorter than you is the definition of boring. But you'd make a crappy movie-villain. You're supposed to love the sound of your own voice and monologue your dastardly plans."
"I'm not a…" But she looked off to the side. She huffed her lips twisted up at the corner in what seemed like sad amusement. "I guess I am to you. A villain. I know what I would think if someone kept me tied up."
Edward slid off the bed and sat on the floor with his back against it. The bind at his wrist tugged, and he had to smile. "I don't actually think you're a villain. You're just trying to control as much of this world as you can."
"I don't want to control you. I just don't want you…" She shook her head, her voice tight.
She didn't want him to hurt her, he guessed.
"My dad and I… Well. My dad lived in this tiny town in Washington. I was going to school in Seattle, but it was spring break when it happened. I was visiting him." She sighed. "There were about three thousand people living in Forks, but after it happened there were maybe a hundred of us." She shuddered. "There were bodies. My dad and some of the others did their best to bury everyone, but there were so many bodies."
Edward's stomach twisted. The death toll in her little town was much worse than the average. As it happened, Edward knew the Pacific Northwest relatively well. He knew how spread out the tiny communities could be. With isolated towns—not as much of a melting pot as most of the rest of the country—it went one way or another: either the death toll was catastrophic or nearly the whole town was immune to the virus.
Some day in the future, the scientists of the world would know all the whys and hows. As of today, though, there was only uncertainty. He could only imagine the fear near-total annihilation had caused in a tiny community, so many miles from even a small city.
"My best friend was from the reservation a few miles away. Jacob." She said the name with venom. "They had it worse. Almost the entire tribe. The elders were all gone. My father's girlfriend died, but her two kids lived. There were so few of the men and even fewer women."
She wrapped her arms around her herself, chafing her shoulders and looking away from him at nothing. "They got weird. I should have known when…" She swallowed hard, and when she spoke again, her tone was cold and bitter. "Leah and Emily were the only two left of childbearing age, because I guess that was the priority they settled on. Emily's face… I should have known then."
Edward's stomach was in his throat. He breathed shallowly, his hands in fists by his side.
"Jacob and I were going through the empty houses. We were trying to keep together—everyone left in the town. We were gathering our resources." She took a deep breath. "He was...I mean, I knew he wanted more, before. He'd always made that clear. And his people were about to go extinct. He was...out of his mind."
Edward held up a hand, his heart racing. "Don't make excuses. There's no excuse."
"Yeah." She cleared her throat. "Anyway. I was lucky that time. Someone heard me screaming. They pulled him off me, which was something. Jake was huge."
The mental image of a huge, hulking man pinning Bella beneath him made rage surge through Edward's bloodstream. He felt an urge to protect this woman who was still a stranger to him. It didn't matter that she'd proved herself more than capable. He wanted to find this asshole and, if he wasn't dead already, beat him to death with his own two hands for what he'd done.
"My dad had taught me how to protect myself," Bella said, her voice far away now. "But Jake was my friend. I didn't really believe what was happening." She sighed and looked to Edward with a shrug. "The survivors gathered, trying to figure out what to do with him. The way they were talking…" She shrugged. "It's like I said. His tribe was about to be extinct. A lot of people there, a lot of men, understood."
"That's bullshit," Edward said through clenched teeth.
She scoffed. "That's nothing new. Not even for the old world. And in this world, it shouldn't even be a surprise. The way things are now, I almost get it. What were they going to do? Not like there's a jail we could throw him in. You're not going to give the death penalty to someone just acting on his primal urges. Boys will be boys and all that. Biological imperative."
Edward sighed softly under his breath, knowing she was right. Even in the civilized society of the past, justice for victims of sexual assault was pathetically rare. As he'd observed before, women were particularly vulnerable in this new world. Edward had met people like the man who'd attacked her—those who became obsessed with the idea of warding off extinction through procreation by whatever means necessary. Some might consider Bella's mini-society one of the better ones out there. At least someone had protected her, had stopped her so-called friend.
"That was when my Dad and I decided that we were better off alone," Bella said. "I knew I could trust him. He was the only person left I could trust."
Obviously, she hadn't been able to trust her only friend.
Edward swallowed around the lump in his throat, trying to keep his breathing calm. "And what happened to your father?" he asked quietly.
She looked away again, rocking back and forth just slightly. She nodded her head across the cabin where little Aaron slept peacefully. "Same thing I think happened to his parents. It was a year and a half ago. We were camped out for the winter in Capitol Reef National Park. Mild winters in Utah, you know. There were three of them. Two guys and a woman actually. She had bright red hair." She breathed in and out slowly. "We had supplies. They wanted what we had. It was simple as that. We weren't paying good enough attention. We'd been alone for so long." She readjusted her grip on her legs, tugging them tighter against her chest. "They killed my dad instantly. Slit his throat. But me…"
"Bella," Edward whispered, horrified and heartbroken.
She raised her head, looking at him with angry, cold eyes. "I told you you weren't the first person I've stabbed."
He straightened up, a jolt of shock running through him at the danger in her expression and the surprise of her words.
"I had to wait. I had to wait until the blond was on top of me. He had his hand…" She swallowed hard and shook her head. "I had to wait because the only knife I could get to was a small one, and he had to be close for me to jab it into his heart. I knew I had to kill him or he would kill me."
"Jesus Christ," he muttered under his breath.
"I killed the woman too, when she attacked me," she said flatly. "The other one ran off. Christ, it took me so long to stop thinking he was lurking around every corner. I kept waiting for him to come for me."
They sat in silence, her words heavy between them, for full minutes. The only sound was the noise of the wilderness outside and the breath of the three of them in the small space.
Bella's shoulders slumped. She took in a shuddering breath and then climbed to her feet. She ran a hand through her hair, and the moonlight from the window struck her in such a way, it knocked him breathless.
She really was a beauty, and after that story, how could he help but see the strength in every line of her body. She was an angel of wrath. A goddess.
Her features were painted momentarily in indecision, but then, her look turned determined, some decision made. She pulled a small knife from the sheath at her ankle. He had to wonder if it was the same knife she'd used on the people who'd killed her father, who doubtless would have killed her. He pressed his back against the bed when she stepped toward him, awed and ever-so-slightly afraid of her. She knelt, and he realized she was about to undo his bindings.
"Don't," he said, surprising both of them.
She looked at him with furrowed eyebrows. He blinked. Her face was so close again.
"You'll never sleep if you do," he said. "You need your sleep, remember? Sleeplessness effects everything."
She stared at him for a few beats and smiled. It was a small, gentle thing. He smiled back. The atmosphere between them seemed warmer than before. She put a hand to his shoulder, squeezing once before she retreated across the room and settled down next to the baby. Edward climbed in bed.
Neither of them spoke again for the rest of the night.
A/N: Progress. Yes? Maybe? :D