Disclaimer: All publicly recognizable characters, settings, etc. are the property of their respective owners. The original characters and plot are the property of the author. The author is in no way associated with the owners, creators, or producers of any media franchise. No copyright infringement is intended.

All characters are AH/OOC


"No live organism can continue for long to exist sanely under conditions of absolute reality; even larks and katydids are supposed, by some, to dream." The Haunting of Hill House, Shirley Jackson, 1959

"...blessed land where the gods have amassed into one heap all the flowering plants, birds, fish and other wildlife of two continents in order to turn the rushing streams, the silent lake shores and the awe-abiding woodlands of this mysterious land into a true garden of Eden." — Travels, William Bartram on the St. Johns River, 1791

1

When Harry finds her, Bella is still carrying a bullet in her hip. She sits in the back of a silver economy coupe outside the gothic Basilica of St. Francis Xavier in Old Town Alexandria, where she's been parked for hours along the curb, since before early Sunday mass, over the meek broken-English protestations of the first-year American University grad student in the driver's seat listening to NPR at a whisper. The driver coughs at the stench of cigarette smoke while Bella reclines across both rear seats, feet up on the dull gray upholstery, to flick ashes out the car window while she keeps her eyes trained across the street in the spaces between cherry blossoms and passing cars.

Bella hasn't yet spotted Harry observing her from a bench at the end of the block. When he wants to, the otherwise noticeable six-foot-three, two-hundred-forty-pound Quileute man can be downright unobtrusive. One of his many incongruous talents that at one time had made him an asset, but lately an outcast. Time has made him slower, maybe. More careful, certainly. No less formidable. More often treated like precious furniture, an antique to be admired when not ignored, he still manages a startle or two, now and then. Still haunting the place.

Pinching off the nearly dead cherry of her cigarette, Bella stuffs the filter back in the reeking box just as the old oak double doors of the church open to release several children who scatter down the granite steps to waiting parents in luxury SUVs and young immigrant nannies on foot with books tucked under their arms or bags of groceries in canvas totes. Bella lurches forward with her phone, snapping pictures and zooming in on the darkened threshold where a figure stands, robes barely peeking into the mid-afternoon sun. Her nose curls. Teeth clench. She concentrates, willing the figure to take another couple steps forward. To catch just a glimpse of his face. The flap of fabric retreats into the slice of shadow and the doors shut.

"Fuck." Bella winces at the pain flaring in her hip. She pops one of the loose Percocet covered in lint from the pocket of her jeans. Chokes it down dry then lights up another cigarette.

"Please, Miss. You get out now," the driver says, addressing Bella in the rearview mirror.

"We're not done yet," she mutters around an exhale of smoke that fills the cabin. He has exhibited extraordinary patience thus far, yes. With no small amount of monetary coaxing. But then everyone has a limit.

"I ask nicely. Now I tell you. Get out—"

Like getting broadsided, Harry yanks open the passenger door and collides into the coupe. His knees bump the back of the driver's seat. The man, shouting hysterically, attempts to dial 911 on one of the three phones mounted to his dashboard. Harry reaches forward to shove something black in his face.

"What's your name?" Harry asks in a deep but measured tone.

Frozen and staring straight ahead, the man answers, "Samir."

There is a tremble in his voice. The jitter of a man who in the infinite seconds of this finite moment contemplates every choice that has brought him to this place and every way he should have chosen anything else. Bella, unbothered, hangs her cigarette out the window.

"Samir, look over here," Harry tells him with the calm, deliberate voice of a man coaxing a jumper down from the side of building. Or a hypnotist. "Look over here, Samir." He coaxes the man's attention to the badge and identification he holds up between their seats. "Do you recognize this?"

Samir nods, knuckles losing color where they grip the steering wheel.

"Good. My name is Special Agent in Charge Harry Clearwater and I need you to please step out of the vehicle."

As if relieved by the order, Samir bolts from the car. First strangled by his seatbelt. Then, extricating himself, he throws the door shut and stands several feet away on the red brick sidewalk. Behind him a crowded park of dogs and children running wild. A moment of indecision flickers across Samir's face—he hasn't bothered to grab a phone; whether to explain his extended absence to someone or at least blast Twitter with a thread of his passive kidnapping—that just as quickly evaporates from his eyes.

"Do I have to tell you those things will kill you?" Harry grabs the cigarette from Bella's mouth and chucks it out the open window.

"I quit on Mondays."

"When your SAC told you to take some time off, it was implied that at some point you'd return to work."

Harry has never found Bella's acerbic wit amusing. In fact it was her ungracious lack of charm that had booted Special Agent Bella Swan from the FBI's Behavioral Analysis Unit training program two-weeks into phase one classroom instruction. But that was years ago now, and somehow the two hadn't managed to shake each other. Bella would say he has a soft spot for misfits. He'd call that wishful thinking.

"It was left ambiguous," she says.

"It's been six months."

A cold, red flower booms beneath Bella's black T-shirt, sprouting out from her waistband. The wet stain unnoticed against the dark fabric. She hadn't been sleeping well the past couple weeks. Well, sleeping at all. To the point she could no longer trust her own thoughts.

"Yep." Bella sucks the taste of tobacco off her tongue. "Feeling stronger every day."

As a teenager, a daunting bout of insomnia was eventually cured by a supervised round of medicinal hallucinogenics prescribed by the occult shop owner across from the old burnt-out brothel in her hometown. So last night, after Bella had hidden her gun from herself, she hit up the Korean market around the corner from her apartment where the Kims' son stayed open late to stuff college students and Capitol interns with strong coffee, cheap sandwiches, and other staples.

"I checked." Harry says, ignoring her sarcasm. "You've been medically cleared for light duty. The psychologist says you're fit."

"Twenty percent of the population is likely impervious to psychoanalysis."

"You made that up."

"Yes, but it sounds true."

After the market, but somewhere between her front door and the bathtub, Bella had lost a lot of blood. She could recall stumbling into the water with a bottle of bourbon. The faucet running hot over her bare toes. Then waking to pink water on the bathroom floor, leaking through the seams along the wall down to Mr. Trischt's apartment where his BIRDscreeched over the theme to Matlock. Bella up to her neck in her own ichor. The bottle drowned between her legs. Through the hazy screen of rippling red, she saw the open wound in her hip.

A lack of boundaries as a child had put in her head she was capable of anything. So with a sterilized utility knife she'd tried digging out the metal fragment still lodged inside her. Bella hadn't made it very deep before abandoning the idea and slipping into a bath. It was about then a glowing yellow cat had yowled at her from its perch on the sink and she had realized the Kims' son had sold her some bad mushrooms.

"In any case," Bella says, "you once said yourself I suffered from a dangerous lack of empathy, bordering on antisocial personality disorder, which, as a prospective FBI agent, was like handing a lit match to an arsonist."

Bella had done a poor job gluing the wound shut last night and now it was oozing. Clotted blood and sticky new liquid seeping out of the hole through her bandage.

"You also exhibit the same contempt for authority and zealous individualism that made you ill-suited to operating in a cooperative team environment, and I stand by that assessment."

Which was how Bella ended up working Child Exploitation—where no emotionally functioning human being lasts more than eighteen months—and most recently undercover until she was dumped in the parking lot of an urgent care clinic with a bullet wound.

"So why are you here?" she asks.

Harry, stuffed in this tiny car, bursts of light glinting off his shaved head from the sun's reflection on passing windshields and chrome bicycle wheels, might have just come from church himself. He's wearing the kind of cologne his wife would have bought him for their anniversary six years ago that's not even half empty because he only dots it on for Sunday service or date nights and the couple don't get nearly enough of those. Dressed in tailored gray suit he's shrugged into one day a week through three presidential administrations under the requisite D.C. trench coat. It was these sorts of dependable consistencies that had comforted Bella when she woke up to him sitting beside her bed after her surgery to remove most of the bullet.

Much like he did then, Harry regards her with silence.

Bella knows she's caught. The friendly banter just their way of saying, hi, how are ya, how's the family. Her thoughts now are less of her subject inside those heavy oak church doors. In her mind are two flashing neon signs: cigarette and blood. She'd plug the hole with a spent cigarette filter and a piece of chewing gum, though, before she'd betray an ounce of contrition.

"Not that it should come as a surprise..." Harry pops a mint from a tin and insists one upon Bella. "But you were noticed. Calls were made."

"Good. Let him notice."

Though the A/C in the car is running, Bella feels the sun beating down on the back of her head. Sweat gathering at the base of her neck. Her lap warm enough to boil water.

"If you want out of the Bureau, there are easier ways than picking up a charge for stalking and harassment."

"He's in there," she insists with a violent stab of animus.

"So what if he is?" Harry asks the question with the tempered exasperation of someone inquiring of their dog what they intend to do with their tail if they manage to catch it.

And, well, Bella hadn't gotten that far yet.

Truth is, she didn't entirely remember hatching the plan to stake out St. Francis. It was barely dawn when she threw herself into Samir's unsuspecting Lyft to park for the arrival of Easter sunrise service. A side effect of self-medicating.

"I feel better knowing where he is. With him knowing I know."

"When a case goes bad, you have to purge it from your system. These things compound over time. Backing up into our blood." Blood. "Into the muscles and cells. Until it's more you than you are."

Maybe Harry believes that. Maybe he is still trying to convince himself by persuading Bella there is any other way to be. Because the case against Father Matthew hadn't just gone bad. Against her better judgement, she'd been pulled off the investigation for a more pressing months-long undercover assignment that blew up in spectacular fashion just in time for Bella to see the priest slip through yet another crack in the ever-widening apparatus of wealth and influence that continued to protect men like him.

But Harry misunderstood her question.

"Alright, but why are you here?"

Her SAC could have sent any errand boy to retrieve her or escort Bella safely away from the premises with a note to report for a scolding on Monday morning. They hadn't called SAC Harry Clearwater up out of the basement just for this.

"Your absence is no longer medically justified. They're ready to cut you loose. no more salary of you can't be bothered to come to work."

"Okay."

"I'm here to talk some sense into you."

"First time for everything, I guess."

"Damn it, Bella. Be serious. This isn't just about a job. You get kicked out of the FBI, like this, that's it. You're tainted goods. That's the end of your career. You'll never work in law enforcement again."

"So you and dad get to be right after all. What's the problem?"

"Easy as that? What happened to pissing in the lemonade? Miss watch me do whatever I want and to hell with everyone?"

"She died on the table."

"If you were anyone else," he says, "I'd think you were scared. You'd wouldn't be the first. Afraid to get back out there. Taking a bullet in the field is enough to rattle anyone."

"I'm not scared."

Harry's uncanny that way. Incisive and observant. Not just with Bella, though he knows her better than almost anyone alive, but in all things. A trait that makes him a singularly gifted agent and complete pain in the ass to everyone around him.

"How's Mike?"

"Great," she answers flatly, flicking the wheel of her lighter in her pocket.

"Is that why you're living in some shithole apartment in Anacostia?"

"If you already knew the answer, why ask?"

"To see if you'd deny it. How long since he served you the divorce papers?"

Bella sucks the last sour taste of tobacco from her teeth. "I served him."

He doesn't question her on it. Whether because Bella is an exceptional liar, or because he chooses not to read into the implication of her lie, is uncertain.

During her application to the Bureau, they'd made her take the polygraph four times. Not because there was any indication of untruthful answers, but because there weren't. The needles steady. Even passing applicants, questioned primarily on drug use and counterintelligence concerns, should show some deviation between the control questions and the real ones. Some variance indicating nervousness. Not Bella. Finally, the test technician called to have a nurse brought in, after which they decided to chalk the whole anomalous ordeal up to chronically low blood pressure.

And that, more or less, is how a self-medicating insomniac wounded in the line gets cleared for duty. Whether she wants to or not.

"The way I hear it, you barely leave that apartment anymore. Unless it's to sit outside this church. You're on the message boards again."

"Kicked the habit," she tells him with a wink of humor he doesn't respond to.

"Getting a bunch of internet sleuths riled up and dumping piles of bogus tips on us isn't going to get the closure you're looking for on this case. You're letting it become an obsession."

Her husband had said something similar through the locked door of their den while Bella sat in front of the glow of her laptop screen with a pair of headphone on, pretending not to hear him. Or the car pulling out of the driveway. She'd spent more time in that den than the rest of the house, so it only seemed right she let him have it.

"Everyone needs a hobby."

"So that's what you're doing with all this free time? Spiraling down a hole with a bunch of other lonely obsessives to reinforce your worst instincts?"

"Harsh."

"Let me ask you something Bella, you gotten around to taking care of your mother's estate? Her ashes still sitting in a carboard box in your closet?"

On the coffee table. But whatever.

"It's a process," she says.

"Uh-huh."

When she thinks of her mother, Bella sees the forest that surrounded her hometown in Astor, Florida.

Anything and everything lurks in that forest. More than 600 square miles dotted by lakes and ponds fed through a labyrinth system of rivers, creeks, and swamps. Marshlands thick with cypress trees to sandy scrublands. Slash pines, and saw palmetto that'll cut clean through the skin. A menagerie of wild creatures; bear, whitetail deer, and wild boar. Bobcats, coyote, foxes, and panthers that stalk in the tall grass. Alligators waiting along shadowed riverbanks. Rattlesnakes, water moccasins, cottonmouths, and every manner of poisonous thing. One of densest known dumping grounds of serial killers in the county. Not a year went by growing up that police weren't pulling a body out of there. The local bait shops kept well-stocked on search-and-rescue gear. It was practically an industry.

"Well, you've checked up on me," Bella says, growing more uneasy the deeper her thoughts reatreat to that place. "Got that out of your system?"

"You can let me help you. There are services the bureau can offer."

Though her pits have turned swampy, Bella shrugs on her leather jacket to try further concealing the leaking wound on her hip.

"What about this doesn't seem like I'm exactly where I want to be?"

Born and raised in the small river town of on the southern edge of the Ocala National Forest, Bella hasn't been back to her hometown since she finished undergrad. To anyone who knows her now, and the list of those who'd admit to that are few, she's as hard-boiled city as they come. No traces of old callouses from running barefoot over dirt roads and pine needles. Her complexion a respectable shade of indoor pale.

"You said then you needed time, and I understood that. It's been almost a year now since she died. You can ignore it, but that's not going away."

Bella was undercover at the time. Didn't find out until she was discharged from the hospital. Over burgers and milkshakes, Harry had handed her the postcard announcing her mother's death. Still caught in the fog between her real life and the one she'd just left behind, Bella hadn't been able to process the information. Unaffected. Like it was happening to someone else. Then, with time, it became harder to revisit the topic until she'd all but decided to forget it.

"I need you to tell me now if you want to go back to work," Harry says, leveling her with a sincere don't fuck with me on this.

"Tell me something." she demands, growing incensed. Her dad's been gone a long time. Any obligation Harry had to either of them is long since paid. "Why did you join the FBI?"

The question was one every recruit had to answer at some point in their application. Most said something like they wanted to make a difference, or they liked a challenge. Three decades ago, Harry was a new agent trainee. Part of a novel breed of diverse recruits plucked from prestigious universities in the days directly preceding the LA riots. When the FBI was keen to prove it had worked out the earlier wrinkles of integrating J. Edgar's army. The result was a class of agents who were smarter, more sophisticated, and more broad thinking than their veteran counterparts. They were still ostracized and undermined. But now it was quieter. More polite.

"Coming out of the academy, I requested an assignment to places like Maine, Vermont, or Idaho. Got sent to West Virginia. I was thrilled. My new partner there, old guy, war vet, former police detective, surly as shit but he was good to me. He asked me one day when we were driving out to some meth lab. Why the hell did I like it so damn much out there. I said to him, Jim, I like arresting white folk."

Bella bites back a laugh she feels all the way to the throbbing hole in her hip.

"We all outgrow it, Harry. It outgrew you a long time ago."

#

It's a forty-minute ride in another stranger's car to an apartment in Silver Spring where Dr. Angela Weber shoves Bella in a wooden dining room chair and stuffs a dish rag in her mouth. Stripped down to her underwear, hands clamped to the underside of the seat, Bella cringes against the sharp, splintering pain of the needle piercing her skin. Feeling every drag of the suture against the tiny fiery nerves like a pick flicking across the buzzing strings of a guitar.

"You're an idiot," Angela says, on her knees in the hot glow of a desk lamp sewing up the hole Bella dug out of herself. "What'd you do this with, a fish scaler?"

She doesn't answer so much as groan out an agonized hurry up.

"You realize you could've nicked an artery and bled out?"

Bella hadn't been in the clearest mind at time. So, no, the thought hadn't come up.

"Other friends, normal friends, they go out to brunch on Sundays. They call first. Drop a text every now and then. You're the only one who shows up on my doorstep bleeding."

It hadn't occurred to Bella before going undercover to let anyone know she wouldn't be around for a while. Hadn't expected anyone to notice. Since then, well, she hadn't been real social lately.

Across the room, next to the diploma from the Columbia University Vagelos College of Physicians and Surgeons, a photograph hangs in which Bella stands just a little farther from the other twenty-three girls in rows according to height and seniority outside a white limestone building on the campus of Backhouse University. Angela's arm around her waist like she's trying to keep her from running off. Sirani isn't a sorority, exactly. It's an agreement. To, among other things both explicit and not, the occasional emergency surgery.

"There." Angela unwraps a thick gauze pad from its wrapper and sticks it down with a couple pieces of thin white tape. "That's as good as it's going to get. Keep it clean. Dry for at least twenty-four hours. And don't open it again."

Bella spits out the dish rag. "Got it."

In the bathroom, Bella cleans the remaining bloodstains from her skin. Angela gives her her least-favorite pair of jeans and a one of several faded marathon T-shirts she's had rolled up in her pajama drawer for years, knowing she'll never see either again.

"So you left Mike?" Angela says like an accusation, handing Bella a cup of tea as they sit in the kitchen.

"It was a mutual decision."

"And you've, what, quit your job?"

"Did a memo go out or something?"

For months she hasn't had a human interaction that didn't involve a cash register. Now they're all coming out of the woodwork for status report.

"He called me a while back. Wanted me to come over and, I don't know, reason with you. Said you'd been living in the same robe and sweatpants for weeks."

"I was recovering."

"You'd be recovered if you didn't keep ripping yourself open again."

"That was an accident."

Angela's answering scowl isn't buying it. "Truth," she says.

It's shorthand. An unbreakable vow. One not even Bella would ignore.

Still the words get caught on your tongue. She doesn't know how to form the sounds. Just a heavy sludge building in the back of her throat, suffocating her. It'd started after her mom died. Grabbing her in the middle of the night. Choking her awake. The feeling of being trapped. Drowning. At the bottom of a hole filling up with water. So vivid and visceral she can hear the thunder. It's enough to get her otherwise steady heart racing as a sweat breaks out across her forehead.

"I think I'm losing my mind."