Disclaimer: The Twilight Saga is Stephenie Meyer's intellectual property. I am merely playing in her sandbox.
Watching Bella move into his home did little to sate Edward's curiosity. The closed boxes provoked his interest, but it was the covered frames that drove him past previously set boundaries. There was no hint as to what the pictures depicted, and in spite of his hopes, Bella did not invite any of his staff into her suite after settling in. Finally, after a week of unsatisfied curiosity, Edward activated the cameras in her rooms. He justified the action by only using the cameras in the sitting room, leaving her bedroom unobserved.
His first impression of the suite was how much it resembled his own. Alice had long ago taken charge of the estate, but he was nonetheless surprised that she had chosen Bella's surroundings to match his own.
Actually seeing the images did little to end his curiosity.
The first was a charcoal drawing Edward identified as interpretation of Sisyphus: a lean and muscular man pushing a boulder on a steep incline, naked legs braced to support the weight. His far arm stretched above his head, while the near one tensed at waist-height. His head rested against the gray stone, hair wild. The only splashes of color were the green eyes and a calligraphy heading in a matching green across the top of the white matting.
"To become human or to learn what it means to be human does not come that easily…"
An uneasy feeling settled in Edward's gut upon reading the quote. He swiftly looked to the other image. Two scientists with their arms draped across a sheep dominated the photograph. Zooming in, Edward could barely read the caption.
Dolly the Sheep
"Little Lamb, who made thee? Dost thou know who made thee?"
An echo of a memory surfaced.
"Tiger, tiger, burning bright
In the forests of the night,
What immortal hand or eye
Dare frame thy…"
The high-pitched sing-song voice filled his ears for the first time outside his meditations.
"…What the hand dare seize the fire?"
Scrambling for a notebook, he quickly transcribed the words before they faded back into his splintered memory. A quick Google search confirmed his suspicions. The quote from Bella's picture and his memory were both from the same author, William Blake: The Lamb and The Tiger. A dark suspicion curled in his mind, but he quickly shook it off. Blake's works were famous enough that it could easily be a coincidence. And he knew that as the first cloned animal, plenty of people associated Dolly with the Blake poem. There was no reason to suspect that Bella too had associated the poems with her personal history.
Although both pictures clearly had meaning for Bella, enough for her to have them framed and hung in her home, he wondered if her interpretations were the same as his. The Sisyphean struggle for humanity reminded him of his own attempts to regain his past, while the question of who made him had been answered in some ways, he still didn't truly understand his foe. Finally finding a justification for his actions, he decided that watching Bella might be the only way to gain insight. Beyond his own curiosity, it was a necessary security precaution. Since her mind was opaque, he reasoned that surveillance was the key to determining whether she threatened Cullen Corp. or him personally.
After all, security doesn't know what I know. Besides, I'll never watch her in her bedroom, and I'll wait for her to leave the suite before I activate those cameras. With that thought, the Edward's last guilt about his voyeuristic tendencies fell away.
A week later, a meeting with Jasper undermined his security rationalization.
Once again, Edward's study was home to an uncomfortable discussion about Dr. Swan. Jasper's mind was full of the taste of the brandy he swirled in the snifter as he waited for Edward's attention as he sketched the final parameters of a new experiment. After closing the lab book reverently, Edward looked up. Jasper's preoccupation with the brandy intrigued him, since Jasper rarely indulged in any alcoholic drinks.
"Edward, before we discuss what the investigator has found, we should talk more about your concerns." As always, Jasper's voice echoed in stereo with his thoughts. But a small whisper crept through, because you may overreact to what he's found.
Edward raised an eyebrow, inviting Jasper to continue.
"Look, I know you're worried that Bella is a Core plant. And I know Rosalie harbors some suspicions as well," Jasper started.
Although he didn't want to acknowledge that concern aloud, as though giving it voice gave it truth as well, Edward nodded, his face taking on a mask of neutrality.
"And most of it stems from the fact that you can't read her, so you're worried about her intentions."
Again, Edward nodded.
"Has proximity or familiarity changed it at all?" Jasper pressed.
Edward hesitated. He'd been fairly close physically to Bella since their labs were close together, but he'd not actually interacted with her since the day they had met. And he had been doing most of his work in his study rather than in the laboratory, so the physical proximity had been fleeting. But he'd watched her enough that he felt comfortable shaking his head no to the question. He had learned more about the reach of Bella's curious, though welcomed muffling aura, yet her mind remained impenetrable.
"Okay, so you lack your usual insight," which is flawed anyway, "so we have to revert to logic." Edward frowned. Jasper's thoughts were exceedingly methodical during discussions. Normally he liked the structure, but at times like this, Edward just wanted the answers.
"Since it's your major concern, let's go ahead and address the elephant in the room." Jasper cleared his throat before continuing, "What is the defining feature of Stolen Souls?"
Edward's forehead creased in thought, "well, increased intelligence, decreased melanin production, more efficient bodily processes, elevated strength, enhanced innate talents, core temperature…"
"No Edward," Jasper interrupted. "Those are traits of anyone who's been changed. What are the traits of Core operatives?"
"Twins?" Edward offered.
"Well not everyone survives so it's hard to tell who all are twins, but that's a start on those treated by the Core," Jasper admitted. "But I'm talking about Stolen Souls specifically." The image of a hauntingly lovely woman flashed through Jasper's mind, giving Edward the clue he needed. "Heidi."
"Heidi. Well, Heidi, Afton and Corin so far. But what did people at the Seattle facility point out even before they knew what had happened?"
Edward tried to recall the main thrust of all the reports forwarded after the Heidi incident. Although worded differently and with varying degrees of concern, there was a common theme. "An inability to form personal attachments."
"Exactly. Stolen Souls are functionally sociopaths with one emotional tie: the Core."
Heidi had joined Cullen Corp. as a PR representative three years ago. Superficially sympathetic, charming and beautiful, Heidi rapidly collected a wide range of acquaintances, but no real friends. People were drawn to her, but a subtle undercurrent of unease prevented even the most ardent admirer from pushing for more than a tumble in bed. The entire department hummed with tension whenever she stalked the halls.
Red flags had already been raised by more perceptive employees before the security breech. Then multiple people attempted to access secure files in a single hour. The breadth of files requested and the multi-source attack warranted immediate action. Emmett's tracing quickly identified a single thread woven through the group: Heidi. Subsequent investigation suggested Heidi seduced men and women with equal ease throughout Cullen Corp. fishing for information and connections she leveraged to her advantage.
Rather than confront her immediately, security waited a week before bringing Heidi into the home office in Forks. A glimpse into her mind was the only confirmation Edward needed. A Core plant, Heidi had adroitly used her talent to corrupt a swath of upper level management at Cullen Corp. Only the isolation embraced by most of the researchers prevented her complete infiltration. The memory still burned in Edward's mind at how close she had come to accessing Cullen Corp.'s secrets.
"I wish we had had more time to question Heidi," commented Jasper bitterly.
"None of us expected her reaction, not even Alice. I don't think it was a choice, really," Edward murmured.
"Still, her suicide suggests that the loyalty runs deep. Perhaps too deep to even allow other attachments. Familial interviews showed that the disengagement started immediately after the change. Anyway, even though we didn't warn them in time, Kate and Garrett had the same outcome with both Afton and Corin when they found them at the Physical Research facility- commitment to the task over self-preservation." Edward's nostrils flared at the remembered failure. "Rumors have filtered through the network repeating the same phenomenon- even sleepers show the same disconnect from other people."
"But what does this have to do with Bella?" Edward pressed.
Jasper sighed, "People sense predators among them. Even Heidi with her talent for luring people in frightened her coworkers. The conflict of lust and danger was noticeable enough to generate more than one report to HR."
"Again, what does this have to do with Bella?"
"Edward, could you see a Core plant driving across the country with a neurotic mother visiting roadside attractions?"
"Last week Bella was telling Alice about her drive out here from Phoenix. Rather than simply flying, she spent two weeks driving that rust-bucket of a truck around the West Coast. Did you know that 'the World's Largest Pig Hairball' is in Oregon?" Jasper snorted to himself at his memory of Alice's horrified expression when she had recounted Bella's stories.
Edward tried to envision Heidi indulging her mother, a weepy woman whose thoughts revealed that she still didn't understand Heidi's 180 degree personality shift after her cystic fibrosis treatment. In order to gain more insight into Heidi's past, Cullen Corp. had flown in Mrs. Ericson in to claim her daughter's body and expose her to Edward's talent. An explanation of sudden cardiac arrest due to an undiscovered heart defect had unearthed all of her mother's regrets; prominent among them the remorse for trusting Dr. Volturi and his experimental treatments.
Her daughter had become more beautiful during her sixteen month absence, but also a stranger. Heidi could easily parrot facts about her history and returned to old routines, but with a nearly tangible air of disdain. She had chalked it up to the death of Heidi's identical twin, but she found herself mourning the loss of both daughters years before Heidi died.
No, there was no way Heidi would have subjected herself to a long road trip with another person unless she could see a direct benefit to herself. And Edward didn't think that the world's largest pig hairball was a sufficient lure.
Slowly, Edward shook his head. "No, I can't see that."
"Exactly. On a more personal note, during the week she's been here Bella is already making friends. Angela and Alice have nothing but good things to say about her. Alice is even getting some glimpses, though she said it's oddly foggy. I have to say that I like her, too. Heidi gave me the creeps when I brought her here. The video footage we have of Afton did the same. They were predators, feeding off other people." Jasper paused, rolling the glass through his hands before adding, "unlike you and Alice, the Core sees loss of humanity and memories as a gift."
"Okay, three people and rumors point to Core plants as sociopaths. That's hardly conclusive and you still haven't told me what the PI found out."
"Fine. The PI's investigation and medical records show that Bella is an only child. Birth records confirm and the PI checked for any expunged records. Unofficially I'm fairly certain he bribed someone to get that information. We have no other examples of single children being chosen. Aro always sought twins, even when he didn't change them – look at Rosalie. He wouldn't have been interested in her without me, inaccurate Tay-Sachs test or not. Aro's twin fixation seems unshakeable. You know that Eleazar thinks that twins are more likely to be talented. Do you really think he tracked down the only child of a school teacher and a police officer on the off-chance that she'd respond to the treatment? He's fixated, Edward."
Edward sighed. "The records we recovered during the escape were fragmented at best. Yes, they suggested an obsession for twin patients and twin-based experiments, but maybe we're missing something. I swear Jasper, there's something familiar about her, even if she's not a product of the Core. Her eyes…" he mused, his voice trailing off as he tried yet again to pull his memories to the surface.
Slumping back in his chair, Edward continued, "You're distracting me, Jasper. I can agree that Bella's an unlikely candidate as a Stolen Soul, but you're not telling me everything."
Jasper fidgeted as he marshaled his thoughts. "It looks as though her history was wiped. She told me that she broke her thumb in high school and mentioned potential malnourishment as a child, but her medical records only contain a vaccination history, the occasional ear infect and one instance of strep throat when she was ten. Everything else has been purged."
"She said she had appendicitis when she was eight, too."
"Shit, nothing in the record about a hospital stay either."
Edward ran his hands though his hair. "Other records? Family, friends? Personal e-mails or a prescription history?"
"It's like Fort Knox," Jasper admitted. Voice strained, he continued "We're still trying to decrypt her computer files. Family friends only mention her in glowing terms. As soon as Jenks tried to dig deeper, they very politely refused to comment. When he tried to bribe or coerce, they impolitely refused."
"Impolitely?" Edward asked.
Jasper barked out a laugh. "At the last place, Jenks said something that set off one Phil Dywer. Apparently this guy works with her father at the police station, because he patted his gun and told Jenks to fuck off or he would 'personally guarantee that his god-daughter wouldn't have to deal with him invading her privacy again.'" The laugher fled Jasper's voice as he finished.
"Those are some pretty loyal friends," Edward noted, jaw clenched as he fought off his frustration.
"Yeah. There's more though. Jenks dug into her school records. We have grades, but no teacher commentary, college recommendations or even an attendance record from high school. Until she got to Berkeley, everything is officially blank. Teachers that Jenks talked to only said that she a friendly, engaged girl. She was homeschooled for a year, and graduated early, but we already knew that from our initial background check."
"That doesn't set off alarm bells for you?" Edward demanded, both eyebrows arching in question.
"It does," Jasper admitted, "it just doesn't suggest that she's from the Core. It only says that somewhere along the line, someone cleaned up her past. It may not have even been her."
"I don't think she's normal, Jasper."
"No, I don't think so either. And that could explain the next part."
Again Jasper tried to organize his thoughts when Edward burst out, "What do you mean she's being followed? And you've known this for two weeks! You told Rosalie? Why not me?" Edward seethed, jumping to his feet as both hands gripped his hair tightly.
"Rosalie is in charge of security," Jasper answered coolly. "I knew you'd overreact, and I wanted to let Jenks have time to dig."
"Fine," Edward ground out though his clenched teeth. "Tell me more about Bella being followed, since Jenks was obviously useless."
To Edward's disappointment, rather than rising to his bait, Jasper explained. "I'm almost certain that Bella and I were followed from Forks. Rosalie couldn't confirm who it was, but I could practically feel it. She's also caught glimpses of an observer near Bella's apartment complex while Bella packed up. Rosalie stuck around a few days, and she said that Bella's apartment was still being watched- possibly as a precaution that the move wasn't a ruse."
"Or to see who else was watching her," interjected Edward, pacing behind his cluttered desk. "Seeing if she merited special attention?"
With a nod, Jasper continued. "Well, you know how Rosalie can spot her own kind. She couldn't close with him, but she's fairly certain he's had security experience, if not military training."
"Was Rosalie spotted? I think she'd be pissed if she wasted two days trying to catch some guy who was only there to see if she was watching for him."
"Rosalie is fairly certain she wasn't spotted."
When Jasper paused, Edward prodded him on, "So you suspect that you were followed from Forks, and Rosalie thinks there was someone watching her move. That's pretty easy to explain, Jasper. Someone probably let it slip that we were looking for new talent, they staked out the compound and followed you to see who it was." His forehead creased in thought. "Even watching Bella pack makes sense if they wanted confirmation that she got the job. This could easily be industrial espionage and not something more sinister. And we can handle industrial espionage," Edward nodded decisively. Not even with her special abilities had Heidi managed to extract meaningful information from his people.
"That's what I told Bella and Rosalie, but I'm not convinced. Bella's turned down lucrative private sector offers before, so she's not a good target for bribery. Her record is squeaky clean, so she's not a good target for blackmail. Once they identified her, watching her old apartment doesn't make much sense."
"And it makes sense if there was something besides corporate espionage?" Edward questioned, sitting back down.
"If it's not just espionage, someone may want to see how highly we value her. Rosalie certainly suggests that we'll protect her."
"I'm still not convinced, the observer could have been watching anyone in Bella's complex, especially since we don't know for sure that it was the same people you think followed you from Forks," sighed Edward. He propped his elbows on the desk in front of him, resting his forehead in his palms.
"We've also seen some new people in Forks."
Edward looked up and quirked an eyebrow.
"It looks like two different groups. One group is easily a coincidence. The second is worrisome. The former isn't suspicious anyway- a group of guys from La Push are opening a mechanics shop in Forks."
"We've had some trouble with the Quileutes before," warned Edward.
"I know, but this truly seems innocent. The other group is what's really bothering us. We don't even have a complete count. We know that there are three different men and one woman for sure, but there may be more based on the place they've rented. No one seems to know what they're doing here."
"So did you put the ever intrepid Jenks on the case?" Edward needled.
"No, he just got finished with Bella. Rosalie asked around a bit though. They've paid cash for everything, including the rental. No names were used- cash apparently was the only introduction they needed."
"Even if they're not here for Bella, we need to know what they're doing here," Edward said decisively. "A group that size isn't needed for most industrial espionage, and I actually doubt that anyone would try to break into the compound. With the timing, it could certainly be related to Bella."
Jasper nodded his agreement. "But Rosalie did say that the group is the perfect size for one thing."
Edward obsessively monitored Bella throughout the compound for the next week. There was no reason to believe that his observations made her any safer, but he felt better knowing exactly where she was at all times. The hours set aside for meditation were the only times he required himself to stop. He slept when she slept, and he worked when she worked.
During the three weeks of observation, Edward found his mind drifting more often towards Bella's physical state. Through sheer force of will he had stifled the fantasies that had disrupted his meditation that first day. Instead he found himself cataloguing her attributes without piecing them into the overwhelming whole person.
Each day revealed a new feature that entranced him. Yesterday it had been the way that her ears helped keep her hair out of her face.
Sometimes Edward worried that he was going mad.
Other times he thought he should take the advice Alice had offered after his first week of avoiding Bella's presence and just go talk to her. But Edward was a creature of habit, and he had to admit that merely watching Bella was already a test of his self-control.
Surprisingly, he found that his work wasn't suffering. After months without any direction, Bella's presence inspired new thoughts. Since most of his preliminary work depended on computer modeling, his absence from the lab didn't affect his productivity. Besides, Ben easily maintained the submersion vats and other ongoing experiments without Edward's interference. A particularly fruitful computer model using prions to alter brain chemistry propelled him from his seat towards Bella's lab before his mind caught up with him. Her work with neural pathway modification had catalyzed his discovery, and he wanted to share his excitement with someone who would appreciate it and help him design in vivo prion testing.
Of course, Bella didn't know that she had inspired his work, so Edward had to admit that it would be more than a little awkward to thank her. Maybe I should just e-mail her for her thoughts on prions, Edward mused, that's innocuous enough. Certainly discussing ideas was a major reason Cullen Corp. hired her, so she'd have to respond to his request.
His mind determined, he drafted the e-mail, looking up at a wall monitor only to see Bella exiting her suite with her coat on and purse in hand. It took a moment for Edward to deduce that she was leaving the compound. He frowned; the jeans she was wearing looked rather too tight. Don't they restrict her circulation? Of course, she had probably worn the same jeans around the labs, but no one saw her besides Edward. Out in Forks anyone could see her.
Reaching for his phone, Edward scrolled to Rosalie's number to set up a security team while Bella was out of the safety of the compound. His finger hovered over send when he realized that calling Rosalie would tip her off to his clandestine activities. I'm not ashamed of monitoring the situation, he told himself again, but it's no one else's business if I'm keeping a close eye on Bella. I need to make sure she's safe. The last thought surfaced unbidden, and Edward ruthlessly shoved it back under the turbulent lake of his mental landscape.
Instead, Edward watched to make sure that security was dispatching a team without his interference. To his satisfaction, Emmett and three other personnel followed Bella's hideous truck out of the garage and presumably towards Forks proper.
Edward paced back and forth across his office while Bella was gone. His mind swirled through everything that could happen to Bella in Forks. Emmett could handle himself. His security staff could handle themselves.
But the group identified as a possible threat had remained elusive. Not one of the team had been positively identified, and they seemed preternaturally aware of possible camera angles. Rarely outside to begin with, their faces were always cloaked in shadows, various hats and sunglasses. Sunglasses in Forks, snorted Edward mentally. If Emmett's supposition that they might be kidnappers was correct, then they had not yet revealed their target. But then again, this was Bella's first trip into Forks.
It was with overwhelming relief that Edward watched the entire Bella return to the estate. The security team had yet to return, most likely enjoying a bit of time among the townies. A quick call to Emmett confirmed that theory. During his call Bella had swiftly moved from the garage to her suite, where she paced restlessly. Frowning, Edward zoomed in on Bella's image, trying to understand her expression. Bella's face suggested that her trip disappointed her in some way. Finally, with a visible huff, she settled into her chair and powered up her computer.
Five minutes later a quiet chime announced Edward had a new e-mail. Though loathe to break away from his Bella watching, Edward clicked over to his account. He was elated that Bella had already responded to his prion idea. Opening the message he was disappointed by its brevity even before he read it. Dread pooled in his stomach as he read the missive.
Dear Dr. Cullen,
I learned some very disturbing information during my trip to Forks. I would like to speak with you immediately.
Dr. Isabella Swan
Throat dry, he rapidly responded.
I am currently in my study. If you remember where it is, I can meet you here at your convenience. If you need someone from security to refresh your memory, I can call for Rosalie to escort you here.
He hesitated a moment, wondering if mentioning Rosalie would seem threatening, then went back and replaced her name with Alice's. The muffling aura Bella carried with her would allow him to endure Alice's chaotic and vivid presence. No more than thirty seconds after he sent his response, he saw Bella stand up and stride towards her door. In a slight panic, Edward cleared all of the monitors in his office. Advertising his daily activities seems more than a bit gauche.
Calling upon his breathing exercises, Edward eyed everything else in the study. The lab books were piled atop each other, a couple open to Bella-inspired experiments. He hastily shelved them just as a knock interrupted his growing anxiety.
"Come in," called Edward hoarsely. Clearing his throat he added, "It's unlocked."
He could feel his palms sweating as the doorknob twisted. Whatever Bella had learned in Forks had led her to push his boundaries. He wasn't sure if he was thrilled or terrified.
Bella's expression was closed as she walked towards the desk. Edward immediately gestured towards a chair. "Please Bella, take a seat."
Nostrils flaring slightly, Bella responded, "No, thank you, I'm fine standing. I just have a single question I need answered before I can continue working for you."
Brow furrowed in confusion Edward murmured, "Anything you need, please tell me. I can promise you that I will answer your question." Immediately after saying that, Edward forced himself not to wince. He really didn't know if he would be able to answer any question she might ask.
To his horror, she immediately snapped "Then tell me, Dr. Cullen, has your company performed genetic experimentation on humans?"
I have totally failed in updating. I've promised the ladies on the Twilighted threads an update on two separate occasions, only to find my academic work sucking up all my writing energy. I can say that the worst part of my semester appears to have passed, so I don't believe that a long period of time will ever separate my updates again.