There were three major things that happened to me when I was panicking. First, my heart beat faster. I knew this was a universal symptom of panic, one everyone experiences. That's also true of the second symptom, which is that my body released just massive doses of adrenaline into my bloodstream. The increased speed with which my blood pumped only servedto get that adrenaline going through me more efficiently. The side effects of this combination were heightened senses, the typical fight-or-flight impulse, my pupils dilating and every muscle in my body tensing simultaneously.

The third thing that happened was that my thoughts became hazy and unfocused, and I entered this realm of reality where I was merely experiencing everything without really comprehending the meaning behind the stimulus. As you can imagine, this re-triggered the first two things.

I was undergoing an onslaught of all of these symptoms the night I was dragged from my apartment, a large meaty hand cupped over my mouth to silence me. The two men that had come for me were as huge as they were menacing, and though my body had the desire to react, the sense of self-preservation necessary to survive, my brain was incapable of processing the events that were unfolding before me.

Naturally I made a token effort, biting the hand clasped around my face, but all that earned me was a sharp backhand that snapped my head to one side. The man growled something to his companion that I did not hear, and moments later the scent of duct tape filled my nostrils as a strip of it was slapped over my mouth.

Believe it or not, my first lucid thoughts occurred well after I had been tossed in the trunk of their car, my breathing calming because it was forced to – it's nearly impossible to hyperventilate with only your nose available to inhale and exhale though. My wrists were also duct taped, makeshift cuffs holding them behind my back, and my body was contorted at an unnatural angle no matter how I tried to get less uncomfortable. I had no idea where we were going, nor what exactly would happen to me once we got there. I had a pretty good idea, however, that it would be extremely unpleasant.

This had to be about the articles I'd been writing – I was sure of that much. I worked for the Chicago Times as an investigative journalist, detailing crime and court cases. It was one of the more challenging beats, actually, especially in a time where the bulk of popular news is based on information spoon-fed to us from various political outlets. The public doesn't want to hear about the mundanely horrible things going on around them. Only the sensational stories like serial killers and statewide manhunts. I was supposed to be covering organized crime, which is both seedy and not particularly popular a topic these days.

I labored hard at it, yet the public reaction was minimal at first. I got that prohibition was over and that we're more concerned about the oil lobby buying off our politicians or rural churches being burned by alleged Satanists rather than something as seemingly innocuous as the Mafia, but I still felt it was important work I was doing.

It took months before anyone started paying attention, and now the public outcry was gradually growing in response. Of course, when you publish something like that in a well-known newspaper, the good citizens of your town are not the only ones who will take notice. Apparently, my poking around had finally caught up with me, and now here we were.

Me, in the trunk of a very nice Mercedes, on a car ride so long that we had to be leaving the city. I was terrified beyond all rationality and yet I knew that terror would get me nowhere. Begging, pleading, those were going to be completely worthless to me now. I was probably about to meet an extremely unpleasant end, one that left me with no dignity even in death, and there was absolutely nothing I could do to prevent that.

Perhaps the appropriate reaction would have been life flashbacks – visions of my former fiancée Tanya, or of my parents and my childhood. None of those things had left a very good taste in my mouth, though, and I was left curled up and bitter like a hog-tied calf, thinking that the life that was about to leave me hadn't even had the decency to make me pine desperately for the memories that it provided or the opportunities I was going to miss out on in the future. It figured.

When we finally arrived at our destination, I was exhausted and in great pain. I think, at some point while roughing me up back at my apartment, one of the men – the blond one – had done something to badly fuck up my shoulder. Never before had I know such pain as filled my left side and arm now. I'd rolled over onto my other side right away after the trunk was shut, desperate to get my weight off of it, but it had done little good.

The blond had also given me a pretty sharp blow to the jaw, after his slap but before the shoulder, and I could feel it clicking when I worked my mouth uselessly against the duct tape. Oh, Jesus Christ, this was going to be horrible. I didn't want to die.

Please, God, I know we don't have the best working relationship with each other, seeing as I have always claimed not to believe in you, but sadly, you are my best bet and my only shot right now. Please exist and pity me. I don't think you do or will, but please.

Light made its way into my vision and strong arms lifted me out of the trunk, setting me on my feet. I looked up and through the agony-induced foggy impediment to my brain I was able to comprehend that I was standing in front of a very large house. I mean really fucking huge, like a mansion, even bigger than my parents' home. My family had always been well off, but their house was nothing as ridiculously opulent as this. And because I'd been estranged from my parents for so many years, my shitty little apartment was put to definite shame by what I was seeing now.

Ah, my shoulder fucking hurt so badly. The brown-haired man tugged at my bound wrists from behind, and it was so excruciating that I actually had to stop walking and lean against him to stop myself from falling to the ground. I turned my head to look at my arm and was horrified at the sickly, improper angle at which it dangled from its place in its socket. That could not be good. I guessed it wouldn't matter, soon.

I was half marched, half carried up the circular cobblestone drive to the large oak double front doors. A third man in a suit opened them to let us in, and we moved through the marble-floored foyer into a room just off to one side. This had to be it. This was the end. Why would they do this in here? Why not take me out in the middle of nowhere? Why the fuck was I wondering about things like that when I should have been pissing myself in terror? Oh right – because I was too terrified to pee, and because my brain had ceased all proper functioning the minute my front door had been kicked in just after midnight.

The room held a sprawling antique desk, a pool table, a set of arm chairs, and a wood chair that looked like it belonged at a dining table: high backed with no arms. It was into this chair that I was unceremoniously dropped, my shoulder searing with pain at the sudden jolt that hitting the chair seat with my hands sent through it. I let out a loud hum against the duct tape and crumpled my arms, hoping to take the weight off my wrists behind me. Blinking several times to adjust to the warm light, I took in the three faces that were now regarding me grimly.

There were the two men that had come for me in the night: the first was the bulky, truly humongous blond who his partner had referred to as "Felix." Said partner, sporting long dark hair held back by a ponytail I found reminiscent of John Travolta in Pulp fiction, was smaller but meaner looking. The third man, the one that had greeted us at the door, was older and more nicely dressed with an expensive shirt and tie, his mustache neatly clipped and groomed. He was in charge here, clearly, and the others were speaking to him at volumes I could hear but with words I couldn't understand through my pain.

Please let this be quick. God, I am full-on begging now.

The older man came forward now and regarded me with his head tilted to one side, as though I were an insect that he had stepped on and now he resented my presence on the bottom of his shoe. He leaned down into my face and I could smell cigar on his breath when he blew out hot air with the words that accompanied his sneer.

"You're fucked now."

Like I didn't already know that? If there was one thing I was right now, it was beyond completely, thoroughly fucked. Nevertheless, his words sent a shudder through me, and the ensuing pain that said shudder brought to my shoulder was enough to make my eyes sting with the beginnings of tears.

"Where's Bella?" the man asked his companions, standing up now to face them. They both shrugged, not knowing, and their superior disappeared out of the room. Who – or what – was Bella? Maybe I hadn't heard him right. I was only barely sure, in my state of terror, of what was going on. My head swam in a frantic attempt to align my thoughts, but nothing came to me except what had already been there for the past two hours or so: Scared. Pain. Death. Alone.

To say I was fucked was an understatement.

In the interval while we seemed to be waiting for something, the one with the blond hair produced the roll of duct tape again. He wrapped it liberally around my legs, strapping to the chair and rendering them immobile. I wasn't going anywhere.

It wasn't long, maybe a few more minutes, before the man with the mustache returned. Trailing behind him, petite and demur, was one of the most beautiful women I'd ever seen in my life. Girl, really, because she didn't look older than twenty at most, and she was looking directly at me as the four of them conversed. God, where had she come from? What was she doing here? It was too jarring, her presence in this moment, in this time and place.

The man in the ponytail said something and she nodded. Slowly, the girl turned to face me and gave me what looked like a comforting smile. Comforting? Here? Great. I was hallucinating now, being visited by a gorgeous specter in a simple black cocktail dress and bare feet, her dark brown hair swept up from her neck. I was beyond surreal and into the realm of no longer lucid.

She began to walk toward me, and somewhere in my head I grasped that this must be "Bella." An accurate name, at least. She wasn't smiling anymore as she approached, and I decided I had imagined at least that much. She got closer, and the blond one named Felix spoke up so that she would hear him.

"His left shoulder," he was clarifying.

Ah, fuck. This pretty little creature was going to do something awful to me.

She knelt before me, avoiding looking into my eyes, and I watched her as she gently poked at my shoulder and nodded to herself. Ow. After a second she turned back to look at the men.

"Do you have your knife handy, Alex?" she asked politely. The voice was so sweet and soft, it contrasted sharply with the words she'd said with it. A knife? Fuck. Fuck me. This was about to get so much worse, wasn't it? I squeezed my eyes shut, trying to bite my lower lip that I couldn't get at, thanks to the duct tape.

Suddenly there was soft breathing at my ear. "Shh. I know this will hurt, but please don't make any sound. That would be very bad. I promise I don't want to hurt you." My eyes snapped open again and were met by the girl's, her expression wholly genuine and apologetic. She had beautiful, doe-like brown eyes and I stared into them, sure my own were just as wide with fear. What was she going to do to me?

She lifted the bottom of my shirt and I lowered my head to watch as she slid the knife underneath. The muscles in my torso tightened involuntarily as I waited for further injury, and I was surprised when she poked the knife back out through the front of my shirt, cutting downward toward the hem. After she did this she set the knife down in my lap and tore my shirt open the rest of the way, exposing my chest to the air.

"Deep breaths," she murmured softly, so quiet that I knew the men at the other end of the room would not be able to hear her. They were ignoring us now, engaged in conversation amongst themselves, and I was so desperate to know what was going on. The pretty thing before me eased my shirt over my shoulders, with all the tenderness that a lover might, and let it fall around my bound wrists. I began breathing harder out my nose now, an unpleasant, distressed sound. I didn't like being exposed to the air like this – it somehow seemed even less safe. Now there was a ridiculous feeling to experience, given where I was and what was happening. What the hell good was a cotton t-shirt going to do me here?

When she placed her hand on my shoulder I jolted violently in the chair. It wasn't as if I was going anywhere, or even that I could stop her, but the hurt was so much that I couldn't not do it. The girl quickly put her other hand on my good arm and looked deeply into my eyes.

"It's okay," she soothed, and I wanted so badly to believe her even though I didn't. "I'm not here to hurt you. Your shoulder is dislocated and I need to put it back for you, okay? Do you understand? Nod if you understand."

Fix it for me? What in God's name for? I nodded quickly, making a humming sound, the only noise I could muster with the duct tape still binding my mouth. The girl shook her head.

"Try not to make any sound," she corrected me gently, peeking behind her to see if I'd been heard. Apparently I hadn't, because the men were deeply engrossed in whatever it was they were discussing. That's right; she'd said that before, hadn't she? No noise. She turned back to me again and cupped my cheek in her hand, and I found myself leaning my head into it for comfort.

Of course she didn't want to hurt me. How could I have thought that? In my barely coherent state she became less a hallucination to me then and more an angel. A beautiful angel who for God only knew what reason wanted to fix my shoulder before I died.

"Just relax," she encouraged in the sweetest voice I'd heard yet in my life and would ever hear, taking my shoulder in her hand once more. "This will hurt, but I promise it will be better once I'm done. Do you believe me?"

I believed her now. Nodding again, I braced myself for what would surely be an intensely unpleasant experience.

"Relax..." In slow, deliberate motions, she began to massage my shoulder in a way that would have been sensual under almost any other circumstance. Much like the way she'd removed my shirt. I concentrated on my breathing, working to stay calm and silent as she carefully lifted my arm.

Oh, fuck. Hot, wrenching pain tore through the entire left half of my torso, as well as my arm, and I bit down on my tongue to avoid screaming against my gag. Never had I experienced anything as horrible as I was now. The entire time, the girl was frowning on concentration, doing something with my shoulder that I could not see nor bring myself to turn my head and watch.

Oh Christ, make it stop. Please stop the pain. God I believe in you I believe in you it hurts make it stop.

She whispered for me to relax again, and I tried; I really did. Anything I could do to accommodate this angel who was helping me, I would do. It just hurt so fucking bad, though, and I could feel the tears streaming down my cheeks from the strain of remaining immobile.

At last she was finished, withdrawing one hand and using the other to give my shoulder a rub. And I would be damned if she wasn't right. The pain was still there, no doubt, but it was far less than it had been before and almost nothing compared to what it had been while she was working on me. When our eyes met again, I did all I could to express my silent gratitude with my expression. She smiled, spreading crimson lips to reveal white teeth. Heavenly. There was no doubt left in my mind that she was my angel, sent here as some kind of temporary reprieve from the hell that surely awaited me once she was gone. God, I didn't want her to go.

"Are you hurt anywhere else?" She whispered softly, and I shook my head. There was the clicking in my jaw, but that was relatively minor in the grand scheme of things. It wasn't like it mattered under the circumstances.

Then again, why had the shoulder mattered?

My angel got to her feet to leave, and my eyes widened again. No, please don't go. Please. She returned to the group of men now, each of them a good half a foot taller than her, and addressed the oldest one with the mustache.

"He'll be fine, Father," she informed him in her sweet voice as she handed the one with the ponytail back his knife. "He just needs some rest."

"Thank you, Bella," the man said, leaning down to kiss the girl on her forehead. "You go get some sleep now – it's late."

Father? My gutted twisted at their exchange. Of course she was his daughter, though – who the hell else could she possibly be? His wife? Mistress? That'd be even worse. So then this was his house that I'd been brought to, for whatever reason. I tried and failed to comprehend this, but before I got very far my angel and her father were both gone, leaving me alone again with my two original abductors. The blond one grinned menacingly as he neared me, and I knew this was going to really fucking suck.

"Edward, Edward, Edward. Edward Cullen. Edward Anthony Masen Cullen."

He repeated my name in a sing-song manner, teasing me the way a schoolyard bully might. Where had he gotten my full name? How had he found that out? My byline ran under a pseudonym. Then again, they'd found my address with no problem. They might know everything about be, for all I knew. The taqueria down the block where I bought carne asada tacos for dinner more often than was healthy. The amount I still owed on my student loans. The name of my first pet, which even I wasn't sure of anymore. Roger? Rascal? Something with an R.

"You've had quite the busy month, haven't you?"

That was kind of funny, only not because I was still terrified. Busy? With the exception of work I'd done close to nothing. No social life – Tanya "won" all our friends in the break up. And despite what Sex in the City has taught the world about journalism I was not making enough to afford non-movie tickets, let alone designer shoes.

He punched me in the face, a solid hit that made a crunching sound as it impacted with my left temple. Before tonight, the last time I'd been punched was by Eric Yorkie in the fourth grade, and I'd deserved it for shoving a stick in his bicycle spokes as he rode past. He'd given me a bloody nose and we'd both been sent to the principal's office. I'd been more scared of my parents finding out than anything else.

This hurt like holy hell.

"Pissing off Papa Swan was a real stupid move."

Papa Swan? Ah, shit, I got it then. The older man. The one with the mustache. Charles or Charlie "Papa" Swan, dabbler in prostitution rings, but mostly good old-fashioned drugs and gambling. No one had yet seen him in person. Until now.

Semi-big time, not huge but growing in power. Enough so that he could afford a place like this. Known for his willingness to get dirty, or at least to have his men do it for him, and that was a big part of why he was doing so well. Going places the other guys wouldn't go. Doing things the other guys wouldn't do.

Basically the worst possible person to have caught on to me and to have decided I needed to be taught a lesson.

I hummed back to Felix in frantic apology, and that was when I found out why making noise was a bad idea. He looked back at the other one, Alex. Travolta. Travolta produced his knife and knelt before me, and I knew he wasn't going to be helpful like my angel. Sure enough, he poked me in the chest, right in the middle of my ribs.

"That's your problem right there, isn't it Cullen? You don't know when to keep quiet. We can teach you. I'll help you keep quiet."

He drove the knife into my bare skin incredibly slow, the tip disappearing into my flesh, and it was a whole new kind of sharp pain than my shoulder had been. I squeezed my eyes shut and ground my teeth together.

"No, no no. You watch."

He shoved my head down and the knife in deeper, and that was too much. I moaned in agony against the duct tape, unable to keep it in.

"Uh uh. No."

It was some sort of sick fascination with my own suffering that prompted me to open my eyes, staring down in horror as Travolta trailed his knife through my chest as if my flesh were butter. I let out another helpless moan, and he pushed deeper. Still not that far in – maybe a quarter inch. I felt the knife scrape against one of my ribs.

Oh God oh God oh God.

The more sound I made, the more he'd hurt me. The more he hurt me, the harder it was going to be to keep quiet. This was a sick game we were playing, and I was losing badly.

"You have to learn," the man with the ponytail insisted, trailing his knife through my torso, "to keep quiet."

I wasn't so far gone into panic that I wasn't coherent enough to get the metaphor here. He meant my articles – my prying into his Boss's affairs. A poetic touch. I sniveled shamefully, ready and willing to promise the man that I would never so much as speak ever again if he would only stop what he was doing. I would become voluntary mute, verbally as well as written. No more articles. I wouldn't even order in restaurants. I wouldn't say hi to people. Anything to stop the wretched throbbing pain.

It went on for a good twenty minutes before I was finally so numb from pain that any new injury did nothing to me. I was silent, finally, excluding the heaved exhalations through my nose that sent snot running down over my duct tape along with my tears. I was so congested from my muted crying that I could barely breathe anymore, and I was getting lightheaded.

At last Alex with the ponytail was satisfied and got to his feet. His partner had sitting in the corner of the room, on the edge of the pool table, idly swirling one of the striped balls and using it to knock the other ones around. Now he stifled a yawn before speaking.

"He'll keep until tomorrow," he reasoned. "Papa can deal with him how he wants to then. I'm tired."

"'Kay," Ponytail muttered absently, coming around behind me. I felt a tug on my wrists and surmised that he was wiping his knife off on my shirt.

Keep until tomorrow? They were just going to leave me here, like this? I gazed dully down at the Etch-a-Sketch on my torso, blood pouring out onto my skin and pants. I wasn't going to bleed to death, was I? No, I couldn't be that lucky. He hadn't cut me deep enough.

When they left they flicked the lights off, plunging the room into total darkness. There was a window along one wall, but it was covered with a heavy curtain. They closed the door behind them and I was left alone to ruminate over the bizarre, horrific turn my night had taken.

I was going to die. Of that much I was unequivocally certain. Furthermore, if tonight's torturous game was any kind of indicator, it was going to be awful.

I sat there alone in the dark, rubbing and twisting my wrists until the ache in my shoulder came to be too much, but there was no way I was getting free. I was trapped here, in this gigantic sprawling house, awaiting morning or whenever it was time to deal with me in the fashion Papa Swan deemed fit. What I didn't understand was why they were keeping me alive. Just to hurt me, to make me suffer before I died? If so, why have that beautiful girl fix my shoulder?

Bella. That meant beautiful, didn't it, in Italian? I wasn't sure; like everyone else at my high school, I'd taken Spanish. It was a fitting name for my angel, in her cocktail dress and updo, dancing in on bare feet. How could that have happened? How could that be real? I doubted it more with each passing minute, only to assert to myself that it had to have occurred. The fact that I could move my shoulder without wanting to scream was my evidence.

I am losing my mind. I know I'm going to die and it's making me insane.

Whatever was real, whatever wasn't, I couldn't be sure. Would anyone even notice I was missing tomorrow? No, because tomorrow was Monday and I didn't have to come into the office until Wednesday. Two and a half whole days, sixty hours. Plenty of time to drive my agony to new heights before doing me in.

I wouldn't have thought I'd be able to sleep in so much distress, but I must have because the next thing I became aware of was the sound of the large door to the room creaking open. I blinked and tried to lift my head, but was unable. My neck was too sore and stiff from the position in which I'd drifted into unconsciousness. In fact, all of me was sore. I could only get one eye to open.

For one retrospectively blissful instant, I was unaware of my surroundings and what was going on. Then I remembered, and it my world crashed and burned around me all over again.

Shit.

It was still dark, the only interruption in the blackness being pale blue light streaming in from the open doorway. I worked on focusing my eye and when I did, I saw a figure approaching me. Instinctively I cringed away from it, trembling from fear and exhausted muscles.

"It's okay, it's okay." The delicate whisper interrupted the silence I'd been trained to propagate. I knew the voice and I squeezed my eyes, telling my brain to focus. She was back. Out of nowhere she'd reappeared and now she was here with me. She was real. She was real she was real she was real.

Thank you, God.

"Are you alright? Hang on, I'm going to turn on a lamp. Shh." She was still whispering breathily, and I wondered why she was keeping quiet. Was she not supposed to be here? If so, why had she come?

The faint click of a lamp and then dull yellow light flooded the room, revealing Bella's presence to me. If she had taken in my appearance with horror, that would have been awful enough. It was even worse, somehow, that her expression didn't change at all. Bella was surveying my current state in distaste, the blood that had continued to seep out of me and clot overnight. Yeah, I was a God damn mess, but I didn't know what I was expected to do about it. I rolled my head weakly on my shoulders, peering at my lap with my one good eye.

She was dressed differently now, a cream-colored flannel bathrobe cinched around her waist and her hair down around her shoulders. Out of context, she was one of the most stunning young women I'd ever seen. In context, she was nothing less than ethereal as she examined me.

"You poor thing. Does it hurt? Let me go get a washcloth. Alex can be such a brute." She pouted as she spoke the last part, in a way that was bordering on childish.

I waited patiently for her to return, giving my wrists another halfhearted tug. The duct tape hadn't magically loosened or come unstuck. Bella returned with a rag in her hand and closed the door behind her before coming to me with a reassuring smile on her face.

"It's not so bad," she promised me, running her finger over one of the deeper cuts in my chest.

I bowed down and followed her finger, thinking we couldn't be looking at the same injuries. Then I had the terrible thought that if this was "not so bad," that meant there was worse. I whimpered.

"I know. Shh, I know. Here."

Bella gently pressed the damp cloth to my skin and patted me down with it. It was nice and warm, and I sighed at the soothing feeling. She carefully cleaned me off, avoiding the spots that made me hiss in pain. Breathing was a lot of work, and doing so caused sharp stabs to rocket through me. I was sure the man with the ponytail had penetrated the muscle of my diaphragm in one spot.

"That hurts?" she asked when I'd cried against the duct tape. I nodded vigorously.

"Okay. Okay hang on."

With that she was gone again, and I legitimately began to tear up as I watched her body disappear into the blue light beyond the large door. Every time she left I became afraid. This time when she came back she was carrying a glass of water, holding her other palm upward and level. I squinted my eye at the palm's contents and saw two white pills.

Pain reliever. She had brought me pain reliever, no joke.

My God.

"Let me just... wait. Hang on."

Bella set the glass down beside me on the floor and stood up, crossing to the pool table where she retrieved the roll of duct tape. I raised my eyebrows in surprise.

"I'm going to take this off, okay? If I do that will you please be very very quiet?" She spoke sweetly but her voice quavered and that's when I saw it.

She was afraid, too. Afraid to be in here helping me, when she clearly was not supposed to be. I wondered what would happen if she got caught, and the thought sent a shudder through me. Would her father be mad at her? Punish her? Punish me? Why in God's name was she risking that? I nodded, not humming, wanting to make sure she knew I wouldn't risk anything.

Bella took the washcloth, now tepid, and patted it on my face. She moved it around the duct tape covering my mouth, the skin on the right side of her face seeming to glow in the lamplight. Her red lipstick was gone too, but her lips were perfect without it. Bella began peeling back the tape slowly, using the rag to get the adhesive wet and thereby ease the process. It still stung but it was nothing, really, when compared to everything else.

"Thank you. Thank you so much," I breathed eagerly as soon as I was able. It was foreign, being able to use my mouth again. My jaw clicked as I spoke. "Please. My name is Edw-"

"Don't tell me your name!" Bella hissed back quickly, the fear on her features magnified. "I don't want to know!"

She didn't want to know my name. I tried again anyway, because I needed her to know. She had to know what my name was before I died. I had to prove my existence to someone before I went, and this girl from Heaven was all I had.

"Edward," I breathed. "My name is Edward. Cullen. I'm a reporter for the Chicago Times-"

"Stop!"

"-I'm twenty-seven years old, unmarried. I live alone. I went to – I went to Vassar, I have a degree in communications, I-"

"Stop, please!" Bella pleaded with me, clamping her hand over my mouth.

We regarded each other and I saw the sorrow in her doe eyes. I'd upset her. Now that, that was a knife in the chest. I took as deep a breath through my nose as I could and lowered my head repentantly, praying she would forgive me.

"Here," Bella said, releasing my mouth only to force the pills between my lips.

My mouth and throat were too dry to swallow them as is, and I tasted the acidity of them beginning to dissolve on my tongue while Bella picked up the glass and brought it to my lips. Cold water dribbling down my chin and down my body and I tilted my chin up as an odd angle to keep the glass at my lips as I swallowed. I was incredibly thirsty and kept swallowing until the glass was empty. As soon as she lowered the glass, another comprehension beyond my thirst struck me: I really needed to go to the bathroom.

"Bella?"

Her eyes widened when I said her name, and it made me unhappy. I regretted doing it.

"Please, I'm sorry, I... I need to use the bathroom..."

"If I untie you," she whispered, "You'll hurt me and try to get way."

I shook my head emphatically, not sure if I was telling the truth. About trying to get away, anyway. I would never hurt my angel. "No. No, I wouldn't. Please, I promise."

She eyed me distrustfully, and while I didn't like it I could certainly understand. This girl didn't know me, and she was already going out of her way to show me pity when she should have just stayed away from this part of the house and pretended I didn't exist. I was so beyond thankful that she hadn't done that.

Bella finally agreed doubtfully, "I'll undo your legs, but just your legs okay? Will you be able to go like that?"

I assured her I would and Bella leaned forward, resting her weight on her knees as she unwound the duct tape binding me to the wooden chair. I watched her work, entranced by how she was capable of making such a grim task artful and delicate. When I became conscious of the fact that I could see down the front of her bathrobe, I averted my eyes out of respect.

"The bathroom is this way. Can you stand up?"

Bella pointed toward the corner of the room behind me and put her hand on my good arm as if to help me to my feet. It was difficult enough with my wrists bound, but the real problem came with I hunched forward to shift my weight onto my feet. Pain soared through my chest, and I felt back into the chair while rolling my lips in against a groan. It took three more attempts before I was able to stand. Bella guided me to the bathroom, my footsteps crooked and lilting thanks to my dizziness. The bathroom consisted of just a toilet and a spacious sink. She flicked on the light and lifted the toilet lid for me.

It occurred to both of us at the same moment, I think, that I wasn't going to be able to get my pants undone or free myself from my boxers with my hands behind my wrists. Bella frowned and blushed, a wonderful shade of pink staining her cheeks.

"Oh," she murmured, reflexively pulling her bathrobe tighter around herself.

If I hadn't such a desperate need to relieve myself, I would have told her to forget about it, but as it was I was going to piss my pants if we didn't do this soon. I blinked my eye and swallowed.

"If you undo my wrists," I said slowly, "I promise you I will not do anything."

The only other option was for her to take my equipment out for me, and I couldn't stomach the thought of having to subject her to something so undignified. Me? Sure. At this point I had no dignity left, and there was no point in pretending I did. I likely only had hours left. What good was my dignity?

"You can't get out," Bella told me softly. "There are guards. They would kill you. It would be bad." She paused before adding, "I would be in so much trouble..."

Nevertheless, she was already positioning herself behind me to undo my wrists. I held my breath, my mindreeling. This was so overly trusting of her. I was about to be free. In mere seconds I would have full range of movement again. What would I do with that? I had to do something, my fucking life was on the line. Sure they might kill me if I made a break for it, but they were going to do that anyway.

My wrists popped apart and that was it. I brought them forward to my chest and looked at them, rubbing them where they'd swelled and turned red. Adhesive was still coating them, several of the hairs pulled out by the tape's removal. I was free. I was loose. I whirled around and Bella and I stared at each other. Her eyes were perfect circles, the whites of them visible all the way around her coffee-brown irises, and I saw that she was having immediate misgivings about what she'd just done.

I was not the monster here. Her father was, and his men who had beaten me and carved up my chest like a God damn jack-o-lantern. I knew what kind of activities Papa Swan was involved in, and wasn't that why I was here in the first place? I'd done nothing wrong. I wasn't out to hurt anyone and I'd been trying o do the right thing by writing my articles. I worked hard on them damn it, spent months trying to get people to care. This was where I ended up, the sum total of my labors ultimately earning me nothing more than an untimely and excruciating death.

She was so much smaller than me, Bella was. Over half a foot shorter than me, and more because she wasn't wearing slippers or anything. Christ, she was barefoot, her little pink toes on the bathroom tile. No polish, curling against the cold of the hard surface. And her frame was slight, a smidge narrower than what would have been considered Hollywood perfect. That plus her pale skin and she came off as very frail. It added to the ethereality.

I could just grab her; she wouldn't be able to put up much of a fight. Clamp my hand over her mouth or, better yet, gag her the way I'd been gagged. The tape was still waiting in the next room. I could carry her through the house until I found a weapon. I don't know, a knife or something from the kitchen. Make her a kind of hostage and use her to get away. I wouldn't hurt her. I wouldn't. I'd let her go as soon as I was safe and then I'd go right to the police station. I'd live. Didn't I deserve that much? Did Bella want me to die? I'd promise her I wouldn't do anything and it would make me a liar, but who cared about that?

I was getting swallowed in the depth of her eyes, gazing innocently and fearfully up at me. She didn't make a move to run away. She just stood there, a wad of duct tape in one hand, waiting to see what I would do.

"Can you turn around?" I mumbled in request before doing the same thing myself, unzipping my fly as I rotated. I heard her exhale unevenly.

It took me almost an entire minute to finish urinating, and by the time I was done I felt loose and relaxed from the exertion. I zipped up and went to wash my hands, more out of habit than anything else, trying to figure out what my next move would be. Anything? Was I going to let this happen? Let her tape me back to that chair to wait until morning when her father came and did only he and God knew what before I died? I raised my head and stared at my disfigured reflection, trying to recognize myself among the swollen mottled features. Beside me, Bella bit her lip and our eyes met in the mirror.

"He's going to kill me," I stated, watching her reaction. My angel looked away.

"Not yet," she told me, her sweet voice full of regret. "He's too mad at you to just do it outright. And he'll want to... know..."

I turned my head to look at her directly and frowned. He'd want to know. What would he want to know?

Oh. He'd want to know my sources, wouldn't he? The names of the people who had given me information about him for my articles. The only words Papa Swan had spoken directly to me: You're fucked now. I leaned against the counter tiredly, trying to think. My brain was shutting down like a city with a power outage, one block at a time.

"Why did you fix my shoulder?" I asked her. Bella smiled tentatively at me in a way that was both bizarre and heartbreaking.

"Does it feel better? What about the Vicodin? Is it helping?"

That wasn't an answer.

"It's fine," I lied, hoping to come off as patient rather than simply exhausted. "But why?"

"Father knows I like to help..." she explained, trailing off at the end as though she were uncertain of her words.

"And right now?"

"I always just want to help..."

I gaped at her. She'd just told me one important thing, essentially: this was far from an isolated incident. I was not the first man to be brought here, and not the first one Bella had "helped." Her father was humoring her, letting her play nurse with them before he did whatever he did them. Christ, that was so fucked up. Bella had to know how sick it was, that the men she was caring for were going to die. She had to know that about me, too. There was no way she could not know, and she'd confirmed it for me herself when she told me I was going to die "yet".

No wonder she'd been so upset when I told her my name. If I was her, I wouldn't want to know either.

"Bella," I said urgently before I remembered that she didn't like me saying her name. "Listen to me Bella. I don't want to die."

Her lower lip trembled and I didn't know why the hell I was telling her this. Of course I didn't want to die. What could she do? She couldn't help me. Fixing my shoulder, cleaning my cuts and helping me piss was the most she was capable of. That was the extent of it, right there. She was just a girl, and it was her own wretched misfortune that her father was a monster.

In a twisted way, I sort of wished she'd never helped me.

I thought about my earlier plan again, letting my head fall against the bathroom wall because it was too heavy for me to hold it up anymore. To use Bella as a means of escape... did I have it in me to do that to her? Why in God's name had she not tied me back up yet? She was running a serious risk here, huddling with me in the bathroom as I debated the best way to take advantage of her existence. She was far too trusting.

"I want to go home," I said then, hearing my own desperation in my hoarse whisper. "Oh my God I want to go home." I wasn't talking to Bella then, I was talking to myself.

"I know-"

"Edward. My name is Edward." Saying my name like I was begging for something, which I was. I was pleading desperately for something that Bella was not going to be able to give me.

"I know, Edward. I'm sorry." My name rolled off her tongue shyly but without hesitation, and it had never sounded so deep or meaningful. It never had been, as no one had ever used it to apologize to me for the fact that I was going to die.

My whole being was fighting the very idea of my death, frantic survival instinct boiling up to just under the surface of my skin. I barely had a life and I was achingly aware of it. I did not want to let go of this earth. I was not ready to die; I hadn't even really lived. I wanted to go home.

"I could hurt you right now." I had the sudden need to make her understand this. She must have understood it on some level, but it required stating aloud.

"I... I don't think you will..." Her voice wavered. She didn't believe that.

"Do you think I'm just going to let you put me back where you found me?" I went on wearily, my head sliding a few inches down the way under its own weight.

Would I let her do that? Jesus Christ, I thought I might. That was horrifying to me. It was one thing to be brought her against my will and forcibly injured. It was another to submit to it, to in essence become complicit in my own demise.

"I..."

Just grab her. Do it. Now before she sees it coming. You aren't going to hurt her. You just need her in order to live.

Bella was my one chance at living. Here I'd been praying to God when there was no God. There were no angels. I only had Bella, the closest thing to an angel there was.

"Where are the guards, Bella? How many of them are there?" Now I was using her name on purpose, forcing her to hear me knowing who she was. I was a human being, God damn it.

"Out front," Bella responded automatically. "There's two. One by the door and one at the foot of the driveway." She paused. "They're armed. They'll shoot you."

"That's better than being cut up," I pointed out grimly, lifting one limp hand to gesture at my chest. Who was I kidding? I lacked the energy and strength to do this. She had to see that.

"They'd know I let you loose." She formed the sentence slowly and delicately, as though she were seriously pondering the concepts I was laying out before her. My heart thudded dully in my aching chest.

"What would he do? What would your father do to you?" He wouldn't hurt her, would he? Not his little girl. Right? He'd be pissed. Fuck, I didn't know what constituted punishment in this twisted, horrible house.

"He would... I don't know..."

I opened my eye and caught Bella darting her tongue out to lick her lips. Her eyes were bright in the fluorescent light of the bathroom, moisture shining in them.

"Come with me," I urged. What in Christ's name was I thinking? "Come with me – you know how to get out of here, Bella. You don't want to be here."

She was shocked at the idea.

"I can't go... I live here. I can't leave..." There was no conviction behind her words, though, no strong, willful desire to stay.

"You can leave," I went on energetically. I had to convince her.

Somehow now it wasn't just about my escape. Bella needed to come too, needed to get away from this place before it poisoned her anymore. How long had she been living like this, playing nurse to fated men and submitting to her father's will? How many men had there been before me, and how many of them had Bella listened to pleading for their lives, unable to help them at all?

"I don't want to leave..." Yes she does. "I can't go with you-"

"Edward. Edward Cullen. And yes you can, Bella. I know you can. Help me figure out how to get past the guards and we'll go together."

The adrenaline was making a second appearance that night, fighting against the narcotics Bella had given me and the throbbing in my skull that I was by now sure was a concussion. It was battling my exhaustion, hoping to gear me up for one last attempt at survival.

Bella began to cry. Not silent tears like mine had been but these soft, tiny sobs as she brought her hands to her face. She sat on the closed toilet seat in her bathrobe and buried her face in her arms helplessly. For ten minutes she sat bawling quietly, and I worried that the sun was going to rise soon. He had such a limited window to work with it. What time was it? I had neither my watch nor my phone.

I cautiously opened the bathroom door and peered into the lamp lit study. The door was still closed, the room empty and silent. A clock on the wall read quarter past five. That meant there was only another half hour before sunrise, roughly, and by then I'd have missed my chance. Shit.

"Bella."

I knelt before her on the tile and attempted to contain my own mounting panic as I looked at her imploringly. She lifted her head and wiped her eyes with the back of her hand, and I saw now how truly young she was. I was asking so much more from her than was right.

"Bella we have to go soon. Help me. How do we get out of here, Bella?"

"I don't want him to be mad at me," she sobbed, sounding like the child she was, even at twenty or wherever I placed her age. She was so youthful without the makeup, with the tears running down her cheeks and her dark brown hair framing her features.

"Please."

I was losing her again. I was losing my chance more and more as she broke down. I tentatively placed my hand on her flannel-covered knee and she didn't flinch or pull away.

"Bella. Bella, I don't want to die."

"Edward..." she breathed back hopelessly.

I let go of her and fell back against the sink cabinets, my chest burning like it was being stabbed all over again. I closed my eyes and rolled my head back, willing my own hope to dissipate before it could break my heart. I wished fervently that I could simply die now, like this, to somehow by the mercy of non-existent God simply drift into the nothing. At the same time I couldn't make myself let go.

Time was ticking past. There was precious little of it left. The thought occurred to me that someone might find us in here, like this, and that would be bad for both of us. God knew what would happen then. I'd completely abandoned my idea of using Bella as a hostage by now. She was a person too, and frankly no matter how desperate I was I didn't have it in me and I recognized that fact. What if she got hurt? Worse, what if I accidentally hurt her? Or one of the armed men out front shot her while aiming for me and killed her? Christ.

Fuck. I was going to fucking die.

I passed out then, my body too depleted to sustain consciousness any longer. I didn't know for how long, but when I re-awoke I was actively mad about it. I just wanted to... fall away...

"Edward. Edward, can you hear me? Edward?"

A sweet voice rolling over my name. Bella. I groaned and lifted my head, turning it toward where it sounded like her voice was coming from.

"Mm..." I mumbled weakly.

"Edward, can you stand up? I can't lift you."

God, could I stand up? Something tugged at my arm and I knew it was her. I mumbled again and rolled to one side.

"We have to go, Edward. My father will be awake soon."

Go? Go? Bracing one hand on the counter and the other on the wall, I gritted my teeth and laboriously pulled myself to my feet. It took all my energy and I leaning heavily against the bathroom counter while I recovered. Go? Go where?

"We can take my car; it's in the garage."

I blinked my good eye and sought out Bella's face. She was standing before me anxiously, her hair pulled back again. The bathrobe was gone, replaced by gray slacks and a sweater. I looked down and saw she was wearing shoes.

Oh, God. Okay. Okay. We are going to do this. Oh my God.

"Yeah," I croaked, forcing my body upright.

This is it. We're going. We're leaving. Holy fucking shit Oh my God I'm going to live oh God.

Not God.

Bella.

She hooked her arm through mine and helped me out of the bathroom, across the study toward the big doors I'd originally entered though. Early sunlight was filtering in through the cracks around the edges of the brocade curtains, but my vision was too hazy to make out the clock.

Bella inched open the door and poked her head through, looking either way before motioning for me to follow. We slinked across the foyer and into a dining room of sorts.

"Through the kitchen," Bella whispered, pointing to the door at the other end of the room. Her voice was so quiet I could barely make it out over my weakly pounding heart.

I wanted to move faster but couldn't, and it took almost a full minute to get across the dining room. The entire time I could feel the fear welling up in me, my body trying to muster something to get me through this but having nothing left. I stumbled over my feet and caught myself against the door, panic overtaking me as it rattled loudly in its frame.

Bella steadied me back on my feet, glancing furtively over my shoulder at the path we'd just taken. She pushed open the door to the kitchen and tugged me through, shutting it quietly behind her.

"The kitchen opens to the garage," she explained to me now, rushed and furtive. "My car is at the end of the row. We can put you in the trunk and then I can tell the guard I'm going into town." As she spoke she was practically dragging me across the kitchen tile, her forehead creasing in determination and fright.

She was really going to do this. We were really going to do this. I was a total stranger to her and Bella was going to leave her father to save my life. We made it to the door that led into the garage, and Bella helped me though it.

The garage was cold, dark, and huge. It smelled faintly of automotive grease and grass clippings. How much time did we have left? What time did Bella's father, notorious Papa Swan, generally wake up? Did he ever get up early? What about his men? Bella flipped on the light and it flickered briefly before illuminating the garage.

"That one at the end." She pointed. "The Vanquish."

I knew nothing about cars, but the vehicle she was leading me toward was a sleek black sports car. I tripped over my own feet again, this time stopping my fall against the hood of a large SUV, and for one terrifying instant I was sure the car alarm would go off and give us away. It didn't.

Bella produced a set of keys from her pocket and pressed a button on the remote, popping open the trunk. She took my hand and we threaded between cars to get to it.

"I know it's small," she apologized. "Will you fit?"

I would make myself fit.

Clutching my arm over my chest as if to hold my ribs in place, I lifted a leg into the trunk. Bella hovered over me, waiting for any kind of indication that I needed her help. It was a tight squeezing and a near-excruciating position, but I fit. Bella lifted her hand to close the trunk, but then stopped and looked down at me.

"Edward," she said softly, caressing my name.

"Bella?"

"I love you."

She smiled at me and before I could react she shut the trunk lid, plunging me into cramped darkness for the second time in less than a day.

She loved me. She loved me? It made no sense. I loved her too. I did. I owed her everything.

The driver's side door slammed and seconds later I heard the engine running. I swallowed thickly. This was it. We were so close. Sweet Jesus, if we could just make it out of the garage, past the gate blocking the bottom of the driveway. We'd be free. We'd have escaped. Together. Bella. My angel.

But I didn't hear the sound of the garage door opening. A minute passed and I swallowed again. What was Bella waiting for? Her father could wake up at any minute and catch us. We'd both be fucked then, because while it might have been one thing to show a lapse in judgment in untying me, having me in the trunk of her car was unmistakable. It was what it was.

Another few minutes passed. We hadn't moved – the engine was still running, and the car vibrated all around me as it sat in idle. Shit, maybe we were too late. We'd already been caught. But then, why hadn't I heard anyone else come into the garage? Why hadn't I heard the driver's side door open and closing again? If we'd been discovered, why was I still in the fucking trunk?

A few more minutes, and I understood. We weren't caught, and the garage door wasn't going to open. This was it, alright, but I wasn't going to live.

And neither was Bella.

Who knew how many years, how many lives, how many men? How many ineffectual attempts at convalescence, how many whispered pleas for her help? Untold numbers. It dragged on her, wore her more and more each time. Of course it did. And then I'd gone and told her my name, tried to make her understand who I was. It was too much for my angel, who was only a human girl after all.

I begged her to leave with me, but she couldn't leave her father. She didn't want to stay, either, and I'd seen that in her eyes as she cried.

Did she love me? I believed she did. And in a strange way, yes, I loved her too. I had to. She was what I had.

Back in the bathroom, when I'd given up hope, I'd wanted nothing more than to painlessly slide off into nonexistence. Bella couldn't save me but she could give me that much, and I knew she did it out of love. Love for me, love for her father...

I closed my eyes and settled back into the trunk, letting my body relax though it ached so much. The gentle purr of the car's engine soothed me the way Bella's voice had when she'd first shushed me and cradled my cheek in her hand. I thought not of my childhood, of my job, or of Tanya. I thought of Bella, ingenuous doe-eyed Bella, frail and not meant to last, cracking under the strain of being an angel.

As I drifted away I was sure that yes, she had loved me.

*********

Okay, I have a confession to make. I wrote this one night as kind of a joke, to submit to the Thing Called Love Contest. Obviously it's not an appropriate or ideal entry, but I promised I'd enter and I'm kind a jackass so it was the best I could do. My profound apologies to all of the judges for having to read it. I did get third place, though!

Thank you so much for taking the time to read!