Although I used to write stories when I was in my teens and twenties (a long, long time ago!), I've only just started writing again. This is my very first venture into fan fiction. Please let me know what you think!
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.
CHAPTER 1: Encounter
This was definitely a bad idea.
It was the middle of a Pacific Northwest winter. Almost two hours ago, Bella asked the cab driver to drop her off a mile from Cullen House instead of taking her to the gate. She desperately needed some quiet time, a chance to wander through the familiar, tranquil woods and absorb the sudden changes in her life. Yesterday she finally stood up to Uncle William...and he ordered her out of his house. Or rather, off the Altairian Guard campus.
It was probably the shock of his life. General William Black, a distant uncle, was the head of the nation's leading military intelligence corporation, the Altairian Guard. When Bella's parents died, she went to live with him, attending elementary and high school on the Guard Campus with her three cousins. Over the years, Bella tried to make her uncle understand that she wasn't interested in a military career. Yesterday, on her twenty-first birthday, the situation came to a head. She adamantly refused to join his Elite Guard like her cousins, and four hours later she found herself standing outside the Campus gates with her few belongings and nowhere to go.
She phoned the only other people who could possibly help her…Dr. Carlisle Cullen and his family. Carlisle and Bella's father were old friends, and he and his wife Esme invited her to stay with them for a few weeks in Forks, Washington almost every summer. Now, if it weren't for the Cullens' generosity, she would be homeless.
Bella shivered as an icy blast of wind ripped through the trees, mocking her too-thin jacket and sending her long brunette hair dancing wildly around her head. Now it was already dark, and she was lost in a frigid forest with a thunderstorm looming in the distance.
"Great," she thought dryly. "So much for my brilliant plan." No cell phone or communicator either - her uncle had seen to that. At least she'd sent her luggage ahead to the house.
A loud crack of thunder, too close, made her jump. She took two deep breaths, forcing herself not to panic. "Think," she told herself severely. "Storms come from the west, so if the house is north, I go that way..." That way, of course, was pitch dark. At least there was a trail. She'd have to count on lightning and the glow of her wrist watch.
She trudged determinedly down the trail. By now her teeth were chattering, and she could barely feel her fingers stuffed into her pockets as she hunched against the wind. There was plenty of lightning to guide her - the storm was almost there.
Suddenly, she thought she heard voices. Had Carlisle or his sons come to look for her? Hope lifted her steps as she followed the trail toward the sound. Bella wanted to call out to them, but some instinct told her to wait. Instead she moved carefully, as silently as the crunching leaves under her feet would allow. In the next lightning flash, she saw that the trail ended at a small clearing.
"It's about time you showed up," a rough male voice growled. Bella started, then realised that the man wasn't speaking to her. Instinctively, she crouched motionless behind some undergrowth, hardly daring to breathe.
"Unavoidably detained," a deep, more pleasant voice responded. "Where's your friend?" it added dryly.
"Never mind. What did you find out?"
Bella stiffened as the second man abruptly switched to another language. She recognised that deceptively beautiful tongue. It belonged to Volnostia, a dictatorship currently ruled by Aro Kubilin. Specifically, it was the dialect used by members of the Volturi, the Volnostian Secret Service. Uncle William had forced her to take a basic course. The Volturi, led by Aro's nephew Felix, were absolutely lethal. They were trained to hunt and kill silently, with speed and precision. Everyone knew the stories of Volturi torture and assassination. If anyone in Volnostia spoke up against the government or the Volturi, they or their families suddenly disappeared. A chill ran down Bella's spine. They wouldn't think twice about killing her.
The men were now speaking so quietly that she could make out only a word here and there. At the next lightning flash, Bella stretched around the concealing brush, and glimpsed two figures in the clearing. The taller one wore a dark cloak that completely concealed his body, while the other had jeans, a thick rain jacket, and some sort of helmet. Intent of getting a better look, she didn't notice the branch until it was too late.
"Someone's there," the bigger man rasped. His eyes pierced the gloom around him. Bella hunched down, not daring to breathe.
The other man shrugged carelessly. "Just some animal. Storms make them nervous." Then he switched back into Volturi. Bella exhaled silently, only to stop again in shock when she caught the phrase "we go after Cullen" from the big one. Carlisle? They were going to harm one of her friends? To her relief, other man shook his head. "No point," he said.
Bella had no idea how long she crouched there, literally frozen in place. It was starting to rain. Finally, the big man said, "You've done well," and turned to leave. "Don't be late next time." For one terrified moment Bella thought he would walk right past her hiding place, but instead he marched west. His crunching footsteps slowly faded away. She remained perfectly still, waiting for the other man to depart as well.
"Why doesn't he just leave?" she thought impatiently. She couldn't take this waiting much longer.
To her horror, he suddenly chuckled softly. "You can come out now."
Bella stopped breathing again. The man turned toward her. The lightning revealed his face. The visor of his helmet was down, so all she could see was his straight nose and mouth. He was smiling slightly, making him look all the more sinister.
"I know you're there, so you may as well come out. I won't harm you." There was something dangerously compelling in his velvet voice.
The freezing rain was coming down in earnest now, even through the heavy forest canopy. If she weren't already stiff and frozen, fear would have prevented her from moving. Suddenly he was at her side, gripping her arm and hauling her to her feet.
"A girl?" he asked incredulously. "What are YOU doing here?"
He was expecting someone else? Bella knew she couldn't give him any hint that she understood what transpired between the two men. Through chattering teeth, she managed to croak, "I g-g-got lost." Then she instantly regretted telling him that. As if he needed more encouragement to kill her.
He watched the fear grow in her huge brown eyes, seemingly too big for her fragile face. She was shivering with cold, her dark hair dripping and windblown. Her lips were even starting to turn blue. He sighed.
"Where are you going?"
She didn't answer. His mouth compressed into a hard line.
"Look, I already told you that I wouldn't harm you. We're both standing here getting soaked, and you are clearly in immediate need of warming up." He was unzipping his jacket as he spoke. He sighed again, but his voice was oddly gentle. "Just tell me where you're trying to go, and I'll take you there."
Bella was stunned. He was carefully sliding her frozen arms into the sleeves of his jacket, then deftly zipped it closed. The sleeves hung a few inches below her hands. The jacket was blissfully warm.
"But you'll freeze!" she managed to blurt out. He wore only a blue sweater and a T-shirt under the jacket.
She thought the thunder had drowned out her voice, but he gave a startled laugh. Clearly her response wasn't what he expected. "I'll live," he grinned. "Now, where to?" He turned to lead the way out of the forest.
No wonder she was such a danger magnet, she thought wryly. No sense of self-preservation at all. Here she was, trusting him, even worrying that he would be cold. He was spying for the Volturi, for crying out loud! Hadn't she just witnessed that? He had, however, convinced the other man to not "go after Cullen."
Well, if her number was up, it was up. "I'm going to Cullen House."
He stiffened and turned to face her. "What business do you have at Cullen House?" he asked suspiciously.
"I'm ... going there to apply for a job." she lied, hoping he would believe her.
"You're the friend they're expecting," he said slowly. "The girl from Arizona." How did he know that? "You don't even have a decent coat. Why are you roaming around out here?"
He was already leading her along a different trail. He turned to look at her again when she didn't respond.
"Just stupid I guess," she muttered. Stupid to trust him, too. What was wrong with her tonight?
"Clearly," he retorted.
Bella had to ask, although she didn't expect an answer. "Who are you?"
He just shook his head and smiled wryly. It was a surprisingly attractive smile. "I'm the idiot who's taking you to Cullen House." He muttered something under his breath that she didn't catch.
Sooner than she expected, they reached the edge of the forest. The storm hit them full force, the frigid wind whipping icy rain pellets at them. The man grasped Bella's arm as they both leaned into the wind. A shudder passed through her. Lightning and thunder crashed around them.
"How can you see?" she gasped, her head bent. She felt a pang of guilt. He must be wishing he hadn't been so generous with his jacket.
"Night vision visor" he shouted over the wind. "Just stay next to me. We're almost there."
Five minutes passed. They were actually closer than she thought. Squinting against the freezing rain, Bella could make out the lights of the house.
"You can let me go alone from here."
"Not a chance! You'll probably get lost half way to the door."
She quickly squelched her flash of irritation. After all, he was going out of his way to help her. Then it hit her. What if he were using her to get into the house? What if he planned to harm the Cullens? Or gain knowledge for the Volturi to use against them? What if he had already planted some sort of bugging device on her? He was still holding her arm...
Bella halted in her tracks. "What?" he demanded surprised.
He scanned her face, comprehension dawning. He scowled under the visor. "Don't be absurd. I don't need to resort to things like that."
She gaped at him through the rain, wishing she could see him more clearly. He couldn't really know what she was thinking...could he? The wind suddenly gusted, and she ducked her head again as it stung her eyes. The thunder and lightning was slackening slightly, but not the wind and rain. She allowed him to pull her along.
Abruptly he stopped. To her surprise, they were about twenty yards from the gate of Cullen House. "You should be safe from there. They're probably looking out for you. The buzzer's on the gate."
Then he gripped her shoulders and turned her to face him. She had to peer up into the icy rain - he was almost a foot taller than she was. His expression was grim. "Now listen to me very carefully. You will not tell anyone about what happened in that clearing tonight. Furthermore, you will never go into those woods alone at night again. I cannot guarantee your safety if you do either one." He scowled. "In fact, I may be forced to take care of you myself. Understand?"
Bella could imagine his eyes burning into hers through the visor. She swallowed quickly and nodded.
"Good." He smiled crookedly. "Now get out of here." He turned her and gave her a little push toward the house.
For some reason, Jackie didn't want to leave yet. "Thank you," was all she could think to say. Clearly the ice had frozen her brain.
She started removing the jacket, but he shook his head and grinned in the darkness. "Keep it. I'll get it back later."
"Just go inside."
By the time she was half-way to the gate, he had already disappeared.
Bella had barely touched the buzzer when the gate unlatched and the front door flew open. Her Volnostian saviour was right - they were waiting for her. All of them. While her eyes adjusted to the bright lights in the warm foyer, Jasper was taking her dripping coat and thin jacket, and Emmett quickly produced a towel and thick blanket. She was grateful that they didn't ask questions as Jasper propelled her into the living room and gently pushed her into a warm, comfy chair. Emmett had somehow managed to get the blanket wrapped around her, and when she glanced at him in surprise he flashed her his familiar impish grin.
There was a muffled scampering sound in the hallway. Twenty-year-old Alice bounded in, shoved a blissfully hot cup of cocoa into Bella's chilled hands, and plopped herself at Bella's feet.
"Took you long enough," she grinned teasingly. "We expected you ages ago. Welcome home!" She reached up and gently tweaked a handful of Bella's hair. "It stays straight even when it's wet. I wish mine did that. The ice makes it crunchy though." Her grin widened.
Bella smiled at her friend. Alice always said exactly what she thought. "Most straight-haired girls want hair like yours, you know." Unlike her brothers, tiny Alice had a pixie-like look, her black spiky hair cut just below her ears.
For the first time in months, Bella relaxed. She always felt part of the family here. The Cullen children looked nothing like each other, having all been adopted by Esme and Carlisle. While both Jasper and Emmett were twenty-four and handsome, Emmett was tall and muscular with cropped, curly dark hair, while Jasper was slighter with wavy blonde hair. Jasper was also the more serious of the two. Emmett always seemed to be getting into trouble.
After making sure that Bella was settling in, Jasper apologetically excused himself. Bella chatted away happily with Emmett and Alice for a short time, then sat peacefully and listened to their good-natured squabbling. The lower part of her jeans was still wet, but she barely noticed. She smiled to herself. It was good to be somewhere welcoming and normal for a change.
Emmett said something to her from behind her chair, and she bent her head back to respond. Out of the corner of her eye, she thought she saw something move at the top of the stairs, but when she peeked again, nothing was there. "Hmmm..." she thought dismissively. "Imagining things." But then she could have sworn she heard a sound there. There was something oddly familiar about it, and she looked more carefully. Nothing. Carlisle and Esme were on an extended trip to Brazil at the moment. Maybe it was Jasper.
"Is someone else in the house?" she asked, trying to keep her voice casual.
Emmett shrugged. He did that a lot. Nothing ever seemed to bother him. "Edward. He's been here on and off for about a year. He was away when you came last summer."
"He's Volnostian," Alice whispered conspiratively, as if she were afraid that Edward could overhear. "Sort of strange, quiet, like he's hiding something. Good looking, though. Not as handsome as Jasper, of course, but still…"
Emmett rolled his eyes. "You would notice that. He's been working on a project with Jasper, but Jasper doesn't talk about what that is. Edward is some sort of reformed Volturi agent. I don't really trust him, but Jasper does. We celebrated his birthday three weeks ago - he's twenty-three." He looked thoughtful for a moment. "It was just the four of us and a cake. He said that it was his first birthday party. Maybe he never had a real childhood."
"Finished your cocoa?" Alice broke in, bouncing to her feet. She's seen Bella's face at the mention of the Volturi. "Come on. You look like you could use a nice hot bath."
Bella wasn't the only one longing for a hot bath. After leaving her at the gate, Edward managed to dash into the house, change out of his ice-soaked clothes, rumple his unruly bronze hair dry with a towel, and noiselessly glide to the top of the stairs in less than fifteen minutes. From his vantage point, he saw with relief that Bella was happily cocooned in a toasty blanket, sipping hot chocolate and chatting with the irrepressible Alice. Warm colour had returned to her pale cheeks, and he couldn't help smiling at her animated face. He didn't understand why he felt uncharacteristically protective of this girl. She'd looked so frail and frightened and lost out there in the stormy forest - that was probably it. Maybe it also had something to do with her background, its odd similarity to his own. Both of them were "adopted" into isolated military-like settings after their parents were killed. How General Black expected her to join the Altairian Elite Guard was beyond him.
Recalling the story that Jasper told him earlier, Edward felt a flash of anger toward the man who banished this lovely creature from her home because she refused to follow his ridiculous demands. He watched as Bella twisted around and swept her mahogany hair out if her eyes with one slim hand, so that she could talk to Emmett standing behind her. Something Emmett said made her laugh. A strange pang of regret shot through him, and he sighed to himself. Such things were not for the likes of him. Edward turned toward Jasper's upstairs study, and so didn't notice Bella glance up at the slight sound.
Jasper was scanning a trade journal, but put it down and smiled at Edward as he entered the cozy office. "I see y'all did your good deed for the day," he teased him, his soft Texas drawl deliberately more pronounced.
Edward smiled back. "How...? Oh, the jacket."
"Don't worry. No one else realized." Jasper was quick to notice that Edward was listening to Bella's voice downstairs, and his smile turned into a grin. "I didn't ask her what happened. I figured you'd give me the details at some point." He paused, still grinning. "She's unattached, you know."
"What?" Edward was called back from his abstraction. "Don't be ridiculous."
"You know perfectly well why not." Damn, why did Jasper have to be so perceptive? "I can't drag someone else into this mess."
Jasper's eyes narrowed speculatively. "She's stronger than you think. William Black and a stream of nannies raised her since she was eight. She went through the same training as her cousins, so she would already understand your world."
"Her parents were killed by the Volturi," Edward reminded him bitterly. "I bet she would just love that association with me."
This conversation wasn't going in the direction he expected. What on earth suddenly inspired Jasper to start matchmaking like an old woman? Maybe it was "married man" thing. Although he and Alice weren't a couple when they when they joined the Cullen family, their relationship had bloomed in the past year. Not married yet, but definitely a couple.
"Let it go," he added flatly. "Don't you want to hear how the meeting went?"
"Were both of them there?"
"No, just one." That concerned him. From Jasper's expression, he agreed. Edward was supposed to meet with two Volturi operatives, but only one appeared. He hoped the Volturi didn't suspect anything. A scan of the surrounding area forest hadn't revealed the other agent. "He seemed to take the bait, however."
Jasper nodded. "Good. You'll need to be especially careful now. We're reaching a critical point. If anything looks wrong to them ..."
"Yeah yeah, I know. But your family will still be OK. You'll just being losing a useful agent."
"I'll be losing a friend," corrected Jasper with a frown. What was wrong with Edward tonight? Either something happened with the Volturi that Edward didn't tell him, or Bella was creating more of a disturbance than he originally suspected.
Edward was frowning too. "You have too much faith in me. I don't deserve it." He had never known anyone as good-hearted as the Cullens. A year ago he hadn't planned to become a double agent for Jasper and Defense Intelligence. He felt the need to remind the young man before him of his duplicity -how little he deserved the title "friend."
"I came here with the intention of destroying your family, Jasper. Felix sent me."
"I know," Jasper stated evenly. "That's why Carlisle and I gave you misinformation at first. But you eventually changed your mind. Now you're putting yourself into danger for our side."
"Hmph." Edward waved that aside impatiently. "How do you know I'm not a triple agent?"
Jasper rolled his eyes. "Now look who's being ridiculous! I've watched you change, seen what has been happening in Volnostia. If you were the same Edward you were a year ago, Bella wouldn't have made it to the house tonight."
Bella's name pulled him up short. Edward couldn't think of anything to say to that. It was true - he had changed. What's more, he had the uncomfortable feeling that the girl…woman…he met tonight was going to wreak further havoc on his previously inert emotional state.
"Just letting you know... Bella doesn't like to leave a mystery unsolved. She's also extremely perceptive."
Edward sighed. "Great. She'll probably recognize me, then?"
Jasper nodded ruefully. "It won't take her long."
"I'll need to keep away from her," he replied softly, more to himself than to Jasper. He didn't like that idea at all.
"No, just be normal," advised Jasper. "The more mysterious you seem, the more intrigued she'll be."
Edward gave a short laugh. "Fine. I'll be my usual happy-go-lucky, open-book self."
Jasper grinned at him, then stared off into space for a few seconds. "Better start practicing. Emmett says that he has dinner ready."