A/N: Don't worry – I haven't forgotten about the story or given up! I just was very busy with my uni assignment and work work these past few weeks so wasn't able to write as much as I wanted. I'm one of these people who have a little ritual for when I write, so if I know I won't be able to just sit here at my computer and let it flow, I don't even bother trying.
This chapter is shorter and a little less eventful than previous ones, BUT… The action is about to kick off again, and when it does, I hope you'll understand why I let this one slow the pace.
As always, I'm going to try and reply to your reviews for the previous chapter, but thought you'd prefer a new chapter sooner than a reply, so have done things a bit backwards this time. Thanks to everyone who's followed, favourited and reviewed Love you all.
Your eyes, they shine so bright - I want to save that light.
I can't escape this now unless you show me how.
When you feel my heat, look into my eyes;
It's where my demons hide, it's where my demons hide.
Don't get too close - it's dark inside;
It's where my demons hide, it's where my demons hide.
Demons – Imagine Dragons
That sleep pattern continued for the next few nights; Jake would be put to bed by Alice and Bella, then come and crawl under the sheets next to Bella when we eventually came to bed ourselves. It was comfortable, and neither Bella nor I had slept so well in weeks, so when Alice had insisted Jake sleep in his own bed that Sunday, all three of us protested.
Alice pointed out that Jake needed to go to school the next day and it would be easier to wake him and get him ready if he was in his own room. It was a valid point, of course, and even Bella agreed it would be better, but I knew her reasons for wanting Jake to stay with us were born out of fear of nightmares as well as a desire to be closer to him.
Eventually, though, logic won out, and Bella put Jake to bed as usual while I stayed downstairs with the others to discuss the plan for the week. We'd been good until then, only talking about our situation when it was necessary and acting like things were normal despite what was happening outside the four walls of the house.
"Peter's due to arrive between late tomorrow morning and early afternoon, depending on how quickly they're able to make it in, but either way I think he and Charlotte will probably want to set up and relax before we get into the hardcore stuff," Jasper explained.
Emmett nodded. "Has he had any luck hacking into The Agency's system yet?"
"Not quite," Jasper admitted. "But he thinks it should only take another day or so to be able to get through. If he can't…"
"Direct connection," I muttered. It was something we were worried about; hacking into the Volturi network would be almost impossible, so we'd settled for trying home turf instead. If we could get Marcus' location from the Agency servers, there was a chance he may be able to help us, but if we couldn't, we were relying on The Agency having stored other intel we could use on their system.
And if that failed… Somebody would have to go to Montana and try and physically breach the system in the compound.
"With any luck, we won't have to resort to that," Jasper sighed. "But I want a contingency plan just in case."
"The girls should stay here," Emmett immediately said, and I agreed with him. "You're well enough protected in this house."
"Alice could help us, though," I pointed out. "If she could contact Carlisle…"
"He wouldn't pick up the phone," Jasper replied. "Their relationship is strained at the moment to say the least."
"He picked up for Bella," I countered. "And in his eyes, she fucked up even more than Alice ever has."
"That's a fair point," Emmett agreed.
Jasper laughed and shook his head. "When Bella was first rescued, don't you think Alice tried contacting Carlisle to try and find out her location?"
I opened my mouth, then closed it again.
"They had a fight about it," Jasper continued. "And things were said that… Well, let's just say we're going to have to rule Carlisle out for now."
"Fuck," I muttered.
Jasper nodded in half-agreement. "So… if we have to go back to Montana, as a last resort…"
"I'll have to go," I told them. "No way will anyone be able to navigate round there without me."
"You could guide someone remotely, though. Use comms?" Emmett suggested.
"The only one who would know exactly what they were doing would be Peter, so he would have to go," I argued. "He would be alone if I wasn't here, and the risk wouldn't be worth it. He'd have no way in undetected, for one."
"We'd need Marcus to do it," Jasper realized. "If we could get him to go there…"
"It's possible," I sighed. "But that would require us hacking the Agency network first to find his location."
"Damn it," Emmett cursed. We were going in circles again.
"Marcus will be the key to all this. With him, we can access Volturi servers, track James and Aro…" I let out a long exhale. "If we can't find him, then honestly, I think we'll have nothing."
"We will find him. And when we do, he can get us that access, and we'll have all the evidence needed to bring them down," Jasper added. "We hand it to the right people, and they can figure the logistics of taking apart everything. As for Aro and James…"
"They're non-negotiable," I reminded him. "They're dead regardless."
"I know," Jasper replied. "And I agree. They're both too much of a threat."
"So we take them down first," Emmett suggested. "Once we're in, we track them down, kill them, then expose the rest of the organization."
"Without Aro, they'd realize what was going on and scramble or, worse, someone else would rise in his place and we'd end up with a hydra on our hands," I countered. "Besides, it may make things tougher on the logistics side of exposing the organization without any one person held up as the leader."
We kept going over different options for a while, but eventually we came to the conclusion that until we knew the extent of what Peter could get for us, we were just clutching at straws, so we decided to finally call it a night.
Jasper stayed downstairs to lock up while Emmett joined Rosalie upstairs, where she was talking with Alice. I headed up to Jake's room, moving as silently as possible so I didn't disturb him.
To my surprise, the door was still wide open, and when I looked inside to see why, I let out a soft laugh.
Bella had fallen asleep while sitting on Jake's bed, story book open on her lap and Jake's head resting on her chest. She looked so peaceful - I couldn't bring myself to wake her, so I just stood there for a moment, watching her.
Over the past few days, she had been trying her best to speak around the house, and although she still had moments of silence, most of the time she'd been successful. Seeing Jake and Alice had been the balm she'd so desperately needed, giving her a piece of her old life back and tethering her to the present at the same time. The baby helped, too – she had been pretty active, kicking Bella in bursts at random intervals. I couldn't feel the movements from the outside very easily, but I could always tell when she was kicking from the blissful smile on Bella's face.
Motherhood suited her in a way I couldn't quite explain, and spending time with Jake proved just how amazing she was at it. She would light up when he spoke to her, all tension draining from her body, and as I watched her pull him closer to her body in her sleep, I couldn't help but smile to myself.
Deciding to leave them be, I carefully pulled the door until it was almost shut before heading into our room to change and get ready for bed.
It was strange, trying to sleep without Bella beside me. The bed felt empty and cold, the room suddenly too big, and I tossed and turned for what felt like hours. When I finally managed to drift into a restless sleep, visions of James raiding the house started to flood in, and I was trapped in a nightmare so real that I wasn't even aware I had been dreaming when I startled awake.
I sat bolt upright and flung my arm out to cover Bella, James' voice echoing in my ear, then felt my blood run cold as I touched cold sheets instead of her warm body.
I threw the sheets from my legs and grabbed my firearm from the bedside table, hands shaking violently as I tried to flip off the safety. With my own frantic heartbeat roaring in my ears, I stumbled to the door in the dark, only to have it slowly creak open before I could touch the handle.
I ducked behind the door as it opened, waiting until the intruder was just past the threshold before wrenching them by the arm and forcing them against the door, pushing it shut with their weight as I pressed the end of the gun against their temple and wrapped my free hand around their throat.
My gaze met terrified brown eyes and I froze, still lost in the nightmare.
"It's me!" Bella.
The sound that left my mouth was half-whimper, half-groan as her fingers came up to cover the hand I still had at her throat, though my grip had loosened in shock.
"Baby, it was just a dream," she croaked, forcing my fingers away just far enough for her own to slip beneath and hold them tightly.
Horrified, I recoiled from her completely and backed away, hands held out in front of me as I tried to comprehend what had just happened.
"I…" I barely managed to keep hold of the gun, I was trembling so much.
"Easy…" Bella's warm hands covered mine and took the gun from my grip, turning the safety back on before she moved away to put it on the bedside table again.
"Edward." She was in front of me again, hands cupping my cheeks. I couldn't meet her gaze. "Hey… Look at me."
"I'm sorry," I managed to gasp, eyes burning.
"It's okay," she soothed, gently tipping my face up so I was forced to look her in the eyes. "You are okay."
"Are you hurt?" I asked through gritted teeth.
"I'm fine," she promised.
"And the baby?" I clenched my hands into fists, suddenly furious with myself. What if I'd cut off her air supply, what if-
"She's a little scared and kicking up a storm," she murmured. "But we are both fine."
"I was dreaming that…" I closed my eyes, unable to finish.
"You don't have to explain," she interrupted, shaking her head. She tried to kiss me, but I turned my head, ashamed of myself.
With a soft sigh she took both my hands in hers and started to pull me towards the bed. After a moment of resistance, I let her guide me to sit on the mattress, and was surprised when, instead of sitting beside me, she sat astride my lap, bringing us as close as possible.
Even as she curled into me, I couldn't bring myself to touch her.
"Hey." She sounded angry now, and as she brought one hand back up to my cheek, I forced myself to meet her gaze, preparing for the onslaught. "You promised you wouldn't do this anymore. Not with me."
I raised my hands, hesitating, but when my fingertips finally brushed against her it was like a dam had burst, and I pulled her in closer, wrapping my arms tightly round her as I buried my face in her neck.
"He had you," I breathed, clenching my eyes shut against the hazy visions that returned. "He was… He…"
"Shhh," she soothed sadly, then carefully pulled back just far enough for our lips to meet. As she kissed me, I moaned at the warmth, curling my fingers into the fabric of her t-shirt.
"It wasn't real," she murmured against my lips. "I'm right here."
"I woke up, and-"
"I was in Jake's room," she sighed, realizing. "You should have woken me up before you went to bed, baby."
"You looked peaceful," I told her softly as she pressed her forehead to mine. "I didn't want to wake you."
"I always sleep better when you're there. You know that." She exhaled a shaky breath, then muttered, "I had a nightmare too."
My guilt increased tenfold.
"Bella, I'm so sorry," I whispered. "I thought Jake would-"
"He's not you," she breathed, then pushed herself back and brought her free hand up to gently run through my hair. I leaned into her touch, comforted by the feel of her fingertips against my scalp. "He calms me, but not like you do."
I swallowed past the sudden emotion in my throat. I'd honestly thought she'd been sleeping better because of Jake; I hadn't factored myself into the equation. It made what had happened even worse somehow, knowing it could have been avoided.
"Edward…" she murmured quietly, bringing me back to her. "I love you."
I smiled weakly. "I love you, too. And I'm so sorry."
"Just wake me up next time, okay?" she insisted, then pressed her lips to mine again. I let my hands grip her hips as she leaned closer, her baby bump pressing against my stomach.
As she teased my mouth open with the tip of her tongue, her fingers slipped round to play with the hair at the nape of my neck and her other hand moved to rest against my chest, right over my still pounding heart. A small noise of disapproval escaped her when she met cloth instead of bare skin, but she quickly reached down and pushed her hand underneath my t-shirt instead, fingertips smoothing across my abs.
"Bella…" I moved one hand to stop hers, but she kept sliding it upwards anyway, bringing my t-shirt with it. "Bella, don't…"
I hissed in a breath as her lips fell to my exposed chest, kissing over my heart like she could will it to calm that way. My hands fluttered at her hips as my mind warred with itself. I was disgusted with myself for what I'd done, but I craved her closeness at the same time, needing it to wipe the darkness out.
My body made the decision for me by letting her pull my arms free of the fabric as she brought it over my head before dropping it to the floor. I shivered at the sudden chill I felt, knowing it was probably more subconscious than anything, then gasped at the heat of her body pressing against mine the moment she pulled her own t-shirt off.
With her left only in her bra and pajama bottoms, I had a clear view of Bella's pale skin and the faint red marks that marred her neck, and cursed myself for hurting her, even if only a little.
I leaned forward and kissed her neck, bringing my arms up to hold her as she let herself tip back against my hands, trusting me to support her even after what had happened. As my lips brushed a particularly sensitive spot, her head fell back and a soft moan escaped her, her fingers curling in my hair to keep me close.
The hand that had been on my chest moved to grip my shoulder, and the feel of her nails lightly trailing over my skin made me shudder. Once I had kissed my way across her neck, she brought her head back up and pressed her lips to mine again, softly this time, almost as if she was reassuring me she was okay.
Moving slow enough not to startle me, she shifted back far enough to stand up before pushing her pajama bottoms off her hips and stepping out of them. She reached behind her to unhook her bra, then let that fall to join the rest of her clothes, leaving her bare before me.
"You're beautiful," I told her, eyes taking every part of her in, from her slightly mussed up hair to her growing breasts and the healing scars on her thigh.
Her eyes shined with emotion as she smiled brightly, always a beacon of light in the darkness that was ever present at the edges of my mind.
"I love you, too," she whispered.
The next morning, Bella stayed as close to me as possible, not even leaving my side when it was time to say goodbye to Jake before Alice dropped him off at school. I kept unconsciously seeking her out, hands constantly touching some part of her body; a physical and mental anchor.
My nightmare had shaken me up, and the sad look I kept catching on Rosalie's face made it apparent the others had heard what had happened, too. Nobody mentioned it directly, though, and I appreciated the illusion of privacy it gave me to process everything.
As Peter and Charlotte's arrival time approached, everybody began to get a little antsy, checking out the windows at shorter intervals, glancing at the clock… When Alice came home from the school, we all jumped a little in our seats on the sofas, only to semi-relax again when we realized it was a false alarm.
Surprisingly, Bella seemed to be almost completely calm, but I quickly came to the conclusion that was down to her trust in Jasper and, by extension, Peter. Trust I was beginning to share. And, fuck, if that realization wasn't a little shocking in itself.
At around eleven, Alice offered to make coffee for everyone and, after a moment of hesitation, Bella excused herself from the room as well. I watched her go with trepidation, unsure how well things would pan out between them, but Jasper's expression confirmed what I already knew; I had to let them hash it out. Whatever it was that was truly the heart of the problem.
"Is there anything I can help with when they arrive?" Rosalie asked after a moment, drawing mine and Jasper's attention back to the room.
"I think Peter will just want to set up his laptops and network so everything's in place, but Charlotte will probably appreciate some company. They don't really leave their safe-house much, so she's a little quiet," Jasper replied.
"The two of you will get along well, I think." Jasper looked down at his hands, suddenly contemplative. "She's been through some stuff, too."
"Nothing like trauma to bring people together," Rosalie joked, and for once there was no sadness of discomfort hidden beneath it. Emmett laughed uneasily, but Jasper let out a full, loud chuckle, in on something I had no idea about.
"That's actually how they met," he told her, then turned his head towards the window, back straightening. "But that's a story for another day, I think."
I looked up at Alice, who was now standing in the doorway beside Bella. They were closer than before, and when they stepped further into the room, I noticed the ever-present tension between them that ran beneath the surface had dissipated.
Bella smiled as she approached, hands reaching out for mine. I heard Alice and Jasper leave to answer the door, but my focus was on Bella. She seemed… lighter.
"Okay?" I murmured softly. She nodded, pushing up on her toes to kiss me lightly.
"We're fine," she promised, then squeezed my hands tightly. "You okay?"
"I think so," I replied honestly. I looked up at the sound of the others coming back into the room, then smiled down at Bella again. "Show time."
Bella smirked before turning to face the two new arrivals, one hand slipping from mine as she did so. She tangled our fingers together and let out a nervous breath, then smiled brightly as a tall man with white-blonde hair – Peter, my mind corrected – came forward to kiss her cheek.
"Bella," he said softly. "It's good to see you again."
"Thank you for coming," Bella murmured. "And thank you for everything in Seattle."
Peter nodded, then turned to me and reached out his hand. I shook it firmly.
"Edward." He twisted his torso slightly, and wrapped his arm around Charlotte, who was just as white-blonde as he was, but over a foot shorter. "This is Charlotte."
Charlotte smiled almost timidly, leaning into Peter's side for comfort. She was clearly unsettled, and I wondered if that was a consequence of what Jasper had hinted at.
"How are you, Charlotte?" Bella asked gently. I recognized her tone – it was the same one the doctors in Oregon had used to speak to her when she first woke up.
"Okay," Charlotte replied, voice so quiet, I could barely hear her. Peter dropped a kiss to the top of her head, then turned his head round to look at Jasper and Alice.
"Where can I get set up?" he asked. "The system will take a while to put in place, but as soon as it's done, we can get started."
"We cleared the dining room for you," Jasper replied. "Extension cables and stands are already in place."
"Rose and I can help move your stuff into Jake's room if you'd like, Charlotte?" Alice offered. I frowned, but Bella squeezed my hand tightly to silence me.
Charlotte bit down on her bottom lip and looked to Peter for reassurance. He held her gaze for a moment, and then Charlotte was nodding, leaning in to him briefly before crossing the room to where Rosalie and Alice were waiting.
And just like that, the room was emptied as fast as it had been filled, leaving only me and Bella behind.
"They don't mess around, huh?" I joked lightly.
Bella let out a quiet laugh, then turned to face me, bringing the hand that wasn't holding mine up to my chest.
"No, they don't," she sighed. "I know they may seem abrupt, but I think they just want this over with. Same as us."
"The sooner the better," I agreed.
Bella hummed, then pushed up on her toes to kiss me softly, fingers curling against my shirt as I caught her bottom lip between both of mine. When she slowly let herself drop back down, I instinctually swayed closer, seeking out another kiss, and she smiled to herself.
"So…" She let out a long breath. "I spoke to Alice."
She casually began to trace shapes against my chest with her fingers, and I let my own reach out to touch her hip.
"I think…" She frowned, then continued, "I think we'll be okay. She's still upset with me, but she seemed to understand better once I explained everything."
"Told you," I breathed, smirking. She smiled up at me, looking a little sheepish.
"I know," she admitted. "But even now, I just… I can't work out what it is, but something feels…"
"Different," I finished for her, letting her know I understood.
"Exactly." Bella let out a long sigh, then shrugged. "Maybe I'm just overthinking it."
"Maybe," I acknowledged. "Or maybe we're so used to something being wrong, we see it everywhere."
Bella nodded against me. "I know we're on the edge of a breakthrough now, but… It feels too good to be real. I'm waiting for something to happen."
"It is real, though," I promised, dropping a kiss to the top of her hair. "All of this?" I gestured around us. "It's real."
As Bella looked up and met my gaze, she trailed her hand up my chest, fingers coming up to graze the scar tissue on my shoulder through my t-shirt.
"I'll ask Charlotte to take a look at this as soon as she's settled," she murmured.
"There's no rush…" I trailed off with a soft moan when her fingers gently began to massage my shoulder.
"We've waited too long for this," she said, tone a complete contrast to her hard expression. "We aren't delaying it any more."
"I just don't want this to get in the way of anything," I admitted.
Over the past few days, I had been doing my best not to overexert it, and had even started to do some of the movements recommended by the physiotherapist we'd seen at the clinic where Bella had her scan. I had seen some improvement already, but knew it would still take time to undo the damage I'd inadvertently caused by letting it heal badly. Time we may not have spare.
"Edward…" Bella chastised. We'd had this discussion before.
"I know," I breathed, pressing my lips lightly to hers. "I'm sorry."
She gave me a stern look, which quickly softened. "I don't mean to push you. I just worry."
"That's okay." I kissed her again, lingering this time. "Sometimes I need it."
She smiled slightly, then slid her arms around my waist and pulled me closer, resting her head against my chest. I wrapped my arms around her just as tightly and kissed the top of her head, content to simply stand there with her for a moment.
After a few minutes, Bella let out a gentle sigh and pulled back a little, meeting my gaze. I smiled at her, and the one she gave me in return was enough to settle the nervous energy that had begun to sink in due to Peter's arrival.
With one last kiss, Bella dropped her hand to mine and twined our fingers before leading us out to join the boys in the dining room.
Had I known then that that would be our last moment of peace, I would never have let her go.