Summary: He white-knuckles his pen, dragging a line of ink across the page. I can guess which passage he's marking: "All things truly wicked start from an innocence." Hemingway wouldn't have known about us. No one does. Teenage E/B, quasi-dystopian.
My Sweet Variable
Chapter 1: Two Paths Converge
I close my eyes to the sun and lean heavily against the sagging chain-link fence. It's as bent out of shape as anything at this school. I can feel the heat of the diamond-shaped links through the thin cloth of my P.E. uniform; I imagine them searing impressions into my flesh. A tidy, evenly spaced grid. Tic-tac-toe on my skin.
I can picture Coach Clapp standing across the field next to the neglected tennis courts with her clipboard, looking sideways at the three of us and deciding to let our nonparticipation slide. I've seen it dozens of times—the way she purses her lips in resignation as she scratches check marks next to each of our names. We're present, soaking up vitamin D, and it's enough.
"Bella." I lift my head at the sound of my name. "Hey, Bella."
Rose squints and makes a visor with her flattened hand. "Why are my sunglasses in my locker and not on my face right now?"
"Because it's April in Seattle. The sun has no business being out. What are you looking at?" I turn my head slowly toward the halfhearted scrimmage match taking place on the soccer field. Torsos in gray T-shirts rise out of a tangle of chalky shins and puffs of dust.
"New Guy." Rose fluff-shakes her hair so it falls in front of her face, pretending to search out split ends. Her peroxide habit means it's pretty much all split ends. She peers through the blond curtain. "He needs a name."
"Why not…Officer?" Alice narrows her kohl-rimmed eyes, looking up from her book with a smirk. A black lacquered fingernail floats down to hold her place on the page.
"He's not a narc." By now Rose and I are plainly staring. New Guy, as Rose calls him, is taller than the others. His long legs should make him a fast runner, but he moves like a heavy and invisible cloak is weighing him down. He has hard sinews in his legs and tired shadows under his eyes that make Alice think he's a twenty-something cop working undercover, not the seventeen-year-old student he claims to be.
Alice follows my glance. "I'm halfway serious. I mean, who transfers schools two months before the school year ends?"
"His dad had to move for a job. I heard he's already got his credits from his old school, and his parents just wanted him enrolled so he would make friends." Ah. Rose has done research. I study her face. She isn't smitten, but this mode of attention means she's considering it.
"You heard all that, and you still don't know his name?" Alice purses her lips. "I just don't know. He's hiding something."
"Why do you even care, twerp?" I nudge the side of Alice's Doc Martens boot with my sneaker. The toughness she projects is real, but she's also a sweetheart who couldn't get arrested if she tried. "He could use a little beauty rest. But he's not a narc."
I know this about him—this New Guy.
I know practically everything about him.
I know his name is Edward. His purported and actual age is seventeen. He consumes cutting-edge comic books and run-of-the-mill sci-fi novels in equal measure. He goes for salty over sweet, but both at once trump either one alone. He's gifted with a knack for languages, a photographic memory, and the vision of a hawk. He is not a narc. He is, however, an operative in an elite and controversial top-secret espionage unit, trained from a young age to kill with precision and stealth.
Just like me.
After P.E. I should have study hall, but I'm excused because of Math Team. We drill on problem sets in a windowless room. Rather, I drill the team on their problem sets. The regional tournament is in two weeks; we've qualified every year that I've been on board. Math Team is a sort of cover for me. It's also a real team, with real meets and real kids scraping together paths to college on stepping stones of achievement.
And it was my point of entry into this life, once upon a time. I was nine. I stood up on stage in front of four hundred spectators in the sudden death match and solved a problem four seconds faster than the second-place kid, who was thirteen. Let B=2i-3j+4k, E=i-j+2k. Find, using the cross product, a vector perpendicular to both B and E. An astronaut shook my hand when I won. Then a man with glittering, fox-like eyes tapped my shoulder backstage and pressed a business card into my hand. Aro was all it said. And a phone number.
No one expects teenagers to have the inclination, let alone the skill, to hunt and bring down sophisticated criminal masterminds. To begin with, we are petulant and unfocused by reputation.
"Your awkwardness is a weapon," Aro says. He's our handler. "The selfishness, the fits of sulking. Perfect. You repel attention because you remind people of the most uncomfortable times of their lives. They are quite…compelled to disregard you."
He doesn't know—or care—whether it's an act. As if we could call forth these hormones. These oil glands and sudden crying jags. He only knows that it works.
And for those of us who shed our gawky features ahead of schedule—like Edward—well, youth is still an asset. Teenagers are children, in the eyes of the world. Innocent by definition. To imagine we've been singled out and molded into killers by a government sworn to protect us is simply…beyond. Unethical, without a doubt. No one would think it, and no one does. It's one of the factors contributing to our perfect strike rate.
I was ten the first time. I knew what I was doing. In a technical sense, I knew. Even a brutal organized crime boss will stop to listen to a kid in a scout uniform selling chocolate bars for juvenile diabetes research. Ironic, he'd said to me, peeling a crisp dollar bill from his wad of walking-around money. Better me than you eating this poison, eh? I always remember that. Little did he know.
There are six of us. Emily, Sam, Leah, Jacob, Edward, and me. We're known—to only a handful of people in the world—as Operation Volturi, Sundial Unit.
We shouldn't exist, but we do.
Math Team coaching duties keep me after school. I set up shop in the empty cafeteria, spreading out the team's schedules and cross-referencing our out-of-town meets with quizzes we'll miss. Aro's civilian cover involves oversight of the Volta League, the national umbrella for the various academic team contests, including math. It helps him move his assets where he needs them, he says, meaning the six of us. Edward's subject is science.
I'm dropping planned absence notices into the teachers' mail slots when Dr. Berty pokes his head in.
"Bella. I said I'd take these old laptops to the recycling center, but…do you want them? Maybe fix them up so the folks at that retirement home can email their grandkids or something?"
Everybody always assumes math nerds are computer nerds, too. That's not really my thing, but Edward might make use of these. I was thinking of taking a cab home anyways, so I nod my head yes. "Thanks, Dr. Berty."
It's dark when I step out of the cab, save for a dozen white-bright floodlights rising above humming generators. Crews have the whole street torn up, and the cabbie hasn't been able to get closer than the end of my block. A King County Energy truck tells me it must be an emergency gas main repair.
As I lug my canvas bag of laptops up the steps of my home, I watch my shadow morph in the path of the work crew's lights. The scenario rings a bell, improbably. If Bella is traveling away from a stationary light source at a rate of three feet per second, and her shadow is shrinking at a rate of five feet per second, how tall is the light source?
The construction goes on all night, pale light flooding my ceiling from below as if the moon has come unhinged from the sky. The air tastes like tar. I toss and turn through the subterranean grinding and rumbling until I hear Charlie filling the kettle for his pre-dawn tea.
A note drifts to the dusty floor below my locker when I rattle the metal door open. Meet me at the skate benches after 7th period. Edward and I are both wired with subcutaneous SatCom transceivers, but the charade is important.
His handwriting is perfectly cartoonish, all exaggerated angles and thickly shaded pencil lines. The mark of a person who wants the world to think he'd rather be tagging freight trains. Maybe he would rather be, for all I know.
I look at Alice and Rose, who are looking at me. This might as well begin now. It's the whole point of his being here, after all. And better now than after Rose makes up her mind; I would hate for her to feel rejected.
"New Guy," I say, letting them inspect the note. I'm starting to get a sense of the persona he's aiming for: standoffish, arrogant, decisive.
Rose's gaze lingers on his initials. She finally learned his name this morning in English class. "What's it been, three days? He's bold."
"See? Narc." Alice cocks an eyebrow, but judging by her mischievous grin, she's already moved on to thinking of him as potential boyfriend material for me. "You holding? Get it out of your bra; that's the first place they check."
I snort, and then we're all giggling. Sometimes it overtakes me without warning, this teenage-ness. Sure, I was once elbow-deep in the eviscerated body of a terrorist who swallowed secrets, but the fact remains: nobody's ever felt me up.
As if on cue, Edward rounds the corner and cruises past, listening without looking. I know he hears our laughing fit—and our efforts to suppress it. His eyebrows peak up in the center of his face, and the apples of his cheeks flush crimson. It overtakes him, too.
I don't need my SatCom to hear Aro's voice in my head. Perfect.
Edward rocks his ankles left and right, rolling from side to side on his board as he watches me walk across the litter-strewn ball field after school. Cool gray masks the sun and mutes my shadow.
He laughs at my use of his childhood nickname. He was always the tallest in our cohort. He tried to get "Hawk" to stick when we discovered his superhuman vision, but it never took. This other name did.
"So, how do we work this?" I sit down on the bench.
"Just like this, for a minute. We already have an audience." He looks down at his feet, smiling shyly. It's the kind of thing my friends spying from across the field will swoon over. Boys like Tyler Crowley and Mike Newton will get the message. I'll have an answer for people who want to know where I spend all my time. New Guy. The hard part will be pretending he hasn't already been my best friend for six years. I tuck my hair behind my ear for effect and really look at him, finally.
He takes my breath away, to be honest. As frequently as we talk on the SatCom, we see each other just six or eight times per year. Quarterly skills clinics, team retreats, the occasional extraction drill. He's been changing, little by little.
It's his eyebrows I notice this time: a man's eyebrows. Together with last summer's cheekbones, the jawline he got for Christmas, and that way of pinning you with his gaze he's had as long as I've known him…this is the sort of face people don't say no to.
A chilling fear strikes me, making my chest tighten. Someone like him—Aro won't want to let him go. Even after he hits his zero year, they'll find a way to keep him in. Tears spring into my eyes.
His jaw flexes. "Hey. Not here, okay? Just, like, flirt with me a little. Make it look right. We'll talk business later. My place at five?"
I nod, crossing one leg over the other and swaying slightly. This is meant to be alluring, according to what I read, but I just end up feeling like I have big feet and bony knees. "Like this?"
"Ah…sure," he grins.
He takes out his "clean" civilian phone and enters my number into it, even snapping my picture.
"Look at how cute you are."
I roll my eyes. This creates a trail for us. A story. He calls my civilian phone and hangs up, so now I have his number. The grey sky starts to dribble, cool and prickly. Classic Seattle.
"So, you'll come by tonight? Do you need to ping your resources?" He winces. "I mean your dad. Sorry."
Living with Charlie makes me the exception among Sundial kids. Edward and the others are orphans who are co-housed with career Volturi operatives for the sake of appearances. And for support purposes, too, I gather.
Edward's resources, as we call them, are Carlisle and Esme. They know only what they need to know—maybe less, if I'm being honest. Sundial is a secret even within the Volturi organization. Not everyone can be expected to understand us, Aro says. The story Carlisle and Esme believe is that Edward is a witness they're protecting. The official public story is that Edward is their foster son.
"No. Charlie's working two jobs right now. And…he's got to find out sooner or later about this new boyfriend of mine, right?"
"Think he'll approve?"
Honestly? "Not a chance." Something tells me it won't matter. "I'll be there at five."
The rain isn't exactly heavy, but it's started to drip into my eyes, and I have a three-block walk to the number ten bus. I gesture in that direction, heave my bag onto my shoulder, and start walking away backwards.
"Hey." He takes a step toward me, shrugging off his hoodie. "Here. You look cold."
Such good instincts, this one. I can practically hear Alice squealing from here.
I put in an hour of community service at Evergreen Manor before going to Edward's. My favorite task is bringing the large-type book cart around to all the residents.
Mrs. Cope takes a romance novel she's already read twice, so I mark it on the list to get a few more like that.
"You young people with your college apps," she says to me. "Such a lot of pressure."
I smile and tell her it's not like that, and that coming here relaxes me—which is true. With my record of performance in math, I don't need the service work to beef up my college applications. I just need it.
It's less than a mile to Edward's, so I walk. I stop at the 7-Eleven on the way and stuff a couple of cans of wet dog food into the pockets of Edward's hoodie, paying with crumpled singles. As of a week ago, Miss Violet won't touch the dry stuff, and the vet isn't quite sure why.
My phone chimes with a text from Alice.
Alice: Are you with him?
Me: Gonna hang out a bit, yeah. Just left Evergreen.
Alice: Heard he has his own basement apt, almost.
Me: Maybe. Idk.
Alice: Be safe. ;)
I don't reply. Alice's imagination gets the best of her sometimes. And sometimes, I don't correct her.
Edward does have his own basement apartment, almost. When he introduces me to Carlisle and Esme as a girl from school "here to do homework," he jokes that we'll be down "in the bunker."
"Glad to see you're settling in," Carlisle says. He hands Edward a shiny Mylar package. "This came for you from the Volta League. And—leave the bedroom door open."
I appreciate his parental eyebrow-raise. It's shorthand for: Homework? On a Friday night?
"That's good work," I whisper to Edward, giggling, as we stagger down the stairs. He looks at me sideways, shaking his head.
"Lay off of Carlisle. He's keeping me normal, you know?"
I do know. I sit cross-legged on the bed. He drops our assignment pack on the comforter next to me and turns the radio on low; the gadget has noise-scrambling properties so we can't be overheard or recorded.
"What does he think is in here?" I ask, tapping the package. I assume Carlisle must not know what it is, or he'd never have handed it over so casually.
Edward flinches. "Well, he only knows about Volta's above-board operations. He thinks I do quality assurance on the middle school science questions," he says. "And coaching. On top of traveling to meets and stuff."
I nod, humming. "Your room is nice."
Looking around, I can see that this space isn't proportioned right; it's a good two feet shorter than the length of the hallway would suggest. I find myself scanning the wall behind his bookshelves.
"Always measuring." Edward smirks. He can guess what I'm thinking.
"I can't believe more people don't notice." I'm constantly calculating figures in my head. Square footage, cubic volume. It keeps my mind calm—just having a grasp of the known elements. One thing math teaches you is to break a problem down into components. Know your constants. Isolate your variables. Don't mistake one for the other.
"People don't really look—not the way you do. They see what they expect to see." He runs a fingertip down a seam in the wallpaper, showing me where the wall opens.
"And that leads to…"
"It's just a way out. This gets me into the woods behind the house."
Edward pulls his chair up next to the bed so we can review the strike plan for this weekend.
His computer faces the bed. I want something to be on the screen in case Carlisle or Esme decide to check up on us, so I wiggle the mouse to wake it up. I'm instantly sorry. I shield my eyes and turn away.
"Ew, Edward. I don't need to see that."
"So don't go nosing around." He fiddles with the computer.
"So close your browser."
"Whatever. It's pretty tame stuff." His ears are pink, despite his calm tone. "Stop pretending you're shocked."
"I'm not. I'm just…never mind." I'm not sure what to call this feeling; I almost wish I'd seen something truly vulgar on his screen. Instead, this page full of college girls in white wet T-shirts trips a weird chord in me. It's too innocent, given the things I know he's seen. I need to cover my reaction. I leap to my feet and make a show of scanning Edward's bedspread. "Is this where you—Jesus. Switch places with me."
He rolls his eyes and complies.
I change the subject, peeling the SecurSeal off of our assignment pack. Breaking the seal makes a very distinctive sound. Surprise registers on Edward's face; even though we've known this was coming, it's strange to hear that sound in the presence of another person. In each other's presence. It's our first joint project.
He does this thing where he closes his eyes a fraction of a second longer than it should take to blink. With his eyesight and his memory, it's a way of taking a picture, he's told me. I hope he's thinking that working together might make this whole process easier. More bearable. Something.
"All right, Phoenix. Let's get started."
AN: Many thanks to beta and pre-readers happymelt, midsouthmama, and faireyfan. My "constants." This is going to be a fairly angsty story with elements of romance, drama, adventure, and a dash of sci-fi. I hope you enjoy it!