AN: I know! I'm really truly appalled at myself and so, so sorry for letting all this time go by between updates. I will spare you the details, but I had a lot of family, work, travel, volunteer, and social stuff happening all at once. The worst of it is over! I'm back on track, I promise. Many thanks to the extremely lovely and oh-so-patient happymelt, midsouthmama and faireyfan for betaing and pre-reading! When we last left Bella and Edward, they were making out in her bedroom after a series of revelations about Mrs. Cope and the man they thought they killed in Gasworks Park.

Chapter 12: Synthesis

I jolt awake some time later and blink in the semi-darkness, vaguely conscious of a warm body walling me off from the edge of the bed and beyond.

"Alice."

"Nuh-uh. She has less facial hair. Guess again." He chuckles into the nape of my neck.

"I mean I was supposed to go somewhere with those guys . . . after school." I yawn and stretch. "Fremont, maybe? To find a prom dress. What time is it?" I can just make out a sliver of almost-night sky through my window.

"It's just about eight now. I talked to Al when she called earlier."

I twist around to face him. "Did you tell her I was asleep next to you?"

"I was vague." He pushes strands away from my eyes.

"Are we still alone?"

"As much as we ever are." He smiles at me, and I think he's calling up the mental images of how we spent our alone time earlier this evening. I hope that's what makes him smile. When my adrenaline gave way to drowsiness, I'd tried to fight it, but his hands stroking my hair soothed me into a nap.

"Was she pretty annoyed?"

"No, she heard what happened at school. She wants a rain check. And there was something about Etsy links." He adjusts the T-shirt I'm wearing—his T-shirt—where it's twisted around the waistband of my leggings. His own chest is bare. "She used some disturbing words, like . . . fishtail. And peplum. Please let me never find out what those things are."

That makes me giggle. "I'll find something I don't hate, and if I don't hate it, you won't hate it."

"I don't hate my shirt on you. Maybe you can wear this to prom."

"It's cute, right? Covers my ass. With the right shoes . . . " I like the glint in his eye when I play along. I like his hands sliding up beneath the fabric. "I'll wear this if you wear that."

"Jeans and no shirt? Uh-uh. No deal. I don't get many chances to use my tux, so. You know."

"Oh, right. I forgot you have that. From . . ." I know the woman's name—Tanya—the one he had orders to seduce in Chicago, but I don't want to say it.

He sighs and stiffens next to me. I feel cool where his hands have left my body.

"Rewind. What the hell is wrong with me? Forget I mentioned that stupid thing. I'll get a new tux. I'll rent one like normal people."

"It's okay."

"No, it's not okay. I'll get Esme to help me."

"Why are you avoiding the subject? Don't get all weird. It's just . . . part of your past. Lots of people have a past. I can handle it."

He snorts and sits up straight, folding his arms across his chest and pulling his knees in close. "There's nothing to handle. My past? That wasn't me. That has nothing to do with me. Or us." He looks at the ceiling.

"You don't need to protect me. I want to know." I wish I hadn't just been thinking about his photographic memory, because now that's all I can think of. The images he must have seared into his brain. I looked her up online once—I've seen her flowing actressy hair and the way her hips made the perfect place for a man to put his hand. So many men, so many pictures. "The truth can't be worse than what I'm imagining."

He laughs a sharp sort of laugh I've never heard before, then groans and scrubs his hands through his hair. "What was I thinking? I'm burning the suit. Consider it burned. Ashes. New topic, please."

"See, this is just what I mean. Why would you burn it? You're making it sound like an even bigger deal than I thought. What am I supposed to think? It's not like I've ever been assigned to . . . you know. Be a Honeypot."

"Don't be ridiculous. Over my dead body." Two patches of pink light up his cheeks.

"What, you have a say all of a sudden?"

"What the hell, Bella." He leaps out of bed and grabs his hoodie from the chair, yanking it on over his bare skin. "What are we even talking about? You have a sudden interest in having sex with a stranger? On that douchebag's orders?"

I pull him by the arm until he's sitting next to me. "Shh. Watch what you say." He knows Aro could be listening in at any time.

"I don't give a shit about that. Why are you winding me up about something that will never happen? And I mean never. I'm serious as fuck right now." He leans over, resting his head in his hands, and stares at the floor between his feet. His knee is bouncing so fast it's practically vibrating.

"You're winding yourself up."

"Promise you'll never do it."

"I have no way of—"

"Just humor me." I can only see the edge of his face right now, but it's turning red.

"Okay, jeez. No Honeypot jobs. I promise. Like they'd ever send me for that anyways."

He lifts his head, but there's a grimace on his face and a new vein in the middle of his forehead. And the circles under his eyes look super dark. He looks so world-weary. So adult in a way that I can't relate to. He opens his mouth and gazes around the room, searching for something. What is so hard for him to say? I wonder.

"So you had sex with her?"

"It wasn't about sex, okay? It was about manipulation."

"Umm, yeah, I know. I know that. It didn't mean anything important."

He strokes his jaw and gets to his feet. He shuffles a few paces to my dresser, where he studies the framed photos for what seems like a long while.

"You don't get it." He shakes his head. He makes eye contact for the briefest second before fixing his gaze somewhere on the floor between us. "You talk about that Chicago situation like . . . like it's something you need to measure up to. If you would just stop measuring for a minute and start feeling, you'd maybe understand a little better. Because . . . that experience—I didn't choose that. It was chosen for me."

"I—" Oh, God. I can't speak. I don't know what he needs from me.

"You're the only one in the world who might get that. Though I can see why you don't want to." His voice is cool now, quiet, which only makes me feel unnerved. He jams his feet into his shoes and hoists his bag to his shoulder. "Listen. I should go. I need to get some sleep and get my head right." He has his hand on the doorjamb by the time I scramble out of the bed

"Um, wait. Can we just talk about this?"

"I . . . I can't. It will just make you feel bad." I get a tight smile and a shoulder squeeze, which is awkward. "We'll talk tomorrow."

I sink back onto the edge of my bed, blinking and absorbing his words. I hear him lock the front door behind himself when he leaves. Miss Violet barks once, a dutiful guard dog, then pads back to her cushion near the sofa.

+x+x+x+

After tossing and turning for a while, I text Alice.

U and Rose still hanging out? I can't sleep.

LOL - It's only 9pm, grandma! Beth's Diner in 20 min, she replies.

I throw on a long cardigan and some shoes, then call a cab. On my way there, I text Edward with my whereabouts and the license number. It's our standing agreement.

Thanks, he replies.

The 24-hour diner is all bright colors and clinking silverware, my friends chipper and boisterous under the fluorescent lights. Alice prods me about my dour mood. Rose studies me with narrowed eyes. It's what they do.

There's only so much I can tell them, of course. I say that I screwed up, that I was insensitive and that I might be falling down on the job as a girlfriend. I keep checking my phone for texts, seeing none. Alice makes big round eyes at me, saying she thinks it's good for couples to fight once in a while. I try not to obsess.

The TV bolted to the wall above the booth is tuned to the news. The state legislature is cutting school budgets further to pay for old-age pensions and whatever else the baby boomers need. What else is new, Rose jokes.

I see her eyeballing the short-order cooks behind the counter. I wonder what she's looking for—and what she sees. One of the cooks is cute, with good skin and strong arms. He smiles at her once, but doesn't look up from his work otherwise. Is that how real relationships begin here in the civilian world, I wonder? Rose never seems to let it get that far.

The nightly news unfolds. There's a story now about a bridge collapse just over the border in Canada. A small island community is temporarily cut off from the rest of the world, but there's a special factor that makes it both more interesting and less urgent: They're separatists, homesteaders. They have stockpiles and skills and can exist indefinitely that way. There are no new interviews, of course, given the loss of contact. Only archival footage and speculation. Rose looks appalled. I could not, she says.

Alice shows me some photos on her phone of dresses she thinks I'd like. I'm half paying attention; my mind keeps wandering to Edward and the things I should have known about Chicago and Tanya. It was almost a year back. I think about how Aro insisted on muting Edward's channel for the duration of the assignment. At the time I thought it was to protect me from accidental transmissions, but now I wonder what Edward might have wanted to say to me. What he was going through.

When he was finally back, two weeks later, I'd said the obligatory Good job and Congrats. And also: I missed you. He had said Yeah. I missed me, too.

+x+x+x+

When I get home, I go straight to my laptop, determined to say in an email what I couldn't muster up in person. That I mean to be better at this. That I'm sorry for trying to reduce his past down to something simple that I can dismiss. That I want him to be able to trust me, to open up to me more.

My heart leaps when I log in, because I see he's sent me 16 emails.

9:16 - Are you up? I found something.

9:20 - Never mind. Just got your text. Get on chat ASAP when you get home, will you?

9:25 - Info dump coming up. Read, process, give me your gut check. I might be wrong. Hope I am.

The rest of his emails are encrypted, which should be unnecessary. The more I piece together what he's telling me, though, the more I understand this abundance of caution.

It's all connected. Not just Mrs. Cope and our bee-sting hit target. All of it. The strands are tenuous, but they're here in these materials—historic virology maps, chemical formulas, disease statistics. INTERPOL significant activity alerts, missing and presumed stolen biohazard materials. Train routes and warehouse blueprints.

The first email is a scan of the page we took from the half-dead man's chart after Shelley led us to his ward in the hospital. It's scrawled with Edward's notes and linked to an old news article attached to another email. The symptoms listed in the chart are consistent with Joham Syndrome, a rare cancer normally only seen in Vietnam war veterans who were exposed to both a certain tropical virus and napalm.

I get up to call Miss Violet into my room, locking the bedroom door once she's inside.

Even among patients who had the cancer, it only proved deadly to vets whose deployments had been short—and it killed none of the local residents. This is the sort of thing that makes an epidemiologist's heart race, because it suggests an acquired immunity. And "acquired immunity" and "cancer" in the same sentence is the stuff Nobel Prizes are made of.

The next email tells of a pair of Romanian researchers who had the prize locked down, it seemed, after identifying a molecule they named EclipseX. It was present only in the resilient patients, and the cellular mechanism was not yet understood, but it blocked metastasis of at least this type of cancer—and maybe others. The science community exploded with predictions of a Stefan-Vladimir cancer vaccine.

But a vaccine never came. The follow-up studies were remarkable for another reason—one that hushed all speculation. The protocol involved taking populations of mice and making them EclipseX-free for comparison purposes. Typically, the technique involved a serum designed to destroy the target molecule, and it would have knocked out plenty of other immunities as well. In this case, whatever was done to rid the mice of their defenses remains a secret, and for good reason.

When cancerous cells were introduced to the weak-immunity mice, the disease flourished—immediately and fatally. According to the rumors Edward was able to track down, Stefan and Vladimir returned to their labs in the morning to find cages full of mice disfigured by massive tumors, grayed, dead. They asked authorities to quarantine their labs and lock down their records. Then they disappeared into self-exile, having accidentally discovered a weaponizable serum that makes cancer unstoppable.

The rest of Edward's emails fill in the holes of a story that I'm afraid is the sinister masterwork of a man who already holds too much power over my friends and me. I reach for some chewable Pepto Bismol tabs and then gather the blankets around me in bed. The laptop hums and warms my knees. Miss Violet snores in the corner.

Mrs. Cope's dementia may have been fake, but her cancer was real, and rare, and of the same strain as our bee-sting man. Edward's circles and notes on her medical chart point out that in her it was more slow-moving, as if some factor was modulating the progression of the disease. Making it mimic the properties of a natural death from cancer—so as not to attract attention or cause alarm.

Then there are the seemingly random incidents in recent weeks. The trainloads of pharmaceuticals Aro claimed we had to protect from anti-pharma terrorists: his raw materials. Our infiltration of the Centers for Disease Control: a way to monitor who knows what. The warehouse Leah maimed herself gaining access to: Aro's staging site, I'm guessing, as it's now cordoned off as an incident scene.

In the end, I have to agree with Edward's read on the situation. Aro is in the process of refining the perfect bioweapon—one capable of killing hundreds of thousands of people, all while having the appearance of a natural epidemic. With our bee-sting hit, we helped him test it. By perpetuating a myth about a bioweapons terrorist threat, we've helped him hide it. And if we don't do something, one day soon we'll be a part of unleashing it. Instead—somehow—we have to stop him.

My mind skips to Mrs. Cope. Dr. Berty. The deeds to the safe deposit boxes, our secret escape routes, and a few cryptic messages here and there. It all seems so flimsy in the face of something so major. I don't know if we can do it, or if we should even try.

I open a chat window and compose my response to Edward. I hate this, but it all checks out. I think you're right. Please tell me you have a plan.

He logs on immediately. I have some ideas. I need your brain on this.

How do we start? I reply.

Bank vaults open at ten tomorrow. Let's get some facts and decide.

About earlier - I'm trying, okay? You know I have your back no matter what, right?

A few moment pass in which I watch his cursor blinking. Counting on it. Likewise.

That makes me feel a little better. But it's not enough.

Can I come over?

We can't discuss this out loud. It's not safe.

I know. That's not what I want.

The cursor blinks again. Stay put. I'll come to you.

+x+x+x+

He uses the fire escape and comes in through my propped-open window, even though I know he has a door key. I roll my eyes at him and flip the blankets back when he hovers uncertainly near the bed.

When he's lying next to me, mirroring me, I see terrible exhaustion and sadness in his face and wonder if that's what he sees in mine. He scrunches up his face and pulls my purple bra out from under the pillow. He fondles the fabric for a while, half-smiling, before tossing it to the ground.

"It's funny how I was feeling so normal just a while ago. For the first time in, I don't know, forever. You and me, just being together like . . . like the way you hear about people being." He says this in a low whisper, but it's not our usual confidential whisper. This is him trying not to let me hear his voice break.

"Well," I say. "It's also normal for people to have discussions about tough things. You can tell me something that's weighing on you. And I can listen and not judge you."

He nods and closes his eyes. I curl my fingers around his ribcage and brace my forehead against his.

"She was the daughter of a double agent we were trying to get to talk. Tanya." He sighs, and I can feel his breath on my face. "I was told to get her naked to make sure she wasn't wearing a wire. And I was supposed to tease her about her flaws—the slightest stretch marks, barely visible—because the psych profile said it would break her down, distract her. Which it did." He pauses, clears his throat. "I don't know if it was necessary. But it was the protocol."

"And I was told to make sure her birthmark was visible in case they really wanted to torment her mother with the images. I did everything right. I walked out on her as soon as we were finished so I could puke into an ice bucket in the hallway. And then I passed off my PocketCam to a handler."

"Was it the the first time you had sex?"

He doesn't say anything for while, just clutches my hip.

"I try not to think about it like that. But . . . yeah."

"I wish I could give you a blank slate somehow."

"That's a nice thought, but . . . I don't know."

"It won't be easy, but maybe we can earn it. Together." My voice is lower than a whisper.

His eyes lock on mine, and I know he knows I'm talking about more than Tanya. That I need this as much as he does. He narrows his eyes, and I know that we will do everything within our power to dismantle this scheme of Aro's, because the unspoken dream of his existence and mine—something we crave desperately—is within our sights: redemption.

+x+x+x+