Chapter 18: End Behavior
It's convenient—too convenient—the way our training conditions us to compartmentalize feelings. When we have a job to do, there's no pausing to reflect about what it means and what we'd rather be doing. I've never known another way. Even now, with no one to answer to but our own consciences, there's no room for questioning.
But here's something I haven't acknowledged before now: Whatever gets partitioned away doesn't disappear. Not at all. I make myself blind to it, and then I drag it around with me like a weight. It gets heavier all the time.
Edward and I don't stop plotting from the moment we get out of bed until we reach the gate area at the airport. Packing is easy; everything we own fits into our backpack, with room to spare. We change into fresh clothes purchased at the hotel guest shop. Book flights under names that match our Canadian passports. Buy prepaid cell phones. I distract the salesperson with questions about my phone while Edward uses a display computer to hack into the Volta League data network.
With fifteen minutes left before boarding, I turn on my phone and dial the Seattle Beat, where I know Alice will be working. I listen to an earful of squeals from her, then cut to the chase: I walk her through accessing the Interpol database from her work computer. It's good to hear her voice.
"This thing says you're believed to be in Alaska. Oh my God—are you? In Alaska? Why does it say your known aliases are Big Bird and Phoenix? This is some sort of rinky-dink Witness Protection Program if you ask me."
"I guess Rose mentioned that, huh? What else does it say? Nothing like global notice? Does it say 'threat level' anywhere?"
"A lot of gibberish. Oh—here. Threat level: yellow. Is that bad? There's a picture of you guys together that is totally photoshopped. I mean, that was your haircut three years ago! These amateurs."
Eh. I need to have a long chat with Alice. "Yeah, listen, there's a lot I need to fill you in on when I see you. But I need your help with something. Does Jasper have, like, a band van or something?"
"Yes, it's disgusting."
"He's home from tour, right?"
"Since Tuesday. Total time suck ever since then. Which you know I love. Rose threatened to disown me if I don't spend at least one day with her this weekend. Oh! You haven't heard! Emmett was kidnapped—well, his ambulance was jacked, with him in it—by scary meth dealers. They shot him in the leg and—get this—he stitched his own wound with just some supplies they tossed out to him."
"Did he really?"
"Yes. I mean they got it checked out at General, but everything's fine. That's some manly manliness right there. Not that Rose is crowing about it. She's been pretty quiet. I swear the shock would have turned her hair gray, if it wasn't already totally stripped of color."
"Jeez. Glad everyone's okay. Um . . . anything else I missed?"
"No. Well, only that Mike and Tyler tried to steam some Cheetos in Dr. Berty's autoclave and started a fire. Berty was pissed. He's been like a crazy person lately. There's basically no lab equipment that works anymore after the thing with the sprinklers on prom night, and there's no money, so instead of final labs he made us all write research papers on the economics of epidemics. Did you know that when Swine Flu was a big deal, the vaccine companies made like a billion dollars?"
"Actually, I did know that."
"And it came out that they had paid some so-called experts to make the CDC panic and order double-speed manufacturing. It was, like, so devious."
"Right," I say.
I talk her into gathering Jasper, Rose, and Emmett and taking a road trip to meet Edward and me in San Francisco. I convince her I still want to throw him a birthday party, Witness Protection Program be damned. She loves that type of thing. He and I may not even make it there—I just need my friends to be somewhere far away from anywhere Aro would think to look.
"Exciting! I wonder, can that van handle the 101 the whole way? It's pretty twisty. Well, we'll figure it out. Adventure. This is the whole point of Senior ditch week, right?"
"Yeah—about that. Charlie can't know about this." I squeeze my eyes shut and bite back disgust with myself. "He'd never allow it, and . . . I just want to . . . have fun."
"Girl. I knew you had a little rebel in you. Wait! Did you—have a little rebel in you? Or a big one? I knew it. Spill. He's big, isn't he?"
"Uh, Alice. I'll see you soon."
Edward, beside me, is making a call on his own burner phone. He's in grim authoritative mode. I hear him mentioning scoring irregularities and Adderall, an anonymous tipster, and some random drug-test records that were delayed by a computer glitch. This will knock Washington's first-place finisher and his team out of contention. We'll have to make restitution to the poor kid later, but this is necessary.
I make a second call, and as soon as I hear her voice, I switch into chipper teenager mode. "Angela, hi! What? Oh, I know. Sorry I didn't say anything. Hah, high school rumors. That's wild. No—Edward's grandma was in the hospital."
Edward looks at me, just finishing up his call. He nods and gives me a thumbs-up.
"So, listen. I have crazy news. Remember that little speech we all heard at Statewide about how the runner-up team gets a go at Nationals if the champs are disqualified? Well—how soon can you be at the airport? Call Eric and Ben. We're going to Vegas."
Ever since little Riley Biers had his legendary come-from-behind win in the middle of a nervous breakdown four years ago, the national Volta League championship has been a media circus. The spectacle of young nerds straining themselves to the limits to prove obscure skills is interesting to outsiders, I guess, and the possibility that one of us might flip out adds an element of—what? Surprise? Schadenfreude? Who knows. It's a thing.
For our purposes, it means getting in front of a live feed on a major cable network. If I have a camera on me, I should be safe from Aro intervening in a public way. There are things I can say—coded messages that send signals to other agents, inside information about unusual patterns in Aro's purchases and the spread of the contagion that should at least get people to look into our claim.
It's a total crapshoot, but we need to try it.
The chain of flights from Maui will take almost twelve hours, plus there's a time difference that means we'll meet the rising sun in Vegas. We should be using the time to plan contingencies, but Edward has started sulking. He slumps and stares at the newspaper in his hands as if he wants to bore holes in it.
I take it from him and shove it into the seatback pocket in front of me. I've done my share of angry staring, too. The front-page photo now burned into my memory is a shot of Aro at a press conference speaking about drug manufacturing as a win-win public-private partnership. His PR agent hovers at his elbow. It's the London journalist we'd sent our testimony to—the one we'd been betting on to publish an exposé. He's wearing the sort of finely tailored expensive suit that only a sellout could afford.
"I know what you're doing, and there's no point to it."
"Playing Monday morning quarterback. Beating yourself up. We can't go back in time and change things."
"Well, we're not talking about a blown field goal, here. More than nine thousand people died, and the man who killed them is rich because of us."
"Well, millions more are not going to die because of you. And don't you dare lecture me," I say. "I was just as blind as you."
He closes his eyes and frowns. That passes for an apology, under the circumstances.
He rolls sideways in his seat, still slumping, eyes cast down. "How far back do you think it goes? Was Shelley in on it? Dr. Berty, giving you those old laptops?"
"No." I shake my head. "I think the resistance and Shelley's story was legit. She gave her life to keep our cover from being blown. And Berty was just as blindsided as us—according to Alice, he's as broke as ever, and he's even getting them riled up about manipulation of the CDC for profit. I think Aro caught on at some point and found a way to turn it to his advantage."
"By positioning himself as the go-to pharma supplier. And investing in gold." He rubs his thumbs over his brows. "By giving us just enough leeway that we could build a credible case and trigger outbreak-suppression spending at the CDC."
"Exactly." Now I feel like sulking. I stare at my hands in my lap and try to summon the inner strength it will take to drag this bitter freight around with me. Heavier all the time. There's a bright pink flower dangling from the waist tie of my gift store dress, and it suddenly looks ridiculous to me. I tear it off and move to stuff it in the seat pocket in front of me. Edward takes it and pretends to sniff it.
"Don't start destroying frilly, pretty things," he says. "It's a waste of good rage."
"It doesn't suit me."
"It doesn't suit your mood at this moment. But your mood isn't you. And, anyhow, I happen to like it." He slips it into his pocket.
"Sounds like Aro hasn't put out an Interpol notice on us, at least. And anyhow they think we're in Alaska," I say.
"I can't see why he'd bother. We've served our purpose."
"We've served his purpose—not our own. And he knows it. Don't underestimate him."
Edward looks at me finally, a glimmer of interest in his expression.
"What's our purpose?"
"To expose him. To end Sundial."
I slip my hand underneath his where we share an armrest and study his face. What is he looking for?
He grips my hand tightly. He twists in his seat and reaches across to stroke the side of my face.
As soon as I feel the warmth of his skin, I understand what he means. What's worth abandoning the place we were in for just a handful of days? The sunny, wide-open future we'd finally let ourselves see, only to walk away? I need to say it out loud, for both of us—or we'll both be tempted to bail on this whole plot as soon as we get off the plane.
I pull him to me and feel his breath on my skin. I realize the tension lurking in his eyes never went away—not in Hawaii, not now. He has his own densely packed mental compartment filled with horrors neither of us want leaking out in our old age. The ghosts of every hit we every carried out. The accidental ones, too. And Shelley. "To be able to live with ourselves, Edward. For the rest of our lives we need to live with what we choose to do today."
There are contingencies we should be brainstorming, but we spend the rest of the flight curled together like honeymooners. He still smells like salty ocean air and coconut oil.
The scene at Caesar's Palace is controlled chaos. Signage is posted everywhere—official Volta League logos, way-finding placards, and flags announcing the event sponsors, including a massive silk banner advertising Aro's Athenodora Medical Corporation. Proud to Support the Future of Innovation, it reads. Aro is never one to waste an opportunity. In fact, it's possible that he's here.
Edward's hand in mine starts to feel clammy, and I remind him that literally every square foot of any major casino hotel is under constant surveillance. For once, that's in our favor. And even Aro doesn't have the money it would take to buy off the bosses here.
We worm our way through the crowds of pale-faced teenagers and proud parents. There's some scrambling at registration due to our last-minute replacement situation—just as we'd planned. We need the element of surprise.
The coordinator hands me a rubber-banded bundle of sharpened pencils. "Good luck," she says.
Ten minutes later, I'm immersed in the qualifying sprints. These are a snap now that I have no reason to tamp down what I can do. Set theory, ciphering, proofs. Teenage boys—they are almost all boys—fall apart all around me, blindsided, breaking down in tears of frustration. Edward follows me from event to event, watching my back and tracking social media buzz on his phone. A big audience helps us.
Edward pulls me aside and retrieves my pink cloth flower from his pocket. He uses a paper clip to attach it to my hair. "Play up the girly angle. Twitter is eating it up. They're calling you the Long Division Lolita."
That's so offensive it makes my eyes roll almost all the way back in my head. Edward gives me a sympathetic grimace. "I know."
"I mean, long division is for kindergarteners."
He snorts. "Try fourth grade."
"Well, still. Is my picture on there? I mean, what if my dad . . . " I'm worried about Charlie coming across it somehow—not that he uses Twitter.
He nods. "I called Carlisle. He's got your dad out at the prison hospital today, training the guards on CPR kits."
When I finally cross paths with Angela and the others, it's in the team round, where we wind up taking the bronze. The only round that really matters to me is the Individual Masters, where the responses are verbal and the drama means live media coverage.
I glimpse Sam and Leah at the back of the crowd during the team results announcement and pull Edward aside as soon as we break to warn him.
"I know," he says. "We talked when you were in the team round. They started digging when both of our SatComs dropped offline at the same time. Evidently Aro's response fell just short of believability. Bree's the only unknown entity at this point."
"Can we trust them?"
"Something makes me think we can. Look." He opens his fist to show me a loose molar pickup and a stick of gum. "Just keep it in your cheek. It won't fit your tooth, but the charger is good. Your listening element should be powered up in fifteen."
"Where did you get it?"
"Jacob Black, if you'll believe this, invited me to punch him in the jaw. Begged me, really."
My eyes widen. "Did you clean it off?"
"What do you think? Like I'd let you put his gross cooties in your actual mouth." He cracks a slight smile, and for the first time today, it seems authentic. "You'll be able to hear the all-agents wire. Leah hacked in, and she'll tap you through when the time is right."
I chew the gum, then fold the pickup inside and tuck it into my cheek.
Finally, it's showtime. I'm ushered into a bright auditorium lit for television, alongside my fellow finalists. We get dusted with makeup. We confirm the spelling of our name placards. Large monitors are placed along the aisles, including one showing the offstage Comfort Room. It's a place where eliminated contestants are taken and assessed for mental trauma, and apparently that makes for great television. I find Edward in the audience, through the glare, signaling to me from the second row that everything is going as planned.
The official test proctor has just finished introducing all of us and summarizing key rules when the Volta League coordinator walks on stage and whispers in his ear.
The proctor clears his throat. "Ladies and gentlemen, we have a special treat for you today. He's been a behind-the-scenes administrator of the Volta League for decades, humbly committed to nurturing the next generation of math and science talent. But as of this week, he's known around the world as the man who put down the Superflu. Please give a warm welcome to your surprise Master of Ceremonies for today's event . . . Mr. Aro Marcus."
In the roar of the crowd, the sound of my gasping breath is drowned out. Edward leaps to his feet, accidentally initiating a standing ovation. His face is stony, cautious. I try to compose myself. We're on camera, I remind myself. He can't do anything to me on camera, in front of all these witnesses.
"Hearty congratulations to the contestants," Aro says. He's looking straight at me. Straight through me. His lips stretch into a grin that matches his cold, beady eyes. "Having made it this far certainly must feel like a triumph. You must be quite eager to see who will emerge as victor."
I focus on controlling my breathing. I can do this. I just need to get my codewords out. What's the worst he can do—cut power to my mic on live T.V.?
Aro signals to a person who is waiting in the wings. When I see her, I begin to understand that he does have a plan of his own.
"Please welcome," he says to the crowd, "my intern, Bree." The audience chuckles—how can someone so young be an intern? She takes a seat at the table piled with question sets beside his podium. She's wearing a stiff wool blazer that looks three sizes too large for her. It has an Athenodora logo pinned to the lapel.
He goes on, playing to the crowd. "I joke, of course. But my young friend is something of a prodigy when it comes to vaccines, and I dare say she will be on this stage next year at this time, competing in Volta's newly added category in epidemiology and biochemistry. There is much enthusiasm nationally for this topic of late."
When the applause dies down, he adds, "After the competition today, I'm grateful that the networks have made time available for a brief demonstration and public health message concerning Athenadora's brand new Superflu vaccination, which has just been approved as a complement to the fast-acting cure. After all, an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure."
I take another calming breath and wipe my clammy palms on my sundress. All the while, Aro has been shooting me pointed glances that make me believe the small syringe Bree now displays on her table is something I should be concerned about. There is, in fact, something Aro can do to me in front of all these cameras. Bree is good, and she's fast. She can prick me with whatever is in that thing.
I can't risk glancing into the crowd to see if Edward is piecing this together; I don't want him to think I'm nervous, or who knows what he'll do.
Aro stares me down with one last threatening glare, and a diagram flashes on our screens. The final round begins.
"In the set of seven coplanar lines displayed, what is the measure in degrees of—"
"May I have a terminology clarification, please?"
He nods, as I know the rules require. I don't intend to waste a single moment.
"I just wonder whether the large T.V. audience today realizes that our division of a circle into 360 units called degrees dates back several thousand years to the Babylonian astronomers, who were also responsible for bringing us the sundial?"
"Ah. Thank you, Miss Swan. How good of you to help us celebrate the ancient masters. More of a history lesson than a terminology clarification, though."
"Sorry for geeking out. I just like the idea of a sundial, that's all. It's so old school. And yet, not obsolete, even here in the U.S." The audience laughs, indulging me. They are on my side. They don't know I'm using language chosen to make legit agents around the country sit up and listen.
Aro glares daggers at me and blinks. "Are you quite well, Miss Swan?"
"Just excited. Carry on."
He finishes the question and another contestant answers. Aro rubs his temple. I wonder if he's hearing what I'm hearing—a smattering of people checking in on the all-agents wire. I hear them repeat the word sundial over and over, their voices more questioning and cautious than outraged at this point.
I glance at Edward in the crowd. He can't hear what I hear—of the two of us, I'm the only one with a working transponder right now. He doesn't know that the plan is working. He is tapping out messages on his phone and shaking his head at me. He seems to be furious. He looks back and forth between Bree and me, sitting to Aro's left in her little circle of spotlight. He can see that Bree is Aro's weapon, lying in wait. It's all he's focused on.
Does Edward think I'll go that far? I visualize the scene—Bree pricking me with the needle under the guise of passing me a note from the judges' panel. A cold sweat breaks out on my skin when I realize . . . that isn't enough to deter me. It isn't among the scenarios we planned for, but is it acceptable, if it exposes Aro to scrutiny? I close my eyes and say a silent apology to Edward for what I am prepared to do.
A new image appears on the screen.
"Next question. The chart displayed provides actuarial estimates for life expectancies as determined by current age and economic status for five demographic groups, as well as cost-of-living and GDP projections. Calculate the net value or cost to demographic D of a five-year increase in the average life expectancy of demographic B."
This is a bizarre tactic. Does he think I'll have a change of heart based on the economics behind his genocidal plot? Is he grasping at straws?
I buzz in. "I object to the question on ethical grounds, sir. The use of such calculations of the value of life by medical insurers was forbidden years ago—something called Operation Onyx Purge." I enunciate and speak loudly. The other contestants stare at me as if I've lost my mind. I, however, breathe a sigh of relief. I've just mentioned an alarm code that every agent within earshot of any television or scanning device is programmed to respond to with urgent action. The venue will be surrounded by deep-cover agents—many of them ex-Sundial—within minutes.
With the audience murmuring, Aro ignores me and lets another contestant respond.
I let a couple of questions pass me by, listening as the voices coming across the wire in my head grow stronger. They are breathless now, springing into action according to ancient protocols, some calling for all agents to tune into this live T.V. program to observe an embedded resource—me—and others calling out geographic coordinates of this location. I hear Leah's voice, then Esme's. I hear the voices of several older people, one that might be Dr. Berty, and another who sounds like Tyler's dad, the one who sold Carlisle and Esme their house. Then Emily, followed by Sam's voice choked with emotion.
It's time. I take a breath and buzz in, having barely heard the question Aro just asked. "The product of combining an infectious molecule such as Joham with the inverse of EclipseX results in an infinite acceleration. This method was famously invoked to rationalize covert suppression of promising cancer-immunity research in the Stefan-Vladimir lab years ago. Your young virologists might find the history revealing."
Now I'm just dropping clues anywhere I can, hoping some enterprising investigator will pick up the trail. Out of the corner of my eye, I see Edward stand and storm out of the room.
Aro frowns at me. I can hear the audience murmuring. "That is . . . incorrect. Incoherent, in fact."
The agents have heard it, though. The flurry of ten-codes is chaotic, almost impossible to follow. Another contestant rings in with the correct answer. I look at Aro, and only Aro. We're in a game of chicken now, and he knows it.
I see him flip his question key over. He's ad-libbing. "Word problem. A three-ounce hummingbird inherits a nest egg ten times as large as she is. Assistance from a much bigger bird, we'll call Variable E, is needed in order to hatch a viable nestling. How large a nest egg can be hatched by E working in concert with the hummingbird?"
Bree, next to him, sits up straight when she hears her cover name. She narrows her eyes.
I ring in. "The answer is D—not enough information is contained in the question. Variable E is an unknown quantity."
"Yes it is. The point goes to Swan." He nods and grins, narrowing his eyes. "I'm pleased to see you know to never mistake a variable for a constant."
This is one ploy that will never work—implying that Edward is variable, corruptible. I wish I could roll my eyes with Edward, but he's left the auditorium. It doesn't matter. I can see figures slipping in through the doors at the back of the crowd. Agents. No matter what happens to me, Aro is surrounded. I hear Leah in my head. Agents alert. Quiet please. On-site audio broadcast is in play.
Aro frowns, then consults his prompter. "Contestants, the next question contains an audiovisual clue."
What appears on the screen is something no one expects. Instead of a diagram or vector model, a string of words spools across the screen—a transcription of voices we are all now hearing over the PA. My voice, in fact. Mine and Aro's.
You designed a biological weapon and you're using your security clearance to spread it. You're a traitor to your country—to humanity. You're killing everyone over the age of seventy-five! These people are defenseless and innocent!
These people are decrepit! They are nothing but a drain on society—nothing to give, nothing to contribute.
Go to hell, Aro. This is ending now.
Have you forgotten who I am? What I am capable of?
Is that a threat?
Shame if anything were to happen to that gymnasium full of children. Wiring gets frayed, you know. Fires start all the time in these old buildings.
I scramble away from my seat behind the contestants' table and try to keep Aro in plain view. He's glancing all around the auditorium like a caged animal, and I can hear the telltale sound of field agents' service weapons clicking smoothly into ready mode. There are lots of them. Many semi-retired agents take jobs in private security, and Vegas is the world capital of private security. Bree sits paralyzed, listening. I'm vaguely aware of the audience murmuring, then cameras flashing.
Suddenly Aro yanks Bree to her feet and swipes the syringe from the table in front of her. In a heartbeat, his arm is wrapped around her shoulders and he's holding the needle near her neck. I hear agents barking Hostage at risk! Hold fire! in my ear. I hear myself shouting No. The crowd is silent.
He hisses into Bree's ear, his headset microphone still broadcasting to the full auditorium and beyond. "I believe Miss Swan knows this is no Superflu vaccine, little Hummingbird," he says. "But why don't you make it very clear for her what her further aggression will drive me to do."
Bree closes her eyes. "It's not a vaccination, Bella," she says. The needle glinting in the stage lights is duplicated across the dozen monitors lining the auditorium walls. She twists her neck so her mouth is closer to Aro's microphone. She wants everyone to hear this. "That syringe is full of . . . saline."
Relief washes over me. She's telling the truth, I know it. He knows it, too. A sickly pallor washes over his face, and the needle tumbles to the ground, but he doesn't drop his arm from around her neck. For some reason, he seems frozen in place. Drops of sweat roll down his temples.
"I still have the syringe he wanted me to use, Bella," she says. "I'm holding it against his thigh right now. If he moves a muscle, he knows what's coming." She raises her voice, managing to sound impressively loud and clear for a ten-year-old. "Agents, protocol green. Take custody of this traitor. With caution, please."
This is everything I hoped for and feared, all at once. The shock is almost too much. I don't let myself give in until I see Aro surrender to a swarm of police, his slim white wrists offered up in defeat. As I sink to the ground, exhausted, I sense Edward next to me, strong and solid.
When I come to, I'm in the cushiony Comfort Room, bundled on a sofa with a cool cloth on my forehead. The T.V. cameras that were in here before are gone. I look at Edward, seated in a chair across the room, and take a deep breath. Our covers are blown, the entire program exposed. This was our option of last resort, but it was an option.
"Where is everyone? Don't we need to be debriefed?"
"I barred the door," he says. "They can wait."
"Thank you. For hacking in and deploying the audio file."
His eyebrows peak up. "Yeah, well. It was a simple sound booth. And anyhow, you didn't leave me with much of a choice."
"You were practically baiting him into subduing you with deadly force. What were you thinking?"
He knows what I was thinking. And he has a right to be angry about it.
"There's a chance I had the antidote in my system."
"You're sure about that?"
"I said a chance. Calculated risk, remember? It's my job."
"Well, you're fired."
He nudges me over and lies on the sofa with me. I can feel his heartbeat pounding, calming gradually. He holds me like he thinks a tornado gust is about to blow me away.
"Is Bree okay?"
"She's fine. She's with some counselors, for now. Angela went with her." He picks up the remote control for a T.V. set in the corner. "And Aro . . . is in federal custody. Probably forever."
We watch together as the cable news recaps the scene from earlier for viewers. Even with the sound on mute, I can follow along. I see myself sitting in the long row of contestants, Aro and Bree to the far left. I see confusion register on everyone's face but my own when the recording starts to play, and then the chaotic burst of scrambling. I don't remember shielding the other contestants behind me, but it looks that way on the video.
I bury my face in Edward's chest when I see the footage of Aro threatening Bree. I hated witnessing it, and I don't want to see it again. Edward nudges me after a moment. "You should see this."
As Aro is led away in cuffs on one side of the split screen, I see Bree on the other half of the screen turn to face the cameras at the front of the stage. A semi-circle of people stands poised to help her, but she must have said something to make them hold back. She's still holding the syringe Aro would have had her "inoculate" me with. She drops to her knees and pulls a BioSafe canister from an inner pocket of her oversized blazer. A fat red strawberry rolls around inside it. The cameras zoom in as she pushes the syringe tip through the one-way rubber seal on one end, cinches the safety lock, then plunges the syringe contents into the fruit. It mushrooms into a gray blob instantly, turns black, and explodes into dust.
I know even before the camera zooms in on the BioSafe indicator display what it will say. This is the Benito molecule. The world's most dangerous biological weapon.
"God, Edward. I'm so sorry. I just knew we had this chance, and . . . I thought it was a manageable risk. He would have had her kill me on live T.V.?"
"He had a ready-made motive all worked out. Revenge for her parents dying. They found a package in his car—a manifesto, mimicking her handwriting and everything."
"Charlie? Oh, God, Charlie." I sit up, start patting pockets for my phone.
"He's on a plane with Carlisle. He'll be here by dinner. Rose and Alice and the gang are meeting us here instead of San Francisco, and then as soon as you and I debrief we're all going to take a road trip somewhere we've never been. For my birthday. How does that sound?"
I flop back down again and pull Edward tighter, tears of relief and regret leaking out of me. He kisses my ear.
"Do you forgive me? For my risk-taking?"
"Let's have it be the last time, okay?"
"It's really over, isn't it?"
I hope that's true. I feel something lumpy under his jacket where I'm squeezing him and pull it out. It's the Hemingway book Shelley had given us—but a fresh copy, barely used—with a pen tucked to hold his place.
"Airport bookstore. It's actually a decent book."
I flip through to see what he's underlined this time.
As I ate the oysters with their strong taste of the sea and their faint metallic taste that the cold white wine washed away, leaving only the sea taste and the succulent texture, and as I drank their cold liquid from each shell and washed it down with the crisp taste of the wine, I lost the empty feeling and began to be happy and to make plans.
This makes me giggle. "You've never had oysters. Or white wine."
"I don't know what I was waiting for. Sounds like my jam." He laughs quietly, and I feel it in his chest.
And then: We ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.
I feel some of the worry leave me. A little lighter now. I'll have to get used to this.
"What do we do now?"
"Well," he says, "Our road trip. Then there's an ex-agents restoration module we can take advantage of this summer, on a little island on the border with Canada. Then senior year, I guess. And in the immediate near term, there are reporters out there waiting to interview us."
"Not yet." I kiss him softly, drowsily, and weave my fingers into his hair.
He holds me close, and I can just make out the beachy scent still saturating his skin. "No. Not yet."
There's plenty of time for interviews and debriefings later. Right now, staring up at a ceiling painted with a blue sky and fake clouds in a casino hotel meeting room, a table full of juice boxes, granola bars, and chilled towels within reach, I don't want to do anything but dream about my future. My future with Edward—my best friend, the love of my life, who likes to mix sweet and salty snacks, has a gift for languages, is starting to mix Ernest Hemingway in with his comic books, and from this moment on is, in all other respects, a normal teenage kid.
Just like me.
AN: Thanks so much for reading! This was a lot of fun for me (although, lesson learned: don't start a very plot-heavy story unless you have time to complete it all in one push). I had a lot of help on this story (as always!) from happymelt, faireyfan, and midsouthmama. If you see any of these ladies around the internet, always trust their advice.