Entry #63 - AH

Truly Anonymous Twilight O/S PP Contest

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Title: Strangers In Our Skin

Picture Prompt Number: 11

Pairing: Edward/Bella

Rating: M

Word Count: 9948

Summary: "The eye sees only what the mind is prepared to comprehend." Is it possible to repair the sharp edged shards of a shattered reality?

Warnings and Disclaimer: I am simply playing in Stephenie Meyer's backyard with her beautiful toys. Tread lightly because the subject matter may be difficult.

Edward buried his head in his hands, feeling too frustrated and entirely useless. He wanted to yell, but long weeks had taught him his anger would get him nothing but placating voices.

'Be calm, Dr. Cullen.'

'Be patient, Dr. Cullen.'

'Don't worry, Dr. Cullen. We're on the case.''

The local authorities had been 'on the case' for three months and, in his opinion, they were idiots.

Gripping his hair tight, Edward pulled to the point of pain just to ground himself. He'd been walking a tightrope edge over the Grand Canyon of his anxiety, fear, and sorrow for too long now.

Edward knew exactly who had Bella, and what he was capable of doing. The authorities weren't listening, though.

'Dr. Cullen, we've told you. Aro Scarpinato's alibi checks out. He was in Italy when Miss Swan was taken.'

Right. He was so innocent, he had yet to return from 'Italy.'

Edward growled to himself, trying for what must have been the millionth time to reason through the situation, to find the answer they'd missed in the endless amount of data. It was what he did for a living - collecting and collating data. He had to know the answer to save Bella.

But then, Aro had had a full five years head start; five years which he had spent plotting and planning.

Another thing Edward's job had taught him? Finding impossible answers took time.

For a moment, Edward let his mind wander back.

When they were both graduate students, Edward Cullen and Aro Scarpinato had met when they were doing dissertation work under the same advisor.

If one were being charitable, Aro could be described as slightly off center. He was socially awkward and entirely brilliant.

They spent many a lunch hour and time after their classes with their heads bent together, discussing and theorizing about things they thought their advisers were too timid to dream about.

Aro planted the thought in Edward's head that they could do so much better, so much more, if they weren't limited by the narrowed vision of the lead scientists on their team. Over the course of their studies, he pushed ever so gently.

Between them, they had the money and they had the vision, he'd reasoned.

'Why not,' he'd goaded.

Before he knew it, Edward was 28 with a PhD in one hand and the information he needed to begin his own lab - with Aro as his partner - in the other.

Edward still remembered with stunning clarity the moment Isabella Swan walked into his life. He remembered it because he was so harried, he almost didn't notice. There was a knock at the door, and he'd glanced at the clock, exasperated to find that two hours had gone by without his noticing. The knock was definitely his third interview of the day, and he still had a to do list that was about a thousand miles long. There was so much busy work - grants and funding to be secured - that went with starting a research facility.

"Come in, Miss Swan." He'd waved at her without ever really seeing her. He was too distracted, looking through the mass of scattered papers and books where there had been a desk that morning. "I have your file around here somewhere..."

"I brought a copy," she'd said, sticking it under his nose.

"Ah." Rather than look at her, he browsed her file, reminding himself of her credentials. "This is very impressive."

Then the phone rang, someone else knocked.

"Dr. Cullen, I can come back, if it's easier," she'd offered.

"No, no." He'd pinched the bridge of his nose, having still not looked at her for more than a fraction of a second. "It will be just as complicated later. This has been my life 18 hours of the day for the last three weeks," he muttered, trying to think it through, find an optimal solution.

Then a hand had touched his arm, her skin soft and warm against his, and every single pressing matter seemed to get blurry around the edges, the volume of their importance turned down to a hum. "Then let me help," she entreated, and he'd looked up into deep, intelligent eyes - warm and alive. "You've obviously got a lot on your plate," she said quickly, seeming shy under his gaze. "Even if you don't end up accepting my application, I have nothing else to do today. Let me file, or whatever you need."

It was just such a kind thing to do, it struck him. From that moment on, Bella never failed to fascinate him.

She'd been just 21 then, fresh from earning her undergraduate degree in three years instead of four. For an undergrad, her credentials were impressive. She wanted what he'd already earned - a PhD in integrated neuroscience. She was applying for the research assistant position, ideally wanting to find a lab that would be willing to at least let her observe. From their conversation that afternoon as they worked side by side, he could tell she was smart. Not just book smart, but witty. Funny.

He'd put her file in the accepted pile without hesitation.

It was only a few weeks later that Aro burst into the lab, his eyes gleaming with delight at his most recent discovery, setting off the events that were only now coming to fruition.

The ringing phone made Edward jump, startling him out of his memories. He answered quickly.

When the cops stopped listening to him, Edward had hired a team of private investigators, the kind who got results regardless of whether they went through legal channels or not. There were four of them, though he only knew their first names. James had introduced himself as a tracker, bragging that if she still existed, he could find her. The women, Victoria and Rosalie, were both ice cold and absolutely lethal. The point man - a frightening looking man in his own right - was named Emmett, and he was the one who spoke the most.

"Tell me you've found her," Edward barked out.

There was a pause on the other end. "We did, but there are things you need to know," Emmett responded.

Edward's stomach twisted sickeningly as his heart galloped to an unhealthy pace. "Is she alive?" he forced himself to ask.

"Yes."

His groan of relief was audible. "Then what are we waiting for?"

"There's no way we can get to her legally. Not where she is. If we don't go in guns blazing, they'll have too much time to react," Emmett said bluntly.

"I want them to die for what they've done," Edward responded, his voice raw and hard. The anger he felt scared him because he meant every word. He would tear Aro and his people apart with his bare hands if could have. "Guns blazing is not a problem."

"It will increase the cost -"

"Anything you want. You already know that," Edward snapped impatiently. Money he had.

"You realize this means the cleanup will take time? You'll have to stay hidden for a few months at least. Both of you."

They'd warned him of this possibility, and Edward had prepared accordingly. "Fine. What else?"

There was a sigh on the other end, and the large man's voice seemed to lose its edge. "Is there a doctor, a medical doctor you can trust? I don't know for sure, but from what I've seen, there is an increased likelihood that she'll need medical attention."

Edward swayed in his seat, torn between erupting in violent fury and screaming in utter agony. Of course, he understood what Aro would do to get what he wanted. He would stop at nothing.

"I need two things from you," he managed to rasp. It was difficult to speak past the painful lump in his throat.

"Go ahead," Emmett said flatly.

"He - the man who has her - will have research. Laptops, files, anything he has. I want it."

"And the second thing?"

"The others. Please make sure they're gentle with her. If I find out any of you have hurt her more -"

"Right," Emmett cut him off. "When we get to her, I'll make sure I'm the only one who touches her." There was another pause before he spoke again. "You'll receive a call tomorrow night. Be ready."

There was a click and the phone went dead.

Somehow, Edward suppressed the urge to hurl it across the room. For many long minutes he sat at the table trying to get air into his lungs.

She was alive. That was all that mattered. She was alive, and would be in his arms soon.

When he was calm enough, Edward reached for his regular cell phone and dialed. "Dad?" he said when his father answered. "I need your help."

~0~

In working with him, Edward discovered that Aro's ideas and experiment proposals were unorthodox to say the least. Occasionally, they were disturbing.

"We can't do that!" Edward remembered protesting when Aro laid out an experiment with mice.

Aro seemed confused. "Why on Earth not?"

"Because!" Edward balked, not understanding how the other man could even speak of such things, let alone with a calm, placid face as he was then. "Among other things, it's illegal. And it's... inhumane, Aro."

The other man blinked as if processing this information, turning it over in his head. His eyebrows furrowed, coming together at the center as if he found Edward's words nonsensical. "They're just mice," he mused aloud. "Just data."

It was Edward's greatest regret that he didn't walk away when he caught this glimpse of Aro's true psyche.

What he would come to understand that most everyone, to Aro, was a means to an end. His goals were single minded. Objects and people alike fell into two categories: what assisted him in his goal, and pieces of cold, hard data. Anything in between was useless.

What Edward didn't understand until it was far too late was that when it came to what he felt was the greater good, Aro had no boundaries. He saw no difference in his test subjects, mouse, monkey, or human.

Cold, hard data.

~0~

Edward rocked, his hands clasped tightly together below his chin, his eyes locked on the unmoving form of the woman in front of him.

He imagined that being hit square in the chest with a hollow point bullet would hurt less than what he was feeling now. The place where his heart used to be felt shredded, torn, and weighted down with lead.

How could one human being do this to another?

How could this waif of a woman, her skin mottled shades of black, blue, yellow, green, angry red, and milk pale white, her features so skeletal, be his bright, vivacious Bella?

His parents' house was set far back from the road, deep enough into the forest that Emmett and his crew had been comfortable making the exchange there. As Emmett and his crew filled the empty space in the van with files and laptops - the research Edward had asked for - Edward held Bella's limp hand while his father examined her.

Now, Edward's mind rang with Carlisle's diagnosis. Her injuries were extensive but not life threatening. She was only unconscious because she'd been drugged.

"She should be in a hospital," Carlisle had said tightly.

"I can't take her to a hospital," Edward had growled, his eyes straying to the team that watched them. That was part of the deal. If he took her to a hospital before they could clean up the mess they'd made, cover all their tracks, the trail would lead right back to all of them.

James had promised, if that happened, whatever Aro was doing to Bella, he would do worse, only he'd make Edward watch. Believing him absolutely, Edward wouldn't take that chance.

"She's been tortured, Edward," his father had explained slowly, as if speaking to a child who did not understand what he should. "Her body will recover, but you have no idea what condition her mind is in. Can you handle this?"

"I have to," Edward muttered. "There's no other way."

He'd driven miles into the deepest part of the forest, tucked away from human eyes. The dawn was breaking, and Bella had yet to stir, though her chest continued to rise and fall rhythmically.

He turned his father's words over in his head. First, the long catalog of injuries, the remnants of the horrors Bella had been subjected to. Each individual wound hit him like a punch to the gut, some of them delivered with brass knuckles, others with sharp-edged spikes.

'Can you handle this?'

What he could handle was tracking down Aro and everyone of the assholes that helped him. A river of blood might satisfy his thirst for vengeance. Fire, perhaps.

But Emmett had confirmed four fatalities, had provided Edward with picture proof. Everyone who'd helped Aro conspire to hurt Bella was dead. Edward contented himself with imagining there was a room in hell where they kept the men like Aro and that the devil was more creative in doling out retribution than Edward could ever be.

He hoped Aro was getting to know Dr. Josef Mengele well.

~Bella~

For weeks after Bella won her position, it was just her and Edward in the lab. They worked together fairly well, organizing, dotting Is, and crossing Ts.

Bella enjoyed Edward's passion for his work and the creative direction of his thinking. He and his partner believed the brain was capable of so much more than even the leading scientists gave it credit for.

"You've heard it said that we use perhaps 10% of our brain capacity," he'd murmured, and with his voice so close to her ear, Bella remembered the delightful shiver that coursed through her body. "Look at all this, Bella," he'd said as he stood with her at the window, looking out at the city. "This is what man is capable of with 10% of the brain.

"If one believes everything can be measured, the same should be true of thought. If we can discover how to measure it, quantify it, study it, perhaps we can find the extent of what our brains are capable of."

He'd sighed softly. "And think of the good we could do. Think of how many psychological issues, true illnesses, are locked up in thought. The possibilities are endless."

Their conversation, too, seemed endless. Whether it was because she was a woman in the scientific field, because she was so young, or a combination of both, it was rare to find a lead scientist who would acknowledge her, let alone listen. Edward always paid rapt attention when she was speaking, never belittling or dismissing her contributions to the conversation.

Then came the day Dr. Scarpinato came rushing in.

Aro had been lending a hand to the research facility Volturi Labs. Volturi Labs had ties and resources they could likely use in the future, and Aro was tending his bridges. Just that morning, they'd had a breakthrough.

Impatient, Aro had grabbed Edward's wrist. He'd held fast, his eyes wide and sightless, as if he was seeing something Edward and Bella couldn't.

He'd laughed suddenly. "Oh. Edward has a crush on the assistant. How quaint." He turned to Bella and grinned. "Hello, Isabella," he greeted. "Edward thinks you have the most beautiful brown eyes he has ever seen."

Both Edward and Bella had flushed red. "How..." Edward stuttered and stumbled.

Aro excitedly explained about a new drug he'd been helping develop with Volturi. He'd taken it himself and found, if he touched someone, he could hear their thoughts.

"It worked on all of us," he'd said, sounding giddy. "To some extent, anyway. I seem to be able to hear thought the clearest. To others, they hear only every other word or so."

Curious and excited, Bella tagged along as Edward tested the drug for himself. She was dubious and worried - the drug was so new, and the testing they were doing was off the record - but the results were undeniably fascinating.

There were many variables. Edward's 'power,' for instance, proved stronger than Aro's, as he didn't need the conduit of touch to hear thoughts.

The conversation turned direction when they discovered that Bella's thoughts were silent.

As the gathered scientists loomed over her, Bella began to feel very uncomfortable. They weren't talking to her but about her, shooting ideas back and forth as to what made her mind different.

"Perhaps she's wired differently," Aro said, and Bella shivered because she felt as though if he could, he would have opened up her head to find out for himself.

The three Volturi scientists had much the same expression.

The gathered team began to wonder if Bella's mind was stronger somehow. Strong enough to keep her thoughts behind heavy protection. They began theorizing how they could gain access to that type of power.

Their words, so casually thoughtless, had chilled Bella to her core.

Edward had put his foot down, absolutely refusing to let Aro even contemplate a line of experiments that revolved around Bella as a test subject. "If," he'd begun, leaning heavily on the word, "we can understand how this has happened, we may be able to define safe experiments with which to test her capabilities further, but you cannot think to play with her mind - with anyone's mind - so callously."

Aro had argued his case but eventually let the matter drop. Anyway, his discovery had opened the door to so much else.

Years passed and the lab grew.

Through long nights spent hunched over microscopes or studying MRI's, Edward and Bella fell in love.

Then, when she had all but forgotten what Aro had once suggested, Bella walked into her apartment to find a man in a black mask waiting for her. She'd struggled valiantly before she felt the sharp sting of a needle and the world faded away.

She'd awakened to a hell worse than anything she could have imagined.

The man - men - who had her subjected her to a wide range of pain and torment designed specifically to drive her to the very edge of her sanity. That was how she knew that Aro was the man pulling the strings, though she never saw him. Wasn't this exactly what he had proposed all those years ago?

"If we could just push your mind to the very brink, Isabella... Sometimes, that's what it takes to discover what we are truly capable of."

She had to give him credit, the execution was brilliant.

To the best of Bella's observation, her tormentors were three Volturi scientists. She'd caught glimpses of their true forms when the drug wore off too soon.

Maybe there were more. It was impossible to tell.

Most of the time, under the effect of the drug, any person she'd come in contact with the last three months looked and sounded like Edward.

It was possible, that much she knew, though she couldn't have imagined the deception would be so complete, so accurate. Another scientist who worked in the Cullen-Scarpinato Lab, Zafrina Vargas had discovered how to make visions of small, simple things - a white ball or a yellow star, perhaps - appear before their eyes though it was not really there.

The drug they were using on Bella was unquestionably more advanced - making her see them not as the men they were but as her lover's visage towering over her. It was impossible, but it was the only explanation for what was happening to her.

After all, what was inconceivable was the thought that the real Edward would do these things to her. It was an absolute truth she knew to the depths of her soul that Edward would rather die than hurt her, so to experience abuse at his hands was maddening. So often in the last few months, her mind felt close under the pressure being applied. It was like slowly being pressed to death, slab after slab of rock piled on her chest.

As she was sure she was being studied and observed, Bella returned the favor, coming to understand how to tell the difference between the three "Edwards" who tormented her.

The first one was the cruelest. It was hardest to look this one in the eyes, seeing Edward's normally gentle pools of soothing green glaring down at her with jade colored malevolence.

The second one was gentler, and often spoke to her in soothing tones, comforting her even while it was hurting her. Sometimes, the things it whispered in her ear, in Edward's musical, deep tone, broke her will worse than any of the physical torments.

The third one was a combination of the two. It was unquestionably gentler than the first, but reminded her much of a child picking the legs off a bug. Its cruelty was not unlike Aro's - borne of curiosity, wanting to observe how she reacted.

Over time, she'd come to understand the subtle differences. Maybe they sounded like Edward, but each of them had a different cadence. They put emphasis on words Edward would not. They moved in ways Edward never had.

This was the only thing that kept Bella from going mad - the physical, measurable proof that her Edward, the lover who touched her so tenderly and whispered sweet nothings in her ear, was not the one who tortured her.

There was a new one now, and that made Bella very nervous. The way it watched her always made her anxious, and, as with everything, it made her ache.

Edward used to watch her. She remembered looking up from her work at the lab to find that he was staring, this expression on his face like she was more fascinating than even their most exciting findings. When she caught him, rather than look away, ashamed and blushing as she would have, one side of his mouth would lift in a stunning grin that made her tingle from the tip of her head to the pads of her toes.

Bella closed her eyes, allowing herself one more brief memory before she shut them away.

Many times she'd awaken, already smiling because he was there, his eyes studying every line of her body with a tender expression that made her feel warm no matter what the air around their bed felt like. This was the kind of watching she enjoyed.

It was a dangerous memory because she felt as though her heart were freezing in her chest and would drop, shattering like an icicle from an eave. Despite everything she'd suffered at their hands, it was the memories of real Edward that were the worst torture. With his doppelganger there, it was so easy to imagine being in his arms again, his hands gentle, loving, and firm against her back as he held her.

For a second, just one second, she contemplated the thought that the one who watched her so intently now, his eyes ever anxious and unfathomably sad, was really Edward, as he'd already tried to convince her several times.

Furiously, she slammed a mental wall down on that thought, gritting her teeth and glancing away.

After she was taken, she was kept in a dark, cold place with no light or outside noise for what must have been days. The only sense she got of time passing was the two times a day the thick door opened and food was shoved in quickly. Then, after one sleep, she woke to the sun warm on her back, and a bed beneath her that was nothing like the pallet in the darkness. She'd blinked, her eyes sore from being so ill-used recently. It took minutes for them to adjust, for the blur of the room to sharpen into recognizable features. She was on edge but groggy - probably drugged again.

And then she saw him. Watching. Just watching.

She called his name silently, as she'd screamed herself hoarse days before. She should have know something was wrong when he didn't come to her immediately, didn't sweep her into his arms since she was obviously weakened and could scarcely make her limbs work enough to get herself out of bed. Instead of moving or even speaking, he watched.

When she finally got to him, he reached out, putting his arms around her, and for a split second she was so, so happy. But then he'd kissed her and everything was different. His kiss was too rough, too dominating. Where their kisses had always been a form of communication - of the love and admiration they had for each other - this kiss was demanding, crushing, completely uncaring about her say in the matter. She'd pulled back, but he held her fast, his fingers digging into her shoulders so hard she cried out against his mouth.

That was when she began to understand. It wasn't him. None of them were. Nothing could have convinced her that he would do her harm, not even the sight of someone with his face and his voice looming over her, forcing her to the ground with a punishing grip around her wrists.

Slowly, she began to figure out the rules to this particular game.

There were different experiments, different scenarios. Sometimes there was only one of them, sometimes there were up to three. The experiments were designed to drive her mad. Her comfort, her safe and happy place, was with him, and it was men...no... things with his face that were hurting her.

They always watched her. Sometimes with cocky smirks that smacked of danger and pain to come. Sometimes with curiosity, like a scientist might study a mouse. Sometimes it merely stared, letting its eyes bore into her, making her skin crawl and her heartbeat speed.

This one watched her with trepidation...and something else. She might have called it longing if she didn't know better.

But that was another part of the game, she knew. Every so often, one of them tried to convince her it was really him. It would speak to her gently, as a lover would, telling her it was okay and she was safe... just like this one did. It would tell her over and over again that it was really him... until she let herself believe. Then, it would strike.

Never again. Too many times it had convinced her she was safe. Surely she'd already survived that torment often enough. If she let herself believe one more time only to have him swept away, she simply couldn't bear it.

Part of her wondered why that mattered so much. She'd been teetering on the brink of insanity for so long now. Surely it would be a blessing to feel his arms around her one last time before she fell well and truly off the edge. And then it would all be over. Her mind would be broken, and this hell wouldn't matter anymore.

But the real Edward was out there. She was sure of it. She would survive. She would survive, and she would find him again.

"Bella..." it tried, startling Bella out of her resolved thoughts. It sounded so full of trepidation, like it was aware that his very words had the power to shatter her.

Unable to withstand its gentle voice, Bella turned her head to the wall, pressing her hands to her ears. It was a childish gesture, she knew, but she didn't care whether her actions provoked it. At this point, its anger would be welcome. Bella always found it easier to remember it wasn't him, none of them were him, when it was hurting her.

She waited for the inevitable quick, angry footfalls that would signal it coming to get her. When there was nothing, she peered back up, only to find it still in the doorway, staring down at the wood floors with its shoulders bowed, looking for all the world like a man about to crumple.

~Edward~

The submissive way she looked at the ground made Edward want to scream.

No, that wasn't true. There was no word violent enough for what he wanted to do. The cabin was too silent, too still, and he wanted to climb the walls. He wanted chaos and destruction around him because that was what he felt inside.

When Bella woke up and he'd spoken to her softly, raising a hand to brush the hair from her eyes, she'd recoiled away from him violently. She'd all but flung herself out of bed and scrambled to the far corner of the room, folding her legs up close to her chest and looking away from him.

If he got close to her, her body would visibly tense. He moved further and further backward until he stood just outside her door. That comforted her slightly. Still, she didn't say a word to him.

At a complete loss, Edward had finally picked up the laptops and case files and begun reading.

The more he read, the sicker he became.

The study measured her reaction to various 'stimuli.' It detailed her complacency as time went on, how she'd learned not to fight. Observational notes indicated that she'd become stubborn - refusing to speak no matter what they did to her. Mostly.

And they'd all looked like him.

It had been five days since she was rescued, and in a way, he thought he understood how she felt. After all, this woman who looked like his Bella - a far too skinny, far too pale, injured version of her, but still his Bella - was nothing like the bright, witty, passionate girl he'd fallen in love with. She was a silent, frightened stranger in a Bella suit.

The pain at his core and the frustration that made his skin crawl was unfathomable. How could he miss someone so much, ache for someone who was right in front of him?

It had been five days, and Edward felt the strings that held him to sanity stretched taut and brittle.

Close to breaking.

And he hadn't been subjected to the physical and mental torture that Bella had for three months.

Breathing deeply, Edward tried to calm the tumultuous cloud of black emotions. She'd been through too much, and he could be patient. He was a scientist, after all. He was used to the thought of waiting years for results.

Though, the idea of waiting years for Bella to come back to him knocked the breath from his lungs with the force of a sucker punch.

Every morning, he brought her a plate for breakfast - a full breakfast which she hardly touched. He set it in her doorway and quietly repeated three bits of information: Aro and his lackeys were dead, they couldn't hurt her anymore; they were safe and would be able to return to society in good time; she was free to move about the house and do as she liked.

At lunchtime, he brought her another plate, and asked her if she wanted to take a walk with him.

Through it all, she ignored him. She seemed to spend all her time in her little corner, staring blindly at the wall.

Though it pained him to be away from her, Edward needed the walks he took daily. He needed it so she wouldn't see him break down. He would squat there on the forest floor, his hands gripping his hair as he struggled not to hyperventilate.

She didn't need to see that.

On that fifth day, he left earlier and walked farther than before. Part of him worried that she would leave. Wouldn't she take her chance to escape? The woods were deep, and she'd have no idea which way to go. But she didn't trust him enough to move like that, expecting that everything he said and did was a trick, so he walked on. It was half an hour by car, several hours by foot to the nearest sign of civilization.

He went into the sleepy little town closest to their isolated cabin and sent a quick message to Alice - the woman who'd helped him arrange this little sojourn from the real world. They were to meet once a month at one of ten different locations.

Edward's message was simple. Bring books.

When he got back to the cabin, she was still in the same corner though she was sleeping now.

Taking a chance, Edward shuffled quietly into her room. He sat on the edge of her unused bed, watching her, racking his brain, trying to figure out how he could help her.

Wondering if she could ever trust him after what she thought he did to her.

Bella sighed in her sleep, her lips parting as she mumbled words he couldn't quite make out.

In the margins of one of his many, many pages of notes, Aro had observed that Bella had called Edward's name longingly as she slept. Aro thought it was an intriguing thought - that after all that had been done to her, how she'd come to associate his face and voice with pain, he was still her comfort.

It was the hope Edward needed to go on.

~Bella~

It had brought her a stack of books the night before.

If she could still find things amusing, Bella would have laughed at its antics. The careful way this one approached her room, hands out with its offering displayed prominently, made her think of how ancient peoples might have approached a god. It brought her food - and Bella didn't miss the fact that it often prepared her favorite dishes, a nice touch - pretty rocks it'd found during one of its many walks, and last night, a pile of books.

She idly wondered if it would offer up a human sacrifice next.

Honestly, the overly solicitous air this one had about it made her all the more edgy.

This was why she had ignored every one of its soft suggestions and requests. Usually, she was given no choice but to follow an order. She'd learned the hard way after the cruel one beat her repeatedly when she did not immediately comply. But with this new one, she'd been determined not to do what he wanted until she understood the rules of this experiment.

No one experiment lasted forever. There was always an aim, an objective.

What this one's objective was she didn't know.

As time wore on, other questions began to occur to her, making her even more uncomfortable.

Bella wondered if they'd discovered a new way to feed her the drug that sparked her delusions.

That was when she'd caught glimpses of the real men who tormented her. The drug had to be injected by a needle in her brain, and she had to be absolutely still. It took the three of them pinning her head and body to the ground to keep her from thrashing, trying to get away while a fourth person - Aro, she assumed - injected the drug.

It hadn't done that in the two weeks she'd been there, at least, not to her knowledge.

Hunger gnawed at her, and Bella rubbed her stomach absently, shaking away the memories of the needle pumping something that burned like acid into her brain.

She was angry. Angry and scared. And God, she was so tired of being angry and scared that it made her even more livid. Her rage was impotent, she knew. They'd demonstrated again and again that she was helpless.

All the doors were locked; she knew this from experience. Even though it left her bedroom door open to the rest of the house, she thought he might be doing this so it could say she brought her punishment - whatever that might be - down on herself.

One of them had said that. She'd kneed it in the groin, but it had caught her by the wrist before she could run more than a few steps. It had shoved her face first against the wall, pressing into her with all its considerable weight as it snarled that she deserved everything it was about to do to her.

That was one of the experiments, she knew. It tried to convince her that there was something she could do to stop them from tormenting her.

Mindfucks, the lot of them.

But that was the point.

Bella stared at the open door again.

She felt like the little mouse made to find its way through a maze by brushing against walls that would shock her if she went the wrong way.

Still, she had to find out the parameters of this little experiment if she hoped to shield her mind against what she would be subjected to.

Steeling herself, she walked cautiously through the door.

When it did not jump out at her, waiting to catch her, she shuffled a few feet further.

She wondered where the cameras were at.

Slowly, she began to relax a little, starting to explore the little cabin. It was small and neat, with only the bare essentials. There was a living area and a kitchen with a table. She opened the fridge, listlessly looking over its contents.

Her favorite foods, his favorite foods, and the necessities, of course.

Bella slammed the refrigerator door shut, abruptly furious.

The refined one was particularly good at acting like Edward. It had obviously studied - mimicking the way Edward moved and spoke.

It was the one that had succeeded several times in convincing her that it was really Edward come to rescue her.

Perhaps it had realized it would take more than its words to convince her this time.

Bella knew for a fact that these things knew far too much about her and Edward's personal life. Once, one of them had yanked her head back till it touched its shoulder and he'd softly sung the little love song that Edward had often crooned to her as they made love in the early morning light.

That had almost broken her - how it perverted her most precious memories, adding an overcoat of menace to Edward's quietly sung pretty words and replaced memories of loving touches with savage hands.

In the scope of things, the fact that this one knew what Edward liked to eat was almost nothing - a subtle detail.

She figured Aro must have been taking the drug, gleaning information from Edward's thoughts, gathering the data he needed for years. They knew everything.

Trying to breathe past the useless fury, Bella continued her little tour.

In a second bedroom, she stumbled to a halt, abruptly terrified.

It was stretched out on the room's bed, asleep on its belly with a hand splayed over the folder in front of it.

How sweet it looked when it slept like that.

Its lips pouted exactly like Edward's did.

Bella's breath caught in her throat and stuttered over her lips. She closed her eyes tightly, trying not to remember how often she'd awaken to this sight: Edward having fallen asleep with his notes and studies plastered to the side of his cheek.

She longed for her real life - her parents, her friends, even her doctoral classes. But of everything she'd been ripped away from, it was Edward she missed the most.

Maybe she really had gone crazy. Perhaps this kind Edward - so much like her real Edward that it occasionally knocked the breath from her - was a product of her own delusions.

Maybe she was locked in the recesses of her mind.

That would explain this cabin. The other places they'd kept her in were all more stark, sterile, metal environments, without the tiny comfort that warm wood colors allowed.

Bella crept closer to the sleeping man in an Edward mask.

She reached out with trembling fingers, wanting, needing, to touch him.

Just before her fingertips reached his skin, she saw the notes in the file in front of him. She tilted her head to read more clearly.

They were case notes, observational notes, detailing her reaction to a previous experiment.

Jerking backward, Bella pivoted and all but ran back to her designated room, sliding down the wall in her little corner. She rested her head on her knees, riding out the trembling shakes of her sudden burst of adrenaline.

She was an experiment. No more than a rat in a cage to them.

Mentally, she chastised herself for allowing the fleeting thought to occur to her. She'd been so close to touching him, feeling his stubbly chin for the first time in too many months.

If she was going to survive this, she needed to be smarter.

~Edward~

The last few weeks had been better.

At some point, Bella had started to move around the house on her own. The first time, he'd come out to the living room to see her perched on the edge of the couch, picking at the minuscule threads of its arm. Her body had gone rigid when he appeared, but she didn't run and didn't look at him.

Though he wanted to shout and jump for joy, he'd tempered his reactions and merely sat in the chair across the room from her

Since then, they'd spent a little bit of time in each others' presence. She obviously wasn't comfortable, but at least she wasn't running.

He hoped it meant he was breaking down her defenses.

He still asked her daily if she wanted to go on a walk with him, and she still ignored him. Despite that, he couldn't help but hope.

Edward pondered this as he got into the van, about ready to drive to where Alice was. Bella was sleeping, and he was only going to be gone for an hour, possibly less. He turned the key in the ignition.

The van merely clicked.

Frowning, he tried again.

Nothing.

Cursing, Edward reached into the back, taking out the jumper cables. He laughed out loud when he realized his folly.

Going inside, he was surprised to find Bella awake and in her now customary spot in the living room. "Can you believe - I must have left the light on in the van," he told her, speaking just to hear a voice in the too-quiet cabin. He didn't expect her to answer.

He also didn't expect her to gasp the way she did, the sound raw and startled. She stood and scrambled backward, tripping over legs that moved too fast and too spasmodically. Even when she fell to the ground she skittered backward like a crab, her eyes wide and terrified.

Edward took a step toward her and froze when he heard her voice.

"Please don't."

The words were no more than a breath.

It was the first time he'd heard her voice in months.

His mind was completely uncertain how to react. He wanted to run to her, wanted to sweep her into his arms because he was so, so happy that she was speaking.

But she was trembling hard and more scared than he'd seen her so far. Her breath was coming too fast, hitched.

"Don't what?" he asked desperately, trying to figure out what he'd done, trying to get her to talk again. "Bella?"

He took another step and she cried out, shrinking back to the furthest corner of the room. Her eyes darted around like an animal looking for escape only to find no way of running unless she brushed by him. "Don't hurt me," she begged. "Please. Not that."

It was then that he realized he was still holding the jumper cables.

When Carlisle examined her, he'd pointed out small patches of discolored skin, tightly explaining to Edward that they were electrical burns. Electrical burns like that could have been inflicted with clamps and cables - smaller versions of the jumper cables he now held in his hands.

Belatedly, Edward remembered some of the notes in Aro's laptop that he had yet to match with the corresponding experiment.

Experiment 626 seems to be most effective. After treatment, subject's thoughts were audible, though not discernible. A buzz was detected - like the hum of conversation. Will repeat experiment 626 for further study.

Quickly, he ran to the door and hurtled the offending things away. Running back inside, his heart twisted when he saw she'd curled herself into the corner, her hands wrapped over her head as she mumbled under her breath repeatedly.

"Bella," he tried, but stopped when she jumped at the sound of his voice. He took a step toward her, needing to comfort her, needing her to know she was safe.

It was no use. The closer he got to her, the less composure she had.

Finally, he retreated out of her eyesight, leaning his back against the wall in the hallway and staring at the ceiling. He could still hear her erratic breaths and quiet cries as she tried to calm down.

Entirely powerless, Edward felt as though he knew nothing but the grief that struck his heart.

It took him minutes to realize his cheeks were wet, longer before he understood that the gasping breaths he heard were no longer just hers, but his as well.

Edward crept another few feet away, kneeling inside his room and leaning his head against the wall, unable to stop the torrent of tears. "I'm sorry," he whispered, though he knew she couldn't hear him. "I don't know how to bring you back."

~Bella~

For days after her little meltdown, Bella had retreated to her room.

She hated that it had seen her like that.

It had happened too suddenly - she'd seen the cables and her mind had gone stark white with an uncontrollable terror.

She hated how weak she felt.

Sighing, she tried to concentrate on other things.

Bella was sitting on the floor, pressed into the corner of her room. There was a book in her hands, but she wasn't reading. Instead, she was pondering what had possessed her to set up her corner the way she had.

She was in the corner furthest away from, but facing the doorway so no one could sneak up on her. What suddenly disturbed her was how homey the space looked. Sometime in the course of the weeks she'd been there, most of her blankets had relocated from the bed to the floor where she'd assembled something of a nest for herself. There were stacks of books placed on either side, one of which held the lamp she'd dragged away from the desk.

She'd carved out a nook, she realized. A home.

Homes were dangerous. Any time she'd found some small source of comfort, one of them had destroyed it.

Its presence in her doorway made Bella start, and she curled herself closer to the wall.

It sighed. "I'm going for a walk," it said, as it always did. Bella noted that the hope had completely drained from its voice. "Would you like to come with me?" It wasn't looking at her but off to the side, its body language radiating resignation.

For a few heartbeats, Bella contemplated looking away, as she always did, until it left.

It had been so long since she'd been outdoors. Perhaps whatever it had planned would be worth the few minutes of fresh air she would receive in return.

Vowing to concentrate on that, should it choose that moment to strike, Bella climbed to her feet. Its head snapped up, and it dared to smile Edward's shocked, happy grin. Bella balled her hands into fists and looked away, angry at it for making her heart skip a beat. She thought of sitting back down because the idea of giving it any pleasure only aggravated her, but she thought that might also be its point - to trick her into denying herself some small measure of comfort.

"Okay," it said softly, sounding like it wanted to say something more. It stood to the side, as if it wanted her to exit the room first, but Bella stood her ground. Her body trembled automatically, waiting for it to grab her and yank her outside. Instead, it seemed to get the idea and took a few cautious steps out her door. When Bella followed, it smiled again.

She walked along, following slightly behind and to the side of it, not speaking. It kept up a constant narrative, catching her up on the latest news about the friends back home. As usual, she tried not to listen to its words, knowing it was lying as always, but she couldn't help hearing the melodic cadence of his voice. She inhaled sharply, feeling like she could take a deep breath after being held underwater for so long. The sound of his voice, imagining for the space of one breath that he was really beside her, was so healing she felt alive for seconds.

Bella frowned to herself when she considered the logic of the situation, her analytical mind rearranging bits and pieces of information into ideas and theories. If she truly believed that Edward was still alive, then she had to accept the possibility that what it said was true - that it really was Edward.

Hope hit her with the force of a tsunami wave, threatening to send her to her knees with joy. Her heart sped and her every limb wanted to wrap itself around him, never to let go again.

Gritting her teeth, Bella pushed those thoughts away. That was just what it wanted her to think, and she wasn't going to fall into that trap. She stopped short, abruptly furious. "What happens if I tell you I believe you this time?" she snapped, interrupting a story about Angela and Ben who'd announced they were expecting twins.

"I...what?" it asked, and Bella had to look away from the honest confusion that clouded his green eyes.

"When does this end?" she asked, noticing with an edge of despair that she was surrounded by green. What good was looking away from his eyes when the carpet of the forest around her was much the same color? "There are only so many ways you can hurt me without killing me," she reasoned, the life draining from her voice. "So my question is, what happens this time if I tell you I believe you're him?"

When it didn't answer, she chanced a look up from underneath her eyelashes, just to know what its mood was. It was staring at the ground much like a child being scolded, its arms down by its sides, hands open and imploring. It looked up, and Bella found it utterly impossible to look away from the sadness in its earnest eyes.

Her heart twisted painfully. Seeing him hurt made her want to wrap her arms around him and take away all his pain.

"I am him," it whispered, his voice barely a breath.

"You're nothing!" she hissed, so livid because she wanted with everything she had left in her to believe those words. She flinched backward, fully expecting it to retaliate.

It only looked back down at the ground, breathing in that hitched way that made her think it was trying not to cry.

Unable to deal with the sight, Bella turned away, stumbling back toward the house quickly, on alert as she expected it to rush at her at any moment.

~Edward~

For every tiny step forward they took, they were hurtled a thousand steps back.

A few days after Bella finally agreed to go on a walk with him, he was surprised when she climbed to her feet again.

They walked, though she didn't speak at all, for five days straight.

On the sixth day, she tripped, falling against a tree. Before she could fall to the ground, he'd caught her in his arms, the movement entirely instinctual. Slightly panicked at the sight of blood, he'd wrapped his fingers around her wrists, holding it out to look at the scrapes.

"Don't touch me!" she'd screamed, and wrested herself out of his grip.

And she'd looked at him with that expression that he never got used to - like she was fully expecting he would hurt her for lashing out.

"I won't. Not again. I'm sorry," he'd said quietly.

She'd stared at him, and something entirely wild with desperation had flitted through her eyes. She shoved him. He didn't react, not quite knowing how to. With a little growl, she shoved him again, harder. He stumbled this time, but otherwise held himself completely still, not understanding what this new behavior was all about.

She smacked his chest once, then again. "Come on," she'd snarled. "What are you going to do? I know you're going to hurt me, so just do it already."

"Bella," he'd whispered, his heart breaking. "I'm not going to hurt you. You know I would never hurt you."

Her gasp was anguished, and she'd closed her eyes. "I don't believe you. I won't believe you're him."

"I know," he said quietly. "I don't know how to prove it to you, but I am him, me. I'm Edward, and I won't ever hurt you."

With a furious cry she'd hurtled herself at him, hitting him actually quite hard as she screamed. "I don't believe you!"

It took all his willpower not to wrap his arms around her though his cheeks were wet with tears.

Sobbing herself, Bella had fallen to her knees on the forest floor, wrapping her arms around her shoulders. "Why are you doing this to me? Please just get it over with," she'd begged. "Please just make it stop."

He was frozen, his words strangled in his throat. He had no idea what to say or do.

She cried only for a minute or so at his feet before she gathered herself up and ran back to the cabin.

Since then, Edward had been sitting on his bed, mostly staring at the wall as he tried to think.

He was her tormentor, the man who had subjected her to unfathomable suffering.

The more he read through Aro's notes, the more he couldn't ignore the fact that she would probably never trust anyone with his face again.

While she was still running in survival mode, there was no hope she would recover from her ordeal.

He knew what he had to do, but he couldn't bring himself to do it.

For her, he reminded himself.

He'd gotten the necessary things together before he entered her room. He only walked in long enough to set a few items on her still unused bed.

She was looking studiously away from him but curiosity seemed to get the better of her. Her eyebrows furrowed as she looked at the items.

There was money - a lot of it - car keys, a fake I.D., and a cell phone.

"You can't go home yet. The people who got you out... well, it would not go well for you or your family if you went home," he began, his tone flat and dead. "Wait a few more months before you try.

"Other than that, you can go anywhere. The phone only has one number in it. You can text if you need something, anything. Just use this code," he stepped forward again, putting a sheet of paper on the bed. "Don't try to call; she won't pick up the phone."

She blinked at him and, of course, said nothing.

"I... I want you to know that I love you. He loves you. Nothing they said or did... nothing can change that fact," he whispered, his voice barely audible. "You're free to go," he managed before his throat closed entirely.

He went to the living room to wait.

It was hours before she emerged, but when she did she had a small satchel in her hand and he could hear the clink of the keys. He couldn't look up. He couldn't make himself watch her leave. He stared down at his shoes instead.

She paused as if waiting for something.

Then her feet retreated. The front door opened and shut. A moment later he could hear the van starting.

He slumped forward, breathless and lifeless as his heart drove away from him.

~Bella~

She was still sure this was a trick, was waiting for the car to blow up or for someone to jump out from the back. She'd checked three times now, but it was still empty.

She found the dirt road and tried not to think about the way it looked when she walked away.

It was a sight she'd never seen before, not even on the real Edward. Its posture was defeated, its eyes, when they'd looked up so briefly, reminded her of what a man might look like if he were set on fire and made to stand absolutely still in the flames.

For seconds, she'd wanted nothing as much as she wanted to run to him and hug him until it was better.

Startled, Bella suddenly remembered the stack of books it gave her.

Those books were the only escape she'd had in months. Why had she left them behind?

They were a gift from it, she reminded herself. She didn't want anything of its.

Her heart ached when she realized she would not see those books again. The books... when had they become precious to her?

It took her a moment to realize she was crying. No. That wasn't accurate. She was sobbing.

Slamming on the brakes, she barely had enough presence of mind left to throw the van into park before she was running.

Why? she asked herself, confused and anguished. Why was she running back to her prison? Back to it?

Gasping with need, she pushed herself faster.

When she saw the cabin, she finally felt like she could breathe again, an oddity seeing as she was panting with exertion. Bending at the waist, she rested her hands on her knees until she caught her breath.

Climbing the front steps, Bella pushed the front door open. Immediately, she was struck by a soft, haunting sound. Keening. It was a noise so filled with sorrow that her sobs renewed just hearing it.

She sprinted forward, finding it had moved from where it had been on the couch and was now slumped against the wall of the kitchen, completely closed in on itself and rocking back and forth, back and forth.

Fearful, but needing to do something, she carefully knelt in front of him. She reached out, her hands trembling. She wanted so much to touch him but she was afraid.

He looked up, and his eyes were raw red with his tears. "It's me, Bella," he rasped, his voice heavy with pain and made thin with desperation. "It's me, it's me, it's me."

The noise she made was only vaguely recognizable as human, and she could not get in his arms fast enough. Suddenly, it didn't matter that this could all be the most elaborate trick yet, and she would surely shatter entirely this time. He was there - really there - and she was safe in his loving presence.

That familiarity that she'd longed for, ached for, all these long months came rushing back in the way he wrapped his strong arms around her, one hand to the back of her head and the other around her waist. They moved together until they were completely tangled - arms wound around each other and legs overlapping. They were both crying, cheeks wet and slick as they bowed their heads together. "Edward," she whispered his name, feeling the way it warmed the long cold places in her heart. "It's me, too."