Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. I'm borrowing her characters, dressing them up in MARPAT, and giving them some guns. BilliCullen and Scooterstale are making sure they're ready for inspection.
FYI: for those of you who may not have gotten the alert, I recently posted an extra/outtake called MISSION: Ghost.
Just Outside Target Villa
Across the room, the corporal swore a blue streak.
Less than a heartbeat later, before Jazz could yell at her again – before Bella could even lower her weapon – a pissed off, ground out, "Damn it!" came through her earpiece, along with the chaos of men yelling in the background. The captain issued a rapid-fire command to his lieutenant to go right and hug the wall, another for the sergeants to peel off left, and then he was right back in Bella's ear. "So help me… Doctor Swan, you will get your ass out of that building. Right now!" His words were choppy, cutting in and out, as though he were moving fast across rough terrain. "Do you hear me?"
Eyes wide, darting back and forth between the death-grip she had on the captain's sidearm and the tense, cursing Marine crouched behind his rifle at the window, Bella's knees turned to jelly. Her lips parted, but no sound came out.
"I said, do you hear me?" Edward repeated, louder, his voice cracking like a whip.
"Yeah..." she whispered. Licking her lips, Bella shoved the emptied .45 into her thigh holster and adjusted her chinstrap with trembling fingers. "I'm going. I didn't me–"
"I don't care what you meant to do," he said before she could finish. "In 10 minutes, you will be behind the wheel of one of those Land Cruisers. You–"
Suddenly, Edward went silent, as in the background, a pair of unfamiliar voices grew louder, barking back and forth in an almost-familiar language that Bella couldn't quite decipher. Even without understanding or without being able to see what was happening on the ground, she could tell that the men were close – so close that they had to be right on top of him. Her fingers fumbled for the radio controls, hiking up the volume until she caught the captain's long, soft intake of air. Staring out across the black, empty room, Bella held her breath right along with him, long enough that her lungs started to burn.
After what felt like an eternity, the voices finally faded, and her whole body slumped in relief. "Are you okay?" Bella asked, breathless even though she hadn't moved an inch.
"Fine," Edward answered back a second later. The bite in his tone softened – just a fraction. "Now move it. This is not up for debate."
Heart fully in her throat, Bella straightened her shoulders, gave herself a firm, determined shake, and willed her feet to move. Once going, she crossed the room quickly, kicking up clouds of silvery dust as she sidestepped a pair of broken chairs in the middle and dodged random piles of construction debris along the way. At the dark mouth of the stairwell, Bella skidded to a halt, however, and looked over to Jasper.
"Here," the corporal said before she could speak, not looking away from the scene below. He reached over to his neat and tidy spread of equipment, picked out a fresh clip, and with a hard shove, slid it across the floor, targeting the scientist's boots with unerring accuracy. "Now, get going, Doc. You heard the Captain. Get your ass in gear."
"Don't you worry about us." With his left hand, Jasper muffled his throat-mike, while his right remained hovering by his trigger. "You worry about you and don't you dare let yourself get caught. Stick tight to the walls and stay low, just like when we came in. Anyone comes at you, you shoot to kill." With another muttered curse, his barrel abruptly swept right. "Ghost? You need me to blanket that courtyard?"
"Negative." The captain's response was strained, his breathing loud. "Has she left yet?"
Hesitating a hair of a second, Jasper eyed Bella in his periphery, frowned, and waved her off with a pointed nod. "Yes, sir. Just hit the stairs."
"Good. You following Tink?"
"Yep. She's following that tall grass line to your forward left. Almost at the front now. Blondie and Bear-man are running opposite, so far so good." He grimaced and adjusted his scope. "Tink, aim for that pair of Range Rovers up ahead." Jasper's barrel swung back left. "Ghost, you got a pair of Tangoes at your eight o'clock, another pair at four and coming up on you fast."
Edward spat another round of rapid commands to the team on the ground. "Jazz, where are those fuckin' patrols?"
The corporal looped the compound, taking count. "They're moving quick, widening the perimeter. Four of 'em's converging on that northwest corner. Spetsnaz and 203 are heading this way."
Without another word, sparing the younger man by the window one last, fleeting glance, Bella flipped her NVGs down, ducked into the dark stairwell, and pounded down the concrete steps. At the bottom, she grabbed the corner. Carried by the extra weight of her armor and gear, she slingshotted around the wall… only to find the black, eerie emptiness of the long hallway waiting.
Bella scrabbled at the wall to slow her momentum. Whipping around, she darted back into the base of the stairwell. Hands shaking – suddenly very aware that the corporal was no longer beside her and that she was very much on her own – Bella withdrew her sidearm from her holster again. It took her a moment to find the release, but once she did, as quickly as she dared, she thumbed the latch, discharged the spent clip, and swapped it out for Jasper's fresh one. When she pulled back the slide and chambered the first round, the metallic click-clack echoed in the silence.
Now ready, repeating the captain's commands in a constant circuit, Bella peeked down at her watch and memorized the neon green numbers across its face.
Adrenaline spiked through her veins as she crouched low to mimic the move she'd seen both the corporal and the captain perform on the way in. Without making a sound, Bella slowly crept around the corner, her barrel in the lead. When only hushed darkness greeted her, the corporal's trick came back in a flash. Her eyes fell to the floor – to the same two pairs of undisturbed gray-on-gray boot prints, lit in pale night vision green.
"Okay," Bella whispered, swallowing even though her mouth was dry as the desert outside. "Gotta move faster than this. 10 minutes." She took one last, calming breath, doing her damnedest to ignore the clipped commands and urgent chatter in her ear.
And then she was off.
Wasting no time, Bella made her way down the fourth floor hall, targeting the next flight of stairs at the end. At each shadowed doorway, she paused, but only long enough to edge around the mangled frames to perform quick visual sweeps of the small, unfinished rooms. Just like the hall, they were all empty, filled with nothing but dust and piles of debris.
Bella repeated the process four more times, gaining both speed and confidence with each floor, until she finally found herself hugging the curved plaster wall that lead down the wide, grand stairway to the skeleton lobby below. A quarter of the way down, just before her boots could be seen from below, she froze. She turned down the volume in her earpiece to listen, searching the silence for any sign that said she wasn't alone. When, like above, there was nothing to hear but the racing thumps of her own heart, she slowly eased her way down and padded across the tiled floor to the front entrance.
"Glad I shut you," she mumbled, positioning herself behind the wrought iron security door. Carefully curling her gloves around the edge and one of the horizontal bars across the middle, she lifted the security door to take the weight off its hinges and slowly angled it open, just a crack. When nothing happened, still listening, she swung the door further, wincing at the soft, metallic protest mid-way, and then she opened it even more, until the crack was just wide enough that she could squeeze through with her gear. With a final glance back to the lobby, Bella slipped out the door into the recessed entryway, where the mixed-language graffiti still glowed bright through her NVGs.
Just outside, despite the activity only a few blocks away, the street was somehow still vacant and dark. Peeping out of the entryway, Bella saw nothing but unlit windows and doorways. Two blocks down, a bell-shaped streetlamp in front of another building dimly sputtered – a tiny, pulsing flare through her lenses – but its small amount of light barely touched the immediate surroundings. If anything, it just made everything else seem darker.
Recalling the corporal's tutorial on the plane ride over, Bella threw the toggle on the side of her NVGs. The scene in front of her flickered, instantly swapping from night vision neon to thermal shades of navy, murky black, and forest green. She looked down, just to check, and five fingers blazed bright red and yellow. Satisfied, Bella peered around the blocks of limestone one more time, glancing right, left, and then a quick check along the black-on-black rooflines above.
"Back that way, three blocks," she whispered to herself, laying out the map in her head as she simultaneously flipped the thermal imaging back off. "After that, left, and go two more. Right, two long ones, and then cut back right again, straight into the alley." She swiped a heavy line of sweat off her forehead with her sleeve, smearing the captain's carefully applied 'warpaint'. "Okay, Bella," she said, swiping again. "We can do this… piece of cake."
With a last gulping breath, Bella shot out from the recess and, keeping low and tight to the concrete and stone buildings that lined the sidewalk, she retraced the quick twenty yards she and Jasper had covered on their way in. In less than a blink, she passed the short triplet of stairs, and then a turned-over milk crate. At the familiar banged-up metal bin, she stopped for only a second, just long enough to dip down, adjust her armor, and check the thermals one more time.
Still nothing – just the same pixilated shades of black, navy, and dark green.
So Bella kept going. Staying as close to the crumbling buildings as she could manage, she moved from cover to cover – from the metal bin, to a row of black plastic barrels, to a beat-up Citroen at the first intersection, to a stack of wooden pallets across the street – until finally, she hit her first turn.
As she started to take the corner, the loud crack! of a high-powered rifle came from somewhere in the distance, echoing and amplified in her ear.
A pair of deeper pitched rounds immediately answered back.
Every muscle in Bella's body locked, and a terrified scream threatened to spill out. Instead of calling out, however, at the last possible moment, she bit her tongue hard enough to taste blood, and without any conscious direction, she jumped back, plastering herself to the nearest wall with a muffled grunt when her helmet popped against concrete. Her .45 shot up from her side and she clutched its grip so tightly her knuckles popped.
"Jazz?" Bella whispered into her throat mike. Clamping her left palm under the opposite elbow, she steadied her arm to check the street behind her. "Wha– what was that?"
"Keep moving, Doc," the corporal said after a second.
Before they could chatter, Bella's teeth snapped together. "No, tell me. Did anyone get hit?"
The man on the other end of the radio made an annoyed sound, something between a scoff and a snort. "Come on now. Don't insult us like that. No one's gettin' shot tonight." Jasper paused, as if that was all that needed to be said, but when Bella would have pressed him, he added, this time more seriously, "Listen, you keep your eyes open and your head down. Mr. Spetsnaz just moved out of my line of sight. He's probably nowhere near you, but still…" He paused again. "Doc, you watch your back."
Bella's breath hiccupped and her stomach took a sharp, nauseating nosedive that nearly caused her to double over. But she nodded, as much to herself as to him, replied a quick, breathy, "Okay," and peered down to her wrist.
"Shit," she muttered. With only four minutes to go, Bella dropped to a knee and nosed her barrel around the wall like she'd done it a thousand times. Ever so slowly, watching the rooflines and still-black windows, she followed it around and immediately aimed left, duck-walking to a bowed sheet of plywood propped up against the closest building.
Meanwhile, a half dozen blocks away, sandwiched between the western side of the villa and a pair of rust-pocked HVAC covers, Edward motioned across the wide, oval drive to Alice, where she crouched, hunkered down behind the first in a pair of late model Range Rovers. Fifteen yards in front and blocking the gate – their best chance at an outlet – two black-clad militants stood, armed to the teeth and looking for any sign of intruders.
"You got a clear shot out?" he mouthed, his voice amplified by his throat-mike.
Digging into her front-left pouch, the lieutenant plucked out a slim-line mirror and extended the telescoping handle. Careful of the crunching gravel beneath her boots, she scooted toward the nose of the vehicle, positioned the mirror out past the bumper, and shook her head.
Edward bit back a curse. "Bear-man, what you got?"
On his belly behind a line of low, scraggly shrubs on the opposite side of the villa, Emmett stared through his scope, watching one of the men fidget with his rifle strap. The taller one beside him paced back and forth, agitated but with no outlet. "Only way out I see is through 'em, which might not be so quiet."
"Fuck quiet," Rosalie muttered, as she tracked a trio of soldiers while they stopped in front of the pool house to regroup. High up on the walls, two other teams of men searched the streets just outside the compound. "Seems Doc's little stunt confused the shit out of 'em. They don't know which way to go."
"But that's not going to last long," Alice chimed in, as she repositioned near the rear wheel well. She dipped down when a broad-beam searchlight swept overhead and glanced back to the corner of the villa, expecting to see her commander. All she found was empty shadows, however. Slowly scanning the ground, the lieutenant finally picked him up low-crawling ten yards to the left of his previous position. "Agree with the Big Man. We're gonna have go through 'em. And we better go quick before they figure out we haven't left yet."
At the edge of the drive, Edward pushed himself up off the ground with a single shove and sprinted toward the rear of the second Range Rover. Back against the metal, chest heaving, he slid up, peered over his shoulder through the tinted glass, and marked the positions of the gate guards.
"Tink," he said, slipping around to the back quarter panel so he could make eye contact with his lieutenant. "You and Bear take forward-center positions. Head straight for 'em. Blondie, you got the right?"
"Jazz, get your shit together." His eyes flitted to the fifth story boarded-up window of the distant building. "As soon as you see the signal, you move." Edward reached into his drop pouch, producing the pair of flash bangs he'd prepared to employ only a few minutes before. "Take the alternate route back to the meeting point."
"You got it."
"Get ready for fireworks. On my mark." Palming the first stun grenade, Edward tugged out the pull-ring with his teeth. He counted down three long seconds, stood, and with an aim any outfielder would envy, launched the grenade. Flying high, it sailed more than seventy yards and arced over the western compound wall, going deep into the streets beyond. The instant the thing landed, the ground quaked with a thundering boom! A blinding strobe of light lit the sky behind the wall.
Panicked shouts erupted all around.
"Move!" Edward commanded, as he simultaneously yanked out the pull-ring of the second grenade. This time, he hurled it the opposite direction, sending it over the top of the villa itself and into the very center of the courtyard behind them.
As soon as the second grenade left Edward's hand, in a sudden rush of motion, Alice and Emmett shot up from their cover positions and charged the gate. Behind them, in a well-choreographed, lethal dance, Rosalie and Edward fanned out to the left and the right, each taking aim at one of the pair of stunned guards who now stared at the black-clad Marines like they were ghosts. As the second grenade lit off in the back, rumbling the ground and setting off both Range Rovers' alarms, Edward's laser sight found its target – above the armor, in the dead center of the taller guard's throat.
Without blinking, he fired, as the gunny did the same, and their shots disappeared in the explosion of sound and chaos behind them.
Driven by the force of the round, the taller guard spun on the balls of his feet. Dead before he could utter a word, he stumbled backward in a bloody spray, slamming against the metal gate. Ten feet away, as Alice and Emmett rushed past, Rosalie's target dropped in a lifeless, crumpled heap at the base of the compound wall.
Once outside the gate, the two lead Marines spread out, rifles up and monitoring the streets and walls, while the captain and the gunnery sergeant followed hot on their heels. When the two emerged from the villa compound a moment later, the four moved toward the nearest alleyway at a flat run.
At the boom of distant explosives, Bella jolted and scrambled behind a messy stack of lumber. Before she could think of lifting her head, a twin set of blasts ripped through her earpiece, loud and startling enough that she yanked the device out of her ear without thinking. Panting and shaking, she twisted around to scan the street behind her.
Fifty yards away, a light came on in the window of an upper story apartment building, blazing so bright with the augmentation of her NVGs that her eyes watered. Turning, she caught another square of light as it appeared twenty feet ahead, followed by three more on the opposite side of the street. Just on the verge of replacing her radio to contact Jasper again, the captain's urgent order echoed in her head. She hesitated, but as yet another window came to life – this one two floors directly above – instead of giving in, Bella's gaze fell to her wrist.
Only one minute left, and by the map she'd laid out in her head, she still had a couple of blocks to go.
"Damn it," she said, whipping back and forth between the street behind her and the two-block open stretch ahead. This section was trickier, she remembered, with too few places to hide – even fewer now that the glows from the windows killed the shadows they'd used on the way in.
Bella found her target on the third pass. Half-way to her next turn and across the street, a narrow pedestrian passageway cut a thin black line between two of the still-dark buildings. The rusted out remnants of a head-high chain-link gate said that at some point the pathway had been a private one, but now, the gate hung askew off its hinges, already propped a quarter of the way open. Beyond, on the same side of the street, another pyramid of sun-dried lumber and an old transformer box promised one last spot of cover before her next corner.
Squatting low behind her cover, Bella rocked back on her heels until her pack pressed against the building behind her. Gathering every last bit of her remaining resolve, she shoved her radio into one of her pouches, peeked over the top of the stack one last time, and stole a glance behind her. Popping up before her nerves could stop her, she aimed for that slip of darkness, dashing across the street as fast as her feet could carry her. Mid-way, her boot clapped against a piece of flattened cardboard, and at the sidewalk, forgoing any attempt at stealth, she hurdled a length of cast iron plumber's pipe.
Bella skirted the gate to slide into the passageway. Almost past, one of the straps on her pack caught the hook of the horseshoe latch, pulling the whole gate forward with a long screech that turned her blood to ice. She jerked around and rattled the gate a second time. Looking right, then left, she fumbled with frantic fingers for a too-long moment to free the strap, but each time she tugged, the gate's lone surviving hinge groaned in protest.
With another hard yank, she was loose and she flew into the passage. Right as she cleared the vertical plane of the buildings' façade, however, a dark, imposing figure materialized in her periphery.
"Shit. Shit, shit, shit!" Bella mouthed to herself, as she slammed against the closest wall. Her gloves drilled into a section of spongy mortar, her mind racing, replaying that last fraction of a second.
Fatigues, dark, patterned, and clearly not from the hunting section at Wal-mart.
A pair of matte black, heavy-duty rifles slung across his chest.
Bone white skin peeking out from underneath his Kevlar.
And a battle-hardened stance she recognized immediately.
Fear seized Bella's limbs, driving her backward, deeper inside the narrow space and as far away from Jasper's Mr. Spetsnaz as she could go. Eyes glued to the passage's opening, she ricocheted off the walls, stumbling over uneven joints and past hunks of broken concrete that littered the ground. When her knee nudged a piece of rolled up aluminum ventstack leaning upright against a roof drain, it teetered precariously on its edge. Instinct had her grabbing it before it could fall. Replacing the aluminum with shaking hands, Bella forced herself to still and listen.
Somewhere in the distance, she caught the low growl of an engine, and even further out, something that sounded a whole lot like an exchange of small arms fire. But that wasn't what grabbed every bit of Bella's attention. No, that was fully taken by the soft, rubbery pad of boots against asphalt slowly heading her way, the quiet, telltale clack! of a weapon being set to ready, and worse, a melodic, too-casual whistle that said any hopes the patrol hadn't seen her were futile.
Her heart pounded an erratic, disjointed rhythm, and the fear that kept her moving was an electric pulse in her veins. Never looking away from that opening to the street, Bella continued to slowly back her way deeper into the passageway, past windows with iron bars and a handful of dark, steel doors in between that led into the quiet buildings on each side.
Thirty-five yards in, she hit a dead end. Another chain-link gate stretched between the buildings, only this one was intact and topped with a run of barbed wire. A heavy steel chain looped through the locking mechanism.
Panic grappled with reason, as the image of the captain's shaking fist tightening around the stack of papers bearing her picture jolted through her mind. Blind with it, Bella spun right, then left, then right again, before banging hard into the wall behind her. A doorknob dug into her hip. Twisting left, Bella grabbed the thing and yanked on the steel door.
It didn't budge.
Breathing in sharp, shallow pants, she looked down the line of the wall and pinpointed the other doors she passed coming in. Slower, trying to hold onto quickly unraveling threads of calm, she tried another one, and then another, but like the first, they didn't move an inch.
Desperate, Bella searched the passage, scanning the solid, concrete walls that stretched four and five stories into the air, looking for any way out that didn't involve facing down the whistling soldier heading toward her. Heavy, permanent iron bars guarded every one of the bottom floor windows. The ones above those were bare, but far out of Bella's reach. To the right, two floors up, a rickety fire exit jutted out from one of the apartments, but like the windows, its ladder hung too high.
The whistling grew louder.
Nowhere to go, Bella ducked behind a small, metal container between the last door and the locked, chain-link gate. An instant later, a beam of light flooded the passage, sweeping just over her head. Making herself as small as she could, Bella hugged her knees and pressed herself against the building behind her. As her eyes squeezed shut, a subtle breeze licked through the passageway and across her sweat-damp skin, lifting the handful of hairs that escaped her helmet. Her skin pebbled, despite the lingering warmth from the daytime sun radiating out from the stone wall at her back.
The whistling stopped, replaced by a voice that sent another round of chills down her spine. "Come out, little intruder," the man called out in heavily accented English. "I know you are there."
Bella's eyes screwed tighter, squeezing out tears at the corners, but she didn't dare move. The sidearm still in her grip felt like an iron weight.
"Come out now," Spetsnaz ordered again, and then his voice dropped, swapping to a different language as he spoke into his radio. Heavy on the consonants, light on vowels, Bella noted, tucking that bit of information away in case she ever made it out alive. Not quite Russian, but definitely Eastern European.
The man took a step into the alley, still speaking into his radio, and all the air in Bella's lungs vanished. He took another, stopped, and called out again. "Don't bother thinking you can get out of this, little American. You are separated from your men. You are trapped. Throw down your weapon, and I won't kill you."
Yeah right, Bella wanted to say. Instead, she bit her tongue, pulled her knees even closer in, and flicked the laser sight on her sidearm on, aiming the small, red dot at the ground between her boots.
As the patrol took another step deeper into passageway, Bella's skin prickled with sudden awareness. Her eyes popped open. Leaning forward ever so slightly, she peered around the side of the container, low enough to stay below his line of sight. Framed by the now dimly lit street behind him, Spetsnaz stood just a few feet inside the mouth of the passage, scanning the space within behind the sight of a blunt, short-barreled weapon, and looking every bit the lethal soldier that he was.
But he was still thirty yards away.
Bella's forehead creased, as another wave of eerie awareness crawled across her skin. With a sudden surge of hope – however illogical – she looked up, half-expecting, half-praying to find a familiar face looking back down.
There was nothing there but chipped black walls and charcoal sky.
But as her eyes fell back to the ground, something else altogether registered at the edge of her vision.
Immediately to Bella's right, where one of the solid steel doors stood locked only a few seconds ago, a slim strip of pitch black now separated it from its frame. Inside, a quiet rustle of fabric made her heart stutter, and then, without warning, the small, round face of a child with wide, luminous eyes appeared in the crack.
Bella did a double-take as the crack silently widened, ever so slightly – just enough to show a head full of soft, downy curls and the dark, worn cotton of a little girl's floor-skimming night dress. The girl's lips parted, as if in surprise, but not a sound came out. When Bella flipped up her NVGs, her head tilted.
Now twenty-five yards away, Spetsnaz bellowed another chilling order for Bella to show herself. Eyes never leaving the girl's, Bella flinched. Tempted, her teeth bit into the inside of her cheek, but then, when she heard the metallic shifting of his rifle, she quickly motioned for the girl to go back inside – away from the soldier and out of harm's way.
The girl's liquid brown eyes flickered up, above Bella's head and in the direction of the man's voice. The passage was narrow enough that Bella knew there was no way he could see the open door just yet; the angle was too tight. But it was only a matter of time before he could – and not much of it. She waved the girl back inside again, this time more urgently, mouthing a soundless, Go!
Instead, the girl opened the door a fraction more, backed up a step inside the darkened room, and lifted her hand in the unmistakable, universal sign for, Come.
Disbelieving, Bella shook her head, but the girl didn't obey. Lips settled into a defiant pout, the girl gestured again, but her eyes widened in instant fear when Spetsnaz peppered the sky with a triplet of shots and yelled in a tone that said he'd lost his patience.
The next round of shots strafed the building, biting off a corner and sending down a spray of concrete. Pebbles and dime-sized rubble bounced off Bella's helmet and pinged the metal bin beside her. A high, metallic jingle told her that a couple of rounds had strayed, hitting the chain-link gate.
Men like that didn't miss, Bella knew, gripping the captain's sidearm like a life preserver. No, he was stalking her. Flushing her out.
Without waiting for the next assault – the one that might actually kill her or the little one inside the apartment – Bella dove to the ground. Staying as low as possible, she crawled on her elbows toward the door, which still hung open in welcome invitation. As another pair of rounds hit the building – this time lower and closer – she slid inside on her belly. The second her boots cleared, Bella jumped up to shut the door. She forced herself to ease it so the sound wouldn't give them away and then threw the deadbolt.
Absolutely silent, Bella walked on her knees across a multicolored rug to the short wall immediately beneath the barred-up window, where she pressed herself as tightly to the plaster as she could manage. When she gestured, the young girl followed without question, stopping less than a foot away, and squatted on her heels to copy Bella's curled up position against the wall. She was a tiny thing, too – no more than 5 or 6 now that Bella could see the baby fat still left in her cheeks – but the solemn knowledge in her eyes was that of someone much older. She stared up at Bella with unnerving intensity and brought her forefinger up to her lips.
Spetsnaz's voice grew louder. Muffled by the heavy, concrete apartment wall, his words were impossible to discern, but his tone was unmistakable – unmistakably annoyed and promising violence. With harsh spit, he fired another round of shots into the air, grazing the building again by the rain of pebbles that followed. He yelled something unintelligible in that almost-Russian language of his, and a blink later, Bella shuddered when something heavy and metal crashed into the chain-link fence, bounced back, and bumped the outside of the building.
The man went silent then, so silent that Bella had to strain to hear the muted pad of his boots. There was a long, terrifying moment, where he moved back and forth in the alley outside, no doubt searching every nook and cranny for the intruder he knew was there. The soft pads finally stopped, however, and from the subtle play of shadows across the ceiling, Bella knew he stood – with every bit of his lethal firepower – just on the other side of their steel door.
The knob slowly turned.
Bella stilled and her breath morphed from sharp, shallow pants into a solid, unmoving block inside her chest. When something small and bony burrowed abruptly against her side, she almost jumped. Not moving a muscle, Bella risked a glimpse down and caught the frayed edge of the girl's purple nightdress pooled around her boots. A small, caramel-colored hand gripped one of the loops of her pack until the knuckles were white.
Aiming the laser sight at the door, Bella clicked the safety off.
The knob turned again, impatiently twisting back and forth against the lock. After another long second, Spetsnaz gave up, only to move to the barred window.
Without warning, bright white light lit the entire room, dancing across overlapping rugs of a dozen shades, and passed mere inches above Bella's head. The beam swept overhead again and again, getting closer and closer, just missing their position right below. When the light stopped at the opposite corner of the room, centering on a plush brown toy with a faded, floppy bow around its neck, the little girl huddled closer against Bella's side and reached for the hand that didn't hold the captain's .45. Whispering a hushed, "Shhh," Bella hugged the girl's small frame tighter and covered her eyes with her hand.
They stayed like that for what could have been either days or seconds – Bella wasn't sure – but eventually, the light disappeared and the angry noises outside quieted, finally turning into nothing. Not trusting Spetsnaz – or her own instincts – she counted down another two minutes before signaling to the little girl that it was time for her to move. When she would have gone for the door, the little one shook her head in a panicked blur, stood up on bare feet, and pulled her the opposite direction – deeper into the apartment.
Edward checked his watch for the fourth time in less than a minute and then tried the radio… again. "Doctor, repeat. This is Ghost. Do you copy? What is your position?"
And again, nothing but muted static answered him.
Fists clenched and teeth grinding, the captain paced the length of the first Land Cruiser and fought the urge to do exactly what every bit of his training told him not to do. "Blondie, Bear-man, what you got?"
From his position fifty yards away at the top of the service alley, Emmett came back first. "Negative, sir. Got a couple of locals milling around about a hundred yards away." The big man swore. "But no Doc."
The tightness in Edward's chest that took root the instant he heard those MP7 submachine rounds pulsed. "Blondie? Anything?"
With a gruff calm that Edward saw right through, the gunny replied, "Looks like all the commotion woke a few people up, but same here. All locals." And no Doctor Swan.
"Son of a bitch."
His eyes dropped to his wrist. Before Edward could issue the request, Jasper was already in his ear. "Just doubled back and swept the main and side routes. No sign of her, sir. Or the patrols. What you want me to do? Want me to check again? I'm about 30 seconds out."
"Negative. Head this way. We've got to get–" Edward trailed off, and for the first time in what he guessed had been years, he hesitated, frozen, waffling, and unable to give the order to move out. It just wasn't what they did, regardless of the stakes. Beyond that, there was no way in hell he was leaving a civilian, especially one like the too-pretty, dark-eyed doctor, in this hellhole. Halting mid-step, he turned to his right, where Alice covered the rooflines above from across the rust-eaten hood of the second Land Cruiser. Her lips mashed into a hard, straight line that Edward couldn't read.
"She's my responsibility, Al," he said when she didn't speak. And although the words were correct, they weren't exactly right. "You know I can't leave here without her." That tightness in his chest pulsed again, this time accompanied by a knowing sink in his gut. "You take–"
"Give her two more minutes," the lieutenant said before he could finish. "They don't have her. You heard the shots yourself. She'd have fired back at least once, and I didn't hear your .45 go off."
"It's been 18 minutes." Edward's knuckles cracked. "18. She should have been here, if not already gone when we got here."
Alice adjusted her reticle to check a line of boarded-up windows. "Two minutes," she repeated, unruffled and cool in a way that defied their surroundings and situation. "You were being unrealistic anyway." Not moving away from her scope, she waved him off. "I doubt I could have made it in 10."
"Bullshit." Edward spat. "You'd have been here in 5. She should have been here. Something's wrong." He paced the length of the Land Cruiser again, not quite grasping the emotion that left his blood running cold. He checked his watch once more. "Fuck!"
"Edward... don't." There was a soft plea in Alice's tone, and from across the hood, she leveled her commander an inscrutable stare that had him dragging the toe of his boot through the gravel. "She'll be here. Have a little faith."
"They have her file," he said, slowly, enunciating each syllable. "She's on their list." Edward's palm fell from his rifle to his side, unconsciously drifting across his SAPI plates in response to the phantom ache beneath. "You know what they'll do to her if they get their hands on her."
Alice looked away then, grimacing, because she did know, or at least she'd seen the effects and been there for the aftermath.
Edward's gaze shifted right, down the length of their tucked away service alley, focusing somewhere far beyond the darkness. His jaw turned to granite. When Alice started to reply, the captain cut her off in a cold, clipped tone that said far more than his actual response. "Two minutes. That's it. Then you're leaving to meet up with Team 2, and I'm going back in there to find her."
One minute and forty tense seconds passed in utter silence. Just as Edward shoved an extra pair of magazines into his front chest pouches – prepping to do exactly what he'd told Alice he would – static sputtered through his headset. "Ghost, come in," Rosalie said. "I have a visual."
Edward's hand froze mid-air and his head whipped around, immediately locating the Marine where she crouched behind a crumbled half-wall at the far western end of the alleyway. "Where?"
"About seventy yards to my northwest." There was a brief pause, but when she came back, some mix of wonder, relief, and irritation colored the gunny's voice. "No fucking clue how she managed to get all the way over there. She just appeared. Just popped out of some random walkthrough."
"Roger that." Edward took a slow, even breath. "Anyone nearby?"
"Negative." Rosalie paused. "She looks a little rattled, though. Want me to fetch her?"
"Do it," he said, as he signaled the corporal, who'd already started to reposition opposite Rosalie. "Jazz, can you cover?"
"Already on it." Jasper's head bent to his scope. "I got her." He chuffed. "Rattled is right. Looks like someone scared the bejeebus out of her."
Less than two minutes later, a grim-faced gunnery sergeant emerged from the darkness – with a clearly shaken, wide-eyed scientist in tow.
As Bella slowed near the rear of the second Land Cruiser, her slim shoulders were heaving – from exertion, nerves, or some of both, Edward didn't know. A fine layer of dust coated her Nomex, turning it from black to gray. Tiny shards of busted up concrete caught in the creases of her gear, and when his eyes scanned up, her helmet showed the same. Even in the dark, he could tell that her face paint was smeared, too. Twin vertical tracks ran from the outer corners of her eyes all the way down to her chin.
His fingers twitched.
For the first time in more than twenty minutes, despite the fact that she still stood in the middle of enemy territory, Bella sucked in a real, full chestful of air. It tasted like dust and sweat, cut with a heavy dose of gun powder, but beneath all that, whether real or imagined, she also detected the hint of ever-familiar aftershave. It was that bit of reassurance that had her knees wobbling, but instead of falling into him like she really wanted to, Bella held firm and slowly lifted her face, unsure if she'd find the same relief looking back.
Whatever she'd expected, it wasn't the steely, iron-jawed, pissed-off expression that stared back down at her.
Bella blinked. "I'm–"
"Where the fuck were you?" the captain snapped, coldly furious even as that ruthless tightness in his chest finally, finally relented. Before he finished – before he even registered his own movement – he had her in both hands by the armor, pushing her up against the door of the Land Cruiser. His rifle hung forgotten, caught between them.
Bella's lips parted. "I–"
"10 minutes!" Edward barked, not loosening his hold as his eyes searched hers. "You. Weren't. Here."
"I ran in–"
"Do you have any idea… any idea at all?" He shook his head, clearing away all the gruesome images he didn't want to see. His grip tightened and he leaned into her until their faces were mere inches apart. When the barrel of his rifle dug into the top of his thigh, Edward's gaze abruptly dropped to where he had hold of Bella's vest. In a beat of stunned silence, his mouth opened, closed, and then he wheeled away from her like he'd just been shocked. "Jesus Christ!"
Closing her eyes, not quite sure what just happened, Bella sank against the side of the vehicle. "Look, I'm so–"
"Save it." Edward's palm sliced the air, and then fell to his hip. "We'll talk about it later. Let's just get the hell out of here."
Somewhere North of Mogadishu, Somalia
Edward stared through the window at the line of dry, rocky hills and boulders to their right. Behind them, the sun rose just above the horizon, peeking between the valleys, and cast the entire landscape in a soft pink-gray. He hated summer dawn in Somalia. It was one of the worst times for spotting an enemy – already getting too hot for decent thermals and far too bright for augmented night vision, but there was plenty of dark left in the shadows and rocks for someone to hide.
"Captain Cullen?" Bella asked again, this time louder as she eyed the man's still-angry expression from her spot in the backseat. Beside him, the corporal shifted in the driver's seat. His pale gray eyes lifted to the rear view mirror but as soon as they made contact with hers, instantly moved back to the rarely-traveled dirt trail in front of them.
Bella unclipped her chinstrap to tug off her helmet and cleared her voice. "Cap–"
Edward blew out a loud breath. "What is it, Doctor Swan?"
The silence in the truck seemed to swell, and Bella's gaze dropped from the hard angle of the captain's jawline to the BFT screen balanced on his knee. Next to it, his fist curled into a tight ball. Beneath the tanned skin of his forearm, now bare since he'd rolled up his sleeves, lean muscle flexed and rolled.
"Hey, I'm so–"
Not looking away from the window and the passing scene beyond, Edward wiped his face in a move Bella could only describe as tired frustration. "Jazz, pull over."
The corporal eyed Edward askance. "Sir?"
"Just do it." The muscles of the captain's forearm flexed again as his fingers drummed a hard, tight rhythm against his thigh.
Hearing something in his commander's voice that Bella didn't recognize, Jasper straightened immediately, and by the time he replied with a quiet, clipped, "Yes, sir," he was already downshifting. The Land Cruiser rolled to a stop a moment later, with the lieutenant's truck in the rear following only a few lengths behind.
"Doctor, please exit the vehicle," Edward said, quiet and low, when Jasper killed the engine. Before Bella could argue or even ask why, he loosened the straps of his armor with quick, efficient movements and then shucked off his vest as he slid outside the door.
Ignoring her own, Bella glanced up to Jasper, but the corporal didn't say a word. Betraying not a hint of emotion, he studiously kept his focus on the road ahead, both hands still on the wheel. Confused, exhausted, and still shell-shocked from her race through the backstreets of Mogadishu, Bella grappled with the door handle before finally kicking the door open when it refused to cooperate. When she finally stumbled out of the truck, it was to find the captain standing with his fists resting on his hips in a familiar pose, staring out across the open terrain.
She didn't speak at first, and instead took a second to study the man in front of her. Now, in the early morning light and without most of the face paint, she could see the deep lines of stress that ran across his forehead. In the hollows of his now near-black eyes were purplish-gray bruises, and his hair was messier than usual, sticking out all over as though he'd run his fingers through it too many times.
When Edward didn't speak either, Bella stepped toward him, stopping only a foot or two away. Staring out across the same open terrain, she crossed her arms over her vest, took a slow breath, and softly said, "You're angry with me."
A sound almost like a laugh came out. "Something like that."
Bella frowned. "For which part?"
"For what part?" His head turned half-way toward her, his expression incredulous. "Are you serious?"
Another almost-laugh spilled out, this one with a biting edge to it. "You mean the part where you disobeyed a direct order? Or do you mean when you went off half-cocked and emptied your only weapon?" He glared down at her. "Or maybe you mean the part where you were stupid enough to call attention to yourself when you were on the fifth floor of a building with only one way out. Or maybe the part where you–"
"Now hold on just one minute," Bella cut in, spinning around to give him his own glare right back. "I–"
Edward whipped around. "No, you hold on. I told you to leave and you didn't. We had everything under control."
Bella's jaw dropped. "No, you didn't! They were right on top of you! I was trying to give you a diversion!"
"And we didn't need it!" Edward shook his head, and inside his closed fists, his short-cut nails bit into the meat of his palms. "Don't you think we'd have planned for that alarm to trip? We've done this shit a thousand times. It's what we do, Doctor Swan. Remember?"
"Well, no one told me! I was terrified…" Bella's arms hugged tighter across her chest as echoes of the fear she'd felt watching those militants close in on the captain and his team shot through her limbs. "Terrified that they were going to kill you. Or do something awful."
Edward's face tilted up to the slowly lightening sky, and some of the heat bled out of his voice. "We were fine. But even if we weren't, it doesn't matter. You did exactly the opposite of what I told you to do. You're just lucky they didn't figure out where you were."
"How was I–"
"Do you have any idea what could have happened to you?" He took a step closer, and then another, until Bella had to tilt her face up to see his face. The stress lines across his forehead deepened. "Do you? Do you have any clue what they would have done to you if they'd caught you?"
Bella's eyes slid closed as she shook her head.
"Do you know what they did to Dr. Biers? Did your DARPA suits tell you?"
When she opened her eyes again, Edward almost didn't go on. But he needed her to understand, and that same tightness in his chest reared its ugly head, forcing him to detail things he'd have preferred her never to know. Ever. "First, they burned him," the captain told her. "They took a lighter and lit his skin on fire. Repeatedly. They cut off the fingers of his left hand. Not his right, because he had to work." The scientist flinched, but he didn't stop. "They shattered his knee caps and broke half the bones in his body. Slow and systematically. They whipped his back until there was nothing left. They…" Trailing off, Edward took half a step back, reached down to his shirt's hem, and pulled it up to reveal a maze of white and pink crisscrossed scars across his abdomen and side.
Bella's eyes widened, her face morphing into a mask of horror, and she moved to back away, but Edward stopped her. He grabbed her slender wrist and placed her palm directly over those same marks.
"This is the kind of shit they did to him. That's what they would do to you. Before I could get to you – and make no mistake that I would find you – they'd hurt you in ways you can't imagine." Edward released Bella's wrist then, but her hand didn't fall away like he expected it to. Instead, her fingers spread out in unconscious direction and her thumb lightly stroked over the ridge of one of the longer knife marks.
Now it was his turn to swallow. "But I can," he said. "I know how these people operate." His voice turned gravelly. That hard jawline of his rolled as he forced the rest out. "And they'd hurt you in other ways… ways that I couldn't be hurt. Do you understand what I'm saying?"
Bella didn't answer, and when Edward finally looked back down, her face was ashen, and her lower lip trembled, caught between her teeth. Wetness gleamed in her eyes, pooling along the bottom lids until it trailed down both of her cheeks, following the same vertical paths that he'd seen in her face paint when she'd finally showed up at the meet point.
"Shit," he muttered, as he ran an anxious hand through his hair. "Shit, don't do that. Don't cry."
For the second time in so many hours, without thinking, Edward grabbed Bella by the armor. But this time, instead of pressing her against the vehicle behind them, regardless of the Marines in the trucks nearby, he pulled her closer and wrapped his arms around her slight frame. Her arms automatically circled his waist, burrowing under his shirt until her hands found the warm skin of his back, and her head angled so that it fit beneath his chin in the crook of his neck.
"I'm sorry," Bella said, muffled against his shirt. Her face tilted up and before he knew what was happening, a pair of so-soft lips pressed against the base of his throat.
"No…" Edward's arms tightened. "You're probably not."
Bella's lips spread against his skin and her arms squeezed his waist. "Okay, I'm not sorry for doing the diversion thing because I really thought you needed it…but I am sorry I scared you."
Edward didn't reply as he sorted through the myriad of sensations. A long second passed before he finally smoothed away a wild strand of Bella's hair and kissed her forehead. "I haven't felt that emotion in… a long time," he said, his voice distant and soft. "I don't like it."
When Bella squeezed him again, Edward squeezed back, but then he stiffened, pulling away only far enough to look down. "Now tell me why you took twice as long as you should have to get to the trucks."
Notes: Thanks for your patience and for sticking with me. Hopefully another long-ass chapter and the outtake made up for the wait.
Glossary: I think we've finally reached a point where there aren't too many new terms. I'll keep adding them as they come, but none this chapter.