Stephenie Meyer owns Twilight. I'm borrowing her characters, dressing them up in MARPAT, and giving them some guns. BilliCullen and Scooterstale (amazingly) are still with me and making sure they're ready for inspection.
It's been a while… I know. Just know I'm as happy as (probably happier than) you to be back writing this story. I missed it and you guys – a lot.
Happy New Year! Here's to plenty of writing time in 2016 :)
Target Safe House
Somewhere South-West of the Target Compound, Along the Ethiopian Border
By the time they blasted through another round of maze-like hallways and empty rooms to reach the gunnery sergeant's location in the center of the building, the stream of black-clad militants had disappeared, and just like those few seconds before they'd breached, everything went eerily silent.
With a quick sweep of the last room, Edward signaled Alice to cover the hall and crossed the dusty, pock-marked floor in a handful of long, silent strides to take position opposite Rosalie. Crouched low and tense beside a narrow doorframe in the far corner, the gunny had her weapon aimed through the open door into a darkened room beyond. The second his shoulder hit the wall, without looking away from her target, she jerked her chin in the direction of her rifle.
Edward inched his barrel around the splintered frame. The beam of his rail-mounted spotlight cut through a thick wall of suspended dust to the back of a large closet, where yet another door – this one heavy and steel – stood slightly ajar. On the knob, a set of bloody fingerprints glistened fresh and slick, and when his spotlight winked out, the faint glow from some kind of manmade source down below remained, haloing the entry.
"How many we looking at?" he asked, sliding back around the frame.
"Fuck, if I know." Splattered with the fine spray of red from close range combat, Rosalie shrugged. "Saw two run in myself. No telling how many before I got here."
"Meh." She shrugged again. "It could be worse."
Before the captain could reply, across the room, Alice coughed out a smart-ass remark that made his eyes roll.
"What?" The gunny's lips curved, even as she simultaneously made a dozen small, unconscious adjustments to her stance and position. The bright red line of her laser sight pinged off the door, head-level. "It's true. Just ask Dumbass when he finally decides to show up..." She spat to the side. "Where the fuck are they anyway?"
Unease curled in Edward's gut. His gaze fell to his wrist. "Bear-man, what is your ETA?"
Instead of the radio, a whisper of fabric answered him, followed by two sets of boots scuffing against concrete. "How 'bout 0?" the big man rumbled, right as a wide wall of desert patterned MARPAT moved in and out of Edward's periphery.
"Took you long enough."
Emmett slid behind Rosalie. Peeking over her shoulder, he made an ugly face at the dark. "Aw, man, this is some fucked up shit."
Rosalie snorted. "Titty-baby."
The staff sergeant glanced back and wagged his bushy brows. "You offerin', gunny?"
The blonde rammed her elbow into his armor hard enough to break a few bones, but Emmett just grinned like the devil and eased back around the wall. "Seriously, though." He spat. "Ain't nothin' good ever come out of a shit-lit basement in the middle of this goddamned desert. If I get my ass shot again, Captain, you owe me $10."
Edward's mouth flattened into a hard line. "How about no one gets anything shot, and I'll give everyone $10."
A quiet, "I'll make it $20," came from behind him, just as a palm flattened against the SAPI plate protecting his ribcage. Weightless and subtle through the armor – like she just needed to hold onto something solid for a minute – Edward felt that gentle touch down to the bone. Bella's pale, dirt-smudged face appeared at his elbow, and when she glanced up and shot him a weak, fleeting smile, his expression softened, even though the fist in his gut tightened.
"You okay?" Edward asked, just resisting the urge to remove her bodily from the building, operation be damned.
Nose wrinkling, oblivious to the captain's internal war, Bella shoved a loose, sweat-slicked strand of hair back under her Kevlar. "My ears are ringing from Emmett's rifle, if that's what you mean." She frowned at the soot and smoky grime that filled in the tense lines of Edward's face. A streak of something darker and wetter stained his rim of his collar and the tanned skin just beneath. "You?"
"Just another day in the suck, Doctor Swan." A hint of wry amusement tugged on Edward's lips, only to vanish a second later when he peered past the doorway into the dark space in front of them. "Remember, you stick with Em, no matter what. You understand?"
She nodded slowly. "You be careful yourself." Her fingertips skated down his side and dropped away. "Okay?"
Not answering at first, Edward stared at her for a long, still moment. Finally, his chin dipped in a short, tight acknowledgement and then he was all business again, motioning to Alice and Emmett to take their positions. With another quick, silent gesture, a series of metallic snaps came from behind them. Stealing a glance over her shoulder, Bella caught Emmett's grimace as it disappeared behind an all-too-familiar sight. When the big man spotted Bella's wide-eyed attention, he winked behind the tinted Lexan and flashed her a thumb's up.
"Mask up, Doc."
Saying nothing, Bella nodded again, and with shaking fingers, she pulled up the standard M50 full-face gas mask hanging around her neck and clipped it into place. Like always, her lungs protested the initial restriction from the filters, making the shallow in and out of her breath sound like a windstorm to her ears. Out of habit more than thought, Bella capped the outlet valve with her palm to check the seal. When she went to give the commander her okay, Edward's fingers were abruptly under her jaw, gently tipping her head back. His eyes, near black behind his own mask, again roamed her face, checking her gear for himself, but this time with a sharp, unnerving focus that made the fine hair on the back of her neck stand on end.
"Alright," Edward said when Bella swallowed, releasing her with the same abruptness to glance over to Emmett. The two men shared a split second of silent communication, reminiscent of their vague, solemn exchange on the ridge, and then he turned to Rosalie. "Let's move, Blondie."
Not making a sound, barrels up and scanning the route in front of them, the captain and the gunnery sergeant stepped in unison toward the door hidden in the rear of the closet. Without wasting a single moment, Edward's rifle slid into the open crack, edging the steel panel wide enough for him to slip through. Before Bella could think to hold her breath, he was gone. Hot on his heels, Rosalie paused to give them the go ahead, and then she vanished, too.
A light rap on Bella's helmet made her flinch. "That's our cue."
Like every other time they'd started this particular dance, everything moved in a dizzying blur of color and sound. Sandwiched between Emmett and Alice, Bella's heart pounded in her throat as they cut through the wall of swirling dust. By the third step, Bella's boots crossed the threshold and hit the landing. Her eyes had just enough time to catch the wet, bloody handprint on the door knob before being drawn down the rough-cut stairway to the bottom where the captain's silhouette stretched long against the cinderblock wall.
At the bottom, Edward and Rosalie fanned out into a large, open space lit by nothing more than a pair of low wattage droplights swinging from the ceiling. Built from stone and cheap aggregate, the basement was more of a high-ceilinged warehouse than anything. It occupied what Edward guessed was the entire footprint of the building – plus no telling what else they couldn't see. To his left, fold out tables with matching metal chairs stood empty, and behind them, a ragged old corduroy couch squeezed into a darkened niche. A triplet of black metal drums sat on a packed dirt floor in the distant corner, their bungs open, and with a long red barrel pump bridging the tops. Seven or eight translucent IBC-type containers – all around the 300-gallon mark and ranging from empty to full – lined the adjacent walls. Center-right, boxes and crates stamped in half a dozen languages formed long, neat rows, broken only by a lone straggler still jacked up on an old rusty pallet truck parked off to the side. At the far end, the dimly lit mouth of an arched, hand-dug hallway beckoned.
"Ghost, you see that shit?" Finger twitching on her trigger, Rosalie inched forward. "Fuck knows where it goes."
Edward nodded and adjusted the camera on his helmet. "Jazz, are you getting all this?"
Static crackled in Edward's earpiece. "Yes, sir."
"Any ideas where it comes out?"
"Already pulling up the sat images." There was a short pause in the corporal's transmission, followed by another pop of static. "Hard to tell. There's a couple of rock formations outside the perimeter. Angles are dogshit, but there's a big pile dead east, about a click and a half out. The shadows they're throwing look off."
The captain's features turned grim. "Reposition and let Quantico know." He eyed the room and the dark target at the end with a muttered curse. "Once you're there, take down anything that comes out that's not us."
"You got it, sir."
After one last nod, Edward signaled Rosalie, motioning her to take the left as he began moving toward the row of IBCs. They advanced quickly, crouching low. With each step, the captain's laser line slashed from left to right, slicing up the shadows. On the opposite side, the gunny's painted the walls cherry.
Edward cleared the first opaque tote.
Not a whisper of movement.
A beat later, he cleared the second.
Utter silence, except for the crunch of their boots against the grit and sand.
At the third opaque vessel, the air pulsed. A fine, all-too-familiar current of awareness tickled the captain's spine. Lifting his fist in a silent order, Edward's pace slowed to a crawl. His barrel swept the dark, narrow space between the containers, illuminating the space in eerie green light. As his sight slid past, the air shifted again.
Edward whipped to the left. Barking out a loud command, he fired off a tight triplet of shots at a black, smoky phantom ducking behind a barricade of crates.
A loud, wrenching scream in Arabic answered him back, right as a black-clad militant staggered out of the shadows. Another pair of shots slammed into his chest. The man howled again. Blasting a wild spray of bullets from the AK-47 hung at his waist, he finally toppled over, face first in a pool of his own blood.
There was a beat of shocked silence, and then a half dozen soldiers poured out of the deeper shadows, bombarding the basement in non-stop gunfire that seemed to come from everywhere all at once.
Over Bella's head, rounds strafed the framing and girders, sparking bright white against the steel. A chunk of the cement reinforcement exploded above, showering her in pebbles. Another bit off the corner of the wall beside her. Bella jolted, but before she could duck, Emmett's heavy hand was on her shoulder, shoving her behind him.
"What'd the captain tell you, Doc?" the big man yelled over the bursts of heavy fire. Wearing a near-feral grin behind his mask, he swung to the right, nailing an approaching militant dead in the chest. The man dropped instantly. Choking on a curse, a second fell close behind him. "You keep your ass behind me!"
Ahead, two more soldiers jumped out of the shadows, centering on the blonde gunnery sergeant in front of them. Without breaking stride, Rosalie mowed them down in a hail of bullets and screams. Frozen, Bella watched as another – this one wielding a wicked-looking serrated blade – came at the woman from behind. Even from across the room, his eyes burned with a kind of savage zeal that Bella had only ever seen on TV.
Bella's shriek came out strangled. "Rosalie!"
Right as the man raised his knife, the green bead of Edward's laser line pinned him. Another triplet of shots to the chest spun him, knocking him into the wall. The knife clattered against the concrete. Gaping down at the glistening liquid staining his shirt, he slumped, and then the man slid down into a crumpled heap, leaving a dark, crimson trail on the cinderblock.
Glancing over her shoulder, the gunnery sergeant grumbled a pissed off curse, but she kept moving, not stopping until she hit the mouth of the hallway. As soon as she turned to cover the room, Edward growled out another command. "Now, Tink!"
Alice swept past Bella and Emmett, grabbing a baseball-sized explosive from one of her hip pouches. In a single, smooth motion, she yanked the pin out with her teeth and bowled the grenade across the floor toward a remaining cluster of militants. Smoke billowed as it rolled, obscuring everything until all Bella saw was misty gray.
"Frag out!" the lieutenant shouted over the chaos. On cue, an ear-splitting concussion of sound rocked the walls and shook the floor, and the basement lit up in a dizzying display of strobe-like flashes. "Move!"
In unison, they cleared the length of the basement with lightning speed, picking off the remaining soldiers as they flew by. At the entry to the hallway, Bella stopped between the captain and the gunny. Fighting against the restriction of her mask, her lungs sucked in a deep chestful of air. She dared a peek over her shoulder. The smoke from Alice's grenade was already dissipating, rising and escaping through the maze of cracks and crevices overhead. Littered with fallen soldiers, the floor behind them gleamed slick and red. The scene looked like something out of a horror movie.
"Doctor," Edward said by her ear, his voice soft and so incongruous with the scene behind them. "Now's not the time to think."
Shell-shocked, Bella looked up, and her eyes locked with his, only to jump down to a dark, spreading blossom on his shoulder. Room forgotten, her heart hammered and her words came out hoarse. "You were hit."
Edward followed the scientist's wide-eyed gaze to an inch and a half long gash he'd not even noticed. "Minor." He shook his head. "Just some shrapnel. Are you alright?"
Still eying his wound, she swallowed. "I'm good. Don't worry about me."
His jaw rolled and he stared at her for a second more before looking over her head to Rosalie. When the Marine gave him the go ahead, he peered around the corner into the long, empty passageway.
Hung off old orange extension cords, a handful of sparsely placed bulbs flickered in and out, giving off just enough light to catch the deep gouges and tool marks scarring the hand-cut stone walls. Twenty yards in, a second passage veered off to the right. Ten yards from there, another – this one black as night – went left, and after another dozen, the main pathway began to bend, curving toward what Edward thought might be the formation of rocks Jazz had identified from the satellite shots.
"This fuckin' sucks," Emmett muttered, hefting his rifle higher on his shoulder.
The space was barely wide enough for two, and with a rough, sloping ceiling no more than seven feet in the center, it was a claustrophobic's nightmare. Edward's side tingled in response, reminding him all too well of another underground hole – one he'd once been carried out of broken, bleeding, and barely clinging to the air in his chest.
"Yes, Staff Sergeant, it fucking sucks." Edward paused at the entrance. "You and Tink watch our backs. Doctor Swan stays between us."
Two by two, they crept down the passage. At the first T, Edward dropped to a knee and in a smooth, effortless move Bella now recognized as something completely his, he slid around the corner, barrel in the lead. He motioned them forward a second later, and as they passed, a quick shine of her flashlight revealed the branch was nothing more than a dead end, terminating after only a few yards with a pile of caved in rocks and debris.
Bella glanced at the walls and ceiling, noting the maze of jagged cracks in a sheet of limestone devoid of bracing. "You know, gunfire might not be a good idea in here."
Alice's tinkling laugh echoed. "Tell that to the bad guys, B."
When they hit the second T, Edward halted. Aiming his light down the long, pitch black hall, he caught the telltale imprints of boots in the dirt. Something brown – most likely blood – streaked along the right-hand wall.
Edward's fist shot up as he searched the silence. In the distance, reverberating off the walls, men's voices rumbled. The echoes made it impossible to guess the direction.
"Which way, Captain?"
"Not that way," Bella whispered, pointing to the ceiling when the two Marines in the lead looked back. "See that?" She ran a fingertip over a length of copper tubing strapped to the rock and running toward the bend in the hallway in front of them. Beneath her glove, the metal hummed. "It's the same as above. There's coolant flowing in here. We need to keep going."
Chewing the inside of her cheek, Bella stared at the footprints and the streak of what she could only guess was blood. It was brown – old. And unlike the rest of the places they'd been, the air inside the darker passage was too clear, absent the swirling dust and grime that denoted recent movement. Looking back to the main passage, she touched the copper tubing one last time. "Whatever they've got going… Captain, it's straight ahead."
Edward didn't hesitate. "Let's move. Be ready for anything."
A hundred fifty yards in, the rumble of voices grew louder and more distinct. Sorting through the coarser Arabic and local dialects, Edward picked up a handful of words in English, each spoken with an all too familiar Eastern European accent.
"You idiots… told you…" Aronović was yelling, his voice high and agitated. "Give that to me and… You, shut down system before…"
A moment later, another voice cut in.
"Doctor, you need to leave at once…" Unlike Aro, this one's crisp, British-accented baritone belied nothing but the cool confidence of someone used to being in tight situations. "Leave the Marines to me…"
"Now, Doctor…" There was a loud, metallic pop, followed by the hiss of pressurized doors. "We knew… was an eventuality... You know where to go."
Rosalie cursed. "Is that who I think it is?"
Edward nodded. "It is, and we need to move in fast." Wearing a cut-from-stone expression, the captain glanced back to his lieutenant. "Careful with the frags. They may have rigged the caves."
When Bella looked over to Alice, the woman's usual dancing eyes and smiling lips were as cold and hard as her commander's.
Without another word, they moved, speeding through the next hundred yards exactly as Edward ordered – low and fast, no longer worrying about the noise and dust giving up their approach. They rounded another curve in the passageway, and the walls began to widen, opening up into a long, dome-shaped anteroom. Along each wall were more supplies – boxes, bins, crates, all stamped in a half a dozen languages and fonts. Smaller totes and opaque bottles sat in the corner. At the end, where a door likely once stood, hung wide strips of black rubber. Bright fluorescent light spilled out between the strips.
Giving Rosalie the go ahead, the two Marines barreled through the rubber strips, diving to a pristine white tile floor and rolling when gunfire erupted in front of them.
"Get down!" Edward yelled back, even as he rose up behind a large, black-topped lab bench and fired off a barrage of his own. Spinning to the right, he targeted an approaching soldier – this one a pale blond in Flecktarn camo and wielding a high-end Steyr assault rifle. Grunting, the man stumbled backward into a set of floor to ceiling shelves, but his armor took the hits, and he didn't go down. Instead, he moved like lightning. Rattling off a command to another pair behind him, the man sprayed the long bench in front of Edward, forcing him back to the floor. Bullets ricocheted off the bench top, flying everywhere.
Following the captain's orders, Bella slipped through the black rubber strips on her hands and knees and crawled over to a massive set of file cabinets. Peeping around the corner, trying to focus on her task and not the chaos all around them, she scanned the scene in front of them.
Unlike the dingy basement, house, or hand-cut caves, this space was modern in the extreme. With its white walls, white floors, and high-lumen fluorescents, it could have been one of her labs at DARPA. Long rows of black and wood benches cut across the middle, intersected by shelves and bright yellow chemical cabinets. Minus some of the higher-end analytical equipment, it was a smaller version of the lab she'd seen in the images the Deltas had sent from the compound. And like that lab, a clear-walled, 20 x 20 walk-through hood room with double-door airlock entries on each side rose up in the center.
Bella cursed as she peered up to the drop-ceiling in search of copper tubing. "Damn it."
"You say somethin', Doc?" Emmett shouted as he fired across the top of the filing cabinet.
He dropped down as responding shots riddled the heavy metal plating in front of them. One pinged off the tile by Bella's foot. Tucking herself into a tighter ball, Bella beckoned him over and thumbed over her head toward the center of the room.
The big man chuckled. "Yeah, that's not happening."
"We can't leave without checking it out. That's where it would be." Fat beads of sweat rolled down Bella's neck, matting the hair that stuck out of her Kevlar. She squeezed her fist around the grip of the captain's sidearm. "We have to know if they've succeeded."
"Captain, you hearin' this?" Popping up, Emmett blasted out another volley of shots at a group of soldiers twenty yards away. Highly trained and quick, the men scattered, ducking behind the heavy furniture and cabinets. The Marine fired again, hitting the one closest in the throat, right above the armor, and sending him careening into the bench behind him. As he went down, a shot buzzed past, far too close for comfort, and when Emmett dropped back down beside Bella, blood oozed down his shoulder to his forearm. He spared the wound little more than an irritated glance. "Fuck, I hate this place."
"You hit, Bear-man?" Edward yelled, as he finally took out the blond with a round to the temple, and then the next one who materialized in his place.
"Nothin' that counts," Emmett yelled back, this time firing around the side of the holey cabinet. "But Doc here, she says we gotta check out that clear shitbox in the middle." He fired again, driving back another advancing mercenary. "If you can divert, I'll get 'er there."
There was a beat of silence. "Done." In a lightning-fast move, the captain darted around the side of the bench in front of him, vaulted over a lower-lying desk, and ducked behind the next row of benches. "Tink, Blondie, let's move." He swapped magazines. "Lay down as much cover fire as you can." His voice took on a deeper, angrier tone. "And don't you dare get hit, Doctor Swan."
Like a well-oiled machine, the three Marines bombarded the laboratory, laying down non-stop, alternating barrages as they began slowly moving forward, row by row.
"You stick close!" Emmett barked at Bella behind his mask. Staying low, he duck-walked around her and studied the three-foot wide empty path between the end cabinets and the white, cinderblock walls. "Keep your head down and hug any cover you can find like your fuckin' life depends on it."
Breath burning in her lungs as the reality of what she was doing solidified in her chest, Bella nodded. "Got it." She crawled over behind him. "Just get me there. It won't take me long to see where they are."
Back on the other side of lab, Edward swore a dozen curses as his peripheral vision caught his Marine and their scientist creeping along the wall. Just like she'd been told, she kept to the bigger man's shadow, and every time she took a step, she had that sidearm aimed in front of her, ready to fire. "Tink," he called over. "Drop some smoke. No frags."
"Already on it!" The lieutenant called out as she lobbed the smoke grenade toward a line of soldiers twenty yards ahead. As it flew through the air, she slid across the black benchtop to the next row, scattering shards of broken glassware to the floor. Springing up again, she launched a second grenade to the right of the first, creating a wall of billowing smoke. "Blondie, you're clear!"
Side-stepping a fallen soldier, the blonde sent a fury of fire across the laboratory. As she rounded a shelf, a camo-clad arm knocked her barrel down. His other arm came around, but when the hiding soldier would have grabbed her, Rosalie's elbow crashed into the man's almost-pretty face. He grunted out an epithet in what she could only guess was some kind of Slavic tongue. Before he could retaliate, letting her rifle fall to her sling, Rosalie gripped the man by his armored vest, stepped in, and flipped him across her hip to his back.
Unlike those black-clad desert hires, this guy was fast. As soon as he hit the tile, he whipped out a knife from his belt.
"What's with you fucks and knives?"
Rosalie's boot stomped onto his wrist before he could stab her, cracking the bones in his hand. The man spit out another consonant-filled curse before dragging her down to the ground. They tumbled, punching and fighting a few seconds more. His blade swiped in a haphazard pattern, ripping through her shirt and then again across her calf. She rolled before the serrated edge could hit more than leather and then rolled again, this time back on top of him.
Straddling his chest, Rosalie growled and stunned the soldier with a heavy fist to the throat. His muffled choke cut off as her palm struck his nose, aiming upward toward his brain. There was a sickening crunch! and then everything went limp. Rising and regaining her weapon, the gunny glanced down at the pile of limbs and blood and blew out a loud breath. "Yeah, fuck you, too, asshole."
Against the wall on the far side of the lab, Bella watched Emmett's shoulders abruptly tense, and then his voice, 100% absent the ever-present joking, boomed. "Goddamnit, Ro!"
Bella's breath caught, and her eyes darted across the lab to where the gunnery sergeant slowly stood up by a shelf filled with reams of paper and glassware. There was a long rip across the front of her shirt, revealing the beige armored plates beneath, and her gas mask was askew. An angry purple-red mark – one of those that would make a nasty bruise – ran from her ear to her chin. Even from a distance she could see the outline of fingers.
"What is your condition?" Emmett's voice boomed again. When she didn't answer, he tapped his throat-mike hard enough everyone jumped. "I'm serious, woman. What the fuck happened?"
The two looked at each other from across the laboratory for a long moment before Rosalie's hard glare finally softened. "I happened to him worse than he happened to me. It's fine. We can play doctor later."
Where Bella would have expected the Marine to come back with some smart ass remark or innuendo, this time he didn't. His harsh expression didn't change at all. The only thing he said was a low, gravelly, "You're fuckin' right, we will."
"Keep moving, Staff Sergeant," Rosalie ordered, at the same time signaling the diminutive lieutenant behind her, who lobbed another round of smoke grenades toward the front of the lab. Stepping over the dead man at her feet, she slapped in another magazine and blasted a dozen rounds at a pair of combatants circling around. "Captain, you got a line on that blond fucker at your 4 o'clock? Looks like he's moving toward Bear-man and Doc."
In Edward's earpiece, a burst of static came over top of Rosalie. "Captain, I'm in position." As if he'd been running a marathon, Jasper panted. "I got three black Range Rovers up under a big-ass limestone ledge. Another one flew out like a bat out of hell right as I got here. At least three in the vehicle. Think I hit one of 'em through the glass. Wasn't close enough to blow the engine."
"Fuck." Edward waved Rosalie and Alice to the left, as he trained his weapon toward a slow-creeping blond target four rows up. Low as he was, the benches hid his profile, but he moved smoothly and silently – like a man born in combat. "At least we got their exit point."
His laser line found the side of the man's neck, centering on an old blue-gray tattoo.
"And I got Walker," Edward mouthed, right as he fired.
The bullet cut through the door of one of the yellow cabinets.
"Damn it." Edward's brows slanted as he scanned the tops of the benches for the other captain. "Stay put," he said back to the corporal. "You're going to get some more guests pretty soon. In the meantime, get Quantico tracking the one that we missed."
Ten feet away from the walk-through, still red-faced and pissed off, Emmett turned to Bella and gestured toward a small stainless prep table by the airlock entry on their side of the lab. "All right, Doc. Position yourself there. Wait for me to give you the go, and then you head straight to that first door. Do not hesitate for anything. Got it?"
Bella took a slow breath. Inside her gloves, her palms were slick. "Got it."
The big man studied the clear-walled room, noting the distortion where the walls met in the corners. "What happens if they fire at that fucker? That plastic shit worth anything?"
"Doesn't look like a lot." Bella shook her head. "But it might as well be bullet proof. The panels are at least an inch thick and the whole thing is designed for things that go boom. That's the safest place in this whole lab right now…" She shrugged. "Well, unless there's XR-5 in there."
The grudging appreciation that had started to work across the Marine's face turned into a hard grimace that almost earned him a smile. "Get in and out as fast as you can. Stay low. Someone comes at you, shoot his ass."
"I know. I will. Same to you."
The grimace twitched.
With one last sweep of the nearby rows, the big man gave her the go ahead, and Bella shot from their spot to the first interlock door. Not wasting any time, she smacked the two-inch green pushbutton by the knob. There was a long, nerve-wracking pause before the locks started clicking. As soon as she finally heard the hiss of the pressurized door, she threw it open and dove into the interlock. The door thumped closed behind her, muffling the non-stop gunfire in the lab beyond.
"Still good. Move!" Emmett said into her earpiece. "Remember, in and out!"
Repeating the same procedure, Bella's skin buzzed with adrenaline as she waited for the longer timer on the second door to release, and once inside, she moved faster than she ever thought herself capable.
"Bear-man," Edward whispered into his throat-mike, ducking behind a bench right as a hail of gunfire passed overhead. "Target matching Walker's description headed in your direction. I'm making my way over to you now." He rose and blasted a response. "Tink, lay down more smoke. Blondie, light this bitch up."
"Roger that." One eye on the walk-through and the woman inside, Emmett hefted his rifle and advanced to the stainless table by the interlock.
Inside the hood, Bella rifled through a third stack of paperwork. Lines and lines of complex calculations and hand-scrawled mechanisms filled the pages. Most of it looked like nonsense – theories and trials that had no prayer of working – but when her eyes hit the last page and the formula with its red-lettered note beside it, her heart froze in her chest. The papers hit the floor, and she raced over to a seemingly innocuous, chest-high, gray cabinet situated on the left-hand side of the hood. That same copper tubing ran down outside of the clear wall behind it and then elbowed through the plastic and into the back of the cabinet.
"Shit." Bella threw open the banged up panels. Inside, spaghetti-like tubing and multi-colored wires connected eight steel vacuum extraction vessels to a humming, make-shift cryogenic chiller beneath. Homemade, she thought, eyeing the connections. But sophisticated enough and clearly built by someone who knew what they were doing – Aro. Next to the largest vessel, the indicator light on a small LED display pulsed red. Wetting her lips, Bella thumbed through the controls, stopping when she hit the screen that tracked the vessels' levels.
Last discharge: 06/20/13, 21:42.
Slowly, Bella squatted to the small black refrigerator positioned by the extraction unit. Hands shaking, she cracked open the door. Amber-colored bottles lined the door and the drawers, but what grabbed her attention were the six high-capacity centrifuge racks sitting on the top shelf. Dozens of half-full vials filled the rows, each position marked by unique sequences of numbers. Scanning the labels, Bella's heart froze all over again when she noted the last empty row in the rack closest to the door.
"Shit. Shit, shit, shit!" she said, sprinting back to the papers littering the tile. Grabbing that last sheet, she matched the numbers scribbled in red beside the formula to those of the missing vials. "Captain." Her voice rose in pitch. "We have a serious prob–"
The hiss of a door interrupted her.
Looking up, Bella's eyes widened as a heavily-armed soldier – tall, stringy blond, and with a hawk-billed nose she'd recognize anywhere – slipped inside the first interlock on the opposite side of the walk-through. When he caught her staring, mouth-agape, he grinned what she could only call an evil grin and winked, and then he hit the button for the second door.
Almost on auto-pilot, Bella stood, her arm rose, and the black bead of her .45 trained on the man getting ready to walk into the hood. Edward's softly spoken instructions from weeks ago whispered in her ear.
Feet shoulder width... Lean forward a little... Relax.
Outside, a cacophony of sound erupted – rapid, earsplitting gunfire, men shouting, and something Bella vaguely thought might be a fragmentation grenade going off. In her periphery, the fluorescent lights flickered and popped. Behind her, the locks on interlock she'd come through began clicking, and both Emmett's and the captain's voices growled through her headset.
"Get her the fuck out of there!"
"I'm on it!"
Directly in front of her, the second door slid open. Without a moment of hesitation, hand rock steady, Bella fired – three shots just like she'd been taught to do.
But like outside, Walker was too fast. Anticipating her attack, he spun to the side the moment he entered the hood and ducked behind a glove box. Bella's bullets lodged in the wall where his chest had been. Spider webs of translucent cracks spread through the heavy duty material.
"Doctor Swan, I presume," Walker said, giving her that same leering grin as he came out from behind the glove box. Unruffled, not even bothering with his own weapon – as if she were a mere annoyance rather than a threat – he stalked around the stainless steel prep table in the center of the hood. "You may call me James."
Adrenaline poured through Bella's veins as she fired again, but again, the former British captain darted out of the way just before the trigger depressed, dodging the bullets like he'd read her mind.
She took a step backward, trying to gain some space between them, even as her finger curled around the trigger again. Before she could get off the next round, Walker pounced, jumping toward her in a move so quick she didn't have time to blink.
His elbow snaked around her throat, cinched hard, and then he jerked her up on her tiptoes, pulling her back tight against his chest. Bella thrashed against the stranglehold, but the man's grip was like iron and his free hand locked around her wrist, freezing it before she could bring up her weapon. "Now, now, Doctor," he purred in her ear. His fingers slowly started squeezing her hand, not stopping until she yelped. Her weapon clattered to the floor, skidding several feet away when he kicked it. "We'll have no more of that."
"What the hell do you want?" she said, throwing her elbow into his ribs for all she was worth.
He didn't even flinch.
"Isn't that the question of the century." Walker laughed, and she smelled spearmint – fresh and absurd considering where they were – on his breath. "But for now, Aro says you'll do."
"For what? You've already re-engineered it!"
"You'll see." He laughed again and then instead of killing her like she'd expected, he began dragging her across the hood toward the set of doors he'd come through. Twisting, she slammed her heel into his shin, finally gaining a grunt from the man, but he still didn't let go. Instead, his grip tightened until Bella could hear the fine bones in her wrist grinding. Oxygen wheezed through the filters of her mask. "If you cooperate, we won't have to make this unpleasant."
Almost at the door, Bella finally broke free, getting only far enough away for him to grab her by the arm and yank her back with a punishing blow to the head. Her mask flew off, along with her Kevlar. "Stupid bitch." He backhanded her so hard her vision blurred.
"If you think I'll do anything to help you sick fucks, screw you!" Bella coughed out, spitting blood.
Walker jerked her back on her toes. "Oh, believe me, I have every intention," he said. Leaning in close enough Bella could smell that absurd spearmint again, he licked the blood from the corner of her mouth.
Bella blanched. Struggling again, not giving up for a second, she landed a wild punch to his jaw. He grabbed her wrist, and then wrenched her arm behind her back and shoved upward. "Are you done? Or do I need to break something to prove my point?" Her elbow popped, stopping a hair's breadth from dislocating.
Bella's teeth gritted against the sound that threatened to spill out.
"That's what I thought. Now, let's move."
Right as Walker hit the button for the door, the interlock behind them disengaged. There was a hiss and then a pair of rounds blasted into the wall over their heads.
"Hey, asshole, you're gonna stop right where you are."
Bella's spine straightened at the snarl in Emmett's command, but Walker didn't even tense. Instead, he let out a low chuckle and slowly turned, swinging Bella around like a shield. "Ah, yes, the ever-predictable United States Marine."
"If you mean I'll put a bullet in your ugly fuckin' face every motherfuckin' day, then yeah, I'm a sure thing."
"Such a foul mouth... Expected really, for someone of your… class." Walker chuckled again. "Do you really think you can stop what's been put in motion? You have no bloody idea what you're up against."
"I know we'll take your ass out real fuckin' quick." Trigger finger tightening, eyes never leaving Walker, Emmett maneuvered around the prep table in the center of the hood. "Doc, you alright?"
Bella's face throbbed and sharp pain radiated from her elbow to her shoulder. Bruised and a little sprained, but thankfully, nothing seemed broken. "I've been better." Her gaze darted left, where she could see the heavy gun battle raging outside the walk-through. Almost to the interlock, the captain – pissed off and looking like he could spit nails – took aim at a triplet of soldiers running kamikaze toward him.
"Oh, she'll be–"
Walker's words cut off as he whipped his sidearm up and fired at Emmett. Screaming at the loud crack that followed and then even louder as the big man across from her went down, Bella flailed against his hold. With everything she had, she kicked backward, hitting Walker in the shin again. His next shot went wide, ringing off the stainless table. He fired again, missing when Bella flipped around, grabbed a piece of glassware, and smashed it into the side of his face.
"You fucking bitch!" he yelled, shoving her away. Her back bounced against the wall. Stepping toward her, he made an angry sound in the back of his throat and took aim, this time at her chest.
Another loud crack! echoed in the room. Bella blinked as Walker jerked away from her, his blood splattering her face from a wound to his shoulder as he spun. Her eyes flew left, where Emmett had regained his footing and was already firing off another round at her assailant. The right side of the Marine's gas mask was shattered and there was a line of red trickling down his neck, but otherwise, he looked solid.
"Are you ok–"
"Doc, get the fuck out of here!" Emmett yelled, right as he fired again, hitting Walker in the other shoulder. Walker ground out a curse. Not waiting to argue, Bella blew past the former captain and raced toward Emmett. As soon as she reached him, when she began to slow, his big palm slapped against her back, and he propelled her inside the interlock. His fist slammed against the button to shut it. "Captain, she's coming your way! I got Walker!"
Lungs seizing, Bella shook as she waited for the timer. As soon as the locks turned, she scrambled to open the door into the lab so that Emmett could come through next. When it finally released, she turned, just in time to catch the two men inside the hood as they began to circle each other.
Emmett fired, missing the other man by a fraction of a second when he dove to the side.
Even wounded, Walker was like nothing she'd ever seen. Backing toward the now-open door on his side of the hood, he returned fire. The bullet grazed Emmett's armor, enough to knock the bigger man into the centrifuge by the chiller. He got up, just as Walker slipped inside the interlock.
As the door began to slide shut, Walker reached inside one of his chest pouches. Bloodied and torn, he wore that same maniacal grin he'd given Bella when he'd first stepped inside the room. A small vial of clear fluid – just like the ones in the fridge – appeared in his hand. Walker said something that Bella couldn't make out and grinned wider as the vial sailed into the room. It shattered against the tile by Emmett's feet, right as the door thumped shut, sealing him inside.
Time stood still.
Then it moved in fast forward as Bella watched Emmett's shoulders begin to shake. His mouth opened in a silent plea and he staggered to his knees.
There was no doubt what had been in that vial.
"No! Oh, my God, no!" Bella beat against the clear walls of the walk-through, unconscious of the gunfire still going off all around her.
Less than a second later, a strong arm circled her waist, gathering her against a hard, unyielding chest. "Doctor, get down!" Edward ordered, as he hauled her away from the hood and down to the ground behind a wall of heavy gray metal cabinets. "Stay right here."
She started back toward the hood. "You don't under–"
Grabbing her by the shoulders, Edward gave her enough of shake to reclaim her sanity. "I said, stay down!" His eyes roamed Bella's battered face before meeting her still-wild ones. Fury licked across his features, replaced by a sudden coldness that made Bella's skin erupt in gooseflesh.
Edward glanced over to the enclosure, to where his Marine slumped inside on the floor, head lolling on his shoulders, and then back to the frantic woman in front of him. He ripped off his gas mask. "Put this on!"
Not looking away, he reached inside his front pocket and pulled out two of the syringes she'd given them all so many days ago. "Doctor, put the mask on and don't argue with me!"
As soon as she saw what he held, Bella launched off her knees toward him. "You can't! It's just a prototype!"
Before she could stop him, Edward sank one of the syringes into the top of his thigh and injected Bella's antidote. He gave her a small, fleeting smile. "I trust you. Now put the mask on and wait for me."
Liquid fire spread through Edward's muscles as he stood, faster and hotter than any field-injected morphine he'd ever experienced. "Tink, you and Blondie, I don't care what you do, but clear us a path out of here. I'm going after Bear-man." Moving toward the walk-though, heedless of the remaining soldiers – most of whom had already started to flee after Walker escaped through a door in the back of the lab – he emptied half a magazine into the lock mechanism of the first interlock door. The moment it released, falling apart into a hundred pieces, alarms clanged and red strobes flashed against the white ceiling. Not wavering, he emptied the rest on the second lock.
Kicking in the door, Edward raced over to the fallen Marine. Sweating and white as a sheet, Emmett's chest barely moved. Knowing the man had only a handful of seconds, he punched the other syringe into his thigh.
A high, surprisingly steady voice from outside the hood yelled for the captain to dose the big man again. "He's nearly twice normal weight. He'll need more!" Bella yanked on Edward's gas mask and ran into the hood.
"Bella, get the fuck–"
"Shut up and give him chest compressions!" Grabbing Emmett's wrist, she listened for his pulse. "It's got to circulate!"
Edward fished another syringe from his pouch and jabbed it into the staff sergeant's opposite thigh. As soon as the plunger bottomed out, following Bella's orders, he ripped Emmett's shirt, yanked out the SAPI plates, and began steady, quick compressions.
"Staff Sergeant, get the fuck up!" Edward commanded, as he pushed against the man's chest in a well-practiced rhythm. "You do not have permission to die. Do you hear me, grunt? I swear to God, I will let Gunnery Sergeant Hale beat you into the ever-loving ground if you don't get your ass up right fucking now!"
Several long, long seconds later, a wet, sputtering cough finally answered him, and Emmett groaned. "Fuuuuuck, that shit burns." One eye cranked open. "What the hell did you do to me?"
"Goddamn, Emmett. Just… goddamn." Edward swiped his glove across his forehead and his shoulders fell. "Was getting shot not enough for you?" Head shaking, the half-smile he wore didn't quite touch his eyes. Those were stormy – a potent blend of fear, fury, and relief. "Do you know how much paperwork this is going to cause me?"
"Man, fuck paperwork. And for the record, I'll take gettin' shot any day over the shit that fucker threw in here. Hell, I'll take it over that burnin' shit you shoved in my leg." Emmett stiffened and abruptly rolled to his side. He gagged, emptying his stomach in violent heaves. "Captain, I think you might have to carry my ass out."
Settling back on his haunches, Edward looked over to Bella. The woman's face was the color of Emmett's. Her hands trembled. Her lips quivered. And Edward knew that she was about at her tipping point. Tapping his throat-mike, he said to Jasper, "Jazz, I'm gonna need an evac. Can you secure us a way out of here?"
"Already on it." There was a second of silence. "I figure you got about a click before you hit the exit. I'll have one of those Range Rovers ready and waiting."
"Roger that," he said, right as Rosalie stormed into the hood.
The two sergeants stared at each other for a long, wordless moment. She mouthed something to him that made him blurt out a laugh, and then she cut him the kind of glare that'd make a lesser man run away screaming. Without waiting for him to disagree, she threw one of his tree-trunk arms over her shoulder and began dragging him to his feet. "Get up, asshole."
"Aw, come on, Doll Face," Emmett said, slurring. "You know you love me."
The other woman muttered something Bella's couldn't decipher. Whatever it was, it made Emmett snort back another laugh. Barely holding his head up, he leaned against the table.
Edward motioned to his lieutenant to take the lead. Taking Emmett's other arm, he hauled him the rest of the way up. "Jesus, how much do you weigh?"
The Marine managed a bleary smile. "Hey, I carried your ass out once."
"That you did, Big Man," Edward said, a little quieter, glancing over to Rosalie. Their scientist wasn't the only one close to her tipping point. "Either way, you're going on a diet when we get back home."
Between Alice's grenades and what was left of Aro's men vanishing after Walker's escape, they cleared the laboratory in a fraction of the time it'd taken to get there. The long, cave-like tunnel that led out of the opposite end of lab, to what Edward hoped was the exit point, had emptied, too. Along the way, spent brass littered the floor, and the air inside, still hot and smoky from the battle, smelled like a warzone – like blood and gunpowder. But no one stopped them, and despite Rosalie's grumbling predictions every 30 seconds or so, no one brought the ceiling down on top of them.
Up ahead, the passageway lightened. A few yards in the lead, Alice threw up her fist and slinked behind a waist-high boulder jutting out from the wall. "Jazzy, how's things outside?"
"Tinkerbell, you have the all clear." The corporal's reply was instantaneous, and there was no mistaking the relief in it. "I repeat, you have the all clear."
"Roger that. We're coming out."
A moment later, still numb and now almost dead on her feet, Bella followed Alice out of the tunnel onto a flat spot of gravelly dirt. Surrounded above and on three sides by large, multi-colored plates of natural limestone, it resembled a small cavern, or maybe the hollowed out crown of a hill. A single opening, no more than a car and a half wide, angled down and out into the shadowy desert beyond. To their left sat a black Range Rover, with all five doors flung wide and its engine rumbling at idle.
And between them and that vehicle, Bella counted no less than seven bodies. Never mind the scene they'd just left, she gawked. "Holy shit…"
A drawling baritone came from behind them, "Your chariot awaits, milady."
M110 hanging loose across his chest, Jasper stepped out from behind a burned out black metal barrel and flashed a grin at their pilot. He winked at Bella, and then more solemnly, he nodded at the three other Marines emerging from the tunnel before quickly jogging over to take the captain's position underneath Emmett's heavy arm. "Figured it might be prudent to have 'er ready to go." He motioned Rosalie toward the SUV. "Back's cleared out so we can lay him out there. You doin' alright, Big Man?"
Barely supporting his own weight, Emmett gave the corporal a lethargic pat on the back and slurred, "Told you this place sucks."
Jasper's head swung toward Edward. "He gonna be okay, Captain? He doesn't look so hot."
"I'm always hot."
Edward chucked his Kevlar into the back of the Range Rover and swiped his hand through sweat-soaked hair. An unnameable emotion crossed his features. "We think so. Doctor Swan says it's likely shock, both from the initial contact with the agent and the effects of the antidote." He climbed in the back. "Come on, Bear-man," he said, grabbing Emmett by the armor and heaving him inside. "Time to get out of this shithole."
Once Emmett was in position, Rosalie jumped in, settling herself by the staff sergeant's head, where she could monitor his condition… and curse him into next week. Next up, Bella reached for the side handle to pull herself in. Before she knew what was happening, Edward grabbed her hand. Staring at her with that same intense, unnamable expression written across every line in his face, he pulled her inside, not letting go, not even when they were shoulder to shoulder and the rear door had slammed closed.
The second Alice landed in the front seat, the SUV peeled out of the cavern, sending dust and rocks flying. "Captain," Jasper called out from the front. "You wanna try to make it back to the cave?"
Still staring down at the woman beside him, the hard line of Edward's jaw rolled.
Jasper looked back through the rear-view. "What's that, Doc?"
Still not breaking eye contact with man whose grip belied the cool exterior, Bella cleared her throat. "We need to get everything off him as quickly as we can." Her throat dipped and her words started coming out faster. "The half-life of the antidote is shorter than XR-5's. You need to get us somewhere with running water so that we can dilute what's on his skin. He took a direct hit. It's all over him and no doubt already absorbing transdermally. He could start seizing again if we don't get the rest off before the antidote starts breaking down." Her fingers spasmed around Edward's. "We've got to get it off you, too. You're not as vulnerable as Emmett, but you were in there before the ventilation system could have exchanged the air."
Alice spun around in her seat. "On the way in, there was that old hotel at the edge of the village east of here. Looked abandoned. No houses close by. Think the pipes are still working?"
Rosalie looked over to Edward. "It's probably the closest option we have."
Silent, they floated across the now-dark desert. Out this far, there wasn't a hint of light pollution. Only the gray-white moonlight spilling out from behind the clouds offered any hint at the harsh landscape beyond the dirt road directly ahead. Leaning against the captain's side – against the hard wall of safety and warmth she'd come to associate with only this particular man – fatigue from so many stressful hours finally kicked in, and Bella drifted in and out, not asleep, but not quite fully awake. Vaguely, she registered the soft whispers in the cabin around her.
"Any sign of Walker?"
"No, sir. A shitload poured out of that tunnel a few minutes after I heard him drop that shit on Em, but he wasn't one of 'em... Didn't see any sign of that damned redhead either."
"I'm positive. There must've been some other exit or something… Did you catch all that bullshit he was sayin' to Doc?"
"I mean, what the fuck, Captain? What do they got a hard-on for her for? They had that file on her in Mogadishu, too... I don't like this one bit."
"Me neither, Jazz. But I'll tell you this... They're not getting their hands on her."
It was forty-five minutes after they'd lit out from the cavern that they pulled in, lights off and nearly crawling, behind a lone, three-story structure that had seen far better days. Like so many of the buildings in this part of the world, the windows had long-since been blown out, leaving the ragged curtains that remained fluttering in the hot, summer-night breeze. Clay tiles from the roof lay broken on the ground. Graffiti – in both Arabic and English – riddled the concrete exterior. Bullet holes dotted one wall.
Now wide awake and buzzing with a new surge of adrenaline, Bella watched as the two Marines in the front slipped out into the night, only to return a mere two minutes later. "We're clear," Alice said, popping open the rear door. "No one's been in there for months, if not longer."
Quiet as any phantom – and just as hard to see unless he wanted you to – Jazz appeared on the opposite side. "Still got running water, too."
Against Rosalie's orders, Emmett pushed himself up on his elbows. Still groggy, pale, and dripping sweat, he squinted at the dark. "What are we stopped for?"
Climbing out, Bella looked over her shoulder and shot the man a weak smile that did nothing to hide the tension eating its way through her muscles. "No biggie. You just need a shower."
"The fuck, I do." Grumbling, Emmett made a show of slowly sniffing his pits. "Like always, I smell like roses."
Alice burst out laughing. "Maybe if they were dipped in jock strap stink."
Emmett gaped, lifted an unsteady hand, and then flipped off their still laughing pilot.
"Let's go, Em. You can kick her ass later," the captain said, as he and Rosalie began easing him out of the back. It took several, long, nerve-wracking seconds to get him on his feet, and several more to make it to the building. Once they finally crossed the threshold, Edward turned to Alice. "Tink, find a shower or whatever you can and hose off. Once you've changed, you and Jazz hit the roof for first watch. Whatever you had on, throw in a decon bag."
"Yes, sir." Alice stepped toward one of two long, dark halls that started at the back entryway. "How long are we staying?"
Edward checked his wrist. "Em needs some time. I want to make sure he's stable before we go any further. We need to try to be out of here before people start moving around, though. Say… out by oh-three-hundred."
"You got it."
Taking the second hallway, Bella quietly padded over cracked black and white tiles. On each side, barely visible from the moonlight coming in from the windows, worn, faded murals colored the walls. In one, three women adorned in bright, flowing diracs and bangles danced beneath a crimson canopy. In another, a man draped in a traditional macarwi escorted a pair of loaded camels to the river's edge.
Halfway down, she peeked into one of the empty doorways. Immediately, she pulled back and beckoned the three Marines slowly making their way down the hall with a whisper-yelled, "Down here!"
Not waiting for a response, Bella crossed what had once been a bedroom into a small, tile-lined room. A black-edged mirror hanging over a rusted out sink reflected a wide sunken shower on the opposite side. Along the back wall, there was a small, matching-tiled bench. Flying down a pair of shallow steps to the basin, Bella grabbed the lone cast iron handle. When it wouldn't give, she leaned in and cranked down with both hands, muttering under her breath a dozen prayers.
They managed to get Emmett onto the narrow bench about the time lukewarm water sputtered out of the faucet overhead. With another hard crank, it came down in a torrent. Heedless of getting wet herself, Rosalie barreled down the steps and started peeling off the big man's armor. "How long?" she called over her shoulder as she yanked off one of his boots. Emmett grumbled and tried to block her, earning him an irate glare with a matching slap on the shoulder. "Can you cooperate for one fucking minute, you big oaf?"
"Strip him." Bella tugged off the other boot. "Everything – it's all been contaminated. We need keep him under at least 15 minutes, if there's enough water."
Emmett's face screwed up. "I'm right here, you know."
Rosalie glanced up and gave Bella a sharp nod. "I got this." She jerked her head toward Edward. "Captain, you need to get out of here and get that shit off you. Same for you, Doc."
In a rare moment of hesitation, Edward looked back and forth between his two Marines sitting underneath the shower to the slender woman already getting up off the floor and coming at him wearing an expression that brokered no argument. He glanced back to Emmett. "How are you feeling, Marine?"
Emmett spat out a mouthful of water. "In all honesty, like ass. But thanks to you, I don't think I'm dyin', so you better do as Barbie says. You know how pissy she gets–" A wet smack stopped him. "Damn it, woman! Stop hittin' me!"
"Shut up and be still."
He scowled. "What in the hell are you so pissed off for?"
Satisfied that whatever was in those syringes was actually working – and that the gunny wouldn't kill his staff sergeant, at least not until he was back on his feet – Edward let himself be led back into the darkened hallway. Once out the door, he spun toward Bella, but whatever he was going to say died on his lips when she grabbed him by the shirtsleeve and pulled him down the hall. Moving far faster than they had carrying Emmett, they stopped at room after room, searching for another intact bathroom and shower.
At the end of the hall, they ascended a set of winding stairs to the second floor and then sped down yet another long hall of empty, half-demolished rooms until they finally found what they were looking for. Smaller than the sunken shower downstairs, this one was a straight-walled, white-tiled walk-in. No door, no curtain, nothing but silver moonlight shining in from the bedroom window, but none of that seemed to matter to the woman who turned the rusty iron lever and then turned on him.
Bella's voice trembled when she said the word, and the calm, confident façade she'd forced herself to wear in front of Emmett and Rosalie began to crack. Everything – the gun battle, the grenades, Walker trying to steal her away, licking her face, Emmett almost dying, Edward ramming her syringe into his thigh – it all churned in her gut and threatened to crest now that they were alone. When her lids closed, that scene in the hood played over and over again. Her skin flashed from hot to cold. The air in her lungs turned to lead. "You… you need to get it off your skin. Right now."
Watching the rising panic in Bella's dark eyes, Edward kicked off his boots and armor and yanked his shirt over his head. Before he could get the thing off, warm, shaking hands were on his chest, shoving him directly under the spray. And then when he didn't move fast enough to remove the rest, those same hands were on his belt buckle and then they were stripping him down to his boxer briefs.
"You too." This time, his voice was the one that trembled, and it had nothing to do with the sun-warmed water pouring across his back.
Bella's jerky movements stilled.
For what could have been a short forever, she stared at some point between his throat and waist before finally giving him a single, sharp nod. Still staring, she peeled off her vest, boots, and armor, and then without a second of hesitation, her shirt landed on the floor, followed by the rest of her uniform.
Unable to look away, Edward watched Bella step under the spray, and unable to stop himself, his eyes glued themselves to a winding rivulet that ran down the long column of her throat to her chest and between her breasts, where it disappeared under the oh-so-thin black fabric of her sports bra. "Bel–"
Bella's fists bounced off his chest. "You stupid man!"
Edward jolted, and those wandering eyes of his flew to hers. Droplets racing down her bruised cheeks, that anxiety from before had morphed into a bright, full blown fury.
"You stupid, stupid man!" Bella bit out, thumping her fists with each word. "You–"
Edward grabbed her fists.
And then they were moving until Bella's back hit the tile.
Panting, her fists still captured inside of his, they stared at the each other for what might have been an eternity. With each breath of humid air, thin, soft cotton grazed Edward's bare chest. When she shivered and shifted minutely closer, something else – soft, supple breasts topped with twin hard points – dragged across his skin and scrambled his brain.
Barely an inch away from her own, the captain's features went rigid, transforming into a mask of tight restraint and something else altogether. Intense in a way she didn't quite understand, his eyes chased every one of her movements, turning darker with each passing second. His mouth – that hard, no-nonsense mouth of his – it was so incredibly close that if she stood on her tiptoes, she'd finally know what it felt like on hers.
Twisting free of his grip, Bella's hands smacked against Edward's chest again, but this time, instead of beating it in frustration and angry fear, her palms flattened over the angled planes of his pectoral muscles. Beneath her right hand, the black lines of his Eagle, Globe, and Anchor contrasted against the warm, touchable tan of his skin. Without thinking, her fingertips walked down his chest to his stomach, tracing the rock-hard dips and valleys of a body sculpted by war, until they passed over the smooth, healed-over flesh that cut a jagged diagonal across his entire torso. A shudder passed through her limbs, curling her fingers into his sides.
Edward's teeth snapped together at the bite of her nails and his eyes screwed shut. "He hurt you."
His eyes flipped open, dark and simmering with the same kind of helpless fury that had made her want to beat him senseless. "Don't lie to me."
"I'm not." Bella's jaw jutted out, bringing her mouth closer to his. "But you… of all the foolish, idiotic things to do!"
"It had to be done." He stepped in, forcing her back tighter to the tile.
Bella glared. "Do you know what it was like watching you dive headfirst into that room?" Her nails bit harder. "You had no idea if that stupid antidote would work."
"Do you know what it was like for me? Emmett was one thing… he's as close to a brother as anything I have, but I could deal with that. That's what we do, Bella… But watching him grab you… watching him almost take you away?" Edward's whole body shook in instant, recalled rage. "Do you have any idea what it was like for me being pinned down on the other side of that fucking glass, terrified for what you were going through – for what he might do to you – but not being able to do one goddamn thing about it?"
"You both could have died!"
"But we didn't."
"And neither did I! I'm right here."
Edward's palms clapped against the tile on either side of Bella's head. And again, neither one looked away, not until a lone droplet ran down Bella's too-pretty cheek, catching on her bottom lip and taking with it every bit of Edward's concentration. The pink tip of her tongue licked it away, and his breath turned shallower, harsher.
The air electrified, and the warm water raining down suddenly pricked like tiny knives, short-circuiting every one of Bella's nerve endings.
Sucking in a ragged breath, she arched against the unmoving wall of Edward's chest.
Before she could blink, before she could even exhale the air she'd just taken in, his mouth was on hers, demanding and hot, and for the first time since they met, completely unrestrained. For minutes, or hours, or maybe even days, he kissed her like a man dying and granted his final wish. Weeks of pent up stress, emotion, and whatever it was building between them erupted, manifesting itself in the rough, almost desperate strokes of his tongue.
Warmth flooded Bella's limbs and pooled in the pit of her stomach. Reeling from sensation, inside and out, her arms slid up Edward's chest of their own accord and then around his neck, where her fingers knotted themselves into wet, curling hair. She tugged, daring his mouth to leave hers. Instead of letting go, a hard line of male muscle pressed into the soft dip of her stomach, and when she pushed back, sliding against him, Edward made a low, strangled noise in the back of his throat.
"Tell me to stop." Chest heaving, Edward forced his lips off of Bella's, only to drag them gently over the bruises along her jaw to her throat. Incapable of completely pulling away, he sucked on the skin there. "Tell me to stop and I will."
Bella shook her head, panting, her voice just as rough as his. "Don't you dare."
With another harsh sound, Edward took her mouth again. Dropping from the tile to her shoulders, his calloused fingers skimmed down her arms, to her bare waist, and to the subtle flares of her hips. A squeeze of his thumbs was all it took, and then a pair of long, slender legs locked around his waist, drawing him into her center.
Mouth never leaving hers, drunk on soft, feminine skin, Edward shoved his boxers down and hooked a finger around her panties.
A sharp, gasping noise made him freeze. "Is this… are you–"
"Yes," she managed, groaning as he touched her. "God, yes." When he still didn't move, Bella reached down between them, giving him all the direction he could possibly need.
Edward didn't ask again – didn't stop until tight warmth cinched around him.
"Ah, Christ." Edward's forehead dropped to Bella's shoulder and he gripped her thighs, struggling not to drive her through the tile. But when she let out a soft, breathy moan and nearly clawed the skin off his back, he did just that. Kissing her mouth, her throat, the rigid tips of her breasts – anywhere he could get to, anywhere to remind himself that she was here, with him, and not lost to that crazed lunatic, Walker – he pushed his body into hers at a near-frantic pace. Every time her back hit the tile, she squeezed him – with her arms, her legs, every single part of her, as if reassuring herself of the same – and he nearly lost his sanity. He panted against her skin. "You need to stop that."
Bella's lips spread into a grin that made his chest ache. "Why's that?" she asked, kissing him stupid and doing exactly what he'd told her to stop. Within moments Edward was at the brink, and then with a final push of his hips, a hard shudder rolled down his spine and his whole body turned liquid as he spilled inside of her.
Legs shaking, Edward spun them around and slid down the wall to the floor with Bella still on his lap. Slower, rubbing and finding the spot that made her tremble, he watched her fall apart with an intensity that stole her breath. Afterward, he kept her there, holding her and massaging his palms up and down her arms as his head fell back against the tile. Eyes closed, a small smile played across his lips.
After a long, still moment, Bella buried her face in the warm crook of Edward's neck. "Don't do that to me again."
That small smile stretched a little wider. One eye slitted open. "What? Make you come?"
Bella laughed, but then she landed a wet smack against his shoulder. "You know what I mean." She shivered. "You had no idea if it'd work."
Edward's eyes snapped open and found hers. "Yes, I did." His voice was soft – a whisper against her senses – and his arms tightened around her. "It's yours, isn't it?"
Bella swallowed and began to argue, only to stop, shake her head, and opt for a different topic. "We probably need to check on Emmett."
Edward's head fell back against the tile once more, as he tried to keep the images of what had happened in that godforsaken laboratory at bay, for just a little while longer. His fingers crept up Bella's backbone to the base of her neck, where they kneaded into the tight muscles there, winning him a quiet moan of appreciation. "Give them a few more minutes."
Without warning, Edward barked out a laugh – a rare and out of place sound considering everything they'd just endured – and he gave her a knowing look. "Do I have to spell it out?"
Bella's mouth fell into a small, surprised, "O", but he just laughed again.
"Yes, of course, I know. I'd have to be blind not to." His shoulders shook, taking her with them. "Those two have been off and on since '08, maybe '07." Slowly, needing a few more minutes of his own, Edward pulled her still-gaping mouth back down to his. "Really, Doctor," he said against her lips. "What kind of shitty recon Marine do you take me for?"
Notes: Thank you all, so much. I really appreciate all the kind words of support and encouragement. I hope you're still along for the ride :)
Dirac – traditional Somali dress for women, typically worn for more formal events, like weddings or Eid. They're usually long, flowing, sparkly, and colorful. They're often worn with a gorgorad, which is an equally fancy underskirt.
Hood – or fume hood, is a piece of equipment commonly seen in chemical laboratories. They can range from small benchtop set-ups to large, room-like walk-ins / walk-throughs like you see above. They're essentially ventilation devices that draw air out of an area and exhaust it elsewhere, e.g. outside. They're particularly useful when working with toxic, flammable, or otherwise very dangerous materials. Some include explosion resistant features and protections. In this case, the fume hood above has two interlocked entries, one on each end of the room. An interlock is just an air space between two doors. They're typically configured such that you cannot open one of the doors until the other one is closed and sealed. They're designed that way as an extra precaution against contaminating the 'safe' area of a room with fumes, gasses, contaminants, etc. from the 'dangerous' area inside the enclosure.
IBC – or intermediate bulk container, is a type of container often used to transport and store industrial chemicals. They're cubic in shape, stackable, and mounted on pallets so they can be moved around with forklifts. Usually, IBCs are made from translucent plastic composite. Size-wise, they're between drums and tanks, most often in the neighborhood of 1000 to 1250 liters (275 to 330 gallons).
Lexan – or polycarbonate, is a strong, light, and highly durable engineered thermoplastic often used for lenses, windows, and other applications where high clarity and transparency is needed. It's also used in a variety of other applications, including electronics, medical devices, automotive parts, and even luggage.
M50 – refers to the M50 gas mask, which is the standard general service field mask issued by the United States Armed Services. It is designed to provide eye and respiratory protection in nuclear, chemical, and biological environments.
Macarwi – traditional Somali clothing worn by men. They're sarong-like, worn around the waist and with a large cloth draped around the upper body.