A BULLET FROM CHEKHOV'S GUN

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Chapter Seventeen

Bella needed her home, but home was an ocean away.

Her flat was stifling, not cozy anymore. She had to get out of there; she needed time, space, something. Bella dashed out of her flat and walked down the street, gasping in the clean air. She saw the bus to London and rushed to catch it. Bella rode, lost in mental blankness, until the porter gently shook her shoulder. She was in London proper now: Trafalgar Square. She got off and wandered, shivering in the dead-of-night's chill. The architecture was so alien now, cold—Bella felt no thrill looking at the National Gallery. There were only a few other people in the square itself as Bella hurried through alone. She needed comfort and the familiar, and there was none to be found.

Or maybe…

Decided, Bella hailed a cab. She handed him half of her little remaining cash when he dropped her off at the train station. She'd need her emergency credit card for this.

"I need to get to Mannheim, Germany, right away," Bella said to one of the tired-looking attendants as soon as she opened her station.

"All right, love, let's see." The attendant—called Joyce, according to her badge—pecked away at a few keys on her keyboard. Bella drummed her fingers and tried very, very hard to keep her panic down. "Round-trip or one-way?

"I… don't know. Can I buy an open-ended return ticket?"

"Of course, love. There's only business-class left."

"That's fine."

"All right, then. Eurostar to Paris, that'll leave in three hours. You'll arrive at Paris-Nord, but hop on over to Paris-Est, take the ICE to Mannheim," she narrated as each ticket printed out. Bella threw down her plastic and tried to think of what to tell Charlie.

There was nothing to do but wait. Bella ate without tasting, walked without seeing. She sat down in a café.

When the male barista handed Bella her coffee, flashes of Edward doing the same broke through Bella's false Zen. She hurried away before the bored young man could see her lose her shit, and ducked into the nearest bathroom. She ducked into a stall, but it was filthy—crying, she stumbled into the next one over. Her shaking hands couldn't grip her cup any longer and it fell to the floor. The rivulets of milky-brown turned red as they flowed to the drain; the synthetic floral scent in the bathroom morphed into the antiseptic-and-steel perfume of hospital.

Time flowed and jumped in Bella's mind. That man, contorting as his shoulder was blown away. Edward's phone going off. The doctor. The blood.

Bella put her head between her knees and hugged the back of her neck. She rocked as she watched the fluid on the floor.

That smell. Cordite; a fireworks show after a midsummer baseball game. A day at the shooting range with her father.

All those cryptic little hints. The fast cars and expensive suits. The mixed signals. The job Edward didn't actually seem to do any work at. The way he ran off at the restaurant… The man with a tiger tattoo on his forearm, surrounded by what Bella thought was Italian text, reaching for her. The gun in his hand.

Bella had seen a man get shot. Edward had recently fired a gun.

A knock on the door startled Bella and she realized she'd been crying. She wiped her eyes.

"Yeah?"

"Dear? You're crying, calling out. Who's this Edward—did he hurt you? There's no one else here, you're safe."

"No, no, nothing like that. I'm sorry, I'm fine."

"Shall I call security for you?"

"No! No, I'm okay."

"At least come out, let me make sure you're all right." Bella knew she probably looked like hell. Hell warmed-over. She was coming up on 24 hours awake and starting to feel it.

When Bella opened the door, a beautiful, regal older woman was standing there. Bella found herself intimidated at first, but started calming as soon as she met the stranger's brown eyes. The lady held out a handkerchief—a real, cloth, monogrammed handkerchief.

"Thank you. Ma'am." Bella ducked her head and walked to the bank of sinks to try and clean herself up. The woman smelled of amber and milky tea. It was a comforting, intensely maternal scent, and reminded Bella of Gramma Higgenbotham.

The strange woman put a gentle hand on Bella's upper arm. Bella felt sheltered by it in a way she never had with her mother. When the older woman spoke, her voice was soft. "Are you sure you don't want to talk about it?"

"Um, no." How do you tell a stranger you think your maybe-boyfriend—a man you more-than-care for—is in the mafia or something?

"All right, dear. I'll let you be. I know things aren't always as they seem. Just… trust your instincts."

"Thanks, I guess." Bella's instincts had been telling her that Edward wasn't a bad man. Dangerous, yes, but not bad.

The woman nodded and left. Bella admired her perfect chignon as she walked away.

"What a dame," she muttered. Bella realized she still had the handkerchief and ran out of the bathroom, but the woman was gone. There was no sign of her in the empty terminal. Bella traced the swooping monogram with her thumb. EPA.

Bella froze mid-stride. Edward's middle name is Anthony. She tossed the bit of cloth in the nearest bin and hurried to her platform.

-ABFCG-

The train filled with passengers as Bella fidgeted in her seat. She hoped they wouldn't notice the passenger in yoga pants, a scrubs top, and a dressy trenchcoat—or if they did, that they wouldn't judge. Too much to ask, based on some of the looks she was getting.

Bella brushed her fingers through her hair and put it back up in a neater ponytail. She winced when her fingers brushed against the goose-egg on the back of her head. The doctor had said she had a concussion. That wasn't a big deal, Bella had had a few of those when she was growing up. She knew the routine. Only now there wasn't anyone to keep her company while she stayed awake. A distraction was in order.

Thinking she'd study some German dialects, Bella pulled her phone from her pocket. She'd specifically asked the paramedic to grab it, along with her coat, but then she'd forgotten all about it in the chaos that was Accident & Emergency on a Friday night. She was admitted quickly, bypassing a waiting room full of patients. Bella assumed it was because she was brought in by ambulance, covered in blood.

There were a dozen missed calls from Edward. Bella ignored them all. The voicemail messages got a similar treatment. After she made the single necessary phone call, she settled in for the first leg of her trip, learning about Swabian pronunciation until her phone died.

-ABFCG-

Bella purchased a ludicrously overpriced cell phone charger in Paris-Nord and a la plus grande café que vous avez in Paris-Est. Bella didn't like to engage in national stereotypes, but the looks she was getting from the French were markedly different from those she'd gotten on the other side of the Channel. More knowing. Les plus sensibles infortunes indeed.

Soon but too soon, Bella was seated and the train was speeding east. It took her a while to get used to the strange sense of smooth velocity that came with riding a high-speed train. Only being able to sharpen her Esses for so long, after a while, Bella dozed. She dreamt of a misty plain consumed by an ancient battle. A tall, red-headed warrior-king painted in Pictish woad looked up from the slaughter and locked eyes with her. Suddenly, he was right in front of her, holding her protectively close. He leaned close and with breath that smelled of wood-smoke, said, "Il n'est rien de réel que le rêve et l'amour."

-ABFCG-

A kind, older woman woke Bella pushing a snack cart by. Bella was reminded powerfully of the Hogwarts Express in her sleep-fogged state. The trip was certainly surreal.

"Danke," she muttered as she accepted her bag of potato chips.

"Geht es Ihnen gut?" she asked in a crisp Berliner accent.

"Ja." Bella sighed. That was the second stranger to ask after her well-being. Was she that transparent?

Outside Bella's window, mountains covered in green-black forests seemed to float past. The Vosges range, Bella thought. Maybe it was the American in her, but Europe's geography always seemed old. Forks, on the other hand, felt like a temporal limbo—never changing, perpetual. The qualities a home should have. Bella ignored the pang in her chest that told her England felt like home now.

Her cell phone buzzed in her pocket. ill be there. leaving now. She smiled. Home meant many things, after all.

-ABFCG-

As she walked down the platform in Mannheim, Bella really wished she'd at least gotten a regular t-shirt in Paris. In the German sun, there was no doubt she looked like a hot mess. She drew the trench coat around her and hurried along with her head down. When she arrived at the main concourse, she paused and looked around. Her heart leapt when she saw a flash of green fatigues, but that soldier was blond. Was he not here yet? Bella searched, growing slightly nervous. He'd be here. He had to be.

"Bella!"

She laughed and ran to throw herself into his arms. The GI grunted when he caught her and twirled her around. When he set Bella on her feet, the top of her head only reached the middle of his chest. Bella put her hand on the rough fabric of his ACUs and said, "Hiya, Jake."

"Hey, Bells. You got any bags?"

"Nah." Bella took the time now to really look at her childhood friend. Tall as ever, but he seemed more solid. Her chest hurt a little from where she tried to tackle him. Bella made a show of poking him in the arm, right above his unit's howling wolf insignia. "Jesus, Jake—what happened to the bean-pole I sent off to basic?"

He grinned and adjusted his cap—Bella mourned his long black hair, sacrificed for his high-and-tight. "The Army happened."

"Apparently."

Jake led her through the train station, the hum of rushed travelers creating an indistinct soundtrack to their reacquaintance. With Jake's heavy arm slung around her, Bella was a ship in harbor. She and Jake fell into their old rhythm as if there had been no interruption; a filial orbit.

"So, Bells… you gonna tell me what this is all about? I thought you were too busy being Queen Nerd to visit this year."

"I just wanted to see you." Leaning against a late-90s Toyota was another young man in Army garb. He nodded once at Bella and climbed in the driver's side.

"Uh, yeah, that's Embry. He's what you'd call the strong, silent type. Or what I call a functional mute, whatever. Not that I'm not happy to see you, but—I mean, you don't have any bags, and… Bells. You look like shit."

"Ugh, no wonder you don't have some nice fraulein to take out tonight instead of picking me up." Bella paused as she buckled her seatbelt in the cramped backseat. "Wait, you don't, do you?"

"Nah." Jake twisted in his seat, making Silent Embry jerk the steering wheel slightly. He just stared at Bella until she started to fidget.

"I needed to get away."

"Mmhmm." Jake faced front again and Embry drove them towards the base. "We'll see what we can do about clothes when we get back on base. I hope you like green."

Bella swallowed hard and without thinking touched her chest. "I love green."

-ABFCG-

As they drove, Bella and Jake chatted. Embry did not. She and Jake emailed, of course, so there wasn't much 'catching up' to do. They mostly talked about Forks. Charlie cheating on his diet, their various old flames, the typical things.

Once they got through security at Schwetzingen, Bella was surprised at just how ordinary the place looked. Except the abundance of men with very short haircuts, the neat rows of houses looked like any suburb in America. Rolling her eyes at herself, Bella realized that was the whole point. Comfort, familiarity. Exactly what she thought she was looking for.

Still, when Jake announced, "Home sweet home," as they pulled up to one of the smaller houses, Bella felt off. Unsettled. Unhappy.

"You and the guys comin' over later still?" Jake asked Embry, who just nodded and raised a hand—a still hand, not waving—to Bella before he drove off.

"He's like one of those guards at Buckingham Palace, try all you want, he won't say a damn thing." Jake continued, oblivious to Bella's flinch. She wanted to tell him not to mention English things, but realized that was nuts. "Genius with a wrench, though. Hey, you been there? Buckingham Palace?"

"Yeah," she said, forcing a smile. Jake opened the door to his little house and started nervously straightening the living room.

"Um, roomie's gone for now, down to the PX, I think. You'll meet him later, Sam's his name. Um, shit. I'll change the sheets on my bed, I would've, but such short notice…"

Bella was holding a beer bottle and frowning—glad on the inside for the perfect opportunity to change the subject.

"Jake, you're living in Germany and drinking Bud Light?!"

"Hey! Not all of us are hoity-toity intellectuals like you," he said and grabbed the bottle. "It gets the job done."

"Ugh. Heathen." Bella shrugged out of her trench coat. Jake gasped.

"What the hell?!" He wrapped his fingers around her upper arm, barely touching the skin. His fingers overlapped the unmistakable purple of a blooming bruise. Bella hadn't even felt it forming. She crossed her arms, a little awkward, trying to cover it up. She stepped away from him.

"Oh, just someone getting a little too enthusiastic at the dojo."

"Isabella."

Bella stood up straighter, habit and indignation warring inside. That was how her father addressed her when she was in trouble. Jake wasn't her father. When she looked up at him, though, he was plainly concerned. He ran his fingers—still hardly making contact—over the emblem above the breast pocket of Bella's donated scrubs top.

"John Radcliffe Hospital," he read. "Who did this to you? Who hurt you?" Concern was being replaced by anger.

"Jake…" Bella had to make him listen. She switched to Quileute. "Please, please. Don't. It's not what you think, I swear."

Jake smiled. Not his usual huge grin, just a small smile. He gathered her up in a hug and held her close. "I dunno if Old Quil would be proud or appalled that you speak my language better than I do."

"Kids these days," Bella murmured, her voice muffled against his chest.

"Yeah. Here, make yourself at home." Jake released her and gestured around, pointing out the obvious: TV, kitchen, the way to the bathroom and his bedroom.

"I can take the couch."

"Nah, I mean, you might be liberated, but I'm still a gentleman. 'Sides, the guys are coming over later—hope that's okay—and I'll probably just crash out here anyway."

"Whatever." Bella was just too tired to argue.

"Shower?"

"Yeah. Thanks."

-ABFCG-

The considerable amount of magical thinking Bella required to get through her shower without acknowledging the various stains and growths on the tile was aided by her dog-tired state; reality felt more like a lucid dream. A faded Army-issue t-shirt sat, folded, on the white Formica sink. When Bella put it on, it hung past mid-thigh. Bella raided Jake's medicine cabinet, knocked back some Advil with water from the faucet, and stumbled into his bed. She was asleep before she could finish wondering if he'd changed the sheets yet.

Bella dreamed she was being chased by an unseen wild creature. Its snarls echoed off the walls of the crevasse she was running through. She was trapped. It was gaining on her. Bella refused to turn to look, but she could feel its hot breath on her neck, the puff of air created by its snapping jaws. A dead-end. With no choice but to turn and face her attacker, Bella braced herself. Bella heard a yelp. When she opened her eyes, her dream-warrior was crouching over a tiger carcass, an arrow buried deep in its side. He slung the creature over his shoulder—sunlight glinted off gold bands wrapped around his upper arms and wrists. He held out his hand.

"Ich werde dich beschützen."

I will protect you.

-ABFCG-

"Bella." Jake shook her shoulder again. She was muttering in German, sounded like. "Bella. Bella."

"Was?" she grumbled.

"Uh. Anyway, it's dinnertime. One of the guys is bringing pizza. You still like pepperoni?"

"Charlie," she said as she got up. "I should at least get a veggie."

"Salty, meaty goodness…"

"You're an asshole. Fine. Pepperoni. Again, you're living in Germany. You should broaden your sausage horizons. Or is being in the Army enough of a sausage-fest already? They repealed Don't Ask, Don't Tell, you know."

"Ha, ha. Bella, please. You know I'm all about the ladies." He grinned at her.

"You wish."

"Yeah, I do."

"Jake." She drew the scratchy blankets tighter to her chest.

"Yeah. I know." Jake sighed, then pointed to some clothes next to him on the bed.

"Sam brought these, they're his girlfriend's. She's about your size, a little taller maybe. Lemme know if you need anything."

Bella sighed. Jake's advances were the last goddamned thing she needed. Hopefully having a bunch of other guys around would keep him occupied. She sighed again and dressed. The jeans were too long, and the cut of the t-shirt revealed the edge of the light sports bra she'd worn to sleep Friday night. She fussed with it a bit, but then said fuck it and walked into the living room in search of pizza.

"Um, hi." Bella waved to the guys lounging on Jake's sofa.

He introduced them, "Bella, that's Embry, you've met already, obviously." He inclined his head. "There's Sam, Paul, and Jared. Guys, this is Bella, a friend from back home."

"Pizza?" she asked and sat down on the couch next to Jake. An American football game was playing on TV. Bella chuckled. Jake wouldn't clean his shower curtain, but of course he had a huge TV and satellite.

"Seth should be here any minute. Thank fuck, cause I'm starving." The guys all agreed, rubbing their stomachs and swearing for effect.

"So, Bella," the one closest to her said. Jared. "Jake says you speak, like, a fuck-ton of languages."

And there it was. That look. The one that resembled the examination of a sideshow oddity or pop-culture museum piece. Curious, with the understanding that the observer is separate from the thing being observed—a pane of glass or a velvet rope between them. Bella hated that look. Edward never looked at her that way.

"Yeah." She smiled the way she'd been practicing for pitching research grants and impressing doctoral committees. Polite, attentive, restrained.

"How many?"

"Oh, I dunno. A lot." Jared didn't seem to grasp that Bella wasn't in the mood for his interrogation. She just wanted a mind-numbing night of pizza, beer, and football before she even tried to deal with her problems.

"Hey, Jake. That piss-water really all you got?" She gestured to his Bud Light.

"Yep."

"Ugh. Gimme one."

Jake sensed her mood, though. "How's that job going?"

Bella groaned. This subject was hardly better. "Great. Very challenging. Actually…" Something occurred to her. "Pen and paper?"

Jake pointed back into his bedroom, at a small desk in the corner. There was a knock on the door. The pizza was here. Bella wanted to write her idea down before she ate and started drinking in earnest.

-ABFCG-

Bella rifled through Jake's desk drawers. How could a grown man have five dead pens in his pen cup? She found a cheery black-and-yellow envelope of pictures near the back under a pile of receipts.

"Oh, hey, are these of Harry's party when you went home last?" Bella called over her shoulder.

Bella shook the glossy 4x6es into her hand. Instead of a backyard BBQ in Forks, Bella saw red-brown desert. Men in the new fatigues, the ones that looked pixelated—others in the old style, and in drab and khaki civvies; posing in front of Humvees, Hiluxes, even a tank. They all seemed to have weapons. Bella was confused as she flicked through the pictures. Jake had never been deployed to Iraq or Afghanistan, wherever these were taken. He wasn't in any of the pictures. More than once, though, Bella saw Embry. At first, the pictures just seemed to be of joes smiling and laughing. Guys being guys.

But then there was a photo of those same joes, smiling and laughing—in front of a row of men wearing black head-bags, kneeling with their hands cable-tied behind them. A thumbs up in front of a bombed-out brick building, a dust cloud rising in the background. A group of men with a conquering foot on an obviously dead body.

"Oh my God." Bella dropped all the other pictures and rushed to turn on Jake's desk lamp, hoping and praying and pleading that she wasn't seeing what she was seeing. Standing in the motley group of men was one with a cocky smirk exactly like the one she'd shot down in a London gallery months ago.

"Bells? Oh shit, Bells, don't look at—"

"Jake—Jake, who is this?!"

"What, who?" Jake skirted around the photos on the floor to come see what Bella was looking at. "Oh, hey, look, I know you don't support the war, but he was a terrorist, and a heroin—"

"No! Not him, him." Bella pointed at the man she didn't want to be her boss, the man she was falling in love with. He was swathed in a desert headdress and wearing aviators, but he had the same jaw, the same lips, the same crook in his nose.

"I dunno, I wasn't there."

"Why do you have these, then?" Calm. Bella needed to calm down.

"They're Embry's. He'll know—Bells, I know this is ugly shit, but…"

"Embry!" Bella called.

The other man appeared in the doorway, chewing a piece of pizza and almost smiling. Bella held out the picture and repeated her question. Embry frowned and swallowed.

"Edward Cullen. Brit. Spook."

AN: Thanks to my beta, Sara ( abadkitty).

SPECIAL THANKS to HoochieMomma for her help with the rail travel in this chapter. She just finished a beautiful story called "Falling Empire of a Heart," artfully mixing Arthurian legend and Twilight. I'm all about Edern over here.

A chapter-by-chapter glossary, translations, and other important notes can be found on my storyblog, chekovsgunblog dot blogspot dot com. Thanks to enamoramiento for her help with the German.

IMPORTANT NOTE: A rare opportunity has presented itself, and over the course of the next few months, my life will be changing a lot. I'm not abandoning my story. I don't even think I'll really need to put it on hiatus. However, I'm sure I won't be able to update weekly, as I have been. Biweekly seems a more reasonable goal, but I'm going to have to play it by ear for a while. I thank you all for your patience ahead of time.