A BULLET FROM CHEKHOV'S GUN

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Chapter Nineteen

"That night, the gallery… how was that supposed to go?"

Bella spoke for the first time since leaving Esme's office. They were sitting in the private garden Carlisle shared with several neighbors. A carved granite bench faced a small pond, surrounded by a tangle of climbing pink roses. The stone, unaffected by the weak mid-afternoon sun, chilled Bella's thighs. Only the occasional whoosh of a car passing by was any reminder that a world outside of their own hearts existed. The numbness that had infused Bella's soul and shielded her psyche was filtering out, leaving raw emotion tangled like seaweed on a storm-shocked beach.

Edward sighed. "I was supposed to chat you up, sweep you off your feet, take you home… ah."

"You do not get to keep things from me anymore, Edward. Continue." Bella's fingers were trembling. She pressed her hands together, palm to palm, fingertip to fingertip.

"Take you home. Fuck you. Make you think you loved me. Manipulate that false love to get you to work for us. Walk away when I was done."

Bella had suspected as much. During her long train ride across the Continent, she'd accepted that as the most likely conclusion, given her evidence. She had been just another mission. Still, hearing it said so starkly, unapologetically, was another matter. She closed her eyes.

"What changed? What made you… act differently?"

"You rejected me—well, my advances."

"You say that as if it's never happened before."

"Ah…" Edward paused—should he tell her about his final year in comprehensive school?

"Fuck's sake!" Bella snapped her head around. She looked down again a moment later. Her voice was softer now. "You never have, have you?"

"Never like that," he admitted. Edward allowed himself to grin; while Bella was pinballing through her emotional range, she didn't look as if she would start throwing punches. Yet. He could afford to be a little cheeky. "And never quite so sylishly, even with your back up. You didn't just turn me down, it was utter repudiation. I was... impressed. Intrigued."

"Ugh." Bella just couldn't bring herself to banter with him, not now. "And what then? After you'd fucked me so good, I'd betray my country?"

Edward flinched. He answered her question, ignoring the veiled accusation for now. "It's not betrayal, exactly. The US and UK are allies. Fighting for the same things, on the same side."

Bella swayed on the bench. The stress was getting to her—all that whiskey on an empty stomach wasn't helping, either. Edward reached out to steady her, but she shook his hand off. No. She needed answers first.

"Who was he?"

"Who?"

"The man you… killed."

"…Which one?"

Bella took a deep breath, held it, and released it slowly. "The one in front of my apartment."

"No one. A gangster—from Eastern Europe somewhere. He wasn't exactly carrying ID. We've got his DNA, fingerprints, iris scans, and recorded his tattoos. We'll find out." Edward was confident. He had Alice working on it.

"Catholic?"

"Likely, why?"

"I thought his tattoo was in Italian, but it might've been Latin. The one with the crucifix?"

Edward nodded. Bella didn't look up. "I only—I only got a glimpse as he, um, grabbed me. Edward, you… people, spies, the CIA, them I can under—"

"The CIA?!" Had the Americans approached her after all?

"Later. I can understand them approaching me, but organized crime? Why?"

"Bella…" Edward sighed. He had to tell her the truth, no matter how hard. "Have you heard the term rendition?"

"'Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar's.' To cause to become; to translate; to pass down…"

"In the context of espionage. Extraordinary rendition."

Bella bit her lip and studied her crossed ankles. The term sounded familiar, but she couldn't place it exactly. "No."

Edward's voice was flat, methodical. "Rendition refers to the practice of handing over a suspect—extralegally—to another nation, particularly one that engages in torture."

"What?!" Bella swallowed. Torture. She must not vomit. "They would...?"

"A week or so of food deprivation, sleep deprivation. Loud music piped in, sounds of babies crying, that sort of thing. You'd do whatever they wanted. Trust me." Edward turned his gaze from Bella's face. The images in his mind were a little too real.

"The only challenge would be pushing you hard enough to bend to their will, but not so hard you broke entirely." Edward tried not to think of it. Bella needed him strong.

"What... who? Why?"

"He was just an errand boy for a middleman. We don't know who hired him, but it's someone that wants you—who wants your skills. And who hasn't any compunction against getting his hands dirty. They want whatever code you would have made for us. But kidnapping an American national, one being—unofficially, at that point—monitored by the British government... if they'd been caught, if the connection could be proven, there would have been an international incident. Hence the fellow on the motorbike."

"Holy shit," Bella swore. Her life was in danger. If she couldn't defend herself against a couple of common thugs at the train station, how would she deal with disciplined operatives and killers-for-hire? International incidents?! "I… have to go to the dojo more," she mumbled.

"No, Bella, you don't." Her eyes flashed to his and her spine straightened. The set of her jaw convinced Edward he really oughtn't be telling her what she did and did not have to do. In the distance, someone began to play a piano. The music insinuated itself between them like smoke from a censer. Bella listened; a few of the notes tripped together, and she thought she could pick out the melody—but then it changed.

Edward slid off the bench and took her hand. She didn't pull away this time. "Of course you can still go, if that's what you want, I—you don't need to go. I will protect you. Bella, I will keep you safe, defend you against any enemy."

"Foreign or domestic?" Bella quoted. She'd heard that in the movies.

"The British oath goes a bit differently." Edward smiled—just a touch of amusement in his features—for a second. "Bella… if you took that oath, if you became a British citizen and joined my agency, we'd fight for you. With all the resources of the entire country, we'd fight for you. You wouldn't even have to renounce your American citizenship, the Chief doesn't require that. Dual would be fine, if you needed it. But no matter what happens, or what you choose, I will fight for you. While there's breath in my body, I'll defend you. I'll protect you. No matter what."

Edward raised Bella's hand to his lips and kissed it. "Please. Take the oath, become a citizen. Read in—get classified clearance. Join us, join me."

A pale yellow butterfly fluttered toward a bloom Bella couldn't name. In Forks, people grew geraniums and daisies in window boxes. Most wilted and died before their time, soggy and drowning. Here, in a place nearly as wet as her other home, gardeners coaxed forth so many different flowers—roses and dozens of others. Someone tended this garden well. The butterfly fluttered, and Bella was struck by a memory. During her undergrad, Bella had taken Intro to Cinema. She saw a movie called M. It was a part of the German Expressionist movement, in which the filmmakers expressed a character's state of mind through his surroundings. The antagonist, a serial killer, stands outside a toy shop while all manner of whirligigs twirl in the background.

Bella wanted to crush the butterfly. Burn the fucking garden to the ground. Make the outside match the inside.

She turned to him to tell him to shove his allies, his agencies, and his protection up his English ass.

Before her were two men inhabiting one body. A glamour of one shimmered on the surface, a desert mirage—the man Bella met in a gallery one rainy night. Underneath was the man she'd caught glimpses of in the months since: the man who blushed, the man who brought her flowers. The man who knew the exact pressure to squeeze a trigger; the gentle brush of fingertips over her cheek, or a kiss on the hand. Which of these was he really, or was he neither? Both?

"It's like looking at a Magic Eye…" Bella murmured.

"What?"

"Huh?" Bella blinked, and the illusion was gone.

Bella wanted Edward to close the careful distance between them, to wrap his arms around her. She wanted to smell only him—warm, clean man—not the powdery fragrance of roses.

"Talk to me, Bella."

"I saw a picture of you," she blurted out.

"Okay…"

"In Afghanistan. There were lots of Army guys… and a man, a dead man… you had your foot on his chest."

"Ah." So that's what brought her racing back home. What was he going to do, deny it? "That was just over the border in Pakistan, actually."

Edward waited for Bella to speak. Bella was waiting for something else, something she couldn't name.

"And I'm trying to reconcile all of the yous. The charmer, the flirt; the almost-shy gentleman who opens doors... the killer who poses for snapshots with corpses, who speaks of it so calmly."

"I'm all of those things, but not any one. I haven't... you make me feel like I'm back in school again. I've never been so unsure of myself since I joined the Service. That me, the Edward that introduced himself in the gallery, he's whom I've been for years now. And the killer. I kill people, Bella, I have to. It's my job, and I'm good at it." Edward took a deep breath and shuffled on his knees even closer. "But I'm the gentleman too. The man my mother raised. You've made me realize that I'm not sure who Edward really is anymore. Except that you bring him out in me, whoever he is. No cover, no persona. You make me want to be Edward again. Bella... that's the Edward that has fallen in love with you."

The garden was silent. No piano, no cars, not even a bird chirping in the distance.

"…In love?" Bella whispered.

"Completely. Irrevocably."

"Edward…"

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

And thank you to everyone still reading this story. My move has gone great, and I'm settling in here in my new home. Hopefully we'll be back on schedule soon.