A BULLET FROM CHEKHOV'S GUN

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Chapter Twenty

"She's not one of ours, man," Jasper said. "And not for lack of tryin'."

Edward and his two best friends were sitting in a dim pub suffused with cigar smoke. The Acorn and Legend was notable only in how nondescript it was: small, twenty feet down a side street, nothing to draw attention. Dozens of Londoners passed by it every day, never noticing, just as it had been since World War II. The three men sat at the end of the bar, near the side exit and with the front door in direct line-of-sight.

"So you have approached her, then?" Edward was going to get some answers, finally. No time to play coy.

"We've made… overtures."

"Don't bullshit me, Jasper."

"Nah, Edward man, that's just how the Yanks talk. Means he got shot down," Emmett added in between handfuls of bar peanuts. "Like you."

Edward never should have told them about Bella rejecting him in that damn gallery. He'd never live it down.

"Arsehole," he muttered and stole Emmett's peanuts.

"Why're you asking?" Jasper studied Edward's face, a face that—to a casual observer—betrayed no stress. Just another solicitor, or maybe an investment banker, having a tipple before going home to the missus. Tie loosened, jacket unbuttoned.

Edward stared down into his Jack Daniel's as if the amber liquid were a divination pool. He was out to get himself right-and-proper fucked-up, so he didn't bother with his usual Scotch; this swill would do the job. Emmett was swallowing the last of yet another pint of his favorite Guinness, and Jasper had a bottle of Bud.

"Don't lie to me. I can see you're planning on it."

"Is my ocularis gofuckyourselficus muscle twitching?" Fucking Yankee and his fucking microexpressions.

Jasper waited, rolling his longneck between his palms. Back and forth, from the tips of his fingers to the heel of his hand.

"Stop looking at me like that. The way you're molesting that bottle, you'd give a man ideas," Edward said.

Emmett chuckled. "You did join the Agency during Don't Ask, Don't Tell, didn't ya, Jas? Gonna put a pink umbrella in that fecking American piss-water, too?"

Jasper just smiled. "Hey, what I've got in my hand right now hasn't got anything to do with what's between my legs. Unlike Edward—"

"Fuck you. I'm not jerking off that much."

"—Who is usually much more skilled at deflecting uncomfortable questions. Like why, charming devil that he is, he's jerking off a'tall."

Shit. Edward walked right into that one.

"Bella, my target…" Edward didn't like to think of himself as a coward, but he couldn't finish.

"How's that going?" Jasper was drawing Edward out. Emmett didn't have the sort of psychological training Jasper did, so he worked to put Edward at ease in his own way: he called for the bartender to turn the rugby on.

"She doesn't trust me. She seems to trust the Chief, and the organization as a whole, but not me. She resents having to keep up her cover at Masen." Bella had been polite but distant in the past week. The worst kind of ambivalence clouded her eyes—wanting something and wanting not to want it. Edward called it an impasse; Bella called it an antinomy. Edward smiled. Antinomy. He'd had to Google it when she left.

"She been read in?"

"Yes." And Edward's smile was gone. "She's keeping her American citizenship, at least for now." Edward rubbed his forehead. He'd had to promise that to get her to agree to stay. Bella was asking a lot of him, of his government—but he'd give her so much more. Edward would give her anything.

"You told her… everything?" Jasper asked.

"Hah." Edward took a long drink. "Yeah, everything."

The trio drank in silence. Edward couldn't stop thinking about earlier that day, when Bella handed in a "staff report." Edward had taken the papers from her, and their fingers had brushed.

Bella gasped and dropped the report. She slid her fingertips along his palm, his fingers.

"Do you feel that?" she murmured. He did. The flip-flop in his belly; the way her heart beat faster. Bella grasped his hand and walked around his desk. She held their joined palms close to her body, inspecting them.

"These hands hurt people. They kill."

"Yes." Edward gazed up at her, but her eyes were down. She rubbed her thumbs over his knuckles.

"They protect people, though. Defend them. Too."

"Yes." Edward's voice was stronger now. Bella met his eyes, and in them, he saw that same intensity of a week ago, before everything went to shit. He wanted to tell her he loved her again. Would that scare her away? Send her running, from him and the agency?

She kissed his knuckles. Bella placed the report back in his hands—his killing, defending hands—and said, "It's too late."

For what? Too late for what? Did she regret being involved with him, with MI6? Did she think she couldn't get out of this?

Too late—she could never fall in love with a killer, even one who kills to protect?

"Never say that!"

Edward shot to his feet. He was angry, desperate, afraid. Bella reached for him, and he leaned down. The movement was instinctual, like touching a wound with your hands. Bella grasped his square jaw and kissed his cheek. Her face still pressed against his, she said, "Time, Edward. I need time."

Edward watched, breathing too fast, as she walked out of his office again.

"Tell anyone this, I'll have you both burned." Edward wasn't joking. He'd call in every last favor, every life-debt, use every last bit of the Chief's affection for him. Emmett and Jasper exchanged glances. This was serious. Edward's friends nodded, preparing for the worst.

"I... developed feelings... for her."

"Christ!" Emmett shook his head. He shoved his bowl of peanuts away. "You are a spectacular moron."

Edward knocked back the rest of his bourbon. It burned. "I know."

"No wonder you've been so erratic lately. You need to transfer her into another agent's care."

Edward allowed himself to consider it, just briefly. He touched his chest, but there was no knife twisting there to explain the hurt. "I—I can't do that, Jas. I just can't. And…"

"Lord, don't tell me—Edward," Jasper said, his voice quiet. "Did you fall in love with her?"

Glass clinked against the polished wood bar top. The conversations of the other patrons were a murmur in the background. On the telly, the crowd in Twickenham screamed.

"Yes."

"Have you lost your goddamned mind?!" Emmett exclaimed. "Have I taught you nothing?"

"You taught me? You heard from The Blonde recently?"

Emmett winced. That was a low blow. "Well, she doesn't have a phone when she's… working. A mobile could ignite her materials, and…"

"That's what I thought." Edward took a deep breath and tried to make his voice softer. "I don't know if I can do it. Be her... boyfriend, be who she needs me to be — and be who I am. What I am."

"You know, Edward, being with someone may not be a bad thing. Having someone to come home to, something personal to fight for. It seems to work for Mossad…" Jasper said.

"She didn't say it back."

"Oh."

"Shite."

The barkeep refilled Edward's glass. A quick look at Edward's face and he left the bottle there. No questions. Discretion, in both employee and patron, was the word at The Acorn and Legend.

"What you need—"

"Do not say is to go get laid." Been there, done that, got the sinking feeling of self-loathing to prove it.

"—Is to prove to yourself you can do it, be both. Or find out for sure if you can't. Either way, you need to know."

"Bella's my only mission. I don't have anything like that coming up... Unless Bella's threatened again." And if she was, he'd eliminate that threat. With extreme predjudice. Edward's hand clenched around his glass.

"As it happens," Emmett said, pulling out his cell phone. He grinned, mischievous and joyful. "I may be able to help with that."

AN: It's at this point you should read the side-shot, A Whisper Against the Powder, if you're so inclined.

Thank you all so very much for sticking with this story, even through the long period between updates. I'm quite happily relocated now, and even more happily employed, so I hope to find my writing rhythm again soon.

And to everyone who followed me over to Mise-en-Place (or followed from!), thank you again for trusting me to take you on these journeys. For loving—or hating—my characters.

Now's probably a good time to remind you of my story blog, on which you can find lots of supplementary, glossary-type information. chekovsgunblog dot blogspot dot com.