A BULLET FROM CHEKHOV'S GUN
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Bella gazed out the window as Edward drove down a B-road in Surrey. Rain drizzled down. Trees whipped past—their wet, blue- and greyish-greens reminded Bella of Forks. England had the same coloring: the same mossy, filtered light as Washington. This outing was their first time alone together, out of the office, since that morning in Carlisle's garden two weeks ago. During her time back at Masen, undercover and knowing it, Bella was tense, always pushing anxiety down. She felt as if she were in a perpetual state of dropping a hot cup of tea: tense chest, tight stomach, bracing for impact with the floor, waiting to be scalded. The moment of relief, saying fuck it, let it fall.
But when she was with Edward, in his physical presence, she felt like she'd caught the cup safely. Maybe a little spill, no harm done. She didn't check over her shoulder, sensing unseen followers. She didn't notice every security camera she passed. She relaxed. She could breathe. The only tension was between her mind and heart. You want him, you love him, one whispered. You don't know who it is that you love, the other replied.
"What do you think of English sports, Bella?"
"Hm?" Bella looked over at him. There it was again, that feeling of being home. Safe. "You mean, like, soc—football? Love it. All the visual dynamism of tennis without that irritating fast pace."
Edward grinned. Bella was joking, teasing him like she used to. He missed her sarcasm. She looked so natural in his car, by his side. He'd do anything to keep her that way. Edward glanced over at her. No sun shone on her, but still, Bella glowed. He wanted—no, needed to bring her into his world.
"I was thinking more rugby, actually."
"Rugby… Like, lots of sweaty, muscular men in tight uniforms, wrestling, glaring at each other, getting all dirty?" Bella's eyes glazed over. "Yeah. Rugby's good."
Edward turned, pulling into a car park. There were only a few vehicles. Low, white bleachers bordered a field on one side. In the distance, men in colorblock shirts ran sprints.
Bella glanced in the backseat and the gym bag resting there. "Edward… This game you're taking me to… You're playing."
"I am." Edward jogged around and opened Bella's door.
"You play rugby and row crew?"
"Yeah. It's fairly typical for… someone like me."
"Someone like you?"
"Bella… I went to private, all-boys schools for most of my life. Those are the sports we play."
"You entitled, patrician, tea-swilling bastard."
He wanted to make a crude innuendo, or tease her for her American egalitarianism, but Bella reached for him. She paused, gazing at him. His mischievous urges receded, and warmth suffused in his chest. He closed the distance and grasped her hand.
"I'm the team captain—"
"Of course you are." Edward didn't even have to look over at her to see her eyes roll. He grinned like a fool.
"—So I would be remiss if I missed practice, but I'll be able to take a few plays out to visit. Do you know the rules?" Edward led Bella down the side of the pitch, squeezing her hand. Near what Bella would call the 50-yard line, Edward gestured for her to take a seat on the bleachers.
"Isn't it similar to football—y'know, American football?" Bella sat and Edward dug around in his bag. He pulled out a thick wool blanket and a Thermos. Bella took both, smiling.
"Uh huh. We're playing seven-a-side, teams usually have 13 or 15. The two sides scrum—"
"I'm going to be too busy staring at your ass to follow the game play."
"Oh," he said, like an idiot. He looked at her. A slow grin slipped over his face. "Well, in that case—"
"Hey, Cullen!" A few men in green jerseys jogged over and stopped on the other side of the low wall separating the bleachers from the pitch.
Bella choked on her tea.
"You!" She pointed at one, who grinned and tossed the ball—hard—at Edward. He caught it, barely, and tried not to grimace or rub his stomach. "I remember you from the train station."
"I'm Emmett," he said, winking. Emmett hopped over the wall. His grace surprised Bella. "It's a pleasure to meet you, officially."
"Bella." They shook hands.
"Guys, this is Bella. Bella, meet Garrett and Liam—" Edward pointed.
"The best fecking players on the team," Liam interjected.
"He's right." Garrett joined Emmett on the other side of the wall. He took Bella's hand and kissed it. "Em tells us ya speak Gaelic. When ya get tired of this wanker and want a real man—"
"An Irish man, he means," Liam said.
"Fuckers!" Edward shoved Garrett, moving his large frame hardly an inch.
"—I'll come runnin.'" Smirking, Garrett stepped back and stole the ball from Edward.
"Póg mo thóin, tuilli," Bella said.
"Marry me," Garrett said.
"Tá tú glan as do mheabhair!"
Everyone laughed. Edward's chest twisted. Jealousy was an utterly foreign sensation.
Edward sighed and introduced the other three. "Al, Chuck, Ben. I know I'll regret this, but I'm going to have to leave you with these tossers while I go change." He shouldered the gym bag and leaned down, giving Bella plenty of time to turn away. He kissed her cheek—just the softest brush of his lips. She tilted her head, her skin slipping against his. He inhaled sharply through his nose. Her lips were right there. She must mean for him to go farther. Edward kissed her, molding his lips to hers. It was soft and sweet, a kiss that promised more to come. Neither heard his teammates take a few steps away.
He made to leave, but Bella grabbed his hand. In her eyes, he saw a flash of the same woman who slapped Mike Newton in the middle of a busy quad. Strong, sure, not weighed down. The secrets Bella was now required to keep were a lead apron: heavy, toxic, but they protected her against an even greater poison.
Her curiosity was kindled, coaxed by his mysteries into full flame. She wanted to know how he broke his nose. Or was that even how it got crooked? When had he first had his heart broken? How did he get involved with MI6? What was his favorite book? How many people had he killed?
She would start small, with the here-and-now. Aware that they could be overheard, she furrowed her brow and cocked her head to the side. Can I ask you a question?
Edward chuckled, still flying high from the kiss. He nodded.
Bella's eyes flicked to the six men on the field and back to Edward. She raised her eyebrows. Are they all… She opened her eyes a little wider. Like you?
He cocked an eyebrow. Spies, you mean?
He smiled and blinked once. Yeah. "I'll be right back."
Bella pulled the blanket tighter and cupped her hands around the thermos. She watched the players warm up as Edward jogged away. These were his friends, a part of his life. Just like Bella was—a large, central part. Edward desperately wanted to mesh the two. He could've taken Bella to any of the fine restaurants in the city, to a play, or to the symphony. Somewhere posh and impressive. And she'd have liked it. But Edward wanted her to see him as a real, normal man. Just an average guy, picking up a quick game with his mates.
He realized, as the locker room door closed behind him, how light he felt. The gloomy wanker who tortured himself about exposing Bella to his world, where truth and reality was shaped more like an Escher print than a road map, seemed to have fucked off. Gone, vanished. Edward's shoulders felt unburdened. He was happy.
He'd wasted so much time. Now Edward was ready to move forward. He smiled and opened his locker, eager to show off a bit for his girl. Score a few tries, maybe earn more kisses later for the conquering hero.
The hairs on the back of his neck stood up. Edward's nostrils flared; icy cold crystallized in his chest. His instincts told him what he should have known minutes ago. He wasn't alone in the locker room.
It took a very great effort to keep his grin natural. He slipped his jacket off and made to hang it up in the locker. There was a false panel in the back. If only he could get to it, he could arm himself and all his mates on the field…
A click echoed. Edward closed his eyes, his fingers a scant few inches from his guns, and salvation.
"Dobryj dyen,' Edward."
Edward sighed. "Dobryj dyen,' Irina," he replied. He pulled his hands back and up, so very slowly, mindful of the Yarygin surely pointed at his head. He pivoted, inch by inch, until he faced his adversary. He made a show of taking in her appearance, the tight skinny jeans and long-sleeved tee; he noted her stance; listened for any noise from outside the locker room; calculated his distance from the door; and wagered on the likelihood of finding anything useful in one of the unlocked lockers. "Still putting the 'slut' in Sluzhba, I see."
"Oh, Edward," she said. She bit her lip and shook her head, her long blonde hair swaying. "You never had any complaints."
He clenched his jaw. He was glad that, one way or another, Irina was unlikely to live for much longer. He'd never have to explain that comment—what, once upon a time, he'd had to do to maintain his cover—to his girl. There was a reason Irina was the only agent Edward refused ever to work with again. Namely, that she was completely fucking insane. "You're here for Bella."
"Mmm, I'm just lending a hand to a friend in need. I just need to keep you busy, Edward, just for a little while. You understand, busy, yes?"
A friend in need? There was someone else involved, someone who was trying to get—or already had—Bella right now?
No. Absolutely not. Lethality slithered over Edward, coating him in its viscous danger. Irina never stood a chance.
He shot forward and grabbed Irina's pistol by the slide, and directed it down and away from his body. The heel of his left palm smashed into the bridge of her nose, shattering it, and forcing her head back. She staggered; tried to pull the trigger. Edward allowed the force of the blow to carry his left arm across his body. He slammed his fist into Irina's elbow, breaking her grip on her gun. He twisted back to the left and struck her in the temple. The cold steel of her weapon cracked her skull. She crumpled to the floor, a marionette whose strings had been cut. He'd never moved that fast in his life.
Edward tore away the false panel behind his locker, and grabbed the first weapon he could wrap his fingers around. He fired a single, suppressed shot at Irina's shoulder. She wouldn't be getting up any time soon. Crouching low, he ran out and down the interminably long hallway. Behind him, Irina's blood pooled.
There were men ringed around Bella. Even from this far away, the confrontation was clear. He was one man and two pistols—surprise was his only advantage. As much as it pained him to wait, Edward forced himself to circle around the bleachers. He kept his eyes fixed on Bella the entire time.
He finally got a good look at the situation. Bella was being held by one, no, two men. Emmett and the rest of Edward's team circled them, but kept their distance. They had numerical superiority, why did they hold? Edward's eyes darted around the circle. Emmett, Liam, Garrett, all children of the Troubles; they knew tense standoffs. Two options: either escalate or defuse the conflict. Which were they doing here?
Edward paused thirty feet away. It appeared as if Bella was just being affectionate with a couple of friends. A redhead—no, not a man, a woman with short hair—held her around the shoulders, and a medium-height, medium-build blond man had an arm wrapped around her waist.
Medium height. Medium build. Blond. Edward zeroed in on the man's forearm, and there it was: the scar Edward himself had caused, so many years ago.
Rage crackled in his chest. His finger twitched on the trigger. He had never, not in his entire life at MI6, wanted to kill so badly. The savage need for it burned in his soul.
A whistle blew in the distance. Motherfucker! Hyperaware of the dozens of blissfully ignorant players, Edward discarded his plan to pick James and whoever-the-fuck off from a distance. He had to play this smart, and flawlessly so. The stakes were too high. Edward reached into his pocket, withdrew his phone, and sent a coded text to Alice. Backup would be here soon, now Edward just had to delay James for as long as he could. And save Bella.
Fear attempted to burrow into his mind, pitched high, a dentist's drill probing for any weakness. Edward swallowed. This was it. Everything he'd ever trained for, all his terrible and glorious experiences, all focused down on him now like a beam from a cruel child's magnifying glass.
He crept up behind them, hunched over, arms extended, walking on the balls of his feet. He made no sound.
A breeze fluttered James' jacket. Jesus Christ, he had a submachine gun pressed into Bella's ribs. He could cut her in half and have enough ammunition left over to take out half the team before he ever had to reload. Edward understood Emmett's caution.
Edward slipped into the gap between Al and Chuck. The redhead looked over her shoulder. Too late. One pistol was aimed directly between her eyes, the other was planted in the back of James' head.
James sighed. "Irina, that useless whore."
"Let Bella go, Hunter."
She was stiff, breathing hard—but not hyperventilating, Edward noted. Brave, strong girl.
"I don't think I will. She feels so good against me." James pulled Bella closer, pressing the gun more tightly into her ribs. He leaned down, and ran his nose along her jaw. He shuffled around, dragging Bella with him.
"I can see why you have such a hard-on for her, Cullen," he said. "Lower your weapon or I kill your asset."
Edward let his arms drift to his sides, but shifted his weight forward.
"Ah-ah, Ed-ward," James sang. "You stay right the fuck there. You wouldn't want to be seen, exposed, now would you?"
Edward froze. "You wouldn't dare."
"I would." Edward knew, if either he or James opened fire on domestic territory and in front of witnesses, he wouldn't live to see life imprisonment for treason. Esme would have him killed, and the whole incident covered up. Quickly, completely, but utterly without consideration. No gentle cyanide capsule.
He'd never be able to tell Bella he loved her again. He'd never be able to hear her say it back.
He couldn't shoot James. Couldn't move against him at all, not with her life balancing, birdlike, on a madman's trigger finger. But, dear God, he wanted to. He could kill James and enjoy it. He waited, fear pouring like hot sand down his spine.
"Miss Swan—Bella," James continued. "I don't know what Cullen has offered you, but I assure you, my…resources are much more substantial. I'll give you one chance. Make this easy on yourself. Come with me now. You're...coming…either way. This way is much less painful. For you."
Edward saw nothing, in that moment, except for the brown of Bella's eyes. The strain, the fear, the determination, the disgust. Some more basic part of his brain tracked the movements of his friends, his foes, the witnesses; his conscious mind was devoted entirely to her. He loved her. He had to protect her.
"You know," Bella said, her voice quiet but clear. She swallowed and tried to communicate with Edward as she had earlier, with her eyes. She was fine, everything was okay. Everything would be okay. "Quantum mechanics predicts that there must be some universe, somewhere, in which I found that offer attractive. But it sure as fuck isn't this one."
Behind Edward, Liam laughed—short, harsh, and without forethought. Edward swallowed, feeling his heart in his throat.
"That's unfortunate." James sighed. "But not unexpected. You just need… persuasion."
James backed down the field, his eyes on Edward. The unknown, silent redhead trailed behind.
His friends and comrades ringed around him, Edward watched James pull Bella down the practice pitch. For Edward's heart, it was a death by inches. When she finally vanished from his sight, he fell to his knees.
"We'll get her back," Emmett murmured.
But it was too late. Inside, Edward was already dead.
AN: Thanks to my beta, Sara ( abadkitty).
Thank you to everyone still reading. Between my last update and this one, ABFCG passed 1000 reviews, as did MeP. I still can't believe it. I know it's ridiculous, given the update times, but I am taking requests regarding a special, celebratory post for TWO 1k+ stories in the same month. Something from that one, something from this one? Maybe a little Carlisle and Esme backstory? Nobody's curious about Emmett and the Blonde? Anyone want to see that bar scene extended? Lemme know.
...no guarantees on delivery date, though.