[8-26-2013] This chapter is posted slightly earlier than usual because I won't be at home for a few days. I'll be glad to read your comments and I'll reply to them as soon as I get back. Thank you for your lovely support. Snare is up as "fic of the week" at The Lemonade Stand ("tehlemonadestand.n.e.t"). Go and vote for your favorite fics!
Set Him Free
For a moment, Edward was so startled that his breath caught in his throat. The trust she'd put in him with her gesture, as well as the acceptance and the affection she was showing to him, moved him so much that he felt like she had the power to give him back his humanity.
"I'm sorry that you had to give up so much," she whispered to him.
"Don't be, because with you I've gotten back more than I could dream of. You're everything to me."
Edward brushed his fingers through Bella's hair, stopping when his hands reached the nape of her neck. With the slightest pressure, he tilted her head upward until he could meet her gaze.
Memories from his human years resurfaced in his mind. He'd been considered an eligible bachelor back then, and he'd met many fine young women at the house parties given by his family and other members of the English nobility. He could recall only brief flickers of those years–the few fragments that had survived his transformation. Of course, he hadn't attended any such gatherings during his time as a newborn vampire.
Even after all those years, he remembered how back then he had never found what he was seeking. When he'd left for his Grand Tour of Europe, he'd carried his internal turmoil with him; on some days he thought he was complete in himself, while in other moments he sensed there was an unanswered question in his life. It had taken more than two centuries, but the answer had finally arrived and was in his arms.
Edward was taken aback by Bella's paleness; under her eyes, there were shadows that told him she wasn't sleeping well. He compared her appearance with the picture of her as a high school student that she'd showed him by mistake during one of their previous meetings. The delicate blush of her cheeks and the brilliant light in her eyes had faded, and he found himself tensing in anger when he thought of the man who had done that to her—a man who was supposed to love her, but had caused so much harm, suffocating her joy in the web of his lies. If Garrett hadn't been dead, Edward would have hunted him down and made him pay for what he'd done to Bella. His expression hardened at the thought, and Bella noticed it; her eyebrows knitted, signaling her concern.
Edward shook his head, reassuring her with a smile. He skimmed the side of her face with his nose, basking in her scent. She's human, he reminded himself. She can move on, and hopefully she will. A daydream of Bella in her full bloom comforted him. Humans were considered so much weaker than vampires, but they had at least one advantage over immortals: they could change. Over the centuries of his existence, Edward had learned how vampires were living stones; for them, change was rare to achieve and impossible to undo. During his time in Italy, Carlisle had met a vampire who had been reduced to a shell of himself by the loss of his mate, damned to stay that way forever. Humans, on the other hand, could always become something new. In his line of work, Edward had witnessed many of his patients lifting themselves from the darkness; the hope that, in time, it would be the same for Bella offered him a refuge in the storm of emotions he was caught in.
He pressed his lips against Bella's skin, which was smooth and silky under his delicate touch; he cherished her cheeks, the line of her jaw, and the crook of her neck with a trail of teasing kisses. Her tension was melting away in his arms, and with her abandon she was telling him how much she trusted him.
"You're precious to me," he breathed.
He stilled as her scent threatened to become overwhelming. Shudders rolled down his back, torturing him with the unparalleled pleasure of her embrace and the devouring temptation to keep going, to claim every part of her for his own.
Reluctantly, he distanced himself from her, keeping his hands on her shoulders. The unruly mane of her long, dark hair fell in waves around her face and down her shoulders. Her lips were slightly parted, and she was breathing faster than usual, as if trying to keep up with the rhythm of her heart. She reminded Edward of a sylvan goddess, and indeed the excitement she elicited in him was matched only by what he felt when he was running through the woods, giving himself to the hunt. Her eyes sparkled as she finally smiled at him; it was the first true smile he'd seen on her face since they'd met, and it left him stunned. No one–human or immortal–had ever dazzled him in the way Bella did, and if Edward had believed that a god would listen to him, he would have prayed that he could stay close to her as long as she would allow it.
He stared at her mouth, bewitched by the call of a thirst he'd never experienced, stronger than any bloodlust he'd ever known. He swallowed the lump in his throat, not because of the venom pooling in his mouth, but as a man who hesitated before asking to be given an extraordinary gift.
"May I?" he whispered as he leaned toward her.
Bella answered with a small nod before she closed the few inches of distance between them and sought out his lips. Her courage amazed him. He remained still while her rosy mouth glided like a soft petal over the living stone of his. He wanted her to set the pace, and if she could have read his mind, Edward would have told her that he was hers. He'd studied and read and experienced so much, making the most of the unending possibilities that his supernatural gifts granted him, but in front of this human girl he could only beg her to teach him. Tell me how to please you, Isabella. Show me how I can love you. He cradled her face in his hands and breathed in her scent, as if he were bringing to his mouth the ambrosia that would sate every thirst.
With teasing hesitation, he captured her lower lip; under the veil of her skin, he could feel her blood and her pulse, like a reminder that she was alive, and that now he was part of her life.
"Edward," Bella breathed with a sigh. Her fingers knotted in his hair, and she clutched him to herself.
Here I am, he thought. I'll always be yours. A sprinkle of pecks sealed his promise.
Edward flinched as he suddenly caught an image of himself in the mind of the guard. The surveillance video the man was watching was still showing old recordings of the cell and the gallery, but there was the possibility that, in the few minutes remaining before the end of his shift, he would personally check the basement. Not wanting to startle Bella, Edward didn't break their embrace immediately; the awareness that their time together would be over soon had hit him like a physical blow, but he did his best to hide his anguish from her.
Two days, Bella had said; then she would set him free. The blink of an eye, compared to a human life. Less than a grain of sand in an hourglass, compared to a vampire's existence. For Edward, his years had been like a myriad of grains–all alike, all devoid of that sublime tension that, in his opinion, only humans could have, as long as they still had something to dream of. But a divide had been interposed in the midst of the long sequence of years forming his existence. In this evening with Bella, everything had been changed forever, because now he knew what finding heaven was like, and in a few hours he'd also experience how it felt to lose it for good.
She caressed his cheek, and he noticed how the difference between their temperatures was less noticeable than before, the contact between them having warmed his skin.
Edward had been careful to avoid making her uncomfortable with his cold body and hadn't picked up any sign of distress from her, but when she broke their embrace, she shivered.
"Are you okay?" he asked.
She looked down at their fingers, still joined, and shook her head.
He winced, frightened that she would regret what had just happened between them, and braced himself for her rejection.
With her right hand, Bella unclasped a bracelet from her wrist; it was a tiny chain with a small heart-shaped crystal pendant. She turned Edward's hand between hers and pressed the jewel into his palm. "Would you keep this with you?" she asked, her voice a soft whisper. She fought against the tears brimming in her eyes. "You can give it back to me once you're free. Don't let today be a farewell, please."
And with that, Edward forced himself to return to his cell. He shut the doors behind himself; when he was once again standing in the large room that had been his prison for the last few months, he looked up to see Bella pressing her hands against the window of the observation gallery. As she had surmised, when the time she'd originally programmed into the security system had elapsed, both doors between the cell and observation gallery relocked themselves. Once again, Edward checked the thoughts of the guard, who had been gazing absently at the video without a clue about what was actually going on in the basement.
"Did we get busted?" Bella asked before leaving.
He shook his head, knowing that, with the intercom still switched off, she wouldn't hear him.
The door of the observation gallery opened on her first try. He followed her footsteps as she walked quickly along the corridor and left the lodge.
Charlie took a deep breath, trying to calm down after the evening he'd had. He'd told Bella that he was going to sleep, but he hadn't said for how long. He set the alarm on his phone for an hour later; a short nap was all he was going to allow himself, and he doubted that even the relaxation techniques he knew would help him get any sleep.
He gulped down his pills with a swig of fresh water. After his last check-up, his cardiologist had forbidden him alcohol, and so far he had obeyed. But thinking about what was awaiting him in the next few days, he felt that he would need something strong to make it through. He shrugged off his clothes and lay down on the bed of his hotel room. An hour later, he was still wide awake, replaying for the umpteenth time in his mind the long conversation he'd had with Alice Whitlock.
"I've been following your work for years, since the homicides in Washington," Alice said to Charlie. She wasn't the first girl who had approached him, declaring her admiration for his research, and she certainly wouldn't be the last–but Charlie appreciated that she hadn't mentioned the hideous name the media had given to the killer. "I'm sorry for your loss," she added, her soft tone sounding more sincere than the usual perfunctory condolences he received for his wife's death.
He was about to thank her for her words and leave when she stopped him with a look, her eyes boring into his. Even more than their odd color–a peculiar hue of golden-brown, resembling amber–Charlie noticed how serious her expression had become. It seemed she'd been given a responsibility too great for her young years; whatever she had to say, it appeared urgent.
"I know about your research," she whispered. "I know it concerns vampires, and that you've been granted access to certain classified documents. I also have reason to believe that following a fire that destroyed a cabin in the Capitol State Forest, you've been keeping a vampire prisoner in a private facility."
As Charlie listened to her in stunned silence, his frenzied mind searched for any memory which could tell him more about who Alice was. He neither confirmed nor denied what she was saying, trying to fish for more details about what she actually knew, but she didn't seem worried by the possibility of being proven wrong. Charlie quickly dismissed Robert Walsh, who had been loitering nearby, and suggested to Alice that they talk outside, away from the chatter of the lingering crowd. Once they were alone in the parking lot, she dropped the most shocking of her statements.
She said she was a vampire as well.
As if that weren't enough, she proceeded to prove it to him, showing him her speed and strength. Like a shooting star, she darted away toward the woods surrounding the parking lot and came back before Charlie registered that she'd moved at all. In her hands, she was carrying a huge cinder-block, taken from an abandoned pile at the end of the parking lot. Alice twisted it in her hands as if it were made of shortbread, crumbling it into powder.
Charlie worried he was going to have a stroke.
"You know what's ironic?" she told him. "I've spent decades perfecting the art of blending in among humans, and after just a few minutes with you, I've revealed everything." Alice tried to chuckle, but it came out weak. "Putting up a façade is the only way we have of keeping our true nature secret."
Vampires had the upper hand over humans when it came to the food chain, but in many other aspects, the immortals envied the creatures they'd once been. Alice had told Charlie that her human instincts hadn't been completely destroyed by her metamorphosis; they were buried deep, though, and oddly enough, the more she lied and pretended to be human, the more she felt that she was regaining her true self.
"A vampire," Charlie scoffed. He couldn't wrap his mind around the notion that such a charming woman was one of those monsters. At first, she'd given him the impression of a very intelligent, kind person; she seemed like one of those people who could immediately inspire trust. Charlie grimaced, recalling how in some ways Alice had reminded him of Bella. As if my daughter could have anything in common with one of those inhuman creatures. Regardless, his daughter was the only reason why, in the middle of the night, he was actually considering the possibility of making a deal with those monsters, and going against everything in which he believed.
He switched on his laptop and began to flip through the files he'd collected over the years. How long had Miss Whitlock been spying on him? She seemed so young, and yet she'd claimed that she'd been following the cases of the Drainer for almost a decade. She'd noticed his name in the newspapers, at first mentioned among the agents who were leading the investigations, and then, after Renée's disappearance... Charlie didn't have the courage to look at that file again. He would never forget the newspaper headlines and accompanying images announcing that his wife had been brutally murdered by the same serial killer he hadn't been able to stop.
Alice had confirmed Charlie's suspicions that the Drainer's homicides hadn't been the work of a human killer, but of a supernatural one; she'd even recalled some passages from the files of the 98331 folder as if they were right in front of her eyes. Either she's what she says she is, or she's the best spy I've ever met.
As if the meeting with Alice weren't enough, Charlie had to face the enormity of what she'd asked him to do. Set the subject free. It was all too easy to imagine what could happen when he opened the cell and told Edward he could leave, allowing the vampires to strike as they saw fit. On the other hand, if what Alice had explained was true, other monsters–much more powerful than us, and who aren't going to come to terms with you or with any other human–would come. Think about Bella, Alice had pleaded. Charlie had bristled as he'd realized that the woman knew too much about his daughter, as well.
Alice had given him every assurance that as long as Charlie followed her advice, nothing bad would happen to anyone involved with the lodge. She confirmed that Edward fed on animal blood, and that she'd made the same choice herself; according to her, they didn't pose a threat to any human. Plus, she promised that she would make sure that Edward was under control.
Charlie typed furiously, filling pages upon pages with reports about his activity at the lodge and summaries of his studies on vampires. Then he booked a flight for Bella. He rubbed at his eyes, blaming their sting on the hours he'd spent in front of the computer screen and not the tears, as he made a reservation for two rooms at an exclusive resort in Hawaii.
The plan he'd devised would require him to lie to his daughter, but he couldn't think of any other way to make it work. He would tell her that they could both use some bonding time and would ask her to humor her old man by joining him on an impromptu holiday. But he had no intention of leaving with Bella; instead, he would pretend that an emergency had come up at the last minute, and he would stay in Washington, sending her off with promises that he would take the next flight. He could almost envision himself encouraging her to leave: There's no reason for you to wait for me...Go and have fun, I'll be there as soon as possible.
Once Bella was safely away, Charlie would deal with Alice. As long as the vampire hadn't lied, he would free Edward and then join his daughter in Hawaii. Otherwise...once again, he read through the letter he'd prepared; in it he'd explained to Bella everything about his meeting with Alice Whitlock and had given her instructions on how to leave the US. He folded the letter, praying that its addressee would never have need to read it.
Dawn was already breaking when Charlie dialed Sherman's number. No one knew that he intended to give his former colleague the results of his studies about vampires, with information about the few weapons–the vitamin D, the fire, and the explosives–that seemed to work against them. Charlie hoped that, even if he succumbed, other humans would stand a fighting chance against those bloodsuckers.
"I have something for you," he said when Sherman answered the phone. "Can we meet in Tacoma this evening?"
Thanks for reading!
Finally, they kissed!
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