A/N: I'm aiming to try to finish what I've started. Not sure if anyone even cares anymore about this twisted tale. But I have a soft place in my heart for these characters. Let's see if I update again in less than a year.
Isabella spends the next several days commanding a workforce, guiding analysts, courting investors and entertaining financiers. She moves capital and sets the markets in motion, playing the game for all it is worth. (It is a game worth countless billions of dollars). From her vantage point high over the city of Los Angeles she gazes out over the arc of the earth and intuitively understands how money will move and fortunes will unfold. Companies struggle to keep their heads afloat in the new fiscal seas while SAG Global not only floats, but is responsible for the push and pull of the tides. She spots tantalizing morsels in the rough waters and devours them whole, while other, weaker prey are smashed by the surf against the rocks. Meanwhile, Volturi Holdings folds in on itself like a wounded animal hiding its vital organs.
"Volturi is trying to project stability, but it is incumbent upon us to unearth how fragile they are at the core," Isabella insists to her executive team.
"Are they actually fragile, though?" Jared asks.
All eyes turn toward the erstwhile executive.
"We are all vulnerable, Mr. Cameron. Some of us are better protected, some of us are more apt to go on the offensive, and a precious few of us, like SAG Capital, are capable of both."
"We're doing quite well, Ms. Swan. Perhaps Volturi is inconsequential. Perhaps we just leave them be."
"Since when has capitalism contented itself with partial victory? We are on the brink of greatness, Mr. Cameron. We are at the helm of history. Of course, if you are uncomfortable with this quest, say the word and we can leave you behind with the rest of the flotsam and jetsam."
In the evenings immediately following the opera though, the benefit of Isabella Swan's certainty dissipates and dries up like a dewdrop baking in the desert sun. In the evenings Isabella is filled with empty unease that drives her to gaze out of windows or to sit absently in front of a computer monitor. She eats meticulous meals prepared to her specifications. In the blue glow from her laptop she watches Asian markets fluctuate in graphs moving across a screen. She answers calls from government officials looking for guidance in the face of fiscal meltdown.
She takes to undressing and examining her reflection in the mirror, searching for a mark or a scrape, an outward sign of inward imperfection.
She takes out her dossier on Edward Cullen, takes a pair of scissors and snips the frayed edge off of a strip of red silk and tucks it in with figures and facts that no longer amount to the sum of their parts. There are new bits of information to be examined: flight numbers, the name of a hotel in Scottsdale, charges from a desert car service. Where once Isabella would find certainty in hard facts, these evenings she feels as if she is trying to peer through to the ocean floor while a storm rages across the surface of the sea. She wraps the remaining red silk like a clothen anchor around milky limbs, tethering her to the shore, reminding her that she has primed herself for this moment of absolute conquest. She cannot falter.
On the third night Isabella steps out of the shower, and through a foggy mirror a dark red gash separates her head from body and marks a path like a river of blood between her breasts. Wiping condensation from the glass, Isabella watches the blood transform to limp wet silk as her larger than life aura turns into bathroom tile. Through trickling beads of water she is confronted with the stark image of a thin woman with big eyes and knobby bones, clinging desperately to a bit of scarlet cloth. She stands waiting, watching the rise and fall of her chest, counting ribs, checking for signs of degenerative weakness - as much out of old habit as new neurosis.
Isabella reluctantly unwinds the cord from her neck and lets it fall to the tile, leaving cooling rivulets of water running down her back and over her chest. Her eyes burn and she has a difficult time tearing herself from the bathroom, and to be blatant, from keeping herself from smashing the mirror in front of her. She has an impulse to add burn and warmth to the coolness of the water on her skin and the emptiness of the room.
Instead she calls the one person in the world she allows to see her when she feels desperate.
Jacob Black lets himself into Isabella's apartment and finds her seated on the balcony with her knees pulled to her chin, gazing out over the darkened city toward the silver-glinted waves beyond. The moon glances off of her white silk robe, giving the impression that she shines underneath the night sky. Isabella always shines for Jacob, though. He sees no difference tonight.
Before he ventures out to the balcony, Jacob stops at the bar and pours two glasses of Isabella's favorite liquor. He shrugs off his jacket, folds it over the back of a chair and loosens his tie. He tries to feel at home, but as always when he is in his friend's apartment, Jacob comes up sadly short of his goal.
Isabella does not look up when Jacob takes the seat next to her, and she doesn't thank him for driving all this way this late at night, but she takes a comforting sip from the glass she is offered. Whisky slides down her throat, scorching and soothing all at once. She balances the glass on a bare knee and clutches it tight enough that her fingertips go white.
Jacob notices a wet and wrinkled ribbon strewn across the table in front of him. Isabella avoids looking at it, like evidence of a crime. Silence winds around them with the wind and Isabella's robe ripples against her bare skin.
Jacob leans forward and runs a finger along the edge of Isabella's chair until he brushes her thigh. "Bella?"
"I was just wondering if Doctor Banner's colleague will have something to offer Angela Cullen."
Struck, Jacob leans back. "What do you care?"
Jacob hears the truth in Isabella's words. He understands that it is Edward Cullen that cares about Angela Cullen's fate, and that this vicarious emotion has left Isabella unsettled. "What would you like me to do? Call Banner? Find a way to tap into medical files?" he inquires.
"The human heart is a funny thing, isn't it, Jake?"
Jacob is used to decisive instructions, so Isabella's philosophical question takes him by surprise. "The heart? How so?"
Isabella glances across the table and Jake sees the shadow of a small girl he once knew, abandoned and alone. Isabella's chest slowly rises and falls before she answers her friend's question. "I was thinking of men's hearts in particular. I think they are equal parts dick and duty."
Jake cannot help but chuckle. The little girl he once knew never shied away from profanity. He enjoys the vulgar link from the past to the present. "You think?"
Bella smiles at Jacob and her eyes dip and wander purposefully from his face. "Half and half; dick and duty. The best men, anyway."
Jacob smirks and clinks glasses with Isabella.
"A toast is in order, then. It's only taken twenty-five years and an affair with an unemployed every-man for you to admit I have a dick."
Isabella snickers. "Come now, I've always known about your dick; I've just never acknowledged it."
"I think that might be worse."
The two sip whiskey in silence. Isabella eases her legs away from her body. Her robe gapes and flutters.
"Aro Volturi's retiring," she murmurs.
"I've heard. I imagine you must be disappointed."
"Not at all. I'm frustrated. Jared's uncovered no hint of Aro's next move. I used to trust that man. Jared Cameron worked so hard to get where he is, but now he's failing at every turn."
Jacob bears grudges and is not of the mind to defend Mr. Cameron. Nevertheless, there seems to be an obvious answer to the problem at hand. "Maybe there's nothing for Jared to find. Aro's old and the game's changed. Retirement makes sense."
Bella makes a strangling sound and pulls her robe around her frame. Jacob pulls his chair closer to his friend.
"I know you, Bella. You are disappointed. You thought you were about to have an epic showdown, and now you can take Volturi down without hardly trying. Aro forfeited. I know that's not how you wanted to win.
"Predators don't lie down in the face of a fight, Jake."
"Maybe we're not all predators."
Isabella's mind strays and thoughts of Edward Cullen present themselves. She never would have guessed it, but he is ferocious when need be. If nothing else, he is fiercely protective. "Have you noticed that Mr. Cullen is inexplicably loyal, Jake? He's asked for nothing but a roof over his wife's head and a chance for her to live."
"And he's fucking another woman behind her back, Bella. He's just a man."
Bella's small smile hurts Jacob's heart. "He is a man… led by duty and a dick, just like I said."
"Ideally one would like to devote both dick and duty to the same woman."
Bella stands and walks to the railing of the balcony and clutches the glass of whiskey to her chest. Her robe flutters and billows in the wind. "We don't live in a world of ideals, Jake. We live in a world where we have to survive. Where, sometimes, we want our loved ones to survive."
Jacob's heart jumps into his throat and he is up and across the balcony in the space of a breath. He takes Bella's shoulders in his hands and turns her, forcing her to face him. "I want the world for you, you know. I want more than your survival. I'd give anything. I do. I give it every damn day."
Bella's brown eyes flicker. "Stop it, Jacob."
"It's why I'm here. I'll protect you, just like he protects Angela. You know that, right? You still want that, don't you?"
Bella takes a step away and her shoulders slip from underneath Jacob's touch. She turns back to the balcony.
"Who would I talk to about the nature of a man's heart if I didn't have you? Who would I rely on?"
"Lately you've only been relying on me to follow after Edward Cullen."
"We're still friends, Jacob. It hasn't come to any of that… yet."
Jacob steps behind Isabella and rests his chin atop her head. He winds his arms around her slim waist and slips his fingers beneath the seam of her robe. The warmth of her skin lights his heart. "Don't let him get to you like this."
"Aro is hardly a legitimate concern, Jacob."
Jacob allows the lie and takes solace in that fact that Edward Cullen's name has gone unspoken. Each omission is a victory. The fact that he is the man holding Isabella in his arms is evidence of one small battle won. He tightens his grip and holds on tight.
Three days and three nights into their trip to Scottsdale, and Angela Cullen realizes that she has been taking her husband's eyes for granted for years. Edward had a way of holding her in his gray-green gaze that made her feel safe and at home. All of the words that were too difficult to piece together into sentences were there when he would seek her out from across a room, or when he would look down on her in bed. Edward, however, has been studiously avoiding her gaze since the first morning of their trip. He has been as helpful and accommodating as usual - seeing to her medications, dressing her wounds, but his eyes have been searching out more deserving targets than her face.
Amidst the inattention, Angela digested the news of the progression of her cancer with her hands clutched in Edward's, with his eyes on his shoes. She listened intently to descriptions of relevant clinical trials, while Edward watched the doctor. He's found menus endlessly interesting. He's studied the rugged mountain skylines on their drives between the clinic and the hotel. And tonight he stares contentedly at the channel guide on the television screen across the hotel room as Angela silently begs for the solace she's suddenly realized she is missing.
Tonight Edward and Angela sit on either size of a king-sized bed atop a vaguely Southwest-themed bedspread. Inches may as well equal acres. Edward's long legs are stretched in front of him, while Angela's arms are wrapped around her legs, her knees to her chin. New medication has helped her lungs inflate with air and has kept her mind in motion late into the night. She takes an easy breath, steeling herself to speak.
"I know this is all too much."
"What?" her husband asks, flipping through channels.
"The flights back and forth, hotels, travel. There's no way we can manage it."
"What are you talking about?" Edward asks, and Angela is finally successful. Her husband turns and graces her with his gaze. Sadly though, the only thing she sees in his eyes is that he doesn't follow her line of thinking.
"We obviously can't do this and you feel badly about it. You don't have to avoid me, though. It was a good try, but we can just go back to my regular doctor."
"You're doing this."
"What do you mean, 'What?' Do you understand the alternative, Angela? Do you know what you're saying?"
"I was doing fine with my doctor at home."
Edward and Angela survey one another across the bed. They both know this is far from the truth. The proof lies in the form of a report that sits among a pile of papers on the desk.
"Can you even get the time off work?" Angela asks, picking at imaginary lint on the bedspread.
"Our parents will help. Alice will be home from school. It won't kill Rosalie to lift a finger."
Angela glances at her husband and shakes her head. "Rosalie won't do it."
"Rosalie owes me."
"Rosalie's pregnant, Edward."
"What?" Edward asks.
Angela is forced to look away. She blinks quickly in an attempt to keep the sudden tears from escaping her eyes. Speaking the words aloud have made them real.
"Pregnant? Since when?" her husband asks.
"I don't know," Angela whispers, wiping at her eyes.
"What did she tell you?"
"She was my best friend. She didn't have to tell me anything."
"Is. She is your best friend," Edward insists.
"She knows how hard we tried, Edward. She's probably… waiting."
There's nothing Angela can do to keep the tears from streaming.
"We're doing this, Angela. You aren't giving up. You think there's some decision to be made here, but you're wrong."
Angela chuckles. "You sound just like you did when you proposed."
For a moment Angela gets lost in old memories. Edward had always been mild-mannered and eager, but the night he'd asked her to marry him she was shaken to the core by the force of his conviction. He insisted that she didn't have a choice when it came to the two of them, that she was made to be his wife. He spoke of his devotion and how hard he would work to live up to being her husband… she only had to say 'yes'. He knew she just had to say yes. Then he'd looked slightly ill as he waited for her answer.
"You loved me so much," she murmurs, almost to herself.
Edward smiles, remembering his desperation at the thought of her moving cross-country. "I did."
"I knew I could never live up to your idea of me."
"I knew I could never give you everything you deserved. But I tried."
Angela smiles through the tears. "You're a good man, Edward. You deserve better than all this."
Edward scoffs, closes his eyes tight and leans back against the headboard. He's not a good man and he's tired of this mantra thrown at him by family and friends.
"You deserve a normal life, kids."
"Stop it, Angie."
"No, really. The doctor today was good. She was honest. I needed to hear where I stand. There's no guarantees with this study, Edward. There's a good chance that -"
"No. Let's be honest."
Edward grits his teeth, suddenly feeling as if he might burst. When he opens his eyes the warmth Angela had taken for granted there has been replaced by an icy sheen, like an endless, frost-covered plane. "Can we be honest?" he asks.
"Then let's talk about fidelity."
Edward leans in Angela's direction. "I think you heard me."
Angela shakes her head, her face drained of what little color it still possessed. "No."
"So much for honesty," Edward huffs.
"Right now, right here, as we're visiting a cancer specialist in Scottsdale? You want to talk about fidelity now?"
"Well, we're not."
"And why, exactly, do you get to make this call?" Edward demands, raising his voice.
"Because I'm dying, Edward! And because you're helping me."
Edward punches the headboard. "I am not helping you to die, goddammit!"
"You know what I mean! We're past stuff like this. You know there's no one else. Why are you doing this?"
Edward eyes the frail woman across from him, with her pale, sunken cheeks and the bony angles showing underneath her thin cotton Oxford. His answer comes in the form of bitter laughter that makes his eyes burn and his stomach roil. He gets up from the bed, strides across the room and shuts himself into the bathroom without another word.
In his small toiletry bag he finds a strip of red silk ribbon wound into a tight ball. He's been studiously avoiding it for the past three days, but now Edward slowly unwinds the cloth until it's lying flat across the marble countertop, a bright red gash against creamy stone. Taking one end in each hand, he winds the silk around a wrist, pulling it tight like a tourniquet. He manages to bring on a dull, burning pain - an empty replica of the ache in his chest and the burn in his limbs. Unwinding the silk, Edward stops himself from stowing it back in his toiletry bag, and slides it into his pants pocket instead.
When Edward and Angela return home the next day, among bills and junk mail, Edward finds a notice from J. Jenk's that the two additional suits he's ordered are ready for pick-up. He also finds an envelope from SAG Capitol. A handwritten letter from Jacob Black lets Edward know that his presence is requested at Isabella Swan's office later that afternoon.
Laurent is expecting Edward Cullen, but he is not expecting the smart version of the man that exits the elevator and ambles toward his desk. Edward Cullen appears confident and is impeccably dressed. He is clean shaven and his hair is newly trimmed. At Laurent's desk, Edward nods and begins to shrug off his suit jacket.
"Not today, Sir," Laurent explains. "Just your wallet and cell phone today."
Edward offers up his personal effects and turns toward Isabella's office, but Laurent stops him yet again.
"You're expected in the boardroom today, Sir. This way."
Edward follows Laurent's quick steps down a hall and around a corner and meets a set of double doors Laurent has opened just wide enough for Edward's broad frame to slip past. Muffled male voices give him pause.
"You're expect, Sir. She'll be displeased if you're late."
Edward nods, takes a breath, and slides through the gap. He finds himself on the edge of a large wood-paneled boardroom bathed in sunlight. Seated around a long oval table are several executives in dark suits. Most are young, eagerly leaning in, laptops and legal pads in front of them. A few are weathered and tired, their eyes dim, the corners of their mouths drooping, defeat against age evidenced in the slope of their shoulders.
Edward takes little notice of the assembled mass, though. His attention is taken entirely by the woman at the head of the table.
All conversation ceases when Edward stumbles into their presence. He quickly slides into one of the seats lining the walls of the boardroom. Sunlight from the glass wall on the other end of the room makes it difficult for him to see. He resists shielding his eyes.
"You were saying, Mr. Cameron?" Isabella Swan prompts.
"Yes, right, Volturi Holdings has appointed Marcus Volturi as their new CEO following the retirement of Aro Volturi."
Edward vaguely recognizes the name of the firm in question, but he doesn't care to concentrate on the matter in front of the Board of Directors. Isabella leans back in her seat. Clad in a cream colored suit jacket with a high collar, her hair slicked back in a low bun, a simple long golden chain around her neck, she is the picture of conservative professionalism. Edward, though, cannot help but take note of the angle of her bust and the trim lines leading from chest to waist. Her skin glows in the light from the windows. Her dark eyes appear to twinkle. Diamonds glitter on her ear lobes.
"I don't anticipate they will be able to mount a defense to a hostile takeover," Mr. Cameron concludes.
"That's elementary, Mr. Cameron," Isabella replies. "What about Aro Volturi?"
"He's no longer a factor, Ms. Swan."
Isabella purses her lips and Edward finds them beautiful, like crushed flower petals on a bed of snow. They harken back memories of the tightly wound ball of silk in his jacket pocket.
"All in favor?" Isabella asks.
Hands are raised. A murmur goes up from around the table.
"All against?" she asks, her eyes daring a challenge. Not a soul moves.
"It is done. Embry, Quil, we've discussed the next steps. Paul, I'd like your eyes on the Hang Seng and Asia's futures. I believe we're adjourned."
Executives begin to stand to their feet.
Bodies still. All eyes including Edward's turn toward Jared Cameron.
"Yes, Mr. Cameron?"
The man stands tall. His shoulders are broad. His dress impeccable. His nostrils flare as he takes a breath. The man's defiant desperation is palpable and Edward cannot help but feel the stirrings of pity in his gut.
"I haven't forgotten you, Mr. Cameron. I simply don't know what to do with you yet. You're dismissed."
Curious eyes linger on Jared Cameron standing bereft and on Edward Cullen's form seated at the periphery as executives file past. Edward stands, uncertain, his eyes drawn to the women slowly rising and smoothing her skirt. Mr. Cameron lingers, similarly adrift.
"Mr. Cameron?" Isabella asks. She takes a stalking step in his direction. Her mouth hints at a smile.
"Yes?" he asks hopefully.
Another step and she stands within arms length of the erstwhile executive. She reaches for and pats his lapels. "You. Are. Dismissed."
Mr. Cameron leaves without another word, brushing past Edward Cullen on the way out the door.
Isabella turns her attention on Edward. Sunlight shines around her slim figure casting her in shadow so that Edward cannot discern the expression on her face, only the sleek lines of her formal attire. She places her hands on the boardroom table, leaning forward and regarding the man she has molded into a model of masculine beauty. His hair is slicked back and held in place, his suit accentuates his shoulder breadth and hints at the presence of his biceps. His crisp white button down and slim black tie lay over the chest that she longs to feel pressed against her.
A question is caught Isabella's throat, one she doesn't dare ask. It has crowded her mind and left her struggling in its wake, so much so that she is caught off guard when Edward pulls the doors to the boardroom closed and begins walking casually in her direction.
"Congratulations?" he asks.
"Volturi? I'm not sure what that was, but I'm guessing SAG is expanding."
"That was nothing," Isabella demurs. It is not modesty. The regret in her voice lends truth to her speech.
"You want more?" he asks. "What else?"
Isabella wants Aro Volturi figuratively on his knees before her, begging for mercy, but that is not the thought that comes to mind. She wants to know Angela Cullen's fate. She wants to know if she has saved the beloved woman's life. She wants to know the depth of Edward Cullen's love.
With another step, Edward reaches for her. He longs for the security and steadiness that dominance brings. He longs for the feel of strong muscles and soft, unbroken skin.
Isabella trembles as one and then another button is unclasped and her suit jacket is pushed from her shoulders, revealing creamy skin and a white lace bustier threaded with delicate golden embroidery. The lingerie does nothing to hide the woman's supple breasts and the deepening rose of her areolas, and Edward feels surprisingly vindicated, like he alone suspected Isabella's carefully disguised vulnerability.
"I need weekly flights to Scottsdale," he says as he drops to his knees and slides open the zipper at the back of her skirt. "Two tickets, one for a caregiver. The hotel. The car service."
Isabella clasps Edward's chin, lifting his face so that she can look into his eyes.
"There's hope?" she asks breathlessly as her skirt puddles at her feet. The strong rays of the early summer sun warm the tops of her thighs, yet she feels a cold chill run down her spine and invade to her core.
Edward rises to his feet and pulls at the bottom of the bustier, exposing her nipples, ripping at the delicate lace. "How can you talk about hope?" He pushes her bottom against the table, his hips meeting hers. "There's only what you allow and what you don't allow."
Edward clasps the golden chain around Isabella's neck and tugs backward, pulling her down toward the tabletop, pulling them together, chest to chest, breath to breath, grinding his hips against hers. "I need weekly flights. I need two tickets. I need a hotel. I need car service."
Isabella's skin tingles to life and tears prick her eyes. Edward's lips come within a hair of hers, but instead he dips his head and takes a pert nipple into his mouth. Her hips involuntarily buck against his, her leg winds around his waist holding them together, and her breath comes in shallow spurts. He nips, sucks, bites hard and Isabella must chew at her lip to stop herself from calling out.
She hears a belt buckle clank and the muffled zip of a fly coming undone, and without warning or condom he thrusts inside her. A strangled cry escapes Isabella's lips, and with a glance at the boardroom doors, Edward covers her mouth with his hand as he takes her atop the boardroom table where she was commanding an executive team only minutes earlier.
"Will you give me what I need?" he demands in a harsh whisper, holding her down with a delicate golden chain, a hand over damp parted lips, and the weight of his hips. "Tell me." He thrusts. He works. He revels in the only control he has found in his recent past. "Tell me, goddammit," he growls, his mouth against her ear. His chest collapses and his full weight falls on the woman beneath him. "Give me what I need."
Isabella nods, but she cannot be sure that Edward has noticed. She knots her fingers in his hair, holding his head to her chest, and wraps her other arm around his back. They are both taken aback, finding Edward in Isabella's embrace as he moves over her.
Minutes later he is lying on the table at her side. Their chests rise and fall in unison. His fingers still clutch at the chain around her neck. Her fingers still run through his hair.
"I'll need you here in Los Angeles, Mr. Cullen. Not in Scottsdale."
"Did you do this on purpose?" he asks.
"I do everything on purpose."
Edward glances at Isabella and all of the sincerity and apprehension that she'd thought he had shed was back in the vulnerability of his gaze.
"I didn't engineer a physician's opinion, Mr. Cullen. I've had no hand in her recommendation."
Edward lays his head on Isabella's chest and she goes back to playing with his hair, holding him tighter, delighting in her strength. It is strength born not from the hostile takeover of her largest corporate rival, but from manufacturing medical hope and actually feeling its promise.