Hey… what’s this?
An update?! There’s seriously an update?
Disclaimer: I do not own the Twilight Saga or the Avengers. Stephanie Meyers and Marvel own it all. I just like playing with Marvel’s action figures and Alice’s Bella Barbie.
Bella watched Clint work for a moment before letting her eyes roam over the dimly lit parking lot. Night had well and truly fallen and that knowledge made her nervous. Until now, she hadn’t really had a chance to stop and think about the fact that the sun had set. With darkness pressing in on her from all sides, it was a fact she could no longer ignore.
A strong sense of foreboding took hold of Bella as she eyed the surrounding shadows. It had been nearly a year since Bella last took the risk of venturing outdoors at night. Vampires were always more active after the last of the sun’s rays faded, especially the ones that hunted humans. She kept to the sunniest states in the U.S. because she knew that there were fewer opportunities for vampires to go outside during the daytime, but she was still vulnerable at night. She swallowed roughly, feeling utterly exposed in the parking lot, where she couldn’t trap her scent indoors.
While Clint worked on finding them a car to hotwire, Bella warily scanned the dark edges of the lot, combing the shadows for the barest hint of movement. Feeling vulnerable, she slipped her hand underneath the back of her shirt, resting her fingers on the handle of the weapon stashed in the waistband of her jeans. For some reason, she felt the need to touch it, to reassure herself that she wasn’t defenseless.
Though Bella didn’t know it, her sense of unease was justified. Victoria had given her scent covered clothing to every nomad she knew, asking them to contact her if they ever ran across the tempting smell of freesias and strawberries. To the redhead’s immense frustration, all the leads that followed never panned out. Hell, half of the scents weren’t even human.
Tired of following up on leads that often ended up taking her to a flower shop or the local farmers’ market, Victoria was rightfully skeptical when a nomad in New Mexico called her about a faded scent he noticed. For creatures with such keen senses and powerful minds, the redhead thought vampires could be rather idiotic at times. Assuming it would be yet another bust, she didn’t even bother checking it out herself. A part of her, though, wouldn’t let it drop. Needing to be absolutely sure, she sent Laurent to scout the area for her.
Laurent had been in town since sundown, scouring the area for traces of Bella’s scent. He detected the barest hint of strawberries and freesias in the town square, but the trail ran cold. He was just about to give up and call it another dead end when he caught a whiff of something intriguing carried by the wind, a faint trace of fresh blood. Astonished, the nomad inhaled deeply, filling his lungs with a fragrance he hadn’t smelled in years. The mouthwatering aroma swirled around him, playfully teasing him, and Laurent found it too intoxicating to resist. With a sinister smile, he turned and headed north, tracking the heavenly scent to the source.
With so much on her mind, Bella hadn’t really thought about the cuts on her arm from the shattered car glass. To her, the small wounds were minor irritations. Since she was such a klutz growing up, she’d grown used to automatically dismissing such minor injuries as a fact of life. She didn’t realize that the scent of her spilled blood was being pumped into the air and carried on the breeze, but her subconscious did. And it was desperately trying to warn her.
The longer Bella stood there, staring off into the darkness, the jumpier she grew. She stopped to truly think about why she felt so uneasy and it suddenly occurred to her that there might be a genuine reason for her sudden bout of anxiety, one stronger than her reluctance to venture outdoors after dark. Listening to her instincts, she took a harder look at the surrounding shadows, hesitantly stepping away from the SUV and into the middle of the lot. Bella wanted to be able to see clearly in every direction. She was not about to let a vampire sneak up on her from behind. If tonight was the night she came face to face with her past, she’d go down fighting.
Worried, Bella threw a nervous glance over her shoulder, looking for Clint. She wasn’t sure why her instincts kept telling her something was coming, that danger was imminent, but she listened. It wasn’t until Bella inhaled through her nose, taking in a deep, calming breath to steady her nerves, that she realized her mistake. The scent of her blood hit her hard and she looked down at her arm in alarm. Immediately, she turned her head away, biting back the wave of nausea that rolled over her, and started breathing through her mouth again. Things made sense to her now.
Bella was bleeding and blood drew vampires.
Not a second later, Bella felt it, sensing him long before she saw him. The skin on the back of her neck prickled and her heart rate sped up, something she learned early on meant that she was being watched. Bella tightened her grip on her gun and fluidly pulled it out. Muscles tense, she turned, swinging around to face the south end of the lot. How she knew he was there was a mystery to her, yet she somehow did. His presence brushed against her senses and her shield flexed in irritation, responding to the threat, though she didn’t realize it at the time. The odd sensation was uncomfortable, like an itch she couldn’t scratch.
He stepped from the shadows like a figure from a bad dream, bringing with him every painful memory she foolishly tried to bury. For the first time in almost four years, Bella found herself vividly recalling James. Although Victoria was constantly on the edge of her thoughts, she hadn’t thought about James since he bit her. She hadn’t allowed herself to. Bella didn’t want to remember the way he ruthlessly hunted her down, the bitter taste of fear in her mouth when she thought she was going to lose one of her loved ones, or the surreal sensation of being burned alive without an actual flame. She buried the images deep, refusing to let them haunt her.
Now, the memories she’d kept locked away for so long were finally breaking free. The flashbacks were vivid, taunting her in painstaking detail with how defenseless she once was. Bella allowed them to wash over her and, once they faded back into the recesses of her mind, she realized something, something incredibly important…
She would never let a vampire victimize her ever again.
With a calm she didn’t know she was capable of, Bella raised the gun and aimed it at Laurent’s chest. He took another lazy step forward and she cocked it, warning him in an even, steady tone, “Stop right there, Laurent. Not one step closer.”
Bella’s gaze briefly rested on Clint, who had broken into a car a few spaces down. Even though he had moved towards the south end, he was only a few inches closer to Laurent than she was, about twenty feet off to the vampire’s right. She brought her gaze back to Laurent and steeled herself. Bella couldn’t let Laurent get to him, she wouldn’t. Bella would end the vampire before she let that happen.
She refused to let anyone else die because of her.
Clint paused at the sound of Bella’s voice and looked out the front window of the Monterro he’d broken into. His senses kicked into overdrive as he took in her stance and the inhumanly beautiful male not twenty feet away from her. A spike of adrenaline seared through his veins while his instincts shouted a warning at him, alerting him to the presence of a predator.
Cautiously, Clint stepped away from the Monterro while simultaneously pulling his bow from his shoulder and quickly notched an arrow laced with explosives. Keeping in mind how easily the redhead tore into Bella’s truck and the speed she was capable of, he wasn’t taking any chances. If he took the shot, the arrow would explode when it hit its target.
A jumbled tangle of thoughts ran through his mind at that moment before it finally settled on one, the one that bothered him the most, How? How did they find her?
Even if Bella didn’t have a gun aimed at the guy’s chest, Clint would’ve instantly sensed that Laurent was a threat. It only took one glimpse of the man for Clint to make the connection between the stranger in front of him and the people hunting Bella. The similarities between him and the two enhanced unknowns in the video footage Clint found were downright eerie. From his pale, yet perfectly chiseled features to the unnaturally graceful way he moved, everything about him screamed danger to Clint. There was a distinctly predatory air clinging to him that unsettled Clint all the way to his core, especially since his hungry eyes were fixed on Bella.
Clint wasn’t sure he could say that he’d ever been tempted to shoot someone on sight before, but he had the overwhelming urge to shoot Laurent after just one glance. In fact, there was only one reason why Clint hadn’t shot him already and that was his reluctance to set off an explosive so close to Bella. Clint could easily duck back into the car to avoid the heat, but Bella couldn’t. She was standing in the middle of the lot, too far away from any vehicle to take shelter. Unwilling to risk her life, he waited, deciding to follow her lead. He’d only shoot if he saw no other option.
Amused, Laurent paused, deciding to humor the girl. Slowly, he raised his hands in a gesture that indicated he meant her no harm, noticing how it did nothing to reassure her. She kept her gun trained on him anyway, refusing to lower it. He eyed her with curiosity, taking in her threatening pose and the odd way her heartbeat remained on an even keel, telling him she was entirely too calm for a human who truly felt threatened. Hoping to take advantage of that fact and lull her into a false sense of security, he smiled warmly and said, “So you do remember me. Is that any way to treat a friend, Bella? You know I’ve been in Denali, feeding from animals like your beloved Cullens.”
Feeding from animals? Clint wondered. For some odd reason, one he didn’t yet understand, the words caused a shiver of unease to roll down his spine. His gaze flickered between the two when Bella smiled in return, but he wasn’t fooled by it. He knew what a genuine smile from Bella looked like and the one she was currently flashing Laurent had a malicious edge to it. Honestly, it unnerved Clint a little. It was an expression that was violently at odds with her sweet, tender spirit.
“Is that so?” Bella asked in a dubious tone, a breathtakingly sweet smile still on her face. “Those red eyes tell me differently, Laurent. You’ve been hunting humans.”
Laurent’s smile slowly faded and his gaze turned calculating. He shrugged in what he hoped was a rueful way and confessed, “Just between us, ma petite, sticking to the diet is hard. Occasionally, I cheat.”
Bella let out a cold laugh, one that instantly put Clint on high alert, and skeptically asked, “Is that what this is, Laurent? You’ve made your way here all the way from Denali because you have the urge to cheat?” She shook her head, her expression turning defiant, and challenged, “No, I doubt that. You’re hunting me. Something tells me Victoria sent you and that means she isn’t sure I’m here. If she felt there was even the slightest possibility I could be, she would’ve come for me herself. You’re scouting for her.”
Laurent stared at her, unpleasantly surprised. The Bella he remembered was a skittish girl, one who let others speak for her. The Bella in front of him was different, harder. She had a confidence the meek girl he remembered lacked. That Bella was trusting, hopeful, and blind to the faults of her companions. This Bella was a force to be reckoned with, a survivor. She saw right through him and wasn’t afraid to let him know it. There may have once been a time when he could’ve fooled her, but it had passed long ago. The last eleven months had chipped away the last of her naïveté. She’d grown stronger in that time and wasn’t going to go down without a fight. Honestly, Laurent thought it was a shame he couldn’t turn her.
“So perceptive,” Laurent murmured. “Edward told Irina you were ‘so perceptive.’ Now I see it’s true.”
His gaze dropped down to her bleeding arm and he inhaled deeply, savoring her enticing scent. Disgusted, Bella watched the red in his eyes darken to black, the familiar eye color of a bloodthirsty vampire. He smiled darkly, a predatory edge to the curve of his lips, and asked, “Did you know you’re bleeding, Bella?” He inhaled again and said in a silky voice, “Years later and your blood still calls to me. I almost left the area, but your freshly spilled blood caught my attention…” He licked his lips and added in a conversational tone, “You’re lucky it’s me, ma cherie. Victoria’s plans for you are darker than you could ever possibly imagine. I will show you mercy.”
“I will show you none,” Bella replied, her tone still eerily calm.
Clint was honestly amazed by how calm and collected Bella sounded. He knew Laurent was one of the creatures she’d spent the last year running from, so the steady, unwavering tone she used was something he wouldn’t have expected her to be capable of. She looked confident and sure, refusing to show Laurent any weakness, and Clint found himself admiring her more than ever before. The way she stood her ground was something that appealed to him at a fundamental level. Despite the danger he sensed they were in, he couldn’t help taking a second to note how strikingly beautiful Bella looked as she resolutely stared Laurent down, silently challenging him to test her.
“Walk away, Laurent,” Bella advised, her voice taking on a darker tone. “The blood in my veins will never touch your lips. I will kill you myself if you do not walk away right now.”
Clint’s stomach churned as everything suddenly clicked. Even though he knew her roommate died in an odd way, he hadn’t seen the direct connection between the death and the abilities of the creatures hunting Bella, but he saw it now. They were vampires, which was why Jenny was found drained.
Real, live, blood drinking vampires.
Laurent clucked his tongue in a mocking manner and pointed a scolding finger at her, “For such a perceptive girl, you are being foolish, Bella.” He spread his arms out and arrogantly asked, “What’s supposed to kill me, your gun? His arrow? I thought you knew better, child. You can’t harm me. Only a vampire has the strength to end another vampire.”
Clint’s grip on the bow tightened while a flurry of curse words ripped through his mind. He had no idea how to kill a real vampire, though he hoped an explosion would do the trick. His fingers practically twitched with the temptation to let his arrow fly, but Clint forced himself to wait. His gut told him to trust Bella, that she had a plan. She’d been running from vampires for almost a year; she had to have been prepared for the day she finally came face to face with one.
“Accept your fate, Bella,” Laurent crooned in a tender tone. “Make this easy and I will be gentle.”
The look of overwhelming pity on Bella’s face made the vampire hesitate. It wasn’t what he expected to see from the little human and he found himself slightly unnerved. She sighed sadly and warned, “I wouldn’t take that risk if I were you. Take a good look, Laurent. Clint’s arrows are made of vibranium. You have heard of vibranium, haven’t you? Captain America’s shield is made of the same material and there isn’t a stronger substance on earth. It will tear into you as easily as a warm knife through butter.” Her voice then dropped to a whisper, “He will spill your venom and then I will light it on fire.”
Bella was bluffing, but she did it in such a beautifully convincing way that Clint had to remind himself he didn’t actually have any vibranium arrows. She needed Laurent to look away just once in order for her plan to work and making him think Clint had arrows made of vibranium was the best idea she could come up with. To her relief, the vampire took the bait.
For the first time since Clint took aim, Laurent turned his head to look at him, eyeing his bow warily. Clint winked, an action that showed a confidence he didn’t truly feel, but it made the vampire even more uneasy. While Clint distracted him, Bella quickly adjusted her aim. The second Laurent’s head began to turn back in her direction, Bella fired.
Clint watched in shock as the parking lot lit up with a blinding flash of red light. A flare collided with Laurent at just the right time, hitting his eye and igniting the venom there in a shower of sparks. Laurent shrieked and raised his hands to protect his face, the motions of his arms no more than a blur to their human eyes, but it was too late for him. Bella had already ignited his venom and the vampire burned quickly, leaving behind nothing but a sickeningly sweet smell and a cloud of ash and purple smoke.
Amazed, Clint slowly lowered his bow and started walking towards Bella, calling out, “That was a flare gun?”
Clint was caught off guard, which didn’t happen often. What he thought was a revolver, something he hadn’t seen very clearly in the dim light of the parking lot, was actually nothing more than a flare gun. Having seen the speed a vampire was capable of, he understood why Bella bluffed now. If Laurent had been looking when she fired that flare, he would’ve ducked to avoid it. Bella had one shot, which she timed perfectly, and Clint was fucking impressed.
With her gaze still trained on the smoke, Bella nodded, but she couldn’t seem to form the words. She couldn’t breathe. There was a crushing weight on her chest and she couldn’t seem to push past it.
Clint slid the arrow back into his quiver and slung the bow back over his head and shoulder, freeing up his hands. When he got to Bella, he quickly snatched her up, pulling her into an almost desperate embrace. Clint just found her, he wasn’t ready to lose her, especially to a fucking vampire.
Bella felt Clint tuck his strong arms around her and, suddenly, she could breathe again. The air left her in a rush and she wrapped her arms around his waist on instinct, latching onto him just as firmly as he did her. She turned her head, pressing her face into his neck, and breathed him in, filling her lungs with much needed oxygen. She’d forgotten what this was like… what it was like to feel again.
For eleven months, she had nothing and no one besides herself to worry about. Bella was focused on two things, surviving and staying away from her loved ones. She’d forgotten what it was like to care about someone else and now she didn’t just remember what it was like to care, she remembered what it was like to lose.
Bella wasn’t blind. She knew Laurent could’ve easily ended Clint at any time. It was only by a stroke of luck that Laurent wanted to toy with her first. For some reason, Laurent wanted her to submit before he killed her, to willingly accept her death. If he hadn’t enjoyed taunting her so much, he could’ve ended Clint long before she fired that shot and that knowledge… well, it was like a crushing weight on her chest.
Once again, Bella had brought danger straight to a person she cared immensely for. Bella wasn’t sure how Clint had become so important to her in such a short amount of time, but he was. She cared deeply for Clint, so deeply, in fact, that she knew she’d be lost without him.
At lunch, she’d been shocked to discover she was actually attracted to someone. Then she talked to Clint and learned it was more than just a spark of attraction between them. He made her laugh, he made her feel, he made her care. For the first time in three years, she felt like a normal human being. Bella had been a shadow of herself for so long and Clint had brought her back into the light. He’d done something to her, brought a part of her back to life, and the newly awakened part of her wouldn’t survive if she lost him. He made her feel alive again, more alive than she ever recalled feeling with Edward, and if she lost him…
She just couldn’t. She couldn’t lose him.
Now that Bella had tasted life again, she thirsted for more and she couldn’t go back to the way things used to be. Bella liked feeling alive. For so long, she’d felt empty and numb and she hated that emptiness. She hated feeling like she was broken inside, like she’d never be whole again. For once, she actually felt human and she refused to go back to the zombie state she’d spent the last three years in. The very idea unnerved her and she instinctively tightened her hold on him.
Clint noticed and tightened his arms around Bella even more. Ducking his head a little, he rested a cheek against her hair and took in her scent, reveling in the feminine notes of the of the sweet bouquet. He knew Bella was being hunted by people with enhanced abilities, but he had no idea just how dangerous the situation was until now.
Vampires weren’t just violent, they were downright vicious and bloodthirsty. From what he’d seen so far, vampires had little to no regard for human life. They were ruthless, cold, and calculating, just like he was a mere hour ago, and that alarmed Clint more than anything else that had happened since they left the foreclosed house behind. In that state of mind, they would do anything to achieve their goals and, apparently, their main goal was to track Bella down and kill her. The most worrying aspect about it all, though, was finding out there were more than just two vampires out there looking for her.
Clint just needed to hold Bella for a moment, to reassure himself through touch that she was okay and that she was still alive. He sighed in relief, all the proof he needed that she was safe could be found in the warmth of her body. Gently sweeping one of his hands up the curve of her back, he sank his fingers in her hair and trailed them soothingly through her locks as he reminded himself that she was really there with him, wrapped up in his arms, where she couldn’t be safer.
Typically, danger wasn’t something that fazed Clint, but he wasn’t used to watching someone he cared so intensely for face that danger down. For a moment, when that vampire taunted Bella about her blood and his invincibility, Clint had felt truly helpless. He’d never come across a threat like that before, one with shocking abilities and no known weaknesses. Clint couldn’t protect Bella in that moment, he hadn’t known how to, and that knowledge had hit him hard. It honestly felt like someone had torn into his chest, wrapped their fingers around his heart, and squeezed. Thankfully, Bella knew exactly what needed to be done and she did it so calmly that it amazed him.
Clint couldn’t tell at first, but Bella wasn’t feeling so calm anymore. In fact, she was on the verge of tears. She hid her face against his shoulder and soaked up the tender warmth emanating from his body while she focused on keeping those tears from falling. Bella was having a little difficulty swallowing the events of the night so far, including the fact that Laurent would’ve killed Clint after dealing with her if tonight had worked out in the vampire’s favor.
Bella barely held it together when the Cullens abandoned her. She sank into a depression so deep and full of pain that she simply stopped feeling in an attempt to survive. She numbed herself completely, until Jake started to draw those emotions back out. She never fully recovered, but she felt enough whispers of positive emotions to fool him.
And the darker emotions?
Well, Jake brought those out easily. Those emotions were the reason she shut down and numbed herself to begin with, so it hadn’t taken much effort to reawaken them. A life full of pain and numbness wasn’t enough for her, though, so she turned into an adrenaline junkie in a misguided attempt to feel a hint of the excitement she once felt around the Cullens. It worked sometimes and, when it didn’t, at least it entertained the hell out the wolves. That thirst for adrenaline had stayed with her and grown over the last three years. It was still the best way for her to feel a shadow of the excitement she craved.
Today, though… today something had changed and it was undoubtedly a change for the better. She felt something spark back to life within her chest and it had changed everything. For the first time since the Cullens left, Bella felt the full emotional range of the human spectrum. Excitement, joy, surprise, amusement, anticipation, lust, hope… she could feel it all. Because of Clint, she could feel it all again.
After lunch, Bella had spent the rest of her day reveling in the return of those emotions, savoring them like she’d walked into a glorious and tantalizing emotional buffet. Then Clint had shown up at the house she was using and things had taken a dramatic turn.
When she realized his mind was being controlled and that he might never break free of it, Bella felt something she wasn’t prepared for. To go from feeling nothing to feeling everything was a shock within itself, but the strength of what she felt was even more startling. Bella felt some of those emotions at an intensity she didn’t know how to handle, like the protective instinct she felt when Clint was being controlled. The protective urge struck her so strongly that something had literally snapped inside of her, revealing her ability. Paired with that urge was a desperation she’d never felt before, not even when she realized she needed to disappear back in Seattle.
Those emotions, though, were nothing in comparison to the terror she felt when Laurent first stepped out of the shadows. She barely had a taste of it before her instinct to fight kicked in, filling her with that fierce determination to never again let a vampire victimize her. Once she decided that, an odd calm had settled over her, but that terror? That fear that she’d led Clint straight to his death? Bella couldn’t forget something like that easily. All she could do was try to move past it.
Unfortunately, she was having a hard time doing just that very thing.
Against her will, her body started to tremble. Violent tremors wracked her petite frame and Clint noticed. Worried, he leaned back just a little and rested his forehead against hers. He stopped combing his fingers through her hair and brought that hand to the side of her face. Caressing her cheek with his thumb, he locked eyes with her and whispered soothingly, “You’re okay. We’re okay.”
Bella studied his eyes for a second before closing her own. A hot tear fell from her closed lids, burning a path down her cheek, and Clint brushed it away. Though Bella might have led him straight into danger, she hadn’t led Clint to his death, and feeling the warmth of his skin touching hers helped her remember that. He was here and he was safe. Needing the reminder, she rested her palm over his heart for a few seconds, feeling his strong heartbeat pulse beneath her hand. The thrum of his pulse reassured her in ways words would never be able to.
Clint was actually a little relieved to see her reacting to danger in some way, to see that fighting for her life was something that actually did affect her. At least, that’s what he thought until Bella rested her palm against his chest, searching for proof that his heart still beat. It was then that he realized that, like him, the danger to herself didn’t bother her in the slightest.
He stared at her for a second in astonishment, understanding hitting him full force. Bella didn’t care what happened to her, she was used to feeling threatened, but the idea of Laurent ending him? That was something that shook her to her core. The revelation made his chest warm and his body thrum with pleasure. He gently kissed her forehead before resting his cheek against the top of her head again, letting his fingers comb through her hair once more. Slowly, Bella’s trembling tapered off, but Clint merely tightened his hold. He wasn’t quite ready to release her yet and was still struggling with how close he’d come to losing her yet again.
Relieved to know he was okay, Bella practically curled into Clint, burrowing deeper into his comforting embrace. Determined not to let her emotions get the better of her, she tuned out all of the negative emotions that hounded her relentlessly today in favor of embracing the beautiful ones he ignited within her. Focused on the intoxicating emotions and the heat coming from the arms wrapped around her, she let Clint hold her as long as he needed.
Clint looked down at Bella, a little surprised by the way she suddenly melted into him. It was like she wanted to get as close as physically possible, burrowing into him and pressing herself as close as she possibly could. He enjoyed every fucking second of it. In fact, he loved it. He’d dealt with more than one surprising emotional epiphany about the beauty in his arms tonight, so something told him she had probably just come to terms with something she felt too, something that obviously worked in his favor.
The way Bella was tucked into him made him marvel over how perfectly she seemed to fit against him. Bella was only five foot four or five, but it put her at the perfect height to tuck her head beneath his chin. Clint shifted, pressing his face into her silky hair, and closed his eyes, taking in her scent again. He didn’t know why, but it seemed to calm him down. It was proof the night hadn’t killed her yet. It also hadn’t sent her running, which was something he’d been worried she might try when he first told her about Loki and his army.
Clint hadn’t forgotten about Loki and he knew the clock was ticking, but he was determined to get just one moment with Bella, one moment where he got to hold her close after nearly losing her. So that’s exactly what Clint did, he spent a moment simply holding her, reveling in the feel of her body against his. When that moment passed, Clint gave her a gentle squeeze and leaned back to catch her eye, “So, vampires, huh?”
Bella nodded numbly. One word from Clint, vampires, and suddenly her mind was positively spinning over how quickly everything had just changed. She hadn’t let herself focus on anything but Clint while he held her, but she couldn’t ignore it any longer. Laurent had just exposed the vampire race to a S.H.I.E.L.D. agent and there was no way to undo it. She couldn’t unring that bell.
The secret was out.
Clint gave her a bit of an amused look and she raised an eyebrow at him, testily pointing out, “Because aliens are so much more believable.”
Fighting a smile, he nodded gravely and agreed in a serious tone, “Obviously.”
Against her will, Bella started to smile and Clint grinned at her. Shaking her head at him, Bella glanced at the ashes again and let go of Clint. He reluctantly released her and she backed up a step, putting a few inches between them. Her face took on a slightly haunted look, one that disturbed Clint, before she looked up at him and quietly confessed, “You wanted to know what I’m running from, right? I’m running from creatures like him. He’s not the only after me, Clint. Ever since I moved to Forks, it feels like a vampire has been trying to kill me for one reason or another… They just keep coming. If I stay with you, if I help you with Loki, more will eventually come.”
“Okay,” he said softly and she threw him a disbelieving look. He knew what she was hinting at, that he was better off without her, safer, but he didn’t agree. She’d proven herself more than capable of handling both threats simultaneously and at least this way, Bella had a little backup. Smiling slightly, he tucked a tendril of hair behind her ear and added, “Why not? Thor and Loki exist. Gods exist. Why not something from the other end of the spectrum?” He let his fingers drift down the curve of her neck, his fingertips lightly tracing the vein Laurent had wanted to taste so badly, and murmured, “Vampires it is.”
“Vampires and aliens…” Bella warned, realizing Clint was determined to keep her around. Locking eyes with him, she asked, “You do realize that sounds like a disaster waiting to happen, right?”
“I think it sounds like fun,” he quipped, aiming a slow, wicked smile her way, and Bella shook her head again, desperately fighting a grin. Somehow, Clint did make it sound like fun. Spending any time with Clint, though, sounded like fun to Bella, even if that meant battling vampires and aliens.
Stepping back, Clint turned to look at the spot the vampire was standing just a minute ago. Eyeing the ashes, he asked curiously, “Why did he burn up so quickly?”
“Because I hit his eye,” she stated bluntly, turning her attention back to the ashes too. She tensed slightly, the purple cloud of smoke triggering the memory of another cloud, one she saw four years ago.
Bella shook her head in an attempt to clear it, banishing thoughts of James and the Cullens. She tucked the flare gun back into the waistband of her jeans and explained, “Vampires are venomous creatures, Clint. They’re nearly impossible to kill. Their skin is impenetrable, but the venom that runs through their veins is extremely flammable. A vampire’s eyes fill with venom instead of saline when they feel the urge to cry, though they can’t produce actual tears. I took a chance, hoping venom keeps his eyes moist. Thankfully, I was right.”
Bella was brutally honest about the kill she just made, giving him exactly what he needed to know to take a vampire down in the future. The cat was out of the bag now and Bella saw no point in lying to him.
“I warned him,” Bella whispered in a low, pained voice and Clint turned to look at her, concerned. “I paid my debt. I told him to walk away. He didn’t listen.”
“Your debt?” he repeated.
Bella nodded, her expression troubled, and murmured, “He gave me a warning once. I owed him for that, but he didn’t listen. He didn’t take my warning seriously. I tried, though. That’s all I can do, right? Try.”
Clint gently touched her arm and rubbed it soothingly, silently showing her his support. He had a feeling this was the first time Bella ever took a life. He didn’t have the heart to tell her it probably wouldn’t be the last, especially with Loki preparing for war. Honestly, she was handling it better than he expected her to, better, even, than how he handled it himself after the first life he took.
Still staring at the ashes, Bella added softly, “A friend of his hunted me once and Laurent warned me. He told me and my friends that James wouldn’t give up until he caught me. James saw me as a challenge, the ultimate game of cat and mouse. My friends ended him. They tore James to pieces and lit him on fire. Laurent thought that was the only way to destroy a vampire.”
Clint thought back to what Laurent said, that only a vampire was strong enough to end another vampire. If Bella’s friends tore him to pieces, then Bella had somehow befriended a group of vampires. The one who hunted her, James, saw her as the ultimate challenge because she was the mouse who befriended a cat, more than one if he heard correctly.
“And the redhead? Was he working with her?” Clint asked, recalling the vampires in the footage from the airport parking lot.
Bella looked at him sharply and asked, “You’ve seen her?”
Clint watched her carefully, cautiously explaining, “I couldn’t shake the feeling you were running from something, Bella, so I ran a background check on you. The Seattle P.D.’s searching for you. They had a video of you parking your truck at the airport. Two days later, the redhead found it and tore it apart. She was caught on video.”
Thrown by that discovery, Bella nodded dumbly. Charlie had warned her the police were searching for her, hoping to pull her in for questioning, but she hadn’t known Victoria had been caught on camera. She was more than a little pissed that Victoria had destroyed the truck she loved so much, but, oddly enough, it didn’t bother her that Clint ran a background check on her. Now that she thought about it, she should’ve seen it coming. He was really worried about her when he left earlier.
It didn’t take a genius to figure out what that meant. Clint would’ve brought her into S.H.I.E.L.D. for questioning if she’d met him for lunch the next day. She didn’t have it in her to feel upset about that either, especially since she knew why he would’ve done it. He was trying to protect her.
Relieved that she wasn’t angry with him, Clint relaxed and shrugged. Bella gave him a rueful look and sighed, “That means Victoria’s getting sloppy. She’s exposed them.”
Bella had mixed feelings about that. A part of her was saddened to discover the secret had been exposed, twice over, by vampires intent on hunting her, but a much bigger part of her felt nothing but relief. She was saddened because she knew the Cullens were in danger now, that the Volturi would end them if they ever discovered the human the Cullens spared ended up being indirectly responsible for Victoria and Laurent exposing their kind. On the other hand, Bella had spent months with a vampire hunting her. She sympathized with every human that died at their hands and was honestly glad S.H.I.E.L.D. now knew they were out there. Hopefully, the agency could do something about it.
Bella was fully aware of what this meant, that S.H.I.E.L.D. would question her and that she would have to reveal every secret she ever kept for the Cullens, and she accepted it. This was the hand she’d been dealt and she had no other choice than to see where the cards would take her. The Cullens could’ve avoided this entire situation if they’d only stayed in Forks. Instead, they left her defenseless. They knew the risks and, still, they left her to deal with them alone. Now they would have to face the consequences of their actions. Bella couldn’t protect them anymore. She shouldn’t have had to protect them in the first place.
“Who is she?”
“Her name’s Victoria. She’s the mate of the vampire that hunted me. She wants revenge,” Bella explained in a low, hollow tone. “And, yes, Laurent was working with her. They were once a part of the same coven.”
Things were finally beginning to come together for Clint. Bella was James’ main focus and his mate held her personally responsible for his death. She blamed Bella for winning the game. As the mouse, Bella was always meant to die in Victoria’s eyes. She was picking up where her mate left off, playing a much more elaborate game of cat and mouse. Victoria just hadn’t expected the mouse to be so adept at getting away.
Recalling how quickly and totally Bella had destroyed Laurent, Clint inwardly smirked. It turned out the mouse had claws of her own, which would shock the hell out of Victoria if she ever caught up with Bella. The petite brunette was prepared to go down fighting. Bella’s will to survive was something Clint truly admired.
Bella cast a wary eye over the dark edges of the parking lot and stressed, “We really need to move, Clint. My blood drew him here and I don’t know if he was alone.”
Clint wasn’t done questioning her, but she was right. If they stayed in the area any longer, they not only risked drawing the attention of more vampires, they risked being caught by Loki’s men. He nodded and tilted his head towards the Monterro, saying, “Grab your stuff, Bella. I found a ride.” He paused a second, glancing at the dissipating cloud of ash, and added, “I hope you’ve got more flares, just in case.”
Bella jogged back over to the SUV and pulled her duffle bag out of the back while Clint headed back to the Monterro and hotwired the engine. Slipping the strap over her shoulder, she then dug a second flare gun out from under the driver’s seat. Bella glanced at the SUV one last time before pulling a bottle of lighter fluid out of her bag. She doused the interior of the car with it, lit a match, and then tossed it through the shattered window.
Clint glanced at the burning car as she walked back over to him and shot her a questioning look. He couldn’t find any records of a car registered to her real name, which meant she likely bought it off someone with cash and had them sign the title over to her. He was guessing she told the sellers a false name and then filled her real name in on the title later, so it would match the one on her license, just in case she ever did get stopped by the police. If that had ever happened, Bella would’ve moved on quickly, dumped the car, and bought a new one.
Clint saw no need to torch the car. As long as Bella destroyed the title, she couldn’t be linked to it in any way. Even if someone reported the bullet riddled SUV to the cops and the officers decided to collect fingerprint evidence from it, it wouldn’t have mattered. Neither of them had fingerprints in the database. Because of her alibi, the crime scene techs in Seattle hadn’t added Bella’s prints to the system and only used them when they searched the scene for prints that wouldn’t match her or her roommate. Clint wasn’t sure why she bothered to light her car up at all.
Picking up on his confusion, she threw her bag into the backseat while explaining, “Victoria’s gonna head this way when she doesn’t hear from Laurent. I’m hoping our scents out here will fade by then, so she doesn’t realize we were here at all. She won’t believe a human ended him, not unless she catches wind of that car and takes in the scents inside it. If our scents haven’t faded out here by then, at least she won’t smell your scent in the car with mine. She won’t link you to me. She’ll have no reason to track you if she thinks you’re just a random human who walked through the lot.”
Still getting used to the idea that vampires actually existed, Clint hadn’t thought about something like that. He thought back to the airport video he watched of Bella, when she laid a false scent trail to all three gates, and realized Coulson was right. This was confirmation that Bella not only had insider knowledge, she knew how to use that knowledge against them. Bella knew Victoria might pick up on her scent anyway, but she used what she knew about vampires and their senses to protect Clint. She didn’t want to take the risk that Victoria would hone in on his scent and start hunting him too. Appreciating the strategy of the move and touched that she’d gone out of her way to protect him from the vampires hunting her, he gave her another admiring look and she blushed again.
Glancing at the burning car once more, Clint mused, “S.H.I.E.L.D. will probably look into this. A burned out car riddled with bullet holes so close to the base? They’ll find it. You did use a false name when you bought it, right?”
When she nodded, Clint chuckled, realizing it was going to leave whichever agents assigned to look into it completely stumped. They’d automatically assume it had something to do with Loki, but they would never figure out who the car really belonged to, who shot it up, or why it was torched. Bella’s lips twitched and Clint realized she’d thought about it too. She found the idea of a team of baffled agents just as entertaining as he did.
Needing to get out of the area quickly, before someone reported a car fire, Bella quickly shut the back door and tossed the spare flare gun to Clint, “It’s loaded.”
Clint snatched it from the air with a grin and tucked it into his waistband. Bella pulled out a couple extra rounds she kept in her messenger bag and handed them to Clint before reloading her own. Using a flare gun was just one of the many ideas she and Charlie discussed as a possible way to defend herself. She knew her dad would be thrilled to learn it actually worked.
Clint stashed the spare rounds in his back pocket and climbed into the driver’s seat. He waited for Bella to climb into the passenger seat before putting the car into drive, casually commenting, “Nice shot, by the way. Impressive, actually. I knew you had a good eye, but I didn’t realize you were a sharpshooter.”
Bella smiled fondly and said in explanation, “My dad’s not a regular cop, he’s the Chief of Police back home. He put me through the same drills his officers go through and then some.”
Honestly, the drills Charlie put her through were part of the reason she stopped spending her summers with him after she turned fifteen. Charlie knew Bella had a knack for guns and wanted her to spend all her free time at the range or the station, honing her skill. At the time, that was the very last thing she wanted to do. She preferred reading to shooting and wanted to do nothing more than curl up with a good book. Now, however, she was extremely grateful Charlie had spent that time training her. She wouldn’t be alive without that knowledge.
“Still, not every cop is that accurate, Bella,” Clint remarked and floored it, burning rubber as he sped out of the lot. He desperately wanted to put the whole town behind them as quickly as he could. That was twice now he nearly lost her and a part of him felt like the whole town was cursed.
A few minutes later, he glanced at Bella with a thoughtful expression and decided, “We need to find a place to clean up, especially if you’re bleeding. There’s a S.H.I.E.L.D. hideout about two hours away.”
Clint’s gaze drifted to her arm, noticing one of the cuts looked a little deep. He unzipped one of his pockets and pulled out a packet of gauze, which was something he always carried on him. Injuries came with the territory and he honestly went through a few rolls every week. Bella hesitantly took it from him and applied pressure to the wound. He cut her a quick look and added, “Fill me in. I want to know everything you do about vampires.”