A/N: So, I was hanging out in my group on Facebook, minding my own business, when someone posted this video about professional cuddlers. Things got out of hand, man. They got way out of hand.
This is for you guys. Much heart.
"I'm not here to make friends."
It was their foster father who had put those words into Edward's head. The man had good reason, Alice supposed years later. When they entered his household, both fourteen, Edward's grades had been abysmal. It had been years since he'd gone a week without cutting class. He was a troublemaker heading nowhere good.
Eleazar had given him the structure he needed, the firm discipline without anger. Edward, a brilliant boy, had not only shaped up but excelled to the point he'd gone to college on a full ride. All Eleazar said the day they both left his house for college was a reminder for them to work hard. He'd taken Edward by the shoulders and pointed a finger in his face. "You've got one shot, and no one's likely to give you another. You're not there to make friends."
It became Edward's catch phrase. All throughout college, whenever Alice tried to drag him out for a night of fun and relaxation, he almost always shrugged her off with, "I'm not here to make friends." In law school, when it was obvious one of the other students in his class was hoping for more than to just study with him, it was more of the same.
Recently, Alice sat in the courtroom on one of Edward's cases, watching him eviscerate the poor woman on the stand. It was no wonder he was good at what he did, but damn, he wasn't nice.
"I'm not here to make friends," he said.
To everyone else—the friends he did have—Edward was on top of the world. He had friends by then. Friends in high places. He was good at what he did—ruthless and brilliant which made him both rich and powerful. He wore suits, and he looked damn good in them.
Only Alice saw his loneliness. Only Alice still saw the fourteen-year-old boy, the orphan who had lost his parents at eleven; the boy who had been kicked out of his first foster home, whose anger only grew in the group homes. The boy who'd grown cold, because that was the best way to survive the hierarchy of the group homes. He learned not to show emotion and Eleazar, for all he had given Edward a steady home, order, and Alice, had not been an affectionate man. At least, not with them. Edward and Alice had watched him hug and cuddle his biological children.
When they were kids, Alice had held him when he let her. Well, more often than not, she pretended she was the one who needed comfort. If he saw her cry, he would always—always—come to her. Then, she could wrap her arms, herself, around him.
Now that they were all grown up, she had fewer excuses to hold him like that. She was too happy to play the devastated, abused child. She had Jasper now, and Edward had turned her over to his loving arms. There was a sadness in him, below the surface, that made her ache.
She couldn't hold him anymore. So, she'd just have to find someone who could.
"This is ridiculous," Edward muttered under his breath, pulling up to the address on his GPS. Scowling, he bent over the steering wheel to peer out the window at the house. He scoffed at his behavior. If something untoward was going on—if he was going to be molested or robbed—it wasn't as though there'd be a sign announcing it. Instead, the house announced nothing but the name of the business: Bear Hugs. Alice had promised there'd be no fuzzy gay prostitutes, but he wasn't sure he believed her.
Alice. Somehow, after all these years, Alice was the one person Edward could never deny. There wasn't much he wouldn't do for his foster-sister. He'd never gotten over the image of her the day he met her—fourteen and miserable. He'd spent a lot of time when he was a teenager getting her to smile. She smiled easier these days, but that didn't stop Edward from trying.
That was how he ended up outside a strange house on one of his rare days off, dressed, as instructed, in simple sweats and a t-shirt, there to be cuddled, supposedly, because for some damn reason, the thought made Alice happy. She'd purchased the session for him, and it wasn't as though it was going to hurt,m. This would be an anecdote he could tell, he thought as he walked up to the door. How many people had been professionally cuddled by—
The door came open, and Edward balked. The man who stood there was a giant—broad, his curly hair wild and his grin wide. Nerves shot down Edward's spine, and he rubbed the back of his neck. "Sorry," he said. "Wrong house."
"Don't run off," the man said as Edward turned to head back to his car. The man chuckled. "We come in different shapes and sizes. Come in. I think you'd probably prefer if Bella helped you."
Edward huffed, but he followed the large man into the house. His size was intimidating, but his smile had seemed… Well, gentle.
"You're Edward Cullen, right? Our eleven o'clock appointment? I'm Emmett, by the way," the giant said. "I specialize in engulfing hugs."
Edward snickered. He couldn't help it. It all sounded so ridiculous.
Emmett tilted his head. "You didn't set up this appointment yourself, did you?"
"No." Edward felt a wry smile tug at the corner of his mouth. "My sister thought it was a good idea." He rolled his shoulders. "Or maybe she's playing a joke on me."
"You think this is a joke?"
Edward grimaced and straightened up. "That was rude. I apologize."
The grin reappeared. "We get that a lot. Professional cuddling." Emmett chuckled and shook his head. "Who knew that was a thing? But it is."
"Good money, too." Edward's eyes went wide when he saw the poster on the wall listing out rates. "Christ."
"Hey, it's harder work than it looks like. You know most of these sessions are an hour? Have you ever tried to sit still for an hour?"
"And you get enough customers, obviously."
"It's a legit business, boss." Emmett crossed his arms and leaned back against door frame to an adjoining room. He nodded at something over Edward's shoulder. "But I'll let Bella tell you about it."
Edward turned around. Standing across the room was a lovely young woman, dressed like him in sweats and a t-shirt. She was a very young woman. He wouldn't be surprised if she was barely out of her teens. He blurted the question before he could help himself. "How old are you?"
It was rude, but the woman—Bella—didn't seem to mind. "Twenty-one. Putting myself through college. I want to study genes" She smiled. "My name is Bella." She crossed the room, her stance and expression open, but she didn't offer her hand. "I have a few questions for you, if you don't mind."
"What's your comfort level with touch? Do you have any aversions? Any trauma I should be aware of?"
"Trauma?" The word caught Edward by surprise, though he supposed it shouldn't have. He'd known a few kids in the foster system who would freak out if anyone touched them. "No. I have no trauma. I think this is all a little weird, though."
Her lips tugged up at one corner, and she nodded. "Understandable, but bear with me. I'll explain. She gestured forward down a hallway. "I like the bedroom setting best, but we can also do it in the living room. Whatever you'd prefer."
Edward's eyes went wide. "I, uh—"
She laughed. "Maybe now is the best time to make sure you understand what we do here. We offer the services of intimate touch. Specifically, cuddling." She folded her arms across her chest, but she looked amused rather than annoyed. "Intimate isn't the same as erotic. I won't be getting near your erogenous zones, and you won't be getting near mine." She tilted her head up. "Really. Don't try it. You do, noses will be punched, police will be called." She waved her hands. "You don't want to bring that whole mess down on all of us."
"No," Edward said with a laugh. "That doesn't sound like my idea of a good time." He looked over his shoulder. "Is that what he's here for?" He gestured with his chin toward the entry hall where he'd met Emmett.
"Believe me, you're missing out. Emmett is by far the best cuddler here. He just…" She made a movement, bringing her arms in front of her. "He gets all of you. You're just…"
"Engulfed?" Edward recalled the word Emmett used before.
"Exactly. It's nice. He's the one who taught me all I know."
"But you can't give engulfing hugs?"
"Well, I can. I give great engulfing hugs. I kind of wrap around your back like a spider monkey."
Edward arched an eyebrow. "A spider monkey, huh? Is it extra for that? A spider monkey cuddle?"
She studied him with a bemused expression. "This all sounds silly to you." It wasn't a question.
"I'm impressed with whomever came up with it. Someone made millions off pet rocks, too."
"This is a legitimate and necessary service for a lot of people. The benefits of a good cuddle are scientifically proven."
"Oh?" Edward couldn't hide the amusement in his voice. "Someone conducted a scientific study of cuddles, huh?"
She rolled her eyes, but she, too, was smiling. "Someone has studied everything, but the science of cuddling is actually important."
"Is it?" Even he could hear the laughter in his voice. Was he supposed to take this seriously?
Bella's face remained passive, but something flashed in her eyes. It made the smile that played at her lips look almost cocky. "Affectionate touch is a necessity. Neonatal wards have volunteers to cuddle those babies. Not because they're babies, but because their health improves when they're touched consistently. In fact, touch is essential to good development. Not just emotional development, but physical and mental development as well. Children who are hugged, held, and cuddled are very simply healthier."
"I'm not denying children need to be held. Children need a lot of things adults don't."
"Do they?" Bella took a step toward him. "I think you meant that children need the same things adults do; they're just incapable of getting most of it themselves. We feed ourselves. Clothe ourselves. Take care of our functions. What makes you think touch stops being as much of a necessity as everything else?"
"The fact I'm still breathing and functioning and fine even though I don't get hugged every day." Edward shook his head, not buying what this girl was selling. "I'm not saying it isn't nice, but it's not necessary."
Her eyes met his, and something in her voice changed when she spoke again. "I asked you earlier if you had any trauma that would make you averse to touch. We work with a lot of traumatized people specifically because touch is important. Among other things, being touched reminds us we're not alone in the world. This is a safe, warm place for anyone who comes here.
"That's the psychology of touch, but let's go back to the science. Biology. Stress is a big factor in health. A stressed out person is more likely to have health problems, agreed?"
Edward nodded. "Yes."
"Biologically, touch does several things for the body." She counted off on her fingers as she began to list, "Increased oxytocin. Decreased cortisol, the stress hormone. Triggers a nice rush of dopamine."
"Dopamine?" he asked. For some reason, his thoughts had gotten fuzzy around the edges. Not in a bad way. Her words, or rather the way she spoke, had a hypnotic, calming quality to them. Soothing. "Isn't that the pleasure hormone?"
She laughed. "Pleasure's a broad word, but that's the idea. It makes you feel good. To recap, touch decreases stress, it's good for your heart, and gives you an all around good sense of well-being." She held her hand out, palm up. "Give it a try."
He put his hand in hers. The lines of her face gentled as she looked up into his eyes. She ran the pads of her fingers along his palm, sending a nice jolt down his spine. She must have noticed the change of expression on his face because she nodded at him knowingly. She stroked the inside of his wrist, still holding his gaze. "Let's move this to the bedroom."
"Let's, uh, what?" Edward's eyes bulged.
Bella giggled. "Sorry. Couldn't help tease you a little." She twined her fingers with his and gave him a tug. "Come on."
The bedroom was simple. The walls were painted a calming blue. The bed was king-sized. Made, with a simple, white comforter. The sun streamed in, warming the room. The blinds were open, and Bella left the door open too before she pulled Edward over to the bed. She let go of him and crawled up. She settled down in the center of the bed, her legs crossed.
Looking at him, she patted her legs. "Come here and lay down with your head on my lap."
Edward didn't move. It was weird again. But she smiled and held a hand out to him. "Come on. It's okay," she said as though coaxing a scared kitten. "I'm not going to hurt you."
He scoffed, amused in spite of himself. He sat on the bed and looked at her, certain there was some kind of catch. "Lie down."
"Okay." He laughed as he did what she said. It was a nervous laugh. He was nervous. "This is, uh… This is interesting. So far. I, uh…"
"Shhhh." She cupped his face, her fingertips resting on his neck. "Just relax. Clear your mind of questions."
She laughed, running her fingertips under his chin and tracing the lines of his face. "You get cool points for that one." Her voice was still slow and hypnotic. Her thumbs found a spot behind his ears. "Just relax. Breathe in through your nose for a count of three, and then out through your mouth. When you're comfortable enough, close your eyes."
Edward wasn't entirely comfortable, but he felt like showing that would make him look like a weakling. It wasn't as though she was asking him to stick his hand down a dark hole that looked like it would be crawling with spiders and snakes. He was just resting.
Her hands moved over him, her fingers in his hair, rubbing along his scalp. Within a minute, he was truly beginning to relax, his incredulity flowing away along with the edge of awkwardness. He breathed as she'd instructed, enjoying the feel of her fingers in his hair and the warmth of her body pillowing his head.
It was an intimate pose, he reflected. It was the kind of soft moment more commonly shared by lovers. Her touch was adoring, and it brought back memories—scattered so few and far between—of lazy days and quiet conversation with the one or two women he'd been close to. His heart panged, though he didn't miss anyone in particular. Those relationships had ended for good reasons, and he had no regrets. Rather, he supposed he missed the quiet times they'd spent together. It had been a long time since he'd had a girlfriend—not a woman whose company he enjoyed, but a girlfriend.
"Doesn't your line of work bother your boyfriend?" he asked.
She hummed. "He wouldn't be a very good boyfriend if it did, now would he?" She moved her hands down from the back of his neck to his shoulders, rubbing lightly. Her voice remained easy as she spoke. "I'm lucky. I've found a job I love that can pay my bills and help put me through college. I help people more than you know. So if my boyfriend would want me to give up all of that for the sake of his ego, he'd be a bad boyfriend."
"So you have a good boyfriend, then."
"No. No boyfriend. I just said he'd be a bad one if he was bothered by all of this."
He chuckled. "You're funny, you know that?"
"Yes, well. Looks aren't everything." She squeezed his shoulder. "Sit up and face me."
He was quicker to obey this time, curious now. Her smile was serene as she placed both hands on her knees, palms up. There was barely an inch between their folded knees, so it was no trouble to reach out and rest his hands in hers.
She kept eye contact as her fingers threaded through his. They sat like that for a full minute before the urge to fidget became too great. "What are we doing?" Edward asked.
Bella's lip twitched. "Holding hands."
"It's probably a stupid question to ask why, isn't it?"
"I've explained to you about the science of touch. It's pretty simple. Cuddling is the most effective way of getting the benefit touch offers. It gives you the most body contact outside of sex." Her eyes sparked with kind-hearted mischief. "I'd have gone straight to the snuggling, but I didn't think you were ready for me to unleash the big guns."
"Don't hold back on my account. I'll keep up."
She tilted her head, eyeing him. "Okay. Just remember you asked for it."
This time, it was Bella who moved. First, she sat beside Edward, scooting so their sides bumped. It was pure instinct for him to raise an arm to accept her. He settled it at her hip. Bella took a deep breath, and with a content sigh, she wrapped both her arms around him. Edward was surprised at the way his heart pounded.
Bella pressed herself more firmly against him and rested a head on his shoulder, nestling in against his neck. Her hair was soft on his skin. She moved again so one hand rested, spread wide, against his t-shirt at his belly. The other she began to move in slow circles around his back.
This was different. Edward let out a shuddering breath. His every muscle tensed, though he was at a loss to explain why. Something deep in his chest twisted, and he had to fight the urge to pull away. It hurt. Somehow, her arms around him hurt. Not in any really physical way. It was like the awkwardness he'd felt since he walked in the door had come back with a vengeance, heavy to the point of pain.
"It's all right." Bella's voice was quiet—a soft, tender thing that made his heart ache. She pressed the hand at his belly more firmly against him. "It's just me. Relax."
With some effort, Edward sagged against her. He rested his head on hers, feeling her hair against his cheek. He shut his eyes tightly and concentrated on the feel of her hands making warm, nonsensical circles on his back.
When Bella began humming, a memory stirred. Edward remembered himself as a child. He didn't remember why, but he was scared. Terrified. His whole world shook.
Then, in the darkness, came a soft voice. "Shhh, baby boy. I have you. Mommy has you."
He remembered then. His mother's voice, sweet and steady, near his ear. He remembered the way she put his arms around him, and how he clung to her. She rocked him.
No. Bella rocked him. "Shh," she said. "It's okay."
Back in his memories, his father was there. He pulled little Edward onto his lap, and wrapped both his arms around him. Edward's world, shaken by fear, reduced down to something more manageable—the space between his father's arms. He was safe and warm and protected.
Edward sucked in air, his eyes screwed tightly shut. His heart twisted in his chest, the ache terrible. He'd begun to shake in present time. He clenched his hands in fists, and gritted his teeth.
"Don't fight it," Bella said, her voice soothing. "It's okay. It's not weakness. It's just emotion, that's all. You don't have to fight it. I'm right here."
Edward railed against her words. He could fight this. There was no reason he should be falling to pieces. Why? Because this woman, this stranger, hugged him? This was madness, and he should be able to stop it.
Bella began to caress him then. She rubbed his tummy. His sides. She brushed her fingers over his neck, never letting him go. Finally, she smoothed the backs of her knuckles over his cheek.
Edward whimpered. In his memories, he saw his mother staring down at him with adoration in her eyes as she caressed his cheek. "Beautiful boy," she said.
Other memories came. He was tiny, running toward his father with his hands outstretched. His father lifted him up into the air and then pulled him tightly against him. "I missed you too."
His mother tickled him. His father clasped his hand, his eyes shining with pride over something Edward had done. His mother peppered his face with kisses as he protested, embarrassed. His father hugged him for no other reason than it was just the way things were.
A lump rose in Edward's throat. Bella raised her head. She pressed her cheek briefly against Edward's but then cupped the side of his face with one hand. She pushed lightly, guiding his head to the crook of her neck.
Edward wrapped her arms around her waist and clung. He hid his face at her neck, shaking, and began to weep. It hurt and it soothed all at once. He clung to this kind, soft stranger, and she held him. She rocked him and hummed to him, scratching her fingers through his hair. She held him until he quieted, and even then, she still didn't let go.
Alice was waiting for him when he got back to his apartment. She stood, looking almost nervous as she studied him. "How was it?"
"Horrible," he said without hesitation. When her face fell, he sighed and stepped quickly over to her, taking her hand. "And, really, surprisingly amazing."
She quirked an eyebrow, and he sighed again. He sat on the couch, and when his sister sat beside him, Edward pulled her close. "She made me cry," he said gruffly.
Alice's eyes went wide. "Really?"
"Yeah. It was embarrassing as hell. I had no idea what the heck was wrong with me." He paused a beat, still digesting. "The girl, Bella… She said if people aren't used to tenderness like that, sometimes it hurts because we don't know we deserve that kind of affection."
Alice was quiet for a moment, obviously searching for the right words. "What do you think about that?"
Edward almost scoffed. He could tell that was exactly why Alice had sent him to that place. "I don't know," he said honestly. He'd never thought one way or another about deserving affection. "But I feel...lighter."
"Lighter is good."
"Yeah." Again, Edward paused, trying to find the right words. "How did you know, Ali? How did you know they even existed, let alone what they do?"
She sighed. "Pretty simple story. After college and before Jasper, I needed a hug." She laughed. "So I bought one."
Edward winced. They'd both been ridiculously broke during that period. "You could have asked me."
Alice rested her head on his shoulder. "You only hugged me like this when I was crying. I didn't want to cry all the time. I just wanted to feel human."
He closed his eyes. "I'm sorry."
"It's okay. It wasn't really your job." She raised her head, and when he opened his eyes again, she was grinning at him. "Now we just have to find you someone who'll do it for free. You know, because she likes you."
Edward scoffed and mussed her hair. "Yes, well. Good luck with that."
He got up then, offering to make them something to eat. Alice accepted, watching her brother as he disappeared into the kitchen.
"Challenge accepted," she said under her breath and grinned to herself.
A/N: Many thanks to Linda for the inspiration and my group for egging me on. Many, many thanks to Betsy, MoH, Packy, Mina, and Eleanor.
*cuddles all of you*