Author's Note: Several ideas converged to result in this story - Rosalie told Bella that her record was cleaner than Esme's, which means Esme drank human blood at some point. Carlisle told Bella that none of the other Cullens agreed with him that salvation was possible for vampires - which struck me as strange, and at odds with Esme, in particular, being happy with the idea of Bella being changed. Edward tells Bella that Esme's vampire talent is the ability to love passionately. And in the letters available on the Twilight lexicon, Stephanie Meyer discussed in greater depth both Esme's backstory, and what the craving for blood is like for vampires. Throw that all in a blender - aka my brain - and you get this fic.
The creak of the hinges as the door opened and closed was almost lost in the harsh rasp of my breathing
The creak of the hinges as the door opened and closed was almost lost in the harsh rasp of my breathing. The cold helped; infinitesimally, but still, it helped. I concentrated on that, eyes tightly shut, my fingers digging into my arms, as soft footsteps padded across the room towards me. Alaska was a good idea. I was glad Edward hadn't given in any of the many times I'd pressed, back in Forks. I wouldn't have had the cold. Cold – frigid air sucked down my burning throat just as quickly as I could force my vestigial lungs to pull – cold was very good.
I owed the cold to Edward, I told myself firmly. Edward thought of that. Edward loves me. I had to be stronger than this, for him.
The bed shifted with the weight of another body behind mine; I curled my knees more tightly in to my chest and tried to stop my rocking, but managed only to slow it, shaking with the force of the effort.
Inhale, exhale, inhale, exhale – think of the cold – think of Edward.
The person behind me wasn't breathing; I couldn't blame her. I stank, drenched as I was in congealed blood. It was dried thick and heavy enough to crack over my arms, my hands, down my neck. The tiny hairs on my arms were caught in it, stuck to my sleeves, pulling as I moved.
"I ruined the bed," I blurted out, as quickly as I could; talking meant a pause from breathing. My throat screamed at the momentary interruption; I gulped at the air desperately, losing the rhythm of it for a moment, just sucking in, and in, and in, until my ribs ached and I had to exhale.
"No one minds," Esme said in her soft, soothing voice. My shaking grew just a little less violent at the sound.
"Is Edward alright?" I managed. She sighed, and I cringed, squeezing my eyes more tightly shut as she weighed her words. I wanted to curl in on myself, wanted to tuck my head down against my knees, but then I'd be stuck with the air trapped there within the curve of my body. It might not be quite as cold.
"Jasper dragged him out of the house," Esme finally told me.
Jasper. I'd forgotten all about the other person I must be torturing.
"He will be all right," she insisted, shifting closer to me. Her hands stroked down my blood-caked hair, and I flinched, but the motion just continued, soft and insistent, undisturbed. "He loves you, and it hurts him to see you suffer, but he's stronger than this. He'll realize that soon – Carlisle and Alice and I have all been trying to tell him, but he has to find his own peace, I suppose, and I know he will."
The sensation of her gentle hands in my hair stole into me along with the certainty in her voice, weaving its way past the frantic lurching of my diaphragm to settle in my gut. I gave a shuddering sigh that seemed dragged all the way from the soles of my muddy feet, and the shaking stopped.
The stillness made the harsh sawing sound of my breath all the louder, and I suddenly had enough sanity left to be embarrassed. I tried to slow my desperate panting.
"You've been wonderful for him, you know," Esme went on, fingers still combing gently down my scalp, working painlessly past the tangles and the splattered, clotted gore. "Even this – it's good for him." Another sigh. "Carlisle doesn't quite see it that way, they'll both see soon enough. You're going to come through this and be glad, be happy, and that is exactly what he needs to see."
I winced; I'd rather just skip this step, really.
"Tell me?" she prompted, and her tone was so gentle and beguiling that the words started all on their own, no decision on my part involved.
"I feel like a monster," I confessed; my voice was harsh and miserable, but it wasn't so hard to talk, now, with her fingers brushing the blood out of my hair. It was hypnotic, the feel of her hands. Breathing was suddenly so much less important than speaking, than the belated realization that the pain in my throat was nothing to the pain in my heart, the terrible knowledge of what I was doing to the one I love. "And I can't tell him that, I can't ever say that to him, he can't ever, ever know that, but – but he does already. I know he does. I'm messing up, I'm not acting normal enough, I'm not acting normal at all, I'm not even acting sane, and he saw me – he saw me -"
I choked on the words, wanting to stop there, because she hadn't seen and I didn't want her to know. I'd seen Esme hunt – swift and graceful and merciful, gentle even in meting out death.
"I couldn't stop," I croaked, her silence and her hands in my hair seeming to pull the words from me. "It wasn't enough and it hurt – it hurt, I didn't understand how bad it'd hurt, I thought it'd just be like being really, really hungry – so hungry your stomach aches – but it's not like that, it's like – like -"
The words strangled themselves in my burning throat, shame twisting my gut; this was what I'd been doing to Edward, all the time I was human – subjecting him to exactly what I was feeling now. I'd been so stupidly, awfully, cruelly nonchalant about it, opening my lips to his kisses. I'd been a monster much longer than I'd been a vampire.
"I – I took down a caribou," I told her, because awful as this story was, it was better than bursting into tearless sobbing and begging her forgiveness. If she loved Edward, how could she not hate me?
Esme just murmured wordless encouragement, her hands at the ends of my hair now, separating the strands, flaking the dried blood away.
"I still hurt." It was an angry, frightened child's whimper. "I took another, but I couldn't – the blood – there was too much blood and it was just pouring back up my throat and coming out my nose and – and – and everywhere – and it was so horrible, I was gagging and throwing it up again and I couldn't even think, it just felt like screaming, like I was just screaming and screaming and screaming and that's all I could hear in my head was just this one long scream but I can't have been screaming because the minute I stopped gagging I was drinking again and it was all over me and it still hurt."
I stopped, gulping down air - and came to a sudden, startling, miraculous realization: now, at this moment, it didn't hurt so badly. The pain wasn't gone – I didn't think I knew how to imagine the pain gone anymore – but it was subdued, something I could ignore, feeling instead the sensation of Esme's fingers running easily the length of my hair, tangles all worked through.
"I forgot he was there," I told her, confessing the worst part last. "I don't even know what happened after a while – just blood and screaming and then I'm curled into a little fetal ball and he's carrying me back to the house. I shouldn't have let him see that."
"Of course he should see that," Esme argued calmly; I wanted to twist around and contradict her, but I didn't want to give up the sensation of her hands in my hair, didn't want to disturb the fragile spell of peace she'd woven around me. "First, he is your husband, and it is his right and his responsibility to share all things with you."
I forgot sometimes that my mother-in-law was raised in a very different era; her ideas on marriage were somewhere between inspirational and terrifying.
"And secondly, Bella, dearest – you do understand you're far from the first new vampire to ever walk this earth?" There was an edge of rueful chiding to her tone, a gentle rebuke.
"You never did that," I responded with utter certainty.
"Of course I did," she retorted instantly, full of fond exasperation. I did spin around at that, disbelieving. Her hands settled on my shoulders. "When I was three weeks old, I massacred an entire herd of white-tailed deer, ran off into the woods, and killed a pair of hunters before Carlisle could catch me."
I gaped; she gave me half a smile and a raised brow, her eyes haunted but steady. It was impossible not to believe her; it was equally impossible to picture what she described.
"When Carlisle found me, I begged him to kill me," she went on, in that same level voice. "I told him that I'd wanted to die, that he had no right to keep me alive like this."
I could only stare.
"He told me that if I still wanted to die in three days, he'd kill me," Esme continued, and to my complete bewilderment, actually smiled – a real, tender smile. "So far as I know, it's the only time he's ever lied to me. He never would have done it."
"But you didn't want to die," I said quickly – half a guess, half a plea. I didn't want to think of Esme wanting to die; just the thought of a world without her in it made me want to throw myself at her and cling.
"No, and I told him so about two hours later," she said. "I felt terrible, monstrous, for what I'd done – but I didn't want to die, because I loved him." She laughed a little at this – a reaction I found completely inexplicable. How was that funny?
"This was the first time I'd told him, you understand – I had no idea he felt the same way," Esme went on. "I couldn't even imagine it. So it was just part of my dreadful confession, my apology. I was explaining myself – 'so sorry to be a burden to you, really I ought to want to die, but if I died we wouldn't be together, and I love you. I'm so very sorry, I promise I'll never mention it again.'"
"What did he say?" I asked, completely enthralled by this point.
"He proposed," Esme said, and the look on her face made me look down at the blood-spattered sheets, because I couldn't blush anymore. Even with all that blood in me, overflowing me, I couldn't blush.
"I hadn't even had a bath," Esme continued. "I was – well, in approximately your current state, and he didn't have a ring, because he'd never imagined – he just had this look on his face like he'd been hit in the head, just stunned, absolutely stunned, and then he was down on one knee asking me to marry him. I made him repeat himself eight times." She paused, momentarily lost in the memory, then gave her head a little shake. "But now -" she sighed, her hands dropping from my shoulders, "- on the subject of baths -"
"I need one," I agreed, wrinkling my nose at myself.
"Are you feeling better?" she asked, peering intently into my face. She didn't flinch at my red eyes the way Edward always did. Maybe it was her calm acceptance, or maybe it was the macabre sweetness of her story, but I was suddenly more annoyed than guilt-stricken over Edward's self-loathing. My marriage needed work, I realized – but then, my marriage had time, and I was glad of that.
"Much," I said gratefully, and then, speaking the thought out as it popped into my head, "The Volturi are idiots."
Esme tilted her head at me, confused.
"They want Edward and Alice, but they're not making you any job offers," I explained. She still looked puzzled. "They're idiots," I repeated. "Your talent is much, much more useful than what any of the rest of us can do."
She still wasn't getting it.
"Esme," I said, "I feel better – I don't just mean better like we had a good talk, though I'm glad we talked, thank you – but I feel better. You brushing my hair – I think it works by touch – I don't hurt so much."
I got to see the idea taking shape, breaking like dawn across her face. She hugged me; her hugs were different since my changing, not as careful, which made them better.
"Carlisle's always said – well, you don't need to hear exactly what Carlisle's always said," she responded, pulling back and grinning at me. "I'd just embarrass you. But I'd never thought of it like that – like what Edward can do -"
"It is," I told her with complete certainty. "It really, really is. It's like magic."
"I'm glad I can help you," Esme said with feeling. "I am so glad to have you as part of this family, Bella."
"Do you really think you don't have a soul?" I blurted out, then winced. I hadn't meant to say that, however much it had been bothering me.
She frowned, tilting her head questioningly.
"Carlisle told me – after my eighteenth birthday party," I rushed to explain, though I still cringed a little at that particular memory. "He told me he thinks salvation is still possible for us. Vampires. I said I thought so too, and he said I was the only one who agreed with him."
Esme's frown cleared, slipping back into an expression of affectionate exasperation. "Oh, I see," she answered, sighing, "but you've gotten it backwards, dear."
"Backwards?" I asked, confused.
"Carlisle's the one who thinks we need saving. Of course we have souls," Esme said fervently. "And I believe there's something waiting for us after our final death – I'm not sure what, but something. I believe that we're capable of good – and if we're capable of good, then we have a moral duty to try. To live as ethically as we can."
"Then why would Carlisle think -"
"Because I don't believe in God," Esme said, shrugging a little – she looked suddenly uncomfortable, watching me closely as if waiting for me to judge her.
"You don't believe in God," I repeated, flabbergasted. "You're – an atheist?"
"There are just – too many contradictions," she explained. "Too much in Christianity that just doesn't make sense to me – the whole idea of judgment, salvation and damnation – and I haven't found another religion I like any better. I don't think I could find any God who demands worship to be worthy of it. Love . . love isn't supposed to be like that."
She spoke with absolute conviction, her voice as hard as I'd ever heard it.
Then she asked, "Does that offend you?" almost instantly, and just like that she was the Esme I knew again, her voice gentle, almost apologetic.
"No!" I assured her instantly. "No, of course not!" She relaxed visibly. "I'm really not that religious at all, it's just – you and Carlisle -"
"I know," she said, lips quirking up into a lopsided, ironic smile, shrugging. "It's awful, isn't it? Poor Carlisle – having to make up not only for being a vampire, but for having a heathen wife, too. It's terrible." But the way she said it expressed more clearly than words could that she thought it was the furthest thing from terrible.
And that, more than confessing my fears, more even than any magic vampire powers of comfort, made me believe that Edward and I could be okay.