This is a long introductory Author's Note, please bear with me. I won't always do this.
Welcome to La Résistance, which is written as a companion to Girl with a Red Umbrella, which I co-author with justaskalice. But this can stand alone, in case you haven't read that. This is the story of Esme's experiences during World War 2. It will be much shorter than GwaRU, only seven chapters, give or take, and it's mostly written already.
I did a lot of research for this story, but that said, there are people who make careers out of researching World War 2, and I'm not one of them. However, if I mention a date, a place, a battle, an event, a troops location, it really happened.
Like I did for Girl with a Red Umbrella, there is a live journal page for this story with photos, research and music:
I have some thank you's:
Justaskalice, of course. This Esme is as much hers as mine, we created her and her back story together. I'm just telling it.
WriteOnTime, super-beta extraordinaire, who's endlessly patient with my bad punctuation.
And last (!) the disclaimer:
Stephenie Meyer owns any Twilight characters that may appear in this story. The remainder is my original work. No copying or reproduction of this work is permitted without my express written authorization.
A wise man once said that a journey of a thousand miles begins with the first step. Whenever Esme Benoit thinks of that night at the house in 1941, and she thinks of it many, many times over the years, she is reminded of that saying. Because, looking back, it was that night that marked the beginning; it was that night that started Esme on a journey she never could have imagined.
But on that night in May, one year after France signed its armistice with Germany, effectively handing them the country tied in a bow, Esme is not thinking of ancient eastern philosophers. She is also trying not to think about France and the war and more than anything, she is trying not to think about Germans.
The house is busy, smoky, loud. She supposes that some people might find the low thrum of chaos unsettling, upsetting. But for Esme the chatter of voices punctuated by bursts of laughter or shouts of an argument breaking out, all underscored with music, always music, is like a lullaby to her. She loves the house, this tall, slightly shabby grand dame of a Parisian townhouse, but she always finds it a bit sad when the house is empty. This house feels like home when it is filled with people and their conversation and art and life.
The crowd may be sparser now than it was in its glory days before the war, but it still thrums with life and energy, and as Esme passes from room to room, bestowing warm smiles and slight touches on her many guests, she too feels alive, even though many old familiar faces are missing.
So many people have scattered to the winds in the face of the war that's swept through Europe. Things are hard all over France, but especially so in Paris. Esme is insulated somewhat from the privations, one of the many benefits of her vast network of friends and of course, the money fixes everything. But for most in Paris there is never enough food, there is no gas, no clothes, no shoes. Those who have the ability to travel and somewhere to go have left. Word has it things are not quite so bad in the countryside.
Yes, many have left to wait out the war in the countryside, but many more are just…gone. Amongst the many leftist artists, musicians and writers of Esme's wide acquaintance, there were those who spoke out against the German Occupation. They wrote articles for underground papers, they sent missives to magazines overseas, they spoke at rallies. And for their troubles, they were arrested and charged with treason. So many, Esme thinks nervously. So many talented, brilliant minds silenced, rotting away in Vichy prisons. There is no word from them, no way to even tell if they are alright.
Esme shakes off the anxiety and fear. It does them no good. The good Esme can do is here, in her house, preserving what she has built. A safe place for creative minds, a welcoming home, someplace where ideas meet and genius flows. This, she determines, will not be swept away by this godforsaken war.
The parlor is full, the conversation there lively and fierce, it needs no coaxing or help from her, so she glides past her guests there and back into the entryway where she encounters Aro, just shrugging out of his sharp trench coat.
"Aro, my love! I didn't dream that I would see you tonight! What a delightful surprise!" As Esme fusses over him, she gently divests him of his coat. Tati, the young maid, is there, arms outstretched silently to receive the coat as Esme reaches behind her and releases it. Aro, Aaron David to nearly everyone else in Paris, beams at Esme as he takes a moment to straighten his red silk ascot and brush off the lapels of his finely tailored gray wool pinstripe suit. Esme settles her hands on his shoulders and leans up on tiptoe to kiss his smooth high cheekbone. Her lipstick leaves a mark, which she tsks over as she tries to smudge it away with her thumb. Aro smiles indulgently at her before gently shooing her away and dealing with the lipstick with his own crisp white handkerchief.
"Esme, darling, how is it that when every man, woman and child in Paris is looking like a refugee, you just look more stunning every single time I see you?"
Esme rolls her eyes at his overblown compliment, but hooks her arm in his, pulling him after her into the dining room in search of liquor. Aro stops in front of the old streaked eighteenth century wall mirror with the ornate gold rococo frame and carefully smooths his slicked-down black hair.
"It's my wickedness that keeps me lovely," she says, lightly. "What are you drinking?"
"Do you have gin?"
She nods and fishes for the bottle amongst the large assortment on the sideboard.
"Oh, thank heavens. No one has gin these days. With tonic, please, my dear."
Esme fixes his drink and Aro sips it, letting out a dramatic moan of ecstasy.
"You have saved my life with this, my love."
Esme smiles at him, genuinely delighted to have him here. She loves every visitor to her home, but a few, like Aro, are close to her heart. This tiny circle is like family. Aro, poet and literary critic, has been a frequent visitor to Esme's house for over a decade. He was one of the first and he brought many others with him. Aro, and his revered opinion, helped create the myth of Esme Benoit, and as a result he is one of the few people who can claim to be truly close to the reality that is Esme Benoit. Aro met Esme before she was the woman she is today, when she was just a young girl, freshly escaped from the countryside and her abusive, loutish husband and looking to reinvent herself in Paris. Aro took her under his wing and showed her around. It was Aro who introduced her to the wealthy older man who eventually became her lover, who doted on her and showed her for the first time in her life what it was like to be cared for. It was his beneficence in his will that led to Esme's owning the house they now stood in. In many ways, Aro considered Esme amongst his greatest creations. She was, at least, the one he was most proud of.
"It's so crowded down here tonight, Aro," Esme says. "I want to talk to you, really talk. Come upstairs with me."
Aro takes just a moment to add another splash of gin to his glass, because who knows how long it might be until he enjoys another gin and tonic, before picking his way around the people perched casually along the stairs, up to the second floor. Esme is stopped momentarily on the second floor landing, by some artist who wishes to know what she thought of the exhibit at Salon des Prés last week. She gives her opinion, diplomatic but decided, generous and gracious but informed, before excusing herself. Aro notices, scattered amongst Esme's guests tonight, a handful of German soldiers in uniform. He raises his eyebrows but chooses to say nothing, at least for the moment.
She pulls Aro along up to the third floor. Esme's guests rarely wander as far as the third floor and it's here, facing away from the street, that Esme's boudoir lies. Aro has been here before, many times in fact. Other men have been here with Esme but she does not bring them here for quiet conversation. And Aro would never be here for anything else with Esme. He suspects that it's this, the fact that he will never desire her sexually, that has made them so close. Esme has spent her life desired and in many ways it's worked well for her, in many ways she likes it. But she also likes being able to forget her beauty and allure and Aro lets her do that.
Esme curls herself gracefully down onto a small loveseat with gold brocade upholstery and Aro settles in next to her. She folds a leg up underneath her so that she can face him and he angles his long lanky body to mirror her. The minute he sits down, the fatigue catches up to him and his head lolls back on the gold carved back. Esme notices immediately.
"Aro, love, you are exhausted."
"Just too much work, Esme."
"The magazine is so busy?" she says, eyebrows raised. The tiny avant-garde literary magazine that he works for hardly requires backbreaking labor from him, she knows this.
"No, not the magazine. I've been helping…you know….the war." Aro is deliberately cagey in his response. These days, nothing is spelled out.
Esme rarely engages in these discussions of the war and the opposition, but tonight she sits up straighter and her eyebrows draw together. "What are you up to?"
"Just some writing," he says, "For some of the underground newspapers."
"Oh, Aro, be careful! They can arrest you for that! Why do you take these risks?"
"Because somebody has to, Esme. Somebody needs to stand up and say something."
"But what if they come after you?"
He relaxes a little and smiles, to reassure her, because her expression is frantic. "Don't worry, love. If it gets too hot here in Paris, maybe I'll go stay with my old auntie in Lorraine. She makes cheese. It will be delightful."
It does the trick, the image makes Esme laugh out loud.
"Maybe I'll roll up my sleeves and get right down in there with the hairy old goats." Aro holds his pale manicured hands out in front of him, examining his fingernails. Esme laughs harder. "Oh, so picturing me with my auntie's goats is funny, is it?" he laughs, too.
"Aro," she waves a hand helplessly in front of her, trying to control her laughter, "you have no idea..."
"Well, I'm glad I could amuse you my dear."
Esme takes a few deep breaths to get herself under control. "So, aside from poking at the government with a stick to make it mad, what else have you been up to? What about Marcus? Is he still causing you worries?"
Aro rolls his eyes dramatically. "Don't even mention his name!" he cries.
"So it's all over then?"
"Completely. He's such a scared little boy. I understand the need to be…discreet. Especially in the wider world. But if one can't at least be honest with oneself, then there really is no hope."
"What do you mean?" Esme presses him.
"He's been taking out some woman. A girl, really. Nineteen, from a good family."
"Ah," Esme intones in understanding. "Poor girl. That can only end badly. He can't lie to himself forever."
"Precisely. But it's no longer any concern of mine."
"And there's no one new for you?"
Aro turns his head on the back of the couch to smile wearily at her. "Romance has been low on my list of priorities these days. Who has time for love?"
"Aro!" Esme lightly taps his arm and says decidedly, "There's nothing more important."
"Ha! Says you!"
"Why, what do you mean?" Esme draws herself up slightly at his laughter.
"Esme Benoit, who has never been in love and probably never will be," Aro says, but not unkindly.
Esme takes a moment to consider his words. It's true that she's never been in love. She's a great believer in it, a lover of love, as it were. She loves love if for nothing else than for its ability to inspire and direct great art. It draws out the best in people, and for that she loves it. But love, the romantic, hearts-afire kind? No, she's never known it and now that Aro has put such a fine point on it, she can't actually imagine herself ever feeling such an innocent, girlish emotion. She's had many lovers and some she has cared for a great deal, but love? No. That kind of love, the kind Aro means, requires faith and trust. Esme may have once been able to have faith and trust in a man when she was very young, but those days are long gone for her. He's probably right, she decides with a shrug, she will never be in love. She is not particularly saddened by this thought.
"Alright, you have a point. But just because there will be no great love in my life doesn't mean that I can't wish for it for those I care for. You, my dear Aro, are designed to love deeply."
Aro shakes his head sadly. "This world is unkind to lovers at the moment. One should not love in a time of war. It's just asking for heartbreak."
"Oh, to hell with the war!" Esme says, with as much venom as she is ever wont to use, which is not much.
"Don't let your Nazi soldiers downstairs hear you say that," he says with a sly sidelong glance.
Esme makes a face. "Bah! Cretins, every one of them. Their leaders denounce us, call us degenerates, but they all want to be here, right in the thick of things, in the heart of the degeneracy. But they cause no trouble, so I let them stay. Who knows? Maybe a few nights here will broaden their horizons, and then they won't be such dreadful bores."
Aro narrows his eyes, studying her carefully. She is dismissive of them, but there is no fear, only scorn. This worries him. "Be careful, my love. They are the enemy, and a very dangerous enemy at that. Always remember that. This is a war."
Esme sighs heavily and waves a hand absently through the air as she fishes out her cigarette case from the tiny table next to the loveseat. Aro leans forward instinctively with his matches. Once her cigarette is glowing, she leans back and examines him through the smoke. She flicks a long dark red nail against the tip of her tongue to remove a speck of tobacco.
"It's all just politics, Aro. And you know I don't get involved in politics."
"With all due respect, love, a war is a good deal more than just politics. Even you must acknowledge that."
"Not at all. Just men…boys, really…acting out their silly games on a much bigger scale. They plan their battles on their little maps and halfway across Europe people starve and die. Boys playing with their toy soldiers. Just like all of them."
"Yes, but these boys are dangerous. More than I think the world has seen before. We are all in peril."
"Oh, Aro, what makes you so melancholy tonight? Yes, things are unspeakably dreary right now, but surely it can't last forever. Soon they will leave us in peace and things will go back to the way they were."
Aro turns to her more fully, examining her face long and hard.
"This time is different, Esme. Please take care. And be cautious with the Germans, do promise me."
She is taken aback slightly by his seriousness, his obvious concern.
"Of course, Aro, my love. Anything for you."
"You don't know what you're dealing with," he continues, earnestly. Then he recovers himself, his usual insouciance, and leans back on the couch with a smirk. "Although why I worry is beyond me. If there's a woman in Paris who can handle the Nazis, it will be Esme Benoit."
At the time, Esme just laughs her low throaty laugh and drinks her gin. But Aro's words, her dear, lost Aro, come back to her many times over the intervening years. His warning will haunt her.
Esme stands in front of the window of what used to be her favorite lingerie shop. Over the years, all her favorite delicate, lacy confections have come from this shop and Madame Giselle with her impeccable taste. Esme knows she should go in and say hello, she hasn't seen Madame Giselle in ages, but if she goes in she will be confronted with the fact that the shelves are bare, that there is nothing to buy. There is no silk for clothes, it's all taken for the war. No lace, either. Nothing gets in from Belgium, even the lace. And stockings? Forget them. No one has had stockings for a year, at least.
So Esme simply checks her lipstick in her reflection, adjusts her dark red kid gloves a bit, and moves on. The streets are quiet. Not empty, but quiet. It is late March, not yet spring, but it's in the air. The cold bite is gone, as well as the damp chill. Normally it's the kind of weather that can lift the spirits, as one can finally begin to sense the end of winter and the return of sun and warmth.
This year, however, the sun and warmth will bring little of comfort with them. France will stay bleak and spiritless. The war drags on, grows worse. Paris suffers, but they are almost used to the privations now, the lack of anything decent to eat, the lack of clothes, fuel. It is a dreary familiarity, but it has become familiar. In addition to the bitterness of daily life, there is the unrelenting bad news. Official reports are so slim. The Nazis control the papers, the radio, so much so that it's hardly worth listening to. One can't trust what one hears there, so what's the point? One has to rely on rumors, stories spread between neighbors on the streets, whispered over the sparse, rotten produce at the markets.
The stories…they are horrific. So bad that Esme knows a full two-thirds, maybe more, are nothing but gruesome fantasy. The French have grown weary and resentful of the occupiers and have taken to painting them in the very blackest imagery possible. The rumors about them pass from person to person and grow exponentially worse with every retelling. This is what accounts for tales of horror so grim that the old fairy tales pale in comparison.
However, it's not as if she's necessarily fond of the Nazis. She's hardly eager to defend them. The officers stationed in Paris spend so many of their evenings at her house that they've scared away nearly all that remained of her old friends. She sees almost no one from the old days any more. More have fled, more have been arrested. Any still left free in Paris don't want to socialize with the Germans, so they stay away. And Aro, she hasn't seen Aro in…what? Esme pauses on the sidewalk as she calculates and realizes that it's been ten months since she's seen Aro. How is that possible? It's so easy to get lost in the day-to-day trials and small struggles. Time just slips away. He must have gone to stay with his aunt in Lorraine after all. The thought of him amongst her goats makes her smile.
As she looks around herself at the waning light reflecting off the buildings, she realizes that the hour is growing later and she needs to get home. Guests will arrive soon and someone must be there to greet them. Esme is saddened to realize that for the first time in her life, the thought of a house full of company does not make her happy. She is only filled with weariness at the thought of the night ahead. They will be polite, to be sure, but she will find no enjoyment in the conversation. It will all just be a tedious chore. And she'll have to speak German all night. She'd spoken a little at the start of the war, but over the course of the past year, spending so much time entertaining the officers, she's been forced to become fluent. And of all the languages to learn, German has no beauty to her ear.
She thinks, not for the first time, that maybe she should leave for the country like Aro. Perhaps the time has come to close up the house and take a little farmhouse in another province. She will go mad in the quiet of the country, of this she is sure, but it could hardly be worse than this, this mockery of her old life through which she shuffles every day.
Esme turns the familiar corner onto Rue de Jardinier, where her beloved gold house waits at the end. She takes only a few steps towards it when she sees Gérard lounging on his mother's front steps, smoking in the shadows of the building. Esme sighs deeply and steels herself for the inevitable nasty comments. Gérard is a grown man, too old to still be living with his mother. He disappears for long periods of time, either gone to jail for some petty offense or mixed up in some other sort of mischief. But when he is out of money with nowhere else to go, he descends again on his poor, besieged mother. When here, he spends his days smoking and lounging on the steps and his nights drinking and seeking out more trouble. For years he has lusted after Esme and made no great secret of it. She is repulsed by him. He's a dirty, rude, ignorant boor and she's made no attempts to hide her disdain. Her haughty dismissals of his vulgar propositions only make him bolder, however. His beady eyes are on her from the moment she turns the corner. He looks drunk already. His white undershirt is filthy and sweat-stained and too small for his bulging gut, and his ruddy face is shadowed with his dark black stubble. His hair is a greasy slick across his forehead.
"Well, well, if it isn't Madame Benoit," he drawls as she approaches. He always layers her name with sarcasm, as if there is some great joke to be found in calling her Madame. He has made thinly-veiled aspersions in the past about her, that she's not really married, that she's actually running some sort of bordello in her house. If only he knew how happy she'd be to call herself Mademoiselle…
"Good evening, Gérard," she says curtly, eyes averted. She never calls him monsieur. In her mind, it's a gesture of respect, and he has earned none from her. It's also her way of reminding him that he's a good deal younger than her, and that she's friends with his mother. It never has any affect on his behavior.
"Off to host another one of your little soirees, I take it?" he sneers, throwing his cigarette butt to the ground.
"I have some guests coming over soon, yes. So if you'll excuse me…"
"Always so snooty."
"You. Prancing up and down this street in your fine clothes with your nose in the air for all these years, like no one's good enough to touch you."
Esme draws herself up, eyes narrowed. She is a small woman, but when she is angry, she is a sight to behold. "How on earth a sainted woman like your dear mother was able to produce such a worthless piece of vermin is beyond me, Gérard. You should be ashamed of yourself. You besmirch her good name."
Gérard's face contorts with rage and he takes a step towards her. Esme doesn't budge. Fear is not an emotion she often indulges in, not anymore. When she does not cower, just continues to fix him with her furious stare, he pauses and that's all Esme needs to regain control of the confrontation.
"Why don't you make yourself useful to her for once and clean up that mess?" she flings an imperious gloved finger at his cigarette butts littering the front stoop before she turns on her heel and continues on towards her house.
"Things are changing, missy, you mark my words," he shouts after her. "This new government, they put a value on men like me, men who can do something for them. It's stuck up little tramps like you who'll pay!"
Esme sighs and shakes her head, but doesn't look back or acknowledge him again in any way. Once inside, Tati greets her at the door to take her coat, gloves, and bag. Esme smooths her hair in the front hall mirror and looks hard at her reflection. The country. Maybe it wouldn't be the end of the world.
Esme's resolution to close up the house and move to the country is only given further reinforcement after spending an evening entertaining her German guests. They are gracious enough, she supposes, and the officers always make sure a case of wine or champagne is delivered to her house, along with some other otherwise-unavailable delicacy, chocolates or caviar, to thank her for her hospitality.
But she cannot bear the quality of their conversation, regardless of their consideration. There is no more talk in this house of art or music, unless it's some ignorant officer waxing rhapsodic about Wagner, simply because his Führer adores the composer. Their talk is nothing but tedium, their presence nothing but a trial for her. No, as much as it breaks her heart to contemplate, she must close the house, take Tati and rent a little farmhouse somewhere.
She is thinking on this as she stands in the dining room at the bar. She's deciding what to drink while she decides where to go. The Loire Valley? She was born there, but she hasn't been back since she escaped at seventeen. There are probably too many bad memories there, she decides. Perhaps Provence, then, where they grow the lavender and the olives. That could be nice…
"Paris is nice and all," she hears the young German officer behind her telling his friend, "But it's just so quiet here. Feels like we've been put out to pasture a long way out of the action. My brother's in Africa, and they're going to Egypt! Now he's going to see some action, let me tell you!"
His companion goes on to point out to his friend all the ways in which Paris is superior to North Africa, but Esme has stopped listening to them. She's not sure why his words have caught her attention. In and of themselves they mean nothing to her. So what, the boy has a brother in Africa? Why should this matter to her? But at the same time, she can't let go of the tiny fact. Africa…going to Egypt.
Esme stands quietly at the bookseller's stall, absently looking over the titles. She doesn't need any more books, of that she is certain. But she continues to linger and read the newspaper headlines over the shoulder of the man standing next to her. It's about the attack on the German headquarters at Arras. It's nearly impossible to sort out the truth, it's all a lot of chest-thumping and propaganda. The article makes it sound as if an army marched on a poor, defenseless lightly-manned outpost. But Esme has heard the whispers on the streets. It was the Resistance. It was stealthy and quick and they destroyed the German headquarters single-handedly. When talk of the Resistance began, she hardly gave it credence. A bunch of ragtag revolutionaries fighting off the Nazis from basements and farmhouses? It seemed noble, but ill-advised and ultimately hopeless.
But they've taken out the German headquarters at Arras. No one speaks of it out loud, but everyone knows that's how it happened. The streets of Paris are abuzz with the news. Esme thinks of buying the paper to read it in more detail, but it will just be more lies, so there's hardly any point. She's desperate to know the whole story, though, even if she can't say why.
She's absently turning over an old edition of A Thousand and One Nights when she hears a familiar voice behind her.
She turns to see Caius Faubourgh, whom she has not laid eyes on in months and months. He used to be a frequent visitor at the house, but that was before. He's one of the many who stopped coming. Since he's here in Paris, she has to assume it's the Germans who keep him away.
Caius is a huge man, well over six feet, and massively barrel-chested. He slouches a good deal, the product of being an overly-large man in a too-small world. He's always rumpled, wrinkled jacket hanging like a sack from his shoulders, shirt unbuttoned at the neck, wilted tie sloppily knotted and loosened. He has a short beard, now laced with grey that didn't used to be there. His sandy hair is swept away from his face, and his hairline, Esme notices, has crept back since she last saw him. His round, wire-rimmed glasses seem far too small for his face and are perched, slightly crooked, on the end of his nose.
As she turns to look up at him, a loose, lazy grin splits his face.
"It is you. Esme, you look magnificent."
"Caius! It's been months! Where have you been hiding yourself?" Esme leans up impulsively to kiss his cheek, because she really is delighted to see him. He's a writer, absolutely brilliant. His novels hardly sell anything, but she has them all, autographed by him. He's a genius whose time has not yet come. It's what she's always told him.
"Oh, here and there, you know?" his eyes shoot away from her as he answers and land briefly on the newspaper to her side. His gaze focuses minutely.
"What are you writing these days?"
"Writing?" he looks back to her, puzzled, as if the thought were entirely foreign. "I'm not writing at all right now. Far too busy."
"Too busy for your art? This is what happens when you stay away from my house too long, Caius," she teases gently. "You lose your way."
"Yes, well, I'm not exactly fond of your new guests."
Esme's smile drops away and she waves a hand. "It's not as if they were invited, Caius. And one can't exactly turn them away."
Caius's expression softens and he reaches out to squeeze her arm lightly. "I know, Esme. I do miss the old days there. How is everyone?"
"I can hardly tell you. No one comes around anymore. So many people have left town."
Caius looks at her closely, eyes slightly narrowed. "Left or been taken?"
Esme stares back. "What do you mean?"
"Well, you hear the stories."
She scoffs and waves a hand. "I hear rumors and whispers. I hear people letting their imaginations run away with them. Honestly, Caius, you can't possibly give credence to these crazy rumors floating about, can you?"
Caius looks at her for a long silent moment. When he speaks again, his voice is slower, measured. "Esme, will you come and have a coffee with me? Do you have time?"
"Of course, darling. I'd like nothing better."
Caius takes her elbow and they make their way to a café nearby. The day is warm enough that they sit outside on the sidewalk. Esme starts to settle at one table, but Caius pulls her past it, to one at the farthest edge of the seating area, one table in from the people streaming past. Caius flags the waiter and orders two coffees. There is not much on the menu in the way of food, but Esme waves off his offer to order something.
Caius's eyes flit nervously around them. Esme notices and it makes her nervous. She's never seen him so keyed up, his ordinary demeanor is so relaxed. He seems to be ensuring that they are alone.
"Caius, is something wrong?" she finally asks, after the waiter has left their coffees.
His jumpy eyes cut back to her and he looks at her intently for a long moment, his fingers drumming lightly on the table. "When did you last see Aaron David?" he finally asks.
The question seems so innocuous as to be completely out of place with his current mood.
"Last May. He's gone to stay with his aunt in Lorraine."
"You've heard from him?" Caius's voice is disbelieving.
"Well, no. You know how hard it is to get a letter through to anywhere these days. When I last saw him he said he might go stay there. Since I hadn't heard from him I just assumed…"
Esme found herself trailing off, unable to finish the thought under Caius's fierce, unwavering gaze.
"He's not in Lorraine, Esme," he finally says softly.
"What do you know?" Esme's voice is faint and slightly breathless. She is suddenly cold all over, there is something bad, something black, just around the corner ahead of her which must be faced.
"The stories, the rumors…every wretched, horrible thing you've heard…it's all true. All of it and worse."
Esme leans back slightly. Caius leans forward, arms on the table. He drops his voice to a slight murmur, so only she can hear.
"I've been working with the Resistance. Many people from the old days have been. Aaron was."
"I…I knew he was doing some writing…" her sense of dread grows stronger as she realizes that Caius is speaking about Aro in the past tense and she just did as well.
"Yes, yes. Writing and more. It mattered so very much to him, you see. In light of what they were doing."
"They?" Esme repeats. She feels slow and flat-footed in this conversation, as if there is a lot she doesn't understand. She doesn't like the feeling, but at the same time, some prickling premonition is telling her that she doesn't want to know. "The Nazis? What they're doing?"
Caius shoots one more urgent look around him before leaning in closer. "The deportations of the Jews… the camps, it's all true. They're killing them."
"No." The word is nothing more than a whisper forced involuntarily from her lips, a willing away of the thing she feels bearing down on her.
"I've talked to men who've seen it with their own eyes. The bastards have a plan, Esme. They want to kill them all."
"But…but here in France…" she's desperate to believe that this, France, her home, could not be a party to this.
"Here, too. They're already taking them."
"Aro?" her hand flies to her mouth to cover the scream that wants to escape.
Caius leans back slightly and pauses, watching her. "They arrested him last August, took him from his house in the middle of the night. They sent him to Drancy."
She knows the name Drancy. It was the prison camp they'd just built outside Paris, for the ones accused of treason, that's what the Nazis told the Parisians.
"And he's there now?"
Caius shakes his head sadly. "Sent on to Auschwitz by now," he murmurs softly. "Of course, there's no way to know for certain. They won't tell you, and if you ask, they'll arrest you, too."
Esme can't speak or respond in any way. She is thinking, remembering her last night with Aro at her house, his head leaning back on the sofa as he smiled his louche smile at her. It's all she can see in this long, screaming moment.
"Esme," Caius continues urgently, softly, leaning forward again, "you are in the belly of the beast now. You must remember that." Then he leans back abruptly, looking around himself, "I should go. We've spoken too long as it is. People might talk. Take care of yourself, my dear." He carefully unfolds his massive body from the tiny café chair and taps the table twice in farewell. Esme can only watch his shape recede down the sidewalk before he disappears into the crowd.
For a long time she does nothing. Her hands are on the table before her, her fingers spread wide. Her mind simply runs back through everything she's heard for the past several months, every rumor, every whispered, far-fetched, unbelievable accusation, and she looks at them with new eyes. "I've talked to men who've seen it with their own eyes." That's what Caius said. "It's all true. They're killing them." And what she's heard…people packed into trains like cattle, camps, starvation, gas chambers, women and children, too….She closes her eyes at the imagined horrors. But they are not imagined. They are real. Happening right now.
Esme feels a dark black line being drawn through her life, straight through this moment. Forever there will be everything that came before this, when such things, such monstrosities were too much to believe, when horrors like this only existed in fairy tales. And there will be everything that comes after, when it is all true, when men have proven themselves to be blacker than she ever thought possible. She thought she knew, she thought she understood first-hand how wicked, how depraved men could be. But this…this is evil that she can scarcely comprehend. It's happening far away in Germany, but Caius said it's happening here…right here in Paris.
Aro…Esme gasps and the dam breaks as she remembers Aro and what Caius told her. Drancy…then some place called Auschwitz. She begins to moan. She would weep, but this is too raw, her emotions too feral. She just curls on herself and rocks and wails softly, her hands fisted against her chest, blind to the world around her. No one pays her any mind. Times are hard. People weeping on the streets is not an unusual sight. Aro, she thinks, his name repeating in her head as the reality comes crashing down. Taken, most likely dead by now. She clamps her hands down hard over her mouth to hold back the screaming that's struggling to get out.
Esme loses track of how long she sits there. She loses track of her very existence in that long moment of reckoning. But she's a strong woman and although part of her wishes her mind would just snap so she didn't have to face this for another minute, she knows it won't. She will remain whole, she will have to carry on, she will have to decide what to do. Because in that moment, it is perfectly clear that she will do something. She cannot turn her head and choose to go back into ignorance. That is impossible for her. No, this, this bitter knowledge she has gained today will change her forever, of that much she's certain, even if the details are not entirely clear.
She sits at the café until the Esme she knows reappears. There is still a day to get through, there are still guests to be dealt with tonight…her blood runs cold. Nazis. They will be in her home tonight. They've been in her home for a year. She feels ill, truly ill, as she thinks of all the nights she has talked and laughed with them. Did they know? Did they all know what was happening? The horrors break on her afresh. Did one of them take Aro? Did they pick him out at her house and target him?
She doesn't know what she will do. How can she go home and face them? How can she smile and open her door to those monsters? Caius's words ring in her head. "You are in the belly of the beast now." Indeed. But if she bars them from the house, what then?
Esme is a smart woman, cool and collected, even under duress. It only takes her a moment to calm herself down and examine the situation dispassionately. Tonight, unless she does something extremely reckless, like publicly denouncing them, the Nazis will be at her door, demanding her hospitality. They will come and drink her wine and play her records and talk. Talk.
"Africa…going to Egypt."
The young officer's words of a few weeks back whisper in her head again. They would come and talk. And they just might say things that were useful, things that they should not. That young officer, he said his brother was on the move to Egypt soon. Does that mean the Germans were about to invade, to try to take Egypt back from the Allies? Do the Allies know this?
What if she tells them?
It takes Esme a full minute of quiet contemplation to comprehend what she was considering doing. She could spy on them. She could let the filthy bastards keep coming, she could smile and let them drink her wine…and she could listen. She will need someone to pass on what she's heard. Caius…she stands unthinkingly, scanning the crowd in the direction he'd gone. But of course, that was hours ago now, back before her whole world was changed.
The Resistance. Caius said there were a lot of people she knew working for them. She will have to make discreet inquiries, find someone who can help her. She knows that if they find her out she might meet a fate worse that Aro's. But she also knows that she no longer cares. Let them do their worst. To sit by while this evil, this sick madness unfolded all around her is unthinkable. And she is no soldier; she has no guns and knives to attack with. So she will use the weapons she does have, the ones she's spent her whole life honing, apparently to be used in this one grim moment in time; her beauty, her charm, her powers of persuasion. It will require the performance of a lifetime. She simply hopes she can be good enough.