The last chapter. Thanks so much to everyone who stopped to read this little story. It's close to my heart.
Thanks to justaskalice for pre-reading all the way through and cheer-leading.
And a million thanks to WriteOnTime for beta'ing and so many other things.
One more plug for the live journal page. Pictures and film of the Battle for Paris and even a recording of The Marsellaise. http://resistance-esme(dot)livejournal(dot)com/
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.
Tuesday, August 22, 1944
The morning after Hans' visit dawns as the last two have. Gunshots ring out across the city, shouting reverberates off the buildings, there is scattered smoke on the horizon. Esme walks out as far as the Pont Neuf to see the state of things. At every major intersection, there are makeshift road blocks. Often they are overturned commandeered German army vehicles. Sometimes, they are formal arrangements of wooden crossbeams and looped barbed wire. In some places, the neighbors have come out and wrenched up the paving stones to make crude walls.
The barricades are manned, sometimes by trained soldiers, but often by ordinary French men and the occasional woman, armed with whatever ragtag weapons that have managed to survive the occupation in private hands. There are still Germans fighting back, but the air is one of barely-controlled chaos. The Germans seem to have no clear sense of purpose, no over-arching command. There is no order to them. They are just ragtag groups of soldiers, trying to hold back the Resistance fighters at every corner. The road blocks have worked. There are no vehicles moving. Whatever German trucks haven't been tipped over to block the streets are parked abandoned on the side of the road, or commandeered by the Resistance fighters and crudely painted with the emblem of the French Forces of the Interior.
There is near-constant gunfire, the pops echoing off the buildings in the empty streets, and punctuated by the shouting and the screaming. Esme wanders vaguely in the direction of the Pont Neuf, if only because it's the way to the church, and to him; not that she thinks he's there now, but because the route is comforting and familiar, and her feet seek it out on their own. She only makes it as far as the corner of Rue des Artistes and Rue Dauphine when the pandemonium halts her.
There is shouting, so much of it that it makes her cringe back against the buildings. Ahead of her, in the square where several streets converge, there has been heavy fighting underway for some time. There are Resistance fighters huddled behind an impressive wall of sandbags topped with barbed wire that spans the width of Rue Dauphine at an angle. It's reinforced on either end with a commandeered German jeep. This wall is far better manned than the others Esme has come across. There are perhaps thirty fighters here, maybe more.
Across the square, at the head of Rue Mazarine, are the Germans. They've hunkered down behind a troop transport. Its canvas sides are ripped and riddled with bullet holes. Esme catches only glimpses of the soldiers behind it, but they are in every bit the disarray that Hans was in when she saw him last night.
In addition to the Resistance fighters swarming the barricades, there are snipers in the upper stories of the nearby buildings. Esme catches a glimpse of bodies in a building fronting Rue de l'Ancienne Comédies, and a puff of smoke just after gunshots ring out from the windows on Rue Dauphine.
The two sides trade gunshots back and forth for a few minutes, each soldier in turn poking up just long enough to squeeze off a shot at the other side before retreating back down. A Resistance fighter makes a break for it, darting out from behind the barricade towards the sniper's nest across the square. A shot rings out from the German side and he falls, propelled forward by his own momentum. Esme starts involuntarily, nearly ready to run out to the man and offer help instinctively, but fierce retaliatory gunfire from the Resistance side pins her down. The Germans return fire, and for a few minutes the noise is deafening. Chips of concrete rain down on Esme where she's crouched against the building as bullets ricochet off the walls around her. The fallen man lies helpless and unmoving in the middle of the square.
No one comes to his aid. Of course not, Esme thinks. Who can come? Who would come? The hospitals likely have no ambulances, if there are even still doctors there to help. The thought is chilling. She sees now that the city is in near-anarchy. For the Germans most certainly don't hold it any longer, but there are enough of them to keep the Resistance from definitively seizing command.
And the Resistance? Esme knows better than anyone how they've had to survive during the war. Scarcely acknowledging each other's existences as they wage their private little wars. The Resistance certainly has no plan of governance ready to execute when the Germans leave. So what then?
A truck comes barreling towards the square down Rue Mazarine, behind the Germans. There is more chaos and shouting and gunshots, but Esme is quickly able to discern that it's a truckload of Resistance fighters, and they've now effectively cornered this pocket of German soldiers. Fearing the violence about to erupt before her, Esme runs back the way she came, back towards her house. If madness descends on Paris once the Germans are gone, she wants to be securely inside her house when it happens.
Later that night, as they settle in for another tense, sleepless night listening to the gunfire, there is pounding on the door again. Tati shrieks and Madame Chernot pats her arm in reassurance.
"Don't answer it!" she hisses at Esme.
"We don't know who it might be," Esme reasons.
"What if it's him? Dekker?" Madame Chernot implores her.
"He won't come back here, Madame, I promise you that. Look, I have the gun." Esme waves it lightly as she crosses to the entry way. It is a bit mad to open the door at this time, but she can't help the desperate hope that somehow Mr. Stoker has been able to find her. He will try as soon as he can, of that she's certain. But there's no telling if he'll succeed, or, given the situation out on the streets, if he'll even survive to. That thought has been clawing at the back of Esme's mind since the fighting first broke out, but dwelling on it only makes it worse and doesn't help him. So she presses it away, to be dealt with later, when this is all over, if it ever is.
The pounding at the door comes again, this time accompanied by a voice. "Madame Benoit? It's Alec. From the street two days ago? You said if I needed…"
Esme wrenches the door open before he can finish his sentence. The young, dark-haired Resistance soldier from the street is there, holding up a badly wounded man. Another young soldier stands beside him, a wounded man in his arms as well.
"The Red Cross is in the city, providing medical care to both sides; but because of the road blocks, they can't get anywhere near here. And we had to get them off the streets," Alec explains in a rush. He is wounded too, Esme sees, a gash on his forehead, caked in dried blood.
She reaches out instinctively to help him bear the weight of his friend, and in moments, Madame Chernot and Tati have appeared as well, pulling the men in, lowering the two worst ones to the floor.
Madame Chernot stands over them for just a moment, hands on her hips as she thinks. Then she snaps into motion.
"We'll have to nurse them here in the parlor," she says, moving to start shoving chairs back against the walls and out of the way. "The bedrooms upstairs are too spread out. Tati, go drag down the mattresses from the beds and all the linens you can lay your hands on."
Tati rushes up the stairs to do as she's bid as Madame Chernot kneels next to one of the wounded men, who is moaning softly now.
"I was a volunteer nurse in the Great War," she says absently. "Mademoiselle Benoit, why don't you take those two to the kitchen to get cleaned up and fed. They've got wounds that will need tending, too, but these boys come first."
Esme watches Madame Chernot begin to seek out pulses and peer under eyelids. Just like that, her parlor floor is a hospital. She turns to Alec and the other mobile soldier.
"Come with me, gentlemen," she says as she leads them back to the kitchen.
Alec and his friend, Charles, are grateful to collapse into chairs at Esme's kitchen table. They rest their heads on their arms as she scrounges up some cheese and the remainder of a loaf of bread Madame Chernot was able to bake that morning. There is still a bottle of preserves in the pantry, along with some dry summer sausage. The boys set upon it like ravenous dogs as Esme pours them generous glasses of wine and they tell her all they know.
The Germans are all but done for in Paris, they say. There are bands of soldiers still fighting it out on the streets, but without reinforcements and ammunition sent from their central command, they're being swiftly overrun. The Germans still hold a number of public buildings. They have the Hôtel Crillon, their headquarters, still, and several others. Those are the German high command and they are well-guarded. Getting them out will not be easy. But the Resistance strategy, such as it exists, is to bring the street fighting up to the very doorways. Once they realize that the frontline of German soldiers has been eradicated, the hope is that they will surrender.
"What then?" Esme asks them, leaning forward on the table. "Who's going to run things here? Pétain in the south? He's as bad as the Nazis!"
Alec snorts. "That coward will hightail it and run with the Germans the second he hears they're leaving. He's cast his lot with them, there's nothing for him in France anymore."
"So who? There must be a government," Esme presses.
"DeGaulle, of course," Charles chimes in. "He'll take over once the Germans are gone."
"But he's in Algeria! What can he do from there?"
Alec leans forward, his voice dropping instinctively, even though no one is there to hear him. Looking into his face, Esme is once again stuck by how old he seemed, for one so young. This war has stolen his youth away. He is a handsome young man. He should be asking out pretty girls and taking them dancing. Instead he sits in her kitchen, filthy and bleeding, still automatically clutching his rifle in his lap as if he can't bear to be parted from it.
"I'll tell you what we're hearing on the streets. They say that the Americans are coming."
"Yes, from the north, where they invaded Normandy. They say DeGaulle has asked them to come. And they say the Free French Army is on the way up from the south. They'll secure the city until DeGaulle can get here and take over."
"How long till they get here?"
Alec sits back, weariness overtaking his features again. "Impossible to say. The roads, the rail lines… they are all a mess." Alec laughed humorlessly, "The Resistance did it all. That's what I was doing up until two weeks ago. Sneaking out to help blow up the rail lines so the Germans couldn't get their troops through. Of course, now we can't get our troops through, either."
Esme sits back, too, aching and endlessly tired. But there is no time to rest now. There are wounded men in her living room and more here in the kitchen.
"Let's take a look at that cut on your head, and then you can clean up and get to bed," Esme says, standing.
"Thank you, Madame," Alec says, "but once we've cleaned up, Charles and I will be on our way. It's not over out there."
"No, I suppose it's not."
Alec catches her by the wrist. "But Madame, may we send other injured to you? There's almost nowhere to go."
Esme shrugs. "I'll do my best. Yes, send them."
Once she's bandaged the gash on Alec's forehead and cleaned Charles' hand where he ripped it open on barbed wire, she leaves the boys to wash up and returns to the parlor. It has been transformed. Madame Chernot and Tati have moved all the furniture to the walls and hauled many of the lighter chairs out of the room entirely. They've brought down mattresses and bedding from the upstairs bedrooms and made several cots in two neat rows on the floor. There are only the two patients at present, but clearly Madame Chernot is anticipating more. She's cleaned the worst of the grime from them and removed their filthy clothing. One has his shoulder tightly bandaged. The other, the one Alec had been carrying, has a mass of bandaging wrapped around his midsection and blood is already seeping through it.
"That one is in a bad way," Madame Chernot murmurs. "They're both shot, but the other is clean, through and through. A little washing it out and rest and he'll be good as new. This other one, he bleeds. I think he needs a surgeon."
Esme has no medical training, but just the little she's seen makes her inclined to agree.
"We'll just have to do what we can. The boys say the Red Cross can't get through and there's no one at the hospital."
"We'll do our best for him, then, won't we, Tati?"
Tati looks up from where she's ripping Esme's fine cotton sheets into strips for bandages and nods solemnly.
Half an hour later Alec and Charles take their leave. They press Esme with their thanks, and she presses them with food and a bottle of Hans' favorite brandy for later.
The three women are up most of the night tending to the badly wounded man, Gaston, as Alec told them. Over the course of the night, four more men are brought to the door, all suffering from gunshot wounds of various degrees of severity. Only one is as bad as Gaston's, although his is in his leg. Madame Chernot has made sure there are beds for them all, and she and Tati are doing an admirable job nursing them, but the worst two need a doctor and none is to be found.
Thursday, August 24, 1944
Gaston's agonized moans wake them from fitful, upright napping in the haze of early morning. His bandages need to be changed and his wound is still rapidly seeping blood, even after a full day under Madame Chernot's care. She mutters and fusses over him, and finally doses him with absinthe to quiet him down. She casts worried eyes at Esme before turning to check on the other men.
Esme's thoughts flicker, not for the first time, back to Mr. Stoker. He's a doctor. If he were here, he could help.
The weariness and the stress of the last several days overtakes her for a moment, and she sags against the parlor door. The fact of the matter is she just wants him. Yes, for his medical skills, so he might save the lives of these men, but she wants him for herself. It's finally almost over. She can practically taste it in the air. And she's no closer to having him than she has been for the past two years; in fact, he's further away from her than he's ever been. For the first time, there is no appointment to keep, no assurance that she'll see him this week. And without a name, without something to go on, she very well might never see him again.
Desperation, of a kind she's unfamiliar with, bubbles up in her chest. Suddenly all of it, the war being waged on the streets, the chaos about to descend as the Germans give up and withdraw, closes in around her. She has to find him. Before the armies sweep in and scatter these ragtag Resistance soldiers to the wind. Before the retreating Germans take their final revenge on the victors. Anything can happen in the chaos of collapse, and Esme is suddenly panicked that she might lose him now, just when they are so close to the end.
Besides, she reasons with herself, they need a doctor for these men. Gaston's deteriorating state has made that an imperative. She's going to find him. Today.
"I'm going out," she announces from the parlor doorway.
Madame Chernot straightens up, wiping her hands on her apron. "Pardon?"
"I'm going to try and find a doctor for the men."
"Madame!" Tati breathes, "You could be killed out there! It's so dangerous!"
Esme shakes her head. "It must be done. Gaston needs a surgeon. I'm going to go find us one." As she's speaking, she's smoothing her dress, tucking back her flyaway hair. The city may be collapsing, but she won't go out of the house looking like a fright.
"Do be careful, dear," Madame Chernot says.
"Of course. Here. Keep the gun close. Don't open the door to anyone until I return."
Madame Chernot and Tati stand close together, hands clasped, nodding fearfully. Madame Chernot takes the gun and tucks it into her apron pocket.
"Right," Esme says, steeling herself. "I'll be back as soon as I can."
She brings nothing with her. Her identification papers, the special stamps of privilege her relationship with Hans afforded her, will do her no good at all now. So she heads out the door empty-handed. She has no idea where to start, in a city as vast as Paris, when there is a gunfight on every corner. In the end, she decides to go back to the beginning, back to Café Flore and Pierre and Charlotte. Maybe they know him or have heard of him.
She feels it immediately as she steps onto Boulevard St Germain, as if the very air is different. The urgent tension of the past few days has been replaced by something else. The barricades are still in place, but the Resistance fighters aren't cowering behind them anymore. They're sitting atop them, smoking, shouting to comrades, or they're busily trying to set the overturned trucks back upright and get them functional again. There are no gunshots from what used to be the German positions. She walks for blocks and doesn't encounter a single active gun battle. She passes a cluster of Resistance fighters in their stained and wrinkled street clothes, leading a Nazi soldier with his hands behind his head and a gun in his back. His face is stony and impassive.
Another block, and she sees the plumes of smoke rising across the Seine and to the West.
"What is that?" she asks one of the Resistance soldiers slouched on the ground against a barricade.
He shrugs dismissively. "They set the Grand Palais on fire yesterday. Seems like they're making a run for it."
"Yes, haven't you heard?" The soldier perks up a bit at the exciting news he's about to impart. Esme just shakes her head. She's been up to her elbows with wounded men for the whole last day. She's heard no news since Alec left two nights ago. "The Resistance army has reached the city. They're in the western arrondisments now. And the Americans are nearly to the northern outskirts of the city. Word is, they'll be on the Champs Elysees by this afternoon!"
Esme thinks sadly for a moment about the lovely Grand Palais with its enormous domed glass roof. Such a shame to ruin something so beautiful. The noise and activity on the streets doesn't leave her time to mourn it, however, or to give much consideration to the soldier's news of troops in the city. She's on a mission.
The further she goes, the more chaotic the scene. Parisians are emerging from their homes in droves, emboldened by the cessation of gunfire and the lack of German soldiers on the streets. They're milling about the barricades with the Resistance fighters, passing bottles of wine and cheering.
It would be thrilling if she weren't so set on her course. She has to find him. Every moment that ticks by makes her more frantic.
By the time she reaches Café Flore, she has to push through the people on the street to reach the front door. The place has been closed up for days, ever since the strike started, but Pierre has hastily re-opened today, once people began to fill the streets. Half the chairs are still upended on tables. Pierre is laughing, hurriedly pulling them down, scooting them out, making room for the cluster of friends and loyal patrons who've clustered at the bar. Charlotte is there, rapidly pulling down glasses and pouring wine. She's harried but grinning ear to ear, calling out to friends in the bar as she works. The shouts and laughter echo off the high ceilings. Esme pushes through the jostling, celebratory crowd to reach the bar. Charlotte looks up and her face lights up at the sight of Esme.
"Esme! It's been so long! And to see you today of all days! Here, you must have some wine!"
Esme shakes her head absently. "I can't today, Charlotte. I'm looking for someone."
Charlotte laughs and casts her eyes around the café. "Looking for someone in this madness? Good luck! We've all spent so long hiding that I doubt you'll get this crowd to quiet down for days!"
Esme manages a weak smile as she looks around. Of course, these are all members of the Resistance. This is probably the first time many of them have been able to acknowledge each other openly in years. No wonder they are so exuberant.
"Charlotte, it's important," she murmurs.
At her tone, Charlotte's smile fades.
"Who are you looking for, Esme?"
"A man…" Esme stops and shakes her head, laughing humorlessly. "I don't have any idea how I'll find him. I've been meeting him, once a week…"
"So you did it then?" Charlotte murmurs.
"Yes. I've been working for the Resistance ever since that day I came to see you here. It was you who brought me to them."
"I knew it." Charlotte breathes. "I knew what they were saying about you just couldn't be true."
Esme flinches and holds up her hand. "I don't want to know what was said, whatever it is. But no, none of it was true. It was just…I did what I had to do. But it's done now and my contact…I have to find him, I just don't know where to look. I thought you might know."
"What's his name?"
Esme chuckles again. "I don't know. And he doesn't know mine. He felt it would be safest for both of us that way."
"You don't even know his name?" Charlotte's eyes are wide.
Esme shakes her head. "He's blond. And English."
Charlotte barks out a short, sharp laugh. "That's all you know, Esme? He's a blond Englishman?"
"Pardon, Madame," a voice murmurs to Esme's right. "But have we met?"
Esme turns to look. There is a dark-haired man there, clutching his empty wine glass. He seems to have come back to Charlotte for a refill and been distracted by their conversation. His face is faintly familiar, but Esme can't place it.
"Do I know you?" she asks.
"I think we may have…Pardon me, but did we meet at the market? One morning at the start of the war?"
Esme blinks rapidly. Yes, it's him. The man she met at the market, the one who sent her to St. Germain l'auxerrois. The man who sent her to him. He looks entirely different. He'd been so serious that day, his hat brim pulled low, his face set in stone. Today, like everyone else here, he's all smiles. She'd never have placed him if he hadn't remembered her first.
"I was just coming back to see Charlotte for some more wine and I couldn't help but overhear."
Esme reaches out and grasps his hand impulsively. "Do you know him? A tall blond Englishman? He's the one who met me in the church that day. The church you sent me to."
"I don't know who they sent to meet you. None of us knew more than we had to know. But a fair-haired Englishman? There aren't too many of them in Paris these days. It might be Carlisle, although I didn't know he was doing that sort of work."
A name. It might be his name. Esme's heart begins to pound with a tiny flicker of hope, the first she's allowed herself to indulge in for over two long years.
"Carlisle?" she repeats, her voice faint.
"Yes, Carlisle Cullen. He's been working at the American Hospital."
Esme clutches his hand tighter and closes her eyes against the wave of relief. Working at a hospital. It must be him. Who else? Carlisle Cullen.
"That's him," she breathes. "The American Hospital?"
Charlotte interjects then, "Pierre and I saw Dr. Jackson last night. He said he was heading down to the Quai Voltaire. There was a terrible fight there and lots of wounded men. He said he was taking any of the staff he could find to go help the wounded."
"Dr. Jackson?" Esme presses.
"Yes, he runs the American Hospital. Find him. If Carlisle is who you're looking for, he'll know where he is."
"I have to go," she murmurs, backing away.
"Good luck, Madame," the dark-haired man says. "Things are dangerous in that part of the city. Be careful."
"I'm getting quite used to that," Esme says with a faint smile.
"Come back and see me soon, Esme," Charlotte says. "I have a feeling you have a lot to tell me."
Esme smiles and nods before turning and pushing back through the rapidly-expanding crowd towards the door.
In the brief time she's been in the café, the streets have broken open into pandemonium. There are still soldiers, but ordinary Parisians have filled the streets, laughing, shouting to their neighbors, waving flags, waving handkerchiefs, celebrating with anything at hand. Every café has thrown open its doors like Café Flore, and music filters out of every open window. The Marsellaise. That's what she's hearing, Esme realizes. The Nazis outlawed the song during the Occupation, but now it pours forth, seemingly from every record player in Paris. People are singing along, laughing and crying at the same time, hugging each other. It's over, finally over.
Making progress through the crowds becomes increasingly difficult. Esme is jostled and shoved. People are celebrating, yes, but there are pockets, certain streets, where the celebration takes on an edge. Something frantic, aggressive, unpleasant, as if it will soon morph into something else. If she didn't have him…Carlisle…to find, she would retreat to the safety of her house. But that isn't an option today. She has to press on.
She rounds a corner and starts past Rue de Beaune when she hears it. Crying. Screaming, weeping sobs, coming from a woman. No, more than one woman.
Esme wants to keep going. She's almost to the Quai Voltaire, only another block. She wants to turn away and ignore it, but she can't. She has to know. She turns down Rue de Beaune. There is a crowd gathered half way down the block. No, not a crowd, a mob. She can scarcely get close, but after elbowing her way past clusters of shouting leering people, mostly men, she's able to see what's happening. They've got a group of girls there, working girls, prostitutes from one of the houses nearby. There are four of them. She doesn't know these girls specifically, but she knows what they are from the look of them. These girls have been working at one of the houses that catered to the Nazis. And now this mob of enraged Parisians has decided to make them pay for it.
One girl has her dress ripped open clean down the front, exposing her slip. Her hair has been chopped off crudely, down to her scalp in places. She's weeping, clutching handfuls of her shorn hair in her hands. One of the men in the front of the crowd has another girl by the hair and is chopping at hers, long brown strands of it falling to the sidewalk at her feet as she shrieks.
Esme has little sympathy for prostitutes, especially not ones who chose to take advantage of the Occupation by catering to their oppressors, but this scene revolts her. She understands the anger at the Germans, but this anger is misdirected. What these girls did was wrong, but what these Parisians are doing is worse. They are better than this. Or they should be, Esme thinks bitterly.
"Let that girl go, you animal," Esme says, not even aware she was going to intervene until the words have left her mouth.
Several men at the front of the crowd swivel to look at her in disbelief. Out of all these people standing and watching, not one has spoken out until now. They've only been cheered on in their malicious revenge.
"Who are you?" one of them growls at her.
"Just a Parisian, like you. And we are better than this," she says, waving a hand at the girl weeping at his feet.
"These girls are whores!" he shouts. Esme shudders. That word. "Filthy whores that fucked Nazis!"
"They fucked the men that paid them for it," Esme sighs. "The Nazis could afford it. Could you? They'd have happily fucked you if you had the money."
Several people in the crowd laugh at what she says which just makes the man with the scissors angry. Esme has made him look a fool and he doesn't like it.
"What business is this of yours, Madame? If you don't like it, just move along."
Esme opens her mouth to retort but she's cut off.
"It's no wonder she'd rush to their defense. She's one of them."
She knows that voice. Several people look to see who spoke and she can see him. It's Gérard. His clothes, so recently improved, are disheveled. His face is flushed. She's seen him enough in this state to recognize it for what it is; he's drunk.
"I should have known you'd find yourself right in the middle of the trouble, Gérard," she sneers.
"Always so high and mighty. You think you're above everyone but really you're no better than these girls."
"Oh, just go home and drink this off, Gérard, before you do something truly vile."
"Just who do you think you are?" he continues as if she hasn't spoken. "You're a whore, just like these girls. She's Colonel Dekker's whore!" he shouts to the crowd. The murmuring around her gets louder and Esme feels the beginning of unease. "Did he leave you behind when he fled Paris? You can hardly be surprised at that. After all, he's already gotten all he wanted out of you."
"You filthy little hypocrite!" she shouts at him. "You've been working for them as their pathetic little errand boy for a year now, selling secrets about your neighbors! You think I didn't know that? And now you stand here and accuse these girls of exactly what you yourself are guilty of!"
"You lying whore!" Gérard has crossed the little opening in the crowd in a flash and he's seized her by the arm. Esme is caught off-guard. In all the times he's been insulting and lewd, he's never once tried to touch her. But she sees what's happened. She's provoked him and nearly unmasked him. Ever the opportunist, as soon as his beloved Nazis fled the city, he turned on them and now leads the mob calling for their heads. Anything it takes to save his own filthy, pathetic skin.
"I know who Colonel Dekker is," one of the men in the crowd murmurs. "Quite the big man, he was."
"Well, this woman has been his whore for two years!" Gérard shouts, shaking her by the arm.
"Let me go, you pig! You know nothing about what I've done for two years!"
"Don't you dare try to explain it away!" Gérard sneers, his face close to hers. He smells sour, stale alcohol. The crowd is pushing in closer. The girl with her hair half-shorn is cowering away now that Esme has become their focus. She is surrounded, she realizes. If they choose to attack her the way they have these girls, she will be at their mercy. "You act so superior!" Gérard continues, "All this time, all these years, turning up your nose like you're so fine. And really the whole time you're just the same as these girls, giving it up if the price is right."
"Take your hands off of me, Gérard," she says again, with less strength, as she begins to be afraid. She looks around for a friendly face in this crowd, one sane person to put a stop to this lunacy. But the same mania, the same frantic vindictiveness has seized them all. They want their revenge on their oppressors and they'll take it out any way they can.
Gérard shoves her back and she stumbles, half-falling to the pavement. She catches herself with one hand and stays down. Gérard crouches next to her, his sweaty face right in hers, and extends a hand. "Hand me those shears, man. This whore needs to be taught a lesson the same as the others."
Esme shrinks back and twists, trying to free her arm, to no avail. She's terrified and furious all at the same time. She's helpless in the face of these people, and she despises that feeling and hates them for making her feel powerless.
"Take your hands off of her."
She would know that voice anywhere. But hearing it now, it seems an impossibility. He can't be here, now.
"Just turn around, friend. This doesn't concern you," Gérard says at the man that Esme can't see from where she lays, making no move to release her.
"It concerns me more than you know. I said release her, or I can't be responsible for what happens to you."
The crowd shifts again, moving to watch as Gérard faces off with this new player in this little street drama. It's him. He's rumpled and dusty and exhausted, streaks of dried blood on the cuffs of his rolled up sleeves, but it's him. Carlisle Cullen.
"She's just a filthy whore, collaborating with the Nazis. And she's about to get what's coming to her," Gérard snarls at him.
Carlisle takes a forceful step towards them and the crowd instinctively shrinks back, cowering in the face of the anger radiating off him.
"This woman is a war hero. She's saved the lives of countless Allied soldiers," Carlisle says, pointing an imperious finger at Esme.
"What the hell are you talking about? She's just some General's doxie."
"She's been working with the Resistance, you idiot! Spying on them! Now let her go!"
Gérard's hand releases her arm instinctively, but he doesn't back away from her.
"A spy? That's hardly likely," Gérard says, "And how would you know this, my friend?"
"Because I've been her contact for two years. She's met me to pass on what she heard from the Nazis."
The crowd falls absolutely silent. They look from Carlisle to Esme, still fallen back on the pavement. Gérard, ever the quick-thinking rodent, senses the shift in sympathies and leans back away from Esme.
Carlisle steps forward again until he's within arms' reach before he reaches a hand out to her. Esme stares up at him, at his beautiful, tired face. She's wanted him for so long and now he's finally here before her, and under such despicable circumstances. But her relief at his presence is enough to drown out everything else, the murmuring of the mob around her, the still-weeping girls, the curses of Gérard. None of it matters. Only this man standing in front of her.
She reaches out her hand and his fingers close around it. He reaches down with his other hand and braces under her elbow, gently helping her to her feet. Once she's standing before him, finally eye to eye, Esme is overcome with relief and throws herself at him. He catches her, wrapping his arms around her, pulling her body up against his, her feet off the ground. The feel of him, warm and real and solid…after all this time, Esme can barely believe he's finally in her arms, that her cheek is pressed against the slightly scratchy skin of his neck, that her fingertips are brushing his hair at the nape of his neck. All the small, intimate parts of him that she feared she'd never know.
"Are you alright?" he murmurs into her hair. She can't speak, she's too overcome with emotion, so she just nods. After a few moments, he releases her just enough to set her feet back down, but he keeps her close, just a breath of air between them.
"A spy?" Gérard can't seem to let it go. His long-standing denied lust for Esme urges him on past the point of caution. "Sounds like you might have sampled her favors, too, and now you're just sniffing around for more."
Carlisle turns to look at him and his face is murderous. "This woman is a hero of France. The bombing of the munitions factory in Tours? The Allies knew where to strike because of information provided by her. They were warned that the Germans were coming to El Alamein because she told them."
The crowd murmurs amongst themselves and Gérard is momentarily silenced.
"Is that true?" Esme breathes.
Carlisle looks back to her. "Yes. And that's just two that I know about. Countless others. We'll never know exactly how much you've done to get us here today."
Esme wants to weep in relief. It wasn't for nothing. All of it, every hated moment with Hans, every painful meeting with Carlisle, it mattered. It made a difference. He sees the emotion crowding her face and rubs her arms gently before turning back to the crowd.
"We've all suffered at the hands of these monsters, and for far too long. But I suggest that you all turn your attention to the real culprits and leave these girls alone. There's still a lot of work to do to rebuild this country. Save your energy for that and leave the revenge to others."
Carlisle's words added to everything else they've just witnessed seems to have taken the blood-lust out of the crowd, and they slowly start to filter away. The four girls have already vanished, escaping while the mob was distracted.
Gérard turns to leave in the crowd, but Esme calls out to him.
"I won't forget this, Gérard. And I know exactly what you did for the Nazis. Don't ever forget that. I suggest you go home and help your mother. There are roadblocks that need to be cleared. Why don't you make yourself useful for once?"
He shoots her a murderous glare, but says nothing. He just turns away and melds into the crowd. In moments, Rue de Beaune is nearly deserted. As the adrenaline from the confrontation finally ebbs, Esme feels nearly weak in the knees. Carlisle's hands are still on her arms, and she reaches up to place hers on his shoulders, looking up into his cherished, longed-for face.
"I can't believe I found you," he says softly, raising a hand to cup her face.
"I was looking for you."
"I've been helping with the injured."
"I should have known you would be." Esme can't help but smile fondly at him.
"I'm Carlisle," he says with an awkward smile. It's an odd thing to be exchanging introductions after all they've become to each other.
Esme smiles back. "I know. Someone told me today."
"Tell me your name."
"Esme," she says.
"Esme," he breathes, trying it out.
"Carlisle," she returns, sampling the name she intends to say every day for the rest of her life.
They stand for an age, just staring at each other in the middle of the deserted street. Finally he simply says, "Come," before he takes her hand and leads her the rest of the way down Rue de Beaune to the Quai.
The crowds are streaming past them, over the bridge to the Right Bank. From the passing chatter, they can gather that the American troops have entered the city from the north and are making their way toward the Arc de Triomphe. A spontaneous sort of parade seems to be underway, and all of Paris is packing in along the Champs Elysees to welcome the Americans. But Carlisle and Esme ignore it and let all the people pass them by.
By the time they reach the quai, it's nearly empty. The barricades are still there, looking out of place and forlorn with no fighters to man them. The ground is littered with debris: spent rifle casings, burnt paper, Nazi flags torn from the buildings and trampled underfoot. Carlisle and Esme pick their way around it to the edge of the quai, where Carlisle finds a cluster of folding chairs stolen from some nearby café. He lowers Esme into one and then wearily collapses into the other himself.
For a moment they just look at each other, sitting side by side, grasping hands. Then Esme lowers her head to his shoulder and lets herself, for the first time in over two years, rely on someone. Carlisle just holds her, and holds her together. There is still much to face. Injured men at home in need of Carlisle's medical care, Paris needing to be repaired and rebuilt, Esme's reputation to be re-established, and in the far-off future a year down the road, a trip to Nuremberg to testify against Hans Dekker for crimes against humanity. All of it looms in their future, but for a few minutes in the late afternoon sunlight, they just allow themselves to be, just two lovers sitting by the Seine, embracing. It's then, as the sun stretches long and flickers across the water, when Carlisle takes her face in his hands and for the very first time, but by no means the last, he finally kisses the woman he loves.