This one shot was posted to The Canon Tour (linked on my profile) pre-Twilight round. I didn't win but I did enjoy writing this story and would like to thank everyone that wrote, read, reviewed and voted in the contest. Many thanks to JHorizon77 for betaing this piece and my other entry, Threads.
Abide With Me
I never thought I would see Hell.
There was no small amount of arrogance in that belief. As a human, I stuck rigorously to the word of God, devoted to living a good Christian life. It was what was expected of John Cullen's son, but my belief went deeper than familial duty and indoctrination. With the pious life I led and a fullness of love for Christ in my heart, I believed the only possible reward for me after death was Heaven.
Then, when immortality found me and I was through testing its limits, I realised that while Heaven was closed to me, so were the fires below. Over the years I surmised that if I were the best creature I could be, then one day I might still be granted acceptance to His light if my existence were ever extinguished.
Because of this, I never expected to find myself surrounded by fire and despair, exposed to the worst sufferings possible and unimaginable terror. And yet somehow, that was where I had ended up.
It wasn't really Hell, though. This was London, the city of my birth. It was so different to when I left it last, just a few years after my change, but underneath was the same – a tableau of the immortal and the modern – torn apart by bombs.
The fire was new. The sirens were new. The siege we were under, the Blitzkrieg, was a horrifying new way for humanity to inflict death onto itself.
"How could you think this is a good idea?" Rosalie had berated, when I announced to my family I was going back to London. Sometimes I wondered if my daughter was still harbouring some newborn irrationality; her temper was so quick to flare. Maybe the rage would never leave her. "Are you crazy?"
I'd told them I was going back as the first bombs fell on London, the night I knew I had to return. At the time we were living in Michigan, and I had a comfortable job as attending physician in a suburban hospital.
"I can't stand by and watch this, Rosalie." My words were intended for all of my immortal family – my mate Esme, Rosalie's mate Emmett, and my oldest child, Edward. "Innocents are dying and if I can save lives, I should be there."
I knew Edward disapproved of the idea too, though he was saying little – it was his silence and slight frown that told me so. Emmett was taking Rosalie's side, as he always would, and Esme was worried for me.
"If innocents are dying, they certainly don't need us around! All those open wounds are going to drive us to distraction," Rosalie said, her words quiet but her anger fierce.
"I'm not asking you to come with me. You're free to join me if you want to, or remain here, but I have to go."
"So you're just going to leave us?"
"It's not forever. You have to understand that London is a part of me. If Chicago or Rochester were under attack like this, you would do what you could to help. More than that, I'm a doctor. I should go where I can make the greatest difference, and that isn't here. I'm not getting involved with the war directly, nor am I asking you to."
This was the crux of why Edward had little to say about the idea. Once, he'd been so enthusiastic about joining the fight for his country. America wasn't involved in the war before we left for England, but he'd put off by the memories of trenches and bombardment that he'd seen in the heads of veterans of the last war. Those memories had stripped him of any lingering naivety that war was a noble thing.
"I must save the lives that I can," I continued. "It's the only offering I can make to the city I was born in."
"But what about the danger?" Rosalie asked. "You know fire is the only thing that can really destroy us. If you get blown apart and burned into ash, you'll be as dead as any human."
"I've got more chance of escaping than they have – speed and hearing count for much in situations like these. I'll get myself out of harm's way when I need to. I'm not a fool, Rose, nor do I intend to take unnecessary risks. But there are humans willing to put their lives on the line every night to make sure that others live, and they don't have the advantages that I do. The danger to me is less important the difference I can make in the emergency wards."
So it was that I found myself in one of those wards, not in the dead of night as bombs rained on the city, but in the colder light of the morning after. The girl whose bedside I was at now had hair the same shade as Rosalie's had been when I found her, before the transformation process has bleached it to a finer spun gold. Ruby Harris hadn't opened her eyes since she'd been brought to the hospital overnight and none of us expected her to ever open them again. Her trauma was internal, so she just looked like she was sleeping, but I could hear her sluggish heartbeat and laboured breathing; she wasn't long for this world.
The girl was older than she looked – people had a tendency to look younger when surrounded by white hospital linens. She was the last surviving member of her family, and that survival would be short-lived. The neighbour that had travelled with her in the ambulance – elderly Mrs Lewis – had filled in the blanks on this anonymous girl. She was a talented violinist with a head for languages. Her parents had scrimped their entire lives so she could have the schooling she deserved, but it had all ended with the bomb that obliterated their house.
"Never was the prettiest of girls, but she don't half look young now," Mrs Lewis had said before she left, after we told her the girl wasn't going to live. She'd have stayed by the girl's side until the end, but she had her own orphaned grandson to look after and clean-up to begin.
I disagreed with her assessment of Ruby. She was no great beauty like Rosalie, but there was so much latent grace in the girl, so much potential in her. How much more beautiful could she be? How could I let such talent be lost to the world?
She wasn't a child anymore. Children were out of bounds; I'd witnessed the execution of those who'd transgressed the law many times in Volterra, or heard their death ordered. Children weren't meant to become like us, no matter how much it broke my heart to let them slip away. All I could do was pray for their souls.
This girl, though – she wasn't a child. She was sixteen, and living in the world she did she wouldn't be a young sixteen. She carried none of the risks that creating an immortal child, impulsive and uncontrollable, did.
It was the resemblance to Rosalie, however superficial, that gave me pause. My daughter had never seen this life as anything less than a curse. She'd told me more than once that she would rather be dead, and if it weren't for Emmett she probably would have found a way by now, even if she had to stand in the path of a German bomb.
The loud laughter of some of the nurses distracted me from my musing, alerting to me to how far the day had progressed. I had somewhere to be; I'd been at the hospital for fourteen hours already, staying lost past the shift change. As I left Ruby's room, I asked the Matron to keep a special eye on her, leaving the nurses to flirt coyly with the handsome American captain.
Only Esme had travelled with me to England, to a house we'd bought far out of the reach of the bombing raids. Each evening I travelled into the city on a bicycle, leaving Esme safely behind, far from the lure of the copious blood spilled. The nights I wasn't scheduled to work at King's College Hospital – and the nights they refused me to allow me to work, bidding me to rest despite how undermanned they were – I instead spent in the air raid shelters and makeshift surgeries, helping where I could. My services were always needed.
People often talked after the war of the Dunkirk spirit, of the indomitable attitude of the Londoners in the face of the Nazi deluge. It was true they got on with life in their own understated way, a collective stubbornness keeping them going in the face of continual death and destruction. But the nights in the underground tunnels, waiting for the sirens to announce the all clear – or a SC 2500 to fall on their hiding place – were full of panic and cloying fear. There is nothing like hundreds of people crammed into too small a space; the air is thin and tainted with the sweat of fright. No matter how many nights they faced the barrage, that fear did not lessen, because any night could be the one that lost them everything. Their homes, their friends, their loved ones, their own lives, could all be gone by morning.
There is nothing reserved or quiet in the grief of a mother who has just discovered the body of her children in the rubble of her house.
The city still had so many young people despite the evacuation – not as many as would be usual for a city of this size, but plenty nonetheless. Some had returned to their mothers after homesickness had made evacuation unbearable; some had never left. There was nothing more disturbing than trying to revive the anonymous body of a boy who hadn't lived ten years, his face obstructed by the gas mask designed to save his life. Even now, the sight of a gas mask causes a reaction in me I can't quite explain – part sorrow, part revulsion.
Esme and I didn't know how long we'd be apart from our own 'children,' who had all opted to stay in the US. The last war on this scale was supposed to be over in weeks and had dragged on for years. Given the events so far, I couldn't see an end in sight – this was going to be a long, bloody fight, and the world might not emerge intact. Already, Aro had written to me expressing his concern, letting me know he had agents working on all sides to bring the war to an end, one way or another. He didn't like the chaos in Europe, but his ability to manipulate leaders as stubborn as Hitler, Churchill and Stalin were limited. Money wouldn't grease the way.
I didn't get to spend as much time as I liked with Esme, but we'd agreed that every day we would spend at least an hour together, meeting in Ruskin Park. Thanks to London's regularly grey skies and the proliferation of smoke after each raid, there was little to stop us being out in the open during daylight. I had the energy to go on for years like this, tending to the victims of the blitz, but emotionally I had been plundered. I needed the comfort only she could provide, understanding my sorrow without me needing to put it into words.
Given the chance, I think, she would have filled the house with evacuated and displaced children, but we were too close to the danger zone. Instead she filled her days and nights with assisting the Women's Voluntary Service and wardens, caring for those who didn't need medical attention but did need a kind soul to rebuild their lives.
Esme was in fine spirits – and fine form, too. She played up the role of the glamorous American, though it amused her that people thought of her that way. At heart, she was a simple country girl, but her accent marked her out as exotic, and people wanted to spend time with her as a distraction from the humdrum and the terror in their lives.
"I've had fun today," she told me as I approached her, where she was sat on a bench. "Mrs Brown had some scandalous gossip about the woman who runs one of the canteens, and I got rid of the most recent rations."
We received ration cards just like everyone else, which we of course didn't need, so Esme either gave them away to the people she met at the canteens, or bought food and distributed that out. Most people probably suspected she was getting hold of extra rations on the black market but as she was sharing the wealth, no one would ever complain or report their suspicions.
"I've had a busy night," was all I said, and those were all the words I needed. She didn't ask me if I was okay. She just took my hands in hers, and we sat together quietly. Both then and now, being with Esme seems to erase my worries and allows me to relax. I don't know how she does it.
When she knew I was in a better frame of mind, she started talking again.
"Did you hear that story that's been going around? Apparently, a man dressed as a Roman centurion was seen pulling a large box from a burning warehouse. Edith Nelson swears her nephew saw it with his own eyes."
I chuckled. "The smoke and stress will do strange things to a man's perception."
"I do like your accent now. They should get you on stage reciting Shakespeare."
I laughed again and silenced her with a kiss. I'd spent years speaking with an American accent, modelling mine on her own most recently, but since I'd come home I was definitely an Englishman again. It made me trustworthy among colleagues and patients alike, and made me stand out less.
We parted so Esme could return to a shelter she was volunteering in, and I had an afternoon free to think. Was my contemplation of changing Ruby Harris into a vampire something I should really be pursuing?
Sometimes the prayers I offered up for the lost children didn't seem enough; what I was doing didn't seem enough to stem the tide of constant death. On the days it began to feel overwhelming I sought out comfort away from Esme, in the houses of God. At dawn, when they were at their quietest, they were a true place of peace. It was already afternoon, but there was somewhere I wanted to see for myself – somewhere I had been avoiding returning to since we had arrived in London.
I didn't even know it existed anymore. It had been a primitive building in my youth and the city had changed so much since then. North of the river had been razed in the Great Fire not long after my transformation, and then the Industrial Revolution had prompted it to be reborn from its medieval roots. The streets I walked were not those I'd known in my human life, though many of the names were the same. The buildings here were Georgian and Victorian, with little remaining of the simpler structures of my early life.
One comfort to all this change was the hovel I had spent my first hours as a vampire, crouching in a reeking cellar, had long been cleared away. That was one memory I had no intention of revisiting, though it did trigger another, darker recollection – the death of my maker.
It was Aro who recognised him, having found his face in my memories. I'd never come across the vampire who had bitten me and initiated me to this life, never finding one hint of his continued existence in London while I remained here, though I hadn't specifically sought him out either. Despite this, when Aro heard of a spate of deaths along the Thames, he sent the Volturi guard to retrieve the perpetrator, under the auspices of the attention being attracted by the killings. Normally the vampire in question would have been dispatched in situ, but on this occasion he was brought to Volterra under Jane's cruelty and Felix's strength. When Aro was satisfied he was the man who had changed me, he had him torn apart.
I wasn't specifically summoned to witness this execution, but I happened to be in the throne room at the time, as Aro intended. To this day, I believe that Aro thought he was righting a wrong for me, though I had never asked or wished for it. Instead, I mourned the death of my maker, never having a chance to learn his name or history.
It was that incident, and the death of a young boy on a whim of Jane's a week later, that finally made me leave Volterra and head for the New World.
When I reached my destination – St. Alfrege's church, Greenwich – I thought at first I was mistaken. It, too, had changed so much; the grand building here nothing like the squat structure I had spent my formative years in. This church was handsome and young (by London's standards, at least). There was no trace of the building the Reverend John Cullen had preached in.
But even this church had been gutted, its elegant white tower and fascia hiding the damage within. It was another victim of the Blitz, the interior a ruin of shattered stone.
I clambered through rubble until I reached the altar. People had already removed what needed to be kept sacred, so the nave was empty, as empty as the window frames. Dust and ash coated the skeletons of the pews, and fire had left scorch marks up the stone pillars. The building had survived better than many others – it would be possible to repair and rebuild what was left standing, if anything at all was left of this city when the Blitzkrieg had finally come to an end.
I knelt on the rubble and shrapnel cluttering the aisle, facing the altar's vacant home, my hands clasped together and head bent. I prayed for an hour or more, not asking for an answer to my dilemma but instead hoping for the safe passage of the souls of everyone who had died the night before, and that Ruby would find the fate that she needed to. I prayed until much of the smoke had blown away and the air outside had cleared to a steel blue. When I returned to the street outside, life was continuing as normal.
I left with a heavy heart, as I had for every holy building that had been destroyed by the bombs, but with no especial sense of loss. The church in my memories had been gone for almost as long as I had been alive.
Rosalie had more than once accused me of playing God with lives – of choosing to save only a few of them and make them immortal. Was that any better than Aro and Caius, and their liking of choosing when and where vampires would die? But if I had the means to save lives, should I not use it? Had I been made this way to ensure that any potential could be kept in the world?
Try as I might, I couldn't save everyone in London. The German bombers were too efficient and, as Rosalie had pointed out, were capable of rendering so much into little more than ash.
I wasn't due at the hospital for hours yet, but I still returned there. My dilemma was not yet resolved, but I had a need to be close to Ruby in any case. I wouldn't want her passing alone, as she was.
Her bed was empty, the linens clean and crisp, precisely tucked in around the mattress.
"You're early, Dr. Cullen," greeted the Matron, who was piling the old linens into a cart. "It's been a quiet day today, considering last night."
"The girl that was in this room..."
"She's gone, poor thing. About an hour ago."
I sighed. "She was alone, then?"
"Oh no, the old woman – the one with the sticky beak – came back. Said she didn't like the thought of leaving her alone. I think the child would have preferred some quiet, myself – my word, that woman went on."
I was too late. My hours away had meant the decision was made for me.
"Thank you, Matron. Has she been taken to the mortuary, then?"
We heard nothing more from Mrs Lewis, so I arranged a Christian burial for Ruby and her family. There was barely anyone left to attend the funeral, given the devastation wrought on their street by the incendiary bomb. Just Mrs Lewis and her grandson, and a few other neighbours, along with Esme and myself, singing 'Abide With Me' in a draughty chapel.
Such a waste. I had an overwhelming memory of her long, slender fingers, calloused on the fingertips from violin practice. How much had been lost to this war – how many musicians, artists, pets and actors? How many brothers and sisters, potential parents and lovers? How many would survive from Ruby's generation, and how many would be lost before their lives could begin?
Perhaps my role wasn't to create eternal life. Maybe God's plan was for me to keep doing what I'd been doing for decades: preserving human life as best as I could, so the best that humanity was capable of wasn't lost because of the actions of the worst. Changing Ruby would have meant I was focused on her, helping her through her newborn stage, for the next year at least, keeping me away from those who needed my urgent help in the hospital. Maybe my prayer had been answered after all, and I needed to listen to the answer carefully.
It would be a long time, if ever, before I brought someone into this life again.
Bonus points if you spotted the Doctor Who references ;).