Bella shivered. Like most days in Forks it was heavily overcast, and even as the light of the sun was beaten back by obscuring clouds so it's warmth was lost in their ephemeral cushion. The wind was mild as it wound its way across the porch, but without rays of sun as a counterpoint the air it blew was all ready unseasonably cool and the gusts bit at her. It was her own fault, really. Too many of her clothes had been bought in Phoenix, and more to the point for Phoenix. It was foolish, probably, to continue to wear them here. They seemed right for the time of year, but this was Forks. By now she knew what that meant for the weather.

She told herself that she had been dressing to entice Edward. But she knew it was a lie. Knew to the very core of her being that he was all ready more enthralled than she could even wrap her mind around, knew that of all the things about her which drew his fascination and devotion, no outfit would ever come close to making the list. But the fact was, she wanted to think about clothing because it provided the perfect excuse to ignore what was really raising goose bumps on her arms. It wasn't her outfit. It wasn't the weather. It wasn't Edward's arms around her, so filled with love but cold as stone. It was the words.

"You have to," she said simply. "Don't you understand that you are everything to me? I have tried being normal. I spent the better part of two decades being normal—or sub-normal. As hard as it may be for you to accept, it really doesn't have much to recommend it. I want you. I want to be with you. I don't want to grow old and die and fall away from your presence. I don't want my age to stretch us farther and farther apart as I grow wrinkles and you grow not at all. You have to make me like you are."

"No," he said simply. "I can't. You know I can't."

"Because you fear for my soul? That's ludicrous."

"It isn't ludicrous. I have no soul, lost it a century back when the curse of my vampirism washed over me. I will not curse you. I will not curse the one I love."

"Are you saying Carlisle cursed you?"

Edward blanched at the suggestion. "Carlisle had no choice."

"You have a soul." Bella was adamant. "I have seen it. I feel it. I know it like a piece of myself. I mean… aren't souls where we love? You love me. How can you love me if your soul isn't there to do the loving?"

"I love you," he answered simply. "That is why I have to keep you safe. Why do you not understand? Why do you never listen?"

Bella bit her lip. Her emotions were rising and she needed a moment to bring them in line—maybe touch a damp cloth to her face. A moment to think, to seek calm. "I'm going to the restroom," she announced. "I'll be right back." Bella stepped into the house, leaving Edward alone on the porch, sullen and contemplative.

It was a luxury of life with Carlisle's crew that peril was more at bay than for most. You didn't have to be on constant alert to preserve your existence. The inevitable downside of this, of course, was that one actually did become less alert, more lax. Edward's superhuman senses were no short of what they should be. If he listened he could hear, could scent, nearly any who approached.

Of course, Alice was exceptional. She moved like a dancer, graceful, her feet falling lightly on the ground, confounding even the ears of the most trained predator. What hindered her ability to sneak up on Edward was his mind. The presence of others, the thoughts circling in their heads, telegraphed their identity, their position, certainly the fact of their existence. In theory, sneaking up on Edward should have been impossible, and when he paid attention it was.

Edward was not paying attention. Bella's words ran through his mind, consumed his consciousness. He was thoroughly distracted and so he started at Alice's presence when she plopped down beside him on the bench and pulled him into a tight and friendly hug. For a moment, Edward stiffened, his inner-predator activated, the impulse to defend himself rising to the fore before his conscious mind could take in the situation, acknowledge the lack of danger and calm his instincts.

Alice giggled musically by his ear. "You, dear brother, are an idiot." The clear affection in her voice made it a term of endearment more than an insult.

Edward shook his head. "I won't do that to her," he whispered. "You know I won't. You know my reasons."

Alice tried to suppress a smile. "Well, that I choose to neither confirm nor deny. But it's not what I'm talking about anyway."

"What then?"

Alice tilted her head. "You know, you spend an awful lot of time telling Bella how clever she is. You'd think when she shares an idea you would at least give it a cursory glance."

Edward's shoulders twitched in the barest hint of a shrug. He had complimented her intellect, complimented it frequently. Surely, he respected it? He always tried to be honest, so long as the necessities of supernatural existence didn't make it impossible. Was he fooling himself? Did he believe Bella's intellect as exceptional as he claimed? Did he find her reaching conclusions and forming intuitions more easily or adroitly than those around her? Or did she just seem more clever because he didn't see the thought processes leading to her conclusions? Was there a false sense of smartness in not seeing the process? Was it like the proverbial importance, if one is to appreciate hot dogs, of not seeing how they are made? Edward shrugged off the thought. "I respect her mind," he said, his voice solid with certainty, betraying not a hint of the doubt he felt.

Alice smiled disarmingly. "Which misses the point. Bella believes you have a soul. And so do you."

"I don't."

Her sigh was less annoyed than amused. "You know, you are going to have this discussion. Argument is perhaps too strong a word. And you are going to lose. You will be persuaded. You know I know this, a moment is all it would take for you to scan my thoughts, verify if you didn't trust me, which you do. It really would be a lot simpler if you just took my word for it instead of going through all the motions of actually having it out."

Now Edward smiled. "I am pretty sure that it doesn't work that way. You can't persuade someone by telling them they have been persuaded. Anyway, since when are you the family theologian. Since when do you take any interest in things like souls? Do the greater questions even interest you?"

"Perhaps we don't agree on which questions are truly great. You're right, I have never shared your and Carlisle's interest in piecing out the nature of eternity and the face of God and how many angels can dance on the head of a needle. You know what I'm interested in? I'm interested in helping Jasper make a transition that isn't easy for him. I'm interested in keeping our family safe, and yes I do consider Bella part of our family. And I'm interested in your happiness. You can feel free to focus on obscure religious conundrums. I'm going to focus on the welfare of others and the needs of my family. And if I think my concerns are more pressing, I think God might just back me up on that." As she continued her smile never faltered, but a hint of ice entered Alice's gaze and her voice acquired a touch of steel. "And Edward, I still don't know where I came from. I don't know what happened before I joined our world, how I joined our world. I don't know what I may have experienced so horrible that I won't even let myself remember it. Don't tell me I don't care about the truly great questions."

If blood still ran through Edward's veins he would have blushed. "I'm sorry."

Alice smiled, lightly patting his leg. "Don't worry about it."

"All right," Edward agreed sheepshly. "Persuade me."

Alice rose, danced back just a step. Her laughter rang like crystal. "I'm not going to persuade you of anything."

"But you just said…" Edward replied in confusion.

"I said you would be persuaded, not that I would persuade," she said with a playful gleam in her eye. "You're about to walk into the house. You could ask me why, but is it really worth the effort? It will happen anyway." And with that, she skipped away.

Edward shook his head. He had no reason to go inside and Bella would be back momentarily, expecting to find him here.

"Edward?" came Esme's voice from within, "Can you come here a minute?"

Edward rolled his eyes. He didn't mind Alice being right. But sometimes the way she went about it was just… He shrugged, shook his head and joined Esme inside their abode.

Esme smiled quietly from one end of the couch, nodding to the other. Quietly, Edward was seated. "Eavesdropping?" he asked with a smile.

She considered. "You wouldn't call it eavesdropping if a conversation is held right in front of you. And with the range of our hearing it comes essentially to the same thing."

"Splitting hairs."

"I'm worried about you," she said simply.

Edward nodded. "You're the one that's set to convince me that I have a soul," observed Edward. "I really didn't think that was the kind of thing that concerned you."

"It's not," she answered simply. "But it concerns you. And if you are concerned… that's what concerns me."

"It's sweet," Edward said, "but I'm fine."

Esme smiled and nodded, the movement in direct counterpoint to her words. "You aren't. It bothers you. This whole issue of souls is important to you—so important that the issue is causing friction with the one you love."

"If you really love someone then their well being matters more than what they say they want," Edward asserted.

"Of course it does," Esme answered calmly. "For example, right now you don't really want to be having this conversation. But if you really love someone their well being matters more than that. Edward, you have spent so long hearing thoughts. You are so used to being able to see what rests behind the things people say, to be able to cut quickly through confusion. I think perhaps you may be a little rusty at reading the subtleties the rest of us have to learn to pick up on. You need to listen, Edward."

"I listen," he insisted.

Her response came so gently it almost wasn't there. "Listening generally isn't done with the mouth open." She smiled sadly. "Yes, I wasn't just hearing. I listened. Perhaps I shouldn't have. Perhaps that was an invasion and if so I am sorry. But Edward, Bella seems awfully certain that you have a soul. Rather than just skipping past that to carry on an argument, maybe it's worth taking a moment to consider."

The pause was but momentary but it felt like an eternity. Did she expect him to reply? Or would that constitute exactly the kind of 'not listening' she was talking about?

"Carlisle and I have discussed this at great length. I've known for decades…"

"Then maybe it's time to take a fresh look. And Edward dear, I do love Carlisle. He is everything I could ever hope for in a friend, in a spouse, in a human being." She paused, considering whether to qualify her use of the term 'human' but deciding against it. "But for all his numerous qualities, he is not perfect. But that's not really the point either. Edward, having a soul matters to you, matters so very much. If it didn't you wouldn't be so tortured by the idea of Bella losing hers. Anything which is that important it is probably worth asking… what exactly do you think a soul is?"

Edward considered. "Well, it's the spiritual part of ourselves. It is our connection to God. It is the thing that makes us human. The home of our compassion, our higher selves. When we strive to be better people—it is a striving of the soul."

Esme nodded thoughtfully. "And why is that important?"

Edward's eyebrow raised. "You don't think that's important?"

"I think it's extremely important. I think the reason that you think it's important is also important."

Edward took a moment to wrap his mind around that. "It's who we are. If we don't care about what happens to anyone else, if our existence is nothing more than the search for a next meal then what is the point? Without a soul, our lives have no meaning."

"And the soul is what gives our lives meaning then? The soul is what makes the compassion and self-sacrifice and sanctity possible?"

Edward nodded, realizing exactly where this was going.

"Sweet Edward, I've watched you for decades. You have always been such a sweet soul… or is that the wrong word? But you have always been compassionate and giving, always cared for the sanctity of spiritual things, always been a kind and loving person. If that is what the soul is, if you cannot have these things without a soul then you demonstrably do have a soul."

"Well," Edward backtracked, "It's all very hard to define. I mean, maybe that's all part of the mind and the soul is something else entirely."

Esme smiled kindly. "But Edward, you value your soul precisely because it is all those things. If it isn't, then it isn't the thing you value."

Edward's brow furrowed. "So you're saying that I'm investing words with meaning and then letting that investment outlive its usefulness?"

Esme didn't bat an eyelid. "I'm saying don't over think things. You are a good person. And whether you call it a heart or soul or mind or conscience or faith, it doesn't make you any less good. Relax."

Edward relaxed a little. "I will… I'll think about it." He allowed himself a mischievous grin. "Alice was wrong though. She said you'd convince me. I'm going to give it some thought, but I'm not absolutely convinced."

Esme clicked her tongue. "Dear Edward, not listening again. She didn't say I'd convince you. She said you would be convinced. She didn't say when or how." And with that, she smiled and walked out, waving to Bella on her way, narrowly evading even the hint of Bechdel compliance.

"Are we moving inside?" Bella asked.

Edward gave a noncommittal shrug. But his welcoming arms were far more committal. She stepped into his embrace, rested her cheek against his cold, chiseled chest. "I love you Edward," she whispered simply.

"I love you too, Bella," Edward replied. "I love you with all my soul."