The kitchens were located in the main building, as it happened. Alice and Rosalie led the way, cutting across the edge of the green and around houses with a practiced air. Alice chattered incessantly, bombarding me with question after question. Rosalie chipped in occasionally, but mainly she shot me sympathetic looks. Which was funny, in a way, because I wasn't that bothered by the interrogation. I personally felt it paled in comparison to the freaking corpse that had been waiting to greet me when I walked into my room.
Neither of them brought that up, not even once. It was forgotten. Like it was normal, like it didn't even matter. Could it be normal? Could it be a regular thing? Oh God, it had better not be a regular thing. I had to sleep in that room. That was my bedroom. If anyone had ever bothered compile a list of 'Things no-one should have to sleep in the same room as', I imagine corpse would get a spot in the top ten. Okay. Okay. Deep breaths. People had quirks. This was Rosalie's. She liked to lug dead people around. That was fine, I could deal with that. At least she wasn't a slob. Although, as the dry part of my brain pointed out, I'd rather sleep in a messy room than one that doubled up as a morgue.
I came to a decision. I was not going to think about it. That would be my plan. Besides, someone said Esme had cookies. Everything, I reassured myself, will look brighter once you have a cookie in your hand.
"Emmett!" Alice called out suddenly, her voice rising in excitement. A mammoth, muscle-bound boy paused by one of the stone benches in the open courtyard and turned to look at us.
"Hey, Alice!" He replied enthusiastically, striding towards us. An easy grin dimpled his handsome face, and thick, boyish brown curls were cut close to his head. He had a healthy tan and warm, wide brown eyes. "How've you been, Shorty?"
"Never better." She grinned up at him. Their height difference was comical. "My mother dragged me round Japan and South Korea all summer and I was bored as hell. But I'm glad to be back."
"Me too." He agreed. "Though I can't say I enjoyed such exotic travels as you. I mainly stayed in Dublin, with a few weeks in London in July and August. But I made a lot of progress with my work."
"Did you." Rosalie observed flatly. Though the sentence was structured like a question, her tone was robotically neutral. Emmett looked over at her.
"I did actually, Rosalie." He sounded frostily polite, a marked contrast to his earlier warmth.
"I suppose we covered all that 'Welcome back' and 'How nice to see you' earlier." She said dismissively. He made a show of looking thoughtful.
"Well, I wouldn't call it that." He responded. "As I recall, you accused me of spying on you and threw a tray of Petri dishes at my head." Rosalie looked incensed.
"You were spying!" She snarled at him. I leaned back a little, feeling slightly intimidated.
"I was trying to say hello." He sounded pissed off now too. "But I apologise. I should've known better than to provoke the paranoid pyscho."
"Nice alliteration." Sneered Rosalie. He raised an eyebrow.
"Very good, Rosie! That word has five whole syllables!"
"Pass on that." He told her. "I wouldn't want to catch anything."
"That's rich." She snapped. Just when I thought I was going to pass out again, this time from sheer awkwardness, Alice intervened, pushing me forward.
"This is Isabella Swan." She announced to Emmett. "She's new."
"Hey," He smiled, demeanour flipping like a light switch from aggressive to friendly. "Emmett McCarty, at your service."
"Nice to meet you." I answered quietly. Normally, I would've considered it odd for him and Rosalie to argue like that in front of a person they didn't know. But since this morning, my boundaries for odd had been rapidly redrawn.
"Isabella's my room-mate." Said Rosalie waspishly.
"Hard luck." Emmett said to me, not taking his eyes off Rosalie. There was a tense moment, where they stared at each other and I stared at my feet. Alice broke it by grabbing my wrist and continuing with the walk to the kitchens.
Emmett and Rosalie caught up after a moment. "Where are we headed?" He asked.
"Kitchens," Alice informed him. "Esme's making cookies."
"Brilliant." He enthused. Rosalie frowned.
"You weren't invited."
"It was rude of you to forget. I think I'll come anyway, though." He said cheerily. "So, Isabella - "
I looked over at the sound of my name.
"Do you have a nickname? Issy? Bella? Belle?" He suggested. Alice glanced over curiously, and Rosalie was interested enough to not deride his question.
I shrugged. "No. Just Isabella. I like my name, I've never wanted to change it."
"I go by Rose." Rosalie offered. "With my friends." She emphasised, shooting a hard look at Emmett.
"I go by Mr. Fantastic." He said seriously. Alice sniggered.
"No-one calls him that." She assured me. He mock-sighed.
"Of course it's never going to catch on if you keep sabotaging me like that, Alice."
Rose grinned evilly. "I call him Mr. - "
"G-rated, Rose!" Alice interrupted loudly. "And here are the kitchens." She added, with a flourish at set of swinging doors. Emmett held one open as Alice and I walked through, then let it swing closed precisely in time to hit Rose in the face.
"Mature." She said, once she'd stormed in after us.
"I think humour is a more important quality." He answered.
The kitchen walls were covered with frescoes, depicting scenes from what I assumed was either Roman or Greek mythology. High marble countertops framed the room, punctuated by huge stone ovens. Overhanging cupboards jutted from the walls above the counters and wooden tables formed straight, military lines from the doors to the narrow windows of the far wall. The room was large enough for nearly forty people to cook in comfortable space, but aside from we four new entrants, there were only two people in the kitchens. One was a graceful girl in the grey Mactyra uniform, with dark caramel-gold hair waving gently down her back. She was carefully lifting a laden tray from an oven. The other girl sat perched on the table beside her. She was unusual, in that she was the first other person I'd seen today not wearing uniform. I wondered briefly if she was also new. She was very pretty, as beautiful as Rosalie albeit in a different way. Her features were clearly Native American and her black hair was cut short, almost shaved, with long bangs sweeping over her face. She wore denim jeans and a low-cut pink tank top with a pair of blue Vans on her feet. A swirling tribal tattoo graced her upper arm.
"Esme!" Alice called. The graceful girl looked up, setting her tray down and smiling broadly.
"Hey, everyone." She greeted, surveying the group with a friendly, open smile. This girl seemed nice. And the cookies smelled divine. "Oh, hey Emmett! I haven't talked to you yet."
"It's great to see you." He said. "It's even better to see your cookies. What did you make?"
"All chocolate chip." She answered, grinning. "And my summer was great, thanks for asking."
"Sorry." He repented. "How was your summer?"
"Nothing to report." She turned to me, still wearing a sparkling smile. "I'm Esme Platt, Alice's room-mate, since no-one seems to want to introduce us."
"Isabella Swan." I reciprocated. Esme was classically beautiful, with thick curls and big, dark eyes like a Thirties film star.
"So, the cookies." Emmett hinted. He and Alice were regarding the baking tray with odd expressions on their faces. Somewhere between the awe of a mother seeing her newborn child, and the hunger of a malnourished hyena coming across a dead antelope.
"Alright, dig in, scavengers." Esme permitted.
Alice and Emmett joyfully did so, but Rose was looking at the other girl with narrowed eyes.
"Leah." She noted. I supposed that meant she wasn't new. "I wasn't expecting to see you here."
"Well. I ran into Esme in the hallway, and thought I'd lend a hand with the baking." Leah said, her tone as cool as Rosalie's.
"You don't look like you were doing much."
Leah just quirked an eyebrow, turning on me. "I don't know you."
Something in her question was challenging, derisive and it put my back up instantly. My tone was taut and bitingly sharp. "I'm new."
"She's my room-mate." Rosalie said. She sounded harsh as I did, and almost protective. It felt, oddly, like she was backing me up.
Leah raised both her eyebrows now. "And that gives her automatic membership of your little group?" She sounded mocking. If there was a group, I would've bet borrowed money Leah wasn't in it.
"Not at all." Alice said. I was surprised to hear the icy note in her voice. Apparently, dislike of Leah was a common sentiment. I'd picked up on the trend pretty fast. "Isabella's in the group because she's good."
Leah's mouth thinned. Whatever Alice meant by that, it clearly offended her. "Well, whatever. Emmett," she said, raising her voice. He, I noticed, had stopped wolfing cookies to watch the conflict.
"Leah?" He asked. He was more frigidly polite than when he'd first spoken to Rosalie. Did anyone like Leah? Well, maybe Esme.
"I was wondering, how's your room-mate?" There was something in her tone that made me almost shudder. A sort of slimy covetousness.
"He hasn't arrived yet, as far as I know." Emmett answered coolly.
"Actually, he just got in." Alice corrected through a mouthful of chocolate chip. "About ten minutes ago."
I wondered how she knew that. Alice had been with me for the past half-hour. I didn't say anything, though. Everyone else seemed to accept her information at face value, even Leah.
"And how's Tanya?" Leah pressed. "Are they still together?"
"As far as I know." He repeated. Alice had a slightly pained expression on her face. She said nothing for half a minute, and then:
"They broke up just before he left Chicago." She rushed out, words tripping over each other in their race to be spoken. Rose cut her an admonishing look. Leah, by contrast, raised a speculative eyebrow.
"So he's single?" She mused.
"You're not." Rose snapped. She seemed to have something personal against Leah, more than a general dislike.
Leah half-shrugged. "Yeah, but Sam's very understanding."
Slut, I thought spitefully. If I were Rose, I probably would have said it. I liked her, but she and her inner bitch seemed to have a very good working relationship. I glanced over at my room-mate. Her eyes were narrowed contemplatively, apparently working up to an extremely scathing insult. Esme beat her to the chase.
"Well, it's all a bit of a moot point. I doubt Edward would be interested." Her tone was so relentlessly pleasant, it took me a minute to work out she'd said something cutting. My mouth fell open in surprise. I didn't disagree - in fact, if Alice or Rose had said it, I might have even applauded. But snark didn't really fit with my first impression of Esme. From the four astonished looks on the faces around me, I was correct in thinking the comment was out of character. Esme gave a self-deprecating little shrug.
"Well," Leah said, recovering. "I'm gonna go."
"See you around." Esme called sweetly after her.
"Huh." Rose said, after the doors swung shut. "Are you sure nothing remarkable happened this summer?"
Esme shook her head, glossy curls tumbling. "Like what?" She sounded like she was waiting for the punch-line.
"Like maybe a personality transplant?" Emmett cut in. Rose glared.
"That's not even funny, McCarty. It's ridiculously overused."
"Therein lies its charm, Hale. It's a familiar joke. It's an old favourite."
She snorted, rolling her eyes. "Uh-huh. A personality transplant isn't even possible. Call yourself a scientist."
"Well, only an imbecile would take the joke literally."
"Are you calling me - "
"Some things never change." Esme said fondly. Alice nodded, reaching for another cookie. I'd lost count of how many she'd had now.
"They're always like this?" I asked.
She grinned. "They're old rivals. Have a cookie, will you? I promise they're tasty."
"I believe you." I told her, taking one.
"So, tell me about yourself." She suggested. "Alice has been going on about you for at least two weeks, but I only know the bare bones. Born and raised in Forks, Washington, estranged parents, mother remarried and living in Jacksonville, Florida, attended ballet and piano lessons when you were young but gave both up before age eight, attended school in Forks and was an honours student, close friends Jessica Stanley and Angela Weber, ex-boyfriend Mike Newton, whom you dated for roughly eight months?"
I dropped my cookie somewhere around the bit about piano lessons. "Alice told you all that?"
"Yep." Alice chirped around a bite of cookie. For such a tiny girl, she really was cramming them in.
"How did you - she - know?" I demanded.
"Oh." Esme looked flustered for a second. "Alice just knows." She smiled encouragingly at me. "You know?"
Esme skimmed over my dumbfounded expression. "She also said you're a Vampire Diaries fan! Quickly, the million-dollar question - Stefan or Damon?"
"Why don't you ask Alice?"
"My mouf ith fulb." Alice explained.
"Oh." I thought for a second. "I'd say Damon, then."
Esme's grin was brilliant. "Isabella, I think this is the start of a beautiful friendship."