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Survival of the Soul

The trauma suffered by Bella for three years has left lasting mental scars. Surrounded by the support and love of the Cullen family, Bella begins to grow and finds out there is more to life than simply surviving. sots banner


8. Chapter 8

Rating 5/5   Word Count 5713   Review this Chapter

Survival of the Soul Chapter 8 By: Lady Saffir Story Rating: R/NC-17 Chapter Rating: R (DANGER WILL ROBINSON! DANGER! DANGER! Aka, dark themes ahead) DISCLAIMER: I own no rights to the wonderful Twilight universe; I’m just playing with the characters. Thanks to Megami76 for her wonderful input and prompt feedback. Thanks to everyone who has taken the time to review. You have no idea how excited I get when I get a notice someone has reviewed. For everyone wanting to know where I find the quotes I place at the beginning of each chapter, I use http://www.thinkexist.com They have a very nice feature where you can bookmark your favorite quotes for later use. I know several people were wanting to see how Edward reacted after his extended trip away from the house, and I hate to disappoint, but that doesn’t show up in this chapter. In the interest of not writing a story that would put ‘War and Peace’ to shame in length, I’ve had to omit some things. A timeline note. This chapter takes place roughly five weeks after Bella was rescued by the Cullens. And I do mean roughly. No one in the family will tell me exactly how long she’s been with them. I find it kind of rude, but what’s a girl to do? "Do you know the terror of he who falls asleep? To the very toes he is terrified, because the ground gives way under him, and the dream begins.” Neitzsche "Sleep is when all the unsorted stuff comes flying out as from a dustbin upset in a high wind” William Golding "Whatever your past has been, you have a spotless future" Anonymous ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ Two weeks had passed since Bella had first stepped foot outside. It had rained or drizzled almost constantly since that last sunny day she and Alice had sat outside working on homework, making Bella more aware of the fact she was trapped in the house. The weather had turned cooler, so even though she could sit out on the covered porch and listen to the gentle thrum of rain on the roof, the wind gusting along ruined this chance. Attempts to even sit on the porch wrapped in a quilt had been thwarted on a particularly gusty day, causing Bella’s lips to turn blue within minutes and causing Esme to fret that she would fall ill. Bella took one last longing glance outside before returning back to her work. Maybe her lessons wouldn’t be so bad if she could have sat outside with sunlight streaming down. Alice had just started teaching her geometry and she was having a bit of trouble with some of the theorems. Who cared about any of this stuff, anyway, Bella wondered, tempted to ditch the math homework in favor of studying her English. The beep of her phone, signaling a text, had her starting guiltily. She glumly read the message from Alice chastising her for giving up, sighing to herself before going back to stare at the problems before her. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Esme stared at the phone on the corner of her desk, knowing Alice would have seen her decision and would be calling. The phone had barely begun to vibrate before she snatched it up, flipping it open to answer. “Alice?” “She’ll be fine, Esme.” Esme sighed in relief. “Anything I need to watch out for?” “Not that I can see. Wait – don’t buy the green grapes, get the purple instead.” ~~~~~~~~~~~ Bella looked up from her lunch as Esme came in the kitchen, smiling at the older woman as she moved about the kitchen, opening cabinet doors and peering into the refrigerator critically. What was going on? “Bella, I need to run out to the store and I thought you’d like to come with me,” Esme said suddenly, turning to face her daughter. “Um…” “I checked with Alice, she said everything would be fine if you wanted to go,” Esme continued, moving to sit next to Bella. “I know you’re getting cabin fever, being stuck in here all the time. And if you go with me you can pick out what you would like to eat, instead of me guessing,” she sweetened the offer. “What do you say?” Esme was going to take her out with other humans? She wanted her to go? Thrilled and not a little terrified at the prospect, Bella took a moment to think things over. “What will you tell people about me?” Bella finally asked. “The truth,” Esme started, over-riding Bella’s gasp of fear. “That you’re my foster daughter and have only recently come to live with us. Anything else will be entirely up to you.” “Won’t people think it weird that you have so many kids?” the teenager blurted out, covering her mouth as if to keep more words from spilling out unheeded. Esme smiled, brushing an errant strand of hair behind Bella’s ear. “No. We’ve set up our story so that basically nothing we do is surprising. So, what do you say? Up for a little adventure?” Bella nodded. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Being a Tuesday in the middle of the day, the local Thriftway was hardly busy. This was both a blessing and a curse, in Bella’s eyes. Fewer people meant fewer stares, but it also meant she and Esme stood out more. The open produce section garnered them the most looks, as other customers could easily see who was accompanying Mrs. Cullen on her weekly trip. Bella stared down at a display of apples, blushing as she tried to ignore the interested looks the two older ladies a few feet away were giving her. Pick out some apples, she reminded herself. Esme wants you to pick out some fruit to eat. Blindly grabbing a few apples, Bella quickly returned to Esme’s side, hunching her shoulders against the attention. They continued through the store, Esme requiring Bella’s input on nearly every item she placed in the cart. The shopping trip took twice as long as it usually did, but by the end Bella had opened up a little and added things to the cart Esme never would have thought to buy, and declined other items. The real test, Esme knew, would be in the checkout line, when Bella would more than likely be forced to interact with the cashier. Of the two cashiers currently working, Esme opted for Julie, the older woman, knowing she wasn’t as big a gossip as Cathy. That didn’t stop the other woman from coming over to help bag groceries though, her questions sounding innocent even though Esme knew her words would be repeated to others as soon as she and Bella were out the door. “Who’s your guest, Mrs. Cullen?” “This is Bella. Carlisle and I are in the process of adopting her,” Esme explained, ignoring the speculative gleam that entered the other woman’s eyes. “Welcome to Forks, dear,” Julie interrupted, smiling at Bella. She was a good looking girl, Julie thought, though she seemed afraid of every little shadow. There was a story, she guessed, but held her tongue, respecting the child’s privacy. “Thank you,” Bella softly replied, looking up only briefly to meet Julie’s eyes. “How old are you, Bella?” Cathy asked, loading the bags of groceries into the cart. “Sixteen.” “My oldest is sixteen, Erica Langley. She’s got a couple of classes with your youngest boy, Edward. Always saying how intelligent he is – good looking, too,” Cathy added, winking at Esme and missing Bella’s wince. “It’s going to be a lucky girl that finally catches his eye.” “Mm. I’m in no rush for that,” Esme laughed. “He can stay a boy as long as he wants. Thank you, Julie. I’ll see you next week,” she continued, taking hold of the cart and exiting the store, Bella trailing in her wake. ~~~~~~~~~~~ Bella settled into the passenger seat of the convertible, a shudder ripping through her body as she exhaled heavily. She had done it. She had gone out and interacted with other humans, humans that lived ordinary lives and thought nothing of discussing the mundane over a bag of potatoes. “Not too bad, was it?” Esme asked sympathetically, gently patting Bella’s knee. “No.” Alice would be making plans for numerous trips now, Esme knew, choosing not to say anything to Bella. Let her enjoy this small accomplishment before moving on to the next. ~~~~~~~~~~~ Bella was helping Esme unpack the groceries and store them in the cabinets when everyone else came home from school, Emmett’s loud voice challenging Jasper to a wrestling match preceding them into the house. “Hey, squirt. How’s it going?” Emmett interrupted himself, elbowing Jasper aside as his brother mocked him. “You, I’ll get later,” he promised before turning back. “What are those?” he asked, pulling the box of Poptarts from Bella’s hands. “Emmett, manners,” Esme scolded. “They’re Poptarts,” Bella said. “But what ARE they?” “Um…breakfast.” “Seriously? Are they good?” Emmett wondered, turning the box over in his hands to study the nutritional information. “She wouldn’t get them if she thought they were disgusting,” Edward replied, snatching the box from his brother’s hands and returning it to Bella. Rosalie chose that moment to enter the house. She raised one eyebrow at Bella as she watched the human flush and look away, fumbling with the box in her hands. “All human food is disgusting,” she contributed, sweeping through the room without another look. Bella wished she knew why Rosalie hated her. She had kept her mouth shut whenever the blonde was in the room, careful to not pay any extra attention to Emmett at the same time. She hoped the gorgeous vampire knew that she understood Emmett was her mate and she expected nothing from him. She did understand, didn’t she? Perhaps Rosalie wanted her to verbally acknowledge this fact? Esme pulled Bella from her thoughts with talk of what to make for dinner. ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Bella settled into bed, content with her day. She had finished her homework correctly, had understood the next math lesson (she thought) and had gotten out of the house. She had even participated in the conversation at the dinner table, Jasper and Edward joining the usual group of her, Esme, Carlisle and Alice. Not quite willing to admit she was happy, Bella settled into bed, pulling the quilt around her snugly before quickly falling asleep. *********** The rest of the Cullen family was assembled downstairs, following various pursuits. It was common knowledge that Bella tended to have nightmares following any progress, so the entire family was hyper aware of her slumber as they waited for the calm to shatter. ~~~~~~~~~~ The slide from dream to nightmare came suddenly; Bella’s breathing hitching even as she cried out. Jasper couldn’t help the gasp that escaped him as his sister’s fear spiked through him, slamming into his chest with the force of a battering ram. He was helpless against the sudden onslaught of emotion, falling to the floor, only half aware of the voices around him. “Jasper!” “What’s wrong?” “Is it Bella?” “Alice-“ The babble of voices surrounding Jasper blurred, his breath coming in sharp pants, matching those of the human’s two stories above him. Dear god, how did she deal with this? He wanted it out of him, now. Fear, loathing, anger, worthlessness, despair…all swirled through him, a miasma of emotion that clouded his other senses. Out, out, he had to stop this! He didn’t even think as he pushed the emotions out of him and into his surroundings, gratefully pulling in deep breathes of air as he fought for calm. The tide of emotions continued to batter at his mind, making him grit his teeth in concentration. He would not let them rule him again, he swore, letting his head fall back against the floor. The labored breathing of someone close drew his attention, jerking him out of his stupor. Clumsily rolling on to his side, Jasper was horrified at the scene before him. His family was sprawled in various states about the living room, their features etched with horror. ‘No, no,’ his mind chanted. Focusing himself, Jasper grounded himself in Alice’s features, her body lying at an awkward angle next to his. He couldn’t let her continue to suffer. Slowly, piece by piece, he spread calm through the room, gritting his teeth as Bella’s nightmare continued above him. They needed to get her out of the dream world, now. Alice was the first to recover, propping herself against the couch as she regulated her breathing. Next was Esme and Carlisle, clutching at each other as they sat up, looking at each other with horror filled eyes before bolting up the stairs. Bella’s cries were coming more frequently, gaining in pitch and intensity, one word repeated over and over. “No. No, no, no, no….” The remainder of the Cullen family recovered at the same time, all eyes focused on the ceiling as the listened to Esme frantically try to wake Bella. “That’s what she’s feeling?” Edward croaked, his voice hoarse as if he had been the one screaming. “How is she sane?” Emmett wondered, seconded by Jasper. These emotions were nothing new to Rosalie. She kept her silence, staring upwards and wishing she could will away the memories they provoked. ~~~~~~~~~~~~~~ “Bella? Bella! Bella, wake up, please,” Esme begged, flying to her daughter’s bedside, Carlisle at her side. “Bella, you need to wake up! Carlisle, what do we do?” she fretted, continuing to pat the pale hand in her grasp. “I don’t know. “ Carlisle ran a frustrated hand through his hair, moving to the other side of the bed. “No, please. No, I-“Bella sobbed, thrashing on the bed, unaware of her surroundings. “Please wake up, sweetheart, please. Please, Bella,” Esme continued, holding Bella’s hands down as they clawed at the air. “No…don’t….NOOOOO!” ~~~~~~~~~~~~ Carlisle was seriously considering dumping ice water on Bella to wake her up when she sat up suddenly, her entire body shuddering as she screamed out one final no. His wife moved even as Bella was sitting up, positioning herself to catch their daughter in her arms, wrapping her up in a fierce hug. As was his custom, he moved to sit behind Esme, offering comfort to Bella while giving her a buffer. The couple offered calm, soothing words while Bella worked to regain her control. ************* All of the good feelings were gone. Every single positive thing that Bella had experienced was wiped out, replaced with the reminder of what she had been. How had she ever thought that she deserved happiness? The Cullens had been too kind to take her in. She had wasted their time and their money and they needed to understand why they should kick her out and never have anything to do with her ever again. Why would such beautiful, perfect creatures want her around? The feelings of worthlessness continued to course through her body, her breathing uneven, tears falling unabated down her face. She didn’t want to give up this life. She owed it to Esme and Carlisle though to explain to them who exactly they had taken in to their house. Esme’s soothing words were no balm tonight. “Shhh, Bella, it’s alright. Everything is okay. You’re safe, I promise.” “No,” Bella croaked, attempting to pull away from Esme’s embrace. The cold arms around her refused to relinquish her though, so she settled for talking into the older woman’s shoulder, grateful she wouldn’t have to see the look that was sure to come into Esme’s eyes when she understood exactly what she was holding. “I’m a bad person,” Bella continued, ignoring Esme’s attempt to shush her. “It’s all my fault. I could have stopped it at any time, could have ended it, but I didn’t. So it’s my fault,” she sobbed, breathe catching in her chest. “Bella, what happened isn’t your fault,” Carlisle began, taken aback by the ferocious gleam in Bella’s eyes as she turned to face him. “Yes, it is!” she insisted, the words pouring out. “Every time he gave me the option to end it but I didn’t take it. Every time I was punished it was because I didn’t perform well enough. I’m slow, I’m stupid, I’m a klutz. The only thing I’m good for is my blood and you don’t even want that. Why did you save me?” The near hysterical note of the last words had Esme flinching, even as she tried to console Bella. “You aren’t slow or stupid, Bella,” Esme murmured, rocking the child in her arms. “And I don’t care if you aren’t as graceful as some. You’re Bella and you’re my daughter and that’s all that matters.” Carlisle was more concerned about other parts of Bella’s statement. “Bella, what did you mean, ‘he gave you the option to end it’?” he questioned. It took a few hiccupping breaths before the teenager could respond, her eyes still averted. “He…every time, before he…”Bella tried to spit the word out but was unable, carrying on with her confession. “Before he did…it, he would give me a gun, tell me if I…if I really didn’t want it, then I’d kill myself. And if I didn’t kill myself I couldn’t say I was unwilling,” she whispered, certain now that Esme would withdrawal her arms in disgust. “Oh, sweetheart. Oh, Bella,” Esme sighed, tightening her hold. “Of course you were unwilling, even with the terms he gave you. No one can think otherwise. It wasn’t your fault, do you understand me?” Her tone was fierce now, pulling back to look Bella in the eyes. “Nothing that happened to you was your fault. He was a monster that took advantage of you and abused you.” The sincerity in her tone made Bella want to believe, but… “But I couldn’t do anything right,” she continued. “I couldn’t please other people so I was punished. There has to be something wrong with me if I can’t do it right, isn’t there?” “Bella, I want to make sure we understand you perfectly,” Carlisle began. “By pleasing other people, you mean having intercourse?” A nod was his only answer. The room was silent for a moment before Carlisle began to speak in a low voice. “Bella, there is nothing wrong with you. The vampire that held you was a sadistic brute and nothing you could have done would have pleased him. He enjoyed your pain and suffering and did everything he could to increase that. It isn’t that you did anything wrong or that you wouldn’t be able to please a partner of your choice. What he did to you was rape and You. Are. Not. At. Fault.” The intensity of Carlisle’s voice, the sincerity in his tone was hard to doubt, and Bella found herself nodding even as a small voice at the back of her mind continued to question otherwise. Her tears continued, the shoulder of Esme’s blouse soaked from the onslaught. She didn’t notice the cold emanating from the arms holding her any longer, only able to feel the comfort they instilled. There was something Bella had said that was bothering Esme, her mind turning the words over and picking at them. Unable to keep her silence any longer, she spoke, her voice soft in her daughter’s ear. “Sweetheart, you were so strong to resist the way out he gave you.” Bella was still against her for a moment, her breath ragged from crying. She finally spoke, her words almost lost in their softness. “He promised if I killed myself he’d just find another human to take my place,” she started, wiping angrily at the tears that fell down her cheeks. “I was already in hell. I didn’t see why I should make another innocent person suffer just because I didn’t want to anymore.” With those words she fell apart, her mind unable to deal with the images such talk provoked. She let the soothing murmur of Esme and Carlisle’s voices offer her comfort, her exhaust allowing the darkness of sleep to overcome her eventually, even as she continued to cry silently in her slumber. *************** The living room was silent, five faces turned upwards as they listened to the horrors that poured forth from Bella’s mouth, listened to her recounting the constant misery and terror she had lived for years. “I can’t bear this,” Jasper suddenly declared, bolting out the door, Alice following quickly behind. His departure pulled the others from their stillness, Emmett and Rosalie choosing to follow suit and head outdoors, leaving only Edward behind. He could hear Esme crying on the inside, her wish to erase every bad memory Bella had ever had strong, her anger that such men existed in the world reminding her of her human marriage. She cringed away from those thoughts even as she leaned into Carlisle, accepting the wordless comfort he offered. Carlisle’s thoughts were, for him, oddly jumbled, jumping from idea to idea and not allowing any one real topic to settle. He was thinking of the amount of courage Bella must have to live with them, the pain he knew Esme was remembering, the desire to shield the two women in his arms from further pain, with the knowledge that wasn’t possible. Edward pulled back, blocking his parents’ thoughts from his own as he stared out the night blacked window. Creatures like the ones that had kept Bella hostage were exactly the sort he had hunted when he had drunk human blood. There was no one to punish now, no one to take his anger and frustration out on. The crack of the sofa’s arm under his tense hand pulled Edward back. He pinched the bridge of his nose tightly, inhaling slow and steadily, concentrating on the ever present aroma of Bella’s blood. She was here now and safe, he reminded himself. His anger would serve no purpose but to drive her away. He had to remain calm, remain pleasant. Take Emmett’s lead and show her that not all men were out for one thing only. The thought of following Emmett’s actions on anything had Edward snorting, pulling him to his feet as he wandered to his piano. Seating himself, he allowed his fingers to run through the familiar scales, the arpeggios soothing in their mindlessness. Once more picking up Esme’s distress, Edward allowed his fingers to pick out the tune of her song, hoping his mother would hear and understand he was trying to comfort her. There was a faint hint of a new tune on the edge of his consciousness though, teasing him as it flirted around, elusive to his grasp. He could hear small snippets of the song, his hands automatically following the sound, a growl escaping even as the song escaped him. *********** Esme and Carlisle settled into stillness, their bodies held slightly away from the slumbering human, trying to keep their cold from permeating her warm nest of blankets. Bella was deeply asleep, her tears dried into silver tracks down her face, the grief etching deep lines around her eyes and mouth. One hand was folded against her chest. The other clutched at Esme’s waist, gathering fabric from her blouse and Carlisle’s shirt into a tight fist that never slacked through the night. “I should talk with her in the morning,” Esme murmured, continuing to stroke Bella’s hair. “Perhaps it would help her to know my story, to see that things can change for the better.” “I think that would help,” Carlisle agreed, planting a kiss on his wife’s shoulder. “What do we do now, Carlisle?” Esme sighed. A frown marred the blonde vampire’s face. “I’m not sure. I think I might need to speak with one of the social workers or perhaps the hospital psychologist, get their take on how we should proceed.” “Should we have Bella meet with a psychologist?” Carlisle hesitated. “I’m not sure. The point is for the patient to feel comfortable enough to open up and speak with another person. I don’t know how effective counseling would be if she was trying to keep the fact that her abuser was a vampire a secret.” “How did she live through three years of that?” Esme wondered, softly stroking one hand down Bella’s hair. “She’s a child. And yet, she refused the escape offered her to keep another human from suffering. How many times did she have to resist the temptation?” The feel of her husband’s arms tightening around Esme provided little comfort. Her daughter had faced too many hard choices and fights in her short life. And yet… “She still had the courage to not only be alone with two male vampires but to talk with one of them, question why he had cared for her comfort,” Esme murmured. Carlisle brushed a strand of hair away from Bella’s face. “That’s how I know she’ll be okay. She’s a fighter and a survivor.” ************* Rosalie stared at the clock. It was four in the morning, almost time for Carlisle to leave for the hospital. He was still upstairs though, he and Esme trapped as effectively by one tiny human hand then anything that could ever hope to hold a vampire captive. They would want to be there when Bella woke, to help her begin to work through everything that had transpired last night. The beautiful blonde vampire tried once more to examine life from Bella’s perspective. What had happened to her during her human life had been enough to leave lasting mental scars that had taken years to heal. But to be raped time and time again, to suffer not only physically but emotionally and mentally for years on end? Try as she might, Rosalie couldn’t see how anyone could survive such conditions. And now that Bella’s past was truly out in the open, what did it bode for the family, for her and Esme especially? They had both suffered at the hands of men, could sympathize with Bella and offer words of comfort. But to speak the words aloud, to watch the human’s face as she processed everything she was being told… No, she couldn’t do it, at least not anytime soon. If Bella was to truly become family then she would find out, but for now Rosalie would keep her past a secret and let the human see only the façade she presented to the world. She could help Carlisle and Esme deal with Bella though, she reasoned, taking her own phone from her pocket as she went upstairs. They would be better at offering the words needed. ********** Carlisle frowned, staring at the bedside clock. If he was going to call in to work he had to do it soon. His phone, however, was in his right front pocket and he was lying on that side, his right arm trapped underneath Esme and Bella’s combined weight. His left was folded up onto Esme’s arm to keep from pinning Bella to the bed. He could have still easily reached the phone with his left hand if it wasn’t for the hold Bella had on his shirt, her fingers bunching the cotton into a wrinkled mess. He would rather chew his own arm off at that moment than break her grip. The sound of footsteps and the door opening came as no surprise. Carlisle fully expected either Alice or Edward to appear with their own phone, one having seen his decision, the other having heard it. The sight of Rosalie standing in the doorway, phone held out even as she kept her eyes firmly on the headboard, refusing to meet his gaze, was amazing. “Here,” she offered, striding over quickly to the bed and dropping the phone onto the bed. “You can use my phone to call in to work.” She was gone as quickly as she appeared, the door closing with a whisper of sound. Carlisle saw his surprise mirrored in his wife’s eyes. What had brought this on? Setting aside his daughter’s curious behavior for a later date, Carlisle made the necessary calls to clear out his day’s schedule. ***************** Bella woke slowly, the intensity of her emotions during the night leaving her feeling drained and empty. Her head felt as if it were stuffed with wool, her sinuses still swollen and painful. Sniffing a few times to attempt to clear her nasal passages, she became aware immediately of the smell she associated with Esme. Her eyes fluttered open, not yet believing that the other woman had spent the night. Usually she would leave after Bella fell back asleep and the two would start the day anew, no word of the previous night spoken. The deep purple of Esme’s blouse was loud before Bella’s eyes. She had stayed then, but why… Everything came flooding back with vivid perfection. Her, sobbing onto Esme’s shoulder, admitting to everything that had happened to her. Esme, her cool arms as comforting as the words she had spoken. Carlisle, his presence quiet but welcome. Her right hand automatically flexed, the differing textures of silk and cotton confusing for a moment before she remembered that Carlisle had been wearing a simple cotton button down shirt. He had stayed as well? But why? “Bella, are you awake?” Esme’s soft whisper jolted Bella from her musings. She looked up into Esme’s kind eyes, partially expecting to see revulsion but finding only warmth and love. “You stayed,” was all she could think to say. “Of course we stayed, darling,” Esme replied, tightening her hold slightly. “You needed us; what else could we have done?” “But,” Bella floundered, her gaze darting back and forth between Esme and Carlisle. The lightness of the room and Carlisle’s presence distracted her from her train of thought. “What time is it?” She asked instead, gasping when Esme replied. “Eleven-thirty in the morning.” “But you have to work! You’re supposed to be at the hospital!” Bella stared at Carlisle in consternation. “It was more important I be here in case you needed anything,” Carlisle refuted. “I had to make sure you were okay.” “But,” “Nothing is more important than family,” Bella was gently reminded, the smile and sincerity in his eyes bringing tears to her own. The mention of family reminded Bella of the five other vampires that lived in the house. “They heard, didn’t they?” she moaned, struggling to free herself from her blanket cocoon. “What do they think of me?” she asked herself, cringing as she pictured how the others would look at her. They had been so good to her, so kind. And now they knew her secret. The odd thought of how Edward would look at her with disgust flashed through Bella’s mind, causing her to flinch away from the image. “They think that you are a strong, brave woman to endure so much,” Esme stated, sitting up and cupping Bella’s face in her hands. “They have nothing but respect for you and want to do whatever needs done to help you heal from your past.” “None of us have pleasant pasts, Bella,” Carlisle stated, seating himself so he and his wife flanked their daughter on her bed. “We all understand some of the pain you’ve experienced. No one in this house will look down at you for what you did to survive.” Esme pulled in a deep breath, recognizing the perfect opening for her story. “Bella, I understand better than you imagine what you endured,” she began, and launched into her tale. ************ Alice’s eyes refocused on her surroundings as the noise from the cafeteria once more filled her ears. “Esme’s telling Bella about her past,” she breathed, accepting the comfort that the gentle touch of Jasper’s hand on her own could bring. “They’ll make it through the rest of the day just fine.” The tension surrounding the Cullen/Hale table relaxed; the others discussing upcoming sunny days and trips planned during the summer months. Alice caught and held Edward’s gaze though, the two of them staring at each other intently, Edward growing frustrated at his sister’s shake of the head. 'You can’t tell her yet, Edward' Alice insisted. 'She doesn’t know you well enough to appreciate what you want to say to her. You need to get to know her better first.' The almost imperceptible tightening at the corner of her brother’s mouth was as obvious to Alice as if Edward had sighed loudly. 'Go home and play the piano for her' Alice encouraged. 'There’s your hint for how to start a conversation with her.' Edward held back another sigh at Alice’s cryptic advice. ******************* Bella dressed slowly, still thinking of everything Esme had told her. It was hard to believe that Esme had tolerated anyone acting in such a manner towards her. It didn’t seem at all like the Esme she knew. There was no reason for her to lie about her past, though. It was something that could easily be discovered if Bella said anything to the others – not that she would. There were some things that didn’t need to be discussed anymore than necessary. Esme’s parting words before she and Carlisle headed downstairs had stuck with Bella, repeating in her head on a continuous loop. ‘I’m not expecting you to handle things exactly like I did, Bella. I just want you to know that I understand that it will take time before you regain confidence in yourself and that we’re here for you.’