Fifteen years later
"Miles Anthony Masen! Please, for the love of God, leave your sister alone!" My exasperation can be heard clear across the yard as my not so little children do their best to annoy each other. Miles is relentless with his teasing Elizabeth about her adorable crush on Benjamin. They've all been friends since their early days, but as they get older, I can see them beginning to pair off; the boys sticking together more now that the girls don't look so much like little girls anymore. I watch Isla grab Elizabeth's hand, pulling her away from the confrontation as the kicks low in my belly demand my attention.
"Are you anxious to go and cause trouble too?" I ask the squirming lump under my shirt. With my thirty-fifth birthday coming this fall, I thought our baby making days were drawing to a close, but low and behold, what I thought were the early stages of menopause was actually another blessing for our family.
After Elizabeth was born thirteen years ago, we decided to wait to have more children. We were lucky enough not to have any surprises. But, after we decided to try one more time, years passed, and...nothing. I was worried that we wouldn't be having any more. After so long of not getting pregnant, and my cycle being so sporadic, we didn't actively do anything to prevent it, thinking nature was deciding for us. But, when I woke up two years ago vomiting when no one else had been sick, I knew something was off.
Edward was ecstatic, but I was terrified. It had been so long since I'd had Elizabeth, that in some ways it felt as if we were starting all over. But, thankfully, little Jackson Charles' delivery went smoothly, and our bouncing baby boy was born with no complications. Thinking we were lucky to conceive him, this pregnancy came as a complete surprise.
Turning, I walk back inside, I'm intent on folding the rest of the laundry since it's my only day off from the clinic this week. With Esme getting older, and so many grandchildren to enjoy, she's taken a step back from her nursing duties, leaving myself and Lauren to take up the slack. She's come a long way from the starry-eyed girl she was so many years ago; now a wife and mother herself.
Earlier, Miles and Benny being chased by Elizabeth, Isla, and Emily sent chaos running through the house, waking Jack from his afternoon nap, and disturbed the piles I had neatly stacked on the table; the table that now resides in my newly expanded dining room.
When the children started getting older, needing more space and privacy, we were allowed to add on to our cabin. The two extra spaces for Miles and Elizabeth's rooms may be small, but the difference it's made to our living space has been amazing. Let's just say the teenage years are proving to be...demanding. Jackson still sleeps in our room, but soon, Miles will be moving his things into the loft, and Jack will take his room. It's a challenge to raise a large family in a small space, but we're making it work.
The heavy footsteps on the front porch get my attention, as my handsome husband walks through the door, a large crate in his hands, and a smile on his face. He looks tired, but happy, having just returned from a three-day trip to help unload the train bringing supplies to the depot to the north.
"Hello, beautiful," he says as he walks in, kissing me as he passes.
"Hello to you too, handsome. How did it go?"
He stops to kiss Jack on the top of his head, getting a smile in return, and an excited, "Da da!"
"Hey, buddy. Were you a good boy for Mommy while I was gone?"
"Uh huh," he says with a smile, nodding his head, seemingly proud of himself.
"That's good." Turning back to me, he finally gets around to answering my question. "Things were good. We didn't have any surprises, so that's always a positive thing. Where do you want this?" he asks, seeing the folded clothes on the table.
"Um, on the workbench?"
Setting it down, he begins to go through the things he's brought home. I see him remove what looks like some of our normal rations from the market, along with a few things I don't recognize as our usual fare. Peaches, two large grapefruits, and two papayas come out of the box, making my eyes go wide.
"Was today's shipment from the Florida settlement?" I ask excitedly.
When James mentioned reviving the railways all those years ago, we all hoped that it would help in the efforts to liberate all those in the eastern settlements under the control of power-hungry madmen. It took years to accomplish, and many lives were lost, but eventually, it happened. Each and every organized settlement is now under the control of its residents. Many of the smaller, individual groups are out there, but they seem to be self-sufficient. There haven't been any conflicts in years.
"It did. And somehow, it arrived just an hour before the train from the south."
My eyes nearly bug out of my head, spying the bunch of bananas he pulls from the crate. Just after our settlement was attacked, we learned that our Mexican neighbors made contact with the one in Texas. They began trading, and once the railroads were operational and open to moving goods, that trade was expanded to everyone.
"Oh, did any avocados come this time? Those were so good!" I must look and sound like an excited little girl because Edward just laughs at me.
"No, baby. I don't think they're in season yet. Hopefully in a few months." He leans over to kiss me on the forehead as I inch closer trying to get a peek at what else he's hiding.
"But I won't be craving them in a few months," I say with a pathetic pout.
"Well, if it makes you feel any better, there was something special from Florida this time," he says, putting a small sack of oranges on the table.
"Oh, wow! Thank you!" I say excitedly, grabbing it from him. "How many did you get me?" I ask, digging through the sack.
"Well, there's enough for everyone in the settlement to have one, but this batch was sent specifically to you from Victoria. I think there's a letter in there, too."
Counting the oranges, it looks as though there must be more than a dozen here. Her letter is nestled between the pieces of fruit, and I grab it to see what she has to say about their new home. They settled in Florida about three years ago, and the constant sunshine seems to make her happy. Grabbing an orange and her letter, I head back outside and settle into the swing that Edward added to the porch several years ago.
I hope my letter finds you well, and that you're taking care of yourself and the newest little Masen you're growing! With your last letter, you said you were still being plagued with morning sickness. Hopefully, things are calming down where that is concerned. You also mentioned the navel oranges that came from our neck of the woods with the last shipment were something you loved and craved after they all ran out, so I hope you enjoy the Valencia oranges I sent this time. Though, they might be better suited for juicing.
So, I hope you get along with the men and women who came along with our shipment this time around. A few are coming to help with the new building projects, but there's also a pair coming primarily to help in the clinic. When word got back to us that Carlisle was hoping to scale back his hours, and possibly retire in the next few years, two of the trainees here jumped at the chance to come there.
Dawson and Anna both have a lot of experience, but we've got too many cooks in the kitchen, so to speak. The settlement here has grown so quickly, we seem to have gained twice as many trained medical professionals as we need. Now, they're young and don't have an 'old world' education, but they've trained alongside our best doctors and nurses and know their way around herbal and osteopathic medicine. Oh, and Anna specializes in midwifery, so that should serve you well. They're both down to earth and work well with others. I hope they'll be a good addition to the clinic. But, by the way you tell it, maybe hospital is a better way to describe it. I was so excited to hear about the expansion and new wing!
James and I have sad, but exciting news of our own. We've been caring for a pair of little girls... sisters, Rachel and Rebecca, whose mother, Sarah, passed away last month. They're pretty sure it was cancer. Anyway, their dad died when they were tiny, so it was just the three of them until she got sick. I was involved in treating her, and we grew pretty close over the months. Since she didn't have any other family, she asked if the girls could stay with us until she got better, and of course, we couldn't say no. Then, when we realized she wasn't going to improve, she insisted we keep them.
Bella, they're amazing. They're six and nine, and just perfect. It's like they were meant for us. Sarah was such an amazing woman to trust us with her girls, and I feel so blessed. After all this time, I finally got my babies.
We had hoped to come that way for a visit soon, with the railways being open for travel now, but I think it may be a while before they're ready to go that far from home. I'm hoping they'll continue to adjust. They've done so well already, I just don't want to do anything to stop their progress.
Take care of yourself, and enjoy the last few months of pregnancy. I'll try to write again soon, and I'll be waiting to hear about how you and yours are doing.
"Well, what's new in Florida, except for the orange harvest?" Edward asks, settling in next to me on the swing, Jack on his lap, his arm resting behind me, fingers playing with the ends of my hair.
"They've got two little girls living with them. Their mom died last month, and she wanted James and Victoria to raise them."
"Yeah, I know. So many years they wanted a family, and now they've got one." Leaning into Edward's side, I watch our own children playing in the yard, joined by neighboring friends and cousins, and smile. I know that James and Victoria will give them the home they need. They may have been seen as odd when they lived here, because of their reasons for being sent; to gather information. But after getting to know them, I know Rachel and Rebecca will be so loved.
"So, how are you feeling today? Are the kids giving you trouble?"
"Nah, I'm good. They've been testing my patience, especially Miles. I can't wait until they start school next month." Another bonus of the open railways has been the influx of new teachers that have been sent our way. We even had one arrive a few years back that began teaching the older children college level lessons; something I missed out on in my younger years.
Our daughter catches my attention, giving her big brother a confused look as he sweet talks Tia. "I'm just waiting until Elizabeth figures out he has a crush on little Tia Cheney, then the tables will be turned," I say with a little giggle.
"Oh man, no. I'm not ready for that, Bella," he groans.
"Well, he is fifteen. He's every bit as handsome as his father, so it's only a matter of time before we're knee deep in girls and heartbreak." I can't stop the giggles from bubbling out of me, seeing his expression.
"Yeah, well, you're the nurse, so I'm leaving the birds and the bees talk up to you."
"Oh, no you don't, Mr. Masen. I don't mind talking to him, but you're going to be in on it. But," I say with a sigh, "I think we might have a little time yet."
We're quiet, enjoying the uncharacteristic warmth of the late spring day. I look over at Edward, seeing the man he's grown into, he's every bit as beautiful as the day we met. Other than the slight graying at his temples, and the laugh lines around his eyes, he still takes my breath away.
"What?" he asks, catching me staring.
"Nothing," I say, shaking my head, embarrassed at being caught. Quickly needing to change the subject, I ask about Miles being assigned to a job this coming summer.
"Well, that's something I wanted to talk to you about. I was asked to go on a coastal pick up later this summer, and I thought it would be good to bring him with me. It should be soon after the baby is born, so I need you to tell me if it's okay."
Every other month or so, a group travels by train to the coast, picking up supplies brought over on large ships from places beyond the Pacific Ocean, and loading our own goods to send back. Restoring trade has been such a help, as other nations, while affected by the original outbreak of the virus, seemed to better deal with the resulting fallout. Many of their governments and economic systems suffered like ours did, but they were quicker to recover.
Our neighbors to the north were hesitant to make contact for many years. Apparently, the Canadians were afraid that our government, being largely responsible for the original outbreak, was still in control. With no communications, they had no way to know that things had collapsed so quickly. We're all still cautious, but so far trading has benefitted us all.
"That should be fine. I'll just make sure I've got some extra help with this little guy," I say as I tickle Jack's tummy, making him giggle. "And Elizabeth will be a big help this time, too. She was helpful with him, and that was two years ago."
"I just hate leaving you for that long. The last time it was close to two weeks."
"I know, but it would be good for the two of you to spend that time together. Maybe it'll give him a better idea of what it's like to be a defender; help him decide if he wants to do that or work in the fields."
While the idea of my son training to fight and use weapons scares me, I know it's more of a precaution than anything. It's been over a decade since there was even a threat of danger here.
"There's something else we need to talk about."
"Well, your dad has been talking a lot lately about retiring, spending more time with your mom and the grandkids, or at least handing over the reins to someone else, and uh, he said that I was his first choice to replace him."
"Oh." I'm quiet, thinking of all the sacrifices we'd have to make as a family since so much of Edward's time would be needed to take on that new responsibility.
"I told him that I'd have to discuss it with you first. And it would have to go to a vote anyway. I'm not sure if there is anyone else who wants the job, but it would be open to any of the defenders." He's quiet, letting me think, not pushing me for an answer I don't yet have. "I know it would be a lot to ask of you, so I won't do it unless you're okay with it."
"Jasper and Emmett don't want the job?"
"They haven't said much. I think they both know how much Charlie wants me, so they've both been pretty quiet. Besides, I'm not sure Jasper has the time," he says with a chuckle.
Jasper and Alice have been very...prolific in growing their family. After Isla was born, seven more Whitlock children made an appearance over the years. You'd think that such a tiny woman would have a difficult time with childbirth, but not Alice; she's able to pop them out in a matter of hours, hardly breaking a sweat. And it's a good thing, too, because she's expecting baby number nine any day. The additions on their own home saw their cabin grow not only out, but up; a second full story added after their twins arrived, babies number five and six.
Emmett and Rose never were able to have any biological children, but their daughter, Emily, is such a beautiful, mild-mannered young lady. Emmett was always a jokester, a prankster, but with having that little girl to raise, we've seen a completely new side to him over the last fifteen years. And Rose has blossomed in the role of motherhood. Her brash, no-nonsense side has softened, though she is the disciplinarian in their house.
"I know it's something you would be good at, and we need someone capable to fill my dad's shoes," I say with a small smile in his direction. "Yes, it would be a lot, so maybe we can think it over for a few days?"
"Of course. He's thinking that maybe late this fall he'll be ready to put it to a vote, so we've got time."
When Jack starts squirming on Edward's lap, he helps him down, and our little man starts pulling on Edward's hand, wanting to go play with the big kids.
"All right, little man. Let Daddy give Mommy one more kiss. I haven't seen her in three whole days." Turning his head to look at me, I see a playful look in his eyes. "And he really missed her." Bending down, he brings his free hand to my face, pushing a stray lock of my hair from my eyes and behind my ear. Bringing his lips to mine, his kiss is soft, sweet, and full of the promise of things to come. Pulling back, he places one more lingering kiss to my forehead. "Tonight," he whispers.
"I'm gonna hold you to that," I say softly, feeling the heat rise in my cheeks.
"Good." Standing, he helps our son one step at a time off the porch, slowly, carefully. When they finally reach the ground safely, he looks back up at me, a smile on his face. "I love you."
"Love you, too." Satisfied with my response, he leads Jack to where the other children are playing a game of tag. Watching him run and play with them, trying to include a two-year-old in the games teenagers play, it strikes me that this life I have, while it may not always be perfect, it's ours. It was a hard-won fight, but we were able to keep the lives and home we built. We're growing and expanding, achieving more every day, and I hope that my children have even more opportunities than we've had. But, what I wish for them, above all else, is the same unending happiness we have.
We're stronger because of what we've been through, so, our happiness has been earned. We literally rose out of the ashes of disaster, twice, and we're stronger because of it. We really were, forged by fire.
A/N: Wow! I can't believe this is really over! I'm sending a big thank you to each and every one of you for your unending support of my first fic! It's been an amazing experience. Just yesterday I found out that Forged By Fire made the FicDive of the Year top 10 list! I'm honored that it made the list, and shared it with so many amazing stories and talented ladies! Unbelievable!
I'd like to thank all of my girls for their input, suggestions, and endless encouragement.
Gabby1017... Your positivity is simply unmatched in this fandom, and without your gentle nudging, I would never have posted this.
Life and Death's Lullabies... While you found your way to me a bit later, your enthusiasm is infectious, and your support and friendship means the world to me!
SarcasticBimbo... What can I say? You rock! Your rec was one of my first, and it means so very much to me! The late night chat sessions helped me work out a few foggy details, and you helped make this story that much better.
2brown-eyes... Lovely in its simplicity, your making my very first banner was so very special, and I appreciate your help.
SunflowerFran... What can I say? I'm your troubled child... The one that never listens... But, please know that your help and guidance means the world to me. I'm so lucky to have you as my beta, but blessed to call you a friend.
I'm off for a bit to soak up some rays on the beach in a few days, so I'm not sure when I'll be able to respond to reviews, but I will as soon as I can. With the school year beginning just days after we return, things will be a bit crazy here for a while, so my next story will begin posting just a little later than I had originally planned. But it should begin posting on 8/22. Check out my FB group page, Sunshine Fics for exclusive teasers and snippets of coming projects.
Huge hugs and heartfelt thanks to all of you for making this story and the experience so great!