A/N: So, I started writing this a while back, hoping to have a cushion of chapters to entertain everyone while I navigated new motherhood. Of course, the plan was also to finish Bad Timing and Fighting Chance before my daughter was born.
Jaina Esme is here. She is made of everything awesome. Bad Timing and Fighting Chance are both ALMOST done, and I have a few chapters cushion of this new story and one other. So.. I'm going to beg your indulgence. I'm still writing all the things, but as most of you know, nothing is easy with a newborn. Hope you enjoy this new tale.
It had been a long time since Bella had set eyes on a human being she didn't have to distrust on sight. Perhaps ironically, this particular human being was also the most dangerous she'd seen in months.
Approaching carefully, one hand to the long bowie knife in a holster by her side, Bella popped a squat so most of her body would be hidden in the tall grass. She was a few feet in front of him now—her? She couldn't tell.
It was a child. A baby to be precise. She'd seen the miserable creature toddling a short distance, so it must have been around a year old but not much more than that. It was filthy—covered in mud, blood, and, if the smell she could pick up even from this short distance away was any indication, feces. Tear tracks cut through the mess that was his face. Of course. By Bella's estimation, the child could only have been alone for a day or so.
She wiped a hand over her face, considering.
Her main concern was avoiding the fate that had befallen the child's parents. The baby sat between the two bodies, both with their heads bashed in and, from what Bella could see, the source of the dried blood on the baby. It wasn't difficult to put together the pieces. Survivors came in two types—those who'd joined with others and those who hadn't. The loners were vulnerable to attack.
Bella had survived on her own these last two years largely by being as invisible as possible. Even as careful as she was, there'd been a few close calls. A baby—whose main method of communication would be the same shrieking cries that had drawn Bella's attention in the first place—would be as far from invisible as one could possibly get. His cries had likely drawn predators toward them. There were any number of reasons other wanderers and bands would have to attack anyone they could get their hands on. Resources, of course. Or perhaps they'd tried to take the woman. Women were a valuable commodity to some bands.
Or a source of entertainment. Release.
Regardless, now Bella had to decide how this baby's very presence affected her. He was quiet again—his cries reduced to pathetic whimpers and he lay with his head against his mother's leg. He had a filthy hand in his mouth.
Bella's heart twisted, and she closed her eyes. How far had her humanity fallen that she had yet to touch or even reveal herself to the baby? Survival was a hell of a thing. It was her will to survive that made her scared of the child. He'd gotten his parents killed, and Bella could only imagine how easy it would be to share their fate. Even now, being so close to him without knowing if his cries had drawn someone else's attention besides her own, was a risk. She knew the best option for her own survival was to walk away.
A rush of anger went through her. It was an act of ultimate cruelty for the people who killed its parents to leave such a helpless creature alive and alone. She couldn't do the same thing. This left her with two choices, both unimaginable. She could take the baby or she could put him out of his misery.
Bella gripped the handle of her knife convulsively. In the last two years, she had helped two people to death with this knife. But those had been acts of mercy. In both cases, their injuries put them beyond help. They were suffering—already dead but in agony in the meantime. This child was whole and healthy.
A low growl in the distance had her cocking her head. She grimaced. They were on the edge of what had been Yellowstone National Park at the moment—surrounded by wildlife. Yet another concern. It was only some miracle that the bodies hadn't been found by scavengers. It was likely the baby wouldn't have lasted more than an hour more if she hadn't come along.
Nature's way, she mused. And how fitting that they were in a national park—where the rules of nature had been followed as often as possible. It would have been the park's policy not to help a baby animal abandoned by its parents or left motherless through death. Animal instinct centered around survival of the fittest. Would be it be so wrong for Bella to leave the child to the death nature intended?
But she was still a human being with some human instinct of compassion left. It was true that her own survival might depend on the child's ultimate demise, but not like this. They were not animals, and he deserved some measure of humanity. She had enough resources and skills to keep them both alive long enough to get him clean and comfortable, to fill his belly and give him some peace.
It had been a long time since she'd felt human.
Decided, Bella stood, still keeping hunched so the tall grass would shelter her. The child, whose eyes had begun to droop, startled. He whimpered as she approached, eyes wide with fear.
"Shhh," she murmured, stepping softly.
She gathered the child into her arms easily, ignoring the stench. If he wanted to fight, he was far too weak. He cried quietly, but soon laid his head on her shoulder, mumbling what may have been, "Mama, Dada," over and over and over in misery. But he was too exhausted. It was only a minute before he fell dead asleep in her arms.
Bella kept alert, ignoring the burn in one arm as it took the brunt of the child's weight. The other hand she kept close to her knife and other supplies. She had to get to her shelter—high and secure as was possible. Only when she was close did she put her free hand to the child's back, letting herself acknowledge the warmth of him against her.
What in all hells had she done now?
A/N: This fic is dedicated to Betsy.
Many thanks to Betsy, Eleanor, Packy, Mina and Krystal for their constant help. It's not easy keeping up with me and my neediness. Mwah.