A/N: Hi, duckies! This is a small update for me, but I thought people might like it. Happy weekend and all. :)
All standard disclaimers apply.
As Children After Play
Edward stared down at the girl sleeping fitfully in the big four-poster bed. She looked so small, so fragile. His whole self latched onto each wheezing breath, each sluggish heartbeat. They were the sounds that proved to him that she still lived—that her body fought the virus sweeping through her system.
Even just the word chilled his unbeating heart, grabbing him at the throat, choking his unneeded breaths. The pandemic that lasted from early 1918 until 1920 killed somewhere between fifty and one hundred million people. Three of those had been his mother, his father...and himself.
Every winter he listened to the radio, then the television, warning people of outbreaks of flu. As medical science progressed, the warnings turned to ways to keep safe: frequent washing, staying away from those already infected, keeping the body as robust and healthy as possible. Year after year, lives were lost to influenza, but fewer and fewer as science evolved. Now, for the most part, only the very young, very old, and immunocompromized died. But particularly virulent strains of the virus did spring up from time to time, and Carlisle's thoughts were clear—he believed that Bella's case was serious, indeed.
Thinking back, Edward combed his perfect vampire memory for visions of Charlie just before he died. He hadn't paid any attention at the time—all he wanted was the man's hands off Bella. And after he was dead...well, he looked dead. Waterlogged and...just dead. But, reaching into his memory, Edward could now study the face of the man he so recently killed, and he agreed with Bella's assessment. Charlie had not looked good at all. His complexion was ashen and waxy, and he was perspiring far out of proportion to the physical exertion of walking through the woods. His last breaths were raspy and hoarse, just as Bella's now were.
The man's mind hadn't been a place of coherence, either. His thoughts were jumbled; confused. He had not been purposefully stalking Bella, but had lost himself while wandering aimlessly in the woods. Edward didn't know how long Charlie had been lost, because Charlie himself hadn't known. He could have been out there for days.
Carlisle could not say definitively that the flu virus would have killed Charlie, but Edward had his suspicions. The man clearly wasn't taking care of himself—not that Edward gave a rat's ass. He deserved a slower, more painful death than he received, but at least he was dead. He couldn't hurt Bella anymore.
His parting jab, however, was a cruel one.
Edward flat-out refused to go back to school, and neither Esme nor Carlisle tried to force him. He stayed by Bella's side, doing whatever she needed, pampering her as much as possible. She was too weak to protest. Carlisle tended to her every day before he left for the hospital and at night when he returned home. He kept his voice upbeat when he spoke to her, but Edward heard the fear in his thoughts, the fear he masked so well from his patient.
Bella had sickened extremely quickly, and she wasn't getting better. A deep, ragged cough settled in her chest, keeping her up when her exhausted body ached for sleep. Codeine-laced cough syrup didn't help at all. Her temperature hovered around 103, and though her skin was flushed and moist, she shivered with cold. Esme and Rose had tucked an electric blanket over her sheet and under the comforter, and Bella huddled as far under the warm covers as she could, still trembling. Edward ached to hold her, but he didn't dare. Even with layers of protection between their bodies, he couldn't bear the thought of adding to her discomfort.
And discomfort she definitely felt. Her body ached badly, and without pain medication she couldn't stand the touch of anything. "My skin hurts," she said, shifting in her bed, trying to find a position that was at least somewhat comfortable. "I can't explain it any better than that. It hurts."
Edward grit his teeth, the muscles in his jaw clamping down. He remembered that feeling. All he could do was give her Tylenol in regular intervals and hope.
Now, three days in, she wasn't getting any better. She was, in fact, getting worse. For the first time, she complained of nausea, and had not been able to keep down the plain wheat toast and applesauce Esme offered her. She hadn't really slept at all the night before, merely falling into a light sort of doze, muttering in her sleep and waking every time her chest forced a cough from her mouth.
Carlisle came home looking more grave than usual. "We have two patients in the hospital with bad cases of the flu," he reported in the kitchen, where Esme was heating water for tea. "I'll have to do more testing to be sure, but I suspect it's the same strain as Bella's." He leaned against the cupboards and put his palms on the countertop behind him, bending his elbows.
"Should she be in the hospital?" Esme asked, cupping a white mug in her delicate grasp. "She's so sick, Carlisle."
He nodded slowly. "I know it. But since she's still pregnant, we can't risk it. We can do quite a bit for her here—that's not the problem."
"Then what is?"
Edward grimaced. He could already hear Carlisle's answer before he spoke, and he didn't like it at all.
"An upset stomach is going to complicate things quite a bit. The child she carries needs regular sustenance—we all saw what happened on the trip home from Britain. Bella can't just stop eating. The results could be disastrous for both of them."
"I won't let it happen," Edward growled.
Carlisle sent him an understanding smile, but his thoughts and his spoken answer were clear. "Unfortunately, son, it may be out of our hands."
After Bella fell sick, Emmett and Rosalie decided to take Mason out of the house for safety's sake. They went to Alaska to visit the Denali cousins, but Rose called every day to check on Bella. Every day, Esme told her the same thing—no news, but they remained hopeful. Alice cast about for any new visions that might give her a clue to the outcome of Bella's illness, but her sight remained blocked, as it often was with Bella. Jasper comforted her as much as he could.
And they waited. They all waited.
The next day, Bella could not keep down even a sip of water. She huddled in her bed, sick and miserable, in tears because she knew how hungry her child was and, for the first time, she was unable to appease that hunger. She could not care for the fetus as it needed, which made her both emotionally distraught and physically even more uncomfortable.
Carlisle came home from the hospital with bags of nutrient-laden solution, and he hooked up an IV to Bella's arm to keep her at least moderately hydrated. He injected a painkiller into her IV as well, since she could no longer swallow pills.
"Look at her, Carlisle," Edward hissed, too low for Bella to hear. "The baby is draining her."
"It's what I feared," Carlisle agreed, watching the slow drip of the IV into Bella's arm. She was visibly thinner, and her complexion was ghostly white despite her high fever. Even her lips were pale. The child she carried needed blood. So far, it had received this from the black pudding, the blood sausage Bella ate every day. Now, with her mother unable to consume the needed blood, the baby was taking it from the only source left—Bella's own body.
"We can't let this continue very long," Carlisle warned his son, aching for the choices that would have to be made soon. "A day or two at most."
And then what?
The words remained unsaid, but they echoed through the room all the same.
That night, Edward carefully scooped Bella's pale, limp hand into his grasp. He held it between his two hands, the only contact he'd allowed himself for days. "Bella," he breathed. "Love, I know you're tired. You have every right to be. But I need you to fight this—fight harder. For me. For our daughter. Bella, can you hear me?"
The skin around her eyes was so dark, it looked not just bruised but also incredibly painful. Still, she blinked, and a moment later her soft eyes opened. They were hazy with fever, but they settled on Edward's form fairly steadily. Her cracked lips turned up in a pale shadow of a smile. "Edward," she breathed.
Edward swallowed hard. His chest felt so tight. He didn't know what to do. Why didn't he know what to do? He'd been alive long enough. Why couldn't he do anything to save this girl, this one human life? "Bella."
She inhaled a shallow breath, but her face screwed up in pain a moment later and a fit of deep coughs took her. She trembled violently as she lay back down, her beautiful mouth still grimacing. "Hurts."
"I know. I know, love. Just...you've just got to fight a little harder, okay? For us. We need you to get better." He lay his hand ever so gently atop her comforter, right where he could hear his daughter's heartbeat.
"I'm trying." Her eyes lost focus, and she blinked hard several times. "Trying, Edward."
Fighting back a growl of impatience with his own impotence in the situation, Edward bent and kissed the back of her hand. Her skin felt fragile as rice paper against his lips. He could hear the sluggish beat of her overworked heart, struggling to pump blood through her body even as the child in her womb consumed the life-giving liquid. "I know you are," he whispered, but even as he spoke, he knew it wasn't going to be enough.
By ten o'clock the next morning, Bella was babbling incoherently, and Edward could no longer say from one minute to the next whether she was asleep or delusional. Certainly she was not lucid. He stroked her sweaty hair, kissed her forehead tenderly, and left to find Carlisle in his office.
"What are our options?" he asked without preamble, not bothering to close the door behind him. Only Esme remained in the house, and he didn't care what she heard. She should probably be part of this discussion as well, but Edward was too set on his questions to wait.
Carlisle looked up from the medical journal he'd been reading, setting it aside. He leaned back in his desk chair and tented his fingers, tapping them slowly against his lips. "I've been giving that question a great deal of thought."
"Here's the dilemma as I see it. Ordinarily, the easy answer would be to change Bella. Then there would no longer be any worry about her body's ability to fight off this virus. But we cannot change her while she carries a child. I haven't the slightest idea what would happen, and it wouldn't be ethical to attempt it."
"No." Edward shook his head. "Absolutely not."
"And, in my medical opinion, it's no longer safe to wait and see what her body does on its own. Her systems are shutting down; you must see that."
Edward nodded slowly. He did not want to admit it, but he saw what Carlisle meant. Bella's body had just been through too much. When you added the hybrid baby on top of everything else, she wasn't going to be able to fight this off.
"Which leaves us with only one option I can see. I think, given the severity of Bella's illness, we need to deliver the child now. That will be a great stress lifted from her body, after which we'll see whether she can safely remain human a while longer, or whether turning her immediately is necessary."
Edward blanched. "We don't know how well developed the baby is," he argued. "For all we know, she might not be viable yet."
Carlisle held his hands out, palm up, in a gesture of defeat. "Do you see another option?"
As much as Edward hated and feared Carlisle's recommendation, he had to admit that he had nothing better to offer. Slowly he sank back in the soft brown leather chair, letting the reality of the situation wash over him. Bella was too sick to last much longer, so they would be forced to deliver the child via Caesarean section, regardless of its health or viability. Then, depending on Bella's remaining strength, she might be immediately turned, or allowed to remain human a little longer.
For his part, Edward preferred that she remain human as long as possible. If she could fight off the influenza virus without the baby leeching all her strength, so much the better. But he would not—would not—let her die from this illness. She would die by his hand, born into a new existence as a vampire, or not at all.
"When do we do this?"
Carlisle studied his face for a long moment, as if searching for any remaining doubt. Then, "As soon as possible. Best to tell Bella while I make a quick trip to the hospital."
"What about the state? Heidi and Leia and all that?"
Carlisle rose and slowly donned his coat. "If necessary, I can make it seem she died of the flu. Or we can all just disappear. You think about it." And he was gone.
Thankfully, Bella was in a relatively lucid state when Edward returned to her. Explaining Carlisle's wish was one of the hardest things he'd ever had to do, but Edward forced himself through it. This was Bella's body, after all. Carlisle could say whatever he wanted, but Bella had to agree. She called the shots. She made the rules.
Her eyes dulled when she heard the plan, and she bit her pale lower lip. "I'm sorry," she whispered, voice rough from coughing. "I tried so hard to take care of her..."
"You've done a wonderful job, sweetheart," he assured her, touching her cheek feather-light with his fingertips. "It's not your fault that Charlie gave you this virus. Both things at once are just too much right now. Since we can't make the virus go away immediately, we need to get the baby out. Then you can focus on feeling better." He left the part about turning her unspoken, though he knew her quick mind would grasp what he wasn't saying. She would not die of influenza, whether her body recovered or Edward changed her.
"Will you take her away from me?" Bella asked in a small voice, hugging her belly with weak arms.
"Shh, no. No, love." Edward hastened to soothe her fears. "Unless she has to go to the hospital with Carlisle for some reason, she'll stay right here with you."
"I won't infect her?"
"No. She's probably already developed antibodies from being inside you while you're ill, and a breastfeeding baby is often the only one in a human household that doesn't get sick. She'll be fine. No one will take her away from you." He stroked her hair, watching her soft brown eyes as she processed this information.
"Will I be awake for it?"
Edward continued threading his fingers through her long, dark hair, soothed by the touch of her, even through the bitter scent of her illness. "That's a good question. Usually the answer is yes, but you'll have to ask Carlisle for sure. Why? Do you have a preference?"
Bella chewed on her lower lip and fought back a coughing fit before answering. "I think I want to be awake," she whispered finally. "I'm afraid, but I'm more afraid of going to sleep and not waking up."
"Never," Edward vowed. "Bella, I'd never let that happen. I promise you."
And so, two and a half hours later, Carlisle lifted a four-pound baby girl from the incision in Bella's abdomen, placing her tiny, squirming body in Edward's outstretched hands. Esme watched from the sidelines, holding a video camera that was probably filming the floor at the moment, as she wasn't paying attention to anything but the child in Edward's arms.
"Bella," she breathed. "Bella, she's beautiful!"
Carlisle, working swiftly, had already removed the placenta and was closing the incision even as Edward brought the baby around the drape hiding Bella's abdomen from her eyes, laying his daughter on her mother's chest.
"Here she is, Bella," he breathed, kneeling next to the bed. "Here's your little girl."
Tears welled in Bella's eyes, and for the first time she could remember, she did not attempt to hold them back. A cough tore through her, a bark of fiery pain in her throat, and she turned her head swiftly so she didn't breathe on the elfin little fairy on her chest. The child cried with short, cranky little squawks, her hands balled into fists, signaling her dislike of this bright, cold new world. Edward bathed her with warm, damp cloths as she squirmed on Bella's chest, wiping away the blood and effluvia from her birth.
"I was right," Bella whispered, blinking at him with wet eyes.
"I never doubted you." He kissed her temple gently, keeping his hands where he could spot the newborn lest she squirm the wrong way and start to fall.
"Is she healthy?"
"Seems to be," Carlisle answered. He warmed his hands at a portable space heater in the corner of the room, then took the newborn in his arms. "Let's just have a look." He listened to her heart and lungs with his acute vampire hearing, and looked into her eyes. The tension in the room increased until he wrapped the little one in a soft pink blanket and handed her back to Edward. "Relax now," he said, helping Bella into a more upright position. "I don't see anything wrong, other than her size. Here, sweetheart. Hold your baby."
When Edward passed the child back to Bella, the angry squawks calmed. She looked up at her mother with wide, unfocused eyes, and Bella stared right back. Her arms trembled, but Edward felt no fear that she would drop the baby. The fierce light shining in her brown eyes told him that Bella would never let any harm come to their daughter—never.
"She has your eyes." He smiled at his fiance, watching her mouth curve into a smile of its own. "She's so beautiful, Bella."
Bella nodded. "I think we did pretty good." Her shoulders shook and she turned her head away to cough again.
"I know it's difficult, but try not to cough, please," Carlisle said fidgeting with the incision one more time before gently replacing Bella's blankets on top of her. "It's not good for the wound."
Bella didn't answer, lost in her daughter's bright brown eyes.
"What's her name?" Esme asked, lifting the camera to film again.
"Esme," Bella said firmly.
Edward and Carlisle glanced at each other. "Are you sure?" The doctor gathered his bloodied instruments to clean back in his office. "That's very sweet, but we already have an Esme. Won't that get confusing?"
"Bella gets to choose." Edward's voice was hard as he watched his father. "She's in charge."
"It's a lovely sentiment." Esme perched on the edge of the bed and brushed one finger gently over a tiny fist. "But my name's a bit old-fashioned. Maybe she should have something more current?"
"I want her to have a family name," Bella said, "and you're the only mother I've ever really had." She thought for a long minute, and her face slowly drew into a smile. "Ellison. Esme Ellison."
Bella's face contorted, and she shook her head. "That's Charlie's name, and I don't want any part of it. She's a Cullen." She looked up, searching for reassurance in Edward's face. "Right, Edward? She's a Cullen."
"Of course she's a Cullen." He squeezed her shoulder gently. "You both are. Esme Ellison Cullen it is."
An hour later, Ellie was fussing in Alice's arms. Carlisle had put something in Bella's IV to make her sleep—something she desperately needed but the persistent cough wouldn't allow her. Ellie had fed willingly enough at her mother's breast, but now she squalled her angry little bird cry as Alice tried to soothe her.
"She doesn't like me,." Alice pouted, but refused to hand over the newborn.
"I think she's just overwhelmed. Give her time." Esme snapped a few more pictures before setting her camera aside.
Edward fought back a smile. Ellie's thoughts were still a fascinating, muddled mess, but he could tell well enough what she wanted. She wanted her mother. She knew the sound and smell of Bella's body, and she gleaned deep comfort from having her mother near. No one else would do right now; she wanted what she wanted.
Edward knew the feeling. You and me both, my love, he thought back to his newborn daughter. In another few minutes he would take her back upstairs, where she could rest next to Bella. He'd watch over them, make sure they were both safe. An intense, overwhelming feeling of completeness filled the empty hole that he'd lived with for so long. Yes, Bella was still very ill, and it remained to be seen whether she could fight this off and remain human. But Ellie was delivered safely, and while she was extremely small, she seemed to have suffered no ill effects from her early birth. Small they could deal with. She would grow.
"Edward, she's so beautiful." Alice beamed down at the cranky little face in his arms. "I can't believe you and Bella managed to make a real redhead!"
It was true—somehow, despite Bella's dark hair and his own reddish brown, Ellie's fine, flyaway wisps were truly red. "It's a recessive trait," he said, smiling as he reclaimed his tiny daughter from Alice. "Must be hiding in both our genes."
She was beautiful, and Edward didn't think that was his own fatherly bias talking. Her skin was fine porcelain, with pale, delicate pink along her nose and ears. Her full little lips were darker rose, long lashes and petite eyebrows as red as her hair. She was so small, at just four pounds, that she fit curled up in his hands. So tiny, so fragile. It took everything in him to be brave and handle her despite his immense strength, and yet he paradoxically yearned for her slight little body when his sister or mother held her. Barely an hour old, and she already had him by the heartstrings.
"How is Bella?" he asked his father as Carlisle came down the stairs.
"Sleeping quietly—which she desperately needs. I'm thinking about giving her a unit of blood to see if that helps at all. What with Ellie's needs before she was born, and the slight blood loss during the Caesarean, it might do her good."
"Anything to help her." Edward held his daughter against his shoulder and kissed her head softly. To him, she smelled a lot like Bella, whereas Mason didn't at all. Whether that would change as she grew remained to be seen. He breathed in, comforted by her soft baby scent. She stopped crying her baby bird cry when she heard him, comforted by his voice. He wasn't Bella, but he would do. Hiding a smile, he shifted his weight from foot to foot, rocking her softly.
"Rose and Emmett say congratulations." Esme smiled down at her phone. "I'll leave off Emmett's comments about Ellie's appearance. They're eager to meet her once Bella's feeling better."
One way or another.