This Christmas one-shot was inspired by a call-in show I heard on CBC Radio's The Current about poverty in Canada. It broke my heart listening to the stories and the children who were featured on the show and it brought back my muse. She's a strange gal, my muse.

I can't thank Katmom and Minnakoda enough for their technical expertise and suggestions and I don't know if this would have gone as far as it did without my own private cheerleader, Nikki.

****WARNING: I'VE BEEN TOLD TO GIVE THIS A HEAVY TISSUE WARNING****

Merry Christmas, everyone. I hope none of you are dealing with what Edward, Bella and their daughter Leah are.


For the Love of Leah

Bella

"Daddy's home!"

I watched as my baby girl hobbled toward the door, excited to see her father. He was late again and I hoped that it was a good thing, that it wouldn't be yet another epic disappointment to taint my feeble attempt at fostering some sort of Christmas spirit in our tiny little place.

Instinctively, I pulled my sweater tighter around me as the door opened and my beautiful husband stomped in, hopefully not bringing in anymore snow. It takes so long for our humble abode to heat up every time there's a blast from the outdoors.

"Where's my favourite girls?" he asked, breathless, exhausted. I couldn't help but marvel at his ability to be so damn tired and yet still keep a front so our baby girl would have no idea just how bad things were.

Or are.

We are the living poor. Of course, she has no idea because she's only four, and she's easy to deceive, especially since her only contact with other children comes in the form of other poor kids. Not one child in our complex has known the joys of finding a new toy under the Christmas tree unless it was one donated by the Salvation Army. Not one kid has had a turkey dinner outside of the soup kitchen. There isn't one single baby in this building who hasn't gone to bed with a gnawing in their stomach. This is all they know and I pray every day that someday it will change.

For all of us.

Fine, especially for us. Leah was born with Cerebral Palsy, and although by most standards it is mild, she has problems with her left leg…the tendons need to be released so her muscles can relax. She gets around just fine, but there are times when the muscles cramp and cause her extreme pain. It breaks my heart that I can't provide this simple surgery for my baby. It costs an entire week's salary for Edward to afford a trip to the doctor for a checkup. We've been told that because her condition isn't life threatening, the doctors won't do it pro-bono and Medicaid won't cover it. We've tried just about every agency under the sun and because her disability doesn't "disable" her, we're shit out of luck.

A neighbour suggested that we sue the doctor who delivered her, since a lack of oxygen during birth is often the cause of CP, but Legal Aid wouldn't take our case—her special needs weren't extensive enough to sway a judge. Had she been born twisted and bent like a pretzel, sure, but a spastic leg? Not so compelling.

"Where are you, love?" Edward breathed into my ear as he wrapped himself around me. "You've got that look in your eyes again. Quit thinking so much, things will work out."

I allowed myself a moment to melt into my husband, to revel in the warmth of his love instead of focusing on the cold coming off of him. Edward is my rock. He saved me from a much worse situation, if you can believe that. I would take my chances with living off broth and rocks under a bridge over the abuse I endured as a child. When I got pregnant, I promised myself and my baby that her life would be so much more fulfilling than mine was, than Edward's was.

We met in foster care. Edward's parents just disappeared one day, leaving him home alone. No note, no nothing. He lived by himself for a while, but was caught rummaging through dumpsters for food one day and everything came out—he'd been alone for almost six months. There was no electricity at his house and he slept in piles of old blankets and clothes in the middle of their bed

Our foster parents were amazing. We loved them so much—they took such great care of us—but it wasn't meant to be, I guess, and much like everything else in our lives, they were taken away from us. Killed by a drunk driver. Again, we found ourselves in the system, in separate foster homes, but within walking distance of one another. We went to the same schools and things were good until we turned eighteen. Although we had managed to get full scholarships to university, there are still other costs involved and we only made it through our first years at UDub before money became too much of an issue. We were both in school full-time and working two jobs each just to meet the cost of living.

And then I got pregnant.

I don't regret Leah. She has been the sunshine in our otherwise dark lives and has kept us going through the hard times and she recharges our batteries when it's needed. Our angel is the blessing we needed and I wouldn't trade her for a million dollars.

"I made some extra money tonight," Edward whispered, pulling me out of my inner monologue, "we can afford a little something better for her for Christmas."

Turning in his arms, I laid my cheek on his cold chest and sighed. "We have the gift coming from the Salvation Army. Why don't we put that money aside for her surgery?"

"I haven't told you the best part of my night, Bella."

"You have better news than that?" My hopes began to raise a little…never too much, though…it was never a good thing to dream too big.

"I was asked to cook for a private gig."

I needed to look at his grin to reassure myself that he wasn't lying. His eyes glowed greener than I'd seen in a long time and his smile was genuine and not the fake one I often saw. His authentic dazzled by Edward smiles are few and far between even though he always manages to plaster one on his face for Leelee.

Words got caught in my throat for a moment, caught between excitement and an overwhelming sense of relief. "Baby, that's amazing! When? Where?"

Leah tugged on her father's leg. "I wanna hug, Daddy."

"We can discuss this after our favourite little munchkin has gone to bed," he bent over to pick her up, "right, Leelee? We need to play a little before bed, don't we?"

I stepped back and allowed them their time to play. I had her all day; he saw her for an hour or two a night, and since he often worked seven days a week, he didn't have the luxury of a weekend of just Leah time.

"Who wants cocoa?" I called out. Leah and I had gone "shopping" at the food bank in the afternoon and they had been kind enough to include some hot chocolate packets and a bag of marshmallows. I had planned on using the marshmallows to make Rice Krispie Squares as a treat, but I could spare a few for our cocoa. It was a night to celebrate. Edward had a private gig, and private gigs were not only harder to get for someone in his position, but they paid better. A lot better.

It wasn't long before Leah fell asleep after downing her cocoa. I had hoped to give her a bath, but decided that it could wait. I'd bring in a bucket or two of snow to melt overnight so it wouldn't take as long to heat in the morning. Yes, sometimes we live like Laura Ingalls from Little House on the Prairie. The water that comes out of our bathtub faucet is brown and smells bad. I know snow isn't as pure as it was back in the pioneer days, but boiling it helps kill some of the impurities. I've been reading the Little House books to Leah; I picked up the set for a dollar at the Sally Anne, remembering how much I enjoyed them when I was a little girl. They might be a little advanced for her, but she was just happy to snuggle and listen.

Edward and I made sure she was well-covered before we moved to the other side of the room to talk. Three people living in a bachelor apartment means there isn't much privacy.

"I think this is it, Bella," my hopeful husband whispered excitedly. It had been such a long time since I'd seen him this animated. "Babe, I think if I can wow the hell out of them, that it won't be long before they hire me on permanently. They need a full-time cook at their house and I know I can do this. I HAVE to do this to get us out of here. Her…" he turned his head toward our sleeping baby, and I could tell he was struggling to speak, emotion stuck in his throat, "her leg isn't getting better, no matter how much time you spend every day working it, and I'm scared that soon she won't be able to get around at all without being carried or using crutches. I owe it to her, to you, to do this."

Ever the dreamer, Edward was prone to chasing big dreams like this only to fall flat when it counted. I was scared every time that he wouldn't bounce back after the next one. I needed Edward's undying hope to get through every day.

My hands moved to cup his cheeks. "All we need is you, Edward. Please don't work yourself to death for us. If this doesn't work, I think you should let me go work for a while. Leah's growing up so fast and you're missing out on so much. I can try to get back on at the library or maybe at a school as a TA or I'll go back to waiting tables. Tips alone always made it worthwhile."

Gentle lips touched my forehead before I felt his smile. "Oh ye of little faith, I'm telling you—this is it. This is going to be the job."

"I hope so…if we don't make full rent for January they're going to evict us."

My statement hung in the air like my breath does in the apartment on cold days. I HATE being practical like this all the time, I hate being the one to rain on his parade, but there are things that need to be taken care of and sometimes it feels like if I don't look after them, then they won't get done.

"Bella?"

I can't look at him. I know I've hurt him because I'm losing faith and becoming more cynical every day.

"Bella, love, please look at me," he begs. His hands try to coax my chin to move, but I resist. I can't do it, I feel dirty, I feel bad, I feel like I just told a million children that Santa Claus doesn't exist. "Baby, please," he coos softly. "I know, I know I keep promising you the moon and only end up giving you cheese."

Cheese would be better than the moon. At least it's edible.

"Please, have a little faith in me…just for a few more days."

The sound of his voice is killing me, shredding my insides up like pulled pork.

God, I must be hungrier than I thought…I'm thinking in gastronomical metaphors.

My voice manages a quiet squeak. "I…I don't want you to break if it doesn't work out."

Strong hands caressed my hair as he did what he did best, he comforted me. After years of doing it, it became as natural as breathing and I really wish he didn't have to do it as much as he did but…but he was the dreamer and I was always stuck in my head—he wore the rose colored glasses and I saw the world as it was, in real-time and bathed in ugly toxic Technicolor hues.

"Have faith, Bella. That's all I ask."

I took a deep, rattling breath before coughing. Another stupid cold was coming on, I could feel it. "I have faith in you, Edward, but it's lagging somewhat when it comes to the rest of the world. I wish it was just the three of us someplace warm, healthy, and loaded with food and clean water. I wish we could shut out the world, at least for a little while."

"We will get out of here, baby, I promise you. I have a good feeling about this."

A shiver ran through me, prompting Edward to hold me closer. "You're getting sick aren't you? Come on, let's go to bed and get you all warmed up. I'm pooped and I have to go meet the people I'll be cooking for at noon. If they like me, I can start tomorrow night."

"Sleep sounds good. Can I borrow your woolies? My feet are freezing." I hated to ask, he had so few pairs of warm socks, but I knew I'd never get a wink of sleep if my feet were cold all night.

He kissed my forehead again. "Yes, my dear sweet wife, you can wear my woolies to bed. I'll look after keeping the rest of you nice and warm."

I sighed sadly. He would be keeping both of us warm. We haven't slept without Leah in bed with us since she was a baby. There was no money to buy a proper crib or bassinet, and then she got used to it, not that there's room anywhere in this place to put another bed. It functions as a bed and a couch and frankly, we're just lucky to have it. A guy Edward had been working with was getting rid of his old futon, so we gladly took it, beer stains (and god knows what the other spots were from) and all.

Leah sleepily wriggled in between us as we settled in, smacking her sweet little lips as she slept. I smiled at her, then at Edward. If there was anything left in this world that would give me just a taste of hope, it was these two. They were my life, my loves, my heart and surely they deserved something better from this life.

I kissed the rumpled mess of brown hair atop her head before leaning in to give Edward a good night kiss. "I love you, Edward. I believe in you. Good things are coming. If you can believe it, then I can too."

"Sweet dreams, Bella. You'll see; it's going to get better."


Edward

I brushed the snow off my pants as I walked up the long driveway to the home of the Cullens. I prayed as I neared the big wooden doors that this would really be it, that I could take something home to my family other than the bare minimum necessary to get by. I wanted my little girl to have the surgery she needed and a chance to live somewhere where we could take her out to play without fear of her being kidnapped or attacked or worrying about her pricking herself on a used syringe in the old playgrounds and parks nearby. I wanted to have money for Bella to buy nice new clothes and get a professional haircut instead of getting the crackwhore two doors down do it. I wanted to walk proudly, to feel like a man—a man who can provide for his family.

The big door opened to an auburn-haired woman smiling at me. "Edward Masen?"

I extended my cold hand to her before pulling it back, not wanting to inconvenience her. "Yes, ma'am."

She looked at my hands, which were now in my coat pocket, before looking back at me and motioning for me to come in.

"It's a lot warmer in here, dear. Please come on in. If you don't mind taking off your boots, I have a nice warm pair of slippers for you. Come, come, follow me."

Slippers? They weren't slippers, they were exquisite slices of heaven on my tired feet. I may have moaned.

Okay, I know I moaned, because she giggled at me. "They are quite comfy, aren't they? My name is Esme Cullen, and I will be conducting the interview until my husband gets home. He's Chief of Staff over at Seattle General and will be coming off shift shortly. I thought maybe you could whip up some lunch and we'll chat. Does that sound okay with you?"

"Yes, ma'am." That sounded better than perfect. I was so at home in a kitchen that answering interview-type questions would be easy, not to mention I'm good at what I do and having a chance to showcase it would definitely work in my favour.

My first sight of Esme Cullen's kitchen stopped me in my tracks and I think I may have drooled a little. It was shiny in both an industrial and homey way. The appliances were all top-of-the-line, polished to within an inch of their lives, and the cabinetry was a gorgeous mahogany. If I could come up with a dream kitchen, this one would be it.

Esme's chuckling snapped me back to reality. "I've seen many a wonderful chef rendered speechless by my kitchen. Carlisle, my husband, likes to joke that we built the house around the vision of my kitchen. Little do they know that it's no lie. Would you like some tea to warm you up, dear?"

I nodded. I was in complete awe of this diminutive woman with the grandiose personality. I genuinely felt a connection to her, and I knew that I was the perfect match for her when she said: "The heart of the house is the kitchen."

Before my parents left, my mom used to say that same thing. She and I would spend hours baking and cooking and trying out new recipes. On cold winter days she'd have cocoa ready for me and we'd sit and dip gingersnaps into our mugs while I would tell her about my day. At night she and I would play board games or cards. Yes, the kitchen had been the heart of my house until Mom started acting strange.

It broke my heart that I couldn't offer this to Leah. How I wished that one day we'd have a house where I would find them making cookies and talking about boys; where comforting aromas would greet me instead the stench of decay.

"Edward, dear? Are you okay?"

I smiled at her. "I'm better than okay. So," I pulled my ratty old cooking notebook out of my pocket, "why don't you tell me about yourself and your husband and let me come up with a potential menu to see if I'm on the right track."

And so we talked for an hour, sipping tea and eating biscotti. I questioned her about why she required a chef when she was clearly more than capable of handling the kitchen on a day-to-day basis on her own.

"Don't think for one minute I won't be joining you in here from time to time, because I'm not giving up cooking; I just find that with Carlisle's work schedule and my charity work that there isn't always time to get dinner on the table at a decent hour. I also need someone to help cook for events, bake sales, and more importantly, to deal with the general upkeep of my showpiece. A beautiful kitchen left unused is a sin.

"It will be nice to come in after a long day to a house that smells like a home, too. I haven't been cooking as much as I did when our children, Emmett and Alice, lived at home, and I miss that warm, enticing, comforting aroma when I walk in the door.'

Again I found myself grinning at her. It felt like Esme and I were kindred spirits in some respect and I hoped desperately that I would have an opportunity to work beside this woman.

After excusing herself for a moment, I sketched out a potential five-course meal and a lunch menu for Carlisle. When she returned and reviewed my suggestions, she walked over and gave me a hug.

"Oh, Edward, I have such a good feeling about you. Let's get started on the squash soup; I'm sure he's just going to love it."

Esme Cullen was going to save me. I knew it. Just looking at her I knew that this woman would be our gateway to a better life. I just couldn't screw this up.

Carlisle arrived, devoured his lunch with gusto and praised my skill and choice to high heaven. I stood proudly behind the island as I washed up the last of the pots.

"Edward, come sit," he said, gesturing to the chair beside him. "Esme and I have been talking and before we make our final decision, we'd like to know a little more about you."

Cue the sound of my heart dropping and splashing into my stomach.

I couldn't lie to them, but how much did I want to tell them? What if they thought I was nothing more than a dirty bum with some good knife skills? Would they look down on me?

"Um, well, I'm twenty-four, I married my high school sweetheart, and we have a four year old daughter named Leah." It was all true. Easy peasy.

"What does Bella do, dear?" Esme asked, smiling.

"She, uh, well, she stays home with Leah. Our daughter was…well, she was born with Cerebral Palsy. Leah's case is considered mild, but sometimes she has mobility issues, and…well, to be honest, we can't afford daycare, even with both of us working." I looked down and stared at the wood grain of the table.

I felt a warm hand covering mine. "Edward, dear, there's no shame in that—sometimes you have to work a little harder to get to where you want to be. So, where did you learn to cook like this?"

Talking about food lightened my mood a lot. "I used to cook with my mother, then I took some afterschool cooking classes at the Y and my foster mother—" Shit! I didn't want to open that kettle of fish. These people were going to think I was nothing more than a degenerate. "I'm sorry, I should…"

When I moved to stand, Esme's grip on my hand tightened. "Sit, Edward. Don't go. Let me tell you a story.

"I wasn't always well-off. I grew up in an abusive home until the State took me away and my grandfather stepped in. I lived with him until he passed away when I was 19. I loved that old curmudgeon even if he was a penny pincher. All that saving paid off, though, because when he died, he left me a large sum of money. So, even though I live in this big beautiful house now, it wasn't always the life I had. We may seem different, dear, but I think you'll see that we have more in common than you think."

It was hard to contain the emotion welling up inside me, but I managed to suck it up and go on. We spent the afternoon chatting and planning and when I realized the time, Esme packed up some of the muffins we had made and told me to take them to my family.

Carlisle shook my hand and grinned. "Welcome aboard, Edward, that is, if you want to join us."

I snorted at such an asinine question. I wanted to run screaming through their warm, cozy and opulent house and scream, "Of course I want to join you! Of course! Working here will be a dream come true!"

But I didn't. Instead, I burst into tears and gave him a hug like the big man that I am.


Bella

Leah and I spent the day at the library. I volunteered to help out with some of the activities there because it meant that we would have a warm place to spend our day in the company of people who weren't high, schizophrenic or delusional. There were a couple of little girls who liked to play with Leah and it did her good to have some friends. I was afraid that because it was so close to Christmas that they might start talking about presents we could never give to Leah. As the afternoon progressed, it became apparent that I didn't need to worry because I had the kids completely immersed in making decorations. Leah was so excited to decorate the house before her daddy got home that she forgot we were going to go to the Sally Anne to buy some new woolies for Edward, and maybe we'd have enough money to get some yarn so I could knit everyone new scarves.

We had just managed to get the red and green construction paper chain links hung on the door frames when the door flew open and Edward ran in. "I GOT IT! I GOT IT!"

Leah looked up at me and wrinkled her freckled nose. "What's daddy got, Momma? The flu?"

Edward scooped her up into his arms, swinging her around as she squealed happily. "Baby, I got the job! The Cullens are so nice and their house is huge and the kitchen is ginormous and they are going to pay me three times as much as the caterers were paying and Esme sent you muffins and I'm so happy I could…"

I watched as Leah touched Edward's face. "Why are you crying, Daddy?"

He nuzzled her nose with his and laughed through his tears. "I'm crying because I'm so very happy, baby. If Daddy can keep this job for a while then we can get your leg fixed and get a new place to live and…"

"Can we have a new 'partment before you get my leg fixed? It doesn't hurt that bad and I want to live someplace where momma will be happy." Leah said her words thoughtfully and quietly, and it broke my heart.

I walked over to them and rested my head on her back as I wrapped my arms around them. "We can do anything you want, sweet girl. Mommy is happy wherever you and daddy are. You guys are my happy place." Looking up at Edward, I smiled widely. "When do you start? And did I hear you mention something about muffins?"

"Leelee, can you please get off Momma's chest? It's hard to breathe."

I heard a little snicker to my left before she spoke. "I'm not on your chest, silly, I'm right here beside you."

Turning my head, I looked and she was right. What on god's green earth was making me feel so short of breath? I tried coughing, instantly regretting it because it wouldn't stop.

Edward sat up quickly, pulling me upright until the cough subsided. "Babe, you're burning up, and that cough sounds awful. Want me to go get some medicine before I go to work?"

"No," I rasped, my throat raw now from the violent coughing, "I'll sip on some honey and lemon. I'll be fine."

Cool hands lay across my forehead and cheeks and I sighed at the contact. "I think I need to stay home from work today. You can't be here alone with Leah like this."

Panic built up in my chest, my breathing began to increase and rattle even louder. "No, no, we can't afford for you to stay home. I'll be fine."

His eyes looked so weary, so sad, so worried. It was easy to see that he was agonizing over this. If it wasn't a new job, I might not fight as hard, but he can't take time off so soon—it's only been a week and with Christmas just a couple of days away—I knew they were counting on him to cater a large family meal, and I was counting on him to bring home a paycheque.

"Stop being so stubborn, Bella. I'm sure that Esme and Carlisle would be okay with it, we're just doing the baking and prep work for Christmas dinner, I can go in early tomorrow and work late to get it done if I have to. At least let me talk to them. He's a doctor; maybe he will know something that will help. Come on, Leah, let's get dressed and go to Mr. Chan's store to use the phone and get some medicine for Momma."

I was too tired to argue and was asleep before he tucked more blankets around me. When I woke next, Leah was sitting beside me crying.

"What's wrong, baby?"

Her father's green eyes stared back at me. "You're so sick, Momma. It makes my heart sad."

"I'll be okay, sweet pea. I just need lots of rest and cuddles." I moved my arm so she could snuggle in. She shook her head. "No, I told daddy that I would give you stuffs. First, you have some juice."

A box of orange juice was passed to me. We both giggled when we struggled with the straw, but eventually we were both sipping away on our juice and enjoying the decorations we had hung. Forget all the fancy Christmas baubles; I would settle for popcorn garland and construction paper chains any day.

"Momma, open up!"

All I saw was a tiny hand coming toward my face so fast that my vision blurred. "Wait, Leelee, what is it? What are you giving me?"

"Daddy bought you some medicine. He said to take this pill and it will make your chest less rumbly. He said Doc Carlisle wants you to drink warm things and put your head in hot water."

Put my head in hot water? First, does he not realize that hot water is a commodity that we don't have the luxury of having? Second, put my head IN the hot water? I must be delirious. "Are you sure he said to put my head IN the hot water?"

Her tiny eyebrows scrounged up as she pondered my question. "Oops, he said put your head OVER the hot water."

"That makes more sense. Okay, pass me the pill, please."

I looked at the orange gel cap she passed to me and winced. Name brand medication. I sighed. Edward's gesture was sweet, since he always wanted the best for us, but this kind of thing could set us back a meal or even rent. There's no doubt in my mind that he could have bought the generic brand for at least five dollars cheaper. Oh well, the damage is done. I threw it back and choked it down with the remainder of my juice.

"Okay, what's next?"

She grabbed a book. "Daddy said to read to you so you would stay in bed and get better. So I'm going to read to you and make you better."

I hugged my sweet little girl and tried not to breathe on her. "You're the best thing in my life, Leelee. Do you know how much I love you?"

Leah grinned and spread out her arms. "To the moon and back a million times with a pit stop at Heaven to thank the angels for giving you one of their angel babies."

"You got it, kiddo!"

She snuggled in and started "reading" to me. What she was really doing was mashing up various stories to come up with one very strange one that had Mickey Mouse and Big Bird living on the prairie with Laura and Mary Ingalls where they all took turns riding Thomas the Tank Engine.

I fell asleep with a smile on my face and a fever burning me up from the inside out.


Edward

Esme entered the kitchen and passed me the phone. I looked at her quizzically, but took it. "Hello?"

I heard muffled crying on the other end of the line. "D…daddy?"

"Leelee? Baby, is that you? Where are you?"

"I'm…please don't be mad but I couldn't get Mrs. K to answer her door and Momma is…" She broke down and sobbed. I needed to get her calmed down to find out what was happening.

"Baby, calm down, Daddy's not mad. What's wrong with Momma?"

Esme's eyes grew huge with worry before she ran out of the room.

"Momma is so hot, Daddy and she won't wake up and her breaths sound like she ate marbles. I got scared and…I crossed the street and I'm at the store. Mr. Chan said he would get Mrs. Chan to walk me home, but Momma needs help, Daddy."

"Okay, baby, I'm coming as soon as I can. You stay with Momma when Mrs. Chan walks you back and I'll be there in no time. Get a cloth from the bathroom and put some snow in it until it melts, then rub it on Momma's face, okay? We need to cool her down a bit. I promise I'm on my way."

"I'm scared, Daddy."

"I know, baby, but you are so brave for wanting to help Momma. I have to hang up the phone now so I can leave. I'll see you soon. I love you."

Both Carlisle and Esme ran back into the kitchen. "Edward, what do you need us to do?"

"I need to go home. My daughter somehow made it across the street to the store to call for help when my wife wouldn't wake up. I think she's got pneumonia—she was burning up this morning and her chest sounds so bad. I wanted to stay home with her today but she was scared I'd get fired. As much as I love this job and I love working for you guys, my family is my life and I need to go to my wife. I'm really sorry to let you down so close to Christmas."

Carlisle stepped forward. "I'd like to drive you. I'll just grab my medical bag and I'll meet you at the car."

"I…I can't pay you, Carlisle. We don't have any extra money. I can work it off—I'll put in overtime hours, I'll scrub your floors, I'll—"

"Edward," Esme said as she wrapped her arms around me. "You're family now, and your family is our family. Please let us help."

I couldn't fight with them. My Bella needed help and I didn't want her to die. Nodding, I stepped out of Esme's hug and faced Carlisle. "I'll meet you at the car."

There was still something niggling at me as we made our way to the apartment—I didn't want Carlisle to see where we lived. Our apartment was a hovel by most standards and I was embarrassed. My shame disappeared the moment I saw Leah throw open the door to the entryway, tears streaming down her face. I jumped out of the car and ran to her, pulling her into my arms. "Oh, Leelee, you're freezing! Come inside and we'll get you warmed up."

"Who's that man?" she asked as she snuggled into me.

"That's Doc Carlisle. He's going to try to help Momma. We need to get him inside to her right away."

"He doesn't look like a doctor. Where's his white coat? Don't doctors wear white coats and have stefferstopes around their necks?"

Carlisle laughed. "My stethoscope is in my bag and my white coat is at the hospital. I can show you sometime. Can you show me where Momma is? Can you tell me what she's been doing all day?"

While Leah talked animatedly to Carlisle showing him to the bed, I scrounged around to find her an extra sweater. I hoped she had the good sense to wear a jacket when she walked to the store, but with a four year old, you can never be sure.

I stood by helplessly as my boss assessed my wife, asking Leah a question every now and then as my baby girl held her mother's cold, limp hand. I could tell her condition wasn't good when Carlisle stood and came over to me.

"Edward, she needs a hospital. It sounds like pneumonia and it's not something I feel comfortable in fully diagnosing until I get some chest x-rays."

My mouth opened on auto-pilot, about to protest because we couldn't afford it, but he cut me off. "Edward, don't worry about the money. Bella is very sick, son, and if she doesn't get treated immediately…"

Bella could die? No! "Please, let's go. I'll work it off."

He smiled sadly at me. "Edward, if the Chief of Staff can't pull some strings, then why do I work the hours that I do? Please let me help you. I need you to wrap Bella up and carry her out to the car. I'm going to call Esme to meet us there so she can look after Leah, who, by the way, is an incredible child. She's a future doctor, that one." He chuckled a little as he looked over at her. "Leah, how would you like to go for a ride in my car and meet my wife Esme?"

Leah started to cry as she clung to Bella. "I can't leave Momma. She needs me, Doc."

"You don't have to, sweetie pie, you can come to the hospital with us, but you can't be there when we examine her and take pictures of her lungs. You can go play with Esme in the playroom. How does that sound?"

I moved over to the mattress and tucked the blankets around Bella, who barely sounded alive—her breaths were drowned in fluid and very shallow. After pulling her into my arms, I kissed her hot forehead and begged her to pull through. I couldn't imagine a life without her, and I would blame myself until the end of time. If only I had been able to provide for my family…

"Edward, come on," Carlisle said as he zipped Leelee's coat and helped her put on her boots. "Leah, sweetie, do you have anything you want to bring with you?"

She thought for a moment, then ran back and grabbed the doll Bella had knit for her when she was a baby. "I need to bring Lola. She'll be sad if she's alone."

It didn't take long to get to the hospital and it took less time for them to take Bella out of my arms and rush her away behind swinging doors.

"Where's Momma going, Daddy?" Leah asked as she tugged on my hand.

"Doc Carlisle is going to try to make Momma feel better, baby." I leaned down and picked her up. "Want to come and sit with Daddy in the waiting room? Maybe there will be some toys you can play with or a book we can read."

She nodded before wrapping her arms around my neck and beginning to cry quietly. I rubbed her back in reassurance as I asked a nurse for directions.

"Edward?"

I looked up and saw Esme standing by the door. Seeing the concern in her eyes broke me and I couldn't help the tears that began to flow down my cheeks.

Motioning for me to follow her, I held onto my baby tighter and made my way over.

"How is she?" she asked as she guided us into the room.

"Carlisle's pretty sure it's pneumonia. She was…she was barely breathing when we got here. Her lungs are so full. It's all my fault."

I sat down in a chair and broke down. I had managed to go all of Leah's four years without crying in front of her, but I couldn't do it now. I felt terrible because it scared her and she started wailing, but I just couldn't stop. Esme wrapped her arms around both of us, whispering just the right things. Her quiet reassurances managed to calm us down. Poor Leah was sniffling and hiccupping as she tried to compose herself.

"Daddy?" she whispered, "is this the angel?"

"The angel?" I asked, looking down at her. "What angel?"

She tried to smile at me, her long eyelashes heavy with tears and her eyes red-rimmed and sad. "Momma said that you were working for an angel and that the angel was going to save us." She looked at Esme. "Can you please save Momma? I promise to be good and I won't cross the street by myself again. You can even have Lola. I'll miss her, but I'll miss Momma more if she's gone."

I saw Esme wipe a tear from her eye before she smiled at Leah. "No, sweetie, I'm not an angel. I'm Esme, and yes, your daddy works at my house. I'm Carlisle's wife."

Leah's shoulders sagged as she started to cry again. "Where's the angel who will save Momma?"

"We have to pray for that angel to come, sweetie."

"Momma and I say prayers. I can do that. But first I need to pee." She looked up at me. "Daddy?"

Esme nodded at me before she spoke to Leah again. "How about I take you and Daddy can wait to hear from the doctors."

I kissed the messy brown hair on her head. "Go with Esme, baby. Daddy will wait here."

"Are you okay, Daddy?" she asked softly.

"I will be if you don't pee on my leg."

Well, that sent her off into a fit of giggles and I knew the heavy mood had been broken. Esme held her arms out and Leah let her pick her up.

"We'll be right back, Edward. Would you like a cocoa or a coffee or a tea? We can get some on the way back."

Leah bounced in Esme's arms. "I want cocoa! Daddy, can I have cocoa?"

"I'll take a coffee, thanks, and yes, Leelee, you can have a cocoa."

I watched them leave and sat with my thoughts for a while. Bella had been sick before, but she'd always pulled through. How could I have let her convince me to work today? I should have been home with her, looking after her. What if Leah hadn't run to the Chan's to call me? What if I hadn't left the phone number for them? My god, Bella could be dead.

Everything came crashing down. My inability to provide for my family could be the cause of my Bella's death! Living in a rat trap with no heat or hot water, not having enough food, no vitamins, no phone…it was all a recipe for disaster. I needed to get them out of there…we couldn't go back there, not with Bella so sick. We'd have to find a shelter, or the girls could go stay at the women's shelter and I could stay at the apartment.

"Edward?" Carlisle said quietly, "can you come with me for a second?"

"But Esme? Leah?"

"We won't be long."

I followed him into the ER and behind a curtain. Bella was propped up on a gurney, still unconscious, hooked up to a mist mask and an IV. I couldn't help but let out a very unmanly sob before Carlisle led me to her bedside. I took her hand in mine and held it to my cheek.

"Oh, Bella, love. I'm so sorry."

"Here's what's happening, Edward. Bella does, in fact, have pneumonia in both lungs. We did a preliminary chest x-ray and her lungs don't look great, however, her oxygen levels are already better since we started the breathing treatment. I'm hoping that with such a good early response, that she'll bounce back from this. We're running IV antibiotics and trying to get her rehydrated."

"Daddy?" Leah cried from the doorway. "We went back and you were gone and I was scared and the nurse said you were with Momma and…" she skidded to a stop. "What's on Momma's face?"

Esme set down a tray of hot drinks on a nearby table and knelt beside my little girl, explaining everything to her. Leah nodded, whispered to her, then nodded before Esme picked her up and brought her to the bed. Carlisle patted a spot for Leah to sit so she could cuddle her mom for a moment. I couldn't help the tears as I watched her whisper to her mother before giving her a hug.

"Momma needs to sleep, Leelee. Why don't we go back to the waiting room so she can rest and get better? We can have our hot cocoa. Maybe read some stories—I think I saw some kids' books in there."

"Can I leave Lola for Momma? She might get scared."

Carlisle smiled. "I think that's a wonderful idea, sweetheart. Your mommy is very lucky to have such a brave little girl."

Leah grinned proudly, her cheeks flushing red just like her mom's do.

We gave her kisses then moved back to the waiting room. Leah fell asleep in Esme's arms while she read her a story and I couldn't help but smile. Esme's maternal instinct was in overdrive and although I had an initial moment of feeling bad that she was stuck here looking after my kid, I knew it wasn't an inconvenience in the least; Esme was loving every minute of it.

Carlisle joined us an hour or so later, smiling. "She's responding so well to treatment, Edward! Her fever is going down, her breathing is improving and her colour is coming back. If she continues like this, I daresay we can take her home tomorrow or the next day."

I couldn't help the flinch. That meant I'd have to find a shelter willing to take a sick woman who was likely going to be on antibiotics and who shouldn't be out wandering the streets during the day. What was I going to do?

Esme gently bumped my arm. "Edward? What's wrong?"

How could I do this without totally making an ass of myself…it was just another failure to provide on my part. "I…I can't take her home like that. Living there was likely part of the reason she got sick. She'll never get better there. I need to find a shelter for them to stay at where they'll be safe and warm, and hopefully won't send them out on the street during the day." I was so embarrassed that I couldn't even look at him.

He sat beside me, putting his hand on my shoulder. "No, you're misunderstanding me, Edward; she's coming home to our house. You're all three coming to stay with us. We can't possibly send you back there with her so ill."

I shook my head. "I can't impose on you like that. I'll sort something out…"

"Edward, please, it's Christmas. We want all three of you to spend it with us and our family. You know as well as I do that we have lots of room at the house and Carlisle will be there to monitor her. You can work without worry."

"Who will watch Leah?"

Carlisle nudged me to look at Esme, who was beaming. "I think Esme would gladly spend Christmas having fun with Leah. We haven't had a little girl around the house in a while. They can help you out. Please, son, let us do this? We wouldn't be able to live with ourselves if we sent you back there."

My mind reeled at the generosity of these people who had only known me for only a few days, but my stupid male pride tried to muscle its way through. I knew it was best for Bella and Leah to go stay with the Cullens, but it felt like I was admitting defeat, I was a failure. "It's too much, we can't impose on you like that, especially during the holidays, I'll…"

"Edward, please, let us do this. It would mean the world to Esme. There's…there's something we haven't told you. We had a daughter named Charlotte—she would have been thirty this year."

"Would have been?" I asked, although I knew the answer.

Esme sighed. "Charlotte passed away ten years ago. Our eldest daughter struggled with mental illness most of her life. When we could manage to keep her medicated, she was a thoughtful and loving young woman, but when she went off her meds…"

I knew where this was going. I knew many Charlottes, a lot of whom live in our building. Wonderful, vibrant people when they were on task, but when their illness took over, they often held the entire building hostage with their violent rampages. I nodded at Esme and reached out to put my hand on her arm. "You don't have to say it, Esme, I know."

Carlisle continued. "She ran away when she was nineteen; met some kids and ran off with them. It was too late by the time someone called us a year later…she had been living in conditions that would make yours seem like the Taj Mahal, had started using drugs, had contracted both HIV and Hepatitis C, and was in acute renal failure. We brought her to the hospital, but she died two days later. It devastated us all, her mother, myself, Emmett our son and Alice our daughter. It took a long time to get over it because we all felt so helpless.

"So, please, let us help you. We know you're not Charlotte, but we also know that you've got no other family. Please be a part of ours…at least for a while. It would kill us both to think of you three out in the cold again."

Huh. "When you put it like that, I don't think I can say no, but I have a feeling that Bella will put up a stink once she's feeling well enough to do so."

"Momma's not stinky, Daddy," Leah mumbled sleepily, "she smells like love."

I reached over to take her out of Esme's arms. Surely they must be tired by now. As Leah settled onto my lap, I realized that regardless of what I wanted or what Bella would want, we had our daughter to think about. She should always be priority number one, and she deserved a warm bed in a house without rats, cockroaches and crackheads.

"So?" Carlisle prodded.

I nodded. "Yes. We'll come stay until I get us back on our feet. I expect Bella will insist on working around the house to earn our keep and she'll be hesitant to accept this, but I think it's time Leelee here had a real Christmas with a tree and a turkey dinner."

"Turkeys say gobble gobble," she muttered. "Cows go moo."

Esme giggled when I turned to her and said, "Leah inherited her mother's hair, pouty lips and propensity to sleep talk."

Carlisle suggested that Esme take Leah to the house to go to bed, since there was little to no hope of me leaving the hospital until I knew for sure that she was okay. I roused her enough to explain what was going on and to strap her into the booster seat Carlisle had borrowed from somewhere in the hospital.

As soon as the taillights faded, Carlisle and I walked back in to the ER and back to where Bella was hopefully progressing. The nurse changing the bag of saline smiled at us and said that Bella's fever was now down to 102.7, her oxygen levels were improving slightly, and her body temperature was starting to regulate.

"When her fever breaks we can release her to Dr. Cullen's care. I understand you'll be taking her home to look after her?" the nurse inquired before looking between the two of us. "She's very lucky, Edward, Dr. Cullen is our best and favourite doctor—and not just because he's Chief of Staff." She winked at us and left.

Carlisle pulled a chair over by the bed for me. "If her fever is dropping, she'll likely wake up a bit. I'll go get us some fresh coffee and something to eat and I'll be right back."

I leaned forward and took Bella's hand in mine and kissed it. "Babe, you're going to kill me when you're feeling better because I've done something you're not going to be happy with, but I did for you and for Leah. Right now, though, you just need to get better."

"Edward?" she groaned from behind the misting mask. "The dinosaurs are restless and the dog is in the library."

Okay, now that made no sense at all. "What, love?"

"The donuts are made of salt and pepper. Take them out of the elevator."

The nice nurse from earlier poked her head in. "She's delirious, sweetie. She's been talking nonsense for the last hour. Don't worry about it; it'll pass when the fever breaks."

I examined Bella's face while she mumbled something about bubble gum trees and saw that her lips were swollen and blistered. I asked Carlisle about it when he returned.

"They're fever blisters. They'll make her mouth sore for a bit, but they'll go away."

"There's a broom in the pants and it goes boom."

Carlisle chuckled. "I know it's wrong to laugh because she's so sick, but sometimes people suffering from deliria say the funniest things."

"She's like this most nights, although when she sleep talks it makes more sense."

He handed me a cup. "Coffee?"

"Please, and thank you. It's been a long day."


Bella

I woke from the strangest dream only to find I was still dreaming. My body was aching and I felt like I had been hit by a truck, but when I stretched, the bed beneath me felt like a cloud, like heaven, like…not like my lumpy old mattress. The sheets and blankets covering me were not thin and scratchy, but felt heavy and opulent. Again, not my blankets. When my eyes finally opened, I had to squint a bit because of a light across the room.

This is definitely not my room.

Where am I?

How did I get here?

Why am I here?

The last thing I remembered was…drinking a juice box with Leah.

LEAH! Where was my baby?

I got out of the bed and fell to my knees. My legs were weak and my chest felt heavy. My breathing was labored and painful.

After lying on the floor for a few minutes, I pulled myself up and sat on the edge of the bed until I had my bearings and managed to get my breathing under control. I used a nearby chair as support as I walked to the door, stopping once to rest. I took that time to look at my surroundings. I was in a huge bedroom with a lot of expensive things. Definitely not my place. I looked at the long, warm, white flannel nightgown I was wearing and shook my head. Definitely not my pajamas.

Once I made it out the door, I left the chair and used the wall as my support until I reached a large staircase. I knew there was no way I could walk down, so I swallowed any remaining dignity I had, sat down and slid on my butt.

Laughter and music greeted me at the bottom of the stairs. I heard Leah and Edward singing Jingle Bells while two other voices I didn't recognize cheered them on. I wanted to join them to try to figure things out, but my legs were useless, I was too tired, too weak.

"Edward?" I croaked out, hoping he would hear.

Nothing.

I tried again, and before I knew it, Leah was throwing herself at me, words spilling out of her mouth faster than I could really follow. "Momma! You're awake for real this time! Why are you sitting on the steps? Did you fall? Yesterday, while you were sleeping, Mesme and me made Christmas cookies while Daddy and Doc got a HUUUUUUGE tree and we are decorating it tonight because Memmett and Alice are coming for Christmas."

Edward sat at my side and gave me a hug. "Thank God, Bella. Thank God you're okay."

"What happened?" I rasped.

A woman came over and told Edward to bring me in by the fire so I wouldn't catch cold. "Who is that?" I whispered.

"That, my love, is Esme Cullen, and as soon as I get you settled, I'll explain what's going on. Are you hungry? Do you think you could handle some broth? I made it just for you."

I nodded against his chest as we entered the most amazing living room I had ever seen. I must still be dreaming.

"No, love, you're not dreaming."

Esme excused herself to go to the kitchen while Edward and I situated ourselves on the most comfortable sectional couch I had ever sat on. He shimmied into the corner and gently pulled me so I was leaning against his chest. Leah curled up beside me and played with my fingers.

I coughed a couple of times, wincing at the pain and the sound. Edward passed me a tissue so I could discreetly dispose of the crap coming up.

"Carlisle wants to check up on you soon. You're due for another dose of antibiotics."

"Antibiotics…" I held up my hand, which had an IV port taped down. Damn.

"How sick was I?" I asked, fearful of his answer.

"Babe, we almost lost you. If Leah hadn't run to Mr. Chan's to call me…" he trailed off.

I looked down at Leah, who stared fearfully at me. "Please don't be mad, Momma, you were so sick…I needed to get you help and there was no grownup to help me cross the street."

My eyes teared up as I looked at my sweet, courageous little girl. "I'm proud of you, baby. Thank you for saving my life. You're my hero."

"Daddy and Doc said I was their hero, too. Mesme said I was very smart and did the right thing, but that I shouldn't cross the road by myself again unless it's an emerbency. I just wanted you to wake up. I didn't want you to die."

"So, you called Daddy at work?"

She nodded. "Yes, and Mrs. Chan gave me a Twinkie and helped me cross the street again. Then Daddy and Doc showed up and he used his stefferstope on you and then we went for a ride in his big shiny car. While you were sick, Mesme brought me here to sleep and we had pancakes shaped like Mickey Mouse. I love Mesme…she's like my nana now because I don't have one. Is that okay?"

It was a lot to absorb. I had no idea Edward had left the number, I had no idea Leah knew how to cross the street alone, and I had no idea what day it was.

"What day is it?"

"It's Christmas Eve, silly!" Leah said. "Santa is coming tonight!"

I flinched. I had nothing for them. I hadn't been able to finish the knitting projects and Edward's woolie socks were back at the apartment. Edward must have clued into my concerns because he whispered into my ear, "It's all taken care of. Esme and I went out last night. Leah is going to have a great Christmas."

"With what money, Edward? Please say you're not spending your paycheque on Christmas."

Esme walked in with a tray of mugs. "Bella, he didn't spend a cent. It's our honour to give Leah a special Christmas."

"But…I can't pay you back!" I choked out, tears building up in my eyes.

"Sweetie, you don't have to pay it back. Pay it forward someday—that's all we ask."

Edward wiped the tears from my cheeks and took the mug from Esme's hand. "Here's some broth, love. Try to drink some—you need the nutrients. I did a chicken and vegetable broth…it's pretty good. Leah had two mugs of it at lunch with her grilled cheese."

Leah rubbed her tummy and moaned. "It was sooooo yummy, Momma, and I helped Daddy make it!"

"Yes, you did, Leelee. You have been such a good girl while Momma has been sick, haven't you?"

She nodded and blushed. "I was quiet so you could sleep and when I fell down, I didn't cry because I didn't want you to be worried. Daddy kissed it better," she said moving up higher to whisper in my ear, "but your kisses are the best ones. I missed you. Please don't get sick again, I was scared."

"Leah, why don't you come help me finish the gingerbread houses so your mommy and daddy can talk?"

"Yay!" she cheered, jumping off the sofa. "Oh," she turned back to me, frowning, "Mesme isn't a stranger anymore, Momma. Can I go finish the gimberbed houses with her?"

As much as it pained me to let her out of my sight, I couldn't deny her the joy of decorating gingerbread. "Of course, sweetie. We'll just be here while you're doing that. I love you."

"I love you more, Momma."

When they were out of the room I broke down and cried. It was all too much. Edward took the mug from my hand, set it on the side table and held me tight.

"It's okay, babe, you're going to be okay. You had double pneumonia, both lungs were filling up with fluid, you were barely breathing when we got there. If Leah hadn't called…god, Bella, I should have stayed home with you. You were too sick to be left alone. I could have lost you…"

Edward and I held each other and cried until I started coughing. A man, who I assumed was Carlisle, walked in.

"Hi, Bella, I'm Carlisle Cullen and I've been your primary caregiver for the past few days. How're you feeling?"

Again, Edward passed me a tissue to spit into. Ugh, the stuff that was coming up was horrid and tinged with blood. Carlisle motioned to see it. "If you don't mind, I'd like to see what's coming up."

I looked at him, an eyebrow raised in confusion. "Ew, but if you insist."

He examined the crud in the tissue and smiled. "It's looking better. So, again, how are you feeling in general?"

"Tired, sore, and weak…really weak. I can't seem to hold myself up; my legs are like Jell-O. My mouth is sore, my throat is sore, and of course there's the cough."

"You're going to be weak for a while. You're a very sick young woman, Bella. It's lucky we got to you when we did. Not only were you dehydrated and suffering from pneumonia, but we discovered that you are anemic and malnourished. I insist that you remain on bed rest for the next couple of weeks until you get your strength back. We'll get your iron levels up, get you fattened up a bit, and you should be right as rain once your lungs are clear."

"Malnourished? How did…"

Edward nudged me. "How many days have you gone without so Leah could eat?"

Point taken, but I didn't want to discuss this in front of someone else; he didn't need to know our problems.

"I'm also insisting that you stay here with us, all three of you, at least until you're back on your feet. The invitation is an open one, there is no deadline. You are welcome to stay for as long as you need. Without having to pay rent, you'll be able to build a nest egg to get a healthier place to live."

I sighed, "Any savings need to go toward Leah's surgery." At this rate we'd never have a half-decent place to live.

"That's been taken care of," Carlisle said, smiling.

I felt Edward sitting up straighter behind me. "What?"

Carlisle took my hand in his. "I hope you don't mind, but I spoke with the pediatric surgeon at my hospital and told him about Leah's situation. He would like to see her so you can come up with a plan, and he doesn't want a red cent. He often does pro bono cases and the only form of payment he requests is some volunteer time in the pediatric ward."

"That's it? We volunteer and she gets…" Edward choked up and dropped his chin onto my shoulder as he sobbed. "Babe, she's going to get her leg fixed."

I smiled through my tears at the angel before me. "I don't know what to say, Carlisle. I…I thought people like you and Esme were just in the movies. I feel like I'm in some sort of twisted version of a Christmas miracle movie. But," I paused, "it's too much. We can't repay you and I don't understand why you want to help us."

Carlisle's smile dropped slightly. "That's another story for another time, dear. You look like you could use a nap. I'll leave you two to rest. Edward, make sure she sleeps."

"Sure will, boss," he replied brightly.

I turned a little to nuzzle Edward's neck, inhaling his musky Edward smell and sighed. "I'm dreaming, aren't I? I'm delirious and delusional and this is all just the most amazing dream ever, right?"

"If we're dreaming, I hope to hell the alarm clock doesn't go off. We're going to be okay, babe. We're really going to be okay. I'll be able to get us a nicer place to live, in a good neighbourhood so Leah can go to a good school. Maybe I'll be able to save up enough to help you go back to school."

"Mmm…a girl can dream."

"Merry Christmas, Bella."

I turned and placed a kiss on his cheek. "Merry Christmas, Edward. Looks like Leah's finally getting her wish after all."


Leah (Ten years later)

"Dad, can you get me some more powdered sugar? We're running out of snow over here."

"You have two feet and a heartbeat, Leelee, and I'm up to my elbows in bread dough. Can you please get it?" he grunted at me as he kneaded the ball in his big silver bowl.

"Um, that wouldn't be an issue, but I can't seem to keep Charlotte out of the gingerbread." I looked over at my little sister and shook my head. "No, Charlotte, you can't eat the roof!"

Charlotte put on her best five year old pouty face and crossed her arms. "Meanie."

I sighed as I stood up and rummaged around in the cupboard for the sugar, keeping my eye on the munchkin threatening to demolish the house before it ever gets finished. Dad hip-checked me and smiled. "Thanks for keeping her occupied, kiddo. Your mom needed a rest and I know she appreciates it."

"Whatever, I'm just doing my sisterly duties," I replied, shrugging.

"Well, we couldn't do it without you. When you guys are done, why don't you head up to see Mesme and Carlisle for a bit?"

Charlotte squealed. "Mesme! Let's go see Mesme!"

All thoughts of finishing the gingerbread house went out the window as she jumped up and ran toward the door. Before I could move, she ran back into the room holding our coats and boots. "Come on! I wanna go play with Mesme!"

Ah, Mesme. I had started calling her that before I was Charlotte's age and it just stuck. She was the grandmother I had always wanted and never thought I'd have. Although mom and daddy only planned on staying with the Cullens for a couple of weeks, we ended up living in the big house with them for three years until Uncle Emmett and Daddy had renovated the old guest house for us. We've been here ever since, and I love it. They went all out when they made my room, being sure to include a window seat and they made me a canopy bed. Daddy found a maple tree to plant outside my window so I would have shade in the summer and pretty colours in the fall. Uncle Emmett wasn't sure it would survive, but it did and I love spending time reading under my tree.

When we first moved into the big house, Mom was kind of sulky about it. I know she felt bad because it wasn't our house and she felt like we were imposing on the Cullens, but I didn't. I could see that Mesme and Carlisle really wanted us there with them, and although I had been afraid that Emmett and Alice would be upset, they turned out to be really excited about it. We went from a family of three to a family of nine in a very short time—that's including Rosalie and Jasper, their spouses.

I didn't understand until recently just how bad things were when I was Charlotte's age. We lived in a gross old apartment with no heat or hot water, hardly any food, and no money for clothes or medicine. Now we have nice clothes, there's always lots of food, and we have our own personal doctor.

Having a doctor around came in handy after mom had pneumonia. It took her months to get back on her feet. It's amazing she survived at all.

I think that's why she and Daddy waited so long to have Charlotte. Mom still gets tired easily—there was some scarring on her lungs or something, and she was afraid she wouldn't be able to chase around a kid. Well, along came Charlotte and we were all chasing her around. Man, she's hyper!

"CHARLOTTE ESME MASEN! Wait for me!" I shouted as she ran ahead.

"Hurry! You're too slow, Leelee!"

I don't think there's anyone who can keep up with that kid. I keep telling Daddy that we need to make her a hamster wheel and hook it up to a generator to produce some green energy. He said something about child labor laws and such. I'm still considering building a model for the science fair; there's no way I wouldn't win. Tired housewives around the world would be throwing their kids into the ball and letting them run wild while reducing both their power bill and their carbon footprint.

I'm a freakin' genius!

There was another reason why I wanted her to slow down, and that's because my leg is still kind of messed up. Carlisle came through with his promise to get it fixed, but I've come to realize that, nine surgeries later, it's as fixed as it's going to get, and if I have to wear a small brace, then that's fine. I don't remember how bad I used to walk, but I know things are definitely better—I don't get the spasms and the pain I used to have—so I'm okay with that. I may not be great at keeping up on land, but I am a speed demon in the pool.

The scent of home cooking smacked us dead in the face when Charlotte flung open the door. Mesme must be making cinnamon buns. They are the one thing she refuses to let Daddy make because no one makes them like she does, and I agree.

"Girls!" she said, smiling as Charlotte attached herself to Mesme's leg. "Come on in, the first batch of buns is out and I've got mugs chilling in the freezer for your milk."

I got Charlotte settled at the breakfast nook and walked around the island to talk to Esme. "So, is everything going as planned?"

She nodded. "Yes, dear, Emmett said he'd collect the final bins on his way over so we can take the food and clothes to the shelter and food bank tomorrow afternoon. You're still helping me sort through the last of it tonight, right?"

"Yup. Thanks for helping. It means a lot to us that you've been helping with this project over the years."

"For the Love of Leah Foundation has been an amazing charity to be a part of, sweetie. I'm so glad we can be of help. Carlisle is doing one of his free clinics right now."

We started the FtLoL foundation about nine years ago. It began small, with us asking churches and schools to donate food, clothes, toys and money so we could give it to families that had been just like ours—out of luck and in need of a hand. After the first year had been a success, some businesses got involved and one of the radio stations did a "stuff a bus" event, where they set up a school bus in a parking lot at one of the malls and asked people to come and stuff the bus with food and clothes and toys. We stuffed the equivalent of a bus and a half that first year and this year all eight buses set out around the city were filled.

What started as a family project turned into a foundation with dozens of volunteers during the busy months. Mom decided to take the helm while she was still recuperating and when she wasn't busy with school. Yes, I said school! Mom is a social worker now, specializing in poverty and helping families like ours try to get out of a bad situation into a healthier one. Her education has been a huge help to the foundation and she quite often recruits students to help out. One of her professors at the university actually has one of his classes volunteer for class credit.

All in all, I think it's been a huge success and I think at this point we've raised close to five million dollars worth of essential items, not to mention Carlisle has set up a free clinic down in the old neighbourhood so no little girl has to watch their mother almost die because they couldn't afford to see the doctor.

For me, though, it's not the money that makes it worth all of the hard work—it's the smiles, the happy tears, the hugs from the families. If it wasn't for what I know now was a Christmas miracle ten years ago, it could still be my family in line at the soup kitchen or sleeping in the same bed to stay warm.

I count my blessings every day because it could all be gone tomorrow. I pray every night that it's not.

It's easier now to believe in miracles every time I look around me. I've also come to understand that there is power in hope, there is comfort in faith, and a little Christmas magic goes a long way.


Just a heads up...I will be posting the futuretake from Around the Bend that I donated to the Texas fires compilation on January 1st and hopefully my final futuretake shortly after that.

Again, thank you so much for reading and for the support I had during my serious writer's block.

Merry Christmas and Happy Holidays!