Seven Short Stories: I, Nascence
By Black Waltz 0
It was supposed to be a happy occasion. It wasn't, even through a miracle that allowed him to keep his wife.
The past few days had been confusing blur. He hadn't really slept during any of them and if he had it hadn't been intentionally. He was a father now, his wife staying in the clinic as a high-priority patient instead of her usual job as his assistant. Cassie had done well. She had some fairly serious medical history that had made pregnancy, giving birth, or even falling pregnant in the first place very difficult, life-threatening in places, but that miracle had been her ability to fight through it all despite what her husband and doctor or anyone else had tried to say on the matter.
She was a Sylvas, one born from a long line of metalworkers; it was said they had steel in the blood, and while Cassie was arguably more calm and reserved compared to her older sister that toughness was still there, hidden, beneath the skin.
Everybody had come by to see them, most of their friends, and though it filled Warren with guilt nearly all of them had to be turned away save for family. The clinic was closed with no idea when it would open again, an almost unheard-of occurrence in the history of adventure-savvy Adratea. The injured and the sick were being handled by the Adventurer's Guild and encouraged to deal with it themselves, at least until Warren's replacement hit town. He didn't care about that right now. He didn't have the energy to even try.
For Dr. Warren McCulloch the only thing he could even begin to focus on right now were the two most important patients of his career, and his life. Nothing in the past could have fully prepared him for something like this. Cassie was okay now; she'd have a scar and some weeks of recovery ahead of her but her trial had passed – she hadn't hemorrhaged or suffered any of the numerous complications that could have staggered her frail body; a body made even weaker by the drain of a full-term pregnancy and her illness. She was in remission and almost back to normal thanks in part to him and the explorers of the town but she would never be one hundred percent healthy again, no matter how close.
She had already accepted this. It wasn't like she had much of a choice, but what bothered and worried Warren now, that robbed him of his ability to sleep, or eat, or do anything to help anybody was the fate of his daughter. She wasn't even a week old yet, but that might not even happen at all; she was very, very weak and sickly.
She might not even last the night, but Warren was not prepared to let himself think that. His heart wouldn't be able to take it and like an overflowing vessel all of that sadness and grief and guilt would just spill over; spill through.
Guilt. It was inescapable, but like Cassie he shared it with her like a pair of iron cuffs, shackling them together. He could remember just barely in his sleep-deprived state how he had sat besides Cassie's clinic bed the whole night through, hunched over, wishing he could put his head in her lap so he could have some place to sob without her having to see him, only there were stitches there now and the slightest pressure caused her pain, and she had been crying, too.
It had been both their fault, and it had been nobody's fault. It was hard to say. Cassie's severe poisoning some years ago had greatly weakened her body, true, but Warren had also not always been the picture of perfect health. There had been a time, long ago when he was just a boy when all the monitoring equipment, hospital sheets and doctor's mumbles; hushed meetings behind drawn curtains were for him instead. The word 'terminal' had been passed around under his nose quietly before he made his inexplicable recovery and that was what it had been – inexplicable. A miracle. Fortunate, but unexplained.
How many times could a miracle be provided to one man? He had witnessed them, experienced them, even worked a few himself, but there had to be a limit. No one was that lucky. Had the lasting damage from Cassie's poisoning weakened their baby, or had the very illness that Warren had fought all his childhood to conquer come back vindictively to seek its final revenge on his own child? He wouldn't be able to live with himself if that were true.
The baby… the child; his daughter; (god, he could still barely believe that he had one now. It felt easier to generalize, to call her 'the baby' to pull on his heartstrings less, for all the good it did him) was about three days old now. She had fought this far and Warren knew that every sunrise she managed to experience would bring her that little bit closer out of the danger zone and into safety. Cassie wouldn't let her out of her sight, out of her mind; out of her arms. In pain though she was, tired, weak and exhausted she was guarding the little bundle in her arms like a cornered animal – afraid but daring, just daring the world to try and take her from her.
But she couldn't do that forever. She wasn't a tireless robot and after everything she had already gone through it was unfair to leave the brunt of the vigil solely to her. She barely even seemed to notice Warren as he crept downstairs into the clinic, walked down the row of beds to her spot at the end of the ward and sat down at his usual place beside her. He was carrying a clipboard with him under one arm but for the life of him he couldn't actually remember if it was relevant or not, or just something he had picked up along the way because it felt reassuring to hold.
She was still beautiful, but she didn't look healthy. The dimmed lights almost made her ghostly in appearance, her skin pale, her short blonde hair silvery and yet there were noticeable dark shadows collecting beneath her eyes. Like Warren she hadn't been eating very much either, but he had thought ahead for that and had her hooked up to a nutrient drip just to be safe. He loved her, he adored her, she was and always would be his best friend, but at the same time he almost regretted how he had brought this upon her; to get her all excited over starting a family and becoming a mother only to have this happen to the both of them.
"Cassie?" He asked her softly, trying to get her attention.
She didn't respond to him at once so he reached out and laid a hand tentatively on her shoulder. She was awake but dozing just a little; in a light trance. "Cass?"
She moaned quietly at that, uncomfortable as Warren shook her with all the gentleness he could muster. "Cassandra?" He asked one last time with a wan smile, using her full name. That usually got her attention right away. She'd told him once that she'd never liked it, and the only ones who had ever called her that were her father and her sister, and now him.
As Cassie turned to look at him he could plainly see that her blue eyes were lidded with tiredness. She returned his smile in the same manner, warm but weak; brave but on the verge of failing. "Oh, honey…" She started to say, wiggling a bit to try and sit up straight in bed. She had pillows for support but she still winced as she moved, mindful of the quiet child in her arms. "… What time is it? Is it late?"
"A little past midnight by now." Warren said to her without thinking the question too out of the ordinary. There weren't any windows in the clinic and it could be a little discombobulating, but even more than that Cassie had too much on her plate right now to keep perfect track of the passage of time. He hesitated for a moment to suppress a yawn, covering his mouth with his hand. "How, uh, how is Ally? Is she alright?"
"Alice?" Cassie responded, as though she were making sure.
Warren was almost afraid of her response. "Y-Yeah."
The young woman looked down at the bundle against her breast as if needing to reassure herself that it actually was still there and safe. For a moment it seemed like she was about to burst into tears but then she blinked a few times and awkwardly cleared her throat, forcing it away. "She's sleeping right now. She's still here with us, but I don't know for how long. She's barely eating, I can't get her to want to drink no matter how hard I try and she's so tiny, Warren! She's so thin. I'm scared for her, I really am…" She trailed off before the urge to weep could try to take over again.
Alice, their daughter, she hadn't been born premature, she had been right on time, but she was still painfully small. Cassie had let him name her after the protagonist of a book he had enjoyed as a boy but maybe now that she was out into the world it held a cruel irony.
"Well, how can you expect her to want to be hungry when her mother keeps skipping meals?" Warren chided softly, worried for her. "You have to take care of yourself now, too. Want me to make you some breakfast? It's technically the morning so it won't be so strange. How about some bacon and eggs? The extra protein will do you both good." He offered.
Cassie shook her head slowly. "Too tired to be hungry. All I want to do is sleep." She said.
"Why don't you?" Warren asked, standing up again. It would only take a few pillow arrangements to get her nice and comfy again.
She seemed to panic at the thought, looking up at him with wide eyes. "I-I can't do that! I can't! What if something happens to Alice after I fall asleep? What if… if she goes the moment I'm not watching over her? I just got her, and I don't know how much longer she'll be here, so I… I have to hold onto every minute I can. I can't let go yet." She explained, hugging her baby even closer to her chest at the notion she might be taken away.
"Cassie." Warren said softly yet sternly, more as a doctor rather than her concerned husband. "You can't just not sleep. You'll burn out."
Her tired, sore state had already wreaked havoc with her judgment and her ability to be reasonable but Cassie was still astute enough to see that Warren was being a great big hypocrite, as he hadn't had a solid rest since before the birth either. She chose not to mention this though, as it would only serve to hurt his feelings. "I know." She said instead, closing her eyes and looking away.
"Trina's coming by first thing in the morning and she promised she'd watch Ally for us for a few hours so we can rest. I'll show her what warning signs to look out for and she swore that she would take everything completely seriously." Warren told her, hoping that the news might cheer her up. Trina had practically raised Cassie herself, in lieu of the mother they had lost years ago when they had been only children.
"Sis…" Cassie said in a whisper, but that was all.
There was a little room left on the bed that wasn't currently being taken up by Cassie's small frame so Warren migrated over to sit with her, careful not to bump or jar her too much. She tried to scoot out of the way anyway but then she leaned into him as he tried to put his arm around her. He was as he always was, his side warm and sturdy and comforting to be against. "Why don't I watch over Ally for a while? I'll take good care of her." He said in a soothing tone.
"No." Cassie replied in protest, shaking her head again at the same time as she snuggled up against him.
"Come on, please? You know you can trust me, I'm a doctor. Let me see my girl." He pressed, not wanting to pressure her too much but desiring to take the burden away from her, if only for a short while.
She tried to think the proposition over as sensibly as she could. Even if she didn't want to relinquish her child in case she never got to hold her again Warren was also her father and he deserved time with her too – it was selfish to try and keep her all for herself. Cassie seemed to relax against him, sighing sadly. Eventually she nodded. "Okay, you can watch her, but only for a little while. I really need to sleep. Just… can you please do me a big favor, honey?" She asked.
"Of course." Warren said readily in a gentle voice, reaching the arm up that was wrapped around her shoulders to lightly stroke her hair. "Anything you want."
"Can you stay here with me and wait until I fall asleep before you take Ally from me?" The young woman pleaded with him as she fussed with her daughter, making sure she was still wrapped up safe and secure. She frowned abruptly, reflecting back upon herself. "I'm sorry if I'm acting neurotic, I just-"
"No, I understand." Warren interrupted her, leaning in close and kissing her softly on the temple. He smiled for her sake. "It's alright. Just relax, Cass. I'll stay right here." He said.
Cassie would have straightened up and kissed him properly if it weren't for her stitches and her utter lack of energy. She leaned back against the pillows but also further into his side, taking solace in his warmth. "Not for too long?" She whispered faintly.
"I'll wake you up soon." He reassured her.
"Good. Thank you." She hummed. "Warren?"
"I love you." Cassie sighed weakly.
And Warren, who was a relatively strong man despite being a doctor and could break an average man over his knee if he so desired felt his heart melt upon hearing those words. It would have felt good, and it did, of course, but those had been the only defenses against keeping the rest of his sadness at bay. He felt the familiar knot in his throat and the tightness in his chest that spoke of what was to come. "I… I love you too, Cassie." He said a little hoarsely as he squeezed her. "For always."
It didn't take long for Cassie to doze away. It seemed like the only thing that had been keeping her conscious was sheer willpower and with that gone she was quiet and still against him in minutes, her breathing deepening into gentle, light snores. She always snored a bit since her accident had damaged her airways and lungs but Warren had already gotten used to it long ago. It hardly bothered him at all anymore.
Warren kissed Cassie one more time while she slept and laid the clipboard he had been carrying on the chair and then, slowly and carefully, with the delicacy and precision of a surgeon he removed his arm from around Cassie's shoulders and lifted their infant up out of Cassie's arms, still looped protectively around the swaddling cloth even in sleep. A slight crease appeared across her brow, a frown passed through the young woman as she unconsciously drew her empty arms around herself instead, leaning into the pillows instead of Warren's side as he stood up and slipped away from her.
He had delivered a few babies by this point in his professional career, from when he had been a resident working at the hospital in the city to way out in frontier land in the village of Adratea. Some of them had been the children of his friends and while he had begun to think he'd seen or heard about every little complication by now none of them had been like Alice. She was so light, and small, and quiet; Warren almost felt like he was holding a doll instead of his own child.
Regardless of that she was still beautiful. Though tiny every part of her was perfectly formed, and of the few feathery wisps of hair she had they were a shade of brown so light that it was almost blonde. Cassie had said that she had blue eyes too, yet that would possibly change in the future. All newborns had blue eyes when they were young.
She was still warm, she was breathing, and she was sleeping. That was good. Warren held the bundle in his arms as he meandered through the ward at a snail's pace, worried that if he sat down or stayed in one location for too long he would crash out just like Cassie had. Eventually he found himself humming soft enough not to disturb his sleeping wife but audibly enough for Alice's benefit, thinking of a song from the old country his own mother had sung to him long ago.
He had to stop all of a sudden when one of the tears he hadn't realized he'd been shedding splashed against the lenses of his glasses and half of his world went blurry, surprising him. "Oh, damn it…" He sniffed as he halted in his tracks and held Alice even closer, shifting her to one arm for a brief second as he reached up and removed his glasses, stashing them in a pocket and trying to wipe the excess moisture away.
"I'm sorry. It's all my fault." He said out loud to someone who could not hear him, and even if she could she would not have been able to comprehend him. "I'm supposed to be able to help, but I can't. I can't."
He didn't understand why. He was a doctor, it was supposed to be his job, but beyond that he had been born with a power that should have been able to do something for her. He'd healed wounds using that kind of power before, cured illnesses, even brought people back from the brink of death on a few rare occasions. His hands held that kind of magic touch but as he held his daughter there and now, closely, wanting her to be well more than anything else in the world…
It made no difference. Why was that? When he wanted something enough, when he cared so much that he put his whole heart and mind into the wishing just like all the other gifted white mages had done in centuries past… miracles happened. Why wouldn't it work now? Was he too afraid, or maybe he didn't care enough? The thought sent a chill skipping down his spine.
It couldn't be true. He was sure of it.
"Don't die, Ally. I'll die with you if you decide to go." Warren told her as tears streamed down his cheeks freely now, but he was too distraught to care. His replacement would be arriving any day now, a colleague that he knew quite well from St Germain, but that was little comfort.
It was past midnight, quiet in the dim of the clinic lights, and he had never felt so alone.