A/N: This is dedicated to SunRise19 who requested - er, make that demanded - "fluff with a baby and everything!" Although even at my "fluffiest", I simply can't resist putting Gunther through the wringer a bit first! Lol, enjoy.
Cover art by me, referencing a base created by sonicxlotusx over at Deviant Art.)
"Gunther, I cannot."
"It is not proper!"
"How is it not proper!? I am her husband! For God's sake Pepper, open the door!"
"Gunther, this kind of thing is not done! I know you are anxious, but you have to wait outside!"
"She is fine, and resting. You should go and get some rest too. You can see her in the morning, Gunther."
"I will see her now! Pepper, damnit, open this door or I will break it down!"
"You are being childish."
"I swear, Pepper, so help me!"
"Oh, for the love of…" The door finally – finally – opens a crack, revealing a narrow slice of Pepper's exhausted face. The one eye that Gunther can see is positively ringed with fatigue; she looks like she's barely managing to keep her feet.
Her appearance is deeply at odds with her words of reassurance, and it seals the deal. In a flash he's shoved the door fully open and is past her, though he catches her gently by the elbows and steadies her when she stumbles back a step.
"Gunther!" She sounds fretful, but there's no real force behind this final, last-ditch admonition. She's given up. He's won.
He's gained entrance to the inner sanctum, this mysterious bastion of femininity, which – by the way – is his own damn bedchamber.
And once he's made sure that Pepper is not going to literally fall over as a result of his intrusion, he only has eyes for Jane.
It had dragged on for most of the day and well into the night. And no one would tell him anything. Nothing at all! It was torture, and the fact that he knew Jane was suffering far worse than he was, did not make the torture any less.
Quite the opposite, in fact.
The very limited information he managed to come by had been the result of listening at the door, picking up snatches of conversations between his mother-in-law, and Pepper, and the other women who were there to help. The queen had called in her own midwife, in addition to the one from town whom Adeline had engaged.
How many people did it take to bring a new life into the world? Previously Gunther would have said two, but apparently it required an entire troop of women to finish what he and Jane had begun.
What had started as irritation and nerves had quickly devolved, however, into a state nearly bordering verifiable hysteria. This had come as a result of something he'd heard a couple of hours into the ordeal; a partial exchange between the two midwives.
Remarks to the effect of Jane being too slender, her hips too narrow. She wasn't built for childbirth, and her odds did not look favorable.
That had been the only time he'd abandoned his place outside the door; it had wiped all coherent thought from his mind and sent him running, sprinting, out into the courtyard where he'd skidded to a halt and doubled over, hands on knees, pulling in the crisp, fresh autumn air in great, heaving gusts, utterly consumed by panic.
His head swimming with it.
Oh God, had he killed her!? Jane!
It had been a long time before he'd reasserted enough control to resume his post in the corridor… and he hadn't deliberately listened at the door again.
But other things… other things, he couldn't help but hear...
Her low, guttural grunts of pain as the contractions hit her. They'd been few at first, really just moans of displeasure punctuated by an occasional curse – which, in turn, would elicit a swift rebuke from Jane's very proper mother.
For God's sake, she was concerned with Jane's language at a time like this!?
But they had gradually increased in frequency, coming closer and closer together as whatever… was happening to her in there… had gained in strength and intensity. And he'd been able to tell, through long years of knowing his wife, that despite the increase in volume, Jane had been tiring.
Hell, he had been tiring just waiting in the hall!
And then, even worse – right when he'd hardly have believed it could get worse – her breathless groans of distress had transitioned into actual cries; awful, choked shouts of pain that had caught and twisted at his heart. And Gunther happened to know from experience – going all the way back to their training days as children together – that it took a lot, a LOT, to make Jane cry out in pain.
There had been more than one occasion during those early days that – although it shamed him, now, to admit it – he would very much have liked to make her cry out like that. The angry, insecure child he'd been would have seen it as an accomplishment.
How bitterly ironic that all these years later he'd managed it… and he would do anything, anything to take that hurt away from her right now.
But he couldn't. Couldn't banish it, couldn't even lessen it the least little bit. Could do nothing for her at all.
Couldn't even see her. It wasn't proper.
He'd never felt so bloody helpless in his life.
It's over now, though. It's over and he's in, crossing the room almost in a trance. It's over and there had been a couple of heart-stopping, soul-shredding moments when he'd thought that it really was over, that his life in any real sense was over.
That he had lost her.
The noise had crescendoed and then, quite suddenly, he'd heard a child crying – Jane's child – dear God, his child! And then Adeline had been crying too, sobbing in fact – and he had never known his mother-in-law to lose her composure like that, wouldn't have even believed it was possible until that moment.
And from Jane… nothing. Actively listening again for the first time in hours, his whole body straining with it, he had tried to hear something, anything, from his wife… and could not. A cold, sick terror had gripped him, and with it had come a sudden, crushing sense of inertia. He'd wanted to rush the door, to rip it right off its hinges, but he'd been frozen in place, unable to move, to even breathe.
God in heaven, what had he done?
Then the door had opened all on its own, opened from within, and Adeline had emerged, had come almost… tumbling out, and her expression had been so at odds with what Gunther had been expecting that he'd just stared at her, stupefied, trying – and failing – to make sense of what he was seeing.
Because although her face had been awash in tears, it had conveyed none of the loss, the grief, the devastation to which Gunther himself had already begun to succumb. No, she'd been smiling, she'd been… radiant, and she'd proceeded to grab his face both-handed and plant a firm kiss – to his utter and everlasting astonishment – directly on his lips.
"You have a daughter," she'd announced, had practically crowed. "A healthy, beautiful daughter, and I must find my husband!"
A daughter. He had a daughter. He was a father. It was more than he could process. He'd had months to come to terms with this, to prepare himself, and yet in that moment, he'd felt utterly poleaxed by the news. His head had been spinning. And despite the fact that Adeline's demeanor had suggested everything was, in actuality, alright after all, his mind was still stuck on –
"Jane," he'd stammered. "Can… I see her n-"
"Absolutely not," Adeline had virtually snapped, appearing nothing short of horrified by the mere suggestion of a husband entering his own chambers to see his own wife. "You may see Jane tomorrow, not a moment before." But her face had softened again just seconds later, and it was more than he could keep track of in his current, compromised state – this wild play of emotion across the face of a woman who was usually so guarded, so stoic in her expression.
God help him, he couldn't keep up.
Gracing him with one more beatific smile, she'd pinched his cheek – yes, pinched his cheek, at that – had murmured, "well done, Gunther," and had gone on her way, leaving him dumbfounded.
Well done? Well DONE? He hadn't done anything.
Actually, he'd thought, a sudden hot flush mounting in his cheeks, perhaps that wasn't… wholly true… but he'd certainly done nothing today.
He'd shaken his head. He could make no sense of any of this. But his mind had been made up on one matter, at least. He would see Jane well before morning.
He'd still been able to hear quite a bit of commotion within the room, though, so he'd forced himself to bide his time a little longer; waiting with, in his own measured and unbiased opinion, the patience of a verifiable saint for the better part of an hour. Pacing the stretch of corridor outside the door like a caged animal; repeatedly raking his hair in agitation until, unbeknownst to him, it stood out from his head at strange and alarming angles; and occasionally muttering curses under his breath. Rather unsaintly curses, perhaps, but on the whole he'd felt he was holding it together pretty well.
The noises behind the door had gradually quieted to low murmurs, and at long last it had opened again and the two midwives had emerged. He'd spun, mid-pace, to face them and drawn in breath to speak, but had been derailed by two things. First, that the younger of the women had taken one look at his hair and burst into helpless giggles that utterly mystified him, and second… Oh, God.
Second, that they were both holding linens bundled in their arms which Gunther could clearly see were splashed with blood.
It hadn't been a lot of blood, really; not that he could see at any rate. But it had been Jane's blood, his Jane's blood, and it had stopped the words in his throat, stopped his breath right along with them. It wasn't even as if he'd never seen her blood before; he had, of course, on numerous occasions, over long years of training and even, more recently, some actual combat.
But this had been different somehow, different on a deep and fundamental level. He hadn't really been able to articulate how or why, but it absolutely sucker-punched him, nearly drove him to his knees. The closest he could come to quantifying it was that – unlike in all prior instances when he'd been right there with her, aware of what had caused the harm and able to render appropriate aid – in this case he was just so maddeningly at a loss.
And he couldn't bear it anymore. He wouldn't bear it anymore.
The older woman had patted him reassuringly on the arm as she passed by (the younger still snorting with mirth) and given him a knowing look. I have seen a hundred other new fathers in your state and will probably see a hundred more before I am through, that look seemed to say, but far from being soothed by it, Gunther had been rankled still further.
He didn't care if this crone had been present at a thousand births, or ten thousand. This was not standard. This was not routine. There had been never been another birth like this one, nor would there ever be again. Because this was his wife, his child, and while there may be nothing remotely special about him, Jane was unique. Jane was extraordinary. There was no one else like her anywhere and she was his whole world and that was her life blood staining those rumpled sheets.
How dare this woman act as if that were just… normal?!
Nearly panicked all over again, he'd barely waited until they were out of sight before virtually launching himself the door.
His voice is hoarse; rough around the edges with emotion. He's drinking her in with his eyes as he crosses the room and he can finally breathe again, he'd been asphyxiating shut out there in the corridor, away from her; dying by inches, because he needs her. He needs her. He needs to know that she's safe and well and happy, needs it like he needs air and light and water, needs it to live.
She's lying propped up on pillows in the center of their bed, a light coverlet pooled about her waist, a tiny blanket-wrapped bundle in the crook of one arm. Her eyes are closed, lashes throwing dusky shadows across her cheeks in the mellow, guttering torchlight.
She looks exhausted and beyond exhausted. Pale; utterly wrung out. He starts to sink onto the edge of the bed; stops himself. He doesn't know how badly she still might be hurting, and he doesn't want to jostle her. He kneels beside the bed instead, reaching out to brush a stray curl off her forehead.
Her eyes open, settle on him, and her lips quirk into a smile. "They let you in?" she asks quietly, sounding slightly incredulous.
"I may have pressed the issue," he admits, still just... processing her, basking in the sight of her, almost dizzy with relief. "Is… is it all right?"
"Not even remotely. Take yourself off this moment and go sleep in the barn," she says, then chuffs quiet laughter at the expression on his face. "Of course it is all right, beef brain, what kind of ridiculous question is that?"
Before he can phrase an answer, she extends her nearer hand toward him; pats the edge of the bed. "Come here. Let me… your hair is… what have you been doing to it!? You look absurd."
Gunther is still oddly hesitant about about coming closer. "Are you sure…?"
"Am I sure the bed is large enough for both of us? What exactly are you saying, Gunther Breech?!" There is a teasing light in her eyes, and Gunther wants to rally, but he just… can't. He's still too deeply rattled.
He shifts himself onto the edge of the mattress. "I just –" he takes a deep and shaky breath. "I do not want to… hurt you any more."
"By sitting on the bed with me." Her skepticism is clear in both her tone and expression. She studies him for a moment. "Gunther, are you all right? Really, what have you done to your hair? Here –" now that he's within reach, she starts smoothing it down, frowning slightly. "I am fine, honestly. Although," she allows thoughtfully, "I suppose it was activities in this very bed that landed us here."
She's provoking again, trying to draw him out, but a weak smile is all the response he can manage. He wants to rise to the occasion, to meet her in her attempts at banter, but –
"It would kill me to lose you," he blurts. And yes, that's the crux of it right there; he would die without her, and how close had he actually come?
"Gunther!" She looks appalled. "You have not lost me! I am right here. In fact, I would venture to say that you – we – have gained something rather incredible from all this. Are…" she seems suddenly uncertain. "Are you ready to meet her?"
He swallows hard. No he's not ready. Not even a tiny bit. But he senses that actually saying that could be a rather sizable mistake, so he nods his head. It's the best he can do.
Then Jane very gently adjusts the little bundle in her arms so that Gunther can see his daughter's face, and everything – the whole world – just stops.
He can't see anything else; nothing else is real to him. Just this; this tiny, perfect human being, this new life that he and Jane somehow created. He is stupefied by the force of his immediate and all-consuming love.
It's a paradigm shift at the deepest, the most fundamental level. It changes the shape of… well, of everything. He realizes that he hadn't truly, fully believed that he could love another person with the fierce intensity that burns in him for Jane; hadn't believed there was actually room for anyone or anything else. She has, until this moment, taken up the whole space; filled all the empty, aching places inside him. But now he understands that he was wrong. In a space of seconds, the very shape of his heart has changed; expanded. He sees it all, his entire altered universe, twice as large as it was before, in this one small sleeping face.
His breath leaves him in a rush, and when he looks back up at Jane a moment later, he finds her watching him intently, a smile curving her lips.
"She is…" he has to clear his throat before he can continue; it's quite suddenly constricted, his voice husky. "Beautiful. So beautiful, Jane."
"Yes," she agrees simply, "she is."
He reaches out and catches Jane's face in his hand, cupping her cheek, stroking it gently with his thumb. He still wants to ask her; he still needs reassurance. But he can't find the words. He's completely overwhelmed.
Jane reads his question, though, in his eyes. "It hurt," she says candidly, answering the unspoken query. "It would be pointless to pretend it did not. It hurt – but it did not break me, Gunther, and having you next to me now will not break me either. So just..." she extends her arm again, inviting him to snug up against her. "Lie down with me a while. You look like hell. Worse than I do, I would hazard to guess."
Finally, stretching carefully out beside her, he feels some of the tightness inside his chest start to loosen… to the point where he can even tease back a little bit. "Uhm... have you actually, ah, seen yourself since this beg-OWW!"
A second later he's rubbing ruefully at his arm, giving her an injured look. "You pinched me!"
"I ought to have pinched you twice! Is that any way to speak to the mother of your child?"
A slow but genuine smile spreads across his face. She really is going to be all right. They are going to be all right. Both of them. All of them. His family.
"Invite a man to lie down with you and then pinch him," he grouses, "hardly sporting of you, Jane. I hope you do not expect me to take it too easy on you, when we are able to resume our spars."
"Hah!" She actually snorts her amusement. "Take it easy on me? If you had gone through what I just went through, you would have no voice left from screaming. Also, you would be unconscious. Deeply unconscious. For probably a week. Once I get my feet back under me, you had better hope you can persuade me to take it easy on you!"
A dozen quippy retorts flash through his mind but what comes out instead is, "I love you. So much, Jane. So much."
He snugs fully up against her warmth, resting his head on her shoulder, draping an arm protectively across her body. Jane, in turn, wraps her arm – the one not cradling their daughter – around him. He's so tired, nearly drugged with fatigue, and is already falling away into sleep when he feels her drop a kiss on the top of his head. His lips curve slightly upward and he returns the kiss, pressing one of his own into the little hollow above her collarbone. A second later, though, his smile fades as uncertainty comes crashing back in.
With some effort, he drags his eyes open once more, even raises his head an inch or so. Finds his voice, although it's gravelly, now, with sleep.
"Jane, is this... too much? Am I hurting you? Am I too heavy? I... you have enough to... I do not... want to be an added burden to you right now."
"Gunther Breech, honestly! Of all the silly..." she sighs, her breath stirring his hair, before settling more deeply into her pillows. "I am so glad you came in. So glad. This is where you should be; this is where you belong. Here, with m– with us. And when my mother comes back –" the barest hint of laughter dances around the edges of her voice – "well, we shall weather that storm together. But for now..." she shifts her hand, stroking his hair and simultaneously pressing his head hack down. "For now, stop fretting and rest. You are not a burden. I am perfectly capable of holding you both."
And it's true. He knows it is. She is so amazingly strong, his Jane. His lips move against her skin as he tries to tell her one more time how desperately much he loves her... but no words come.
He's already asleep.