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Travail

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It was a warm day in May, and Fritz was wading with their little Robin in the shallows. And Poor Franz was trying to say something to Jo when the first of the pains began. She shifted cautiously, doing her best to find a position that was comfortable. She had no intention of getting to her feet, nor could she possibly hope to do so without help.

“Aunt Jo?” the tall lad queried, kneeing beside her on the quilt they had thrown under a sturdy oak.

She managed a tight smile, shifting again and pressing the heel of one palm into her lower back. “Your cousin is more active than Robin today, and that’s saying something,” she breathed. Her husband had doubted they should go on this picnic. She was sure he would be muttering about that soon. But the boys had been longing for a holiday, and she felt too cooped up at Plumfield all day in semi-confinement.

“Shall I go get Uncle Fritz?” Solemn brown eyes were taking her in, Franz eyeing her swollen middle as though it might burst at any moment.

A shake of her head, and she felt the pain ease and begin to recede. For now. “Not yet. The boys need a good romp. They’ve worked so hard the whole week, and I’d hate to cut their revelry short.” In truth, she had felt pains several times in the last few days. Once while peeling potatoes with Asia, earning a hard look from their cook, which she had dismissed as the baby moving uncomfortably. A few that had pulled her from sleep, making her restless and led to wandering the house before finally nodding off in the armchair in the parlor, where Fritz found her this morning. He hadn’t pushed for answers, no doubt remembering that she’d slept several times in the arm chair near the end of her time expecting Robin—cushions supporting her back and letting her find support in a way the bed simply could not.

The cool glass brought her back to present, a cup of water Franz was pressing into her hand.

“You will make a fine husband to a darling girl someday,” Jo mused, following her words with a smile and thanks before sipping the water slowly. Something told her that her time was coming soon, no doubt in the next day or sooner. She caught sight of Fritz’s look in her direction, peering over their boy’s head. Jo waved in reassurance.

“Does… does it hurt terribly?”

Bless the lad, she smiled softly. “It’s… strenuous, certainly by the end of things,” she admitted. It wasn’t exactly what could be called polite conversation, but Jo Bhaer was determined to be honest and factual with her boys. “There is pain.”

He nodded slightly, like one trying to understand but lacking any frame of reference. “May I stay with you until we leave?”

“I’d like that,” Jo admitted. She wished she could manage a nap, but she doubted it would be possible now. Still, the boys deserved more time, and she couldn’t bear to deprive Robin of his last moments on the receiving end of his father’s full attention. She loved them both like this—her husband attentive, gentle but strong, overseeing everything yet giving Robin the freedom to take tentative swipes at the water while settled in the safety of his father’s arms. Robin looked at his father with such awe and trust, lisping the occasional question with his baby words, giggling over the antics of the boys who were jumping from a rock into the deeper pool further on. Jo thought her heart might burst from fullness.

Everything was about to change. Everything. And the next pain, a while later, only punctuated the point. Her breath caught, and she knew Franz heard it for his head lifted and he immediately looked to her.

She caught his arm before he could stand. “N-not just yet,” she murmured, taking a shaky breath and letting it out slowly. Jo struggled to remember what had helped with Robin, how she had managed to breathe through the peak, pushing aside the reality that the pressure would only become more intense until their second child arrived. This pain was definitely stronger than the first, and it left her breathless for several long moments. “Could you, ah, pack up the last of the food?”

Franz began to work immediately, and Jo was thankful for his calm manner. So like his uncle. It was quick work, hastened further when he enlisted Emil and Tommy, who weren’t entirely finished with their dives into the pond but who were in search of a treat. The shortbread and lemonade would have to wait for the boys until they made it back to Plumfield.

She had known that she wouldn’t hold Fritz at bay for long, for her husband was too wise and observant not to see their new industry and put two and two together. He joined them not long after, swinging Rob from his shoulder to the arms of Emil with the understanding that the little one was Emil’s charge now.

“Can thou stand?” he murmured. Bless him for doing his best to keep calm and give her as much dignity as he could. At her small nod, he crouched down and easily wrapped an arm around her, his other hand cupping her elbow and assisting her carefully to her feet.

Jo’s legs already felt shaky with the significance of the moment. It didn’t require words because he paused, pressing a lingering kiss to the top of her head and waiting until she attempted to move. “I… I think we have time to make it to Plumfield?”

“Thy pains, when did…?”

“A little while ago. No more than half an hour, but I’m certain our baby is coming soon,” she answered, giving his wrist a squeeze. Jo knew he was aware she had been having an occasional pain for days, but she also knew that he trusted her to let him know when it was time. “I… I wish I could walk back. I know it would be too slow and taxing, but the wagon is so bumpy.”

They had three miles to return to Plumfield. It felt as daunting as the labors of Hercules. For a fleeting moment, she entertained the thought of delivering their child here at the pond they so loved. It took some time to make the steady walk to the wagon, and Jo was daunted by the height from the ground to the step. While Fritz and Franz had helped her down from it not more than two hours before, it seemed higher than ever.

She was blessedly spared decisions, Fritz making them for her as he guided her to the back of the wagon. It took some doing, Fritz going on one knee, Franz and Emil guiding her up and some managing to settle her and get on the way with her small family of two, soon to be three, around her and Franz driving. It was a blur, more pains coming on the way and leaving her surprised as they pulled up to her childhood home instead.

 

“I w-want to stand,” Jo insisted, shaky, but determined as she got to her feet and wobbled before grasping the bedpost and hugging it for support. When she managed to shift just so, the worst of the pains eased, and she could get a full breath again. There was something about her room, Beth’s old bed lending its memory of her sweet sister, and fleetingly Jo remembered her own resolve to name the babe after Beth, should it turn out to be a girl.

Meg hovered nearby, more unsettled to see Jo’s pains than she had been with any of her own when the twins came. The thought of twins made Jo swallow hard. Her belly was only a little bigger than it had been with Robin. Surely it was just the one baby. She never fathomed how Meg had managed to deliver two in succession, but as Meg had pointed out once before, there was no choice but to keep going when little Demi made his appearance and it was clear a sibling followed closely behind.

It was different from her first, like her pregnancy had been, and Jo knew she should’ve expected it to be different. Only she hadn’t. The midwives and mothers claimed second babies were easier, and yet here she was six hours after being at the home and with some time yet to go. She longed for her own bed. For sleep. For Fritz’s comforting arm across her waist.

The worst of the pains eased again, and she sagged slightly, moving carefully until both hands were braced against the mattress and letting herself lean forward. It gave her back some relief from the aches there.

They were doing their best to help—her sisters and Marmee and the midwife, but Jo trembled, and shook her head at urgings to sit, to rest. She felt nauseous, and nearly gagged at the suggestion of food. “I feel so ill,” she panted, another pain rising and sending both hands to brace against the mattress for support. “W-wasn’t like this with… with Rob…”

“You’re doing so well,” Marmee assured. “Every one of you were different for me.” Her arm went around her second daughter, taking some of Jo’s weight and supporting her through the pain. “Yours felt the longest,” she added wryly. “I think in part because I was aware of what was happening sooner with you—with Meg it was all new and uncertain. And Amy came so quickly, as though she couldn’t stand to miss another moment of our family life happening without her.”

Jo caught her breath and let herself be helped back onto the bed, laying down this time and murmuring thanks as they sponged her warm forehead and neck. “I-it’s terrible to say… but I hope this is our last,” she admitted. She wouldn’t dare say it to Fritz. If he wanted more children, she would bear up and do her best. She knew many mothers claimed they weren’t going to have another, only to recant. But she meant it and flushed with embarrassment at her words.

If anyone had attempted to change her mind, Marmee had stopped them. Her mother hadn’t addressed her words, but she had let her daughter rest and did her best to situate pillows and keep Jo as comfortable as they could.

 

It simply wasn’t done, the midwife had protested.

 Meg was speechless.

Amy stammered “But really, Jo!”

But Jo had insisted. Dug in her heels, so to speak. And then pleaded. She couldn’t do this without Fritz. It was nearly four in the morning. She was so spent she didn’t have the energy to cry. The gown was soaked in sweat, clinging to her tired frame. Her baby was positioned low now, adamant at making its entrance, and her body was slow to cooperate. And lingering in the back of her mind she was haunted by the stories of mothers who hadn’t managed long labors.

“P-please,” she gasped, not sure if the salty streaks were tears or sweat. She knew there was talk of chloroform, the midwife had pushed twice for this and tried to convince them how it could be so much easier. But it hadn’t felt right to Jo, and Marmee had been adamant that it wasn’t safe and certainly was no guarantee. “I need Fritz,” Jo groaned as another cramp traveled through her mid-section.

Men were relegated to the rest of the house, apart from the women. They waited in parlors or on porches, and sometimes in the corridor. Birthing was women’s work. But before any of the women could cross the room, there he was, filling the door and striding toward her.

Further words were cut short with another insistent groan, and Jo gave in to the shifting, sagging against Fritz as he eased her up and provided a bolster. Her back was fully supported by him, one tentative hand stroking her hip in a desperate attempt of encouragement. “Right here, Schatz,” came his familiar rumble, gathering up her matted hair and easing it back from her neck and shoulders in an attempt to cool her.

To say it was easier, would have been untrue, but it was better with him there. Everything became a blurry wave of intensity. Her body, despite the long hours, remembered its part. And Fritz was rumbling words to her, his hands rubbing her upper arm in comfort and then at her thigh to support the trembling limb in those long moments of strain. And she distinctly remembered the feeling when Fritz’s breath caught as their second child came into the world, a mess and wailing lustily.

It was the small cry that undid her. The rounds of bedrest and nagging nausea had worried her in ways she couldn’t entirely express even to Fritz or Marmee. Meg’s words, about it being like Beth had been so kindly meant but had plagued her. And yet there was their child. Lungs strong, unwilling to hold arms and legs still even for Marmee to clean up.

“A second boy, another little Bhaer to carry our name,” Fritz marveled, and Jo felt the tears dripping into her hair. He pressed a series of kisses to her cheek and head as the child was finally settled into Jo’s arms, her own arms supported by her dear professor.

She could give into everything now, her tears flowing freely as she took in every feature, hers and Fritz’s in miniature. Their son continued to squirm, his cries calming to gurgles and nearly silenced when he caught his father’s forefinger and clung tenaciously.

“Well done,” Meg murmured, unable to resist taking the corner of the baby’s blanket and tugging it around her moments-old-nephew. She patted Jo’s hand in comfort before stepping back. It became a blur to Jo. They were cleaning up the baby, and then her, and she managed a little water and then lost the battle to sleep comforted by Fritz’s arms and his warm voice murmuring sweet words in his mother tongue.

 

Deep aches woke her, and Jo felt as weak as a newborn deer. A newborn. The room was so very quiet, and her words caught in her throat. “mmm…”

“It’s alright,” Her dear father’s voice was at her shoulder, seated in a chair at her bedside. He urged Jo to sip the bitter and pungent bark tea, and did his best to help Jo into as easy a position as possible. “Easy now, your work is done and well.”

She felt every bit of the battle of the day before. And before she could think to ask, she spotted Fritz sprawled in Beth’s old bed, deeply asleep. Jo wondered if Marmee and Meg would be able to rest and guessed Hannah would be looking after the twins, and Robin, and… and her new little boy. They needed a name. And she needed rest. Even now, she could feel sleep tugging insistently at her again. And no wonder, as she’d lost a full night of sleep.

“Hannah and that jolly Nell Calloway are looking after the little ones” he assured, knowing it would be her concern. “Nell has the little ones wrapped around her little finger, and young Daisy is already mothering her small cousin, singing a lullaby to urge him off to sleep.” He bent down and his kiss to her brow was a benediction.

Jo gave a murmur of what she hoped he knew to be thanks, and let the sleep claim her again, unable and unwilling to fight its tow.

 

Nein, my Jo, it is vanity!” her husband protested, dipping his fingers in the washbasin and attempting to bring order to his rumpled hair. They had both awakened a while ago and tucked into popovers and more bark tea for Jo. Conversation had turned to a name.

Jo sighed, shifting the baby and pillow in hopes of finding the right approach as her son attempted to nurse while insisting on perpetual motion. “Friedrich is such a dear name to me,” she pressed. “Little Fred? Freddy?”

A squawk of protest erupted, and Fritz laughed heartily. “See? Thy son objects as much as his father!”

Jo gave a good-natured remonstration about choosing sides already, and the audacity after all her troubles to bear him. But she gave the baby a gentle bounce, and shifted him again and found success as he finally sought his meal. “What about… what about naming him after your father? Surely that’s only fair, as Robin is named for mine?”

He didn’t talk about his father often. Jo hoped it had been a happy home. As much as Fritz worked to make Plumfield warm and encouraging, she couldn’t image his childhood being otherwise. But she did know of those who worked so hard to compensate for what they never had. The silence stretched out, and she nearly apologized for overstepping.

“Thy kind heart means well, but I do not imagine the boy as Ludwig.” His smile gave her permission to laugh. “And the meaning… war and battle, and something of your word, ah, famous. Perhaps too boisterous for a lad already so active.”

It made her smile as it was meant to. “I was certain it would be a girl.”

“He is decidedly not,” came the amused counter, and her husband eased cautiously onto the edge of the bed, watching her carefully to be certain he wasn’t disturbing her too much. “Thou art stronger than ever I knew.”

“Because you were with me,” she demurred. “He’s so sturdy,” she marveled. “I almost expect I could set him down and he would immediately totter off in search of his brother.”

A warm smile was her answer. “All in time, my Jo. And most men would faint at a fraction of thy labor.” His gaze held hers, then swept over their boy. “Joseph, perhaps?”

“Vanity,” she countered, hand smoothing the thatch of sandy hair. “Father used to call me ‘my son, Jo.’” They shared another laugh at this, watching as the boy’s eyes closed, and he grew tired with the exertion of eating. Remembering how tiny and new this life truly was.

Fritz was shifting carefully, stretching out beside her and offering his steady support. He fretted with the quilt, asking if her feet were warm enough and whether he should add another log to the fire in the hearth, as the day hadn’t been as warm as the day before. She merely caught his forearm and settled it against her side, making it clear she wanted him nearby.

Also different. He had been so animated when Robin arrived, overjoyed and proud of his wife, but eager to bring their new son to Father March and the family. Buttons bursting as Hannah had said. And this time, he was simply with her, his steadiness calming her.

The quiet settled around them, silence suspicious for a moment until Jo reminded herself that they weren’t at Plumfield. She idly wondered how long before some of the boys came tramping over. Franz and Emil should meet their cousin properly. And how many days before she would be up to making the journey home.

In her arms, the little baby finally sighed, his body going lax. Lips pursed twice before too tired from the business of being born to stay awake another moment. Jo let the pillow take his slight weight and eased her gown back into place before letting herself sink back into the bed and against her husband.

“Such a gift,” Fritz murmured, voice low and deep. “He is a gift.”

She nodded and when he reached to lift their son to cradle the baby against his chest, Jo simply watched and treasured the moment. “A gift of God.” When Fritz hummed with certainty, something in the tone caught her attention. “Friedrich?” she breathed, the resonance in the moment bringing his full name to her lips.

“Gift of God,” he mulled the words over slowly, trying them on. “So boisterous already. Dare we name him for thy first boy? Would it tempt fate and tax thy motherly care too much?”

“Teddy?” she breathed the name to confirm he meant it. “Fritz… are you… are you sure?” Teddy had truly been her first boy. And he'd pined for her. And she knew Fritz was aware of the history, just as he was certain that none but Fritz had ever truly held her heart.

He gave her a fond smile and kissed his son’s head. “A honorable man, more than generous to this town, and we never should have gotten on without his help. I owe him far more than a namesake. Will thy brother and sister mind?"

The family didn't speak of it, but things Amy had shared in confidence told Jo that her sister worried. They had married several years before Jo, only two years after Meg and John. And Amy had lost two in pregnancy. It was common enough, but left changes in both Amy and Teddy that Jo noticed. She saw how tender they were with the Daisy and the little nephews. And they all held out hope. "I think..." Jo began, swallowing hard and remembering how her own thoughts had turned to such things so many times in the past months, "He'll... they'll be honored. Truly."

"Theodore Ludwig Bhaer," Fritz stated thickly.

The tears welled up, but she was grinning and gave his shoulder a kiss, the best she could manage from her position. Jo brushed away the moisture and she murmured as the baby’s eyes blinked groggily, unsure why he was being summoned from so short a sleep. “Hello, Teddy,” she whispered.