The breath of the room seemed to hover, waiting, ready. Then Adele strained again, and ground out a pained moan.
“That’s it!” Gaia said. “Oh, Adele, he’s here. He’s beautiful!”
The woman in Leon’s arms leaned slowly backward, her mouth wide and body limp. “Let me see him,” she said, but already Gaia was passing the baby up over Adele’s belly, trailing the umbilical cord. It was the knobbiest, skinniest baby Leon had ever seen, all slippery knees and elbows, and a dark color he’d never known existed. Gaia wrapped a clean cloth around the little body and rubbed him with surprising vigor, right on top of Adele. Then, as Adele held the infant, Gaia used a bit of reed to suck out his mouth and nose, and an instant later the baby gave out a cry.
Leon laughed, and everyone else was smiling, too. Bachsdatter was openly crying. Mlady Maudie kept congratulating everyone loudly. Gaia was talking in a joyful, delighted stream. She was moving, too, cleaning up between Adele’s legs. Leon couldn’t keep his eyes off the little person who had shown up. He was pinkening now, and he was so small. Leon knew, of course, that he’d existed inside Adele, but now he was born. He was his own complete little guy, a person who’d never existed outside before.
“Thank you, Gaia,” Adele said. “Oh, thank you. He’s perfect.”
“He is. He’s incredible. You’re incredible. But we’re not done yet,” Gaia said. “There’s the afterbirth. Catch your breath for a minute while you can. That’s coming, too. Okay? Let me do the cord.”
Smiling, Adele lifted her head to take in the room, and Leon felt her gaze settle on him.
“Who’s this?” Adele asked in surprise.
Leon drew back. He watched Adele’s mottled face. She was still happy, but confused, and suddenly her confusion changed to shock.
“You!” Adele said. “What are you doing here?” She clutched desperately at her newborn. “You stole our baby girl!” she cried. “Get out!”
“It’s just Leon,” Gaia said. “I told you about him. He came to help me. To help you.”
“Get out!” Adele shrieked again. She started to shiver visibly and reached for her husband. “Luke! He’s here! He can’t steal our baby!”
Leon backed toward the door. He looked down at his hands, wondering when they’d picked up traces of blood. His shirt had streaks of it, too. Adele’s eyes flashed with pain, and in panic, she turned toward Gaia again.
“Help me! Gaia!” she said.
“You’re all right,” Gaia said soothingly. “Here. You’re fine. I’ve got you. He’s going. He was just here to help, but he’s going.”
Adele hunched into another contraction, and Bachsdatter slid the baby from her arms. Without another look at Leon, Gaia began to work over Adele again. Still in shock, Leon glanced up at Mlady Maudie. Her face was bloodless, her lips tight.
“You should go,” she said quietly.
With one more step, he was outside and the screen door closed behind him.
How quickly it had changed. How fast. He’d been part of them. He’d been with them for the miracle of a birth. It was the most extraordinary thing he’d ever seen, and he’d been part of it.
Now he wasn’t.
He was the enemy. He stared down at his hands. It was full light now. Sunlight was slanting across the top of the island, and a light breeze was stirring the leaves of the apple trees. He tried to breathe, and found his chest was tight with pain.
“You all right?” Peter asked.
Leon turned to find him in a sturdy chair, tipped back against the wall of the stone barn, near a big, open doorway.
Leon looked down at himself again. He stood in his gray socks. His boots were waiting for him on the stoop, his hat on the peg. His brain still wasn’t processing properly.
Peter brought down the front legs of his chair with a thud in the dirt. “There’s a pump over here,” he said. “Here. Let me.”
Peter strode to an old pump with chipped black paint and began working it. Squeaks and sharp bangs came from the metal, and then the chugging gush of the first water. Leon pushed into his boots before going near. He automatically put his hands in the cold stream, rubbing them clean, and the water seemed to wake him from a trance. A cold, quiet steadiness took its place.
“I’ve got it,” Leon said, his voice low. Taking the handle, he got a big rush going, and then stuck his head under the pump, gasping at the cold of the fresh water. He took a long drink, relishing the sweetness down his dry throat. Then he stripped off his shirt and jacked the handle again. He was about to put the fabric under the pump when he remembered the bracelet in the pocket. Slowly, he plucked it out and slipped it into his trousers pocket. Then he washed his shirt, wringing it out twice before he snapped it in the air.
He glanced back at the house.
“I’m guessing it was a boy,” Peter said.
Leon looked at Peter again. He’d waited by the barn. He hadn’t just supported a woman through the final hour of her labor or seen a baby being born. He hadn’t been taken in and spit back out.
Leon nodded, but he wasn’t okay. “I just—” He stopped. The last thing he needed right now was a witness.
He plucked at his wet shirt, then looked at the laundry line. He strode over, dug a couple clothespins out of the little basket, and hung up his shirt in the dry wind. Then he sat in Peter’s chair and tipped it back against the barn again, closing his eyes as his face angled upward into the sunshine.
They didn’t want him. Of course Mlady Adele and Bachsdatter didn’t want him. But Gaia did. She hadn’t deliberately jerked him around. He ought to get back to the crims. He’d been insane to think he could propose again. He had work to do. But he was tired, too. So tired.
It couldn’t have been too much later that he heard her voice.
“Leon,” she said, and he felt a soft touch on his knee.
He opened his eyes to the brightness.
“You were a great help,” she said.
“It was nothing,” he said.
“Luke wants to thank you.”
Mlady Adele, obviously, did not.
Leon shook his head. “No, that’s all right.”
“I want to thank you,” Gaia said.
He smiled slightly. “You’re welcome.”
He leveled the chair again, and looked around for Peter. He was across the way, talking to Mlady Maudie and Bachsdatter Luke, who was holding his new son.
“You’re getting sunburned,” Gaia said, and he saw she was holding his shirt and hat.
He pressed a couple fingers to his chest and then lifted them away to see the ghost marks fade to a ruddy hue. It figured.
“Why did you come?” Gaia asked, passing over his shirt.
“I wanted to see you,” he said.
“That’s all? No problem with the crims or anything?”
It seemed like so long ago that he’d left the crims to come into the village to find her. He fingered his shirt, which was all but dry. “No. Just you.”
“You’re awfully untalkative for a guy who came all this way to see me,” she said.
He glanced up again, seeing the concern in her eyes when she smiled at him. His loneliness began to thaw.
“You were amazing in there, you know,” he said.
She shook her head, turning his hat in her hands. “I hope I didn’t boss you around too much. I can get a little single-minded.”
“Hardly at all. ‘Take yer boots off and git yerself in here,’” he drawled.
Gaia laughed. “No!”
“Yes,” he said.
“I’m sorry. I really was so glad when you showed up. I was ready to strangle Mlady Maudie. You were just perfect. So supportive and gentle.”
“Okay, that’s enough.”
“But really, Leon. I’m so glad you were there. I always wished I could have you with me at a childbirth.”
He squinted up at her. She seemed to mean it. He wondered if she even realized he’d been kicked out. She nodded toward the shirt in his hands.
“Please put your shirt on,” she said.
He pulled it over his head, checking the buttons. “Better?”
She looked exhausted, and happy, and too bighearted to believe. So why did he still feel anguished? He grabbed her around the waist and pulled her onto his lap.
“Hey!” She laughed, hugging an arm around him.
He snuggled his nose in her hair and kissed her neck. Mine, he thought.
“They’ll see,” she muttered.
They’d better. “Let them. It’s legal.”
She laughed again and quickly kissed him. Finally.
“What’s wrong?” she asked.
“What do you mean?”
“Something’s wrong. With you. It was Adele, wasn’t it?”
Leon could feel Gaia’s fingertips rest lightly at the base of his throat, cool and soothing. He let his gaze settle on the pump. “She couldn’t help it,” he said.
“I’m sorry,” Gaia said softly. “She really couldn’t, but I’m so sorry. You were part of it. You felt that, didn’t you?”
He did. He’d felt it. He wanted more of it, without the sting afterward.
“Babies,” she said with a sigh. And then, “I don’t know what I’d do without you, Leon.”
And there it was. That unlocking inside him. That thing only she could do to him. That was why he had come. Why he would always come.
Marry me, he thought.
She settled nearer, adjusting her arm around his neck. He very slowly, carefully tipped the chair back again. At first, he felt her startled grip, but then she let out a low, trusting laugh, and rested her head next to his. Her necklace bumped against his neck.
“Are we napping?” she asked.
“For a little,” he said.
He wasn’t napping. He concentrated every cell of his body on memorizing the weight of her against him, and the smell of her hair in the sun. His arms measured the slender curve of her torso. His fingers separated out a single strand of her hair. Her breathing slowed, easing, while his watchful heart chugged on, stupid and hungry, and the red bracelet stayed in his pocket.