The tink tink of pebbles hitting his window made Laurie startle and nearly upend his book. It was a familiar sound, but one he had not heard in many months, not since that awful day at the beginning of the summer.
He thought for a moment about ignoring the summons, but found himself moving almost involuntarily to the window. As soon as he stuck his head out, Jo's familiar voice hissed up from the garden below, "Teddy, come out here, I need you."
Oh how he had longed to hear those words! But even as he threw on a robe and stole down the stairs, he knew that Jo - stubborn to the end - would never mean them in the way he wished to hear.
The night air was cool and damp on his face as he crept out to the garden, and the first hint of fall air danced on the breeze. The summer had been a long and languorous one and Laurie had been much given to melancholy. Despite the best intentions of the elder Laurence, the journey to "go abroad" had been thwarted by a myriad of troublesome delays. First, the business at home had unexpectedly required attending to, with one of the partners suddenly falling ill. Mr. Laurence stepped in to pick up the slack and Laurie, grumbling and balking like a colt the entire way, was slowly brought into the business as well. Then, when those troubles had been resolved, their departure was further delayed by a rash of bad weather and mechanical difficulties on the ship on which they were to sail. Now, with autumn fast approaching, it seemed as though the trip would be postponed until the spring.
Laurie knew he had been cross as a bear for much of the summer, and while he did feel guilty about it, he was also too wrapped up in his own heartache to change his behavior overly much. The departure of Jo and Beth for the shore had alleviated some of the worst of it, and his grandfather had been visibly relieved when he had begun appearing at meals regularly and actually showing some interest in conversation.
The March girls had returned only a few days before, but Laurie had held fast to his resolution to ignore Jo until she came to her senses. The unexpected summons set his mind (and, not so incidentally, his heart) afire with curiosity, though a small, rational part of his being kept insisting that Jo would not change her mind so easily.
The moon was nearly full, and gave him more than enough light to see by. Jo stood wrapped in a thin shawl, hugging herself tightly, as if trying to restrain herself. The moonlight gave her a washed out look, but despite that, he could see that her eyes were red from crying.
"Jo?" he asked, alarmed.
At the sound of her name, she startled and tears began flowing down her cheeks again. She looked at him with such despair that he opened his arms to her and she flew into them, with a muffled "Oh Teddy!"
"Jo, dearest, what is it?" he asked again, trying very hard not to enjoy the feel of her in his arms.
"It's just dreadful, Teddy," she said, and a ball of ice began to form in his stomach.
"What is it? Is something wrong with Meg or the babies? Or Marmee?"
"B-beth," Jo sobbed out to his chest.
"Beth?" he repeated, stunned. But even as he said it, images began to flow together in his mind, patchwork pieces of an idea that suddenly fit together into one undeniable whole. Dear, sweet Beth, who was always so willing to give of herself and never ask anything in return. Quiet, talented Beth who crept into their lives, like a little mouse, and played the old piano so beautifully. Home-body Beth who never seemed to want more than what she had. Beth, who had a knack for disappearing in a room unless you knew she was there, and who lately seemed to be just a pale shadow of her already invisible self.
"No, no, no," Laurie whispered, desperately wanting to deny what now was painfully clear. "Not Beth, not her. It's not right. It's not fair." Belatedly, he realized that Jo was sobbing those two words - "Not fair, not fair" - over and over again into his chest.
Carefully, he maneuvered both of them over to a bench and sat down. He held Jo until the storm had subsided into occasional sniffles and then he fished a clean handkerchief out of his pocket and offered it to her, knowing that hers (should she actually had one) would inevitably be covered in ink.
As Jo tried to repair the damage, Laurie gently tucked a wayward lock of hair behind her ear, and consciously tried to put all thoughts of romance out of his mind. It was not as difficult as he feared, for his heart had begun to ache in a new way.
"Tell me all you know," he requested. "Please."
Jo took a deep, shaky breath and let it out slowly. "I began to suspect something was wrong last fall. I thought - I thought that she l-loved you." Her voice dropped even lower. "That's part of why I went away. I thought that since I can't feel the way you want me to, then maybe if I got out of the way, you would come to love Beth in the way I thought she loved you."
Laurie bit back a number of sharp comments. "And then - then after I came back," Jo continued, staring off into the distance over his shoulder, "it was so clear. Marmee and Father, I don't think they saw it yet. I didn't want to see it either. But being away opened my eyes. I suppose not seeing her every day made the changes so clear. I thought that maybe taking her to the shore would help - help her get well and strong again. But when we were there she told me."
"Told you what?"
"That she's leaving me. That she's never going to be well again. Marmee and Father saw it, too, when we came home, I didn't even have to tell them. I'm trying so hard to be strong for them and for Beth, but I just can't do it anymore, Teddy. I can't do this by myself." And with that, Jo burst into a fresh set of tears.
"You shan't," he said, wrapping his arms around Jo again. "You shan't, my dearest Jo. I'll do everything I can for you and dear Beth. Perhaps my physician - " He stopped when he felt Jo's head shaking against his chest.
"No, there's no reason to call him, You know there's nothing he can do, not in cases like this."
Laurie disentangled himself and began pacing back and forth in front of the bench. "Hang it all, there must be something I can do."
"Don't swear," Jo said sharply. "And there is something you can do. Help us make things pleasant for her, be a regular angel for Beth and set aside this nonsense with me."
"Nonsense? How can you call it that?" he asked, hurt and ready to flare up again.
"Because that's what it is! And don't you see? We can't even have a conversation like this without our tempers getting the best of us."
Before Laurie could retort, the energy seemed to go out of Jo and she slumped wearily. "Please, Teddy. I haven't the strength to fight you right now, not when I need all of it for Beth. And you're too much of a gentleman to press me."
Laurie kept quiet, although the look on his face said plainer than day that he wished he could do just that. Silence reigned in the garden for a few moments, with only the gentle rustle of leaves breaking the stillness.
"I need my best friend," Jo finally said. "I need you to be there for me, because I'm afraid I'm not strong enough to do this on my own. And I need to be able to turn to you without any of - of - of this coming between us. For Beth's sake, won't you try? Please?"
"That's all I ask."
"Go to bed, Jo," Laurie said gently, offering her a hand up. "I'll pop over tomorrow and we'll see what we can do to make Bethy's time pleasant, hmm?"
"Thank you, dear boy." The gratitude in Jo's face was enough to Laurie resolve to do better than just "try" no matter how hard it might be.
"Only - " He started and then hesitated. At Jo's encouraging look, he finally continued. "Only will you come 'round after breakfast tomorrow and help me tell Grandfather. I - I don't think I can do that myself."
"Of course, darling," she said and kissed him on the cheek before disappearing back towards her house.
Laurie stood frozen for a moment, trying to absorb everything that had just happened, before he too retreated to the safety of his room.
Laurie was as good as his word, and between them, he and Jo created a lovely little haven for Beth. The piano and tumble of kittens were moved into the pleasantest room of the house, along with Jo's desk, Marmee's chair and Father's books. John and Meg came by every day with the babies and fresh fruits to tempt Beth's capricious appetite. Mr. Laurence came by often, pushing through his own grief, to sit and read in the lovely little room, or to talk quietly with Beth when she tired of more energetic amusements. And Jo and Laurie were fixtures in the room from day one, with one or both of them there at all times.
My Angels, Beth called them, and proclaimed that she felt stronger when they were near. Laurie threw himself into his appointed role with relish, spending long hours on the piano bench next to Beth, his larger hands entangling with hers as they fumbled laughingly through his whole collection of piano piece for four hands; or, when her hands grew too weak to continue, he played whatever she requested, little realizing that he was far surpassing his best. Jo spent nearly every waking moment with Beth, trying to store up as much as she could before the inevitable sundering.
And so the colder months passed pleasantly, and Laurie and Jo regained some of their old equilibrium. Everyone did their best to put aside sorrow, but as spring came again, it became clear that this would indeed be a season of rebirth.
Finally, on a deceptively pleasant day towards the end of spring, when one could nearly see the leaves and flowers growing, Jo emerged from Beth's room with tear-stained cheeks.
"Beth would like to see her very best brother, please," Jo said in a cracking voice, motioning Mother and Father to remain seated.
Laurie approached the small room with trepidation, for even after all these months, he still had not resigned himself to the inevitable. But clutching a handkerchief like a lifeline, he squared his shoulders, put a pleasant smile on his face, and entered the room.
Perhaps it was because he finally had to acknowledge that Beth's time was so near, or perhaps it was simply because she was looking out the window when he entered so he was free to truly look at her for a moment, in a way he had not before. She was sitting in the window and a ray of late afternoon sun touched her face, making her seem to glow from within, and in that moment Laurie finally had to acknowledge that Jo was correct - Beth was much too good for this world.
"Would you like me to play for you?" he asked quietly, not wanting to disturb Beth's calm serenity.
She turned to him with a radiant smile. "No thank you, 'though it is good of you to ask. Come sit by me," she said patting the old couch on which she lay. "I wished to talk with you about Amy."
"Amy?" Laurie nearly stumbled in surprise, catching himself at the last minute and sitting down with great dignity. The faint smile that played along Beth's lips showed that he hadn't fooled her at all.
"Yes, Amy. She shall be coming home soon, and I want you to treat her as you ought."
"I? But of course I'll treat the little scamp right. She is my very own baby sister."
"But that's just it, don't you see?" cried Beth. "She isn't a baby anymore, but a woman now. She has written me loads, telling me all about the sights and the people she's met. Her time abroad has been very good for her, and I wish that good time to continue when she comes home. Mother and Father won't want to see it, I know, for Mother once told me that it's hard for her to see any of her girls grow up. And Amy and Jo get on like oil and water half the time, and I just know that Jo will tease her out of spite. So it falls to you, Laurie, to treat her as she ought to be treated, and set a good example for the rest. Won't you do that for me, please?" Beth's impassioned speech took the last of her energy, and she slumped back into the pillows, exhausted.
Laurie could only blink in surprise and nod in agreement. "Of course, Bethy, anything for you."
"Thank you, my dear brother. Oh, I do wish that I could see her one more time before I go." Crystal tears ran down the pale face, adding to her unearthly look, and Laurie could only reach over and claim her frail hands in his large ones.
"But of course you shall."
Beth gave a wobbly smile. "No, I shan't, and you know it, so please don't fib just to make me feel better."
"But you shall," Laurie insisted. "You'll look down upon us every day and laugh at our silly little trials and tribulations, and every time we see a little bird singing, we'll know that you're reminding us to enjoy what we have."
"Thank you," she whispered and then seemed to rally her fading energy. "I think I should like to see Mother and Father now. Won't you send them in, please?"
"Of course, my dear," Laurie said, and kissed her once on each cheek and once on her forehead. "Don't forget to put in a good word for me, will you? You promised."
"So I did," Beth said, fondly remembering that September day so long ago. "I shall, though truly I don't think you need it."
Laurie gave her hands one last squeeze and went off in search of the girl's last request.
He gamely held in his sorrow until he and Jo were left alone in the sitting room, but when tears began leaking out of Jo's eyes, he felt his own eyes burn in response, and the two friends finally gave vent to their grief.
It was many months before Laurie could bring himself to touch a piano again, but when he did finally sit down to play again, he began with Beth's favorite nocturne, bringing tears to the eyes of both Jo and his Grandfather. But once he started, he never stopped, and both the grand piano in his own house, and the dear little one that Beth would play so lovingly, never wanted for lack of use again.