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A Watchful Heart

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Jo rolled over, her lungs heavy in her chest, her heart still wound tight with anxious dread. Her body felt weighted and worn, and there was no rest for her aching head, which was filled with vivid memories of poor Beth, who had faded and faded and finally slipped away, and poor John, who had been so weak in his final hours he hadn't the strength to reach for Meg's hand.

I'm dying, she thought dramatically, kicking at the quilt so heavy and hot across her. My boys will grow up without me! I shall wilt here and die tomorrow, or I shall have my dear school a glorious riot all around me as I am forced to lie here for a hundred years, always failing and fading, trapped in this torturous state.

Friedrich's hand, always so warm, felt cool as he cupped his palm over her burning brow. She turned towards him, miserable and worried, and he stroked her damp hair and hushed her gently until she fell asleep.

When she woke again, aching and shivering, the morning shadows had shifted across the floorboards, and rain was tick-ticking at the window panes. She closed her eyes and felt the weight of another blanket being laid over her, and the warm brush of a kiss on her temple.

She suffered through a sleep fogged with dreadful dreams — Beth, and John, and then dear Friedrich, marked to be taken next, his good heart and his warm smile and rumbling voice lost to her forever.

She gasped awake and flung out her arm to find him. He was still there, sitting beside her bed, a stack of books on the nightstand beside him. He took her hand and squeezed it in gentle sympathy.

"I'm dying," she told him forlornly.

He ran his fingers through the untidy tangle of her hair. "I disagree," he said. "I think you have caught cold from your snowball fights, and your walks in the rain, and I think you are feeling very sorry for yourself. But dying?" He raised his dark eyebrows. "No."

She barked a hearty cough, as though her body was trying to disprove him, and she turned away and choked and spluttered miserably into her pillow, Friedrich massaging soothing circles over her back until her breathing steadied, and she drifted off again into an exhausted sleep.

When she next woke it was dark, the lamp burning low, the curtains drawn against the cold. Friedrich was beside her, atop the quilt with pillows propped behind him, a book open on his lap. The rain fell on the roof above them in a steady drum.

Jo squirmed closer to him and buried her face against his hip. "What are you reading?"

He turned the page. "Would you like to hear some?"

"Yes please." She struggled to sit up.

"You are not so busy dying?" He put his arm around her, drawing her in so he could kiss the top of her head.

She sank against him drowsily, letting her body go loose in the comfort of his arms, his chest firm beneath her cheek. "I have time for a little poetry," she said. "But turn back to the beginning, please, so that I may have the whole thing."

He smiled, and allowed the pages to fan gently back to the first verse. "You will live," he said. "I know, for you will be asleep again before I read to the end, and you would not dare to die with a book half-finished."