The letter was delivered exactly two months after Fred Vaughn had proposed. The blessings the March girls received during these days were few and far between, and Amy was certainly not one to count them, but Aunt March being out in the garden when it arrived did seem a small act of God.
Amy had decided three hours previous that she needed to leave France. Word of her refusal to Fred had spread quickly, and already the wealthy and aristocratic she had been making tea plans with only days previously were making their excuses and shutting their doors on Amy. She had no future here, that much was clear.
So, when the letter arrived, bearing the news that Beth had not improved since the last letter a few weeks ago, and Jo was taking her to the sea for a while to improve her sensibilities, Amy knew she had an out. Away from France, and the whale-bone corsets, away from the park where Fred had proposed, the balls with the champagne and prying eyes, away from the gardens where Laurie had told her he had loved her. The last memory hurt the most, more than it had four weeks ago when she had found out he was gone to London. Of course, she then cried for a while, ashamed in herself for using Beth, pretty, perfect Beth’s illness as an excuse, always clinging on to her sister’s skirts. She was an ornament to society, she supposed, but she was no stronger than she had been when she had left. No more shielded to Jo’s words, or Meg’s pity, or Beth’s tears, soft and quiet in the middle of the night. No, Amy March knew, as she sat on the floor of the art studio, back to the door and nails curled into her palms, she was just as weak as she had been when she left.
Aunt March was not glad to see Amy go. She was not sad either. She was simply Aunt March, clutching Michael in one wrinkled hand, beckoning Amy to sit next to her before she went to catch her carriage to the train, and the day-long ride to Calais to catch the ferry.
“Do you remember what I told you, girl?”
“That I was foolish for not marrying Fred Vaughn, and perhaps Jo is more sensible than I am, after all?”
“Sarcasm is not becoming, Amy March. No, this lesson is far more valuable. You, as a woman, have no way to make your own money. You are still respected in Concord. There is new money in Boston, and while it means you can never return to France, not with someone who has no respect this side of the ocean, you can still make a living. You can do what your sisters were never able to do. You have a good head on your shoulders, Amy March, and a pretty face to go along with it. This is not the end of the road for you, no matter how foolish you were. I presume you will not be following that little girl’s daydream of marrying the Laurence boy?” Aunt March preened as she looked away, glancing at Amy out of the corner of her eye. Despite all of Aunt March’s irritability and her cantankerous disposition, she was a romantic at heart, as Amy had come to learn over the past three years together in France. Aunt March liked Laurie, even if she thought he was too Italian for her tastes.
“No, I don’t believe so, Aunt March. He has gone to work, and I must go back to provide for my family. We will both do our duties, and I do not believe those will ever coincide.”
“Good. You have everything, I presume?”
“Yes. Are you sure you don’t want to come with me, Aunt March?” Amy asked, peering closely at Aunt March, whose head was still turned away, sharp eyes taking in the outside garden.
“And sit in that house, be doted on by you and your sisters and your father out of some familial responsibility? No, no. That won’t do. I’d rather stay here, and die amongst the flowers and ballgowns. Much more elegant that way.” Aunt March smiled, at last, turning towards Amy. “Now go, girl. You don’t want to miss your train.”
It took Amy four weeks to get back to Concord. It took Laurie five. It was unclear who exactly wrote to him and told him Beth was unwell - Jo had given up writing a few months earlier, but any of the others were a fair bet. If anyone knew, they would not confess. He came with his grandfather, landing in Boston and coming to Concord immediately, arriving in the middle of the night. They had not written and told anyone they were coming.
“Marmee, please sit. You do not look well.” Meg ushered Marmee into a seat at the kitchen table, where Jo and Father already sat, finishing their breakfast.
“I’m alright, Meg, you need not worry. Beth did not sleep well last night, so I was up. I just need some rest, is all. If it’s not too much to ask, may you and Amy sit up with her tonight? I need to send Jo into Boston to collect some more medicine, and I do not want her to make it a day trip, so she will stay with a friend there and come back in the morning.” Jo, clearly in disagreement with this plan, huffed into her oatmeal, her brow furrowing.
“Of course not, Marmee. I’ll need to check with John if he’ll be alright with Daisy and Demi, but I’m sure it’ll be fine. Where’s Amy?”
“She’s out collecting firewood. I’m sure she’ll be back soon.” Marmee smiled softly, running her hand over her hair, pausing as there was a knock on the door, firm and sure.
“I’ll get it.” Jo called, already halfway across the living room. She flung the door open with all her typical Jo brashness, before freezing. “Teddy?” She whispered. He smiled sadly, holding his arms out.
“Aren’t you glad to see me?”
There was a flood of questions, a call to Hannah for tea, and hugs all around, Jo clinging to Laurie as if he had never left, desperate to banish the hillside confession memory from her mind.
“Grandfather will be over later - we arrived in the middle of the night, and the journey seems to affect him more so than me. He wanted to catch up on his rest, so he was in good spirits when he saw you all. Is Beth?” Laurie trailed off, glancing across the living room at Marmee and Mr. March.
“Beth is alright for now. She is very tired at the moment, so she’s asleep right now. I’m sure she’ll be thrilled you’re home. Amy’s return has already been quite beneficial.”
“Amy’s home?” Laurie asked, his voice catching in his throat. There was a loud crash in the kitchen at this time, propelling Laurie onto his feet and eliciting a yelp out of Jo. All five heads in the living room immediately swiveled towards the direction of the crash. Amy March stood in the kitchen doorway, firewood scattered at her feet, and her face pale, eyes fixated at Laurie until she suddenly realized everyone was staring at her, scrambling to pick up the firewood. Laurie was across the room in four quick strides, kneeling down to help her pick up the pieces. They were suddenly very close, green eyes meeting hazel before Amy stood up abruptly, stepping backward and into the shadows of the kitchen.
“I didn’t know you were returning from London.” Amy cleared her throat, studiously looking anywhere but at Laurie.
“Yes. Yes, Grandfather heard about Beth and thought we should come home. His business is mainly conducted in Boston anyway. I will continue to work here, and besides, I prefer to be around you...all. I prefer to be at home.” Laurie suddenly felt as if he was fifteen again, meeting the March girls for the first time, standing in their living room after the ball.
“Of course. Well, thank you. For coming. I’m sure Beth will greatly appreciate it. I should get this wood up to her.” And just like that, she was gone, in a swish of skirts and blonde hair. Laurie stood for a moment with his back to the rest of the Marches, staring at the spot she had just stood, and trying to remember how to breathe.
“I should be going as well. Grandfather would love to bring over some dinner if it isn’t too much of an imposition. Or, Meg, if you and John and the children would like to join us?” Laurie smiled, feeling his nails curl into his palms as he swiveled to look at the rest of the March family, keeping his glances short, smiling at each of them in turn before fleeing the house. He ran all the way to his grandfather’s house, stopping in the foyer to yank the tie from his neck and collapse onto his knees, breathing heavily. It hurt, right behind his sternum, like a bruise his beating heart kept pressing against. He was in love with Amy March. And she despised him.
“Amy March!” The screeching came from Jo, but Meg burst into the room first. Beth was sitting up in bed, eating some of the broth Amy had brought up. Beth had refused to be treated as an invalid, but she was getting weaker and weaker, and Amy didn’t want her to eat on her own. She also had no idea if Laurie was coming back - the way he had taken off earlier, she had assumed he would come back. He had been running towards something, she had thought. Not away. Laurie could never run away from Jo.
“What is it? Is something wrong?” Amy asked, trying not to move too quickly as to upset the broth, but hands shaking nonetheless. “Is Laurie alright? I saw him take off earlier, and I thought it was just to retrieve something, but now he hasn’t come back, and - what? Jo, stop it! It’s not funny, is something wrong?”
“Did something happen between you and Laurie in Paris?” Meg asked, trying to hide her smile.
“Meg March, what a dreadful thing to ask. No, of course not. We had an argument, that’s all.” Amy breathed a sigh of relief, brushing her hands across her skirt, and taking the bowl of broth from Beth, who turned her glassy eyes to Amy.
“Oh, what did you do this time?” Jo asked, always Teddy’s advocate.
“I told him he was lazy and spoiled, and that he ought to be ashamed of himself, and his hands, for they looked as if they had never done a day of work in their life. He left for London soon after.”
“Laurie has never been that easily deterred. What did he say?” Beth asked, voice weak but curious.
“He was upset. He said he assumed I was fantasizing about spending Fred Vaughn’s fortune. I may have then responded with a comment about Parisian girls. It was dreadful of me, but it was the truth.” Amy recalled their argument from his first night in Paris. She knew she was leaving out months of friendship and sketches - the day in her studio with the painting smock, the afternoon where he had told her not to marry Fred, and the fateful morning she had listened.
“Amy March!” Meg scolded, mouth agape.
“Yes, I know. Everything will be fine between us. It’s nothing to concern yourselves with, busybodies. Now, Jo, you’re going to miss the train to Boston if you do not hurry. I’ll stay here with Beth while Meg goes home for a change of clothes. This is nothing to worry about. Truly.”
Laurie and Amy did not talk for the next three weeks. Every day, like clockwork, he watched from his dining room window as Amy left the March house to go into the center of Concord to receive the medicine. He would then walk to the March house, stay thirty minutes and read to Beth while Jo, Meg, and Marmee could wash and eat, and then went back home. He came back later in the day with his grandfather, but Amy always liked to sketch during those visits.
It was not until one day, from his perch on the dining room table that he watched, incredulous, as Amy burst out the door of her house, sprinting across the fields, hair flying, an impressive feat in the voluminous skirt she was wearing. She was heading for the pond, he realized, jumping down from the table and sprinting out of his own house without even pausing to grab a tie or coat.
Amy was standing at the edge of the pond, chest heaving when Laurie skidded to a stop. She was not crying, he realized, her chest simply heaving with dry sobs.
“Amy? Amy, are you alright? Is everything alright with Beth? Amy? Please, Amy, look at me.” Laurie was standing at her side now, but Amy was still staring out at the pond, breath shuddering in and out from between her lips.
“Beth is fine. Everything is fine. Please, don’t tell Jo about this. She’ll call me weak, and foolish, and all I really needed was a moment, and I thought you would be with your grandfather in Boston, and I’m fine, really.” Amy covered her face with her hands, before brushing her hair behind her ears and turning to face Laurie, lips set in a firm line. She looked exhausted, he realized, her normally bright eyes dulled and hair tangled.
“Did you even sleep last night?” Laurie asked, fighting the urge to reach out and brush the hair away from her face by stuffing his hands into his pant pockets.
“I’ll sleep when I’m dead.” Laurie flinched as soon as the words came out of Amy’s mouth.
“Please don’t say that.”
“There’s nothing I can do for her. I feel so useless. She had a fit last night, and Jo and Marmee knew exactly what to do, but then it happened again and she’s dying, Laurie. Jo says she will not, but I am not foolish, no matter what she says. My sister is dying, Laurie.” Still, Amy did not cry, simply raising her chin like she used to do when Jo would say she was too young or foolish to join them on their adventures. She looked like she had the day she had fallen through the ice, Laurie realized with a start, except this time, her eyes were flat with the realization that the world was not going to be kind to the March family. Time had taken that hope with it.
“Oh, Amy.” Amy shook her head, backing away from Laurie.
“No, please. I don’t need your pity. I turned down Fred Vaughn, and we don’t need to talk about it, but I’m glad you’re working, Laurie. I’m happy for you. I just - Jo would be so upset, and Meg is having enough issues of her own, and my sister is dying, Laurie. I cannot afford to hope for second place. I have come too far to do that to myself now.” And just like that, she threw back her shoulders, and turned away from Laurie, leaving him to the lapping of the water at his toes.
“Are you in love with Laurie?” Beth whispered. Jo was asleep in the chair next to the bed, and Amy was lying in the bed with Beth, eyes open in the dark room.
“Elisabeth March, why would you say that?” Amy scolded, her heart beating faster as if trying to escape her ribcage.
“I see the way he looks at you when you sketch and he thinks no one else is looking. I see the way you keep looking at their house as if hoping he will appear. Plus, I found a letter he wrote to you. And your sketchbook.”
“Beth March!” Amy sat up, staring down at her sister, so weak and small in the bed.
“I made him read it to me. He is in love with you. You left your sketchbook by the bed. I couldn’t help it. I needed to confirm you feel the same way. And you do. You love him.” She stated it like the most matter-of-fact thing in the world, the way the names Jo and Laurie had always gone together, Amy’s entire life. “You didn’t have an argument, did you? In Paris? The story you told us the day Laurie came back?”
“No. No, we did have that argument, that first night he was in Paris. But then he told me he loved me, and I told him I wouldn’t settle for second place. And then a week later, I turned down Fred and he left for London. And I know Jo loves him still. She won’t say it, but I think she still does. I can’t do that to her. I won’t.”
“Stop it, Amy. He loves you. Let yourself love him. Jo does not love him like that anymore. She turned him down, remember? She missed him as a friend, but she does not need him as her husband. You love him. And while I can’t remember the specifics of the letter, I do remember this - he loves you. Promise me, Amy. Promise me you will let yourself love him.” The room was quiet for a moment, Amy staring incredulously at Beth, as Beth stared up at the ceiling.
“I’m scared, Amy. I’m scared of dying. I told Jo I wasn’t, that I was ready. I am ready, I think. But I’m very scared.” Amy suddenly felt as if she couldn’t breathe, an insurmountable lump in her throat.
“Don’t be scared, Beth. Or do. That’s how we know we have lived, I think. That we can feel joy, and love, but also feel fear and sadness.” She knew it was nowhere near as poetic as what Jo could have said, but it felt true as she said it.
“Lie here with me until I wake?” Beth whispered, tightening her hold on Amy’s hand.
“Of course.” And so, Amy lay in the dark, holding her sister in her arms until the sun came up, and Marmee came in, and Amy looked at her mother, and shook her head, because she had felt the breath leave Beth’s body more than three hours before.
Laurie watched from the window of the dining room as Amy March left the March house and began the walk into Concord. He grabbed his coat from the hook by the door, bid goodbye to his grandfather and walked over to the March house, book in hand. He was holding Emma, by Jane Austen in his hand. He had been reading to Beth, and they were just before the part where Mr. Knightley confessed his love to Emma. He knew something was wrong the minute he entered the room. John was standing in the corner, wringing his hands, and Marmee, Jo, and Meg were sat on the kitchen floor, huddled together. He could only see Meg’s face from his position in the doorway, but there were tears on her face. Suddenly, he knew, the breath knocked out of him in one swift movement. He stumbled out of the house, unable to breathe or see properly, vision blurred by tears. His fingers clenched around the book before he suddenly shot up straight, because he could see Amy March, standing on the top of the hill behind his house, tearing apart a daisy.
“Amy.” He called out, not wanting to startle her. She did not react, continuing to tear apart the flower in her hands. He stopped in front of her, stooping slightly to see her face. It was dry, eyes blank and motions automated. She didn’t acknowledge his presence. “Amy?” He asked, watching as she tore at the flower faster. “I am so sorry, Amy.” Laurie grabbed at her hands, clasping them between his own.
“No. No.” She murmured, pulling her hands from his, clawing at him weakly.
“I am so sorry.”
“No.” Amy shook her head again, meeting his gaze, brow set firmly.
“I am so sorry, Amy.” Laurie felt his own voice breaking, tears sliding down his cheeks, reaching out to hug Amy, feeling her tense against him before breaking apart, falling into him and sobbing for her sister.
They did not talk for five days after Beth’s death. They both went to Beth’s funeral, but Jo broke down crying as the ceremony ended, and Laurie dragged her away. Amy stood there for two hours more, staring down at the casket. Two days later, Amy was cleaning out Beth’s room - Jo had taken the first turn, but Marmee had insisted no one person tackle the task alone. This was Amy’s turn. She found the letter tucked into the mattress. She scanned it quickly, tears filling her eyes as she read, tearing out of the house as soon as she was done, leaving a confused Marmee in her wake.
Laurie was throwing knives when Amy walked into the house. There was a wood plank set up on the opposite stairs, and Amy watched as he threw a steak knife with great accuracy, vibrating as it hit its target. “Is it true?” She asked, feeling her voice fill the silence. He turned to her with all the air of the boy who had spilled champagne on the floor at the ball on the first night in Paris, but she realized with a start he was crying.
“Yes. Of course. It has always been true.”
“Prove it.” Amy could feel her voice waver, suddenly self-conscious in her simplest dress and hair in a simple knot, staring at the boy she had loved always, in his shirt-sleeves and rumpled hair. He was in front of her in a moment, taking the letter from her gently, and taking her face in his hands.
“You have never been second place, Amy. I have loved you for years, from the moment I saw you outside my window. I think I just realized when I saw you in Paris, and then I hated Fred Vaughn for it and then hated myself even more for hating him because it was no fault of Fred’s that you didn’t love me. But that day in the art studio - you’re right, Amy, I think you do have some control over who you love, but I never have. I am a poet, in some ways, and I do believe I did what all men wish they could - I chose to fall in love with you the minute I realized I was already falling.”
“Oh.” Amy whispered, staring up at him.
“Oh?” Laurie laughed, but stopped because suddenly, Amy March was kissing him. And he was kissing her back. And there they stood, crying uncontrollably, and kissing in a room filled with knives and chandeliers and a piano.