A/N: this starts right after Laurie's told Jo that he's already sent a telegram to Washington, and Marmee is set to come home that very night.
Disclaimer—most unfortunately, I am not Louisa May Alcott, nor do I own any of her stuff. Having said that, the very first line in this story is hers, not mine—I added it for transition purposes.
Completing the Puzzle
Chapter 1: Despair and Fever
"Laurie, you're an angel, how shall I ever thank you?"
He looked down at her standing before him, his wild Jo, with her thin cheeks, drawn of late, now flushed with wine and sudden excitement. They still bore the marks of her tears, despite her fairly dripping handkerchief, but her eyes, wet and clean, shone with a warm trust that split the poor boy's heart straight down the middle. He stared at her for a moment, wondering if now was really the right time for what he was feeling, but found that he couldn't help himself. He gently caught both her hands in his, and said quietly as he pulled her slowly towards him, "I did say I'd send in my bill, by and by."
Jo unwittingly opened her mouth and gasped a very little bit as she found herself suddenly standing pressed against Laurie, feeling his warmth through his shirt—even more comforting to her tired, wrung-out soul than the wine now coursing through her veins. This time, though, she had not flown at her boy—and she thought from what she could see in his dark eyes (how tenderly they looked into hers!) that his actions were induced by rather different feelings; a thought which was confirmed when he bent his head and firmly placed his lips on her still-open mouth.
She felt herself begin to stiffen, but realized in a rush that, in spite of all her prickles, she didn't want to object. She felt reckless, as if she'd been falling all this long dreadful night and now, at last, she had reached the bottom, and found something unexpected. Her limbs, loosened by wine and something else, relaxed, and she let go of his hands while lifting hers somewhat desperately, letting him circle his arms around her back and waist, mouth steady and strong against her own. She felt a wave of warmth pass through her, felt a pain throbbing behind her eyes build and release. As Laurie kissed her, all her troubles and worries rose, angry and boiling, to the surface—Father's illness, Marmee's long absence, Amy's stay with irascible Aunt March, the fear that her dearest Beth would leave them, and her own fears of inadequacy and inability to carry on alone—they all surged up out of her at once, and somewhere in between her hot tears and Laurie's lips, they broke, and floated upward as she trembled in the arms of her friend.
Feeling Jo shaking, Laurie let his face linger over hers for a moment longer, then gently laid her head on his shoulder and stroked her hair.
She took a deep, shuddering breath. "I…I…c-can't do it alone. Without Bethy I can't…I won't b-be able to…without her…she's my conscience, Teddy, my good angel, she can't die—" with a gasp, Jo hid her face in his chest.
"Hush, hush…it's all right…" Laurie murmured, rubbing his hand to and fro across her back. "Rest on me, Jo dear," he whispered into the dark, "I'm here."
And poor, proud Jo clutched at him, quaking as if in a storm, sobbing and gasping, while he in turn clung to her as silent tears ran down his face and into her hair. They stood like that for some time, each holding the other up as they gave each other strength.
Eventually, Jo's breathing steadied, and there was no catch in her voice as she said, "Teddy, dear?"
She pulled away from him and held his hands for a moment as she took them from around her. "Thank you," she whispered, gazing with a frank bravery up into his eyes, before she sat back in her chair without another word to wait for Marmee's arrival.
Laurie sat as well after a moment, and silently took into his lap Beth's little brown hood from the table where Jo had previously laid her head in despair, holding it as if in prayer.
Together, they waited silently until, hours later, Mrs. March arrived, face tight with worry. As she met them in the hall she said nothing, but gave Laurie a grateful look and Jo's hand a soft squeeze, hurrying straight to Beth's room.
Laurie and Jo followed slowly several steps behind, and so did not see the wave of joyous relief that broke over the mother's face when she beheld her daughter, not ridden with delirious fever fantasies as she had expected, but breathing peacefully, having passed into a natural sleep in the wee hours of the morning. Mrs. March sat by the bed and smoothed the tangled hair that lay scattered and sweat-soaked over the pillow from the fever fits. She tenderly lifted the small hand and, eyes closed, kissed it softly, keeping gentle hold of it after replacing it beside Beth on the bed.
Jo, faint and incoherent with thanks and happiness, stumbled into the hall and sank to the floor, pressing her apron against her face, breathing slowly, too exhausted to cry again. Laurie remained by her side until dawn broke, the sun warming the night's ragged victims with new hope and warmth, and bathing the beloved invalid's face in a rosy glow as her eyelids fluttered open. Her first sight was her mother's smiling face—the next, a lovely, windblown white rose, opened in the night, which her sisters had placed by her bedside. She smiled, peaceful at last, and sighed happily, saying as she exhaled, "Oh, Marmee, you're here!"
In the joyous morning bustle of getting breakfast and tea on for Marmee and Beth, neither Jo nor Laurie mentioned what had taken place in the despairing hours of that night, and the events went unspoken, though not forgotten, for some time to come.