AN: This ficlet is dedicated to Justine, who, for some reason, sees these characters and loves them the same way I do.
Lay Me Down
Tessa is warm even though there is November rain tapping against the windows. She curls the toes of her bare feet and tries to ignore the stiffness of her day dress as she presses herself closer to Jem's fevered body. She wishes she could take it off. She wishes she could take off the dress, and the blankets, and the shirts—everything that stands between her and Jem—and melt into him the way she's melted into dozens of bodies that aren't her own. She would like, in these last moments, to share his, to be mind-to-mind inside of him.
Maybe then she could help him stay.
"This is the longest I've gone without the drug since I began taking it."
His lips are damp with sweat and displace the hair at her temple when he speaks. Tessa carefully spins the wedding band around his slim finger. "Would you like some now? To help with the pain?"
"No," he says without hesitation. "Things are clearer this way. I want to know you're next to me."
Tessa nods because it sounds too much like a final request to argue with.
A song comes to her. The one she heard Jem play the first night they met. She can't remember its name or all the notes, but she hums pieces under her breath, repeating the most familiar refrain over and over until it comes mindlessly. Jem must be listening because for the next several minutes the only sound is the song-like something in the back of her throat.
Jem's chest moves against her cheek with each breath, and they come in such slow, heavy draws that she waits nervously after each exhale, dreading that it might be the last, that his lungs have given up. Then a long moment creeps by, and he breathes in, and Tessa's heart stutters.
His fingers brush hers. "Will you promise me something?"
"I'm worried about Will." He says it the way he would express concern about the weather, naturally, as if it is something he worries about every morning when he wakes up. "Someone has to look after him. It's an overwhelming task, I know."
Tessa looks across Jem's chest to where Will is seated in an armchair that had been pulled up beside the bed. His jacket is on the floor and his head is hung, his face hidden by dark hair and scarred hands. He does not stir at the mention of his name.
"I'm sure Sophie would help me keep him in line," Tessa says.
Jem gives a tiny smile. "I have no doubt. I've seen how she handles her brother-in-law. And he's twice the nuisance Will is."
A violent shudder goes through Jem's body then, but he doesn't cough. He hasn't coughed since yesterday. A sign that his body is losing the battle. Tessa wraps her arms around him and kisses his damp collarbone. The tremor passes, but when Jem resumes breathing, it is shallower, more labored than before.
"Not only is Gabriel more annoying, but also infinitely more attractive—"
"It would be a terrible sin if the last words you ever spoke were a lie, James." Will has raised his head to look them, and if his voice is rough from hours of silence, it also fails to convey the despair darkening his face like misplaced shadows.
"So you are awake?" Jem has to pause to catch his breath. "I thought…my dying…may have bored you…to your own early grave."
Will says nothing. He looks at Jem and doesn't blink, not even after Jem closes his eyes and turns his face back towards Tessa.
"You have no idea…how much you've done for me," he whispers to her. "And how much you'll do once I'm gone."
Tessa shakes her head, and feels cool tears sliding down her warm skin. "You're not going that far, are you? You won't leave me here forever. It's such a long time."
His silver eyes appear from beneath white lashes and Tessa sees there what it is she fell in love with and what she will spend the rest of her life missing. A star shining its brightest before it goes dark forever.
"No," he says. "Of course not."
She closes her eyes and listens to the failing beat of his heart. And even when it has stopped, she remains still, waiting for the moment when it may start again. And when even that hope is gone, arms come around her from behind, and she is floating up and up until all she gets is a final glimpse of a room that is empty of everything. Even Jem.