The rain had stopped when Tully arrived. The Willow had never been so vibrant; the store front was spotless, the breads and pastries were always set delightfully against colored towels to enhance the display. Offering that girl a job was the smartest thing Phaedra had done here, as far as she was concerned. Even Ylios took an immediate liking to the girl. The old man who barely said more than a few words to Phae on a daily basis chatted endlessly with Tully, though… Phae had to admit that the ring of her new employee’s laughter made even her feel more at ease.
But now it was raining again.
As the weeks passed, Phaedra could see Tully growing weaker. The circles grew beneath her eyes, but she never stopped smiling. It started with shortness of breath. The blonde would grow pale and have to sit in the middle of her work to keep herself from keeling over.
Then the coughing started. Softly at first, a little wheezing to accompany her shortness of breath, but it only got worse. Much worse.
As Tully lay in bed, Phae’s fingers slid gently down the girl’s cheek, a sigh of helplessness escaping her lips. There was so little she could do for her beyond changing the wet rag on her forehead, making sure the fabric was always cool to keep her fever away. The vibrancy Tully had brought to The Willow was rapidly declining in time with her health, and those that flocked to the bakery after Tully’s arrival were stopping only to give well-wishes and drop off plates of food and soup to aid in a speedy recovery. Unfortunately, few people were buying their goods these days. There were other bakeries, after all; bakeries closer to the residential district, newer and worthier of attention. But at least Ylios and The Willow were reliable.
It just wasn’t as bright without Tully.
“You’ll need to sleep eventually,” the girl spoke, cerulean eyes barely open and much duller than usual, and still she managed a half-smile. The concern that rose in Phaedra was at the sound of her voice: that raspy, broken whisper that told her the cough was finally tearing at her inside.
“Eventually is far away right now.” Phae murmured with a small smile, giving the blond a tender glance. She felt for her, but there was something more behind it all. Something she couldn’t quite grasp at…. affection? Fear? An odd mix of love and terror—and the need to confront the fact that Tully may not see many more days.
“Let me rephrase.” Tully pushed herself into a sitting position, her arms shaking under the weight of her own body until she finally plopped her back against the headboard of the bed. Phae shot up from her stool, and tucked a pillow behind her. “Go to bed.”
“No,” stated Phaedra in quiet defiance, draping the blankets around Tully now that she was sitting.
The blond heaved a sigh, and rubbed the spot between her eyes, just above the bridge of her nose, the tips of her half-gloved fingers peeking out starkly white from their woolen confines. “Please? Your bed is only across the room. If I need you… you’ll be here. I know you will.”
The music was gone from her voice. It broke Phae’s heart.
“I will be,” she said after a long pause, weighing her options. “Of course I will be. Do you need anything before I sleep?”
Tully once again managed that small, tired smile. “A candle and a book? If it won’t keep you from resting.”
Phae removed the compress and kissed the girl’s forehead, walking across the room to a small bookcase. The room they shared was the attic above Ylios’ rooms that rested over the bakery, and it was hardly big enough for the pair of them, but neither of the women seemed to mind sharing the space. The company was valuable.
“If it staves off the cabin fever, I think I can endure a little extra light.”
Tully’s smile was worth it. If this was where she would draw her last breath, then Phaedra wanted to do all she could to make the other happy. Right now, that was a book and a candle.
Tully closed her eyes and drew a breath, thinking on it.
“Give me an epic.”
Phaedra laughed. “You don’t even like poetry. I was joking.”
“I wasn’t. I think I could use a little more poetry in my life right now.” Her smile faded, and Phaedra’s followed suit.
Walking over with a candle, she pushed it into the holder and drew out a match. “We could all use a little more poetry, I think.” Striking the match, she lit the candle and placed the glass globe over it, before offering the chosen book to Tully. “An epic. The one about the Sun Lord and Satreas.”
“I like that one.” Tully’s frail fingers cracked the book open and thumbed delicately through the pages. “I can entertain myself quietly. Go to sleep.”
She did put on a strong front, and Phaedra respected her for that…. but she could see the weakness in her limbs as she moved, the circles under her incredibly tired eyes, the way her shoulders sank. The way she—a cough broke the pensive silence. Tully convulsed in the fit, and Phaedra settled beside her, a hand on her back, brow knitted. As Tully straightened and drank in a deep breath now that she was able, she glanced down at the palm of her knitted, fingerless glove.
Phaedra felt a pit freeze in her stomach, and Tully quickly wiped her palms together to dispel the wetness.
“I’m alright now, Phae. You should sleep.” Her voice was so hoarse, and Phaedra closed her eyes to keep from snapping.
“The blood? Just a day or so….”
Phaedra pressed another kiss to her forehead, and lifted the discarded compress. “I’ll freshen this for you.” She walked away quickly, climbing down the ladder into the main rooms. It was a long time she leaned on the ladder, trying to collect her thoughts. Hands shaking, she finally managed to re-soak the rag, and wring it out. Tully would be waiting. The thought of losing her rang hard through Phaedra; harder than she expected.
Climbing the ladder again, she shut the trap door and looked over to Tully, sound asleep sitting upright in her bed. Her chest was rising and falling, however shallowly, and Phaedra felt the relief slither through her at the sight. Moving closer, she helped her to lie down, laying the cold rag over her forehead again. Tully stirred only slightly as she was settled in, and Phae kissed her cheek.
“I’m going to fix you,” she whispered, and tucked the blankets around her, creating a barrier of fabric as if to keep anything harmful from penetrating. “I’m not letting you go without a fight.”
And Tully only slept as Phae snuffed the candle.