keep your heart close to the ground (part one)

by renegadekarma

The war will strip much from him, but he won’t let it strip his identity. It’s the one thing that no one can take – not the British, not the French, not even the Germans.


SEPTEMBER

london, england

( 1939 )

 

“How could you have just encouraged him like that?”

Tatiana turns, her hair only half down as she yanks pins from it forcefully, half of them falling on the bedroom floor. “He’s my son,” she says firmly, “and I will support him. I might not always agree with him, but I know he’s doing the right thing.”

“I know that he thinks he’s doing the right thing, and I’m proud of him for it, but Tats,” Benj draws a hand through his blonde curls, closes his eyes, “He lied about his age, he used to cut gym in school, he – God, he cried when he found out what chicken was made of. How can you expect him to be capable of these things?”

In her hands, she turns the pins over and over, the sharp end running red lines into her pale skin. She’s been doing it for the last half an hour, since her one and only son marched into the house and declared that he’d enlisted, at only seventeen years of age, in a war that he was far too young and far too unprepared for. She’d clasped her hand so hard that she thought it would break before she realized – she would have done the same. She could hardly fault Amory for wanting to serve her country when she did too.

“His heart is in the right place,” she says at last, “and I trust him.”

Benj’s voice swells. “Will your trust be worth it when he comes back in a bag?”

“Benjamin!”

“They’re putting our son on a battlefield, Tatiana, and they’ll be shooting at him.”

“You think I don’t know that they’re trying to kill my baby?” Her own voice swells into a pitch too high, too loud, and she suddenly hears the whispers from the rooms next door, the sobbing from down the hall, quiet down suddenly. She drops her voice to a furious whisper, “You think that I’m not terrified that he won’t come back?”

They stare at each other for a solid moment, and she doesn’t know which one of them move but suddenly they’re both in each other’s arms and she’s sniffling into his shoulder. “God, they’re going to try to kill my little boy and there’s nothing I can do to stop them. I can’t protect him – I can’t protect any of them from anything.”

Benj deflates, pressing kisses into the top of her head, and she can already feel it in his ragged breath that he’s only moments away from tears himself. “We can’t protect them no matter where they are,” he agrees, “Not in these times. At least, if he’s out there,” he swallows thickly, “he’s doing it for our country. He’s trying to keep us safe.”

Tatiana laughs bitterly. “And suddenly our seventeen year old son is the one trying to protect us.” She wipes her eyes quickly with her hand. “When did the tables turn?”

Her husband smiles grimly at her. “When the war started, darling. We’re all going to have to adapt, and we’re going to have to adapt fast.”

She’s suddenly overcome with a rush of emotion. They’ve always been stability for each other, logic in the place of nonsense, and when she’s being irrational, then he’ll step in to stop her and she’ll do the same to him. They’ve lived through one war already and she thought that that was enough for the rest of her life but now the terrors of her teenage years are back and now they have children who are going to be affected too. They’re fucking terrified, and soon, perhaps, they won’t even be with each other, but for now, she’s suddenly thankful of what she has left. She presses a kiss to his lips and then draws back.

“We trust him,” she says, and he nods. “He’s doing the right thing. He’ll come home.”

“He’ll come home,” repeats Benj, and she doesn’t know if he’s trying to convince them or if he’s praying to God.

 

JULY

london, england

( 1941 )

 

“Isabelle Gray?”

“It’s Belle, actually,” she corrects the woman, and then quickly bites her tongue as she raises and hurries into the room, past the rows of other girls sitting quietly and pin-straight as they wait their turn. The woman closes the door behind her as she takes a seat in the oak desk and waits for the woman to sit down across from it.

“Matron Eames,” the woman introduces herself, and Belle nods, biting back the instinctive eager reply of ‘yes, I know.’

She’s here for an interview, a formality, really, to become a nurse. Maybe she’s a bit young, but she has qualifications. She’s been preparing since the war began, taking the small first aid classes, getting her certifications, listening to her mother on the days she returns home from the hospital bone-tired after a new boat of injured soldiers returns home. Isabelle might be young but she’s ready to play her part, to do for her country what she believes is necessary. She can’t fight, she won’t break codes, she isn’t a spy – she’s Belle Gray and her heart is too damn big for her own chest and she’s determined to give some of it away just to make the rest fit.

“You’ve been training for some time now,” the woman adds, and if Belle strains her ears, she can detect just a touch of being impressed in the other’s tone.

She straightens up. “Yes, Ma’am,” she replies, her voice calm despite her fingers twisting into each other on her lap as she tries not to fidget.

Matron Eames looks up from the small file on her desk. “You’re Tatiana’s daughter?” she says after a moment in surprise. Belle nods, and it’s like the woman is seeing her for the first time. Belle simply stares back, and it’s then that Matron Eames says, her voice surprisingly soft for a few seconds, “I remember her from the last war. We worked together.”

There’s a pause, and then she turns her gaze back to the paper, the moment broken, and resumes her no-nonsense tone. “Can you dress wounds? Does blood make you faint? How soon will you be able to begin?”

“Yes, yes, and,” she swallows, “Immediately.”

Matron Eames spends only a moment longer with her gaze on the paper before she looks up and extends a hand to the young girl to shake it firmly. “Congratulations, Miss Gray. If you step out to the door on your left, Laura will take you down the hall and find you a uniform that fits. Make sure that it’s pressed every morning before you put it on. Don’t tell any of the patients your first name. Wash your hands between every person you see.”

She nods, standing suddenly, murmuring her thanks as she shakes the woman’s hand, her brown eyes bright. She turns to the door when there’s another call from behind her: “Miss Gray?”

She turns.

The woman’s gaze and tone are still as hard as ever, but there’s something in her tone that reminds Isabelle that this is her second time around too, that she’s seen nurses come and go before. She knows what Isabelle is sacrificing now, and she knows why. There’s a pause, and then, “Thank you for your service.”

Belle stands still. “Thank you for yours,” she says in a small whisper, and then turns and quickly leaves the room.

 

JULY

london, england

( 1939 )

 

Jack is smiling at her in the way that he does when he knows that he’s got her intrigued, and it’s making Clara simultaneously want to punch and kiss him.

Instead, she does neither and crosses her arms over her chest as he guides her through the crowded lot. “Are you going to tell me what this is about?” she questions.

He grins at her again and threads his arm around her waist in a way that she knew her parents would both gape at, but neither of them are here and only he sees the blush deepen on her cheeks and he already knows then that he has her hooked. “You’ll see,” is all he says.

The night is young and the stars are only just beginning to twinkle in the night sky. The brilliant lights of the carnival sweep through the grassy field and there are children squealing and running around and laughing. Something about the night is magical and she can just taste the romance on the air. It’s the tension, the fact that she knows the war is coming. The people know it too – there are already booths to enlist, already people are making provisions to move or build shelters. No one is yet looking at it in horror; for now it’s exciting and almost distant, and she can hardly think about a war when Jack is pressing a kiss to the side of her head, sensing her impatience.

“If you dragged me all the way out here to win me one of these toys in the booths,” she starts to warn him, but he cuts her off.

“No, this is so much more special, just you wait.”

She’s silent for a moment longer, and then her blue eyes widen. “You’re not going to propose, are you? I only just turned eighteen last month!”

Jack gives her a look that makes her sigh and silence all her queries, and then he directs her at last to a tent. “What’s this?” she asks uncertainly. “A fortune teller? The last time you took me to one of these, Jack, the lady told me I was going to have six kids and you swore and said that you couldn’t make enough money to feed all of them and she was not happy with you for your outburst.” Nor with her raucous laughter afterward.

“No, it’s for enlisting in the war,” he says quickly as he steps into the tent and leads her in beside him. It’s already crowded with men standing in lines as they’re inspected, others sitting on benches filling out forms. It’s loud and raucous and there is joking – it’s not at all what she would expect it was. “Look at this!”

There’s a page on the side of the tent, tacked onto the rough canvas, and Clara peers at it and sees that it’s a list of the people who’ve enrolled. Her eyes skim down the list, then stop, and then she stares. “Jack! You didn’t.”

“I did,” he says, and his grin is so smug beside her that she doesn’t even need to turn to see it. “You’re soon going to have a soldier for a sweetheart.”

She turns to him and stares a moment longer before she wrenches herself away from his grip. “I can’t believe you,” she seethes, marching of the tent, and he’s quick to follow and grab her arm.

“What’s the matter?” he asks her, his eyebrows crinkling together in concern.

Clara pulls her hand away again. “You’re going to be a soldier, Jack? You’re going to go out there and shoot at people? You signed up to be shot at?”

“Yes?” he says, and he doesn’t see the problem and she’s suddenly bubbling over with rage.

“Why would you do this? They’re going to send you away for weeks, or it could be months or even years. You might never even come back!”

Jack frowns. “I thought you’d be pleased. You’re always going on about fighting, and that’s exactly what I’m doing.”

“Fighting Germans isn’t the same as fighting the man who scuffed my shoes when you took me out dancing. This is serious. You could die out there! And then what would you do, what would I,” she stops suddenly because she knows if she keeps going she’ll start shouting, or worse, she’ll start crying, and she doesn’t want to do that right now on what she thought was going to be a magical night.

He’s still staring at her in confusion, but his eyebrows slowly begin to ease up. “I have to do it,” he says slowly, “I’m doing it for my country, to know that it’ll still be here after the war. What’s that song you always like to play on the piano? There’ll Always Be An England?”

Clara scowls. “You’re Scottish.”

“And you’re Welsh, Clara,” he replies, and suddenly she’s filled with a surge of love that he remembers how particular she is about that, but it disappears in a flash when he keeps going, “and don’t tell me that you wouldn’t do your part for the war when it comes.”

“I’m not saying that I wouldn’t,” she’s quick to defend, “but the war has barely just begun. You don’t have to go right now? What’s the rush?” There’s a touch of desperation in her voice.

Jack’s jaw has hardened. “I’m not going to let them take me. If I fight, it’s going to be my choice, and it is right now. You can’t be angry with me for trying to keep my country and my family safe. For trying to keep you safe.”

“Oh, for fuck’s sake,” she lets out a short, hard breath. “Don’t give me that. You want to be a damn hero, so that we’ll all be groveling at your feet when you come home. So that you give Eos and Amory and everyone else someone to look up to, but you’re not even thinking that it’s going to come at the cost of your life!”

They’re standing feet apart now and her arms are crossed around her chest. He takes a step closer, but she takes one back, and he stops and turns away to stare at the grass. “That’s not true,” he replies, his brow furrowing again.

She turns away stiffly too. “When do you leave?”

“They’re sending me to France at the end of the week,” he starts, and Clara turns and storms off with a groan. “Oh, come on, doll, don’t be like that. I brought you here so we could spend some time together before I left!”

She doesn’t stop, and Jack calls out, trying to be humorous, “Do you want me to propose to you?”

Clara turns back halfway. “Oh, go to hell. Wait,” she pauses, “that’s exactly where you signed up to go.”

“Clara –“

“Don’t talk to me,” she snarls, and storms off.

 

MAY

london, england

( 1943 )

 

Cecilia didn’t think that she’d miss school this much and sometimes, she resented the war. She always resented the war, really. It had taken her from her family, scattered them in different cities and countries and jobs. She’d been tugged from school after their little yellow house in London had been bombed and sent to live with her grandmother in Wales instead.

Then Cardiff was blitzed and she was shuttled around again. Clara and Isabelle tried their hand at the hospital – eventually, only Isabelle stayed and Clara went somewhere else (“It’s secret intelligence work for the government,” she’d whispered to Cece as she’d packed up her bag hurriedly, “You’ll be proud. I’ll tell you more later.”), but she hadn’t found her calling. She wasn’t a healer like her mother or her sister; she couldn’t enlist in the army like the men; she couldn’t do whatever the hell it was that Clara was doing.

What she did have, however, was her ambition.

It was her old girl guide leader who’d found her on their way out of Cardiff when it had been bombed, on their way to the English countryside, and offered her a job. It had taken a lot of convincing for Josephine Penvrane to let her granddaughter even go, but Cece had begged. Everyone else knew where they fit, and now she did too.

With her wide blue eyes, her curly brown hair, and her young age, people could hardly consider her a spy. She slipped in and out unnoticed, a note often clutched in her fingers.

She learned to drive a car early, the leader of the girl guides sitting beside her and directing her as she steered left and right on the little-traveled dirt roads. She learned to cut wires and to get a car running without a key.

“Miss Cormack,” she says uncertainly and then is corrected for the hundredth time, “Hannah,” she amends quickly, “Are we doing the right thing?”

Hannah doesn’t hesitate. “Of course, “she replies with a nod, “You’re essential the war effort. They can’t trust to send this sort of information over the wires. They can’t even trust boys to send it. They need people like you.”

Cecilia makes herself indispensible. She had been the topper of her class when she’d been in school; now that she’s out, she makes herself useful in other ways. She drive sa car faster than any other girl. No one bothers to stop her as she runs into one base or another – they know her face well enough that they wave her through as she runs into the room with her notes. When she goes to bars, it isn’t to drink or smoke cigarettes with the soldiers; Cece smiles and flirts and collects information and then walks out brimming with intelligence.

She is a spy, and she is good at it.

“You never look at these, do you, Miss Gray?” General Jones jokes as she’d hands him yet another one of her notes.

“Of course not,” she answers smoothly, and gives him a bright smile as she leaves the room.

The war had made her an excellent liar. She reads through the notes front to back before she delivers them to make sure that she’s always kept aware. And that’s how she knows; that was how she knows first. She sees the infantry number – she checks it twice, three times, but she knows this number like the back of her hand. Her heart sinks.

“Any news, general?” she asks jovially to the commander as she hands him her next note.

“That’s private, Gray,” he replies, his tone stricter than usual. He knows what had happened. He knows who had been captured, the numbers of all the troops that were taken, but he won’t tell her. She is invisible. She carries the notes and that’s all.

Cecilia nods numbly at him and then returns to her car. She turns the key slowly and begins to drive back to the other base before she changes her mind; she turns left and drives toward the nearest bar. She’s getting her information, and no one is going to stop her, even if her heart is thumping in her chest, even if she’s hoping that everything that she’s read is a mistake – she refuses to believe it blindly.

 

NOVEMBER

dunkirk, france

( 1939 )

 

Be brave, Amory, he warns himself as he presses himself to the ground, his elbows half bent in a push up, and then springs back up. That’s who he is. Clara is clever, Belle is kind, Cece is resourceful – but he’s supposed to be the brave one. Even now, stuck in a base doing push-ups, the commander shouting out orders to him, he has to be brave. He hasn’t seen fighting yet, but he knows it’s close. The training is getting faster, more forceful. He gets snapped at more often. Everyone knows that they’re weeks, maybe even days from their first battle.

“Gray, bend those arms. When the Germans come, you have to learn to hit the ground flat.” His commander stands in front of him, and Amory looks up, gives him a nod and a ‘yes, sir’, and dips back down into another push up.

His curls are all gone; they’d cut them all off the day he’d left. Belle had cried to see his hair cropped so close to his head, wearing a uniform that was a size too big for his lanky frame, even as he’d showed her his identification card proudly. Amory Gray, Infantry Division 46. He tried to cover up his birthday, but they all saw it on his card and Clara’s expression soured further – he’d used hers to enlist, to pretend that he was eighteen.

He is almost eighteen now. He is a soldier. He has to be brave.

The whistle blows and the soldiers all spring back up to their feet and get in line as another general walks by. General Penvrane is his own uncle, but right now, he feels no real kinship for the man who walks by, surveys them with a nod (his blue eyes skim over Amory briefly) and then continues on. They are all busy in the war. He doesn’t know what’s going on back home, but he can already guess. His sisters have probably joined the war effort; his parents are probably working overtime. The only one of his family members he sees anymore was Daniel, and his uncle is always being called away for strategy meetings now.

“God, I’m starving,” says Ricky next to him, and Amory turns to him as they march away to the mess hall. The other boy is covered in bruises and mud from training, and he knows that he looks much the same.

“When do you think that we’ll see action?” he asks, and the tone of his voice drops.

“Soon, I hope,” Ricky replies, marching exaggeratedly as they pass one of their other officers. He stops as the man turns his head. “They wouldn’t be training us like dogs for the last week if it wasn’t close.”

Ricky is right. Barely two days later, they’re given guns and taught to shoot. When he was just a little boy, he played footie and now his aim is precise, but the target is far and he has to crouch to shoot. He has to steady his hand even when it shakes, and these aren’t even people yet, these are just cardboard circles painted in red. Yet his fingers hesitate over the trigger and quiver before he can pull them.

“You’re a good shot, Am,” Beau says in appreciation as he stands behind Amory and waits his turn. He lets out a low whistle as he looks at the target and nods approvingly. “You’ll have no problem with this.”

Amory chokes back a comment that he does have a problem with killing. This is what he’s signed up for. He’s known that going to war meant that he’d be killing people or that he’d be the one getting killed, but suddenly, the gun in his hands feels too heavy, too real, and he has to remind himself why he’s doing this in the first place.

He’s reminded of why again that night as he leans back in his bed, shifts though the letters that he’s received for a bit of her writing, but then Ricky swoops down and steals the stack. “Have you got a sweetheart that we don’t know about?” he crows.

“Mate, those are from my Mum,” Amory protests, and it’s true, the first few are just from home, but hidden in the middle is the one that he’s been looking for, and Ricky slides it out of the bundle.

“Joanna?”

Amory’s suddenly brought back to a summer’s night. He’s young and he’s smitten and he’s got her hand in his as they go dancing. His father has always been a good dancer, and Amory has learned from him. As he dips and twirls the girl in his arms, she giggles cheerfully and he grins.

“There’s a war coming,” he says as they walked out of the dance club, his jacket around her shoulders as they walk down the London streets. It’s not something that he cares about yet, but he’s heard the phrase said often. He still has a year of school left, and then he’ll be off to do something else. He wants to be a doctor if his grades are high enough.

Joanna nods, twirls a lock of dark hair around her finger. “What are you going to do when it gets here?” she asks thoughtfully.

Amory glances at her, and then at the streets. There really aren’t that many options – he could stay and work, or he could leave and fight. And at once, he knows what would impress Joanna more. “I’m going to enlist,” he declares.

She turns to him with her eyes wide in adoration. “Really? That’s so brave.” Her voice drops to a whisper, “You’ll be like Jack.”

Amory doesn’t mind the comparison. Jack has enlisted the week before and already been sent away; Clara returned home in a huff one night from the carnival, her makeup smudged (and not her lipstick this time, as Amory always teased her about), and tearfully declared to her concerned family that she was never talking to Jack again before she’d stormed off into her room. Amory knows she’ll be furious, but this is something he wants to do, and Clara can’t stop him.

“I’m not eighteen yet,” he muses thoughtfully, “but they won’t be able to tell. I’m tall – I can always tell them that my birthday on file is switched with Clara’s. She looks younger, they’ll believe it.” Already the plan is starting to formulate in his mind from the hazy, amorphous thought that he’d had, and as Joanna presses a kiss to his cheek, he decides that this is the right thing to do.

Right now, in a base in France, it still seems like the right thing to do.

“Give it back,” he replies to Ricky, and swipes the letter from him, despite Ricky’s teasing. He sniffs the perfume on the envelope and then tucks it back into the bundle before he ties them up carefully.

A moment later, the lights are out and there’s a general groaning from the soldiers as they get into bed.

“Good night, Amory,” Ricky calls in a sing-song voice, “Tell your sweetheart there’ll be fighting tomorrow. God knows it’s time.” Ricky is right again.

Amory wakes up the next morning into war.

 

JANUARY

london, england

( 1940 )

 

“Do you have to go?”

They’re tangled together between the sheets. Tatiana’s fingers are twisted into the front of his shirt, and her lips are pressed his between breaths, to his cheek and his jaw when he speaks. She’s peppering his face with kisses and it’s like young love all over again. They’re teenagers caught in the Great War another time, and it’s only the desperation that he kisses her back with that reminds her that they’re back in war all over again only this time they’re older and their children are involved this time.

“Do you have to go?” Benj protests breathlessly, planting a kiss on her cheek.

They’re both leaving in the morning for France – not together, but both for the war. Benj’s department has been deemed non-essential; he’s just been pulled out of reserved occupation and conscripted. Tatiana’s the head nurse of her ward and she’s being sent to look after the troops in France.

“What are the girls going to do?” she asks in a sigh, but then Benj flips over and pins her down to press kisses to her neck.

“They’re going to be fine,” he murmurs in between them, “We were their age during the last war. They’ll all make themselves useful here.”

Tatiana knows it’s true, but her heart is still strained as she imagines leaving her girls behind as both her and her husband leave. Amory’s already been gone for months, and even if he writes to them regularly, her heart still skips every time a day passes with a report of fighting in France. And now not only is her baby in battle, but her husband will be too.

She slants her lips down to meet his. “When will you be home again?”

“I won’t be home for a long time,” he replies, and he finally stops, lifts his blue eyes to her, and she realizes suddenly that she could lose both of them, both him and Amory, and her grip around him tightens.

“When will you be in Paris?” she amends because that’s safer. It’s closer, and that’s where she’ll be.

“I don’t know either,” Benj admits, but he bends to kiss her again. “I’ll see you when I’m there, I promise. They can work me like a dog until then, but I’m going to see you in France.” He quirks a humorless grin at her, “Why do you think I’m following you down there?” He says that like it’s his choice, when really it was her who’d begged Holly to let her transfer to France when they were looking for nurses to leave.

She feels like a teenager again, giddy with love, and she wraps her arms around him tighter. “God, I love you,” she whispers to him fiercely.

“It’s ‘Benj’, actually, but you were close,” he whispers back with a grin, and then kisses her again.

They don’t know it’s the last night they’ll have together in years.

 

JULY

bletchley park, england

( 1943 )

 

It’s Cecilia’s birthday, and Clara has turned her room half upside down looking for a present.

“Am I even allowed to post something from here?” she frets.

Nadine idly paints her fingers in the room that they share. “I sent something to Joanna last month,” she offered, “they just postmarked it as ‘Room 47, The Foreign Office’ as the return address so you better hope that your sister gets it or else it’s not coming back to you.”

They’ve been at Bletchley Park for ages now and she still can’t completely wrap her mind away how it all works. How they’ve selected her and Nadine to help break their codes. It’s not difficult for her – like learning a new language. (“Like learning two different languages,” Nadine used to grumble as they tasked her with deciphering both the ciphers and the German words before the switched her to French instead).

It had started as something so simple – a crossword competition, they’d called it, and Nadine had dragged along Clara, who’d been glum after her latest letter from Jack had arrived. Then they’d pulled the two of them from the competition after they’d seen how fast they could solve the words and decipher the code and approached them to do ‘something for the country’. Nadine had already declared that she was French, but it didn’t matter to them – she was an ally, and now she was in Bletchley Park, with Clara, and they were breaking German codes. This was the type of work that had always thrilled Clara in school, and now she was taking part of it.

Clara studies Nadine from across the room. They’ve grown up together on a street in London. Amory’s sweet on Nadine’s younger sister, Joanna. Nadine’s got a boy in the army who comes back every several months, and she meets him on the station one down from Bletchley Park and snogs him senseless. Clara could have had her same future, but her family is fragmented, strewn across the continent. Her own boy isn’t hers anymore, even if he keeps writing letters that she refuses to answer.

At last, she decides, and picks up her new lipstick that she hasn’t opened to send to Cece. “A girl can never have too much lipstick,” she quips as she heads down the stairs.

She runs into Riordan Kelley right outside the woman’s quarters after she stuffs the lipstick and a letter into a small envelope. He’s another one of her childhood friends that found himself at Bletchley Park, trying to break ciphers, and now he grins at her in familiarity.

“Sending your sweetheart something?” he asks with a teasing grin.

She doesn’t have a sweetheart anymore. Not really. She plasters a smile onto her lips. “You know that I don’t have one, Rio,” she replies, trying to be cheerful. “It’s for Cece, it’s her birthday tomorrow.”

“Shit,” Rio curses suddenly, his hand flying up to his forehead, “I forgot. I’ll send her some sweets in the afternoon. She still likes chocolate, doesn’t she?”

Cecilia is about to turn seventeen. She delivers messages between bases. Clara knows that she isn’t a child anymore, but now she barely even knows what Cecilia likes, or what Belle likes, or – hell, if Amory is even still alive. She smiles and nods anyway.

“Speaking of sweethearts,” Rio lowers his voice, “Elias?”

Elias Fisher sits next to her when they work. He smiles whenever their elbows brush, and they often eat meals together, and sometimes when they have free time, he takes Clara dancing. He’s sweet and she adores him, but she can’t afford to right now in war when she knows so many of these men could die – she could die too if the wrong person gets wind of what she’s doing. Besides, for all she likes him, there’s something inside her nagging her about Jack that refuses to let her entertain this notion for long.

“No,” she says with a shake of her head as she posts her letter. “We have work to do, Rio, we don’t have time for all of that.”

It’s almost on cue that Mr. Major walks by with a sheaf of papers bound in red – top secret, she already knows by the color.

“Gray,” he calls her as he approaches and bends, and she takes the file on top. “It’s Welsh, we think. Can’t read a damn word of what it says. You’ll see if you can figure it out?”

“Of course,” she answers smoothly as she takes it, and she’s about to leave when there’s a call behind her.

“Miss Gray?” Clara turns, and the man in the post office is holding out a letter to her. “You got this in the morning.”

She expects to see Belle writing from London, but the envelope is smudged and she knows at once who it’s from. Rio knows too.

“I thought that you stopped writing,” he says in surprise.

“I did,” Clara replies, but then she slips Jack’s letter into her pocket. She won’t write, but that won’t stop her from reading, from devouring every word that he writes until maybe it can satiate the hole in her heart.

 

MAY

somewhere in germany

( 1943 )

 

His shoulder hits about every tree as he passes, but Benj ignores the pain. His arm is in a sling and he can’t move it – he doesn’t know if it’s broken or if it’s sprained or if there’s shrapnel in it. He just knows that it hurts and that the sling is only temporary, but he doesn’t think that there’ll be a permanent solution for a while.

He lags near the back of the crowd beside Seth Allen, who chances a look at his arm before turning back to the front. “You’d think that one of these whippersnappers would know how to bind it,” he murmurs.

Benj knows how to and he knows that the whippersnappers don’t know as much as they pretend to. They haven’t lived though one war already like he and Seth have. Their division was divided in half quickly when Benj one day called the younger ones whippersnappers ironically. It had stuck. Him and Seth and all the others who’d fought in the last war were the geezers now. Damn it.

He had to admit, though, that he appreciates the grudging respect they have for him. After the first few months when they’d acted so young and tough, they realized that the war wasn’t what they thought it was. They wouldn’t be home by Christmas. All the boys who’d signed up to be heroes or to impress girls quickly realized that this was war and they couldn’t afford to for any longer. They looked to Benj for advice.

His son is somewhere in France, or maybe Belgium, or England – God, he didn’t even know anymore, and his daughters are scattered across England. His wife is somewhere in a hospital in German-occupied France, and now he’s at the heart of the German wilderness. He doesn’t have his children here, but he’s still a father; he looks out for his soldiers.

They ask for advice about their girls back home and he tells them about his, how he fell in love during the war, how his own daughters are probably doing the same now. They ask about their families, and he tells them that they just have to hope and pray that they’re alive and safe. They ask how to keep hold of their humanity when they’re out here, and he tells them quietly that they have to remember what they’re doing and who they’re doing it for and not to lose sight of themselves. Benj almost does often, but each time he forces himself straight. He’s not just a soldier, he’s Benjamin Gray; husband, officer, father, human. The war will strip much from him, but he won’t let it strip his identity. It’s the one thing that no one can take – not the British, not the French, not even the Germans.

Something snaps in front of them and it’s so quick that Benj almost doesn’t catch it, but then he glances at Seth and he knows that he sees it too. “Is that — ?” Seth begins, but Benj is faster.

“Duck!” And they both do, and so do the soldiers in front of them, flattening themselves to the ground onto their stomachs as the ground in front of them explodes in a shower of branches and dirt and leaves.

A moment later there are German soldiers swarming out from behind the trees and shooting at them, and he can hear the screaming and he no longer knows if it’s coming from him or from someone else. There’s another explosion and something hits Benj in the head. He keels over, unable to find Seth, unable to find his other men.

Rough hands seize him and push him to the ground, and then he’s being spoken to in harsh German that he doesn’t understand, but he understands the sentiment as the pull him back to his feet again and shove him, poking a gun into his back. Walk.

Benj does as he’s told, still dazed, and numbly steps forward as he cradles his injured arm with his other one. He already knows what the headline will stay soon, as soon as his superiors find out. Division 116 has been captured.

Benjamin Gray is a prisoner of war.

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