keep your heart close to the ground (part two)

by renegadekarma

The plan is formulating in her mind faster than she can stop it, and maybe it’s putting herself and him, and everything else that she’s worked for at risk, but she won’t let them torture a boy who’s her age, who’s barely old enough to even be in the war, without doing something about it.

“I’m going to get you out of here,” she whispers.


MAY

london, england

( 1943 )

 

She’s spent the last two nights inside various bars, twirling the ties of soldiers and giggling over them with drinks in her hand (even if she never drank from them). She’s collected all of her information already, now all that was necessary was to compile it.

Cecilia sits in her car, the windows tinted against the outside as she sprawls across the front seat with a paper in her lap. The ink from her pen is smudging all over her hand as she scribbles down notes everywhere before she puts it together. She tears the sheet out, grabs another, and then writes her message in bold block lettering.

She turns the key in her car and starts toward the nearest base.

“Back so soon, Gray?” General Jones looks at her without a smile like usual, but he is softer than his usual demeanor with her. She knows what this means to him. He had known her father; they were friends. They’d both worked in the government ten years ago and he still remembered Benjamin Gray.

“I’ve got another one for you.” Cecilia hands the note over to him. Usually she turns right around in leaves, but this time, she stays and waits for him to read it. She watches the blood drain from his face and then he takes her by the arm and tugs her outside, away from the soldiers and other commanders back into the hall.

“How the hell did you find this out?” He’s flapping the note in front of her.

The note is in her clear handwriting, the one that always won her essay contests at school: I know about Division 116 and Major Harris.

Cece tilts up her chin boldly. “I’m a spy,” she says clearly, “You just think I’m invisible, that I drive the car and hand you notes but I can do more. I can find out more and I have.”

“This is a very big breach of security, Cecilia,” he says, and she knows that it’s serious when he uses her full name. “You could let this fall into enemy hands. You could fall into enemy hands.”

She tilts her chin up again. “Then don’t let me fall into enemy hands. Give me something useful to do. Send me somewhere.”

General Jones looks at her dubiously. “What else can you do?” he asks at last. “I know that you’re reliable, that you’ll deliver messages even when you know that you could be bombed or shot at.” He pauses. “How did you find out about Major Harris?”

She doesn’t mention that she has sources everywhere, that she can decipher bits of garbled, drunken soldier talk. Cecilia simply quirks her lips up. “I’m very good at getting people to follow orders, and I know how to question people. I can do so much more than this, General Jones.”

He looks at her dubiously, but she already knows that he believes her. Finally he sighs, crumples up the note, and nods. “How old are you?”

“Eighteen,” she’s quick to reply. She’s not even sixteen yet, but if Amory can do it, then so can she. She’s taller than her mother, than her sisters, and anyone would be wiling to believe it.

She doesn’t know if the general does, but he doesn’t question her further. “We have to train the American troops in the ways of the war.” He pauses. “How soon can you leave for New York?”

“Right away,” she answers and then grins.

 

APRIL

posted from morocco

( 1942 )

 

Darling, dearest, Tatty,

I’m sunburnt again. You’d think that they’d look at the state of their troops before they sent them somewhere. For example – blonde soldier? Do not send him to Morocco. But here I am, red as a lobster, with sand all over me. It’s a swell time.

They say that France is occupied right now and you won’t even get my letters. It’s a damn shame. I’ve been writing to you for months now without a reply. The last I heard was that things were going well in France, and that Belle was starting her nursing training in London soon. What about Clara and Cecilia? Where are they right now? Amory’s written to me from France, but I haven’t heard back from him in a while.

This war is too damn long, darling. I just want to get home and sit on our couch and listen to Clara play the piano and Belle and Cece argue over hair ribbons and Amory complain that we’re all being too loud for him to study. I miss listening to you complaining about the hospital. I’m sure you still do that now, but to someone else, if you can. I know the Germans won’t have killed you; you’re too indispensible to them for that to happen. You’re resourceful enough to survive this.

This is the point when you’d be rolling your eyes and saying something like, “Oh, Benj, you can survive too, don’t sell yourself short.” And maybe you’re right, maybe I can. But every step deeper into this country is a step away from you and our home and everything that we’ve built together.

I still can’t believe I’m back here, writing letters to you during the war while I wait for your responses that might never come, and each lag between letters makes me so terrified that you’ve been killed or taken prisoner or that you think that the same has happened to me. I half expect to be young again and to be showing everyone pictures of my sweetheart that I’ve got tucked into my pocket – I still do sometimes, but the younger soldiers are more interested in Clara and Cece and Belle and even Amory. Sorry, love. I’ve still got eyes only for you.

It’s nearly Easter here. I hope that you’re celebrating there. Or if not, I hope at least that you’re safe. I’m praying for it every night.

Love love love,

Benj

 

JANUARY

undisclosed location, england

( 1944 )

 

“Drink,” she says, and this time he does without complaint.

Belle sits on the side of his bed, holding the cup to his lips even if she’s sure that he can do it himself. Clover has dark curls and even in his bed he’s tall and lanky. She’s suddenly reminded of Amory and she nearly drops her cup in surprise.

He notices her falter and looks over at her before he takes the cup for himself. “What happened?” he says in a low voice, his accent toned with French. He doesn’t actually speak only German; he merely pretends to keep his cover. He isn’t even German – his father is French and his mother is from Britain, but he enlisted in the German army after his father left his mother and joined up. He wants to be just like him.

“You remind me of my brother,” she says quietly. If the letters she’s got are true, Amory won’t even recognize her when she gets home. It isn’t that she’s changed that much – well, she has – but that he can’t even see her face. He’ll have to go off of her face now, and the thought makes her face crumple before she turns away and busies herself with a tray.

Clover is still watching her. “He was killed in battle?”

“He’s alive,” she replies simply, and then quiets herself as a nurse walks by.

She knows what Matron Eames sent her there for; they’re meant to be merciful here. They treat without discrimination. An injury is an injury and as a nurse, it’s her job to heal them no matter what part of the war they’ve come from. That’s why she’s here, sharing a small, cramped room with three other woman. She’s tried to assure Clover that it’s safe but he doesn’t believe her and she can see the toll that the war has had on him. He’s paranoid and shifty and he’ll hardly let any nurse but her touch him.

His arm is nearly healed up, and though he’s been checked numerous times for a back injury, he’s come back fine. It’s his head that’s been bruised badly and been stitched and restitched many times after getting infected. Until it’s healed, Clover always tells her, they can’t kill him. They want him to be well so that they can interrogate him and torture information out of him. She refuses to believe it’s true.

Right now, however, she bends back down beside him and carefully rolls up the side of his bandages to check the color underneath. A few months ago, this would have made her retch into a sink, but she’s used to the sights and smells of a hospital ward like this right now and she no longer has the same inhibitions that she once had.

“Is it better?” he whispers.

She almost doesn’t want to tell him, but Belle isn’t a liar. “Almost,” she whispers back, “It’s healing up nicely.”

Clover’s face crumples, and Belle is quick to add, “but it’s not there yet. Just almost.”

He can detect the high pitch in her voice and lifts his eyebrow at her, waiting until she bends back down beside him so can whisper hoarsely in her ear, “They’re going to kill me soon.”

“No they’re not,” she says fiercely.

He matches her tone. “Not at first, but they’re going to pull information out of me.” His voice rises slightly, “I don’t know anything! I was a foot soldier, and I got put in my first battle and then,” he lets out a sharp exhale of breath, some French swear mixed in. “I would have been in the French army if I hadn’t wanted to find my Dad.”

“You only joined to find him?”

He nods quickly. “I didn’t find him. I found this instead,” he points at the wound on his head and grimaces from the pain. “One battle in and I’m already useless. They’ll be trying to pry information that I don’t even know from me.”

Belle doesn’t know bravery the way that her brother knows it. She can’t sign up to fight in the war underage. She isn’t like her father to go marching back into a war after having lived through one already. But she does know compassion and when to express it. “I’m not going to let them do that to you. I believe you.” She squeezes his hand gently. “You’re a good man.”

The plan is formulating in her mind faster than she can stop it, and maybe it’s putting herself and him, and everything else that she’s worked for at risk, but she won’t let them torture a boy who’s her age, who’s barely old enough to even be in the war, without doing something about it.

“I’m going to get you out of here,” she whispers.

“How?” he whispers back.

She pauses, waits as another nurse passes by and asks her to go check the bandages on the older German gentleman three beds down. Belle nods and then hands Clover another glass of water. “Tonight at eleven exactly,” she tells him in a low voice as she stands. “Stay awake. I’ll come back.”

Isabelle Gray always keeps her promises.

 

DECEMBER

bastia, france

( 1943 )

 

After two days on a boat, standing on the dock makes her sway uneasily, but Jack loops his arm around her waist and guides her through the crowd like he always does. She can forget the last three years for now and simply let him. Clara remembers being a teenager in love, and as she’s beside him, she realizes that she’s never forgotten what that feels like.

His American soldier friends have taken a liking to her, even if she has to constantly correct their pronunciation of her name. (“It’s Clah-ruh,” she says for the hundredth time before they end up calling her Clare-Bear again). Soon they’ll be off to the war with Jack, flying planes alongside of him while she stays resolutely on the ground. The message is still hidden within her clothes; even when she lets Jack undress her, in the cover of the night and her private room on the ship, she’s careful to keep it close to her.

“Where are you off to after this?” Jack asks her, turning his head down so that he can face her.

“Cannes,” Clara answers, and she thinks that that’s how specific she’s allowed to get. “I have to find a ship that’ll take me.” Mr. Major had told her that it would be difficult, that getting into German-occupied France wouldn’t be easy and with her English accent it would be even more difficult, but she could try to fake it. Clara had always been good at acting. She looks up at him. “What about you?”

“I’m going to Nice,” he replies, and deflates slightly. “They’re almost near each other. I could take a ship with you and then maybe fly the rest of the way – “

“Jack,” Clara cuts him off, “I don’t want to delay you. You have work to do.” And so does she, but she ignores the aching in her heart as they got off the dock, his American friends talking loudly behind them. Perhaps it was the cover of their voices that gives her the boldness to turn back to him and say, “You know, I was envious.”

“You were what?” he turns in surprise, and his eyebrows lift up.

“Of you,” she clarifies. “You could enlist and I couldn’t. I couldn’t go to war even if I wanted to, and I did. That’s why I was so mad that you could go, because I wanted to also, but I couldn’t.” She pauses. “And I was also terrified that you’d die.”

But his arm around her reminds her that he’s not dead, that he’s very much here and alive and solid, and she impulsively moves closer as he wraps his arm around tighter so she can feel his heart beating inside his chest.

“Do you have to go again?” Clara says in a small voice.

He lets out a deep sigh that she feels ripple through his body. “You know I have to,” he says at last. “I don’t have a choice, and neither do you.” She lifts her gaze up. “Yes, I know what you’ve been doing. I ask about you every damn time I get to a base, and they always tell me that you’re off on one of Churchill’s assignments. Work that the rest of us aren’t allowed to know about.” He studies her. “I knew that you were clever enough for it.”

She feels a surge of pride then in herself, which quickly shifts to him as she reaches up and brushes her thumb on his cheek. “And I knew that you’d be a fighter pilot. You belong up there, you know.”

He belongs with her is what she wants to scream, but even her fitful impulses stop her, and she turns back to the row of ships lined along the harbor. “This one’s going to Cannes,” she says and points at the one in front of her. It’s a French ship; she knows that she’ll get passage on it as a British codebreaker. The hard part in France will be sneaking out to the location she needs to go when most of France is still German-controlled, but she’s clever. She can do it.

Jack stares at the ship. “I’ll go with you.”

“You don’t have to,” she starts, but he shakes his head.

“I want to. Besides,” he glances back at the Americans, who’ve gathered around him, “This is the quickest route, isn’t it, boys?”

Clara is sure that they don’t look entirely certain of this, but they seem to have an inkling of what’s going on and none of them seem in any particularly hurry to head back. A few hours overnight isn’t an issue for them and they nod and pay their passage and soon they’re all aboard a ship to Cannes.

Jack slips into her room again that night and in between kisses and murmurs of passion she can tell that something is on his mind. She finally slips from his arms, buttons his shirt over herself, self-conscious suddenly. “What is it?”

He doesn’t bother asking how she knows; she always knows. He straightens up. “You’re not eighteen anymore.”

“I’m twenty-two,” she says uncertainly, “and you’re twenty-three. What’s this about?”

“When you were eighteen you didn’t want me to propose because you were scared and angry with me, but what about now?” Jack stares back at her, but she’s too surprised to speak, so he keeps going, “Will you marry me now?”

“Now?”

“Not now,” he amends, “when we land tonight. In Cannes. I know that you wanted a big wedding with a white dress and a giant chocolate cake but – fuck it, I can’t wait any longer. You’re leaving tomorrow and so am I and I’m not letting you walk away this time.” He pauses and swallows. “What do you say?”

Clara blinks once, and then she blinks again. “You’re sure?”

“I’m sure.”

“Then yes, of course I’ll marry you.” She surges forward to kiss him again, tackling him in kisses until he’s the one pinning her down.

They get off the ship and walk straight into a small court in France. Clara Gray marries Jack McQueen, her in her trousers and the better of the two blouses she’d packed, and him in his best uniform. Their witnesses are the three American shoulders and afterward, the two of them retire for one night, just one night, until their paths split again.

The next morning, she presses a kiss to his lips once, then twice, and then three times, ignoring the way that the Americans are wolf-whistling behind her. “I love you,” she breathes into him.

Jack kisses her again and then presses a last one to her hand. “I love you,” he says at last, and he folds into her hands a small figurine of a fighter plane, the one that one of his friends had given him as a wedding gift and he now gives to her. “You’ll think of me every time you look at the planes?”

“Every damn time.” She takes the plane, tucks it into her pocket, and gives him one last look before she turns and walks away into Cannes.

Clara does her job and she does it well, and then she gets out of Cannes and into Paris – and that’s when she begins to suspect it.

 

JULY

somewhere in germany

( 1943 )

 

Benj is somewhere between asleep and awake – or at least, he’s pretending to be. Really, he’s counting the steps that he jail guard is taking in front of his cell, back and forth; it’s always sixteen steps to the left, then sixteen steps to the right. He’s been counting for nearly three hours and it’s always the same.

His eyes, half-closed, flit to Lachlan. He’s not pretending to be asleep, but he’s sitting very still, his eyes on the other prisoners. Benj got the story out of him in pieces, how Tatiana helped him escape from the German-infested hospital in Paris through a body bag and smuggled him out from right under their noses. Lachlan knows that she’s likely been caught, but he doesn’t think that she’ll be punished too harshly – they need her too much, and that puts his heart at ease.

The other two prisoners actually are asleep; Archie and Nate are lying on the other end of the cell, but they’re sleeping fitfully. They know that tonight is night, but it isn’t time yet. They need their signal.

“Where’s Lieutenant Allen?” They had asked Benj repeatedly after they’d dunked his head into buckets of freezing water, the curls that had grown back on his head getting soaked and matted together in the icy cold. He’d never answered, but he knows; he keeps his eyes on the outside of the cell.

Across the cell, Lachlan kicks his leg lightly, and Benj knows it’s time. He nudges Nate, who lets out an audible snort as he wakes up. They all freeze, but the guard keeps walking, and they slowly nudge Archie awake.

The three of them eye Lachlan, and he rises slowly and walks across to the other end of the cell and rattles the bars.

“Bewachen,” he calls out to the guard, who turns on step thirteen toward the cell.

He calls back something in harsh German and steps closer, but Lachlan only motions for the water. The guard pauses, and then reaches down for the ladle, which he carries over to Lachlan.

As soon as Lachlan grabs the handle, Benj sweeps out through the bars with his leg and knocks the soldier down with a swift kick around the back of his knees. Above, Lachlan is splashing water as he uses the ladle to tug the guard closer by his belt loop, and then Nate and Archie surge in to pull him closer and tug the keys from him. Before the guard has time to yell, Lachlan hits him across the head with the ladle and he crumples.

They unlock the cell and slip out, unlocking the other French and British soldiers on the way, and then Benj let out the sound of a nightingale, a shrill birdcall. He waits a minute, and then he hears the quiet filing at one end of the prison before he moves over, and as the cell pops open, it’s Seth Allen’s hand that pops down.

“I knew I could count on you, mate,” Benj grins as he pulls him from the cell.

Seth pats him on the back and then reaches down to pull Lachlan out. “Are the whippersnappers with you?”

“They’re all down there,” Benj says, and though he’s weak, the thought of being free reinvigorates him. He bends down and he begins to help the other prisoners out of the cell before suddenly there’s the sound of alarms in the distance and shouting, and he knows that he has to hurry, “Come on!”

He reaches back down and he pulls out person after person until there’s no one left, and he can hear the sounds of soldiers shouting getting closer but he doesn’t leave until everyone is out.

“Stop!” The German soldier calls in English as if that will make them stop, but Benj turns and flees into the wilderness.

He runs faster than he’s ever run in his life until he falls into the arms of other soldiers and immediately his arms are up to punch this man in the jaw and let him free, but then he looks up and his eyes make contact with a face so startlingly familiar that he reels back and then nearly keels over in relief.

“Daniel?”

 

FEBRUARY

london, england

( 1944 )

 

Amory clambers off of the train and nearly walks into a pole, but Lyanna grabs his arm and then they both straighten up and walk forward. They’ve been like this since Dieppe in the same hospital when they were both discharged back to London and he doesn’t know how he would have made it here without her or how she would have made it without him.

While he can no longer see, she can no longer walk properly; a wartime nurse, an explosion in her hospital in France landed her in another one as a patient. She guides him, and he keeps her steady. It’s a fantastic mutual relationship.

“You have family here, don’t you?” she asks him as they walk down the crowded station. People part slightly to make room for them, civilians who are no longer in awe of soldiers but still give Amory the respect he’s due in his uniform when they can see that he’s being led by the woman beside him.

“I do.” He pauses. “I did.” God only knew where they were right now, or if they knew about him. Belle and Clara had gone off the radar. The last that he’d heard from Cece, she’d been sent off to America and his heart had clenched but he’d come to terms with it, that she was probably doing some important work there. His mother, he’s sure, is still in occupied France. His father he thinks has been captured and then somehow gotten out. He has no idea where any of them are, or what remains of his house.

“Where are you going to go now?” she asks again, and he has to stop and think.

With his family gone, Amory doesn’t have very far else to go. Ricky’s dead. Beau’s missing. He doesn’t know what happened to the Jameson children. Immediately, his mind lands on the one family that he knows is still there. “I have a place in mind.”

So he ends up back there; Sweethome Lane in London. Lyanna guides him to the door number that he tells her and then he knocks at the door and waits.

It opens, and then there’s an uncertain voice. He already knows that whoever is there knows that he’s just staring into the bleak blackness. “Amory?”

“Joanna?”
“Nadine,” corrects the voice, and he deflates slightly before she adds uncertainly, “When did you get back?”

“Today,” he replies, and then he takes a step forward. “Do you know where my sisters are?”

He can’t see, but Nadine is looking to the side, where the bombed remains of the Gray’s yellow two-story is. The Renaults weren’t hit directly in the blitz, but the house is a wreck from the front, the weeds overgrown and the paint chipped at with all the debris that flew at it during the bombing. She turns back to Amory. “Clara works with me,” she says uncertainly, “but I haven’t seen her in some time. She was sent off to do something, and I don’t know where she is now.” She pauses. “I think she’s safe, though.”

The words assuage Amory. “Belle?”

“No idea.”

He then asks the first question he asks again, hoping for an answer this time, “Can I see Joanna?” He pauses, and then lets out a humorless laugh. “Never mind – can I speak to Joanna?”

Amory hears Nadine hesitate and he knows then that something is wrong. “Amory,” she starts, and then breathes out a sigh and he remembers her as his older sister’s friend, the girl down the street who’d admonished him for accidentally kicking up mud on her shoes instead of this suave, war-hardened young woman in front of him. “I’m only here to visit my Mum. Joanna’s… dead.”

“What?” He reels back and Lyanna grabs his arm quickly.

“The Blitz,” explains Nadine, and her words are fast, accented, “She wasn’t at home. She was trying to get to a bomb shelter, and she didn’t make it.” His head was already swimming. “I thought you knew.”

“I didn’t,” he replies, and his voice is choked. God, he’d joined the war for her, to impress her, so that he could come back home and tell her that he’d done this for her, that there was some light at the end of the tunnel that he could look forward to. He wouldn’t get to tell her that reading her letters had kept him going, and that when they’d stopped coming, he’d thought it was simply because he was moving around too much and kept getting reassigned and they’d just gotten lost.

Amory suddenly feels his sightless eyes welling up, and then Nadine grips his hand. “I’m sorry,” she says.

“Me too,” he replies. He swallows, and then he hesitantly reaches out to her and she grips both of his hands. “Can I come in?” he asks thickly.

“Of course,” Nadine answers at once, and then leads him and Lyanna in. “You always have a place here.”

It’s not house #54, with its yellow walls and his Billie Holiday posters plastered over the dinosaur drawings on the walls, but it’s something, and it’s all that he has left. Amory walks in slowly, guided by both of their hands on his, as Nadine closes the door behind him.

 

AUGUST

paris, france

( 1944 )

 

Ariel hands her a stack of files. “Look busy,” she says under her breath, and Tatiana does.

The German soldiers swarm into their ward a moment later. In the beginning, this had terrified her; she’d stepped into the corner of her room, holding her arms out in front of her other nurses to make sure that they weren’t injured, but the soldiers weren’t interested in hurting them. They need nurses, whether they’re German or British or French, to heal their wounded, and as long as they didn’t cause too much trouble, then they didn’t have a problem with them.

Unfortunately, Tatiana Gray causes quite a bit of trouble.

She’s been able to smuggle out soldiers secretly, the Allied forces through switching their name tags, through pushing their gurneys down to the discharge unit where she knows her own fellow Allied forces are waiting to take them out, but she’s never done anything as risky as smuggling out Major Harris.

The other nurses had warned her not to get her hands dirty; not all of them know, but there are a few that she’s close to who see her fix her hazel gaze on someone she can tell is one of her own and promise to get them out. Tatiana doesn’t break her promises. She slips them out, one way or another, and had managed to be undetected until Lachlan Harris’s disappearance had caused such a stir in the hospital that they’d seized her as the head nurse and demanded to know where he was.

When she’d told them repeatedly – in English, French, and shoddy German – that she didn’t know, they had punished her anyway, not because they knew of her involvement, but because they needed to set an example for whoever it was that had done it. They couldn’t get rid of her, however; she was too useful to them and they had to grudgingly accept that they needed her.

Right now, however, the soldiers that swarm in look nervous, and as their commander walks in behind them, Tatiana busies herself with the paperwork.

The man doesn’t buy it. He stands in front of her and clears his throat, and she’s forced to look up. “Matron Gray,” he says in heavily accented English.

She doesn’t reply but merely nods, and his lip curls, but he asks his question anyway. “How soon can you move this unit?”

“Excuse me?”

His lip curls further. “We have to move. The hospital is… at risk of bombing. All of your patients will die if you don’t begin to transport them now.”

She can read past his words; Allied soldiers are closing in on the hospital. They know that all of the French and British nurses and doctors have been taken hostage, and that the hospital is full of a combination of German soldiers and Allied ones who the German need to heal before they can begin their questioning. If the man had told her this, she knows that her nurses likely would have run down the stairs and right into the street to be rescued, but they’d be shot long before they could make it.

She lifts her chin. “Where are you transporting them?”

“Another hospital.” Tatiana and the man stare at each other as she tries to pry more information out of him. At last, he says, “West.”

She nods slowly, and then she has to think fast, to buy them time. “Your troops are in critical condition,” she replies, and it’s not a lie, “Moving them could be extremely dangerous.”

“How many?”

“Everyone that you brought in this week,” She clarifies, “All hundred and fifty of them. They won’t make the trip.”

She can see him weighing the pros and cons in his head before he turns away stiffly. “Do your best,” is all he says before he leaves and the other soldiers file out behind him.

Ariel drops the stack of papers that she’s been pretending to busy herself with. “What does this mean?” she says, her voice barely a murmur.

The other nurses gather around Tatiana, and she hesitates. “Do not cheer, do not jump, do not even show them that you’re pleased,” she warns them all at first, her tone barely above a whisper, “but the Allies are almost here. The Germans are scared they’ll take back the hospital.”

The other nurses widen their eyes, but true to what she’s said, none of them betray any hint of pleasure to the other soldiers watching curiously.

“Now what?” whispers Ariel.

“Delay,” Tatiana says at once. “Contrive as many roadblocks as you can. Make it impossible to move anyone.”

“Are you suggesting we make our patients worse?” A French nurse asks, and Tatiana shakes her head at once.

“No,” she clarifies, “We never do that. Simply come up with excuses and make sure the soldiers can’t argue with them. And if you get in trouble – blame it on me.”

Tatiana’s let someone else take the fall once; a beautiful nurse with red hair who’d been called Chastity. She watched her die, shot on the ground right in front of her. It’s not the first time she’s seen someone bleed out, but it’s certainly the time that she remembers the best. She won’t allow it to happen again.

The nurses disperse and they all do exactly what she says. There are sudden leakages that don’t normally occur; they run out of bedpans and force the soldiers to help them wash the dirty ones (a long, stinking process). A patient’s vomit is somehow strewn all over the floor of a ward and half of the patients have to be moved to get away from the stench. The soldiers know something is up, but they can’t blame the nurses who appear so dutiful so they merely watch with guarded eyes as the women rush around and work.

The commander rushes in later that day. “What’s the delay?” he asks, and he’s so angry that he’s spitting.

Tatiana maintains her calm. “We’re working our hardest.”

“You are not.” He points an accusing finger at her. “You caused trouble last time too. I know that you smuggled Major Harris out.”

“Who?” she asks sweetly, and he grows only angrier.

“The man with the red hair! I know you did it and no one would give you up but now I do not have the time or the patience,” his face is growing redder, each of his words getting heavier accented as he slips further and further into the realm of switching to German, but then there’s a shout and both turn.

A soldier runs in and shouts out, “Sie sind hier!” Even without speaking very much German, she doesn’t need a translation: They’re here.

The commander turns to run, but the sound of gunfire and shattering glass makes him stop and duck as the windows explode. The nurses all do the same, bending to the ground and shielding their heads, and suddenly there is shouting and storming and the doors to the ward are forced open.

Dozens of American shoulders come pouring in with shouts, and they immediately seize the commander before he has time to pull out his gun. He’s surrounded, and he knows that there’s not point in struggling. The hospital is lost.

An American soldier is at her at once, having immediately pegged her as the head nurse. “German, French, or English?” he questions her menacingly.

Tatiana straightens to her full, still rather small height. “I’m Welsh,” she declares in her characteristic accent, and the man’s face changes to surprise.

“Lay off,” someone calls from the back, and the man steps aside.

Tatiana can’t believe her eyes.

Cecilia Gray walks in in a brown agent’s uniform, her hair in victory curls and her lips painted red with the lipstick her sister once sent her. Tatiana is suddenly struck by how much the girl – no, young woman now – looks like her, and she barely has time to process her youngest daughter before Cece has launched herself at her and Tatiana’s arms instinctively go around her, so relieved that she’s crying into her shoulder.

“You’re alive,” she manages in between half-sobs.

“I am,” replies Cece, and then pulls back and gives her mother the bright grin that she’s missed all these years. “I have so much to tell you.” She pauses. “How do you feel?”

Tatiana smiles back brilliantly, her hazel eyes still wet with tears. “I’ve never been better.”

 

SEPTEMBER

london, england

( 1939 )

“Turn it up, Dad!” Clara calls from the kitchen and Benj obliges in the living room as he approaches the radio. A moment later, Billie Holiday’s crooning voice fills the room and Clara and Amory begin to sing along, each trying to be louder than each other.

“Will you both stop it?” huffs Cecilia as she looks up from her book propped on her lap. “I can’t very well learn all my French vocabulary if you two are making this racket.”

“Oh, lighten up, Cee,” Belle says breezily as she lays the plates down on the table and straightens a knife that isn’t straight. “This is a good one. I hope Charlie takes me dancing soon. He says that he’s working on something.”

“If it’s the swing, then he’s about twenty years too late,” Clara calls out from the kitchen, and then she adds darkly, “Jack was always great at it.”

Benj clears his throat and turns to his middle daughter. “Speaking of this Charlie chap, do I need to talk to him?”

“What are you even going to say, darling?” asks Tatiana as she walks out of a kitchen, balancing a large dish of pasta. “’What are your intentions with my daughter?’ Remember when you tried that with,” she casts a glance back at her eldest daughter and then whispers, “Jack? He wasn’t scared at all.”

“I can be scary,” Benj protests.

“Six feet of terror,” Cece chimes in.

“Right you are, Juan-Carlos,” he replies to her with a nod, and then takes a seat at the head of the table. The rest file in shortly and soon they’re all seated around the table.

“Would you mind turning the radio off?” Tatiana asks Cecilia.

Amory is quick to protest. “Oh, not for a bit longer, Mum, this is a good song.”

“And Amory’s sweet on Billie Holiday,” Belle adds in a stage whisper, and Cece giggles.

Am bristles. “I am not!”

“This is coming from the boy who has pictures of her all over his room. Don’t worry, though,” Clara winks at her brother across the table, “I won’t tell Joanna.”

“I will,” Cece volunteers.

“Girls,” Benj warns them, and as they turn to him, he grins wickedly. “I’ve already told her. Nice girl, isn’t she? Not at all the type to get jealous of an unattainable jazz singer?”

“Dad!”

Bickering ensues and Tatiana sighs from her end of the table. “Alright, all of you stop that! Leave Amory alone.”

“Thanks, Mum.”

“Now we’re going to eat our dinner and we’re going to talk about something else that doesn’t involve teasing Amory, and then we’re going to –“ Tatiana is cut off as the radio swells with the sound of the prime Minister’s voice, cutting off Billie Holiday’s crooning.

“I am speaking to you from the Cabinet Room at 10, Downing Street…”

They all sit in rapt attention for several minutes, and then the radio goes dead.

“That was the declaration of war, wasn’t it?” Clara says finally.

Benj and Tatty lock eyes from across the table, one of their silent glances that speaks a million words. Tatiana puts down her silverware slowly, and then Benj says, “Yes, it was.”

“We’re a nation at war? Officially?” Belle adds, and Tatty nods.

They’re already seeing how this is affecting them. Clara’s reflecting on her breakup with Jack, who has already enlisted in a war that’s only just begun. Amory’s already musing over when he needs to enlist. Belle and Cece exchange looks and they’re both thinking the same thing – what about school and friends and boys and life? Benj and Tatty merely stare at each other again, and all that she can see in his eyes and all that he can see is hers is the weariness already, the not again.

“What do we do?” Cecilia asks at last, and their parents break their gaze.

“Right now, we eat dinner,” Tatiana declares, and that’s exactly what they do.

They don’t know it yet, but this is the last time they’ll all be together.

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