keep your heart close to the ground (part three)
They’ve been parents and spouses and soldiers and nurses and lovers and fighters and now they have little left. They’ve been so many people in just forty-five years that it’s easy to forget who they are now.
( 1944 )
Three unbreakable codes broken, a million more to go. Clara doesn’t know how much longer she has to do this or how many more codes that the Germans can come up with (actually, she does know – the combinations and permutations are just about endless and she could probably spend the rest of her life deciphering them only to come up with nothing). What she does know is that something is wrong.
She’s tired. Wrong, she’s been in situations more exhausting than this one. She’s worked days and nights without sleeping at Bletchley Park when they’re close to breaking a code, but she’s not ready for this numbing exhaustion.
She’s always hungry. Wrong. She’s a young woman of the war; she knows how to survive on rations. She makes do without butter and sugar and though she dreams wistfully of chocolate, her stomach turning, she knows that she can’t have it. She’s used to it.
She’s nauseous, and this is where she knows it’s wrong for sure. One sign is dismissible, two is a coincidence, but three symptoms are a diagnosis. She’d spent enough time around her mother at the hospital when she was young to know to not put the signs together.
Clara finds herself bent over the toilet, holding her hair back in one hand as she retches violently into it, unable to stop herself. A moment later, there’s a soft knock at the door and then a face pushes in, concerned.
“Can I help?” she asks in a small, French accent.
Clara presses a hand to her mouth long enough to shake her head, but the girl walks in anyway. She’s young, about the same age that Cece is, but she’s not off on spy missions or delivering messages or whatever the hell it is that Cecilia’s doing now. This is Iris Baudelaire and she’s small and shrinks against the horrors of the world. She works in a small boutique in town that’s been hit hard by the rations and war, but she gets by somehow. She says that her father and her brother are in the army – in German-occupied France, however, Clara knows better than to ask which one.
Right now, the girl sits beside her and holds back her hair, and Clara is free to continue to empty the little contents of her stomach into the toilet until at last she’s exhausted and rests her head against the wall.
“Are you ill?” Iris asks, her eyes wide.
Clara shakes her head, but Iris places a hand to it anyway. It’s something that her mother did when she was little, and suddenly she’s awash in emotion. She misses her Mum – right now, she needs her Mum.
“Did you see something that upset your stomach?” Iris ventures after a moment, and Clara shakes her head again. She just wants Jack. They’ve been married for two months and she still carries the small figurine of the plane in her pocket everywhere she goes and looks to the sky and smiles whenever she sees a fighter plane pass, but it’s not enough. She’s not even Clara McQueen, she’s still Clara Gray and she’s young and alone and she’s not ready.
Iris finally says what she already knows. “Are you with child?”
Clara opens her eyes, rubs a clammy hand across her forehead, and then nods slowly.
Iris looks scandalized. “But I thought that you were single! Why else would you be living here with me instead of your husband?”
“He’s a soldier,” Clara explains, and then her voice swells in pride, “A pilot. He… doesn’t know about this. We eloped, and I only just found out.” She bites her lip. Iris doesn’t know what she’s doing there, but she can hazard some guesses; a young woman with an English accent who turns up unexpectedly in France and is gone for most of the day raises a little bit of suspicion, but Iris doesn’t ask questions and she doesn’t talk to soldiers, even the young German ones who flirt with her outside her shop. It’s why Clara lives with her.
Iris hesitates for a long moment. “I don’t know anything about pregnancy,” she admits after a moment, her cheeks coloring into a blush, “but I’ll try to help you.”
“Thank you,” Clara gasps, suddenly overcome in gratefulness. She has no one here. The nearest person is her mother, whose still being held hostage at the military hospital in Paris. She grips Iris’s hand and gives it a squeeze. “I don’t know what to do.”
Iris considers this, and then her expression grows sad. “Neither do I,” she admits, “but I won’t abandon you.”
Clara thinks that that’s a hollow promise to make. Jack has left her. Her entire family has left her. But if there’s one person that she can’t abandon, it’s the one growing inside her. She presses a hand to her abdomen, still flat under her touch, and then she realizes that her cheeks are wet with tears and before she can stop it, she’s sobbing into her knees, Iris holding her.
Hormones, she thinks, but she knows that’s not just it.
It’s fear. If she can barely survive this war, if she can’t guarantee anyone’s safety – how can she guarantee her own child’s?
( 1944 )
Benjamin Gray is a father, but he’s also a soldier. And right now, he has to be both.
He has the boy’s arm across his shoulders, one of his own arms around the other’s waist as he half guides, half walks him down the beach. He doesn’t know how many are dead yet, but he already know the number is staggering. This is a battle he’ll know will go down in history.
Right now, he doesn’t care about history. He cares about keeping the boy beside him alive, even as he’s sputtering out water and barely has the strength to put one foot in front of the other. “Come on,” Benj urges, and hurries him forward.
Charlie Harris opens an eye. “Where are we going?”
“Away,” and that’s all that Benj can manage. He doesn’t run, he doesn’t turn in fear and just abandon people, but he knows that they have to keep moving. If they stay in place then they’ll be ambushed again, and there’s no chance that they’ll live through that one.
He’s already picked through half of the bodies at the beach, searching for the survivors among the ones whose bodies littered the sand, who’d been knocked down by sea or soldiers or shrapnel. He remembers Daniel’s sightless eyes, Reece’s limp body, Nate’s twisted form. He’d thrown up into the salty ocean – and then he’d found Charlie.
This is just a favor for a favor, he tells himself, and it’s almost humorous as he thinks of it now. First Tatty frees Lachlan from his hospital, then Lachlan breaks Benj out, and now Benj is doing his best to guide his son to safety.
But his own energy is sapped and Charlie is weak, so weak that even Benj who knows nothing of medical terms other than what he hears his wife say, knows that he’ll need a hospital to survive; he’ll even take a German-occupied one at this point. Soon they’ll have liberated them all. This was a victory – or so they say, even if the dead bodies that litter the beach say otherwise.
Charlie coughs once, and then begins near hacking up a lung, and Benj has to stop and lean the boy against a tree.
“Where does it hurt?” asks Benj with all the patience of a father who’s kissed many a scraped knee or bruised knuckle in his time.
Charlie lets out a broken laugh. “Can I say everywhere?”
“You can, but it wouldn’t be helpful.” Benj moves closer, checking his broken soldier and his bruised arm, but he can find nothing that would make Charlie stop until he gets to the side of his chest and sees the bullet mark.
“Fuck,” he says, and it’s so sudden that Charlie looks down and seems to see the bullet for the first time too, and they both just stare.
“I got shot?”
“Yeah,” Benj breathes, and he can’t help the burst of honesty, “It’s a pretty nasty one.” Already it’s turning green from infection. The dead bodies at the beach and the sand and salt wouldn’t have done anything to soothe it. In fact, they probably would have made it worse.
He can see the fear building in Charlie’s eyes, so he rips off the fabric on his own shoulder, the ragged remains of his uniform until his shoulder is bare, and then wraps it around the man with what he remembers about binding wounds from the last war. “Let’s get moving,” is all he says.
Every step they take drains Charlie, and then Benj is moving faster. He knows it’s a race against time, but Major Harris will have set up a makeshift camp inland to strategize and especially to regroup after these casualties. They’ll have bandages and clean clothes there, and Charlie will have a chance so for now he’s racing, running, and then suddenly, Charlie goes limp.
“Hey, kid,” he bends down, looping his arm around Charlie as he slowly lowers him to the ground. “Come on, you can get back up.”
“I can’t,” says Charlie, and his face is paler than anything that Benj has ever seen and suddenly he’s terrified himself that the kid in front if him is going to die, a kid the same age as one of his daughters.
He remembers that suddenly. “Your Dad’s going to want to see you,” he says, and he sees the gleam in Charlie’s eyes to think that he’s making his father proud. “Belle, too. Mind, she’s still in England, I think, but she’s going to be very cross with me if I don’t bring you back in one piece so that you can take her dancing. You’re still sweet on her, aren’t you?”
Charlie laughs, his chapped lips twisting up briefly. “A bit. Maybe she can nurse me back to health.”
Benj wants him to keep talking to distract him, but he checks the wound and his heart sinks at the blood that’s now pooling out and staining his fingers, and there’s no point in hiding it from Charlie. He grips Benj’s hand suddenly without minding the blood that’s smudged all over it.
“You think my Dad’s proud of me?” he says suddenly, his eyes wide from needing to hear it.
Benj doesn’t hesitate. “I know he thinks that you’re a damn hero.”
Charlie grins, and then he goes limp, and Benj is left staring at his broken body, a fist clenching around his heart. He’s so young and he had such a spark and now he’s gone – but somehow, he realizes suddenly that he’s let Lachlan down. He couldn’t save his only son. He can’t return the favor.
Benj stands shakily and stares at the blood on his hands.
camp kilmer, united states of america
( 1944 )
“Miss Gray?” They call.
Cecilia doesn’t turn. “Agent Gray,” she corrects without taking her eyes off the file in front of her. “What is it?”
“It’s the new recruits. They’re causing some trouble.”
“Oh, for God’s sake,” Cece puts down her file with a huff and storms from the tent out into the center of the clearing. “If I find out that you lot have been stringing your underwear from the pole again and saying a pledge of allegiance to that again, I will make you do push ups until your arms fall off and don’t think that I won’t.” Her crimson-painted lips point down, and anyone working around her learns right away that she will follow through on her threats.
The men who’ve been tackling each other straighten up suddenly and get into their lines as she approaches. She’s only sixteen really, but she pretends to be older, and in her pressed brown uniform, her red lipstick, dark hair fixed into victory curls around her head, they believe her. They have to respect her; she’s a British woman who’s been in the war longer than they have and she damn well knows it.
“Eyes forward, Privates,” she tells them, and they stand still as she paces back and forth in front of them. “Now. Who started this?”
They exchange guilty looks and she feels like a schoolteacher trying to weed out the misbehaving child from a pack of students who’ve all been acting out. She stares at them a moment longer before one clears his throat and steps forward.
“Agent Gray, Ma’am, I’d like to state for the record that we were only defending our honor.” He steps back in line.
Cece stares at him. “From who?”
The man clears his throat and steps forward again. “From them, Ma’am. The English.” He steps back again.
Cecilia turns, and then suddenly she’s filled with an overwhelming rush of joy. Jude Penvrane’s standing not five feet from her, his arms crossed over his chest as he grins at her. She forgets that she’s supposed to be tough Agent Gray who orders around American soldiers like pawns; Cece lets out a screech in surprise and launches herself at him in a tight hug.
“Oh, don’t stop on my account,” Jude jokes as he hugs her back, the pins on his navy uniform pressing into her skin, “You were giving them a real stripping down. That one’s about to soil his pants. I’d have liked to see it.”
She draws back. “Were you picking a fight with them?”
He shrugs. “I wasn’t, but Naoki here made a joke about how they were standing so straight they looked like bowling pins about to be knocked over, and they didn’t like that.”
Cece turns back to the men. “Is this true?” There is no response, and she narrows her eyes at them. “Save your anger for the Germans, not your allies. You’re dismissed. Don’t let me catch you pulling stunts like this again.”
There’s a general murmur of yes Agent Gray as they file out, still in their lines, and she turns back to her cousin brightly. “Why are you here?”
Jude pulls a note from his pocket. “We’re to start taking American troops to Northern France. They’re still trying to take back Paris.” He studies her. “Is your Mum still there?”
Cece nods. It’s been a while since she’s heard from any one of her family members, but she doesn’t know of any changes. If Paris hasn’t been liberated, then her mother is still there. “Are you here for long?”
“Just a night,” he says apologetically. “I wanted to stop in England to see Ana and Cosette and Sienna but,” he shrugs, and she’s reminded of Amory now, the boy with three sisters who hasn’t seen them in years. She hopes that he’s proud of her now.
Cecilia plasters a smile on her face. “Well, you have me instead. I’m being sent to France in a week, anyway. They want me with the troops there to take back Paris.”
“Agent Gray, huh?” Jude laughs and looks at the men she’s sent scattering, and he looks like the young man of almost twenty-five that he is instead of the boy that she’s remembered him to be. The war has aged him, but he’s trying to be jovial. She knows that feeling all too well. She’s sixteen, almost seventeen, and she feels like she’s in her twenties with how much has happened over the past few years.
Jude turns back to her and quirks a grin. “How’d you like a ride to Paris?’
Cece grins back. “I’ll ask the General.” But Lincoln Jones already knows how valuable she is; she’s proven her worth over and over again until no one has any room to doubt it. If she wants to leave a week early to catch a ride with her cousin, she’ll get to.
There’s a shout behind her, and Cece turns before she sighs. “Nathanson, what have I already told you about your underwear? Drop and give me twenty pushups, and this time, do better than my Grandmother.”
posted from paris, france
( 1940 )
Darling, dearest, Benj,
I don’t know if this letter will make it to you. I don’t even know where you are. You were here two months ago and then deployed again. Somewhere else in France, I think? I don’t know. I don’t know where anyone is anymore. I think the girls are still in England and Amory’s still in France too, but I won’t know anymore. We aren’t getting anymore correspondence now that Paris is lost.
The Germans came yesterday. They killed most of our soldiers who were recovering in the hospital except for the ones who they thought were highly-ranked enough to get information out of. They want us to fix them as fast as we can so that they can just torture the information out of them again. They would have shot us nurses too if they weren’t so short on medical aid. They need us, even if they don’t want to admit it.
I’m telling my girls here that my husband is out there, that he’ll come in guns blazing to get us out, but I know that you can’t. You’re protecting the rest of the country, and I’m proud of you. I’m going to get out of here, don’t worry, but I can’t leave my nurses behind. The man I’m sending this letter with drives ambulances, like you did for a bit last war. He offered to take me with him when he tried to get out of Paris, but I couldn’t leave the others. They’re too young and scared. They need me.
I want to be home, my love. Paris is beautiful, but it was more beautiful before wartime, and especially more beautiful before the Germans came and ransacked it. I hope I’ll see you here again. I hope that we can come back after this whole war is over and sit by Seine and eat French pastries and mispronounce their names so horrendously that the French throw us out. I want to bring the girls back lace and ribbons that will match their hair, and Amory a little figurine of the Eiffel Tower. All I can bring back right now is myself and stories.
Will you bring me a souvenir too? Will you bring me yourself?
Love love love,
( 1940 )
“Do you believe in love?” Belle breathes as she listens to Vera Lynn crooning from the radio. She sits with her hand cupped in her chin, her elbow propped on the table.
Kennedy puts a plate of potatoes (no butter – rations are strict) in front of her and lets out a short snort. “Seems fanciful, doesn’t it?”
“Wonderful,” corrects Belle. She’s rolled her hair up in curlers, much to Kennedy’s amusement because her hair already is curly, but she knows what it’s for.
The soldiers are coming back home soon – only for a weekend, but they’ll be in town and she wants to look good. Charlie will be back, and probably Jack too, and they’ll take her dancing. And if not them, then another of the soldiers will ask her too. Belle is bright and young and vivacious and she’s every soldier’s dream to dance and flirt with when they get home. She gives them a reason to keep fighting because she reminds them of what they can come home to, and she wants to make sure that she looks good for it.
Kennedy rolls her eyes at her housemate. “Sure. It’s inconvenient right now, though.”
Belle considers this. Love is never an inconvenience for her, but she tries to imagine how it could be. Love is what united her parents during the last war in dark, uncertain times, and it’s the reason her and her siblings exist today. She has one shining example of love – but so many others that have gone wrong.
She remembers Clara coming home in tears, irritable and unable to be soothed, and when they’d finally asked her what was wrong, she’d shouted that Jack had gone and enlisted and so she’d broken up with him and never wanted to see him again. That had been before she’d shut the door and decided not to answer the letters he sent to her.
Amory was in love, she thought. Or at least, she was sure that he and Joanna thought they were. Her brother might have been disguising his intentions to join the war because he’d said it was to do the right thing, but everyone else knew it was for a girl. It was for love.
What had Belle done for love? So far, nothing.
She meditatively picks up her fork and swirls it absently through her mashed potatoes. “I’d like to be in love,” she declares.
“With a soldier?”
“With someone nice,” she clarifies, and her gaze is distant and thoughtful.
Kennedy clears her throat and Belle looks back at her friend. “What type of person?”
Belle considers this. In the war, she’s met many people. She’s met the wounded and the healthy and the living and the dead. She’s met soldiers and doctors and mechanics and shipbuilders. But there’s only one person who she’s willing to give herself to.
“With a good man,” she decides with a firm nod. Behind her, Vera Lynn’s voice on the radio swells: “You went away and my heart went with you. I speak your name in my every prayer…”
( 1945 )
Amory grimaces and pushes his sunglasses up further on the bridge of his nose. He’s gotten used to the way they feel, the way that his old glasses once did. Now they’re a part of him. There are some things, however, he can’t get used to do it.
“You just be glad that I’m blind and can’t see this to stop it,” he says in a mock grumble. He puts a cigarette to his lips, a habit that he’s picked up from his father, and waits for a moment.
Cecilia ignores him. Her arms are around a boy’s neck, her fingers threading through his hair, and what her brother can’t see shouldn’t make him complain. She presses her lips back to the young man’s and promptly turns away from Amory, biting back a comment about how he can find another place to smoke.
Amory leans against the front of the house sighs. “You know,” he says as he lights it, “I can still hear you.”
Cece decides that that’s worse. She departs with a sigh and tugs the boy off behind her.
( 1944 )
After two weeks in the hospital he’s finally let out. Jack has nowhere to go; his sister’s been evacuated from their family home in Scotland. His father’s in the war. His mother was killed when a bomb dropped over the factory she worked at. He goes the only place he can think of.
He can still see some remnants of the yellow house in the rubble, but something’s been built in its place. The walls are white now, not yellow, and the bricks around the door make him pause and pick his way through the rubble more carefully with his crutch and his one good foot. He reaches forward and knocks at the door, and his heart swells when he hears footsteps.
It’s not Clara who opens it, but her mother, and for a moment, they look so alike that Jack just stares until he straightens up. “Mrs. Gray.” His mother in law. He wonders if she knows it yet.
Her tired hazel eyes travel down his form and rest on his leg before she looks back up at him, and he can see at once the way that her smile curves down that she’s grieving, and he knows it’s not about his leg right now. His head swims. Who’s dead? Mr. Gray? Amory?
“Jack,” Tatiana breathes, and he can feel the grief through every inch of her as she reaches forward and wraps him in a hug so tight it almost unbalances him, and then he can feel her hot tears on his shoulder. She’s the same height as Clara. He uncertainly reaches out and pats her back and then suddenly he knows. Tatiana backs away when he stiffens, wiping at her eyes.
“Where is she?” he asks, his tongue leaden.
“Jack,” she says again, and he feels it before it says it. “Clara died. She wanted me to tell you that she loved you so much,” and she cuts off her words here both because she can’t say more and because Jack can’t hear more.
He drops his crutch and collapses on the stairs, burying his head in his hand, and then his mother in law is beside him and they’re both shaking.
“How did it happen?” he manages to ask because that’s what he feels is the right thing to ask. Twelve dead fighter pilots who’ve worked with him, dozens of dead soldiers that he’s known – and this hurts the most. He hasn’t shed tears in death in a long time but now he can’t help it and he can’t stop it.
Tatty’s arm is on his shoulder. “Eclampsia,” she says, and then upon sensing that he won’t know what that means, she swallows. “Childbirth.”
Jack looks up and through his bleary eyes he can see the cot set up in the house, the baby sleeping peacefully inside who isn’t yet privy to his father’s emotions or the torment raging through him right now. Jack’s throat goes dry. “What?”
“You have a son,” Tatiana says, and then the baby starts crying and the three of them are in unison for a moment, united in their grief.
somewhere in england
( 1945 )
Lydia Eames has seen too much death to let any of them affect her.
She sees the soldiers perish before her eyes, the last of their blood flowing into their palms. She sees the bombed civilians, clawing their way out of the rubble, only to stop their efforts halfway when the light leaves their eyes. She’s seen sibling after sibling die until she’s the only one left, the survivor.
But she’s never had to write a report like this one before.
Her pen pauses over the paper, and then she writes carefully: She did the right thing.
That’s all that she can manage. Lydia has never been verbose, and she’s never been soft, but she understands mercy. She understands duty better than anyone else does, and she’s been doing hers for a damn while longer than they have. She stares at the paper for a moment longer.
There’s a knock at the door. “Matron Eames?”
Lydia reaches up, smooths down her braid, and lets out a small breath. She composes herself, and then folds the paper away. “Come in.”
( 1939 )
“You have to go,” Joanna warns him.
“I know,” he says, but his eyes aren’t on the train; they’re on her, and he’s trying to memorize every last detail of her face.
Amory doesn’t know what love is, but he thinks he does. He thinks he might be in it right now. It smells like strawberries, it tastes like warm lips on a summer’s day, and it looks like a girl with dark hair and green eyes.
His parents and sisters are at the back of the station and he doesn’t need to look to know that they’re crying, even if they tried not to when they hugged him goodbye. He won’t cry; not here, anyway, in front of everyone. There will be enough tears to shed the next few years for him to start now.
It’s time for him to leave, but he doesn’t look at the train; his bright blue eyes are still fixed on her. “You’ll write?”
“Of course,” she promises, and then the soldiers begin shuttling him into the train. He presses a kiss to her hand and boards, and once he’s inside, pops his head out the open window as she approaches the train.
“Who’s going to take me dancing?” Joanna complains, a touch of teasing in her tone.
“Belle,” answers Amory, “Not one of the other soldiers. If they want to make you their sweetheart, tell them you’ve already got a boy in France.”
“And what if someone prettier comes along?” Joanna teases.
Amory grins. “You know I’m a jealous person. I’ll come back from fighting Germans and fight off your suitors instead. My dancing skills will be better, anyway.”
The train whistle blows, and he forces his head further out the window and presses a last kiss to her lips, burying himself in the smell of her strawberry chapstick as the train starts to move. He watches her figure on the platform as the train slowly puffs away, memorizing her shape until he can’t see it anymore.
Four years later, Amory barely remember what Joanna even looks like. He just remembers the strawberries and what it was like to feel like he was young and carefree in love.
found in a wastebasket in bletchley park, england
( 1941 )
I’m finally writing. Are you happy now? You’ve been gone for more than two years. Two whole years of not knowing if you’re alive or if you’d been killed in battle. Two whole years of missing you.
Belle says that you’ve been home recently and took the girls dancing. Thank you for that. They really miss it now that half of their friends are soldiers and have gone off to fight too. I like to think they miss me as well, but I haven’t seen them in a while. I can’t tell you where I am or what I’m doing, but I’ll trust you with the knowledge that it’s important work for the war effort.
God, every time I think about how you left I get so angry, and then I got even angrier when Amory joined up. He wasn’t even eighteen, he really had no right to be out there on the field so that people could shoot at him too. He says that he does it because he wants to fight for the country, but that’s not it. He wants to impress Jojo. He wants to be like you. That only makes me angrier.
I hope that that’s not what you’re doing because if it is, you haven’t impressed me. I already care for you. I already think that you’re brave. You don’t need to do anything to prove yourself to me. And if you’re doing it for the country, then I have a lot of respect for that – but please, stay alive. Don’t do anything I wouldn’t do.
I don’t tell the people here that I have a boy out in the war but I think they know. Nadine does, of course, and she’s never been good about keeping her mouth shut. I don’t even know if I can call you my sweetheart anymore. I’d like to think that you are, even if I don’t want to reply to your letters. Even if I’m still mad at you. God, I miss you. I hate you. I love you.
somewhere near the danube, germany
( 1945 )
They tell her that this isn’t a punishment, but Belle knows better. She made a mistake. Now she’s paying for it. She’s been sent to Germany because the war isn’t over, it’s just moved countries and headed deeper into German territory. France is free, but they still need nurses.
At first, Matron Eames’s decision was questioned over and over again. “You’re sending the girl who let the German soldier free to Germany?” People ask her repeatedly. She shrugs them off. She knows what she’s doing. She knows who she’s sending. She tasked Isabelle with healing people, whether they were German or English or French or wherever the hell they’re from, and the girl did as she was told.
Matron Eames passes the assignment to Belle in the containment facility. “You have a chance to get out of here.”
Belle’s lips quirk up without humor. “And escape treason?”
“You didn’t commit treason.” She pauses. “You did what you thought was right, even though that doesn’t always mean that it was. Now come on. You can’t waste away in here forever. The Allies need you. You have three days before you leave.
So Belle makes the most of it. She goes home. She sees her family for the first time in years; she hugs Amory, cries in her parents’ arms, ruffles Cece’s hair. She murmurs reassurances to Jack and she meets her nephew for the first time. She searches for Clover through newspaper clippings but she can find no news of him.
Finally, she’s sent back out to Germany. She barely speaks it but she’s always had an ear for the language. Besides, out here, they all speak the same thing. War and healing and grief are the same in every language.
“Hold still,” she says to a soldier in a field hospital, and he squirms, but she has learned to be tough. She holds him down as she binds his leg, half sitting on him if she needs to.
She’s a regular Florence Nightingale. The soldiers are all enchanted by her even as she binds up their wounds, but unlike before, Isabelle Gray does not have time for idle chatter. She treats and she moves on. She’s efficient and quick. The other nurses whisper about her and say that she’s atoning for her sins. When they ask her, she tells them that she’s doing her best with her part of winning the war.
In the early hours of March 6th, 1945, the field hospital is ambushed by German troops. Eight nurses are shot and killed. Fourty-three patients die. None of them are Isabelle Gray’s. She’s already smuggled them out – as she tells them while she sneaks them from the hospital, she’s good at helping people escape.
As for Belle, she lies in a pool of her own blood. It grows sticky beneath her fingers, and she can’t bring herself to look at the bullet wound in the gash across her chest, the blood blossoming through her blue nurse’s uniform. Soon she’ll see her elder sister. Today is her twenty-fourth birthday. She won’t get to blow out another set of candles.
This is her punishment, she thinks, but it’s worth it. None of the German soldiers who attacked the hospital are Clover Baudelaire. She did the right thing – she always has.
General Bray finds her gasping for breath after the German troops are surrounded and the threat is neutralized. He bends to her side and grips her hand.
“Did I do the right thing?” she manages out through ragged, shaky breaths. Her head is swimming; she can see spots dancing in her eyes. She doesn’t even know if he knows what she’s talking about.
“Yeah, kid.” He smiles back at her, her last solace. “You’re a good woman.”
A good woman. That’s all she ever wanted to be. Isabelle Branwen Gray uses the last of her strength to smile back before her hand goes limp and she stares sightlessly above. Her heart, which has finally adjusted itself so that it’s the right fit for her chest, goes silent.
( 1945 )
Tatiana fixes her daughter’s hair and then looks up. Their eyes meet in the mirror.
“Do you think I’m doing the right thing?” Cecilia uncertainly reaches up to straighten a dark curl that’s gone wayward. Even with as many pins as Tatiana can scrounge, they can’t keep her curls down.
“Love is never wrong,” she tells her daughter firmly, and then smooths her hands down the back of Cece’s white dress, making sure that she hasn’t missed any of the buttons on the back. This is a big day. She would have saved her own wedding dress (well, the one from the time she’d been properly married – she’d technically eloped), but the Blitz destroyed it along with their house. This dress is made of rationed silk and lace, but it’s the nicest they can find. Cecilia is the only daughter left of a Lieutenant and a Head Nurse. They can afford to give her what she deserves.
Cecilia’s red lips curve up, and Tatiana can’t help but feel a burst of joy and pride in her daughter. She reaches over to press a kiss to her daughter’s head. “You look beautiful.”
“Thank you.” Cecilia fidgets. She’s nineteen, almost the same age that Tatiana was when she got married. She trusts her daughter’s choice. She trusts Cecilia with everything that she has left. Cece’s been across the Atlantic and came back leading the troops. She’s saved countless people. It’s time that she deserved to be happy, to be treated right, and Tatiana hopes the man out there will give her what she deserves.
Tatiana hesitates, and then tugs off her hairpin before she tucks it behind Cecilia’s ear to hide a curl. “Something borrowed and something blue,” she explains quickly. She pauses. “It matches your eyes.” Benj had bought it for her years ago and now she thinks that it suits Cece better as she smiles radiantly, the perfect picture of the blushing bride.
There’s a knock at the door and Benj steps in, wearing his uniform. It’s finely pressed and he pauses and stares at his daughter. “Juan-Carlos,” he says weakly, and then grins. “Cecilia. It’s time.” He extends an arm and Cece takes it, and Tatiana quickly excuses herself to the church and her place.
Benjamin Gray walks his daughter down the aisle to the sound of a piano playing the familiar tune, presses a kiss to her cheek, and hands her over to the dark-haired man standing at the altar. “Take care of her,” he says gently, and steps back as the vows begin.
Cecilia’s eyes dart over to the man at her side and he catches her. He grins, and for a moment, she forgets all of the horrors of the past few years and returns the beatific smile.
( 1945 )
Belle’s service is longer than Clara’s, Benj thinks as he stands stiffly, watching her casket get lowered into the ground. One of his daughters died fighting her own personal war. The other died for getting caught up in someone else’s. Whatever the case is, he’s no longer a father of four.
He’s a father of three, he supposes. He has one daughter and one son and one son in law. He’s a grandfather. He’s Lieutenant Gray of Division 116. He’s a husband. He’s alive.
But Isabelle Gray is not.
Faces pass and shake his hand, murmuring reassurances, but he stands still, straight, his head bowed. He doesn’t look up. His wife at his side stares forward at the gravestone without really seeing it. It says exactly what he knows it to say; her name, her birth and death date (the same damn day), and inscription that states she was a beloved daughter and sister and gave her life serving her country – and then, below that, a single daffodil etched onto the stone with Matron Eames’s words – she did the right thing. He’d been too distraught to think about it, but Tatiana had insisted that it remain.
She’s buried beside her sister, whose gravestone is almost identical spare for that it calls her a wife and a mother. It thanks her for her service in the war. It doesn’t thank her for the service of bringing a new life into the world at the cost of her own.
Amory and Cecilia stand side-by-side, small shapes in the distance. They’re the ones shaking hands with the people who pass by. They’re the ones keeping themselves together. Jack has gone off to soothe his son, but Benj knows that it’s simply because he doesn’t want to be near Clara’s grave for too long.
He waits until the last of the people at the service have left, and then he turns to his wife. Tatiana has aged in the last few years. Her hair isn’t gray, but her smile is gone. It isn’t even painted on anymore; she’s lost the energy for that. They’re both dressed in black and he suddenly thinks about what an awful, overcast day it is.
She seems to be thinking the same thing as she looks toward the sky. “Belle would have wanted it to be sunny.”
Belle would have wanted to be alive, Benj chokes back his own words. He looks to the sky and nods.
Tatiana turns to him, reaching out, and he takes her hands instinctively. He’s read that more than half of couples break up after the death of a child. They’ve lost two but he won’t let go of her. They’re each other’s crutch now. They’ve survived two wars, but not all of their children have. He’s overcome with an overwhelming grief, and before he can scream, he draws her to him and buries his face in the top of her head, letting the hot tears spill out down her smooth brown locks.
She holds back to him just as tight, as if he’s her only lifeline, and then she moves her head so that their foreheads rest against each other. “I know, darling. I know.”
Benj tries to smile, but he can’t. All he can manage is a low sentence, a question: “Why did we get to live?”
Tatiana has spent twenty-five years of her life answering every simple question that her family asks her, but this simplistic one from her husband has even her stumped. It’s so simple, but she finds that she doesn’t know the answer. “I don’t know, darling,” she says this time, and the tears come hot and fast. “I don’t know.”
( 1944 )
Jack has a son.
His name is John Eos Gawain McQueen and he at once understands her intentions. McQueen like him. Gawain because of how stubborn she is even if he reminds – reminded – her often that she’s only a quarter Welsh. Eos for their best mate. And John so that he could be nicknamed Jack too, in case his father didn’t come home.
Jack McQueen had, in fact, returned home, but he hadn’t found Clara waiting for him. He almost expected this. The thing about having a girl like her was that she wouldn’t wait for anyone, and that was what made her worth having. It was what made her worth loving. She was a fighter plane of her own right, and he was along for the entire ride.
His son has chocolate-brown curls and a button nose and his eyes are blue when they open, just like hers. Tatty says that when he smiles, he looks just like Jack. Jack has to take her word for it. He doesn’t think that his son has ever smiled in front of him. All he does is cry, day in and day out.
He’s in the house that was once yellow but is now off-white, in a small room that he shares with his son. Tatiana from the next room over has offered to watch the baby through the night, but Jack refuses. This child that he’d never asked for, never wanted, never even known would exist is suddenly the only thing he has of Clara.
“Go to sleep,” he says blearily as John starts crying again in the dark, and then he sighs and swings himself over to the cot on his one good foot. With the crutch under one arm, he picks up his son with the other and cradles him. The boy just keeps crying.
“Please,” he pleads, but nothing. In the next room over he can hear Tatty’s footsteps, but she falters, sensing that Jack needs to deal with this on his own. He begins to bounce the boy lightly in his arms, but the baby cries even louder. He should have known that his son is just as high-maintenance as she was.
He doesn’t want a bottle or a diaper change or even just to be held. Jack grows frustrated. He wouldn’t have been equipped to be a father even if he hadn’t been alone, but now he has no support other than his mother in law, sunken in her own grief.
And God, he tries to hate his son at first. John is the reason that Clara isn’t alive. He has every reason to hate him, and he tries so hard. When the boy wrinkles his face up and wails, Jack makes the same face and huffs as he picks him up – but then he opens his eyes and Jack suddenly remembers that under any other circumstances he would have loved this boy without question with all his heart and he remembers his duty. Clara wouldn’t want him to resent his son.
She also doesn’t know how hard it is to soothe him, and Jack’s frustration begins to expand. He resents the war, his son’s wailing, Clara for not telling him. He resents the house that’s too small and the cot that’s too close to his bed and his crutch and everything that he can think of. So when John cries, Jack does too. He hands the baby the fighter pilot figurine that he gave Clara, hoping that maybe the scent or the memory of John’s mother will calm his child, but it doesn’t. The boy wails louder as if realizing what he’s missing.
He wakes up the next morning on his bed, his son asleep beside him, the pillow salty and soaked. When he opens his eyes, John does too, and for a moment, they stare at each other, and finally, the baby smiles at his father for the first time.
Jack sees it now. He’s very still for a moment, and then he leans forward and presses a kiss to his son’s head.
( 1939 )
Clara doesn’t even want to be here. The war has started and everyone’s enlisting; Jack, Eos, Amory. Jack has been ready for two months now, training in a base near home, but Eos and Amory are about to be sent off to train in France. She’s already hugged Eos, bid her farewell to Amory, but there’s one person who she hasn’t seen.
Jack has been to her house three times since that hot summer night, but each time, she’s informed her father to let him know that she doesn’t want to see him. Benj loves Jack but he agrees and turns him away each time. When Clara Gray is mad, she can maintain it for years, and this time, she might just have to.
Something, however, possesses her to slip away, murmuring to her family at the station that she’ll be back. She already knows what part of the platform he’s on; she’s been looking for him since she came in and she finally sees him.
His eyes meet hers, but she doesn’t falter; instead, she marches forward and crosses her arms over her chest.
“Hey,” says Jack.
Clara gives him a curt nod, and then looks past him to the train. “Where are you going?”
“Northern France,” he explains.
Jack crooks a smile. “I’d love to tell you sweetheart, but that’s top secret. Military ears only.”
Clara lets out a huff and his smile grows only wider. “I don’t forgive you,” she feels the need to tell him firmly, hoping that it’ll wipe the smile off of his face. It only makes it slightly smaller, but she’ll take it.
He puts his hands in his pockets and locks eyes with her. She doesn’t back down, and they stare.
“Why are you here?” he asks.
She wants to explain that it’s to see Amory off, but he’ll already have known why she’s at the platform. He wants to know why she’s there to see him. Clara hesitates, her red-painted lips curving downward.
Jack waits patiently, and when the normally talkative girl can’t come up with a reply, he shrugs and turns. Clara already knows that it’s a ploy to make her react, but she can’t help it. It’s instinctive that she reaches forward and grabs for his arm mid-turn so that he turns back to her, and when he does, she boosts herself onto her toes and kisses him, long and hard.
When she breaks away, she pushes him away. She can’t look at him right now, in his soldier’s uniform. So handsome, and so ready for death. So willing to fight and leave her behind. Anger blossoms in her stomach again. “Don’t die,” is all she says as she turns away.
“Clara,” he calls. She doesn’t turn. “Clara, wait.”
She disappears into the crowd, shaking.
( 1945 )
Amory’s sitting at a diner, making conversation with the waitress. She’s very pretty, but he doesn’t know that, although he can sense it from her voice. Her name is Olive and she always brings him an extra slice of toast (“for England’s bravest soldier,” she always tells him).
Cecilia’s sitting across from him, her own gaze on the menu absently. “How can you make waffles without sugar?” she asks, lifting her head.
“The ration’s not enforced so harshly here,” Amory explains with a shrug, but he knows that’s not it. The diner caters to soldiers and their sweethearts, mainly. They can offer a little bit extra to the men who come hobbling in on one leg or with bandages across their shoulders or scars running down their face – these men gave everything they had for the country. It’s time they got something back.
“What time is your friend getting here?” Cece asks after she orders and hands the waitress her menu. “He’s a soldier, right?”
“Was a soldier,” he clarifies. “I met him on the battlefield, gave him my gas mask. He doesn’t mind me being blind.”
“I don’t think anyone minds you being blind,” Cece says uncertainly
Amory waves a hand dismissively. “He doesn’t skirt around it,” he explains, and his sister nods.
It’s easy to talk about things like this; friends and waffles and rations. They’re both avoiding the elephant in the room, like they always do. Sometimes he hears her crying in her sleep and meanders through the dark until he finds her in her room and just holds her. Cece’s had nightmares since she was little. Now, when he wakes up sweating and screaming, she’s there to hold him and return the favor as he cries. They don’t talk about it in the morning, in the same way that they skirt around mentioning their sisters in front of their parents.
There’s a clatter of plates and a small yelp, and they both turn suddenly. A curly-haired young man has run into a waitress sheepishly, and he bends to help her pick up the dishes she dropped. In thanks, she hands him a banana, and he turns to face their table and stares.
Cecilia Gray has the same kind eyes as her sister, even if they’re a different color. Her hair is darker, cropped shorter, and up in victory curls, but he can see the resemblance at once. This girl is by no means Isabelle Gray, but she’s looking at him the same way, as if she sees past his uniform and through her eyes, judging his conscience, and then she smiles radiantly.
He moves closer, and Amory turns. “Is it you, mate?”
“Yeah.” He claps the man on the back and then turns to his sister. “I’m sorry, Miss, I don’t believe we’ve had the pleasure.”
“Cecilia Gray,” she answers quickly, before her brother can introduce her by her nickname. She’s eighteen now; she’s an adult and she’s been an agent for almost three whole years. She isn’t little Cece anymore.
The man runs a hand through his dark, curly hair, and flashes a dimpled grin at her before he extends a hand. “Clover Baudelaire.”
His accent is unexpected, French, and a little bit romantic. Cece giggles as she takes his hand, berating herself for sounding like a schoolgirl, and shakes it as a flush creeps up her neck. “Pleasure to meet you.”
“Pleasure’s all mine,” he answers smoothly, and slides into the seat beside her with a bright smile.
( 1945 )
The war’s officially over. There are people cheering in the streets, parades being planned, raucous singing from the pubs. Tatiana might have joined them if she hadn’t realized that it had been exactly six years since her family had all been together, alive and present, at the same table.
She’s in her bedroom, her back against a wall, a photo in her hands, as Benj walks in. “What’s that?”
She turns it to him wordlessly as he bends beside her. They’re standing side by side in front of a Christmas tree. Daniel had taken it one year as they’d assembled, Clara complaining about matching jumpers in her sixteen year old moodiness, Amory and Belle both bright in their smiles, Cece’s face young and round. Benj holds the picture in his hands and then puts it on their bedside table.
They’ve lived through two wars, dozens of deaths (including their own daughters). They’ve lived to see themselves become grandparents, to have not one but two son-in-laws. They’ve been parents and spouses and soldiers and nurses and lovers and fighters and now they have little left. They’ve been so many people in just forty-five years that it’s easy to forget who they are now.
He joins her, his back against the wall, and then picks up the sheaf of letters on the ground, the ones that they’d sent back and forth to each other during the war. Benj smiles at the sign off. “Love love love,” he reads as he flips through the pile.
“Love love love,” she repeats with a small smile before she rests her head against the wall. They’re silent, and then Tatiana asks, “What’ll we do now?” She supposes it’s the same as it’s been before. She’ll keep working at the hospital, treating those wounded in the war. Benj will go back to his desk job in the government. They’re still parents of four, but now they have three boys and one girl, and then an even younger boy to take care of.
Benj reaches out and interlaces his fingers with hers absently. “I was thinking,” he mused, “that we should paint the house yellow.”
Her lips quirk up despite herself. “Yellow? That’s a novel idea.”
“Yeah,” he says, keeping up the pretense. “I think it’ll look nice. It’ll give the house character.
Tatiana thinks briefly of daffodils and ducklings, of golden curls and medals of honor, of shining wedding bands and the tint on old photographs. She smiles. “The war’s over. What the hell. Let’s paint the house yellow again.”
And then they do, and they go back to their jobs, and they spend time with their children and their grandson and life is no longer the same – but it goes on. And that, Tatiana decides, is the only consistency that she can count on.