this side of mortality (part one)
Their eyes were locked on each other, and both of their expressions softened simultaneously. His uniform and armor were stripped away, and so was her professional air. They were sixteen year olds, young and frightened, and so full of raw emotion that they could scarcely hold back.
September 4, 1914
“They’ll be home by Christmas,” Orion Penvrane said critically as he sat beside the radio, adjusting the antenna. The voice on the other end crackled and then grew louder into a steady report of the news.
Daniel and Tatiana exchanged glances from where they sat in the other side of the parlor, their own conversation about the exams Daniel was about to sit in the school interrupted by this sudden declaration.
“What’s happened?” Daniel ventured hesitantly.
Orion gestured to the radio as it began to swell, describing reports of troops mobilizing. “Belgium’s been invaded by the Germans,” he explained. “Britain’s declared war.”
“War?” Tatiana sat up straighter, her hazel eyes cloudy in worry. “What’ll we do? Who is going to fight?”
Her mother had been doing needlework on Orion’s other side, but at the question, Josephine Penvrane set aside what she was working on. “We won’t,” she said sternly, “Not either of us, Tatiana, nor Daniel. Nor your father.” She glanced to the man and was surprised to find him gazing back thoughtfully. “What?”
“Why shouldn’t I fight?” Orion replied at once.
“Because you belong here,” Josie returned. She paused. “Do you want to fight?”
Orion considered this. “Perhaps,” he said after several seconds, “Think about it, Josie, it’s war. I’m at a prime age to be fighting. I could be doing more with my life than running this estate.” He cast a hand around at the parlor.
Daniel and Tatiana witnessed the back and forth between their parents with silence and some concern. They’d spent their entire life growing up in The Rookery in Wales, being waited on by servants and attending private school or classes so that they too could learn to run the estate one day when their father retired, but the war on the horizon made them reconsider their role in their world. For so long they had existed in a bubble – even their father now seemed to want to break free of it.
Josie was growing clearly agitated by that response. She picked up her needle, diverted her gaze, and prodded it through the fabric without delicacy. “You have a place here,” she told him firmly. “You have a life here, and work here, and your family here. Are you really going to throw it all away to die for your country?”
“I’m willing to die for my country, Josephine,” replied Orion, frowning, “Don’t you think that I’m patriotic enough to give back to it? To defend it?”
Tatiana rose suddenly, never prepared to see her parents disagree. “May I be excused?”
She hurried from the room as soon as permission had been given, and Daniel followed close after, walking down the hall quickly behind the fifteen year old. “Hey,” he said, stopping her, and she turned back to him. “Are you upset?”
Tatiana nodded tightly.
She stiffened. “Why not? This may be all fun and games to you, Dai, but people are going to die out there. And if Dad joins up, one of them could be him. Did you see how upset Mama was? Or what if they make him join because as head of this estate he has to set a good example for everyone else and do it? What if they make you go?”
“I’m seventeen,” Daniel defended quickly. “They wouldn’t do that to me. I’d have to be eighteen to enlist.”
“And what if this goes on past Christmas? Then you’ll be eighteen and you can enlist.”
They stared at each other. At last, Daniel started up the stairs, and Tatiana did as well, both of them not looking at each other. “You heard what Dad said,” he started slowly after a few minutes. “He wants to defend his country. It’s the right thing to do.”
“And the glorious thing to do,” Tatiana muttered under her breath, but Daniel pretended that he hadn’t heard her.
“Go to bed,” he told her firmly. “You’ll feel better later. You’re a morning person, aren’t you? You’ll feel better in the morning. Things won’t seem so bleak.”
Between the siblings, Daniel had always been the rational one while she’d been the emotional one. Tatiana Penvrane thought with her heart first and her head second; Daniel Penvrane did the opposite. She conceded he was right. “Alright,” she agreed. “We’ll discuss this again in the morning.”
When she woke up the next morning, Daniel Penvrane was gone. All that was left on his bed was a single note, written in simple block lettering: I had to do it.
“He’s only seventeen,” Josie had wept as soon as she’d heard, when their servants had gone to fetch her after entering Daniel’s room to wake him up and found it empty. “He’s not even old enough to enlist!”
“He’ll have lied, Josie,” Orion said, holding his wife to him as she cried into his shoulder. “He’ll be eighteen in a few months. They’ll believe him when he says that he’s eighteen.”
“What are we going to do, Orion?” Josie cried even more. “What if he’s killed?”
Tatiana had had the same thought, but she was still standing shock-still, her dressing gown shoved hastily and haphazardly over her shoulders after her mother’s scream had woken her and drawn her out from her room. She stared at the bed and the note, and her gaze darkened. “He’s doing it for glory, Mama,” the words came bitterly out of her mouth, “He wants to be a hero for the country.”
Her hazel gaze moved to the books on his bedside table, all of the methodical and careful preparation that he had done for exams that he would never get to sit. Tatiana blinked, and she could feel her vision blurring with hot tears.
October 1, 1914
Dear Dad, Mama, and Tatty,
By now you’ll have found out that I left to join the army, if the note that I left wasn’t proof enough. I want to apologize, but I don’t think that I have anything to apologize for. I’m doing this for my home and my country, and I want to prove that I can defend it.
Well, maybe there’s one thing I can apologize for. I’m sorry I didn’t tell you what I was planning to do, but I know that you would have stopped me. Mama, you were so upset when Dad mentioned fighting that I knew that it wouldn’t have been a good idea then to tell you what I wanted to do. Tatty, I know that you were upset by the war in the first place, so I couldn’t tell you that I wanted to join. And Dad, I hope that you think I’ve done the right thing. I know you wanted to do the same.
I’ve been sent to France. So far, we’re just working on exercises and drills, but soon we’ll be seeing more action. I’m ready. No one knows that I’m seventeen, but I’m not the only one. There are a lot of sixteen or seventeen year old boys here who did the same thing as me. We all want to serve our country. You can’t expect us not to defend what we love.
Speaking of what we love – I’ve written to Mia too, but I’d like you to keep an eye on her. I didn’t tell her that I was leaving, either, and I’m sure that she must be absolutely furious with me. Please tell her that I care about her. She’s one of the people that I’m trying to defend.
I hope you’re all proud of me. I’m doing what I think is right. Don’t be upset that I’ve left – I’ll do my best to make it home, after we win the war.
March 9, 1915
Tatiana and Josephine walked down the long road home, both of them rubbing ruefully at their backs and at their heads until at last Tatiana removed the cloth around her head.
“I’ll need to have this washed,” she declared after a moment, “We’ve barely seen any real war patients yet, but I’ve already gotten this dirty.”
Josie looked to the side and then took the cloth from her daughter. “We’ll have to make sure to keep things clean,” she said with a firm nod. “We can’t have patients getting infections when they’ve just come back from being hurt so badly in war. They should be safe now that they’re back here.”
Tatiana thought briefly of her brother and nodded, taking the cloth back from her mother. They crossed the gates through in front of their house, and Mr. Trilby, the butler, ran up, startled.
“We would have sent a car if we’d known you were coming now,” he said quickly to them as he followed them inside.
Josie shrugged at him. “No need, Trilby, we wanted to walk back from training.” She offered the butler a pale smile. “If we’re going to become nurses, we have to get used to being on our feet all the time.”
Tatiana sighed as she stepped into the house and pulled off her nurse’s apron to be laundered. “When’s Dad leaving?” she asked quietly.
Josie’s smile dimmed. “Next week. I’ve already spoken to him about our idea to repurpose some parts of The Rookery into a hospital if the need arises, and I think that he’s willing.”
Tatiana was quiet for a moment. Her father too was heading out into war, only a few months after her brother. It was hard on both her and her mother; that was why they’d headed into nursing training so heavily. A course that might normally take a year had taken them only months to complete; soon they would be fully trained and working with war victims, but for now, they had to settle for training.
Josie had been undoing her own apron, but she paused. “Don’t you have some event to go to tonight?”
Tatiana hadn’t even wanted to bring it up. She deflated slightly. “Yes,” she revealed, “There’s this event that Ariel really wanted to go to. It’s at the hall just outside of Bryn Du, to celebrate the soldiers because some of them are leaving really soon. There’ll just be the usual dancing and toasts.” She hesitated. “Really, I don’t want to go if it means I’ll have less time with Dad.”
“Oh, it’s only for a night.” Josie waved off her daughter’s concern. “Dad will be fine, he’ll understand. We want you to live, you know. It’s unfair that the war had to come now when you shouldn’t have needed to have to train to be a nurse and should have been getting your education in other things instead, but,” she paused and bit her lip, “This is what we got instead. You should go. I’ll stay and spend some time with your father tonight.”
“Are you sure?” Tatiana asked uncertainly, and when her mother nodded back at her, she grinned. “Thanks, Mama. I’ll go tell Ariel that I want to go – oh, and I should get ready!”
“Be careful with those soldiers, dear,” her mother warned her as she started down the hall. “You know what I always say about them, don’t you?”
Tatiana nodded, halfway up the stairs. “Of course, Mama.”
March 9, 1915
Tatiana had to admit (selfishly) that she rather liked when the soldiers were being sent out. Not because she didn’t want to see them go to the battlefield, but because the celebrations thrown in their honor were exciting.
This event was quite bigger than she would have expected; there were busloads of soon to be sent out soldiers arriving, and the young girl could tell by their accents that they weren’t even all Welsh. They all arrived in their uniforms, pressed and ready, with their hair combed back. She stood with Ariel to the side and watched them enter, eyeing them.
“There’s Easton,” murmured Ariel with a tilt of her chin toward the boy. Tatiana snuck a glance at him. Easton – her first love, the boy she’d met at a function when she was two years younger and more fanciful who’d kissed her in the summer before he’d gone back home. Her cheeks reddened. “Are you going to talk to him again?”
“No,” decided Tatiana, “that was a long time ago. Besides, I don’t have feelings for him anymore, or for anyone else. I’m only here to celebrate and dance.”
Ariel smirked at her. “And what if one of the soldiers starts fancying you?”
The teenager let out a sigh. “That’ll be tough for them. We have to do what my Mum always says – ‘Don’t get attached to the soldiers, Tatty, they’ll go out and get themselves killed.’” She didn’t know if her mother was saying that simply to spare her heart, or because she was actually terrified of Orion and Daniel being killed in the war. Either way, the normally romantic girl was taking those words to heart.
“You do that,” Ariel decided, her gaze already tracing a figure that was looking back at her, “I’m going to go introduce myself to that soldier. Excuse me.” She slipped away.
Tatiana lifted a glass of punch to her lips, but she didn’t have to wait long. A soldier in his shining uniform broke away from the throng and came toward her with a charming smile on his lips, extended a hand, and asked her to dance, and she was more than happy to oblige.
That was how she spent several hours of the night, dancing with various soldiers, laughing at their anecdotes, and generally having pleasant conversation with them, with just one hitch – she never told them her name. If she wasn’t going to get attached but have a good time, Tatiana decided that she couldn’t get too close to them, and that meant revealing even her first name.
After a while, she found herself standing back near the refreshments, fanning her face with one hand while she held a cool glass in the other. There was a soldier standing beside her, a tall, lanky one with blonde curls that caught the dim light so brilliantly. She admired them absently as she sat sipping from her drink, and while he didn’t notice what she was looking at, the soldier did notice her presence.
“Do they always make such a big fuss for these things?” He asked, and she was able to detect his accent as English at once.
“All the time,” Tatiana confirmed. “We’re very proud of our soldiers here. We just wanted to give you all a proper send off.” She took another sip and considered him. “Where are you off to, then?”
“I think either France or Italy,” the soldier replied.
Tatiana quirked an eyebrow. “You don’t know?”
“The war’s always moving and changing fronts,” he explained, and then paused, a red blush coloring his cheeks faintly, “Also, my new officer mentioned a town and I have no idea if that’s in France or Italy, so I’m tentatively saying that it’s in either one right now.”
Tatiana nearly choked on her drink, but she managed to press her hand to her lips and let out a giggle at his words instead without spraying them both with punch. “Fair enough,” she managed after a few seconds when she could talk again.
The young man was still red, but he was grinning too. At first, Tatiana had thought that he was just as old as the other young soldiers, but close up, she could see that he was young – or at least, he looked young and innocent, with his soft blonde curls and his baby blue eyes. He spoke again, blue eyes darting around the room nervously as he heard a new song start and saw the other soldiers switch partners. “Ah, would you like to dance with me, Miss…?”
He trailed off, but she didn’t answer with her name. “I’d be delighted to,” Tatiana replied smoothly, and took his hand as he led her out to the floor. The other soldiers had been smooth and confident at once; they had laid their hands on her waist and the small of her back instinctively. This man held her hand but seemed hesitant, and only moved to place his other hand on her waist after a few seconds when she moved her hand to his shoulder.
“You won’t be tripping all over my feet, will you?” Tatiana asked jokingly as they began to step back and forth to the medium-tempo tune. “Some of you soldiers know how to jump to avoid a grenade, but you can’t even step back and forth to a simple foxtrot.”
“Luckily for you, Miss, I’ve got quite the extensive training.” The soldier was becoming more confident with her as the seconds went on, and he ventured boldly, “I’m Benjamin Gray, but you can call me Benj.”
“Pleasure to meet you, Benj. I’m,” she faltered, “Penvrane,” she settled, deciding that it was less intimate than her first name.
He appeared perplexed. “That’s your name?”
“My surname,” she clarified, and then changed the topic. “You’re better at dancing than most of the soldiers here. Where did you learn?”
“My parents,” he informed her, stepping back and giving her a wide twirl before he caught her again, both hands resting on her waist now. “What do you do here, then?”
Tatiana lifted her chin at Benjamin proudly. “I’m a nurse. Or at least, I will be soon. I’m in training right now.”
“So they’ll send you out too soon, then?” Benj asked her.
“I expect so.” Tatiana hadn’t really considered this very much; she kept thinking that it was simply her father and brother who’d be out there, but she would be too. Her mother was staying in The Rookery, but Tatiana was young and eager; they would send her out with the volunteer forces soon as well.
“Are they going to throw you a big event like this one too?”
Tatiana glanced around at the decorated, shining hall, and shook her head. “Probably not,” she said. “This is for you lot. We’ll just be sent off without pomp and circumstance.”
“Well, that’s not fair,” Benj considered aloud, “Why do we get such a big event if you don’t?”
“You’ll be out there fighting and risking your lives,” she pointed out. “You deserve a big event like this one.” You’re at bigger risk of dying, she wanted to say, but that was too insensitive and she refused to. “We’re not facing the battle the same way that you are.”
“But you’re the ones putting us back together after we come back from it.” Benj’s grin lifted up. “That’s pretty important. You deserve an event just as big as this one.”
He dipped her suddenly and was rewarded with a delighted giggle before he drew her back up toward him. They were suddenly very close, perhaps more than was appropriate in a dance like this, and they both flushed simultaneously at the proximity. “That’s sweet,” Tatiana managed at last, but before she could say anything more, the music swelled into a crescendo and stopped, and then a toast began to the soldiers.
“I should probably get back to the other nurses,” Tatiana said, carefully untangling herself from his grasp. She was about to step away when he gripped her hand again, and she turned back toward him in question.
“Aren’t you going to tell me your name at least?” he questioned her, his blue eyes shining and wide.
Tatiana was so tempted to, but she remembered what her mother told her and carefully pulled her hand from his. “Not right now,” she said at last. “It was lovely to meet you, though.”
“And you as well, Miss Penvrane. Perhaps I’ll meet you out there.” He watched her walk away, not missing how she glanced back twice before she disappeared back into the crowd of the other young women.
July 26, 1915
He was groaning, but he wasn’t aware that the sound was coming from his own lips. Benj twisted on the ground, reaching for the man next to him, but he already knows that he’s dead. So many members of his division are dead. The war that they’d thought would be over quickly has stretched out, and even if he’s only been there for four months, Benj feels as if it’s been a lifetime. The simple comforts of home seem like a luxury – warm baths, clean socks, soap.
Here there are trenches and darkness and explosions. All Benj sees is mud and rain. He’d always wanted to come to Italy, but not under these circumstances, where he spent his days crouching in a trench, his face plastered with mud and sweat and (often) tears. He was only sixteen years old, too young to enlist, really.
He still remembers why he did it; a girl with red hair had been the catalyst. Lily had sighed at the poster about enlisting as they’d walked by the shops, both of their arms laden with groceries. “Look at all those soldiers,” she’d said, her gaze distant, “Look how much they’re sacrificing for our country. They’re heroes.”
Those words had had a profound effect on Benjamin Gray. He was lanky, but he was tall and certainly the right size to look eighteen; the curls and youthful blue eyes betrayed his age slightly, but only if one looked close, and few often did. He’d immediately enlisted and been sent out. Lily would be so proud of him. The country would love him – and maybe she would too. For so many years she’d been the girl next door, and he was hoping to change things when he came back from war.
There was a whistling and then a shriek of Duck! Benj did exactly as he was told to, hitting the ground even harder in the trench as a shell came exploding down, showering them with debris.
“Fire!” his commanding officer called, and Benj pushed his cropped hair further away from his eyes as he crawled through the mud, lifted his gun, and did as he was told.
There was another shout to duck, but he was in too good of a position; the vantage point that he was afforded was perfect. It would be difficult for him to be hit, but he had a straight shot. Benj’s hands still shook when he picked up a gun, but his jaw was set firmly as he bent low and shot, ignoring the debris showering down around him and his comrades screaming in pain and terror from the trench.
He was about to think that he’d been lucky, too lucky, when suddenly there was a loud whistle, an explosion, and before he could register that he’d been thrown backwards, the world went black.
July 27, 1915
“Faster!” The head nurse clapped her hands together and both the nurses and the men carrying injured soldiers into the ward hurry up, speeding up as they rushed the patients to their beds.
“Careful,” Tatiana warned one of the soldiers carrying his injured comrade in, but the man barely listened to her as he dumped the soldier ungraciously on his bed and then hurried back out, presumably to carry in more soldiers. She tutted under her breath but turned to the patient; this was the part of the room she was assigned to, and it was quickly filling up.
At first, she was shocked by the amount of blood that this man had on him; so scared that she in fact thought that she’d been brought a dead body. He was unrecognizable, his uniform and face and hair all plastered in mud and blood and grime, and she didn’t hesitate to grab a basin and a cloth to start cleaning him off and register all the damage that had taken place. The other nurses were equally as busy and quick as her; they each took a patient and began to work.
Tatiana had seen wounded soldiers come in quite a few times in her short few months in Italy. As a part of the Volunteer Aid Detachment she’d seen action quite a few times, but only from a hospital. She saw the soldiers that had been torn to shreds and others who’d come in dazed and shocked, and she treated them all.
She knew the first thing to do with this man was to clean him off. She promptly dunked the cloth into the basin, wrung it out, and then began to carefully wipe the mud and blood off of his hands, then his neck, and then his face, trying to move quickly but methodically so that she could detect the most obvious injuries. When she moved to swipe her cloth around his mouth, he stirred and let out a grunt before his eyes sprung open. She blinked in surprise at the startlingly familiar baby blue eyes, but then resumed her ministrations, and his eyes closed again as she cleaned blood off of his temples.
Now that he was clean, she could tell that the blood that covered him was likely not all of his own. He had a nasty cut on his forehead that she bandaged up at once, but she knew it’d need stitches. Before she could examine any other part of him, she was called away to a more urgent case and had to reluctantly leave the young man behind as she tended to a row of groaning patients who’d likely need amputations. She ran back and forth between the man she’d been treating and her other patients, cleaning some up, binding bandages or splints on the other, until they had all been taken care of for the time being.
A few hours later, she returned only to the blonde man, her apron replaced with a fresh one after the stream of bloody patients that she’d treated, and she picked up the clipboard at the base of his cot. Head injury, two bullet wounds, chest gashed open, broken right femur. Not the most terrible of diagnoses, but not at all a good one; she could already tell that he’d be here for some time.
When she looked up at the man to appraise him, she found that he was looking back at her again. He motioned to open his mouth and say something, but he couldn’t; Tatiana at once went to his bedside table and picked up a glass of water, which she held to his lips so that he could drink. He was still staring at her, and she knew that she knew this man – with his face clean and his uniform now replaced with clean hospital pajamas, she recognized him at once as the soldier she’d danced with back in Wales.
He seemed to recognize her too. He stared, narrowing his blue eyes slightly, and then he spoke. “Penvrane.” The water from the glass dribbled down the front of his shirt, making a dark stain on the blue fabric.
Tatiana set the glass down. “Oh, no, we can’t get your bandages wet at all.” Chest wounds were dangerous; even the shallow ones were at risk of infection, and they were near so many vital organs that there was a very high chance that the infection could spread. She immediately began to unbutton his shirt and tugged it off to make sure that the water didn’t seep through, and then quickly left and returned from the linen cupboard with another. He appeared somewhat sheepish to be stripped of his shirt, but Tatiana paid it only a little more mind than usual as she carefully buttoned the dry one onto him.
“How do you feel?” she asked him.
Benj considered her words. “Not well at all,” he decided, “But I expect that that’s why I’m in a hospital.” He shifted slightly, but then his face screwed up in pain and he stayed in place instead. “You are Miss Penvrane, aren’t you? From Wales? Who wouldn’t tell me her first name?”
She offered him a pale smile. “One and the same.” A pause. “Stop fidgeting, you’re going to make your bandages come off.”
He relented. “I didn’t know that I’d see you out here in Italy.”
“I didn’t think I’d see you again either,” admitted Tatiana. Her words were directed to him but her eyes were on his forehead. She’d already snuck a peek at his chest when she’d removed his shirt, not purely for curious purposes to see what he looked like, but also to check on the wound and the bullet wounds on his chest. So far they were wrapped tightly in the clean bandages that she’d put on earlier, when she’d been so distracted by the blood that she hadn’t though to look until now.
Benj looked down and realized with a start that all of his clothes were different. “Where did my uniform go?”
“We had it laundered.” It wasn’t likely the truth; it had been practically shredded, so she was sure that it had instead simply been discarded. All of its contents from the pockets and pins had been dumped onto the side table.
The man didn’t look upset at the state of his uniform, but something appeared to be bothering him. He stared down. “How did I get so clean and changed?”
Tatiana was perplexed. “You had to be clean to be treated, so we cleaned you up with a sponge bath before we began to bandage you up. Now you’ll have less of a chance of getting infection.”
He reddened, and she finally understood. “You were the one who gave me a sponge bath and changed my clothes?” he managed, and turned even redder when Tatiana nodded.
“The good news,” Tatiana said quickly, “is that your injuries aren’t immediately life-threatening. The bad news is that you need quite a few stitches and you’ll be in here for a while to recover. The good news again is that you won’t be out in battle for a while.”
“Is this how you give all of your bad news? You sandwich it in between good news so people don’t notice?” Benj asked.
She smiled beatifically at him. “It works, doesn’t it?”
“A little,” he admitted.
There was a groan behind her as another of her patients rose, blindly reaching out for water, and she stood. “I’ve got to make sure that he’s alright. I’ll be back later. You’re getting stitches in the morning.”
“Alright, Nurse Penvrane,” he replied, and then grimaced as she settled him back into bed with the thin sheet over him. “I look forward to it.”
July 28, 1915
Benjamin Gray in fact did not enjoy getting stitches.
“Ow!” he protested.
“I haven’t even begun,” Tatiana said, gritting her teeth.
“Then why did it sting?”
“I just cleaned it with hydrogen peroxide to make sure that it’s clean,” she informed him as she began to carefully loop a string through the thin eye of the needle in her hand. Benj watched apprehensively as she tied and prepared the needle, and then shrunk away as she lifted it to his head again.
“You have to do this,” Tatiana said firmly, “I already took off your bandages, and they were soaked in blood. You’re going to bleed out and lose all your blood and die if you don’t let me do this.”
Perhaps it was a bit dramatic, but it had the desired effect. Benj’s eyes widened but he didn’t move – at least, not until she began to sew up the wound. “This hurts,” he complained.
“I can’t help it!” He was fidgeting, and if Tatiana hadn’t been a nurse for some months now, she would pity him more. Getting stitches while injured was painful, especially when they had nothing to help with the pain, and surely he was already in a lot of it, but her job was to make sure that he lived and that he was healthy.
“If you don’t stop moving, I’m going to have to restrain you – or I’ll have to start over,” she warned, but he fidgeted under the needle that was only one stitch in.
Tatiana let out a laborious sigh. She’d been sitting on the side of his bed, but now she moved closer, straddling him as she shifted one leg to his other side so that she was sitting in his lap and could hold him down. Fortunately, he wasn’t using his hands to stop her, merely moving his head, and she put her other hand on his cheek to keep his face steady as she continued to stitch up the wound, him gritting his teeth in front of her.
She secured the stitches with a tug. “There,” she remarked proudly. “That’s your head all stitched up, and now you’re not going to bleed from there anymore.” She turned her attention from his temple back to him, and only then did she realize that she was sitting pressed to him on his lap, the front of their bodies pushed together. She could detect his warmth through his thin hospital shirt and she was tempted not to move, but then she remembered how compromising this would look if the head nurse returned, so she reluctantly untangled herself from him and stood again.
“Is it over?” Benj moaned as he moved his hand to his temple. They were both a bit red, but she pretended that it was simply from the exertion of administering stitches on her end and from receiving them on his, not their close proximity.
Tatiana smiled sweetly. “Now we start on your chest.”
August 4, 1915
“Don’t you think that you’re a little sweet on that boy?” Lydia said briskly to her.
Tatiana stiffened, but she didn’t react visibly in any other regard as the two of them carried a large washbasin between them down the hall. “Which boy?” she asked innocuously.
“Your boy. Your patient with the blonde hair and the chest injury.” Lydia considered her though stony eyes.
The two young nurses had been working nonstop for the past week. The recent attacks had claimed the lives of many of the patients at their hospital, including many of their own patients. She felt guilty every time one of her patients died, even if she knew that it wasn’t her fault. They were just people too far gone for her to save, and after that terrible attack in the trenches, not many had had injuries treatable enough to live through it. Among the dead had been Lydia’s own eldest brother, who’d died the day after they’d brought him into the hospital. Lydia had been there when he’d died. She’d clasped his hand and been silent, and hadn’t turned away even after the light had left his eyes.
Tatiana put down the basin heavily into the closet. “I’m not sweet on anyone,” she defended, “I’m doing my job.”
Lydia studied her. “What’s that thing that your Mum always used to say?”
Tatiana sighed. “Don’t get attached to the soldiers, they’ll go to war and get themselves killed and you’ll be left here wondering why they haven’t written back.”
“Aren’t your brother and Dad soldiers?”
“Yeah, but I think she’s making sure that I’m not setting myself up for heartbreak.”
Lydia chanced a glance back at the ward. “Don’t you think you are?”
“He doesn’t even know my name, Lyds. I can’t get attached. I’m just checking on him frequently because he’s so injured and he’s one of my patients.”
Lydia didn’t look convinced, but the Matron called them out of the closet after a few minutes and they had to split ways.
After doing some more of her work, Tatiana found herself at Benj’s side again. She pretended that she was there to check his bandages, but she was actually there to talk. Despite Benj’s injuries that kept him relegated to bed still, he was still talkative, especially to her.
“Do you talk like this to all of your patients?” he asked her that night, after she sat on the side of his bed and chattered, handing him a glass of water. He already knew the answer; he saw how she treated her other patients.
“Well, no,” Tatiana admitted, “but not all of them have head injuries. I have to make sure that you’re still lucid.”
“I thought it was just a scratch on my head.”
Tatiana ignored this. “Anyway,” she said, rising, “I’ll be back again later.”
“I’ll be here,” Benj replied with a grin.
August 8, 1915
Tatiana was woken that morning by the Matron. “What’s happened?” she asked at once, knowing that getting a wake up call from the head nurse was never a good thing.
“It’s your patient,” she explained quickly, barely waiting as the brunette scrambled around to put on her apron and her shoes. “He had a fever when he woke up this morning.”
She was down to the ward in record time, barely noticing that she hadn’t even pinned up her hair properly so that half of it flowed down her shoulders. Immediately she grabbed a small basin and cloth and sat by Benj’s side, wiping the sweat off of it. He was awake and conscious, but just barely.
“This happened this morning?” Tatiana didn’t even wait for an answer before she undid the buttons of his shirt and checked at the bandages around the stitches. Though she’d checked them multiple times every day, there were some things that she couldn’t always prevent, and infection was one of them. Her lips curled down as she noticed the way that his stitches looked now, and she immediately busied herself with cleaning and bandaging him with clean ones again.
She spent most of the day by his side, leaving only for a few minutes when her other patients needed her or had to be checked on, but none of them needed her attention the way that Benjamin Gray did. She returned constantly to feed him water or to wipe sweat off his face with cool rags soaked in water, and she sat on the side of his bed, not at a chair by his side so that she was close enough to constantly keep an eye on him.
He slipped in and out of consciousness, his words flitting between coherent sentences and nonsense. Tatiana constantly checked his temperature, but he wasn’t getting much better.
“I’m cold,” Benj complained at one point, his teeth chattering, but she put a hand to his forehead and still found him burning up with fever. The blanket he had was twisted around him; he kept swaddling and then unswaddling himself in discomfort.
It was almost certainly unprofessional, but Tatiana didn’t know how else to help him. She slipped into the bed beside him and wrapped her arms around him to give him some of her warmth. She knew that Lydia would disapprove; she could see it in the young woman’s eyes as she passed, but Tatiana was terrified. Not just of losing a patient, because even at sixteen she was already used to seeing death, but of losing him.
“Am I going to die?” Benj’s words were whispered, but surprisingly clear. By the dim light of the lamp on his beside table she could see his glazed blue eyes gazing at her. “I thought that I’d die in the trenches, not here. I felt safe here with you.”
Tatiana felt a sudden surge of determination. “You’re not going to die,” she informed him firmly, “I won’t let you.”
August 9, 1915
His head was swimming in a warm haze. Everything felt too hot and too cold simultaneously. Benj woke at various intervals to strange sights – his mother’s disappointed face after she’d found the note he left her that he was leaving for war. His brother leaving for the army, all dressed up in his uniform. Lily’s face when she talked about the soldiers – but that last one was quickly being replaced by another face with dark hair and soft hazel eyes.
He thought that she was there now, but he couldn’t tell. In between pieces of memory he found himself remembering the horrors of war, the sights and smells of blood and the battlefield and the dying other soldiers, remembering with horror over and over that he’d chosen this, that he wasn’t even old enough to be out there.
“Water,” he gasped out, and then there was a glass pressed to his lips or something cool on his forehead. He stirred at the touch toward the source of it, but her eyes, whether they were open or closed, saw without comprehending what he saw.
It wasn’t until daylight broke that he at last let out a gasp, suddenly realizing that he was dripping with sweat. His eyes were lucid as he gazed to the woman in his bed with him, whose hand was frozen on his forehead with a cool rag.
She dropped the rag and sat up, resting the back of her hand against her forehead. Apparently, whatever she found was good news. She leaned forward, peppering his face in relieved kisses, all of his cheeks, his jaw, his forehead, but she stopped short at his lips.
“It’s Tatty, actually,” she whispered back, “Tatiana Penvrane.”
In the early morning light, there was a glow on her dark hair, a shine in her hazel eyes. Benj reached out and absently ran his hand though her hair, which must have come unpinned all the way over the course of the last day until it flowed freely over her shoulders. “Tatty,” he repeated, liking the way it sound on his lips, and then he gave her a weak smile. “Thank you.”
September 15, 1915
The young man walked carefully down the path to the small bench behind the hospital, one hand on a crutch, another holding the shoulder of the woman beside him who was at his side to prop him up and guide him.
His chest injury hadn’t bothered him since that day, not even when he’d had his stitches redone. Tatty had threatened to sit on him and hold him down again if he fidgeted or screamed so, naturally, he’d done both. He wasn’t sure if she was aware that it was more of a reward for him than a punishment, but either way, he’d had his stitches redone and a pretty young nurse sitting in his lap. Benj decided that there were far worse things in the world.
Since then, he was recovering well – slowly, but steadily. The bandages around his head had come off, and the bullet wounds in his chest were healing. The gash across his chest was shrinking. It was his broken leg, the simplest injury of all that took him the most time to recover from. Breaking an arm was alright, he could simply shoot with the other, but he’d broken the longest bone in his body and it had been painful and recovery was slow. He was only just starting to get back on his feet.
That was why he’d suggested going for a walk. The Matron had narrowed her eyes at him, unsure if he was up to it, before he suggested that he take one of the nurses with him. One of the nurses, everyone already knew, was simply code word for Tatiana. The others didn’t even offer and let her take him outside instead.
“Does it hurt?” she asked him as they continued slowly down the path.
“Not too much,” Benj replied, giving his leg a critical look. “I’m trying not to put too much weight on it, though, so that must be why.”
“Does anything else hurt?”
He considered it. “No,” he decided. “I expect that everything else has healed up already.” Benj paused. “They’ll probably send me out as soon as I can walk again.”
Tatiana looked away, and guided him slightly away from the path so that they could go to the small garden. This had been a beautiful hospital before the war, reserved for only the wealthy in Italy. In wartime, however, it was for everyone; the soldiers, the commoners, the poorest people if they were injured enough. The garden hadn’t been maintained very well, but there was still a tree that afforded shade over a bench. She tugged him gently toward it.
“You won’t be entirely well for a while,” Tatiana said firmly. “Your leg will take some time to heal entirely, and you’ve had a really bad injury. I don’t know if they’ll send you back out right away.”
Benj did know, and he knew what the outcome of this would be. As soon as he could walk again and the nurses cleared him, he’d be right back out in the field. The trench might be different, sure, but the conditions and circumstances wouldn’t be. He’d be right back into Hell. War was terrible, but the trenches were the worst of the worst; there was death at the hospitals every day, but even those who went screaming hadn’t been joined in their melody by the sound of the whistling bombs, the sharp clicks of gunshots, or the explosions. They went with reassuring murmurs from the nurses or the sympathetic groans from other patients in here.
Benj was lucky, he knew that he really was. Not many had survived the battle that had wounded him, and even those who had hadn’t had a very high survival rate once they’d been shuttled to the hospital and their wounds had been checked. He wouldn’t die of his injuries – not now, anyway, but the others hadn’t all been so lucky.
“Take a seat,” he said with a motion to the bench, ever the gentleman. “Ladies first.”
“Oh no,” Tatiana protested, “You’re the one who shouldn’t be walking very far. You sit.”
“I insist,” Benj said with a flourish to the bench.
She took a seat, and he sat beside her. He didn’t even know why they had been arguing about it. The bench was big enough for both of them.
He arranged a smile on his lips. “When are you going to clear me for combat, Tatty?”
He didn’t either know or guess that the answer on her lips was a firm never but Tatiana was professional – or, at least, she tried to be. Getting into the same bed as Benjamin, even for the sake of keeping him warm during his fever, had earned her a sharp reprimand from the head nurse.
Instead, Tatiana replied, “When you’re ready.” She paused. “I don’t think that that’ll be for a while.”
Benj hoped not either. The hospital was hell in its own right, with death so constant through its halls, but not for him. The hospital was almost heavenly for him; it was a reprieve and, more importantly, it had her. She wasn’t Lily, but thoughts of the redhead grew farther and farther every day that he was here.
“Why didn’t you tell me your name for a while?” Benj asked as he leaned back on the bench and cast her a sideways look.
Tatiana shrugged lightly. “My Mama,” she explained after a moment. “She has this one saying about not getting attached to soldiers that I took to heart, so I tried not to get attached. I didn’t even want any personal connection, so I refused to tell any soldier my name.”
“Except me?” Benj lifted an eyebrow in surprise.
She nodded shyly, tucking her hair behind both ears simultaneously. “Except you,” confirmed Tatiana.
He turned to her, blue eyes searching her face gently. “Did you get attached then, Tatty?”
Her voice was small, almost hesitant. “I suppose that I did.”
Their eyes were locked on each other, and both of their expressions softened simultaneously. His uniform and armor were stripped away, and so was her professional air. They were sixteen year olds, young and frightened, and so full of raw emotion that they could scarcely hold back.
He didn’t know which one of them moved first, but they met in the middle, his lips tilting down to meet hers as she angled her face up at him. He placed his hands at her sides hesitantly, his fingers fluttering, as she put his hands on his shoulders, but then she slid her hands into his curls that were just beginning to grow back and then he pulled her closer by the waist before resting his hands on her back. They kissed until they were out of breath, and then they kissed again, and when they finally broke apart, she was flushed and he was red and they both couldn’t keep the grins off of their lips.
“For what it’s worth,” Benj said without taking his hands off of her, “I got attached too.”
Tatiana lifted her rosy lips at him, and then they were kissing again and he could ignore the pain in his leg or the crutch digging into his arm and focus on her, only her.
September 28, 1915
The report came as a shock to her. Fighting was always in session on the battlefields across Europe, but now they wanted back all of the men who were in condition to fight – even the newly recovered, even the ones that could barely do their duty. As long as they had a pair of arms and could hold a gun, they were to be sent back to the field.
The hospital was to be emptied quickly. The head nurse went around to check everyone who was fit for battle and cleared them for war again – all of the patients in Tatiana’s ward, including one Benjamin Gray.
The young brunette stormed back into her room that she shared with Lydia, holding back tears until she shut the door behind them, and then she promptly began to cry. “How could they do this, Lyds?” she managed, “Most of those men have only been in here a few weeks. Most of them were near death before we started to treat them. How can they expect them to go out so soon?”
Lydia was a harsher young woman than Tatiana was, but she was not without some sympathy. “It’s too soon for most of them,” she agreed, carefully setting down the book she was reading on her bedside table after marking the page. “But this is war. They’re going to need all of the men they can get back out there. They’re about to mount an offensive in Northern France.”
“I know what they’re doing,” Tatiana snapped, and then regretted it a moment later. “I’m sorry,” she said, and then wiped at her eyes hastily. “But they’re not strong enough. Most of them will end right back here. Or worse – they won’t come back at all.” Her lip quivered, “And Benj, oh, God, he’s barely recovered. His leg is still weak. He can’t even put much weight on it, how will they expect him to survive in the trenches again?”
Lydia’s eyes peered at her without any real emotion visible. “Is that what this is about? You’re scared he won’t come back? Tatiana, what are you doing?”
Listening to her best friend’s words was like being admonished by her mother. Tatiana closed her eyes suddenly, at the swift shock of it before she opened them again and let out a small sigh. “I got attached. I know I shouldn’t have but I can’t help what I feel!”
“You can always help what you feel,” Lydia warned.
“I don’t want to,” Tatiana replied firmly.
They stared at each other across the room.
“Do you – “ Lydia started to ask, but Tatiana cut her off.
“I don’t know,” she replied suddenly. “Maybe. I might. Perhaps I do already, or maybe I will soon, but I can’t let them take him. I promised I wouldn’t let him die.”
“You shouldn’t make promises you can’t keep,” Lydia said simply. “I would know.” Her brother had promised to keep them safe after their parents had died. Instead, she was the one keeping up correspondence with her remaining brothers in the war, with her sister back home in England, with her twin on the Italian front. None of them were safe. She’d learned not to rely on promises after Freddie had died in front of her, still promising that he’d keep their family safe.
Tatiana averted her gaze. “What am I going to do?”
Lydia tossed her an apron from across the room. “You’re going to go to bed, and tomorrow you’re going to wake up early and put this on, and you’re going to tell all your soldiers in your part of the ward that they’re going back to war.”
Tatiana wiped her tears and obligingly went to bed, but she had other ideas for the morning.
September 29, 1915
“General Jones?” Tatiana crossed the room and gave him a tray. He wasn’t her normal patient, but she’d offered to carry up his try that morning so that she could speak to him. “I have to talk to you about one of the soldiers that you want to send back out to the battlefield.”
September 29, 1915
“Ambulance duty?” Benj furrowed his eyebrows as he stared at the paper. “What does that mean?”
Tatiana busied herself with her tray as she cleared up the remains of the meal he’d just eaten and the empty cups on his bedside. “It just means that you’ll be staying here and driving the ambulances around the countryside to the hospital, darling. You’ll just be transporting patients.”
“But why won’t I be back on the battlefield?” He asked, still confused. “Everyone else is going. Why do I get to remain here?”
“Your leg had a nasty fracture. It still hasn’t entirely healed up.”
“I barely need to stand. I’ll be spending all my time in the trenches crouching.”
She put down the tray on the bedside table heavily. “Do you want to go back out there? Because if you’re really so adamant about it, I can just go back up to General Jones and –“
“Wait,” Benj’s gaze turned from his paper to her in surprise. “You did this?”
She’d dug her own grave. Tatiana abruptly closed her mouth and then she nodded slowly. “You weren’t ready to go back out.”
Benj was shaking his head. “I am ready. It’s just my leg; it’ll heal up soon enough. There are men here who were even worse off than I was when I first got here, and they’re being sent back out tomorrow.” His tone hardened slightly. “You shouldn’t have told him that I needed to stay here.”
“I didn’t say that,” Tatiana protested, “I said that you weren’t up to it, that if they sent you back out right now, you’d just be sent right back into here.”
Benj was getting more upset with her. “How can you decide that? I’m a soldier, Tatiana, it’s what I do. I have to go back there and fight. I can’t just spend the rest of my life wasting away in here when I have a job to do. The war isn’t over, it’s barely even begun. You can’t decide what I get to do.”
“You’re making a scene,” Tatiana said under her breath.
He kept going anyway. “Besides, I’m fine. What’s a little pain in my leg when there are so many people out there dying? I’m young and I’m well, and I should be out there doing my duty to serve my country.”
“You’re not even eighteen,” she said accusatorily.
His face fell, color draining from it quickly. “You know?”
“Of course I know.” Benjamin was clearly younger than her brother, and he was only eighteen. There was no way that the young blonde man could be that age as well. Tatiana straightened to her full height. “Do you want me to go back up and tell General Jones and have him send you home instead so that you can’t fight anymore at all?”
He lowered his eyebrows at her, giving her the first scowl she’d ever seen on him. “You wouldn’t dare.”
“Try me.” She held his gaze, hazel locked on blue.
“You’re being cruel,” he said then.
Tatiana felt a sudden surge of anger. “I’m not cruel. I’m doing this for you, to be kind.”
“How is it kindness to not let me do my duty?”
“How would it be kindness if I let you go out there to die again?” Tatiana countered.
Benj let out a noise of annoyance. “Why are you so upset about me going back out to war?”
“Because I love you!” Tatiana managed at last in irritation.
They stared at each other, each of them shocked; her at hearing the words aloud, his at her admission.
“You love me?” he repeated slowly.
She nodded back, just as slow. “Yes. And that’s why I can’t let you go back out there when I know that you’re still not fully recovered.” Tatiana paused. “It’s why I don’t want you to go back there at all, but I know that I can’t keep you there forever.”
He was still staring at her, but the anger on his features was replaced by something almost unreadable. His blue eyes were wide as he gazed at her. At last, he swallowed thickly and nodded. “I’ll stay,” Benj said, “but only for you.”
She would have kissed him right there in the ward if enough of the other soldiers hadn’t witnessed their whispered quarrel. Instead, she settled for lacing her fingers though his quickly and letting him press a kiss to her hand.
September 30, 1915
“Why is Benjamin Gray still here?”
Tatiana hadn’t mastered the art of being able to keep a straight face. She turned from where she sat on her bed, brushing her hair. “He is?” she said in a voice meant to be surprised.
Lydia saw straight through it. “Did you do something?”
Tatiana laid down her hairbrush slowly. “I did. I talked to General Jones and convinced him not to ship him out – not today, at least.”
“Why’d you do that?”
“His leg is still healing, he’d barely be able to walk on a battlefield. Besides, it’s not like he’s sitting around doing nothing here. He’s on ambulance duty, so he’s still doing his part in the war, see?”
Tatiana looked up, expecting to see an impressed expression on Lydia’s face, but instead she was greeted with impassiveness.
“This isn’t just about his leg at all,” Lydia said sternly. “This is because you’re sweet on him.”
“It’s more than that, Lyds,” Tatiana sighed, “I do love him. I can’t just leave him to die.”
“That’s not your decision to make.”
“No,” Tatiana bristled, “but General Jones authorized it. It’s not as if I’m hiding him from the army so that they won’t take him.”
“You’ve done just about the same thing. Do you really think that they’ll come back to take him back to the army now? No, you’ve just hidden him away in an ambulance so it looks like he’s useful here.”
“Why are you so angry about this?” Tatiana asked, drawing her dark eyebrows low over her eyes.
Lydia didn’t hesitate. “The war hasn’t been won just because you fell in love, Tatiana.”
Lydia rarely called her by her full name; they were good friends, they shared a room, they shared a workplace, they shared laughs. She felt as if she’d been slapped in a face. Tatiana flinched visibly. “I’m showing mercy,” she said in a small voice.
“If it were mercy, you’d let him do his duty,” Lydia said, and turned her back as she pulled off her apron, leaving Tatiana to stare at her in thoughtful shock.
October 15, 1915
It had only been two weeks since the last group of soldiers had left, but already they were sending more to France. It happened again, the rounding up of any patients who could do their job again.
This time, Tatiana didn’t break down. She didn’t try to stop it.
“Is this the right thing to do?” she whispered to Lydia as they strode down the hall.
Lydia once again was not without sympathy. She squeezed Tatiana’s shoulder quickly. “I know this is hard for you, but it’s the right thing for you to do. He doesn’t want you to show this mercy on him forever.”
That was enough for her. She offered her friend a smile, and then pushed out the back doors of the hospital. Benj was leaning against the ambulance, a cigarette in his fingers, but he quickly snuffed it out under his shoe as soon as he saw her approaching.
“Nurse,” he greeted her audibly in front of the other ambulance drivers, and as she approached, he lowered his voice, “Darling.”
She managed him a small smile and handed him the slip of paper. “It’s for you.” Her voice was thin. “You’re being sent to France.”
He looked at the paper and then back up at her. “Oh.” He didn’t seem upset. She knew that driving ambulances wasn’t the most exciting of jobs, but it was miles safer than being out in the field. Nevertheless, he was bored. He felt useless. He could see her every day, and though that brightened both of their lives, their jobs required them to be elsewhere. They both had duties, and now that his leg was better healed, it was time that he got back to them.
She clasped his hand. “You’re not upset, are you?”
Benj smiled gently back at her. “Only about leaving you.”
October 16, 1915
He stood in his new uniform, with gleaming buttons and a stiff cap, and grinned at her before he broke from the crowd. The nurses were all standing in front of the hospital, waving their goodbyes at the soldiers, but Benj didn’t hesitate to swoop down and press a kiss to her, and Tatiana didn’t stop herself from standing on her toes and kissing him back, even if she knew the others were watching.
“I love you,” he said when she finally pulled away. “I’ll write to you wherever I am.”
“I love you too. I’ll write as much as I can,” Tatiana said with a nod.
He cast a glance back at the other young soldiers, some of them kissing nurses goodbye and others joking around to hide their nerves from heading back into battle. Benj turned back around to her. “You’ll wait for me?” he said nervously.
His curls had grown back over the time that he’d been in the hospital. In the golden light, they looked like a crown. Tatiana absently ran her fingers through his hair, and then nodded. “Of course I’ll wait. I’m yours.”
She was rewarded with a brilliant smile. Benj pressed a kiss to her hand and let go as he turned to join the other soldiers. She turned to head back to the hospital. They both turned back halfway to look, and when they made eye contact, offered each other a last smile, and disappeared.