this side of mortality (part four)

by renegadekarma

He felt older than his nineteen years, suddenly, but he was home now, and all the armor he’d put on was beginning to strip away. She was right. He was home.


September 21, 1917

There was the clatter of a bowl and a spoon on the table beside her, but Tatiana didn’t turn at the noise. Under the covers, her eyes were squeezed shut and she was curled up into a ball, as if she could somehow block out every noise she heard from the outside world, including the woman who’d just arrived.

Her best friend, on the other hand, would not take her non-answer. “I’ve brought you food,” she announced. “It’s porridge, and it’s really not very good, but if you don’t eat something on your own, I’m going to have to sit on you and feed you like a child, and you really don’t want that, do you?”

Tatiana sighed and then reluctantly untangled herself from the sheets to reveal her form; tangled chocolate brown hair and red-rimmed eyes. She gave Lydia a half-hearted glare and then sullenly picked up the bowl. “I’ve got absolutely no appetite,” she declared.

Lydia was unfazed as ever, and instead perched on the edge of her bed to observe her through pale eyes. “Please eat, Tatiana,” she said, her voice quiet but not pleading. “You did it for me after Freddie died. I need to do the same for you.”

Tatiana stared downward at the watery bowl in her hands, and then carefully filled a spoon before she put it to her lips. Her and Lydia had never measured their friendship through debt; they never owed each other anything, because that wasn’t what they believed friendship should be, but right now, the nurse understood the other’s need to reciprocate something that she had once done.

“Have you written to your mother?” asked Lydia.

Tatiana shook her head and mechanically swirled the porridge around in her bowl. “What am I supposed to tell her? ‘Hey, sorry, Dad got killed in the war and we knew that it might happen but look, now it actually has’?” Tatiana put down her porridge on the table. “No, I think it’s better that I don’t write to her or to Daniel. I think we all need to work through this on our own.”

“Unity will make you stronger.”

“I have you and Benj,” said Tatiana at last, “I don’t want to burden my family with my grief when they’re already drowning in their own. I just have less guilt when it comes to the two of you.”

“You shouldn’t have any,” Lydia said firmly, “Grief is a terrible thing, and it’s meant to be shared. You should have no guilt at all when it comes to me, alright?” She fixed her pale eyes on Tatiana until she nodded, and then added more gently, “and write to your mother. She needs to hear from someone she loves right now to remind her that there’s still hope for when this war is over that you and your brother will come home.”

Tatiana was technically older than Lydia by a few months, and both of them being youngest siblings meant that they wouldn’t have been used to bossing people around. The war, however, had tempered them into swift, assertive young women who’d cultivated voices for their patients that prevented them from arguing back. Even though she was aware that Lydia was using her nurse-voice on her, Tatiana didn’t mind. Right now, she needed to know that there were still people that cared about her.

She offered Lydia a small smile and then took another bite of her watery porridge before she asked, “Will you hand me my pen?”

 

October 19, 1917

Darling, dearest, Tatty,

I’m sorry that this letter is so late. We haven’t really been getting very much mail on the front right now. All our resources have been allocated to our last-ditch war effort. Everyone knows that we’re about to hit a peak. Things are about to go really well, or terribly wrong.

I just recently got your last letter from last month, and darling, I’m so sorry about your father. From what you and Danny say about him, your Dad was a great guy, and the world is a worse place without him. I’m upset that I never got the chance to meet him; you say that he’d be a scary father-in-law, but I hope that he would have liked me. I think I would have liked him, too, if he raised kids as great as you and Danny.

How are you now? I know that grief is a terrible thing and sometimes it can take years to get over, and I know that you must be trying so hard now to be strong, but it’s alright to feel pain. It’s alright to let yourself fall apart for a bit if you can remember to pull back together. I wish I were there right now, but Lydia will have to stand in for me. I know she’s already giving you all the support that she can (tell her that I owe her one), and I’ll be on my way to London as soon as I can.

Right now we’re somewhere in Belgium. Apparently they make great waffles, but as I’m living off of army rations (and rum), I haven’t gotten the chance to try any. I’d say that I’ll take you on our honeymoon here after this war is over, but I’m not sure if I ever want to return after this. We’ll pick somewhere else

So you tell me: if you could go anywhere in the world, where would you go?

Love love love,

Benj

 

November 8, 1917

Darling, dearest, Benj,

For all of our sakes, I hope the end of the war is soon. It feels like I’ve spent my entire life living it. That’s mental, isn’t it? It’s only been going on for the past three years, which is really only a sixth of my life, but it feels like the whole thing.

Now that it’s been nearly two months, I think that I’ve learned to adjust to what life without a father is like. I expect it’ll be difficult again when I return home and he’s not there, but everything’s changed. I’m not going to go back to live in Bryn Du after this, I’ll live with you. I think that my Dad would have liked you too. You two are pretty similar; blonde, loved cars, loving. He would have adored you.

I’ve written to my mother, and she was shaken really badly, but she’s holding it together. She can’t afford to fall apart when she’s got the entire hospital at The Rookery to run, and I offered to come back home and help her, but she insisted that I stay here. I think she needs her space to grieve, and I thought that I did too, but then Lydia happened and it turns out that I didn’t need space; I just needed someone to lean on. By the way, she says that you guys are even when the two of us get married again, if she can be a proper bridesmaid this time. I already told her yes. Don’t worry, we won’t bring her on the honeymoon, but I admit that it’ll be odd to be separated from her after three years together.

Where would I go right now if I could go anywhere? That’s easy to answer: Where are you right now?

Love love love,

Tatty

 

November 23, 1917

“Nurse Penvrane?”

“It’s Nurse Gray now, actually, remember?” Tatiana reminded the Matron as she turned around, her arms straining with all of the empty trays that she was carrying down.

“I told you I’d call you that when you were officially married,” replied the Matron with a sigh.

“I am officially married! I have been for four months! And before you say that it hasn’t been changed all my official documents – it has, I just got a letter about it three days ago,” protested Tatiana before she remembered that the woman had called her in the first place for a reason unrelated to her surname. “What is it?”

“I haven’t been able to find Nurse Eames around, but you two share a room, so would you mind giving this to her? The hospital received a letter addressed to her this morning.”

Tatiana stared at the writing on the envelope and then nodded quickly as she realized what it was. “Of course. Just tuck it in my apron and I’ll take it down with me.”

The Matron did as she asked, and then Tatiana sped off, dumping the empty trays in the kitchens with a small clatter and then rushing up to the third floor ward, where she knew Lydia often spent her breaks talking to the more lucid patients.

“But that’s not the way that the hierarchy was set up in Sparta,” Lydia was saying to an old man as she fixed his scattered belongings on the nightstand. “You’re forgetting the fact that – yes, Nurse Gray?”

“It’s from your brother,” Tatiana said breathlessly.

Lydia paused her history lesson on ancient Rome and took the offered envelope. She left without a word to the nearest closet, and Tatiana followed her apprehensively as she slit open the envelope and read the letter silently.

“Well?” said Tatiana after several long seconds.

Lydia’s fingers were stiff on the edge of the parchment. “They don’t think that Derek is a deserter. In fact, they’ve sent him to France again; this time, he says that he’s staying.”

The brunette grinned, and then faltered when Lydia continued staring at the paper. “That’s… that’s good news, isn’t it?”

Lydia was staring meditatively at the letter, and somewhere hidden within her gaze, Tatiana could see the apprehension that the other nurse might have now that there was a chance again of losing her last brother. At last, however, she looked up and offered her friend a small smile. “It is,” she agreed steadily.

 

December 1, 1917

Benj had been sleeping in a ditch when a boot kicked him. “Stop it,” he muttered wearily, face-down in the mud, “I’m tired.”

“You might want to find a better place to nap, mate, or they’ll haul your body away because they think you’re dead.”

The voice was familiar, with a hint of a smile in it. Benj rolled over and looked up to find Daniel Penvrane grinning down at him.

“When did you get here?” he asked the other soldier, grinning as Danny extended an arm to him and helped him up.

“Just a few hours ago,” replied Daniel with a shrug. “I heard when I arrived at camp that you and the rest of our old division got here last week, so I went looking for you. Excited to be back in France?”

“Ecstatic, I can’t wait to be nearly blown to bits again,” Benj answered.

Daniel snorted. “My sister will rip you to shreds for dying and then me for letting you die. Did you get to see her, by the way? Nate and I got leave at different time than everyone else did since they kept us busy planting explosives, but I had the chance to head home in August for a few days.”

“I went to London at the end of July, but I was only with her for a bit of the afternoon and the night,” Benj recalled, and then flushed slightly. “Er, I proposed. She said yes,” he looked away and added, “we eloped.”

He flinched, already awaiting Daniel’s response, because if the man had punched him for simply catching them snogging, then there was no predicting what he’d do now that he knew that Benj had married his sister and spent the night with her. To Benj’s surprise, however, Daniel’s eyebrows only lifted and then he clapped the blonde man on the back.

“I guess that makes you my brother-in-law, then. I can’t really say that I’m surprised. You’ll take good care of her, won’t you?”

“The best I can,” promised Benj.

Daniel nodded sagely, drawing himself to his full height just to serve as a reminder to Benjamin what he could do to the younger man if he didn’t hold up to that promise. “Alright, then. I expect a wedding after this is all over. My Mama will want to bake you a big cake for it.”

“A chocolate one?” replied Benj, his lips quirking up, “I think your sister would like that.”

“She would,” agreed Daniel. “Now come on, let’s get back to camp. Nate misses you and the boys, even if he insists that he doesn’t.”

“Like you’re any better. I bet you didn’t even mention the rest of us the entire time you two were off planting bombs,” joked Benj.

“I did!” protested Daniel. “You can even asked Nate; I asked about you lot just today when we got back here.”

“What’d you say?”

Daniel hesitated, and then repeated what he’d said to Nate earlier, “Do you think Max has finished all the rum already?”

 

December 25, 1917

“There you go.” The soldier settled a flimsy pink paper crown that he’d gotten from his Christmas cracker atop Josie’s faded brown hair. “You look just like a princess. Princess Penvrane. No,” he amended quickly, “Queen Penvrane.”

Josie smiled back at him and reached up to adjust the crown on her head. Her eyes swept the table; this year, there was only one long table for everyone to sit at. She had fewer patients this year, and her children hadn’t been able to come home.

Remembering last Christmas suddenly made her feel morose again. She had been so hopeful back then; her husband had been alive, her children were both present and in love, the soldiers had seemed so lively even thought they were injured. This Christmas had felt so downcast now that the Russians had pulled out of the war and the Axis troops could come back in full force on France and Belgium. Many of the soldiers, newly recovered but still so fragile that Josie would have kept them there if she could, had been sent back to war.

Fortunately (or, perhaps, unfortunately), Ethan Swifte had returned, just as cheeky as before, though slightly less injured this time around, and he brought a lively air back to the hospital.

The other soldiers there knew that Josie had lost her husband only a few months earlier, and though most of them had lost people who they’d loved in the war, they had sympathy for her. Here she was in her grand home in Wales, all on her own, running a hospital entirely on her own. Not only did they have sympathy, they had respect.

Ethan straightened his own blue paper hat and then passed a small basket of bread that reached his end of the table. Josie shook her head politely at him when he motioned to it, and he passed it along to the others at the table.

“Christmas really makes you miss the people you love, doesn’t it?” he said quietly, noticing that her gaze was distant as she stared without seeing at the front door, as if it would open and everyone lost to her would somehow return home, make some jovial excuse for why they were late, and sit down at the table beside her.

“Every time of the year makes you miss the people you love,” replied Josie, though she paused and added, “Christmas most of all.” She had years worth of family members; baking with her mother in England, marrying Orion and preparing Christmas parties in Anglesey, chiding young Daniel and Tatiana when they tried to sneak Christmas desserts before it was time for their meal. This Christmas sat like a dark raincloud over all the other sunny memories of her years.

“You’ll see them by next Christmas,” Ethan assured her. “This war’s nearly over, anyway. Everyone’s getting exhausted; not just us, but the Germans and Italians and French and everyone else too.”

“I hope you’re right,” Josie said, and though her words came off as crestfallen, she tried to make her lips lift up. This was Christmas, and she deserved to be happy – or, at least, she deserved to try and make herself feel happier.

With a little bit of renewed energy, she reached for a platter on the table and passed it to the soldier. “Pudding?”

 

January 18, 1918

“We haven’t heard from James Haddock in a while, have we?’ Tatiana asked as she laid back at on her bed and absently brushed her hair.

“No, we haven’t. Soldiers are rubbish at writing,” Lydia replied with a sigh across the room as she untied her apron and folded it up.

“You’re telling me,” replied Tatiana in amusement, “Benj’s letters are getting less frequent, and I know it’s just because it’s war and they’re pooling all of their resources into sending the troops supplies, not letters, but I haven’t had a letter from him since just before Christmas. Same with Daniel, though apparently he knows I’m married now. Gave me a proper scolding by letter for eloping, so I did the same with him.”

Lydia snickered as she sat down on her bed and began to unwind her long braid. “How long do you think this war will last?”

“Some days, it feels like it’ll never end. Others, well, the soldiers say it’s getting better. They say that we’re well on our way to victory.” Tatiana pressed her lips together for a moment. “They said that four years ago too.” She shot the other nurse a look. “Where are you going when all this is over, anyway?”

“I assume that my home’s been bombed,” admitted Lydia. “All my siblings are gone except for Derek. I’ll go where he goes, I suppose, just so that we’re together. I think we’ll stay in London, though, since it’s a nice city, although I don’t know if there’ll be that much work as a nurse once the war is over.”

“People are always going to get sick,” replied Tatiana with a shrug as she placed down her hairbrush. “The lack of war won’t change demand for nurses; besides, when the soldiers come home, all the industry and the job market will change again. We might as well take the chance.”

“And where are you going to go?” asked Lydia.

“I thought about going home to The Rookery, but I don’t know. It’ll feel a bit wrong to live there without my Dad, especially since I’m married now. I expect that Daniel and Mia will live there with my parents, and I’ll live with Benj. Maybe we’ll stay in London too.” She turned, propping herself up on her pillow. “You know, you’re always welcome to come with us. There is no way that I’m leaving you behind.”

Lydia let out a small laugh as she tucked herself under her blanket. “What about when you have kids?”

“Well, I’m adopting you now, so I’ll guess they’ll be used to it.” Tatiana grinned wickedly at her friend. “I’d like to live in a nice little house in London, one that’s painted yellow. Do they make yellow houses?”

“After the war,” Lydia said as she turned out the light, “You can do anything that you want.”

February 14, 1918

Dear Mia,

I know I apologize every time I write a letter, but I’ll do it again. They always give us our mail late, and ours always arrive there late, and on top of that, they want us to keep our letters short and succinct so they don’t take up too much room. They give us so little and ask for so much. I don’t get it.

I know that you transferred away from Anglesey a few months ago because they needed more volunteer nurses, but if you get the chance to return home, will you please check on my mother? I’m worried about her. I know she can run the hospital by herself and treat all of her patients without issue, but her letters haven’t been as frequent since Dad died. If you could let her know that she’s loved, I think she could really hear it.

We’ve all been working as hard as we can here to push the offensive. Ever since the Russians backed out, we’ve had even more work to do and I’m just exhausted. I want to come home, but I know that I won’t until the war is over. With any luck, it’ll be over soon, but wars aren’t won on sheer luck, are they?

I’ve got to head back out soon. Oh, and happy Valentine’s Day. This time next year, hopefully I’ll be home to take you somewhere nice and give you plenty of gifts. I have nearly four years worth of dates and holidays that I need to make up to you.

Love,

Daniel

 

March 3, 1918

The faces that Benj was pulling while eating his rations were entertaining the other members of his division, even if he wasn’t doing them to be funny. At last, Seth sat down next to him near the fire.

“If you imagine that you’re eating something better, it won’t taste half as bad,” he informed the young man, eating his canned beef with a straight face.

“That’ll just make you miss it more,” pointed out Max as he chewed on a cracker. “Just plug your nose and eat it.”

“I never thought that I’d miss fruit this much,” moaned Benj, pulling another face. A moment later, he plugged his nose and took a bite before he winced. “This isn’t helping.”

“You know what will help, though?” Nate said, and then in a carrying whisper, added, “Rum.”

“Shame it can’t make me any more full, though,” Benj lamented.

The sudden sound of footsteps made him turn, and he spotted a few of the generals heading in a pack together to one of the tents. The soldiers all followed them with their gazes, but none of the generals even acknowledged them as they disappeared in.

“I wonder what that’s all about,” mused Danny.

They didn’t need to wait long; soon the voices from inside the tent carried out to the soldiers waiting around the fire. Several divisions had been captured – English ones, which was why their Generals were so agitated about it. The volume of voices grew, and then there were angry interjections thrown back and forth as they made plans.

Some time later, General Jones emerged from the tent, looking pale.

“What happened?” Max asked as he past, and the General stopped and turned, his eyes landing on Benj for a long second before he took in the rest of the soldiers.

“Boys, you better come with me.”

They followed him into the tent he’d just emerged from, and the other commanders all looked up.

“Why’ve you brought them in here? They’re just privates,” General Swifte said to the other man.

“We need a small group of them, don’t we? These five are loyal and they work well together and respond to my orders excellently.” General Jones shot a look back at the men before he turned back to the others in the room. “May I proceed?”

There was a murmur of assent, and he turned back to the soldiers.

“We’ve just received word that six of our divisions were captured this morning, and it’s essential that we get them back,” General Jones started as he turned back to the five young soldiers. “There are a lot of high-ranking officials among them. It’s important that we free all these men and as soon as possible before they’re interrogated. I need a small group of people who can avoid being seen to go in and free them.”

“Why us?” asked Seth in surprise. “And wouldn’t we have to cross over no-man’s land?”

“No, no,” General Jones shook his head quickly. “They’ve taken up residence in the nearby town, but they’re keeping a very sharp look-out. They know that we’re going to try and take back our men.”

“This is a trap,” Max stated.

The General hesitated, and then nodded. “That’s why I can only send in a few of you. You’ll have to liberate them as soon as you can.”

“Which divisions?” asked Benj, and the General averted his eyes. The man didn’t even need to say another word, but Benj felt the need to ask again, “Which ones?”

“Divisions 83 through 88,” General Swifte said from the side, and Benj flinched as if he’d been hit.

“What?” Nate asked, ever alert.

“Tommy’s in the 83rd. My brother,” he explained, his head swimming. “He’s a prisoner?”

General Jones nodded solemnly.

“You can’t let this boy go out there, he’ll be too emotional. This is too close to home for him,” argued General Swifte as he thrust a hand in Benj’s direction.

“It’s too close to home for everyone,” replied General Jones, his eyebrows lowering over his eyes. “Gray can do this, can’t you, private?”

For a moment, the rush of blood in his ears made everything else incomprehensible. Benj had known that there was a chance his brother and father and even he could die out there in the war, but it had never sunk in until now. If he didn’t help liberate his brother, Tommy and all of the others could be tortured and apprehended for information. They could be killed. Benj lifted his head and nodded. “I can do it,” he said more confidently. “When do we leave?”

 

March 3, 1918

That night, the five soldiers crept through the night and snuck onto a German supply truck that took them into the nearest town. The other soldiers were silent in the dark, communicating through hand gestures and mouthing words at each other, but Benj was quiet. He only listened and nodded his understanding. His heart thudded away inside his chest as the truck slowed and the door in the front opened.

They stowed away in boxes that were carried into a building; by the smell, Benj decided that this must be an old hospital. He was dropped to the ground none too gently, and concealed his pain by clamping his lips together tightly to prevent the sound of a squeak in surprise from escaping them. After several minutes, all of the boxes had been unloaded and the men moved on, and finally he was able to pull himself out of the box.

“I’m disgusting,” moaned Seth as he emerged from a box that had clearly been filled with canned beef, some of which had open cans that had splashed all over him.

Benj clapped a hand to his shoulder. “Just imagine that you’re wearing a better cologne, it won’t smell half as bad.”

Danny picked up his gun and then opened the door. He peered around the corner, and then nodded at the other soldiers, who followed him out.

Prison cells were not difficult to find. They were almost always in the basement, something which Max noted with a mutter as they disappeared down the stairs and into the prison cells.

“Where are the guards?” Nate asked one of the prisoners as they rushed in.

The man in the cell immediately sprung up and jerked his head at the stairs. “They took all our generals with them and went upstairs. Bigger fish to fry.”

“Where’s the 83rd?” Benj asked, and a group of soldiers murmured that they were the 83rd Division. “Private Thomas Gray, is he with you?”

“Him and the other half of our division are up there with the Generals. They wanted to keep them as collateral, in case the officers didn’t talk,” one of the soldiers explained.

Benj knew what that meant. One of the few things worse than being tortured yourself was watching the men who followed your orders and who always did as you asked when they followed you into war get tortured in your place. His stomach flip-flopped, but he managed a nod.

Meanwhile, Max had already begun to bust open the cells. “Shoddy metalwork,” he explained to Danny’s surprised expression. “You just have to press the locks in three places – here, here, and here,” he pointed on a lock and then pressed them hard until it popped open and the soldiers inside the cell poured out.

“We have to get the soldiers upstairs out too,” Nate added, and started up the stairs, “Danny with me.”

“What about me?” Benj complained as he freed another cell of soldiers.

“We think there are explosives involved. We want to get everyone out before the place blows, since they’ll be onto us soon. You know where to meet us,” Danny replied as he ran up the stairs behind Nate.

The other three freed the rest of the soldiers and led them out of the back door (the lock needed to be shot before the door could be broken, but Benj suspected that with Danny and Nate upstairs, the German soldiers already knew they were there).

They were halfway to the rendezvous point when they heard the sound of footsteps behind them. The soldiers immediately swung around, guns in hand, to fend off an attack, but instead they only saw Danny and Nate rushing behind them.

“Where are the officers?” asked Max.

“It’s a bigger trap than we thought,” Nate explained between labored breaths as he ran, “They expected a much larger rescue mission. The entire upstairs of the building is rigged to explode, and it’s completely abandoned! The only people in there were our soldiers!”

“So you can’t get them out?”

“The stairs to the upper levels have explosives. We couldn’t get up them, it was a trap!”

“So you mean that the generals and Tommy are just –“

Benj was cut off from what he was saying by the sound of an explosion. The men all ducked, and even the fleeing soldiers paused to hit the ground. When Benj looked back, the hospital building was in flames. He straightened and then stood motionless, his blue eyes wide as he stared at the wreckage and the flames billowing out of the top of the building.

“Benj, the rest of the city will have woken up because of that. They’ll be on our tails soon. We have to go,” Seth urged him.

The blonde man was still numb. He turned and allowed his friends to drag him off into the night. Unlike earlier, his heart wasn’t thudding in his chest anymore. It felt as if it had stopped.

 

March 12, 1918

“I’m sorry, Lyds.”

And as usual, their roles reversed and returned in an eternal dance of yin and yang. Lydia wasn’t crying, but Tatiana was sure that she had been earlier; she’d only gotten there a minute ago, when she’d emerged breathless back to their room. One of the other nurses had told her that they’d seen Lydia receiving a letter and had seen her leave the room to read it (a common enough practice), but then another nurse said that she’d all but ran back to her room.

Tatiana, of course, had followed as soon as she could.

“He finally wrote back?” The brunette asked, and the blonde who was seated on her bed nodded in reply.

“Not good news?” Tatiana guessed.

“From him? It was great news. He said they were making great advancements.” She folded the letter in her hands, her back as straight as ever even as she averted her gaze from her friend.

Tatiana didn’t say anything, but her questioning gaze was enough; Lydia handed her the next letter that she’d received in the mail that day without another word.

Dear Miss Eames,

You are being notified as you are the only listed contact that James Haddock had, taken from his letters of correspondence. We deeply regret to inform you that on the night of March 3rd, Private James Haddock of the 83rd Infantry Division was killed as a prisoner of war. Our deepest sympathies….

“Oh, Lyds,” Tatiana sighed as she put down the paper and then sat gingerly down on her best friend’s bed. “I’m so sorry. It will get better, I promise.”

Lydia’s gaze was still fixed on the window as she peered out to their view of London. “Yes,” she agreed, “It will, but not yet. We have work to do in the meantime.” She rose, then, and reached for her apron, but Tatiana stopped her.

“You know you have time to grieve,” she reminded the blonde.

“I do,” agreed Lydia, “but grieving won’t win us the war. I have to do my part.”

Everyone dealt with grief differently. For Tatiana, who’d been with Lydia through her course of much of it, she was used to this being the first step. She nodded, and turned to help Lydia tie the back of her apron so they could return to their ward.

 

March 13, 1918

Darling, dearest, Benj,

I’m so sorry to hear about your brother. I know you loved him, and if I had ever had the chance to meet him, I would have loved him too. You mustn’t give up hope, though. You told me that the world was a worse off place without my father when he died, and I’ll tell you that the same is true of your brother because you each other, and the world is always a bit worse off without love.

Lydia heard about James, too, and she keeps pretending that she’s fine but I know that she isn’t. It’s just her tactic when she’s grieving, and I’m here to support her. I want you to know that if I could be there to support you too, I would, but for now, you’ll needs your friends. Don’t push them away, darling, they mean well and they’re only trying to help. So please, promise me that you won’t, alright? If you fall apart, you can rely on them to help you put yourself back together.

There’s really nothing new to report from the hospital; we’re still doing the same things that we always do here. Healing people, talking to soldiers, trying to do our best to end the war in our own way. I know you’re doing the same there too.

Take care of yourself.

Love love love,

Tatty

 

July 31, 1918

Darling, dearest, Tatty,

Happy first wedding anniversary, my love. I should have been in London with you today (because as selfish as I am with wanting you with me, I couldn’t possibly wish these trenches on you). I told the boys that it was our anniversary and they sang me a song that was essentially Happy Birthday except they replaced the word birthday with anniversary. It was a true original masterpiece. I’ll sing it to you next year for our anniversary.

Your letters are coming in more regularly now; we’ve been getting regular supplies and shipments. With the Americans in the war now, we’ve been getting more supplies and letters. I even got to eat something that wasn’t canned beef or scones or crackers!

I say this every letter, but the war is almost over. We’ve been losing a lot of men, yes, but we’re getting closer and closer to winning. This is almost over, and when it is, I’ll come back to London and sweep you off your feet and we can make up for all the lost time.

Love love love,

Benj

 

September 28, 1918

“Ready to go into No-man’s land?” Benj said, forcing brightness into his tone.

Max was fixing his helmet. “No,” he said gruffly.

“And that’s why they call it No-man’s land,” Benj informed Seth cheerfully.

The other young man rolled his eyes and pushed him, and Benj pushed him back, and then Max forced himself in between them.

“We could die today,” he reminded them.

“So it’s our last chance to be childish then, isn’t it?” replied Seth, and Max opened his mouth to reply, thought better of it, and closed it with a reluctant nod.

Nate and Danny returned from where they had been checking the explosives and gave the other three a look. “Are you lot ready?” Danny asked, giving them a quick sweep as he fastened on his own helmet.

“No,” Seth replied shortly.

“Like I said, that’s why they call it No-man’s land,” said Benj again, and when Danny let out a snicker, he gave Seth a smug look. “See, it is funny!”

“It wasn’t funny the first time, and it’s even less amusing the second,” Seth said gruffly, but he cracked a small smile at Benj from the corner of his mouth anyway.

There was a whistle, and General Jones walked by and gave them all a look. “You ready to go back out there, boys?”

There was a general murmur of dissatisfied assent that the general pretended to ignore as he looked over them. “The objective is simple,” he added.

“Win the war,” Nate piped up cheerfully.

General Jones nodded but continued on without missing a beat. “I want you boys looking out for each other, okay? We’re so close, and I don’t want to lose any of you.”

It seemed that over time, the general had actually come to care for them. His eyes settled on Benj as if remembering the last time that he had sent the young soldier off on a mission, but there was no enmity or even regret in Benj’s clear blue eyes as he nodded back in reply to the general.

The war had been long and bloody so far, and it was about to get bloodier. Running across no-man’s land was a terrible, horrible, tragic idea, but they were so close to winning the war. They had to break the Hindenberg line now, or risk not making it back home victorious.

It was now or never.

The men picked up their weapons, shared one last look, and ran off.

 

October 5, 1918

A long, bloody week had passed. Benj definitely had at least a broken rib and perhaps another broken arm, but he was soldiering on to the best of his abilities. At some point, he had lost all of the other soldiers he was there with and now he had regrouped with a random assortment of other soldiers. They were Allied soldiers, but he found himself in the company of Americans and Frenchmen and all manner of other people. He didn’t have his boys with him.

The battle, however was turning in their tides now. They’d made such great advances over the past few days that Benj knew that they were winning the war; this time, he could actually believe it.

Right now, however, he wanted to focus on finding his friends.

“Seth Allen, about this tall?” he asked, gesturing, but the soldier who passed shook his head. “Danny Penvrane,” he added again, “Really tall, probably has explosives with him, looks like the type of guy who’d punch you in the face for snogging his sister?” There was another shake of the soldier’s head and Benj simply nodded before continuing on.

By some miracle – really, he thought, he had had too many of those already with where Daniel Penvrane was concerned, considering that he’d spent a very long time in his company without every realizing that he was Tatty’s brother – he finally located the man.

“What’s wrong?” he asked, crouching into the mud. There was a patch dried onto his face and both blood and mud in his long blonde curls, but he’d worry about that later. Right now, he had his brother-in-law to be concerned about.

“I’ve been shot.” Daniel let out a small, sharp laugh and then thought better of it as he winced and drew up a hand to cover the wound on his side, near his ribs.

“Come on, let’s get you out of here. I think they’ve set up medic tents in the back.”

The war was still raging around them, but it seemed to be in somewhat slow motion now. There was a finality to it, an inevitability that the Allies were going to win. Both sides knew it, and Benj felt as if they were merely going through the motions.

He gripped Daniel’s hand in his own and tried to pull him to his feet, but the older man groaned, and Benj had to pull harder. Daniel couldn’t even stand; along with a gunshot wound, his helmet was dented and he definitely had a broken leg. There was blood all over the back of his uniform and Benj was too scared to ask if it was Daniel’s or someone else’s. He thought he already had a feeling, though, as Daniel took a step forward and nearly collapsed.

“Whoa,” Benj caught the older soldier and nearly staggered over himself at the weight. “How much blood have you lost?”

“Well, I didn’t really have a measuring cup at the handy to check,” Daniel replied dryly, and then coughed. The ground splashed with red, and Benj’s stomach suddenly sloshed. If he’d had anything beside meager rations the last week, he’d probably be emptying the contents of his stomach.

He had to steel himself. His wife had seen much worse at the hospital – hell, he had seen much worse at the hospitals that he had been to when he was a patient. He had to be strong right now. Benj looped an arm around Daniel’s shoulders and straightened him back up.

“What are you doing?” Danny asked.

“I’m getting you to the medics. Now come on, it’s not too far.” It actually was quite far, but he wasn’t going to mention that to keep the other man’s morals up.

Daniel Penvrane, however, was a man who did not want to be saved. “I’m bleeding out, Benj, and I’ve been shot and I’ve got too many broken bones. I won’t make it to the tent, and if I do, I’m sure I’m beyond the point of fixing. Save your energy for someone you can save.”

“You are someone I can save,” Benj said firmly, “Your sister will kill me if I don’t bring you back home, and that aside, I won’t forgive myself if I actually listened to you and let you die out here.”

“Would you tell my Mama and Tatty and Mia – “

“I’m not telling them anything, because I am not a messenger, and you are going to tell them yourself,” Benj said firmly, all but dragging Daniel to the tent. His own ribs were in pain right now, but he had a job to do and he wasn’t going to let Daniel done.

“Just leave me here, Benj.”

“I’ve already lost a brother,” Benj said grimly, “I’m not losing another.”

Daniel’s gaze darted to the side at the man, and finally, he began to put one step in front of the other, slowly but surely. There was the screech of whistling bombshells and the distant sound of gunfire in the background, but Benj’s eyes were only focused on his mission – keeping the two of them alive. They began their slow walk down the battlefield in silence.

 

November 18, 1918

Tatiana didn’t care that she was still a nurse and so many of her co-workers were there. She didn’t care that the train station was completely crowded with people. She didn’t even care that it looked like half the soldiers had walked straight out from the trenches without taking a bath. She took one look at Benjamin Gray and fell right into his arms.

“I’ve missed you,” she said in between pressing kisses to his cheeks and hands and jaw and lips and forehead and every other part of him that she could reach.

Just like always, he was doing the same to her, and when they finally broke apart for breath, he leaned his forehead against hers. “I’ve been away for too long.”

“You have,” she agreed, “How are you? How is everyone? How do you feel?”

“My ribs were recently broken,” Benj said, and Tatiana moved to step away from where she was pressed to his front, but he stopped her. “You know what’s not broken?”

“Don’t say it.”

“My heart.”

“Oh, you sap,” Tatiana scoffed, but she drew closer to him, broken ribs or not, and ran her fingers through his long blonde curls. Unfettered by a soldier’s helmet, they were long and golden, and she admired them for a moment as he spoke.

“Your brother’s alright, he’s recovering well. Max is still recovering from his wounds, but he’ll be alright, and Seth and Nate – well, they’re somewhere around here.” He looked up then and peered around the train station, but in the crowd of people reuniting with their loved ones, he didn’t see them. He shrugged and turned back to the nurse. “Where’s Lydia?”

“She was here,” Tatiana looked around too and then turned back to the man, “but she’s probably found Derek by now. I’ll see her later. In the meantime, you need to bathe.”

“I don’t smell that bad, do I?” He sniffed the front of his uniform gingerly.

“You are ever fragrant, my love, but I think it’s best you bathe.” Tatiana let him wrap an arm around her side as she led him out.

“Where are we going?” he asked.

“The hospital for now,” Tatiana answered. “You’re staying in my room. The Matron knows I’m married, she can’t do anything about it – and Lydia says that she wants to stay up all night out here in some cafe and talk to Derek. She misses him.”

“Are you going to keep me up all night too?” Benj questioned.

Tatiana reddened and glanced up at him with wide hazel eyes.

“Not like that!” Benj defended suddenly, reddening himself. “Well, maybe like that if you want,” he amended, “but I meant talking. We’ve been married nearly a year and a half and this is the first time I’ve seen you since our wedding. We have plenty of catching up to do.”

“And we’ll do it,” agreed Tatiana, a twinkle in her hazel eyes. “But we’ve got the rest of our lives to do it. No war is going to tear you away. You’re home now.”

He looked down at the brunette and planted a kiss on the top of her head, wrapping an arm around her tighter. He felt older than his nineteen years, suddenly, but he was home now, and all the armor he’d put on was beginning to strip away. She was right. He was home.

 

July 31, 1919

Plans had been made, details had been seen to, and everything important had already been arranged. Benjamin and Tatiana Gray arrived in Paris in July after realizing that they’d been married for two entire years and yet they still hadn’t been on a honeymoon.

They left behind their tiny yellow house in London (after the war, everything had become cheaper, and soldiers and their sweethearts had been able to get married and move). Tatiana was still a nurse at the same hospital, but she no longer saw as many war patients. Benjamin had taken up a job at a mechanic’s. Daniel and Mia had moved back to The Rookery with Josie, and any day now, Tatiana was expecting a letter from her brother informing her that Tatty now had a little niece or nephew.

She’d already left her house in good hands (Lydia’s, who still worked at the hospital but now had a new, unmarried roommate), and Benj had written off letters to his soldier friends to forward all post to Paris for some time.

They’d arrived in the hotel a few days ago and had spent quite a bit of time sightseeing. Paris was beautiful, and nothing like the decrepit French towns or the trenches that Benj had been in during the war, his only other experience with the French countryside.

They’d taken strolls by the river and tried pastries at tiny cafes and mispronounced the names so badly that they’d been thrown out. They’d danced under the stars and made up for every one of the days they’d been apart and now they were at bliss. The war was over, and it wasn’t going to return again. They were safe.

The hotel that they were in was the host to quite a few artists in the café downstairs. Tatiana had discussed painting with a rather excitable Spanish artist for a good deal the night before, and now she found herself seated on the couch beside a writer, an American.

“I have to say, Scott, writing a book to win a girl’s heart sounds like a lot of effort, but I’m sure that she’ll really appreciate it when you get to writing it. It’s the ultimate romantic gesture. This book’s about your life?” Tatiana was saying to the man as Benj returned with a drink for him and a glass of water for her.

The author was talking about how it was meant to be an autobiography and how he hoped it would be enough for him to win the love of his life back, but she was momentarily distracted by a feeling of flopping in her stomach that made her look down.

The young brunette stretched a hand over the swell of her abdomen, visible under the dresses she wore now even if under nurse’s apron usually kept it concealed pretty well. Benj noticed her motion and gave her a smile, pulling her hand up to press a kiss to it as his eyes skimmed the bump on her midsection.

They’d already thought of names. Clara, Isabelle, or Cecilia if it was a girl. And if it was a boy, well –

Tatiana glanced at the author, who was lamenting that he didn’t even know where to start or what to name his main character, and then she grinned.

“Have you considered Amory?”

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