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When The Lights Go On Again

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Like a number of Southern families, the Chapels had their skeletons. One of their poorly-kept secrets was that Christine's Grandmère had been married before in her youth, to a musician. Clarissa's family had disowned her when she ran off and eloped in a fit of romanticism. When the musician lived up to the negative stereotypes of his profession, she had the marriage dissolved but was too proud to go home, so she supported herself with sewing and worked at a hospital to learn nursing, as it was one of the only professions open to women other than teaching in those times, and she preferred the sick and dying to rooms full of screaming children.

It was in the hospital that Clarissa met Hank Chapel, who was a mine worker with a decent income and a kind heart. After confessing her impetuous youthful indiscretion and agreeing never to mention it again, they were married and lived quietly for several years. As the century turned, Hank took a business risk, investing in the newborn oil industry in Louisiana, and reaped immense rewards within a few short years, exploding the family's wealthy almost overnight. That was enough to absolve Clarissa's previous sins in the eyes of her family, evidently, because the couple began to move in the high society circles of New Orleans swiftly thereafter.

They had three sons but Grandmère took all six of her granddaughters in hand and impressed upon them the need to be modern, independent women, able to support themselves. "You never know," Grandmère warned them all. It was the Chapel family mantra. It proved helpful when Hank died of a heart attack at a young age, leaving his oldest son, Patterson, to run the company with his mother's help.

Oil never stopped flowing even during the Great Depression, so the family was sheltered from the economic disaster in the country. As a girl Christine and her brother Mike spent Christmases helping collect toys for poor children and watching their family cook prepare dishes for Mama to take to the church social to be shared with the less fortunate. Daddy made a point of hiring extra men to do cleaning and yard work around the house and Grandmère made sure the family didn't do anything too extravagant. But Christine got new dresses for school and there were still gifts under the Christmas tree, if not as many as when she was little.

Sadly when Christine was just sixteen, Grandmère slipped away one night unexpectedly. The doctors said it was a stroke, that she hadn't suffered. It was the first time death had entered Christine's small world and she would never be quite the same again.

Much like her grandmother, Christine didn't have the patience for teaching and opted for nursing instead. She graduated from her university course with top marks in the spring of 1939 and despite her mother's reluctance about the effects of such a career on her marriage prospects, Christine went to work at the local hospital. Her degree allowed her to become a managing nurse in a few months. She was quick to pick up the nuances of different nursing roles. Assisting in a surgery was reserved for the most experienced and skilled nurses because they had to be able to anticipate the doctor's needs. Administering anesthesia and dealing with blood transfusions also required advanced skills. Christine worked hard to master them all, because a Chapel always tried to be the best at whatever she did.

Two years passed and her mother asked repeatedly about the various unmarried doctors at the hospital and made pointed remarks about women being too picky and ending up old maids. Christine rolled her eyes and kept on with her work, although privately her mother's comments worried her. She'd made extensive plans in her head about what her life would be like. She knew the kind of dress she wanted at her wedding, what kind of house she wanted to live in, what kind of china she wanted and so on. She loved her parents but she wanted to run her own house, have it decorated to her taste rather than her mother's. In her mind she had an elaborate set of lists of things she did and did not want, up to and including a tall, handsome and well-educated husband, who would not be interested in her family's money, who would respect her and treat her like a lady.

Christine went out with more than one man during those years, some doctors, some not, but none of them were quite right. One of Grandmère's other mottos was "Never settle," and Christine was determined to achieve her plan and nothing less, so she forged ahead with her work. But disappointment gnawed at her with every unpleasant supper or trip to the motion pictures that passed.

Then she met Dr. Roger Korby, who fit her plans perfectly.

Christine's father and uncles were listening to the war news from Europe and debating it at length but in July of 1941, there were more urgent matters to consider nearer to home. Warm weather brought with it the nightmare of every parent in the country: a polio outbreak.

Uncle Jackson's two youngest children both contracted the terrible disease. Lucy, Christine's youngest cousin, was gravely ill. Christine had always been attached to the shy child and she spent her free hours at the house, caring for the little girl. Lucy's condition worsened one particularly sweltering night. Her parents were more occupied with their son, who was recovering already from the illness, but Christine's trained eye noticed that Lucy was pale and not breathing well enough. In frustration she called her brother Mike and had him drive her to the nearest hospital, Lucy bundled up in Christine's lap.

Dr. Korby was a specialist on infectious diseases and it was their great good fortune that he was working late that night. He swiftly ordered Lucy into the hospital's iron lung apparatus – a grisly name for the machine that allowed polio patients to keep breathing.

Christine's actions saved Lucy's life, according to Dr. Korby, who at first mistook her for Lucy's mother. Once that was straightened out, he praised her resolve and quick-thinking and managed to get her name and her parents' names in between seeing his patients and tending to Lucy. The little girl had suffered badly and one of her legs would never heal entirely; she would limp and need a cane to walk, but she would survive.

It did not entirely surprise Christine that a few days after Lucy was home from the hospital, she received a request from Dr. Korby to call on her at home. He arrived with a bouquet of flowers and a ready supply of flattery for Christine and her mother. He complimented Christine on her nursing skills again, agreeing with her father that it was healthy for a woman to have skills to support herself. "Of course, Christine is so pretty I doubt she'll have need of such a thing," Roger said with a smile in her direction.

Christine smiled back politely but his words made her bristle. As if all a woman could do in the world was be pretty and marry! This was the twentieth century, for heaven's sake! Even President Roosevelt had a woman in his Cabinet.

She said nothing, though, not with her mother and father in the room.

Roger courted her for several months. He was distinguished-looking and tall, which was important as Christine had inherited her mother's height. Although he was a number of years older, he treated Christine courteously, and even inquired about her work and her patients from time to time. He had the right political views, went to the right church and had a suitable outlook on marriage and children for Christine's plans. Roger was from a well-respected if not exactly elite family. His mother was still alive and after an appropriate amount of time, Christine was invited to have tea with her.

It was rather obvious that Mrs. Korby's approval was important and Christine spent considerable time on her dress and her hair before the meeting. Roger's mother was not precisely the warmest person, and Christine felt a sneaking suspicion that Mrs. Korby would not have gotten along with her own Grandmère (who had occasionally indulged in some unladylike "salty language"), but Roger informed her that evening that his mother had pronounced her "lovely and charming."

Everything seemed to be proceeding according to Christine's plan. Now she knew why she'd had to suffer through so many miserable evenings. True, her father and Mike had not taken much liking to Roger, but her mother was thrilled at the thought of a doctor in the family. The Chapel clan had oil men and lawyers aplenty. Every Southern family needed at least one doctor.

When Roger proposed it surprised no one, including her. He presented her with the ring while they were eating supper at a small, private club in the city. "If we announce it before Christmas, you'll have time to plan a spring wedding, Chrissy. I know how much you love fresh flowers. I'm sure you'll want them for the church."

She did love flowers and despite his occasional moments of superciliousness, she cared for Roger. He fit into her plans perfectly. She accepted the ring.

He drove her home and then walked her to the door like a gentleman. In the dim light he reached for her hands and said solemnly, "Christine, may I kiss you?"

She nodded and he leaned in and pressed his lips to hers gently. Christine had kissed two other boys, though she would carry that information to the grave before she would tell her mother. Both of those kisses had been exciting. Kissing Roger felt more like sealing a promise. There was no wild rush of emotion that she saw in the motion pictures when the hero and heroine finally kissed at the end of an adventure.

Of course, they were engaged now, so this kiss was allowed. Unlike her previous dates, there was nothing illicit about kissing one's fiancé. That could explain the lack of excitement. Or so she told herself.

It was Friday evening, December 5th, and Christine lay awake long into the night thinking solemnly. She was an engaged woman now. Her whole life was about to change. All the plans she had made for herself were finally within her grasp.

On Sunday night, the whole world changed.

*~*~*~*~*

Like thousands of others, Christine went to the Army recruiting office in New Orleans within a few days of Pearl Harbor. The women were being processed separately from the men, who stood in long lines waiting for the chance to join in striking back at the Japanese and the Nazis in Europe. As soon as she mentioned her nursing training, the young uniformed woman offered Christine a pile of papers to sign on the spot. She would have the rank of lieutenant in the Nurse Corps because she already had her degree, and the Army was understandably in need of trained personnel.

Roger was displeased with Christine's actions. He had already contacted the Army himself and was told he would be called on as soon as they had need of doctors with his expertise. Christine received instructions the week before Christmas to report to Baltimore in January. The Army was arranging a crash course in military procedures for trained nurses. She would then spend time training the volunteers who hadn't completed school yet.

Her mother wasn't thrilled about these developments, but she said nothing aloud, just fussed over packing Christine's things and complained that brown was a horrible shade to wear with Christine's complexion. Mike and cousin Joe, Uncle Henry's eldest boy, had both enlisted in the Navy; all the other cousins were too young yet. Her father was already taking steps to convert the oil company to a war footing. But Christine departed first, after tearful goodbyes with her mother and aunts and cousins, and a special kiss from Lucy. Her father kissed her forehead and told her that her Grandmère would be proud of her.

Roger embraced her, pecked her on the cheek and told her to be safe and that he would come to Baltimore to check up on her as soon as he could.

Despite herself, as the train rolled out of the station Christine felt a surge of excitement. She was not eager to see a war or any fighting but the truth was, she was far more energized than she had ever been, even when Roger proposed. This had never been part of her plan, but her plans seemed less important right now. She had never been farther from home than Baton Rouge, never expected to travel alone like this. As the train left the station, she felt herself on the brink of the whole world.

*~*~*~*~*

The train took her to Baltimore and many other places in the next year. After completing her Army course in Baltimore, Christine visited training facilities in Washington, various places in Virginia and the Carolinas, Philadelphia and finally New York and Boston. Over and over she covered the basics of nursing and Army practices to groups of fresh faced young women who were recruited to the Army Nursing Corps via the Red Cross. Christine had never been involved in anything quite like this before. The women's society groups at home were mostly about prestige and social standing, with the actual charity coming in second. Now she was part of an entire organization of women with its own history and its own officer corps, joined together in a common purpose.

She made one particular friend, a tiny woman named Janice Rand who was from a small town in Vermont. Janice was dainty, something Christine with her height had never managed to be. She had red-brown hair and big brown eyes and when they first met, Christine had been slightly worried how the girl coped with the stress of nursing. They were still in Baltimore at the time, and a fire had broken out in the next building. Christine and Janice both abandoned their classes of students to run to the scene and while absorbed in halting the bleeding of a man lying on the sidewalk, Christine observed tiny Lieutenant Rand commandeer half a dozen men and organize them to begin searching the burning building's lower floors for casualties until the fire department could arrive. After that, Christine ceased worrying about Janice's capabilities.

She wrote home, teasing her father about befriending Yankees and filled her letters with small stories of her students and the sights of the east coast cities, avoiding discussion of the pangs of homesickness, the frustration with the repetition of her job and the occasional loneliness. She sent postcards to Lucy as regularly as she could manage. As fall turned to winter, word began to trickle down through the ranks that new orders were coming. America had taken most of the year to build up her strength; the time was at hand for the country to enter the fighting in earnest. Fully trained nurses would be needed in the European theater more than in the States running classes.

There was no time to get home for Christmas in 1942 and Christine was fairly maudlin about this state of affairs, though she knew it was selfish. She'd never spent a Christmas anywhere but at home and missing the New Year's Eve family party was a wrench. She'd resigned herself to spending the holiday at the hospital in Boston, to free up some of the other girls who had relatives or sweethearts nearby, but Janice finagled leave and train tickets and took Christine home to Vermont with her. Despite her melancholy Christine couldn't help but be charmed by a real New England Christmas. It was like something out of a Saturday Evening Post drawing, with more snow than she'd ever imagined, roaring fires and the Christmas tree sparkling in the darkness.

Janice's four younger brothers – the oldest was already in the Navy and serving in the Atlantic – were a rambunctious lot, and dealing with their antics distracted Christine from moping too much, though the boys reminded her of Mike and Joe, who were now in the Pacific working as mechanics for the Navy. Roger arranged to call her long distance from Atlanta, where he was working for the Army on how to contain the spread of malaria and other contagious diseases most effectively. The call only lasted a few minutes but hearing his voice nearly made her cry. Home seemed terribly far away.

Within a matter of weeks, the distance got much worse. Christine was decidedly unimpressed with the miserable gray of the North Atlantic as the hospital ship slogged its way to England. The water was dull and the sky was dark, utterly unlike the sparkling blue of her Gulf of Mexico. Thankfully, she'd spent enough time on her family's boats that the seasickness didn't bother her, but a number of the other staff were not so lucky.

In between caring for their ill comrades and trying not to think about the risk of submarine attacks, Janice scouted the other nurses in their company. She reported grimly to Christine midway through the trip that every nurse on the ship had surgical experience. One did not need to be a senior officer to understand the significance of this. The Nursing Corps had been part of the North African campaign during the fall. The Army had set up a new chain of operations, with mobile hospitals being placed near active combat areas to triage the wounded more effectively and sort out who needed to be sent away from the front for extensive care. The chain of evacuation was already producing excellent results and limiting fatalities, but it meant nurses were closer to combat than they had ever been before.

Wherever the Allies were set to strike occupied Europe next, it seemed likely they were going to be there.

England in the spring of 1943 was not a cheerful place, despite the warming weather. The war had been dragging on for four years now with no end in sight. Though the worst of the German bombing attacks on the island had ended, there were still raids and rampant evidence of the damages done by the Blitz. Christine and Janice and their company got no chance to see London at that point; they were sorted onto a train and whisked north to an air base, arriving as night was falling. They had just stepped out of the cars when Christine heard a buzzing noise that would become painfully familiar in the following months.

The air raid sirens went off and the captain in charge began yelling and pushing them toward a large set of double doors. Christine ran, clutching her duffle bag because she had no time to set it down. They staggered down a set of stairs into a dark basement, where people were milling around in disarray. The addition of the entire company of nurses made for quite the crowd when the doors above were finally shut.

Distantly they heard the thump of explosions. In later raids the bombs would strike much closer, but for the moment it was terrifying enough. Janice grasped Christine's hand tightly and they stood still, straining like everyone else to hear over the loud beating of their hearts. It seemed hours passed before the raid ended. Someone climbed the stairs and looked out before shouting down the all-clear.

The captain, a Scottish man with blonde hair and a weary face, shook his head and said, "Well, ladies, welcome to England."

*~*~*~*~*

Christine had learned that the one constant in the Army was daily routine. England was no different. Most of her time when not at the base infirmary was taken up with classes on setting up and dismantling field and evacuation hospitals. The nurses were responsible for overseeing the orderlies and medics through the process, as well as seeing to the safety and comfort of the patients. Janice and a young Irish girl from Boston named Gaila made jokes about how it always seemed to be the women who ended up responsible for everything.

Then there were hospital shifts, where she occasionally saw injuries coming in from the bombing raids. The base they were stationed at housed a fighter squadron, not the massive B-17 bombers, so there weren't that many injuries. A fighter pilot who got hurt likely wasn't making it back to base at all.

The pilots weren't the easiest men to get along with, and they made for difficult patients. The head nurse of the base warned them that the type of man suited for flying a fighter was by necessity independent and stubborn, and dealing with them required a firm hand. Christine and Janice both started insisting on being addressed by rank rather than "Nurse" to help remind both the patients - and the male doctors - that they were officers in the Army. Privately Janice wasn't sure it did much good and the third time a patient tried to put a hand on her backside, Christine had not only corrected the man's form of address but stomped on his smallest toes in retaliation. Her patience only extended so far.

The days were filled with inspections and drills, along with air raids. In between duty she borrowed books from the small library and spent time sewing with many of the other nurses. And she pored over letters from home. Roger was in the Pacific now, using his expertise in infectious diseases to help the struggle with malaria, and his letters had become much less frequent and shorter. She could hardly blame him. Her mother wrote that Mike had come down with malaria already but recovered. He and Joe were safe, for now, on a ship repairing airplanes rather than being in the thick of the fighting. Christine's cousin Pat, Uncle Jackson's oldest son, had joined the Army on his eighteenth birthday and was in training for the European theater. Janice was waiting anxiously for news from home regarding her brother. He'd been listed as missing after his ship had been attacked.

As part of the morale boosting efforts, the Army held a dance either on their base or another one nearby almost every weekend. They brought in women from the local towns; otherwise the poor nurses would be hopelessly outnumbered by potential dance partners. Christine usually avoided the base dances. She spent most of her days on her feet in the hospital. The last thing she needed was to have her weary toes stepped on by fumbling boys, particularly when they frequently took liberties with where they placed their hands.

However one Saturday in May she had enjoyed a day off from both the hospital and classes, and Janice said she needed a "wingman" at the party, as she was hoping to see the young captain she'd met earlier in the week. For all that Janice could be a martinet at work, she'd already gone through two romances with young soldiers back in the States that had ended with her in tears, crying on Christine's shoulder. Growing up in her conservative little town with her time mostly occupied by family, Janice was hopelessly naïve about men in many ways.

And this Jim Kirk character Janice was raving about, well, Christine had heard enough base gossip about him to know that Janice needed protection for her own good. Christine might not be a woman of the world, but one did not grow up in New Orleans without learning a few things, especially with a Grandmère like Christine's.

The dances depressed Christine a little, truth be told. Someone playing records at top volume in the badly decorated mess hall only reminded her of the parties in New Orleans, where people in fine clothes whirled about under the ornate old chandeliers in ballrooms of the grand houses in the city. Those memories led to thoughts of Roger, far away in the Pacific, and the ring that weighed heavily around her neck under her blouse. She pushed the thought away. She was here for Janice, and judging by the way her friend had just perked up, Christine was finally about to get a glimpse of her young man.

She followed Janice's attention through the crowd and frowned. A tall man with dark hair and a grumpy expression had just entered the mess. He looked vaguely familiar to her. If he wasn't scowling he had features that would suit a Hollywood star. He was a bit older than most of the other people in the room, but he was decidedly not Janice's type.

She raised her eyebrows and Janice leaned closer, "That's Jim's friend, Dr. McCoy. He's a surgeon." That explained the familiarity. Christine had probably seen him in the hospital before, although she didn't remember encountering him directly. "They've been best friends since they were kids. He's got a wife and a baby girl back home, according to Jim."

Those were the magic words, as far as Christine was concerned. She could talk with this Dr. McCoy and possibly glean some information about Jim Kirk and his intentions and they would both be safe from gossip or misinterpretations. Of course, she'd met more than one young recruit who had a sweetheart or even a wife who simultaneously flirted with everyone he met, but something about the serious expression on McCoy's face suggested to Christine that he was not a man who took his promises lightly.

She rolled her eyes a little at herself. Grandmère's romanticism had clearly rubbed off on her too much.

A younger man bounded through the crowd and up to their table, reminding Christine a little of Mike's pet golden retriever. The man was blond with startlingly blue eyes and a broad grin on his face that held a hint of wickedness even as he beamed at Janice. "Nurse Janice! I was hoping to see you tonight!"

Janice was smiling just as effusively. "Jim, this is my friend Christine Chapel. Christine, this is Captain James Kirk."

He turned and she got the full force of that charming grin. It made her a little weak-kneed, which spelled doom for poor Janice. Christine smiled back, calling on all the etiquette lessons of her youth as Jim turned to the dour-looking gentleman behind her. "Ladies, this is Bones. Bones, this is Nurse Christine and Nurse Janice."

The man rolled his eyes at Jim and nodded to them both. Janice invited them to sit and Christine wasn't surprised the older man settled next to her. While the younger couple were absorbed in conversation she raised her eyebrows. "Bones?"

He snorted, glaring in Jim's direction. "It's from the old nickname for a surgeon, Sawbones. Name's McCoy, Leonard McCoy."

Christine's heart beat slightly faster as she realized McCoy had a Southern accent. She couldn't quite place him yet, but it had been a while since she'd heard anything but the sharp nasal twang of New England or just plain England. Her own accent broadened without her thinking about it. "I see. And how did a Southern gentleman get mixed up with the good Captain Kirk?"

McCoy eyed her, obviously recognizing her own accent, and he leaned a little closer, the corners of his mouth twitching up. "I'm afraid that story isn't quite fit for a proper Southern lady's ears."

She flushed in spite of herself. "I'm afraid being a nurse in general doesn't fit a proper Southern lady, Doctor."

He looked slightly taken aback by that, but before either of them could speak again, she spotted someone over his shoulder and groaned. "Oh, no."

"What is it?" McCoy asked, but a heavy hand landed on Christine's shoulder.

"Chrissy, baby! You never come to these things," drawled Corporal Hawkins. The young man was a lecherous oaf who had accosted Christine and most of the other nurses at one point or another. Despite her waving her engagement ring in the soldier's face, he simply wasn't taking no for an answer. "You'll finally have to dance with me."

Christine shuddered at the prospect, which apparently was enough for McCoy to stand up, ensuring that Hawkins saw the rank insignia on his chest indicating he was a captain. "Sorry, junior, but you'll have to wait. The lady is dancing with me right now."

He reached down and took her hand, pulling her out onto the dance floor without another word. The song was just switching and the new tune was a slow number and she found herself in his arms, gliding gently among the other couples.

McCoy cleared his throat. "Sorry about that. I thought-"

She moved closer to him instinctively. "No, don't apologize. I owe you one for getting me out of there."

"I take it you've run into the corporal before?"

She nodded. "Sadly, most of the nurses have had the pleasure. I swear, telling him I'm engaged to someone back home only made him more determined to bother me."

McCoy frowned. "I'm sorry. Unfortunately the Army seems to need that type for something."

"Well, as long as he's useful," she muttered, though not low enough to not be heard. He chuckled in response, holding her a little closer.

They danced in silence for a couple of minutes. Christine found herself relaxing. McCoy was a good dancer and also polite, holding her comfortably but not too close. She stared at his throat – he was a rare man who was a few inches taller than her. Her initial thought that he could make a living as a Hollywood movie star came back to her. His jaw line was practically sculpted out of marble.

McCoy's hand moved against her back and she shivered. It wasn't inappropriate, just something about his fingers brushing against her that way made her jump. Chastising herself for behaving like a silly girl, she glanced around. Janice dancing with Jim, the two of them much closer than Christine and McCoy. Lord preserve them.

McCoy was looking back toward the table as the song ended. "I think the coast is clear, if you'd like to sit back down."

"Yes, and thank you for coming to my rescue," she said with a smile.

He squeezed her hand gently. "Thank you for the dance, Miss Chapel."

She opened her mouth to automatically correct him regarding her rank, but what came out instead was, "It's Christine."

He smiled, which changed his face from grumpy to flat-out handsome and nodded. "Leonard."

Right then she should have realized that if she thought anything about spending time with this man was safe, she was an enormous fool.

They headed back to the table, though, Christine intent on her mission. "So how long have you know Captain Kirk?"

"You don't give up easy, do you?" he asked rhetorically as he held her chair for her. He flopped down into his own and leaned his elbows on the table. "All right. I met Jim when I was in college. He crashed his plane on my Daddy's farm. Showed up at the house bleeding something fierce. He was lucky – it was summertime and I was home. I was preparing for medical school and I managed to patch him up enough to get him to the hospital. Saved his life."

Christine blinked at this outpouring of information. "My goodness." She thought a moment. "Why on earth would that not be fit for a woman's ears? I'm a nurse, for heaven's sake. It's not as though I've never seen blood before."

McCoy's ears turned dark red. "There may be some details I'm skipping out of deference."

"To me?"

"To you, to Jim's privacy, and my own sanity."

She laughed outright at that, making him flash a grin at her. Without thinking about it, Christine leaned on the table in a mirror of his posture and looked into his eyes. "And what would I have to do to pry these salacious details out of you, Leonard?"

He swallowed and it was only then that she realized how close they were, and that she was flirting with him. It might be for a good cause, but it wasn't right to do such a thing, not with her engagement ring heavy around her neck and his wedding band visible in the low light. She flinched and pulled away. Leonard looked uncomfortable. "Why do you want to know so badly?"

Christine sighed, glancing at Janice and Jim, who were still rather closely entangled. "Without breaking my own obligations for privacy, I have to tell you Janice isn't the most... experienced young woman when it comes to romance." She looked back at Leonard. "I want to make sure she's not going to get her heart broken."

He frowned at the couple on the dance floor for a moment, then ran his hand through his hair in frustration. "I'm not sure what to say. Jim's had a different girl every month for most of the time I've known him."

It didn't surprise her, but it confirmed her worst fears.

"He's not some Lothario," Len continued, evidently wanting to defend his friend. "He doesn't mistreat women. He's just a serial flirt, really."

"I understand. Thank you for being honest."

There was an awkward pause and he shook himself and stood up. "Can I get you something to drink?"

"A club soda, please."

He hesitated for a moment, looking down at her with a mischievous expression. "Are you sure you'll be safe here alone without me?"

She knew he was deliberately trying to get a rise out of her, but Christine glared at him anyway. "You'll find I'm more than capable of taking care of myself, Dr. McCoy."

He grinned at her, but she heard him muttering as he turned away, "I'll bet you are."

*~*~*~*~*

Christine decided against saying anything to Janice right away. If Jim Kirk held true to pattern, he wouldn't be around long and perhaps Janice wouldn't get to badly bruised when the inevitable happened. Meanwhile, she ended up chaperoning a good number of meals and random encounters on base that were most likely anything but random, given that Jim always turned up while Janice wasn't on duty. He was a terrible flirt, hitting on Christine half the time as well, though usually in outrageous ways that indicated he didn't really mean it. He was also charming and extremely smart, something he attempted to hide for reasons she didn't entirely understand.

She found herself spending time with McCoy on many of those occasions, since he and Jim were nearly inseparable in their free time. Remembering their first conversation she worked hard on being more polite and proper, not wanting him to get the wrong impression about her. They talked of the South and things they missed from home, and about the superiority of New Orleans to Georgia (Leonard took a slightly different view). She also learned a little about his wife, Jocelyn, who had been his college sweetheart. It seemed Len had lost track of her for a few years, and then they encountered each other a few months before Pearl Harbor, which had happened just after their wedding and Jocelyn becoming pregnant. Leonard had been in Europe already when he got the telegram that baby Joanna had been born.

He didn't talk about his family as much as she would have expected. Most of the married men Christine had encountered talked proudly about their wives and children. Colonel Pike, the base commander, had photos on his desk of his wife and their son and daughters and would speak at length about them at the drop of a hat. Leonard tended to shut down when the subject came up. Christine assumed it was painful for him to remember that he'd never seen his baby girl in person, and she decided it was better not to bring it up unless he did. All of them had things they were trying not to dwell on.

Thinking about Len's separation from his family brought Christine a new perspective on Janice's romance. Going off to war with no one left behind seemed, to Christine, almost preferable to the constant worry about Roger on the other side of the world, and knowing Roger was feeling the same way about her. But it was also probably immensely lonely.

It was early June when her opinion of Jim Kirk changed irrevocably. She and Janice shared a room and Christine arrived back there one day to find the door slightly ajar. Janice was sitting on her bed with Jim beside her. She was in his arms and he was holding her tenderly while she cried on his shoulder. There was a telegram in Janice's lap.

Jim met Christine's eyes and mouthed "Her brother" silently. Christine nodded and after a moment backed out of the room quietly. If it had been her, the last thing she would want right then was a larger audience. She would have her turn helping her friend soon enough.

Janice bore her grief as well as she could, and watching the way Jim stood by her through it made Christine re-evaluate the young man.

As June drew to a close, though, it was evident that something was coming. Troops and supplies were being moved around, and rumors swirled about a major Allied action somewhere in Europe. No one was surprised when orders came down for the company to prepare to depart, to support the Seventh Army in the Mediterranean.

Christine was nervous, as it seemed highly likely she was going to be near to real combat terribly soon, but she spent most of her time dealing with the peculiar situation the new orders wrought for her friends. Janice and Leonard were leaving, but Jim wasn't. He was still stationed in England, protecting the bombing raids on German and Northern Europe. Although McCoy professed immense frustration with him, it was obvious the two men were like brothers, and to have both his best friend and his sweetheart leaving produced a melancholy in Jim that surprised Christine. He took pains to present a cheerful, downright rebellious face to the world almost all the time, but she was starting to realize there was a darkness under the façade.

The night before they were shipping out, Christine deliberately chose to go for a walk and get some coffee from the mess, knowing full well that Jim was probably going to appear at the door in search of Janice. She took her time about crossing the base, and sat for a long while listening to the insects buzzing in the summer heat outside the mess.

Leonard found her there. He fetched a cup of coffee and sat down across from her. "I thought you'd be packing."

She shrugged. "I moved around so much back in the States doing training, I'm fairly efficient."

He looked at her for a moment, his curiosity plain, and she hunched over, lowering her voice. "I thought it would be prudent to, well, stay out of the room for a while this evening." Her face flushed a little. It was hardly a proper thing to think about, much less to be gossiping about with a man.

"Oh," he said. "Yeah, I can see why that... hell." He scrubbed a hand over his face and finished his coffee. She'd become inured to the occasional profanity from soldiers and didn't bother to comment. "You want to take a walk?"

She nodded and got up. They wandered around the base, ending up near one of the fences not far from the water. Christine could hear the sound of the waves and she sat down on a large rock, folding her arms across her chest and leaning on her knees.

He gestured to the rest of the rock. "Do you mind if I...?"

She rolled her eyes a little and scooted over to make more room for him. He sat down next to her. She could feel his warmth through the muggy night air, but they were hardly indecently close. "I'm wondering if I owe Jim an apology," she admitted.

"For what?"

"When he and Janice first started seeing each other, I was very dubious about his intentions."

"Yes, I seem to remember that," Len said dryly.

Christine shot him a look and then looked down at her feet. "He's been... well, I can't say he's been a gentleman," she said with a small chuckle. "But he's been attentive, even devoted to Jan for nearly two months now."

"He doesn't talk about her much," Len said. She glanced at him and he leaned forward, his elbows on his knees. "Jim has a tendency to fall in love on a regular basis. He's always chattering about this girl or that one. But he hasn't said all that much about Janice."

She couldn't resist, nudging him with her shoulder. "Would these be some of those salacious details you keep withholding from me?"

He growled, something she had learned to recognize as how he expressed frustration with her occasional smart remarks. It had the unintended effect of encouraging her to make more of them. "You're never letting that go, I know, but no. I don't mean he's indiscreet. I would hardly want to hear - well, anyway." He cleared his throat and she rolled her eyes. Once upon a time such implied misbehavior would have shocked her, but the war was eroding her threshold of propriety. "I meant that he has been quieter about her, which makes me think he might be serious."

"I hope so." She paused. "And part of me hopes he isn't. That she isn't." When Len looked at her in confusion, she waved a hand at the world around them. "This is hardly the ideal place to start a relationship."

She didn't say anything else, but Len leaned his chin on his hand, staring at the fence and the darkness beyond it, toward the sea. "I'm worried about him. It's bad enough that I'm leaving, but now she is too."

In that moment, Christine couldn't help but contrast the man sitting beside her with Roger, who repressed most of his emotions rather ruthlessly, thinking that showing any great surge of feeling was unseemly. Leonard tended to wear his heart, along with every other emotion, on his sleeve. It was endearing, particularly since Christine wasn't always so good at hiding her feelings herself.

He kept speaking. "You want to know why I really met Jim? It was because of his family. His father died in the Great War. Jim never met him – he was born while his father was away and he died in combat, so he never saw his son. His mother worked for a while and then eventually she got remarried. Jim and his new stepfather never got along, and then when he was fifteen his mother died. Jim ran away and that's how he ended up flying and crashing on our farm. I got him to the hospital and he said he had no relatives and nowhere to go. I ended up taking him back home with me so he could recover. Otherwise he would've been out on the streets." Len paused, his voice rough. "He stayed with my father while I was in school. Dad made Jim finish high school and get into college. Said Jim was his project, the thing that kept him alive the last couple years."

Len had mentioned in passing that his parents were both gone, but he hadn't said how. "When did he die?"

"Four years ago. He was sick for a couple of years, but they don't know what was wrong with him."

Leonard McCoy was an excellent doctor, and having to watch his own father slowly fade away and being unable to help must have been horrible for him. She felt embarrassed suddenly at her own good fortune, having parents both alive and healthy who loved her even when they were driving her crazy. She couldn't simply sit there and do nothing. She reached out and took hold of his hand, squeezing tightly. "Jim will be all right, Len. He's not going to get sick just because you're not watching him all the time."

He nodded. "I know. But I've been looking out for him for nearly ten years. It's gotten to be a habit."

"I can understand that. I was used to corralling my cousins all the time. When I got into the Army, I think I adopted Janice mostly because I was used to it."

He snorted and she belatedly realized they were still holding hands, which was just not appropriate given that they were sitting out here in the dark together. However, she was reluctant to let go first. He seemed to notice it himself, but instead of releasing her, he raised her hand to his lips and kissed the back of it. "Thanks, Christine."

Her heart thumped loudly in her chest, something about the gesture feeling like more than a courtly expression of gratitude. It wasn't more, of course. The man was married and had a child. But knowing that didn't seem to matter. Through the sudden dryness in her mouth, she managed, "Any time," while thinking that this sort of thing was probably not something they should ever do again. To cover she coughed quietly and stood up. "We should get back. Early morning tomorrow."

He nodded, releasing her hand. He walked her to her room, and she wished him goodnight. Janice was in bed with her back to the door when Christine entered cautiously. Her friend was obviously not asleep, but if she wanted to keep silent, it was her decision. Christine undressed and put out the light.

In the morning Janice was dry-eyed. Jim appeared as they were preparing to get onto the trucks to go to the train station. He kissed Janice goodbye in front of everyone, then he and Len embraced. Jim turned to Christine and hugged her. While she was hugging him back, he whispered in her ear, "Keep an eye on him for me, okay?"

She thought about Len's story from the night before. He was all the family Jim had left too. "I will," she promised quietly. Then there was nothing to do but climb aboard the trucks and stare as a group of the base personnel watched them drive away, including Jim, who stood with his hands in his pockets near the gate, until they went around a bend and lost sight of him entirely.

*~*~*~*~*
*~*~*~*~*

The Sicily campaign made Christine question more than once the wisdom of making friends with soldiers or doctors. They had only just arrived in the Mediterranean when word came that the 10th Field Hospital had lost one of its doctors to illness. Leonard volunteered to take the man's place – no one wanted to send a field hospital unit into combat short of a surgeon.

So Len went on ahead, despite his immense fear of flying, and terrible stories came back of German bombing runs aimed at the hospitals, despite the international agreement prohibiting military action against facilities marked as medical stations. Christine kept her ears open but every day she heard reports of injuries, and the confusion of launching an invasion made it difficult to sort truth from rumor. She could only pray and tell herself that she was merely keeping her promise to Jim, because she wanted their friend to return home to his daughter in one piece.

Jim had given Janice his camera, and she occupied herself for the few days they were waiting in North Africa taking photos of the base and the sandy deserts surrounding it and writing frequent notes home to her parents, who were still struggling to come to terms with the loss of their oldest son. Now their daughter was about to enter combat as well, and Janice's mother in particular was not coping well.

Christine wrote letters home, striving to sound cheerful. The anxiety of being on the edge of the first major Allied action in Europe was difficult to ignore. Having nothing to do but wait only made it worse.

Finally a boat was freed up to begin bringing medical support personnel onto the island. Christine had never thought of Sicily being particularly large, but it took nearly another week before she saw Leonard. She and a group of nurses were split off from their unit to relieve the nurses at the 10th, and she entered the hospital tent and glanced over the men in the room. Len happened to look up and spot her at the same moment.

He looked tired and he needed to shave, but he was whole and seemed unhurt, to her immense relief. She had to stay put and listen to instructions from the head nurse, but as soon as they dispersed she turned to find Len standing behind her. "Lieutenant Chapel, how are you?"

"Less tired than you, I expect. You're all right?"

He rubbed his face wearily. "Tired and desperate for decent coffee, but otherwise I'm fine. We're expecting another wave of casualties sometime in the next six hours."

She nodded. "The head nurse was just telling us."

"Are you ready for this?" His expression was serious, but not condescending.

She tilted her head. "Is there any real way to be sure?"

He barked out a short laugh. "Probably not."

She wasn't ready. There was no training on earth that could have made her ready. The Allied forces were pressing forward across the island, approaching Palermo, the capital. The fighting was sporadic but certain units encountered fierce resistance, and many of the men torn apart in battle ended up at the 10th Field Hospital.
The doctors at the evacuation hospitals nearest the front triaged the patients, sending any wounded who needed more elaborate or serious care back to the field hospital once they were stable enough to transport. That meant the injuries coming into the field hospital were generally severe.

During the entire three months at the base in England, Christine had never worked directly with Leonard in surgery, though occasionally they had run into each other while on shift. As the first casualties rolled in, the head nurse assigned her to assist Len. He said nothing, merely glanced at her for a moment. She nodded back and he went to work extracting multiple pieces of shrapnel from a young man's chest.

She was more nervous than she cared to admit about working alongside him. McCoy had a reputation for being demanding and relentless when he was operating. He had no tolerance for mistakes, and some of the nurses back in England had referred to him as the Tyrant. Christine's competitive Chapel genes came to the fore and to her rescue. She was so busy working hard to impress Len, she had less time to notice the stream of broken bodies and bleeding patients flowing through the OR. She was startled when one of the other nurses put a hand on her arm and told her it was over. Five hours had gone by.

She half-stumbled into the washroom, stripping off her gloves and smock. Len trailed behind her. He mimicked her actions and then stretched, his hands over his head. For a moment she felt almost tiny; he seemed to take up so much space. Christine rarely felt that way around a man. Usually she was struggling not to feel like an elephant because of her height.

She shook her head at herself. She was clearly sleep-deprived and getting silly.

"That was good work in there, Chapel," he said going to the sink to rinse his hands.

His words set of a glow of pride through her, but aloud she merely said, "Thank you, Doctor."

He shot her a look, but then wiped his hands and said, "You hungry?" She opened her mouth to answer but yawned heavily. Len chuckled at her. "Or maybe you need to be tucked in already?"

She blushed despite herself, which definitely was a sign of tiredness. But her stomach was also rumbling. "Food, then sleep," she said definitively. She managed to sleep heavily for about four hours that night, before they were woken to deal with another wave of casualties.

A couple days later Palermo fell and Sicily was in Allied hands. It was the first attempt at taking back any part of Europe from the Axis, and it secured the Mediterranean as a staging base for invading Italy. All of the staff was buoyed by the success. Another doctor arrived to take Len's place and Len returned with Christine and the other nurses to their original unit, another field hospital in Sicily, closer to the mountains in the north.

The staff was expecting to head into Italy with the Army soon, but July dragged into August and instead of gearing up for a new assault, Christine, Janice and Leonard found themselves sitting still and dealing with absolutely sweltering heat that brought on a malaria epidemic.

Christine and Leonard had both had malaria when they were younger, although that didn't make them immune to new infections. Many of the nurses and doctors, however, were from northern climates and had never encountered the disease either as a patient or caregiver. Their limited supply of quinine was mostly reserved for the doctors who needed to be functioning, which left the nurses to endure the disease and hope general measures could help them recover.

Janice became ill during the first week, and Christine spent as much time as she could ensuring her tiny friend had clean, cool water and washcloths to cope with the fever. In the immense summer heat, the fevers were nearly unbearable. Janice suffered from joint pain in her knees and feet, and Christine kept close track of her painkillers while trying to keep her comfortable. Thankfully Janice's case wasn't life-threatening, but others weren't so lucky.

Leonard urged the hospital's CO to look into spraying insecticide and filling in any pools of standing water near the base. Christine appealed to the head nurse, Captain Noel, regarding anti-mosquito measures around the tents, including netting. Mercifully, the Army had already learned from experiences in the Pacific, and mosquito netting was included in the supplies. The orderlies and support staff worked to get the netting in place, and Christine and Leonard reminded the other staff of the importance of keeping their arms and legs covered while outdoors, especially at night. People grumbled, due to the heat, but Len's temper managed to cow the more recalcitrant, and after two weeks, the rate of infection went down.

The timing proved crucial, as two field hospitals in low-lying areas of the island were swamped with malaria patients and were operating on barely one quarter of their staff due to illness. Major injuries began to be routed to their facility, bypassing the malaria zones before the patients were evacuated to the coast to go to the more permanent regional hospital in North Africa.

The worst of the epidemic was only starting to fade when orders came to prep for the next stage – three simultaneous operations that comprised the Allied invasion of Italy. Mussolini's government in Italy had fallen after the loss of Sicily but German units in Italy fought back against the Allies and there was little the new Italian government could do to stop them.

Christine and Janice, as before, found themselves waiting to help set up the field hospital instead of following the initial wave of soldiers. The US commanders had decided to hold the nurses back until the beachhead was more secure. The British nurses were sent forward, with disastrous consequences. The H.M.S Newfoundland was sunk by German planes despite being clearly marked as a medical ship. Most of the personnel were rescued but Christine and her friends found themselves summoned to a meeting by Captain Noel a couple days later. The base CO read aloud a message from General Eisenhower to all medical personnel, warning them that the Axis powers had clearly decided to completely ignore any protections for medical facilities anywhere in a combat zone. Being on a medical ship or plane or train, or in a hospital, was not going to protect them.

Christine left the meeting flanked by Janice and Leonard. Janice looked up at the cloudy night sky and snorted. Off Christine's look, she shook her head. "Do they really think this is a newsflash, that war is dangerous, even for the nurses?"

Len grunted in agreement. He'd been hovering over them both since the news of the Newfoundland's sinking, but a new wave of casualties arrived from the mainland a couple hours later and there wasn't much time to think about anything.

In the end none of them went to Italy during 1943. Instead they remained on Sicily and battled the elements. November brought torrential rains that reminded Christine of the couple of hurricanes she'd witnessed as a child, only those storms would blow themselves out. This was a constant deluge. In addition to tending to wounded soldiers and patients, the nurses found themselves working as ad hoc engineers, trying to keep the tents from collapsing on top of everyone. Len scandalized half the unit when he began to curse a blue streak in the middle of surgery when the tent leaked all over the place. Command finally moved them into a building that had been a school, so at least they had a real roof over their heads.

Christmas of 1943 made the previous year look idyllic in comparison. Christine vowed that she would never complain about Christmas again so long as it didn't involve miserable weather, inadequate blankets and military rations. On Christmas Eve she huddled in Len's room – the doctors got private quarters – with him and Janice and sipped some cheap whiskey that Len had procured somehow despite regulations. The three of them had been nearly inseparable throughout the fall, and Christine was grateful that at least she had these two friends to lean on as the homesickness hit her hard.

Janice had gotten a long letter from Jim a few days ago. Christine's mail from home hadn't arrived yet, and Len was, well, the same as always, but she assumed the separation from his family had to be weighing on him. He showed them a photo his wife had sent of little Joanna, dressed in a white holiday dress with a bow in her curls. Christine held the picture, wondering what his wife looked like. There didn't seem to be anything of Len in the little girl's face. Well, her cousin Lucy was the spitting image of her mother too, but she wondered if it would ease Len's loneliness if he could see some part of himself in his baby girl.

The overall mood on the base continued to drag as 1944 began. The Allied commanders were unhappy with the slow progress in Italy, and in mid-January, orders came down for the nursing company to prepare for setting up a new field hospital in Operation Shingle, along with two more companies that would set up evacuation hospitals. This time they would be part of the initial operation, and far closer to the front than they had been in Sicily.

Christine was helping Captain Noel with supply organization when Len came bursting into the storage room, yelling "Damn it!" with total disregard of who might hear him.

Noel raised her eyebrows. Christine frowned. "What's wrong?"

Len was highly agitated, even for him. "I've been reassigned. I'm moving to the regional hospital in Palermo. The CO said they needed me to handle the more delicate operations than simple patch ups."

She froze. Len wasn't going with them? She could understand wanting a surgeon of his caliber where he was most needed, but somehow the idea of going into the mainland without him made her stomach turn over. She'd assumed he would be there, grumpy and mildly profane and working miracles alongside them. What would she do without him?

Noel glanced between the two of them curiously and then cleared her throat. "I'll give you two a minute."

Len was pacing like an angry bear. Finally he slammed his hand against a shelf. "What am I going to tell Jim?"

He'd never admitted it outright but she had known Len was keeping an eye on Janice for his friend. She sighed and leaned against the table. "Orders are orders, Len. He'll understand."

Len groaned. "You don't know Jim. If anything happens to her, while he's so far away..."

"Yes, well, it's not like he's the only one in that position," she snapped. Len blinked and then looked sheepish.

She waved him off before he could apologize, as her outburst of temper was more about the squirming fear in her belly than any real anger. "We'll be all right. Jan and I are pretty good at our jobs."

"I'm not worried about you so much as the Germans," Len muttered.

Another wave of fear passed through her. She suppressed it, not wanting him to see. She put on her best "amused nurse" expression. "Really, Len, it's not like you're storming around in body armor standing between us and the Nazis." He snorted and she softened her voice slightly. "I'll miss you but we have jobs to do, all of us."

"You will?"

She blinked. He was staring at her, looking slightly stunned. "Will what?" She realized a moment after she spoke what he meant. He didn't think she would miss him? Her throat tightened. "Of course I'll miss you, you big lummox!"

The words came out more intensely than she wanted, so she swatted his arm in a sisterly fashion. "Who am I going to mock about the inferiority of Georgians with you gone?"

Len didn't say anything right away and she looked up to find him watching her with dark eyes before he shook himself. "I'd think you'd enjoy a break from losing all those arguments, Chapel," he said with his most pronounced Georgia drawl.

Her heart thudded in her chest and she thought, I really am going to miss him terribly. Oh Lord help me.

Aloud she scoffed at him and Len vanished with mumbled comments about her debating skills and a promise to see her at supper. Captain Noel returned a few minutes later. Christine reported that she'd finished the inventory but Noel ignored her. "Lieutenant, is there something I need to know?"

Christine kept her face blank. "Ma'am?"

Noel pressed. "About you and Dr. McCoy."

There was enough adrenaline still in her system that Christine was able to splutter and flush believably with anger. "No, Captain, there is nothing that you need to know about my friendship with Dr. McCoy."

Noel wasn't convinced. "Look Christine, I'm not judging you, I just need to know about the relationships between my nurses and the doctors."

"He's married," Christine snapped back. "He has a daughter and I have a fiancé in the Pacific."

"And all of those people are far away from the here and now," Noel said calmly. "The stress of combat situations can be overwhelming."

Christine drew herself to her full height, which was slightly greater than Noel's. "Captain, Dr. McCoy and I are friends. Nothing more. And since, as you overheard, Dr. McCoy will be remaining in Sicily, the state of our friendship seems immaterial anyway."

Noel sighed. "Fine. Dismissed." Christine left the tent trembling with anger and shame, glaring at nearly everyone she encountered until she reached her own quarters. How many other people thought their friendship wasn't just friendship? Had she hurt her own reputation or his by spending so much time with him? She'd assumed the fact that Janice was frequently with them would protect them all from the worst of the rumor mill.

Her realization of exactly how much she cared for Len only made it worse. What if on some level it wasn't entirely innocent? It had seemed natural to be around him so much, because of the connection between Janice and Jim, but she realized now that it wasn't just friendship that had made her seek his company so much. She'd found him attractive from the first night they met, but she'd assumed her engagement meant she wouldn't feel anything beyond a general appreciation. She knew now that was a foolish notion.

His expression when she said she would miss him flashed through her mind. What if without realizing it she'd misled him?

You're not free. And neither is he.

Perhaps it was for the best that they were going their separate ways for now.

A couple days later she and Janice were getting ready to depart on a truck that would take them to the coast and a waiting ship. Len appeared even though it was early morning to say goodbye. She stood back while he hugged Janice, having to bend nearly in half to reach her. Jan kissed his cheek and told him to take care of himself. "And tell Jim I really did promise to be careful, will you?"

Len smiled. "I will, but you take care, all right? If not for your sake, at least for mine."

Janice laughed and then stepped away slightly to give them some room. Christine was acutely aware of both that gesture and the people around them, including Captain Noel who was a few yards away. But Len was looking at her uncertainly and she couldn't just shake his hand. She reached up and put her arms around his shoulders.

He responded immediately, wrapping her in a hug so tight he squeezed her ribs. She closed her eyes for a moment, drinking in the warmth of his strong body and his familiar scent. In that moment of surrender she felt his lips brush against her ear. His voice was pitched low and for her only. "You come back to me, you hear me?"

Her heart skipped a beat but before she could react he was speaking, more loudly, "You both come back in one piece, okay?"

"We'll try," she told him through numb lips. She pulled away and he met her eyes and she knew she hadn't imagined it. Warmth flushed through her, down to her toes, and she feared she was blushing. She struggled to stay calm as he stared at her intently.

She tried to smile at him but it felt like a failure. Other people were hovering so she picked up her duffel and followed Janice to the truck. They climbed aboard and sat down. Christine couldn't keep from looking back. Len was still standing there, watching them, just like Jim had done back in England. Only this time Christine felt a sharp ache in her chest as he vanished from her sight.

*~*~*~*~*

The worst part of the Anzio landing was waiting in the boats to head for shore. Christine couldn't keep from thinking about the Newfoundland and she kept looking up at the sky, afraid to see fighter planes diving for their tiny boats.

There was no attack, though, and the landing went as smoothly as could be expected. In fact the entire first day of the Anzio offensive went far better than anyone had dared hope. The Germans were caught completely by surprise. The Allies established a beachhead and got their supplies onto the shore with minimal problems. The quiet on shore was almost spooky.

That night, hunkered down with Janice in their small tent, Christine exhaled for the first time that day. "Let's hope this is a good omen." Janice nodded tiredly.

It was in fact a terrible one.

Once the surprise wore off, the German units settled into defensive positions, holding high ground over the beach. The Allies failed to press their initial advantage, waiting for the remainder of their supplies and men to land, giving the Germans time to regroup. The Pontine Marshes made up a portion of the landing area and the Germans sabotaged the pumps that had been keeping the water level low. Salty water flooded the invaders, raising the risk of malaria. The Allied beachhead remained stagnant, unable to move forward with their current troop levels, while the narrow beach was pummeled by German artillery and attacked from the air day after day as January ended.

There was no room to keep the hospitals off away from the main encampments. One of the captains observed to Christine while she was dealing with a shrapnel injury to his leg that the Germans might not actually be aiming for the hospital on purpose but the medical units were so close to the real targets, they were getting shelled anyway.

There was nowhere to retreat to except to get back on the boats and the water was hardly safe either. Three more hospital ships were attacked by enemy planes. Patients and staff were lost when the H.M.S. St. David was sunk. Evacuating patients to the waiting hospital ships for transport became nearly as dangerous as being at the front.

During the first two or three days of the bombardments, Christine felt like she was about to start screaming any second. The noise was impossible to endure, the unpredictable explosions thumping around and almost on top of them for hours, accompanied by Allied air raids overhead, adding the droning of planes and aerial bombardment of the enemy to the cacophony. Meanwhile they were expected to operate and triage patients, which was difficult with the German bombs falling outside. The corpsmen hurriedly erected another tent to shield the triage area, but it wasn't marked by a hospital cross and it took a shell hit on day six, though mercifully no one was under it at the time.

Casualties flowed into the field hospital all day, every day, as the Allied forces attempted to break out of the beachhead. Christine managed to separate the noises from the bombardment the way she did the cries of the injured, by setting it aside and focusing on the task in front of her. She forced herself to concentrate, always blocking any distractions from her mind, not letting herself think too hard about what was going on around her. Otherwise she feared she would simply fall apart and not be able to do her job.

As always with the Army, there were actually procedures for running the hospital during shelling. Nurses and doctors bent over operating tables to shield patients when bombs fell nearby during surgery and the lights shook overhead. In the recovery wards patients kept their helmets at their sides at all times. Those who could move would climb out of the bed and lie on the floor underneath them when the shelling started. The immobile ones were lifted by nurses and corpsmen and covered with the thin mattresses, for what minimal protection they provided.

The Germans bombed the camps over and over. They hit the airstrips and ammunition dumps, the living quarters, the mess hall, even the latrines. The shelling didn't always abate at night. Christine would lie awake, staring into the darkness, waiting for the whistling noise of a shell coming right at them. Janice was able somehow to fall asleep during the lulls. Christine only really slept on the nights when the Germans were concentrating lower on the beachhead, on the British forces working alongside the Americans, or when the Allied presence in the skies overhead was overwhelming enough to send the Germans into hiding.

The bizarre routine they had cobbled together during the first few weeks fell apart as the Germans counterattacked. The shelling became more intermittent, as the Nazis didn't want to risk bombing their own men, but the casualties soared. Fighting through the destroyed marshes and around the houses was ferocious. The patients blurred into a bloody parade of broken bodies. She no longer saw faces, only names on charts and mangled flesh. Despite the best efforts of the staff many of the injuries coming back from the evacuation hospitals were too serious and it took too long for a surgeon to get to the men. The deaths barely made a dent for Christine. There were simply too many to save, and grief would have required energy she needed for other things.

The situation at the evac hospitals was even more dire as they were closer to the front lines. In early February a German plane directly attacked one of the evac hospitals, killing over two dozen people. A replacement unit had to be sent from Cassino because so many had been lost.

The replacement unit was arriving at their field hospital when a new attack began. Captain Noel attempted to lead the new nurses to safety, staying out of cover while directing them. A bomb exploded a few feet away and Noel was hit by shrapnel in her back. Christine bolted without thinking, running with a corpsman to grab Noel and carry her into the hospital, dodging more bombs along the way. She didn't even blink at the noise or the heat from flying metal or the danger to herself. It wasn't until she caught sight of Janice's terrified face that she realized what she'd done.

Later on, Christine heard one of the corpsmen tell the new nurses truthfully, "Welcome to Hell's Half-Acre."

*~*~*~*~*

In late February there were several days of waiting while the sounds of the fighting at the front – all of a couple miles away – reached them. Noel had been evacuated, leaving another nurse, Lieutenant Baker, in charge. She reminded the nurses what to do if the Germans captured them. Medical staff were likely to be put to use rather than merely executed or imprisoned, but it was still dangerous.

But the Allies held the Anzio beachhead as March began thanks to their superior guns. The Germans still held the high ground. The two forces hit a stalemate as spring approached. Ground combat slowed but the shelling began again. One bomb struck the generator for the hospital, which caught fire. It had finally stopped raining for a few days, and the hospital tent began to burn. Christine was assisting with a surgery at the time. Janice, her tiny head rattling inside her helmet, supervised the evacuation of the post-op patients to the mess. The surgeries were either finished hurriedly or stopped midway to get the patients away from the burning tent.

Distantly Christine thought it was for the best Len wasn't there. He would have been furious at the Nazis for interrupting him while he was operating.

She didn't think about him much. Len and Roger and everyone she'd known other than the other nurses and staff seemed far away, almost like something from a dream. Reality was cold and damp and noisy and full of death. She stopped writing letters home. Mail delivery was almost nonexistent anyway.

Janice only spoke directly of Jim once. In late February, when the German counterattack was nearly at its worst, she and Christine were huddled under a mattress in the recovery ward. Neither of them was sleeping, and Christine no longer seemed to talk except when working, until Janice said lowly, "I had sex with Jim."

Christine turned her head and stared. Janice looked at her, without a trace of a blush. "You knew," Jan said, more as a statement of fact than an accusation.

Christine shrugged. "I did leave the room that night for a reason."

Janice chuckled without any real humor. "I suspected." She went silent again for a minute. "I didn't want to not know. I know his reputation but I thought even if it turned out not to be the real thing, I figured I'd regret it forever if I didn't have that night with him, when I thought it was real."

Christine wasn't really sure what to make of that logic. Janice waved a hand like it didn't matter. "After we left I was afraid I jinxed him, you know? If I'd been more restrained, I could convince myself that he had to survive so I would get the chance to be with him someday."

"And now?"

Janice stared sightlessly at the grimy mattress in front of her face. Light flickered from the sides, the flash of another explosion not far away, one that rattled the walls and windows. "Now I wonder if I jinxed myself."

Christine was fairly certain that virtue or loss of it had nothing to do with the endless, mindless inferno they were stuck in. She and Janice both survived that night, in any case.

One day in early March Christine went to return a book she'd borrowed from one of the other nurses. The young woman and her roommate were in their tent, talking loudly. Everyone in Anzio spoke loudly even when the bombs weren't falling, and hunched over all the time in a defensive posture they called the "Anzio crouch." Christine thanked her for the book. She'd read each word on each page but she couldn't remember a damn bit of it. She left the tent and headed for the latrine.

An explosion struck behind her, knocking her to her stomach from the concussion. Christine pushed herself up from the mud, her front filthy and her body aching, and looked behind her. The tent was gone. It had been hit head on by the bomb.

Janice ran across the open space and grabbed Christine by the arms, hauling her to her feet with a strength such a small person shouldn't have possessed. "Chris? Are you hurt? Say something!" Janice was shaking her. Christine grabbed her arms and dug her nails in to get her friend to stop.

"I'm fine," she said. She craned her neck but saw no signs of bleeding on her body. She was unhurt. Two of her friends were dead in an instant, but she didn't have a scratch on her. Her hands started to shake and she gestured. "I need to hit the latrine." Inside she curled into a ball and the shaking took over her entire body. She had no idea how much time went by before it finally subsided and she was able to stand again. Then she cleaned herself up and went back to work.

Finally at the end of March an engineering battalion was sent to reinforce the hospital and Christine and Janice's unit was ordered to rotate out. A new company was sent in to replace them and the exhausted nurses trudged to the sea with the wounded. For once there were no planes circling overhead as they rode through the choppy waves to the hospital ship.

Christine felt nothing. Other nurses were sobbing in relief while some were angry at being taken away from their post at Anzio as if they couldn't cope with the strain. She merely sat alongside Janice as the hospital ship began to move toward Sicily. Lieutenant Baker had remained behind to supervise the new nursing company, leaving Janice momentarily in charge.

Christine saw the German planes approaching and stood up, despite Janice tugging on her arm. It was a foolish thing to do but she couldn't merely sit and close her eyes while the end finally found her.

The Nazi planes struck the propellers, causing the ship to lurch and start drifting. More bombs fell on the bridge sending shrapnel every direction. Christine felt the sharp sting as metal sliced through part of her upper arm, and tears sprang to her eyes at the sensation of the pain, hot and bright. But then Janice was yelling and the officers were directing them to the boats. Antiaircraft fire opened up from the combat vessels nearby and another ship drew up alongside them. In the frenzy of relocating the patients, Christine merely wrapped her arm carelessly and kept working until she bent over to help someone and collapsed, weak from blood loss.

A sailor hauled her into the ship's infirmary and a frowning doctor hastily stitched up the deep laceration on her arm. She had three other cuts along her arm and leg but they were smaller. The needle stung as he stitched, but it wasn't enough to really feel.

She wondered if anything would ever be enough again.

*~*~*~*~*

Janice oversaw the unloading of the nurses and their transport to the hospital in Palermo, which was in an actual hospital. They had no supplies other than their duffels as everything else had sunk, so she found out where they were being housed and they all trudged toward the nurses' quarters. Janice was mumbling about how badly she couldn't wait to take a real shower. When they reached their room, Christine merely removed her boots and lay down on her bunk, staring at the ceiling. Eventually she turned on her side. She slept in fits and starts through the night but the relative silence made it difficult to fall asleep. She found herself waiting for the noises of bombs falling or air raid sirens that never came.

In the morning she washed herself, trying to feel some pleasure at warm water and soap on her skin, but her head ached from lack of sleep. The day was full of debriefings, both on Anzio and on the attack on the ship. Christine recited the basics of what had happened several times to several different serious-looking officers. They thanked her for her bravery which made her want to laugh. There were a dozen people more brave than her in the unit and they were all dead now. When she was finally released in the evening, she went to the cafeteria in the hospital building, and sat at the end of a table where a few of her colleagues were. No one was talking much, and most of the other people were giving them a wide berth.

Christine finished mechanically chewing her stew and had gotten up to take her tray away when she spotted Janice speaking to Leonard. She hadn't been sure he was even at this hospital still. It wasn't like she'd been writing or receiving letters for the last few months.

Had it only been three months since she'd seen him? It felt like thirty years.

He looked up and met her eyes and seemed to pale a bit, though she couldn't be entirely sure. He said something to Janice and then began to make his way across the room.

Christine took her tray and headed for the door, not sure that she was ready for this conversation, but he shifted course and intercepted her as she cleared her tray and put it down. "Lieutenant, it's good to see you."

She nodded. "Doctor."

He frowned. They stared at each other briefly and she became uncomfortably aware that they were attracting attention from the other people in the room. Finally he jerked his chin at the door. "Come with me."

She stepped out the door and waited. Len followed and then stalked down the hall and up the stairs. She trailed after him reluctantly. She wanted to go back to her bunk and not have to talk or think. Not right now. But when he noticed her lagging, he stopped. His voice sank to a low, gruff tone that made her shiver. "Let me see your arm, Christine."

It wasn't a request and she was too tired to fight him. She followed Leonard up the stairs and into an exam room where a gurney was sitting. He gestured for her to sit while she unbuttoned her jacket. He helped her remove it and her shirt, careful not to jostle her arm. She was wearing a camisole underneath and she'd worn less at the beach, back in another life where she went swimming and smiled at people, but she still felt exposed.

Thankfully, Leonard was focused on the bandages. He removed them gently, frowning at the sloppy stitching on the laceration. "That's going to leave a scar," he said, his warm fingertips brushing against the cool skin just below the cut.

She shrugged. She wasn't keen on him taking the stitches out and redoing them. There didn't seem to be much point, not when she could still see the faces of the colleagues lost to the shelling and the snipers and the firelight while the ship was sinking beneath her feet. "It could have been worse."

Leonard looked at her sharply and her breath caught at his expression. He reached up and touched her cheek. "Damn it, Christine," he whispered. He didn't give her a chance to comment on the profanity. He leaned in and she didn't – couldn't – speak before he kissed her.

It wasn't a friendly kiss. It wasn't the gentle kiss of a new lover either. She gasped at the warmth of his lips and he slipped his tongue into her mouth without hesitation, something Roger had never dared to do with her. Len licked and explored her mouth with his tongue, his hands sliding through her messy hair and along her neck. Heat began to seep through her body from his mouth and his hands. The numbness faded, giving way to something almost like pain. She clutched at his jacket, chasing the feeling even as the kiss ended.

"I kept checking the lists," he muttered, brushing her hair back from her face, his breath warm against her mouth. "I wasn't sure they were including the nurses. I didn't know what I would tell Jim." His voice went raw and he cupped the back of her neck with his hand. "I didn't know what I would do if I saw your name on there, Christine. Then I heard the hospital ship had been hit. Scared me so damn much."

Her hand had crept up the solid wall of his chest and she touched his face. The stubble rubbed harshly against her skin, the prickling sensation making her eyes water. "I'm alive, Len. I'm here."

He turned into her hand and closed his eyes for a moment. She'd missed him so much, far more than she'd admitted to herself. When he looked at her again, she saw the kiss coming and leaned halfway to meet him.

She was cradled in his arms, her own fingers running through his hair as Len kissed her slowly and even more thoroughly than before. Sweat broke out over her body and she pressed into his hold, not wanting the heat spreading through her to end. She kissed him back, earning a groan from him as her tongue darted shyly against his. Long moments passed as she tentatively explored his mouth. His hands ran down her back, tugging her body impossibly closer to him. She realized belatedly that her legs had spread and he was in between them. It should have made her blush but she didn't want it to stop.

When she drew away to gulp down air she shivered at the feeling of his heavy breaths against her neck, making goose bumps break out on her skin. That unfortunately seemed to give Len an idea, because he bent his head and his talented lips moved along the column of her throat, licking and nibbling at her jaw, then down her neck to her collarbone. She raked her nails over his back, tilting her head to give him room as he mouthed wet kisses against her shoulder. She wanted more, wanted him to bite and suck, to keep her feeling these things, to keep her from sliding back into that horrible numbness.

His hand slid up from her hip along her side, and she felt his fingers brush against her breast lightly. Christine arched into his hand on instinct and he touched her again and then his thumb brushed over her nipple. She whimpered, wiggling closer, holding on tighter as he repeated the motion. She could feel him smiling as his teeth nipped at her throat.

Heat was pooling between her legs and she realized she was aroused. And she wasn't the only one. A shift of her hips and she felt his big, solid body between her legs and the hardness at his groin brushing against her. She knew enough about anatomy to recognize what it meant.

She wanted this, she realized with some shock. All she wanted of the world right now was to have this man naked and moving against her like this with no barriers in the way. She wanted warmth and sensation and life pulsing through her and through him. Her fingers fisted in his hair, yanking his mouth back up and kissing him with everything she had.

Len groaned into her kiss, his hand covering her breast entirely. Then he froze and a moment later yanked himself away from her. She moaned in frustration, anger and shame whipping through her until she noticed him staring at her chest. It took a moment before she understood.

Roger's ring. It was on the chain with her dog tags. In Anzio she'd never even bothered wearing it. Her hand covered the chain, clenching around the hard edges of the ring. He wasn't wearing his wedding ring but she knew underneath his shirt it was in a similar place on his dog tags.

They stared at each other for a minute, both of them breathing heavily. Len's eyes were a mix of regret and a desire so strong it still made her knees weak. His hair was tousled from her fingers and his lips were red and slightly swollen from kissing her.

She still wanted him. It was unbelievably wrong to feel this way about a married man, especially when she wasn't free herself, but Lord have mercy on her, it was true. If she was honest with herself, it had been true for quite some time.

He scrubbed a hand across his face, muttering "shit" under his breath. She couldn't think what to say and then there were footsteps approaching them and panic engulfed her. She jumped down from the gurney, grabbing for her shirt, but he stopped her with a hand on her uninjured arm. Wordlessly he held out a fresh bandage and she took it, throwing her coat on over her shirt and hurrying away without a backward glance.

She managed to reach her quarters and after hastily rewrapping her arm, she crawled under the blanket and buried her face in her pillow. Her body was trembling. Kissing Len seemed to have unlocked the floodgates and she struggled to stifle the tears that came, until a gentle hand brushed against her hair. She twisted her neck and recognized the figure sitting on the edge of the bed and submitted to Janice's comfort as she cried until she fell asleep.

*~*~*~*~*
*~*~*~*~*

She spent much of the next morning curled up in bed but Janice came and rousted her in the afternoon. The CO wanted all the nurses given brief physical exams. The physician, an older Indian man with a British accent, patted her hand and told her she was mildly malnourished and anemic but otherwise healthy. When they were both finished, Janice forced her to the mess hall for supper but Christine fled back to their room afterward in the vain hope of avoiding Leonard. When Janice left her alone, Christine had a strong suspicion where her friend was going.

Sure enough, an hour later there was a knock on the door. Len was standing there, nervously twisting his cap in his hands. "Can I come in?"

The entire day, every time she'd caught sight of a tall, dark-haired man, she'd tensed up and her stomach had rolled. She was ashamed of herself, more so than with him, although he had been the one to kiss her first. But she shouldn't have gone anywhere with him in the first place, and she certainly shouldn't have responded the way she had, knowing he was married and had a child. That was to say nothing of what she'd done to Roger. Her thoughts had been chasing around in that circle until she was dizzy. All in all, she thought, the nauseous feeling wasn't a huge improvement over feeling nothing at all.

She sat down on the edge of her bunk, her hands clasped tightly in her lap. Len settled himself across from her, leaning forward and folding his hands together. "Christine, I owe you an explanation for what happened last night."

She shook her head, shame making her flush bright red. "I should be apologizing to you. You're a married man with a baby girl back home and I shouldn't have-"

"She's not mine," he said, interrupting her. When Christine stared, he cleared his throat. "Joanna, she's not... I'm not her biological father."

She opened her mouth but nothing came out. The litany of self-recrimination that had been going through her head all day came to an abrupt halt in confusion. Len got up and began to pace the small room nervously.

"Jocelyn and I dated in college, that was true, but her family wasn't keen on her marrying a poor med student, and I realized eventually that she wasn't all that keen on marrying someone whose ambition was to be a simple country doctor. I wasn't happy when things ended but eventually I got past it. Then in November of '41 she called me, said she was in town and we should get together and talk about old times.

"I could tell something was wrong but it took until I drove her home for her to admit it. She was in trouble. When she told the fella responsible, he panicked and ran out on her. She was terrified and didn't know what to do."

Christine's stomach lurched with sympathy for the poor girl. Once upon a time Christine would have been disdainful of a young woman who did something so foolish, but just the night before she'd been close to making a similar choice. She had no business being judgmental.

Len sighed and flopped down across from her again. "I couldn't abandon her too. So we got married quick and hoped nobody would look too closely at a calendar. Then, well, I went into the service and was sent overseas right away." He frowned at the floor, his voice going quieter after a moment. "I thought it might be better that way. Jocelyn was safe, the baby would have a name, but we wouldn't have to actually live together any time soon." He drew in a deep breath before meeting her eyes. "I was hardly expecting to go to war and fall for someone else."

Time stood still for a while as Len looked at her, his words ringing in her ears. His eyes were dark and she could read precisely what he was thinking. Her heart slammed into her ribs.

He loved her. Oh Lord, he was in love with her. And she'd used him.

"I'm so sorry," she blurted out. His face crumpled in pain and she reached for him before snatching her hand back. "No, I don't mean... It's not that I don't feel..." His expression changed, becoming almost hopeful, but she couldn't bear to lie to him, not about this. "I was so cold," she said, gulping for air that suddenly seemed in short supply. "I haven't felt anything in so long. Like I was already...." She put her hand over her heart, her knuckles pressing hard enough to hurt. "Like there was nothing left."

Len was watching her in alarm, his body tense. She ached with regret and guilt and part of her wanted to run and hide. But she owed him the truth.

"I just wanted to feel..." The tears started to well up. How could she have any tears left? She covered her mouth, trying to stem it. "You made me... I needed to..." She couldn't go on, and suddenly Len was there, pulling her into his lap. His body surrounded hers, warm and solid and strong, while she curled into a ball and tried not to cry.

But his hands stroked gently over her hair. He rubbed her back and murmured, "Let it out sweetheart, just let it out."

She clutched his jacket, buried her face in his shoulder and howled. He didn't flinch or tell her to be quiet, just held her tightly, rocking her while she screamed and cried and finally collapsed limply against him. He was murmuring to her lowly; she could feel the rumble of his voice in his chest. She couldn't distinguish the words but she didn't have to. He was telling her it was all right, that she was safe, and loved, and home.

Except she wasn't. A new wave of tears bubbled up because this wasn't home. And he wasn't hers. She cared for him but he belonged to someone else, a wife and a child he'd taken responsibility for. She admired him even more for knowing the truth, but it just made the situation even more impossible.

And she'd made a promise to Roger to wear his ring and be his wife someday. Chapels didn't break their promises.

Abruptly she could envision her Grandmère in her head, wagging a finger at Christine and saying, "You never know." She hiccoughed, then snorted at the incongruity. What would Grandmère say about getting engaged to a man then going to the other side of the world and falling head over heels for a different one?

She could practically feel Len looking at her curiously but she kept her head on his shoulder, picking at the collar of his jacket while she sighed and scrubbed the tears from her cheeks. "This is one hell of a mess we've landed in, Len."

He stiffened slightly. She'd never used any sort of profanity in front of him before. Then he chuckled, cuddling her closer. "You got that right, darlin'."

She was trying to think about what to say but she yawned. Absently she snuggled against him, trying to get more comfortable and before inspiration could strike about how to continue the conversation, she fell asleep.

The next morning she woke up still fully dressed, though under the blanket, and without any new insight about the situation.

*~*~*~*~*

In the morning Christine did several things she should have done right after reaching Palermo. She went to the clerk's office and sent a telegram to her parents, "Out of A. In one piece. Writing soon." Then she went back to her room with some paper and envelopes and began writing letters to Roger and her parents. She spent much of the time tapping her pencil absently on the desk, not sure what to say or how to avoid the reality of what Anzio had been like without it being obvious she was lying.

Lunchtime came when she'd just finished the second letter. Her stomach grumbled and she went in search of food.

Len turned up during lunch. After the first couple of minutes she was able to meet his eyes and, if not forget entirely kissing him and then falling asleep in his arms, to put it out of her mind. Len had some trouble meeting her eyes evenly at first too but neither of them was willing to say or do anything in front of Janice.

Len had been promoted to Major while the two women were in Anzio. She hadn't noticed it until now, when she saw him in uniform. Janice scolded him for not telling her. Len looked embarrassed, mumbling something about not getting around to mentioning it.

He had the afternoon free and he offered to take her and Janice into Palermo, since they had never seen it and nobody knew how long any of them would remain in the city. The weather was actually warm and sunny and somehow he'd gotten hold of a Jeep. The Allies had done significant damage to the central part of the city during the invasion of Sicily but as the three of them slowly headed out up into the hillsides much of the rest of the town was untouched by any signs of war. Len seemed to have a particular destination in mind as he drove and Christine focused on the blue of the Mediterranean and tried not to notice the planes and ships moving above and around the island.

Eventually Len stopped the car along a stone wall that had space for parking. The view was spectacular, looking up toward the mountains and down over the entire city and the bay. The three of them sat down on the wall and just stared, letting the view and the sunshine soak in.

Christine ended up in between the other two, possibly by Janice's design, and she was acutely aware of Len's body so close to hers. She kept her hands in her lap, folded together. He had his arms braced on the stone as he leaned forward to say something to Janice and it occurred to her that she could easily have put her hand down alongside his. She was sorely tempted, just for that brief contact it would afford.

She stared out at the water arguing with herself. Whatever feelings either of them had – and she'd pretty well admitted to herself if not aloud that she had rather strong feelings for him – there was nowhere for this to go that would be good. Even if she decided not to marry Roger, Len wouldn't walk out on Jocelyn or the baby. Which was the right thing to do, of course, no matter what her traitorous heart suggested.

She couldn't give in to temptation. Not now, not ever. That way lay madness. Her body protested, remembering vividly his kisses and his hands on her, but it could never happen again. She could forgive herself and Len for what happened two nights ago but that was the end. It wouldn't help either of them, and whatever she felt, Christine was not about to sully her family's name or her own reputation by dallying with a married man.

She clung to that ideal of self-respect when Janice stood up and wandered a little ways down the road, looking at a vegetable garden that was in full spring bloom, talking to the tiny woman dressed in black who was watering her plants.

Len cleared his throat. "We probably should talk."

"I'm still not sure what to say," she shot back and he chuckled. The low sound tormented her nervous system and she sighed. "I'm sorry that I took advantage of you the other night. And I appreciate what you did for me yesterday." Her cheeks flushed but she kept speaking, not looking at him. "I want you to know that I wouldn't have... done what I did if I didn't feel the same way."

It was hardly an eloquent declaration of her feelings but Len let out a deep breath. He reached out and squeezed her hand. He didn't say anything right away and curiosity finally compelled her to glance at him. He was staring at her fingers, intertwined with his. "I spent the last three months terrified, Chris. I hated the idea of you going back home and marrying that guy, spending your life with someone else. I know," he said before she could interrupt. "I have no right to say that, not with my situation. But it's true."

He brought her hand to his lips briefly and her willpower failed her because she didn't stop him or protest. Len kissed the backs of her fingers and continued, "I hated it, until you left. And I didn't hear anything but awful reports of what was happening in Anzio. Then we got word about the hospital ship getting hit, and I realized there was something worse than that. A future you weren't in at all. As long as I'm spared that..."

He wanted to reach for her. She knew it with every fiber of her being. She wished that he could, that she could fall into his arms as she had last night and stay there. Instead he lowered her hand back to the rough stone wall. He didn't let go and despite her intentions, she couldn't make herself pull away until Janice's footsteps sounded on the ground coming back toward them. Len let go with a brush of his fingers against the back of her hand and stood, observing that they probably ought to head back.

They wouldn't talk about this, not again, she realized. The truth was known and it would stay there unspoken, not acted on. There was no use in what ifs or plans, not when most of Europe remained under control of the Nazis and both of them were sure to be in danger many more times.

"You never know," she murmured to herself soberly, following the other two back to the car.

*~*~*~*~*

That evening Janice was wandering their small room aimlessly while Christine attempted to read. When Janice sighed heavily she looked up, exasperated.

"Sorry." Janice sank down on the bed, tapping her feet. "I'm bored." When Christine merely raised her eyebrows, Janice sighed again. "I know, it's strange, after the last few months."

Christine sat up and closed the book she was holding. "I've tried to read the first page five times now."

Janice nodded. "I keep thinking there must be something I ought to be doing. Waiting for the next siren to go off."

Christine busied herself with arranging the items on the nightstand. "I suppose it will wear off eventually."

"We'll probably be back near the front right afterwards," Janice observed sourly.

Christine laughed. Janice looked at her critically. "I'm glad to see you smiling again."

She gaped at her friend. Janice waved a hand at her. "You barely cracked an expression in Anzio. After a while you weren't even talking, hardly. I was worried."

Christine looked down at her feet, embarrassed. "I didn't know how bad it had gotten," she admitted quietly. Suppressing everything had been necessary to survive Anzio, and after a while she had stopped consciously thinking about it. It wasn't until she felt that awful empty space inside of her that she realized how far it had progressed.

There was a short pause until Janice nudged Christine's foot with her boot. "Do I want to know what Dr. McCoy prescribed to get through to you?" she asked slyly.

"Janice!" she yelped, her cheeks flushing brightly. Her friend merely looked at her with a knowing expression and Christine flailed for a minute. "He didn't... nothing... we..." She closed her eyes briefly and shook her head, falling back on what she'd been telling herself for a while now. "He's married."

Janice sobered. "I know."

She leveled an accusing look at her. "You sent him here last night, didn't you."

"Yes," she said simply.

"Why?"

"I knew he was worried about you. I guess I just thought, if I couldn't get through to you, you'd talk to him."

Christine looked away. It hadn't been talking to Len that had helped her.

"You care about him, don't you?" Janice asked, her voice gentle.

She knew she should deny it, keep this to herself and preserve her reputation and Len's. But trying to bear this alone was too much to ask. She had to tell someone. She nodded. "I know it's not right, that he's not... that we can't. I know that. I didn't mean for this to happen."

Her words sped up as she looked pleadingly at Janice, who shifted and sat down beside Christine on the bed. "I'm not blaming you, Chrissy. Things happen, especially in situations like these. Look at me." She laughed ruefully, her cheeks turning a bit pink. "Five generations of Lutheran ministers are probably spinning in their graves over me. But I don't regret it."

Now that the truth was out, Christine couldn't restrain her curiosity. "When did you begin to suspect?"

Janice considered. "Last fall, I guess. I wasn't paying much attention before we left England." It was Christine's turn to chuckle over that. "While we were here I noticed the two of you seemed to have gotten pretty close. I thought it was just that whole Southerner thing of yours. I thought it was nice that you could keep each other company. But then I realized you didn't talk much about him."

"I didn't?"

"Nope. You still don't, but you never brought his name up very much. You'd talk about Jimmy and Roger and Mike and a lot of other things, but you avoided mentioning Bones."

Christine remembered the conversation she'd had with Len the night before they left England, where he'd said something similar about Jim. "I guess I was afraid of talking about him too much. There were rumors on the base about us. I don't know when they started but I didn't want to give a wrong impression."

"I think you may have gone overboard," Janice observed, deadpan.

"A bit."

"When we got back, I ran into him in the mess," Janice continued. "He looked relieved to see me but the first thing he said was to ask if you were all right. When I told him you'd been injured, he looked scared to death. It occurred to me that maybe it wasn't just you. Where did you two go that night, anyway?"

"He looked at the cut on my arm," Christine said, trying and failing to keep her voice from getting higher or the blush from returning to her cheeks.

"Oh really?" Janice smirked, obviously not fooled. "Did he examine anything else while he was at it?"

Christine reached over and picked up her pillow and smacked Janice with it. "All right, all right, uncle!" Janice yelled, wrestling Christine for the pillow momentarily, but Chris was quicker. She hefted the pillow menacingly. Janice raised her hands. "I won't bring it up again. Even if I'm dying of curiosity."

*~*~*~*~*

The mail caught up with them a couple days later and Christine devoured her letters to find out if there was any bad news first, then went back and reread them more slowly. Nothing had changed at home except her cousin Margie had joined the Nursing Corps as well. Mike wrote briefly; his ship was extremely busy with Allied air attacks against Japanese-held islands in the Pacific. So far he and cousin Joe were unharmed.

There was only one letter from Roger, dated from the end of January. That seemed strange but Christine supposed that he was extremely busy. His letters had been getting shorter for months. Unlike her assignment, which moved in fits and starts, Roger was at a larger hospital where there were probably always patients to see. But part of her was annoyed, particularly since she was nursing guilt over betraying his trust, though she'd resolved not to tell him, since it wouldn't happen again. She shouldn't be wanting to read long letters full of declarations of love that would only twist the knife in her belly more but not having any word from him left her bizarrely angry.

Janice got a telegram from Jim along with a bunch of letters, which only increased Christine's ire toward Roger, though she kept that thought to herself.

The Army reorganized their company during the next two weeks. There was little choice. Several of the nurses had been killed or seriously injured, like Captain Noel who was sent home. Others were reassigned to different hospitals or sent back to the States due to mental and physical strain from Anzio. The remaining nurses got several new colleagues to flesh out the unit and three weeks after arriving in Sicily, the Army announced that Lieutenant Baker, who had rejoined them, had been awarded a Silver Star. She was one of the first women to ever receive the honor and subsequently was promoted to captain and commanding officer of the company.

Shortly thereafter new orders were issued for the company to return to England. No one was surprised by this. It was late spring by now and everyone knew some sort of major assault on occupied Europe was coming soon, though the actual location was a mystery. There would be casualties, a lot of them, and medical staff would need to be ready.

Once again Christine and Janice found themselves going ahead of Len. He was remaining in Palermo at the hospital for a while longer, though the company commander expected most of the surgeons to be moved back to England as well. The critical injuries from Italy would soon be routed to North Africa, as all hands would be needed elsewhere.

They had only a brief moment to say goodbye. Janice hugged Len and pointedly walked out of the room, leaving Christine and him alone. Len looked somewhat abashed and rubbed his face. "Do I need to tell you to be careful?"

"Do I need to tell you?" she shot back tartly.

He smiled a little and then they were standing there, looking at each other. It seemed impossible to shake hands and walk away, but if she touched him beyond that, she wasn't sure she'd be able to walk away.

"You need to get going," he said quietly. She nodded. They both moved at the same time and Christine grabbed hold of him tightly, just as tightly as he was hugging her. She'd been right. She didn't want to let go. But there was no choice.

Len leaned in and kissed her forehead before he released her and stepped back out of the way. She hefted her duffle and tried to quell the shaky feeling in her legs. "See you soon."

He merely nodded and she walked out into the hall and toward the stairs. As when she left for Anzio, she glanced back and saw him watching her, slumped against the doorframe, his hands jammed into his pockets.

*~*~*~*~*

Christine and Janice were crossing the base at suppertime when there was a commotion and someone yelled Janice's name. Christine was not at all surprised when she turned around to see Jim Kirk running at them full tilt.

It was impressive. They'd been on base in England for less than 72 hours and Jim somehow had already conned his way into a pass to get here.

She also wasn't surprised when Jan ran toward him with equal enthusiasm and fairly leapt into his arms. They kissed right there, in a way that most people would reserve for a private moment, or a honeymoon suite. The catcalls around them didn't seem to bother the couple. Christine just shook her head in amusement.

Eventually they came up for air and remembered there were other people around. Jim seized Christine in a hug as well. After a few minutes of catching up Christine decided to resume course for the mess tent while her friends retired to Christine and Janice's room. Christine resigned herself to eating slowly.

A decent amount of time later she returned to her room. The three of them spent the evening talking – well, Christine mostly listened while Janice talked about Anzio and Jim told them what had been going on in England in the past year. He'd been upgraded to flying the new fighter planes, the Mustangs, which had longer range than the Spitfires and had tipped the balance of air power over Europe during the spring of '44.

It was startling to realize it had been a full year since they'd left England but at the same time Christine still felt that strange sensation, as if everything that had happened before 1941 had been a long time ago, separated from the present by an invisible wall. The future was even further away. It was hard to imagine what life would be like when the war ended, if they all survived.

She didn't speak such maudlin thoughts aloud, not wanting to dampen her friends' spirits.

Over the next couple of weeks she and Janice were moved around several times. A lot of units were being shifted across England. Speculation was that the changes were attempts to throw off Nazi spies who might be trying to learn the location of the expected Allied attack. Jim somehow found them wherever they were. Christine did her best to give Janice and her boyfriend some privacy but with the chaos and the moves it wasn't always easy.

One particular night, Christine was huddled in the cramped little hole they'd been given as quarters, writing letters, when Janice burst back into the room in tears. Jim was chasing behind her but when he tried to come in Janice whirled around and screamed at him, "Get out! I don't want you here!"

"Janice, will you calm down for a minute and just listen?" Jim yelled back.

Christine cringed as Janice's face went from red to purple with rage. "Don't you tell me to calm down, Jim Kirk! Don't you dare! Get out! Get out! Get out!"

The last "get out" was emphasized with a book flying across the room at Jim's head. Christine looked between the two of them. Janice would need a few minutes of storming around and throwing things before she would be ready to talk, so Christine got up and grabbed Jim's arm and dragged him away. "Come on, lover boy. Let's take a walk."

Jim resisted until he heard something crash behind the now-closed door. They walked in silence for a minute until they were near the motor pool. Christine stuck her hands in her pockets. "A word of advice? Never, ever tell a woman to calm down."

He rubbed his head where the book had hit him. "I gathered."

"So what did you do?"

"What did... why do you... I didn't do anything!" Jim exploded. Christine merely raised her eyebrows and he snorted in exasperation. "You look just like Bones. 'What did you do this time, you idiot'." Christine ignored the pang she felt at those words and focused on Jim, who paused and slid his fingers through the wire of the fence. "She asked me to marry her. I said no."

Jim must have noticed Christine beginning to swell in rage because he held up a hand before she could speak. "I love her, Chrissy. I really do. I'd give anything to marry her. But I want her to have a real wedding, at home with her family. I've already-" he stopped short and actually looked embarrassed. Christine hadn't been sure the smooth-talking Romeo knew the feeling and she rolled her eyes.

Jim looked sheepish. "I want this to be for real, and done properly. I don't want her waking up in thirty years and reminding me how she didn't get a real wedding or a real engagement ring or any of that."

"Has it occurred to you to ask her what she wants?" Christine said pointedly.

"It's what I want," he replied with such gravity that she was taken aback. "I want to marry her properly, in a church, with her parents' blessing, and promise to love her forever. Until I can do that, I don't want to make any promises."

Christine remembered what Len had told her of Jim's history, how his father had died without ever seeing his son and his mother had never truly recovered. She suspected this was less about propriety and more about Jim not wanting to put Janice into the same position. She reached out and patted his shoulder. "You should probably get back. Wait a couple of days and I'll see if I can calm the lioness down."

"At least take all the projectiles away from her for me, okay?" He laughed and then to her surprise, Jim kissed her cheek. "You're a good friend, Chrissy."

The gesture flustered her a little but thankfully he trotted away before she could come up with a reply. She walked back to her room to find that Janice had indeed tossed a number of her possessions around the room and was now pacing the tiny space angrily. Christine crawled onto her bunk and folded her legs up and listened patiently for a good three quarters of an hour while Janice ranted herself out. She had been trying to bring up the idea of eloping ever since they returned to England, but Jim avoided the topic religiously. Tonight she'd finally point blank told him since he hadn't proposed to her she would do it. Then he refused and they ended up yelling at each other.

Finally she dropped onto her own bed. "Say something," she snapped irritably.

Christine shrugged. "I think he's being pig-headed. And given his reputation I can understand why it worries you that he's saying no."

She had chosen the perfect angle of attack, because Janice shifted uncomfortably. "I don't think that. He loves me. I'm sure of it. He's not just toying with me."

Christine nodded. "So then why are you so insistent on getting married right now?"

Janice crumpled. "I keep thinking about Anzio." Christine winced. "We're going to end up near the front again, I know it. I don't want to be in that situation again and know there's something in my life that I wanted and never got to have. I don't want to have those regrets. And I know he wants to marry me."

The words struck rather close to home for Christine. She couldn't help but think about Len, about that night in the hospital, and regretting lost chances, even under the circumstances. But she pushed the thoughts away.

"You said you were afraid of jinxing him," Christine reminded Janice. "Have you thought that maybe he's afraid of jinxing you?" When Janice looked bewildered she added gently, "Maybe he doesn't want to be another Captain Kirk who leaves behind a widow to mourn him."

Her mouth dropped open for a moment, then Janice looked down at her feet. "I hadn't thought of that." She shook her head, her anger flaring back up and Christine wanted to laugh, mostly because of course it wouldn't be that easy to dissuade Janice. "It's still stupid. He's not his father and I'm not his mother."

"Which is a good thing," Christine pointed out. "Since we're talking about you marrying him."

Janice screwed up her face in confusion for a moment before smiling and some of the tension finally left the room.

The couple officially made up but things remained strained as the month progressed. As May ended the tension across the country grew palpable. Everyone could sense it was only a matter of days now before something happened. Jim didn't come visit again, as he was busy flying missions to protect bombing raids that were increasing in frequency by the day. New units of nurses and doctors were arriving from the States and Christine got a short note from Leonard on the last day of May, the first letter he'd ever written to her. It was brief and suitable for a friend, mostly to tell her that he'd been arriving in England in early June.

Amid all the confusion, Christine still had not received a letter from Roger. On June 1, though, she got something worse: a telegram.

The messenger found her in the infirmary doing training for one of the new nursing companies. Gaila, who had rejoined them on the base, swiftly took over the training and sent for Janice while Christine stood there with the telegram clutched in her fingers. Numbly she walked into the anteroom, which was empty.

The messenger had only said the telegram was from Louisiana. Her hands were shaking as she squinted at the sender. It wasn't from her parents and she felt a surge of relief that this wasn't about Mike or Joe. Then she read the rest. It was from Roger's mother. He'd been listed as Missing In Action in February. There were no additional details such as why this news had only reached his mother now, or why she had only tried to contact Christine now after nearly three months had passed. Not to mention how on earth Roger could have been near enough to a combat situation to go missing at all.

"Chrissy?"

Janice appeared at her side. Christine couldn't find any words to say. Janice tugged the telegram from her hands and read it, her face going from worried to sorrowful. "Oh, Chrissy, I'm so sorry."

"He's not dead," she blurted out. Janice blinked.

It was stupid. "Missing in action" without additional details generally meant that death was likely but not confirmed. It was a hellish limbo for families who teetered between grim reality and tenuous hope. But something churned deep in her gut. Roger wasn't dead. She'd know. Wouldn't she? She'd know if he was really gone.

Was that foolish hope? Maybe. But her gut was absolutely certain. "He's not dead," she repeated.

Janice watched her in silence for a long moment. Christine wasn't sure what her friend was thinking, but finally the tiny woman nodded. "Okay."

Christine submitted to going back to their room for a while and having her supper brought to her. But she insisted on working the next day as usual. Every pitying look she felt being cast at her made her spine stiffen. She wanted to get up on a chair and yell at everyone that Roger wasn't dead and she wasn't grief-stricken or in denial.

There wasn't time for such shenanigans now anyway. The bombing raids were occurring at a furious pace and the base in southern England was bracing itself, as it was expected Operation Overlord would start within a matter of hours. Masses of troops had been arriving on the coast and Captain Baker had the nurses inventorying supplies for the days ahead.

It was June 4th when Christine heard a familiar voice asking questions in the office attached to the supply room. She stopped in the middle of counting iodine bottles and went to the doors. Sure enough, Leonard was talking to the clerk, showing his paperwork. There were several other doctors she vaguely recognized from Sicily in the room.

Len looked up and froze for a second when he saw her before remembering his manners. "Lieutenant Chapel, good to see you again."

"You too, Major."

Len got his papers back from the clerk and moved toward her. Christine stepped back into the supply room, out of the way, and he followed her inside. "How are you, Christine?"

His expression was too bland for him to have heard. She braced herself. Part of her had been wishing Len would run into Janice or Jim first so she wouldn't be the one telling him this. "I've been better. I got a telegram from my fiancé's mother. He's been listed MIA."

"Oh Lord," Len said lowly. He grasped her hand, probably without thinking about it. "Christine, I-"

"He's not dead," she interrupted before he could tell her how sorry he was. He stared and she lowered her voice. "I know it's crazy and I can't explain it, but I know it, Len. He's not dead."

They had never discussed Roger or her engagement in any great detail. Len knew how she'd met Roger due to Lucy's illness and Roger's specialty as a doctor, and that Christine wasn't over fond of her future mother-in-law, but not much else. Like Janice, Len looked at her for a long moment before merely nodding his head in agreement. "Do you know what happened?"

"No," she shook her head. "I just got a telegram saying he'd been listed MIA."

"When?"

"February, which is even stranger. I'm not sure why I didn't learn about this until now."

He frowned and she guessed his thoughts mirrored hers. Something odd was going on here. But he refocused on her, his voice going soft and sending a tiny shiver down her spine. "How are you doing?"

She waved a hand helplessly. "All things considered...?"

He chuckled lightly at that. Someone called his name from the other room. "I have to go find my bunk and store my gear. I'll see you later?"

She nodded and it was only when he squeezed her hand before letting go that she realized he had been holding it through the whole conversation.

*~*~*~*~*

Christine caught Leonard up on the latest gossip including Jim and Janice's fight. Supper that night was consumed, though, with the news that Rome had been liberated. Some of the men who had landed at Anzio had been part of the operation and Christine, Janice and the other nurses who had survived shared brief looks of mingled sorrow and relief.

There wasn't much time to dwell on the past. The noise of planes in the sky distracted everyone. On the morning of the 6th, she listened with Janice and the other nurses to General Eisenhower's radio broadcast announcing that the invasion of Fortress Europe had begun. It was nearly a full day of agonizing waiting for the casualties to start coming but once they began, the world narrowed down to the next patient, the next operation. Christine was once again assisting Len in surgery. Janice was given command of triage during their shift. The hospital was running 24 hours a day for the first week or so, as casualties were mostly being shipped back across the channel from the evacuation hospitals near the front.

Eventually field hospitals were established across the water and the pace slowed a bit. Then came orders to prepare to move. They were going to France. At least this time the doctors were going with them. Christine was more comforted than she wanted to admit that Len would be there, although being around him again was somewhat distracting, at least during the lulls in between waves of casualties.

There was no time for goodbye visits. Janice and Len got to talk to Jim on the phone for five minutes but that was all. Then Christine and Janice were working with Captain Baker to load the hospital's equipment onto the boats and keep the nurses and doctors organized and they were sailing, under an incongruously blue and sunny morning sky, for the tiny portion of France that was now liberated from the Nazis.

Christine was bracing herself for being near a front line again and Janice grew quiet and pale as they arrived and began setting up the hospital. The casualties in England had been somewhat unsettling but there hadn't been too many close bombing raids of the base there, due to the overwhelming Allied forces in the air. Also the base had buildings, not just tents, and the hospital was clearly marked and well away from any more tempting targets. Christine knew from first-hand experience that the Nazis had little regard for the red cross marking a hospital and they were fighting what would inevitably be a losing action as the Allies ground their way across France toward the German border. The situation might make them more desperate, as she observed to Janice the night before they left when they were both lying awake in the dark, unable to sleep.

Janice attempted to take a more positive view. "Perhaps the Germans will be ready to surrender after years of war and the blockade."

Christine could tell by her friend's voice that even she didn't believe that.

Within the first 48 hours of setting up the field hospital they experienced three waves of heavy casualties as the Army units pushing forward encountered strong resistance from a German battalion. They were close enough to the front to hear gunfire in the distance and Christine dropped a pair of scissors at one point. Len looked at her sharply but she shook her head, biting down on her lip under her mask and focusing on the surgery.

When the patients were all in post-op, Christine found Janice huddled in the corner of the nurses' tent, her legs folded under her. "I threw up," she admitted when Christine approached. "I heard the gunshots and I ran around the corner and threw up."

Christine plopped down next to her. "And then?"

Janice laughed, a little shakily, resting her head on Christine's shoulder. "I went back to work."

They leaned against each other for a while until Christine felt like her legs were stable again and Janice decided she wanted coffee.

But a week after arriving in France they were ordered to move the hospital. Once they settled into their new position, they had only light casualties for two weeks. The bigger problem was heatstroke as July and August brought the hottest weather of the summer. McCoy and the other doctors were fuming with frustration, knowing they were probably needed somewhere, but transportation was a mess. The Army was having trouble moving units around which meant the transfer of individual personnel was hopeless. There was nothing to do but wait it out.

It was in early August when Christine finally got a letter from Mrs. Korby. She shared the details with Len and Janice that evening at supper. Apparently the commander hadn't realized right away that Roger had gone missing and it took a couple of weeks to establish that he was MIA. Then there was some sort of paperwork delay on changing his status, which was why Mrs. Korby hadn't gotten her telegram until April. She had spent a couple of weeks harassing people in Washington to try to get more information before sending Christine the news, wanting to have something more definitive to tell her, but no one seemed to be clear on anything.

It was frustrating to say the least. Christine knew little more than she had for the last two months but her certainty that Roger was alive hadn't changed. She caught Len watching her at one point during the evening but he looked away when she stared back and said nothing.

That night, Janice hesitated before turning off the lamp in the tent they were sharing. "Chrissy, can I ask you something?"

"Sure."

Janice fidgeted. "It's... somewhat insensitive. I'm just curious. You can tell me to mind my own beeswax."

Christine sighed heavily. "Just spit it out, Jan."

"If Roger comes home, when he comes home, are you really still going to marry him?"

Christine didn't answer right away. She flopped onto her back on the cot with a frustrated noise. "I've been asking myself that same question since Palermo."

"I know there's no hope of... well, nothing's going to change to make it possible for you to... anyway. Even with that, can you still marry him when you're in love with someone else?"

For Janice it was an easy answer. The man she loved was free to love her back and intended to marry her. There were no obstacles in their way, other than the war itself. To her marrying anyone else was unthinkable. But Christine still remembered her plan. She'd been happy with Roger because he fit into her plans for the future. It had never been about some great, majestic love affair. Had that really changed, now?

"My alternative is what, Jan? Being alone the rest of my life because the person I care about isn't free? Should I be miserable forever instead of marrying someone who cares for me and would give me a comfortable life?"

Janice frowned at her. "You don't want a comfortable life, Chrissy, you want Bones."

Christine couldn't help it. She burst out laughing because it was true. Leonard McCoy was many things but "comfortable" was not on that list. Janice followed suit a moment later.

When they both recovered, Christine sighed again. "Roger's alive, Janice. I made a promise to him before I left. Until I hear otherwise or can speak to him again, I won't break my word."

Janice subsided at that, looking unhappy. That made two of them, as far as Christine was concerned.

*~*~*~*~*

Operation Anvil launched in mid-August, creating another Allied front in southern France. Ten days later on the 25th, the company was in surgery listening to a radio set broadcasting the liberation of Paris, happening to the north of them. It seemed like a good omen; however Christine couldn't agree with the young infantrymen who were buoyant about arriving in Berlin before Christmas. She thought about the first eerily quiet day in Anzio and suspected that it would be a long time before any of them were setting foot in the enemy capital.

As August rolled on, so did the Allies. Despite news from the east that the Soviets were moving aggressively forward, the Germans were fighting stubbornly on both fronts. The Nazis retreated to the Siegfried Line, a long stretch of defensive fortifications, and once the enemy was behind it progress ground to a halt. The Allies flung men at the defenses, the only way to overcome them, and all the hospitals in the division were overwhelmed for weeks. Fall rains began and cold soon set in, bringing the problem of trench foot on top of the battle injuries. The disease was painful and widespread and treating it ate up enormous amounts of time as the nurses had to work intensively to save endangered limbs.

It was a chilly Friday evening in September when a loud knock sounded on the door of the nurses' tent. The hospital had moved twice since August and there was no space for private accommodations now. Before anyone could answer, the door opened and Leonard stuck his head in, to the shrieks and angry complaints of several women. He ignored them, looking around until he spotted Janice and Christine in a corner. The mail had come that afternoon while they were on shift and they were both catching up on letters.

Christine's stomach sank at the sight of Len's face. There was only one thing that could put that expression there. Janice got up, almost mechanically, and walked to the door, Christine following her worriedly. They stepped outside into the drizzle and Len stared down at Janice in misery. Christine noticed a piece of yellow paper crumpled in his hand.

He reached out and put his hands on Janice's shoulders. She was already shaking her head. "Janice, he was shot down over Germany."

Jan started to mumble something that sounded like "No, no, no..." but Len tightened his grip, almost shaking her to get her to listen.

"There was a parachute, Jan. One of the bomber pilots saw a chute open."

Janice clutched at Len's arms. Christine could see her fingers digging in even in the dim light. "A chute?"

Len nodded, repeating himself slowly. People suffering under shock sometimes had trouble understanding. "He was shot down but they saw a chute open. The Army is listing him MIA and probably captured." Janice didn't speak right away. She was staring sightlessly ahead, her fingers reflexively tightening and relaxing on Len's arms. He pulled her into a hug. "He'll be okay. I saw the bastard crash a plane and walk away from it. He'll be okay."

Christine could hear the tremble in his voice, belatedly realizing that Len must have been listed as Jim's next-of-kin if he had gotten the telegram. He was trying to convince Janice as much as himself.

A minute later Janice drew back. "Okay," she said, then let out a deep breath. "Okay," she said more firmly. "He's going to be okay."

Despite her words, Janice stumbled and Christine wrapped an arm around her waist. "I'm all right," she mumbled, but she was clearly still in shock. Christine knew she couldn't leave her friend but the look on Leonard's face was tearing at her. His best friend, his only real family in the world, was missing and possibly a Nazi prisoner. She didn't know who needed her more right now.

Len met her eyes and she saw in the light from inside the tent that they were red. But he waved her off. "You should get her something hot to drink, let her sit for a while."

She nodded, trying to convey her concern silently but he scrubbed a hand over his eyes and turned away.

Christine spent the next couple of hours sitting with Janice, making her drink some weak tea while her friend shifted from numbness to tears to an exhausted sleep. It was late when Christine finally stood up. She should get to bed herself but she couldn't stand the thought of Len sitting somewhere alone, grieving. However the doctors were billeted together much like the nurses, and if she went to the door and asked for him, there would be interminable gossip.

Knowing Len he probably had gone somewhere to brood in solitude. Christine decided to discreetly sweep the public areas of the base just in case. The mess was empty so she headed into the hospital with the pretext of grabbing something to help Janice sleep if it was needed. Gaila was on duty in post-op and when Christine explained why she was there, after the first horror-stricken exclamations (there were few nurses who didn't know who Jim Kirk was, even if they hadn't actually dated him), Gaila frowned. "Is that why Dr. McCoy is in the exam area alone? He barked at me when I looked in on him."

Christine swallowed and headed to the small space adjacent to the hospital arranged for patient examinations that needed some privacy. Len was indeed sitting by the small table, the lamp burning beside him. When she slipped in the door he muttered "Shit" and swiftly pocketed a flask. She knew full well that he kept a supply of spirits with him but the fact that he was drinking in the semi-dark confirmed her fears.

"How's Janice?" he asked before she could speak. His voice was rough, whether from the drink or something else it was impossible to tell.

"Asleep, but I wanted to have something handy in case she needed it," Christine answered, keeping her voice low. Len didn't question her excuse and somehow she couldn't manage to keep from adding, "And I was worried about you."

It was an obvious invitation to talk. Instead, he looked at the desk. There was an envelope sitting there - not the telegram he'd held earlier, as the paper was white. He seemed to debate about something before shoving it in her hands. "I finally read my mail."

Christine frowned. There was something brittle in his expression, something beyond the raw grief she'd seen earlier. She unfolded the letter and leaned down so she could read. The handwriting was feminine and she realized after reading the first few lines that it was from Jocelyn, Leonard's wife. Her stomach churned at having to look at this but then the words on the page penetrated her mind.

Joanna's biological father had come back. Jocelyn wanted to give him another chance. She was filing legal papers to have her marriage to Len ended. The paperwork was in the letter for him to sign.

For a long stretch there was silence in the room and Christine felt a multitude of emotions swelling. What came out of her mouth surprised both of them. "That ungrateful bitch!"

Thankfully she hissed the words in a whisper so nobody overheard. Len's jaw dropped in surprise. Christine cast the letter on the desk, like it was soiling her fingers to keep touching it. "I can't believe the nerve of that woman. After everything you did for her!"

She was furious and she had no real idea why. Part of her had been futilely wishing for some way for Len to be free of the burden of a wife he didn't love and a child who wasn't really his. Now he had it and she was fuming. The thought of his sacrifice being tossed aside without so much as a thank you – well, she hadn't read the entire letter so it was possible that wasn't the case, but it was the principle of the thing – it wasn't fair. She shook her head, her voice nearly a growl. "You deserve better than this, Len."

He was staring at her and something surged in his eyes at her words, something that made her stomach lurch and she nearly took a step toward him before remembering Roger. Len might be free, or soon to be, but she wasn't. Not until she could see Roger, not until she knew.

She folded her arms across her chest. "How are you doing? And don't try to lie to me."

He slumped further into the chair. "I read my mail," he repeated. "After I got my head around the telegram, I figured I'd open the mail, try to distract myself from obsessing." He laughed mirthlessly. "Finding out your wife is leaving you for someone else was pretty effective."

Christine snorted, then sobered. "Are you-" she couldn't figure out a way to ask what she wanted to know but he seemed to guess. He flicked a finger at the letter.

"I don't know, Christine. I'm not even sure which way is up right now."

He looked so lost, so broken. She wanted to sit down in his lap and put her arms around him, reassure him that things would be okay. She wanted to promise even more than that but she balled her hand into a fist, digging her nails in. One thing at a time.

He was reaching for the flask again and she put a hand on his arm, interrupting his movement. "Coffee, McCoy. Then sleep. We're on shift at 0600, remember?"

He groaned but he put the alcohol away and got up, gathering the papers and turning off the light. He followed her out the door, his hand resting briefly and warmly against the small of her back before they ambled to the mess to drink bad coffee and then go their separate ways.

*~*~*~*~*
*~*~*~*~*

Unlike Roger's disappearance, Janice and Len had concrete reasons to hope about Jim's status, and in October Len got official word that Jim's name was on a list of Nazi prisoners of war. It was horrible but it could have been worse. Janice soldiered on, hiding her occasional tears from everyone but Christine. She wrote letters to Jim then put them in her locker, as there was little hope they could be delivered.

Regarding the other shocking news, Len was quieter than usual. He'd never spoken about his marriage much to begin with and Christine felt even more reluctant to bring it up now. She caught him looking at her periodically and she wondered what was going through his mind. She couldn't be sure how he was feeling and didn't dare ask. She had no idea what she wanted to hear in any case.

A particularly messy operation one afternoon left her and Len sprayed with blood. They stepped outside the operating room for a minute to change. Christine couldn't quite keep herself from peeking as he stripped out of his shirt, though she scolded herself for it and for the flush of warmth that went through her at the sight of him. But her sharp eyes also noted something else.

His wedding ring was gone, no longer on the chain with his dog tags.

That settled what he had done about the papers. He must have signed them. Christine still burned with resentment toward Jocelyn but at the same time it was a relief to know he wouldn't spend his life trapped with someone he didn't love, raising a child who wasn't his.

If only her own situation could be so easily sorted out.

It was one of the other nurses, a dark-haired woman named Reardon, who noticed that Len was no longer wearing his ring even outside of surgery. All sorts of wild rumors started flying, which was bad enough but many of them placed the blame on McCoy. His tyrannical nature in surgery, while respected by most of the doctors and nurses, didn't win him many friends. A lot of people seemed to take some level of unholy glee in speculating about what he'd done to drive his wife to take his little girl away.

The rumors made Christine livid. Len had done something incredibly self-sacrificing and been, in her opinion at least, fairly ill-used by this woman and now he was getting his character assassinated. And worst of all there was nothing she could do about it. If she had just been his friend it might have been possible for her to come to his defense but given her situation and the previous rumors, she had to keep her mouth shut.

It was Janice who finally squelched the rumor mill after a couple of weeks. She'd been understandably distracted but at supper one evening Reardon made the mistake of repeating some of the malicious speculation to her. Janice glared at the other woman coldly and snapped out in a low voice, "His wife left him for an old beau while he is over here serving his country. Don't you dare imply that this is Bones' fault."

Janice marched off and since she and Len were practically family, her word was taken as the truth. Christine was finally able to get through a meal without grinding her teeth together. Len had clearly told Janice something about his situation but Christine didn't raise the subject, not sure how much her friend knew and not sure what to say in any case. She didn't want to give Janice a chance to point out that the only obstacle now in between her and Len was her own stubborn conviction that Roger's disappearance wasn't permanent.

Most of the time they were so busy she didn't stop to think much about him, or the future. She and Len worked alongside one another without missing a beat, though sometimes she struggled to remember not to call him by his first name when they were in front of people. Len treated her with slightly more respect and courtesy than some of the other nurses, but nothing out of the ordinary. When Christine was off-duty she was usually with Janice or the other nurses or alone. She and Len rarely spent any time together without Janice being with them.

Every once in a while, though, she caught him watching her, with a look on his face that made her heart shudder and her knees weak. He didn't say anything, and in some ways that was worse, because she never knew when that look was going to jump out at her. But if she spoke to him about it, those fleeting moments would stop. Christine couldn't quite bring herself to act, taking refuge in the fact that she had no idea what she would say to him in any case.

As Christmas approached the hopeful mood that had prevailed earlier in the fall was completely gone. It was clear the war was going to stretch into 1945 and there was no telling how long it would be before the Allies reached Berlin from either direction. Still, compared to how the year had begun, there was a certain level of confidence among the soldiers despite the bitter cold of winter.

The confidence of the troops was shattered on the 16th when a surprise German offensive began. There had been rumors of a counterattack being planned but it was expected further north, against the British forces. Christine was asleep in her cot when she and the other nurses were awakened by alarms. Most of them were barely dressed by the time the casualties were beginning to arrive and for several hours in the morning the hospital struggled to cope with the influx of wounded men.

In the afternoon they got an evacuation order. The American Third Army was retreating and the hospital needed to fall back in advance of the front. Len was operating on a young man who'd lost a leg and he cursed vehemently as he hastily patched the patient up enough to move him. As soon as it was over Christine ran off to help Captain Baker and Janice organize to close down the hospital, only to find Baker arguing with Colonel Barrett, the base commander.

"I have fifty men who can't be moved, Colonel," Baker was yelling. "If we move these men they're going to die. They need another 24 hours."

"We don't have another 24 hours, Captain," Barrett shot back furiously. "We're under direct orders to evacuate the hospital. If we don't leave now it won't just be these men's lives at risk."

"Fine," Baker said, folding her arms across her chest. "I'll remain behind until they can be moved. You don't need to compromise anyone else's safety that way."

That seemed to stop Barrett in his tracks. He stared at Baker in shock. "You can't do that."

"Watch me," Baker snapped.

"You can't stay here alone," the colonel continued, clearly looking for some other argument to bring to bear but Christine stepped up alongside Baker.

"She won't be alone, sir. I'll stay as well."

Barrett looked between the two of them, then rubbed his hand over his face. "I'm not going to order anyone to stay behind," he warned.

"Understood, Colonel. We can find additional volunteers and move the men tomorrow."

Baker stalked away, Christine following in her wake, leaving Barrett shaking his head and muttering to himself. Baker glanced at Christine. "Thank you."

"Thank me when we get out of this alive," Christine said, wondering to herself what on earth she'd been thinking. Len was going to have her head.

Janice immediately also volunteered to stay, resulting in a tussle between her and Baker, who wanted at least one experienced nurse moving with the hospital. Janice was as stubborn as the captain, though, and it ended that the three of them along with a handful of volunteers, including several corpsman to handle transportation, grabbing enough supplies to get through the night.

The only warning she had of the real explosion was the door to the supply room swinging open before a furious male voice yelled at her, "Have you taken complete leave of your senses, woman?"

There were half a dozen other people in the room, including Janice, but he didn't seem to care, focusing solely on her. He was angry enough that she wasn't entirely sure what he might say in front of an audience. She narrowed her eyes, speaking before he could say anything else. "I'm doing my job, Major. I don't remember needing to ask your permission." In truth part of her was terrified about doing this but he didn't need to know everything.

Len was pacing, a thunderous look on his face. He threw his hands in the air in exasperation. "If you think I'm leaving you here, you're crazy. I'll stay."

"Bones, you can't," Janice interjected before Christine could respond. Len turned the full force of his glare on her and she swallowed hard but forged ahead. "They're going to need every surgeon we've got. You can't sit here twiddling your thumbs all night. There will be wounded men who need you."

He growled in frustration but Christine knew it was the most compelling argument either of them could make. He paced for another minute before running his hands through his hair and shaking his head. "If the damned Germans don't kill me, worrying about the two of you will."

There was some amused chuckling from the others in the room at that. Janice hurried up to him and threw an arm around his neck. "We'll be fine. We'll only be a few hours."

"Take care of yourself," he said, but he was looking at Christine when he spoke. She merely nodded, trying to pretend there was no large lump in her throat choking her.

He disappeared into the chaos of the evacuation. Christine and Janice and the others helped load supplies and the patients who could be moved, then sat huddled in the post-op listening to the sounds of the trucks rolling down the road as evening fell.

It was a long, cold night and the silence unnerved Christine more than anything else. There were no animal sounds, and the occasional flurries of snow muffled any other noises outside. Convoys drove past occasionally, with commanders jumping out of trucks to demand to know why any American forces were still in place. Most of the men shot them looks of mingled respect and sadness. One pushy colonel attempted to order them to load the patients and follow immediately. Baker and Janice threatened him in low voices until the fool got back into his Jeep and left. Then there were no more trucks, and the quiet became even more pronounced.

There was no hope of sleeping. Christine felt like every nerve she had was straining and she suspected she wasn't the only one. The patients who were conscious were quiet but clearly frightened, so the nurses focused on keeping them calm. Around 4 a.m. there was a muffled thumping sound off in the distance. Christine shared a single look with Janice and Captain Baker. All three of them recognized that noise.

German guns, coming closer.

Daylight began to filter through the clouds. It was heavily overcast and the snow was still coming down. The sounds of fighting grew louder incrementally as the day began. Christine found herself becoming strangely calmer despite the noises. She couldn't explain it but she was certain staying had been the right thing to do and that she would continue to do her duty no matter what.

Around 9 a.m. Baker decided they had waited as long as they could. The nurses and corpsmen began the process of loading the patients onto the remaining trucks. As they were working, a squad came down the road. For one heart-stopping moment Christine expected to see the Nazi insignia on the vehicles but it was the familiar star of the American forces. It was an advance party scouting the retreat path. The lieutenant urged them to evacuate. The Germans were only a couple of miles away.

They got underway down the bumpy road. Christine held on tightly as they jolted over the frozen earth but it wasn't merely to keep her seat. Her body was trembling more the further they got from the front. After one particularly hard bump, Janice grabbed her hand and Christine felt her friend was shaking too. It subsided slowly, as the distance separating them from the front line grew. The trucks worked their way south through the confusion of the Allied retreat.

They had to pull off the road to refuel and give the patients some rest. Six men died during the journey, though several of the corpses weren't noticed until they arrived. Due to the delays it wasn't until the next day that they finally caught up with the hospital. The patients were put into a recovery tent for a few hours; they would be sent along to the regional hospital that was back closer to the coast. The weary nurses and corpsmen were ordered to snatch a few hours of rest before reporting for duty but Christine headed for the OR first and found Gaila just leaving it. "Oh, thank God you're back. I've been working with McCoy for six hours and I'm about to strangle him with an IV line!"

Christine had to laugh. Surgery was over for the moment and the rest of the team spilled through the doors during the next couple of minutes as she recounted the story of the nerve-wracking night and day so close to the line. That close to the front, they hadn't known much about the state of the overall battle. She learned that a large section of the American line had retreated, creating a bulge. The Nazis were still advancing, so the hospital might have to move yet again.

As she was explaining what had happened back at the previous location, she noticed Len hovering in the door to the washroom next to the operating room. He simply stared at her. His face was haggard, with dark circles under his eyes. She could have attributed it to moving the hospital and operating for hours but she knew better.

The rest of the staff dispersed and Len withdrew through the doors. Christine followed him. No one else was inside and she couldn't quite resist the temptation. As soon as she reached for him, Len's arms were around her, holding on tightly, nearly lifting her off the floor. She buried her face in his shoulder, letting her nose warm up for the first time in hours.

"Don't ever do that to me again," he grumbled in her ear.

She sighed. "I'll try?"

He muttered something she didn't catch and she forced herself to let go. Len released her reluctantly. "Janice okay?"

"Yes. We lost half a dozen of the patients but the rest are all right, for now."

He looked at her critically. "When was the last time you slept?"

"I don't remember." She held a hand up before he could yell. "We were ordered off duty to sleep. I'm going. I just wanted to let you know we were back and in one piece."

Len nodded. "Let's go, Lieutenant." His hand rested against the small of her back as they went back out into the cold. He walked her to the nurses' tent, only letting go when she went inside.

*~*~*~*~*

The tired nurses only got a few hours' sleep before having to get up and back onto the trucks. The hospital was indeed moving again. This time they pulled back to near Neufcháteau, which hopefully would be far enough. There was a hospital building there which had been damaged but at least had walls and a roof that was mostly intact.

The Germans continued to advance but they ran out of gas, in some cases literally, as the next week passed. Though the front line was moving close, and they could occasionally hear the guns in the distance, the hospital didn't relocate again. Nobody had time to think beyond the next patient or next shift. Heavy fighting around Bastogne, which had been encircled by the Nazis, created a steady stream of casualties. The bitter cold wasn't helping. The hospital staff took to sleeping in the rooms nearest the OR because the generators powering the heaters and lights for OR and post-op were given priority on fuel. It was too cold to sleep anywhere else.

The injuries slowed in the afternoon a little over a week after the fighting began. At the end of one last surgery session Captain Baker sent the remaining nurses off duty, saying command expected it to be a quiet night. When Janice asked why, Baker gave a wry smile. "It's December 24th. Christmas Eve."

Gaila muttered something about the Germans being evil enough to launch a new attack tonight, but they trudged to the mess in silence. Supper was lukewarm powdered beef broth and weak coffee. The quartermaster had procured a tin of shortbread cookies from somewhere as well. Christine sat with Janice and Leonard in the nearly empty room and dunked her shortbread in the coffee to soften it enough to eat, trying not to think about Christmas Eves past. She came back to the present when Len splashed some whiskey into her coffee mug.

"No arguing," he said quietly. "It's for warmth. Doctor's orders." He did the same thing to Janice's mug, then his own. The three of them touched glasses and then drank. Christine thought of last year when they sat in Len's tiny quarters in Sicily, doing the same thing. She wished with sudden fierceness that Jim was there with them.

Next year, she thought to herself, hoping she wasn't jinxing them all. It wasn't until later that she realized she was picturing herself in the future with Janice, Jim and Leonard rather than at home with her family and Roger.

The whiskey did warm her a little and not long after the three of them left the mess hall in search of a place to sleep. Propriety had broken down during the week, with people falling asleep wherever there was a warm spot. Corpsmen had piled mattresses taken from other parts of the hospital into the rooms adjacent to the operating area so people weren't sleeping on the floor. Christine didn't let herself think too much about the state of those mattresses.

Janice started through the door of what had once been a large exam room where the nurses had been sleeping, but she stopped and slipped back into the hallway. "The beds are all taken," she said through a yawn.

"Shoot," Christine said, yawning herself. "Now what?"

"Come on." Len tugged on her arm and steered Janice down the hallway to the opposite end. He looked through two rooms that were completely occupied before finding an open room on the end of the floor. There was a dingy mattress on the floor, one corner of which had been torn. Janice didn't say anything else, just crawled onto the mattress and curled up into a ball. Through her tiredness Christine frowned at Len.

"Where will you go?"

He shrugged. "I'll find a corner somewhere."

"You'll freeze," she said flatly. All the warm spaces were taken. Even this room was horribly cold, due to the distance from the heated sections of the building.

"I'll be okay," he mumbled, but Christine made a decision and grabbed his arm.
"Come on, lie down."

"Christine," he started to protest, but Janice kicked him with a booted foot.

"For heaven's sake, Bones, lie down and get some sleep. We'll be warmer if we all share."

Christine knew he was blushing. He wasn't the only one. But they needed the body heat in this weather. And if rumors started swirling, so be it. Better that than hypothermia.

Len muttered "oh hell" and started to lie down on the edge, leaving the middle for her. She pried him over and after one half-hearted glare he scooted into the middle himself. Christine stretched out on her side, her back to him, and he threw the thin blanket over her. For a couple of minutes she was acutely aware of the fact that her backside was against his hip, and that Len was holding himself rigid in between the two women.

Suddenly his body trembled. Christine and Janice both turned around to look at him and he shook his head, trying not to laugh. "Jim is going to keel over when he hears about this."

Christine turned bright red. Janice swatted Len's arm and then burst out laughing. "I'll have to torture him by reminding him periodically that I spent the night in bed with you both."

Christine gave in and started to laugh too. She could easily picture the look on Jim's face, as well as the scandalized one on her mother's if she ever heard about this.

The giggling made them all relax a bit. Len was warm, at least. She folded her arms across her torso, tucking herself into a ball, resisting the temptation to turn over so that her front was pressed against him. She drifted off as she imagined doing it, what his reaction would be.

When she started to wake up, she resisted. She was warm but she could tell that if she moved even slightly she would find cold air waiting for her. She snuggled into the bed, wanting to drift back off, when something moved against her belly. She opened her eyes and realized there was a strong, muscled arm wrapped tightly around her midsection.

Len. Oh God.

He was spooned up against her back. Her pillow was in fact his other arm, tucked under her head. The blanket was covering them both and she could feel his warm breath in her hair.

She couldn't move right away. She remembered being in his arms after getting out of Anzio, that feeling of safety and comfort. She felt it again, though at the moment the most powerful sensation her body was registering was heat. This was the first time she'd been warm since summer, it felt like.

She absolutely did not want to move but as she listened, she realized she could only hear two breathing patterns. She craned her neck and over the bulk of Len's body realized Janice was gone.

"She left a little while ago," Len said quietly, making her jump. She hadn't been sure he was awake.

"Oh," she said, inadequately.

"I didn't want to leave you here alone in the cold," he said, but she could hear something in his voice that made her twist to look at him.
His mouth was twitching. He'd stayed just to keep her warm, that was all. And Christine was next in line for the throne of England.

"Shame on you, Leonard McCoy," she hissed, extracting herself from his embrace even though part of her was wailing at losing both his touch and his warmth.

"Sorry," he said, sounding anything but. She glared at him, sitting up and attempting to straighten her clothes. Hopefully they hadn't been alone in here long enough to raise any eyebrows.

His fingers brushed against her face, tucking an errant lock of hair behind her ear. His voice was low and seemed to go right to her nervous system. "Merry Christmas, Christine."

Her brain kicked out "Merry Christmas" automatically. She was distracted by his fingertip, gently tracing the shell of her ear. Such a light touch should not have made her tremble all over. She shivered and Len licked his lips. Christine knew she should get up and walk out right that minute but she didn't move. He leaned toward her, slowly enough that she could have backed away, but she didn't. Instead she met him halfway.

Len pressed his lips against hers lightly. If he had pushed, if he'd been as demanding as he had been the first time, she probably would have pulled away. Instead he kissed her almost reverently and Christine whimpered and moved closer. She was the one who deepened the kiss, acutely aware of his hand sliding along her neck and into her hair.

In the back of her mind she knew this was wrong for some reason. She couldn't remember, but it nagged at her under the sensation of his warm lips and hands and the heat of his body as she nestled closer. The kisses grew more intense and her fingers buried themselves in his hair. She was leaning so close she was nearly in his lap and Len moaned her name under his breath.

Roger.

Reality crashed back in on her and she reluctantly drew away. Lord, what was she doing?

Len didn't move for a minute but when she didn't meet his eyes, he got up without another word and left the room. Christine climbed to her feet, then stood there helplessly for a moment.

Suddenly she kicked the corner of the mattress. She kicked and kicked again and again, because it was that or start screaming to vent her frustration. She loved Len. She knew it, he knew it. More than that she wanted him, badly. She wanted to know where a relationship between them might lead.

But the uncertainty about Roger hung over her like the damned sword of Damocles. She couldn't shake it. It had been nearly a year since he'd gone missing. Any rational person would have given up by now, particularly when there was someone else she wanted so much. And since learning that Len was now free, Christine had been trying valiantly not to think about what might happen if she officially resigned herself to Roger's death.

But every time she slipped and imagined a future with Leonard, Roger showed up. On her wedding day, her anniversary, while she was giving birth to her first child, at the worst possible moment, Roger would show up. Her conviction that he was not dead wavered sometimes but somehow she was sure that if she did indeed move on with her life, the universe would prove to her that he was alive by having him reappear in her life. He would give her a disappointed look and she would feel terrible about breaking her promise.

If only she knew! She couldn't move on until she had an answer, one way or another. And it was unfair to Len to tease him like this, make him think she might be willing. He'd been through enough. She couldn't bear to hurt him. She had promised herself once that she couldn't allow him liberties with her again. This time she told herself sternly she couldn't allow herself to take liberties. Not until she had an answer.

Christine spent most of Christmas staying quiet and avoiding him. She caught one brief flash of hurt – or was it regret? – on his face at one point in the afternoon but by the next day, the Allies had begun to push back against the German advance, driving all other thoughts away. The bitter cold had been a result of the skies clearing and the British and American forces unleashed the full might of their airpower onto the Germans, who were dangerously far from their supply lines. The bombardment echoed over the hospital for days. General Patton's forces began to fight their way back to the previous front line and January passed by in a blur of blood and bombings.

Unbelievably, the weather turned even colder. Christine had never encountered anything like this. Even Janice and the other members of the unit who were from northern parts of the world hadn't endured cold this bad before. Truck engines had to be run every half hour to prevent them from freezing solid. The medical staff took to sleeping in the recovery ward – the corpsmen shuffled the patient beds closer together and spread mattresses on the floor in the far end of the room. The men slept on one side, the women on the other, whenever they happened to have time to sleep. The walk from the heated rooms to the mess or even the latrine was nearly unbearable.

The front was pushed back by the end of January so the hospital relocated, which didn't help the chill. The fighting moved forward through the winter cold, the Allies driving inexorably for the Rhine, the last great physical barrier defending Germany.

*~*~*~*~*

In February Christine got a letter from home bearing bad news. Mike had been injured. A Japanese kamikaze pilot had attacked the ship, resulting in an explosion which had blown off one of Mike's arms. It was terrible but Christine knew it could have been much worse. At least her brother was alive.

Mike was being discharged and sent home, of course, while cousin Joe remained in the Navy. He would be the first of the five Chapel grandchildren to return. Her cousin Pat was somewhere in General Bradley's command north of them. Christine had only gotten to see him briefly while she was in England. She kept an eye on the casualty lists and so far he'd made it through Normandy and France without serious injury. Margie was working at a hospital in the Pacific. One of Janice's little brothers would turn 18 later in 1945. She was praying fervently that the war would be over before then. Losing one sibling was difficult enough.

Another surprise arrived in February. Christine and Janice were both promoted to captain for remaining behind with the wounded that night during the Battle of the Bulge. Captain Baker was promoted to major and given a special citation for bravery and devotion to duty.

The weather finally moderated a bit as March began. The Nazis had withdrawn beyond the Rhine by now, and the Allies were hurriedly trying to reach the great river before all the remaining bridges were destroyed by the retreating Germans. Without passage across the Rhine, the Allied advance would have to wait until the engineers could be safely delivered across and then build new bridges, which would take time, especially to build bridges that could carry trucks and tanks. In that time the Germans would be able to regroup.

Christine and the others followed the news anxiously as the 9th Armored Division approached the Rhine. The 9th had been fighting at Bastogne in December, so the staff knew many of the men in the division. In early March, the 9th seized the Ludendorff bridge at Remagen intact. The Allies swarmed across the Rhine and established a secure base on the other side. Additional crossings were quickly established, which was good as the Remagen bridge actually collapsed within a few days, and as Allied divisions poured over the Rhine, the momentum changed.

Through the fall of '44 and the first two months of '45, the Allies had measured progress in small increments. Now the advance rolled forward with astonishing speed. The Germans were in disarray, falling back without any safe place to retreat to. Nazi troops in some cases surrendered in defeat but some squadrons, especially from the S.S., fought like demons. The locals were not always friendly to the Allies either. The hospital still lagged behind the front, but even they encountered hostile German citizens who spat or threw rocks at anyone in uniform, even medical staff. At the orders of HQ, armed guards were placed around the hospitals.

At the very end of March, Major Baker came seeking Christine, looking nervous. "Captain, we've just received word that members of the 9th have found a POW camp. They're requesting a team be sent to triage the prisoners. I thought you and Captain Rand might want to go with Major McCoy."

There was absolutely no way to know what they would find but during the bumpy Jeep ride, Janice sat with her arms tightly folded across her chest. Len gripped the seat for dear life and Christine prayed that they wouldn't get their hopes up only to have them dashed to pieces.

She needn't have worried. Unsurprisingly, the Germans had devoted their resources to caring for their own men and the prisoners of war, while not openly abused, had clearly not been fed well or provided with proper medical care. The hospital team fanned out, beginning with the rudimentary medical building in the camp where the most critically ill POWs were kept. Janice went back outside to order a truck to be prepped and in the doorway she froze.

Christine reached over and tapped Len's arm. He followed her gaze and rushed to the door, Christine on his heels.

Janice was running through the motley collection of American and British POWs who were milling around outside, heading for a gaunt-looking man who was leaning on a cane. She crashed into Jim so hard she nearly knocked him over, but his arms wrapped around her tightly even as they staggered.

Janice kissed him, regardless of their audience, and the weary men around them started to cheer with a volume Christine was amazed they could achieve in their weakened state.

Len ran up to the happy couple, unable to not interrupt them. As soon as he put a hand on Jim's arm, his friend broke away from Janice and then grabbed Len into a bear hug. Christine stood back, tears in her eyes as she watched Len and Jim embrace tightly for a moment. Janice was leaning on Jim's shoulder, undoubtedly crying into his jacket.

As soon as anyone could think, Len immediately snapped into doctor mode, insisting Jim come into the hospital area to let him look at his leg. Jim walked unevenly between his friend and his sweetheart and they forced him down onto a bed. Len turned away to ask the medic who'd been seeing to the POWs about Jim's condition. Christine snatched the opportunity to lean down and kiss his cheek. "Good to see you again, Jim."

"Thanks, Chrissy. Thanks for keeping them safe for me."

Janice wiped her eyes, laughing and crying. Christine didn't get a chance to say anything in return before Len was back, so she merely shook her head and moved away, taking charge of triage so her friends could fuss over Jim.

Compared to some of the other prisoners, Jim was in fairly good shape, albeit malnourished and very weak. But he ended up on the truck back to the field hospital anyway. No one protested when Janice, Len and Christine went off duty early and settled into Len's tent with Jim and some food. He told them how his Mustang had been hit by antiaircraft fire and he had been forced to bail out. His parachute had worked but it had been damaged by more flak and he'd ended up smashing his leg when he hit the ground. He tried to crawl under cover but a patrol found him and put him into a cart. He remembered passing out from pain in his leg as they hauled him carelessly back to their base. He was put onto a train and sent to the Stalag, where he'd been since November.

They filled Jim in on the events on the front since his plane had been shot down. Len avoided mentioning anything about his marriage at that point. Jim was getting sleepy, probably from being adequately fed for the first time in five months. Len caught Christine's eyes and she nodded slightly. The two of them left Janice and Jim alone and went out into the twilight discreetly.

"What do you think?" she asked him lowly.

Len didn't need to question what she was referring to. "I'm not sure. It may be just that the leg wasn't set properly and we can rebreak and set it right and he'll heal. But there may be muscle damage by now." He paused and then sighed. "He'll never fly a combat plane again, that's for sure."

Christine forgot for a moment her resolution to avoid touching him and put a hand on his arm. "He's alive, though."

Len nodded. "And it could've been much worse."

Christine remembered her wish at Christmas, that the four of them would be together someday. She prayed to God that whatever else happened, by the end of the year that wish would come true.

*~*~*~*~*

The Allies discovered more POW camps as the advance moved on across the heart of Germany. Those weren't the only discoveries. During the winter, word had come from the eastern front that the Soviets had uncovered terrible sites in Poland where people, mostly Jews, had been slaughtered by the thousands. Rumors had been circulating for several years that the Nazis were mechanically decimating populations but it was difficult sometimes to separate real news from war propaganda. The Russians had uncovered hard evidence. There were no words to describe the horror of these discoveries. The American 3rd Army uncovered another of the death camps at Buchenwald in early April and it wasn't the last one to be found. The liberated prisoners, who looked like walking skeletons in many cases, were mostly sent to other hospitals but reports and god-awful pictures told the grim story.

On April 12th they all received another shock as news came over the radio that President Roosevelt had died. Christine actually started to cry. The first election she'd voted in had been the 1940 presidential election when, like almost the entire country, she'd cast her ballot for FDR. It seemed impossible that they were so close to ending the war in Europe and he would no longer be the commander-in-chief. Even Janice, who was from conservative New England and not much of a fan of Democrats, was stricken at the news, but she observed to Christine that night that maybe President Roosevelt knew the bulk of his task was finished now and it was okay to leave things in Truman's hands.

Len had managed during the first week of April to muddle the paperwork to keep Jim in the hospital but eventually Colonel Barrett lost patience. They had wounded men and staff who needed every resource they had. The newly-promoted Major Kirk needed to go back to England. It was a wrench seeing him go but at least they knew he would be safe. Len repeated several admonishments for Jim to obey the doctors in England and be careful of his leg. Christine had long ago realized that was how Len McCoy expressed affection to most people.

Just before Jim was bundled into the truck with the other patients he grabbed Janice's hands. "I'm afraid I can't go down on one knee, Janice, but... will you marry me?"

Christine was a little surprised he hadn't said it before this. Janice smiled and shook her head and leaned in to kiss him. "Took you long enough, Jimmy."

Jim ducked back, keeping away. "Hey, what kind of an answer to a proposal is that?" He was grinning but Christine saw tears glistening in his eyes. It was preferable to the haunted look that occasionally came over him since his rescue.

"Yes."

Everyone around them began to clap at that, and Jim kissed his fiancée one last time before climbing awkwardly up onto the truck with some help from Len and a corpsman. He looked down at Janice. "Start making wedding plans, Captain Rand. As soon as we're both Stateside, I'm not waiting any longer than that."

Janice was crying and laughing and Christine slid an arm around her friend as they waved the irrepressible man off.

*~*~*~*~*
*~*~*~*~*

 

The Soviets began to lay siege to Berlin in the middle of April, and Allied progress in the west slowed as the remaining German troops were either sticking things out to the bitter end or surrendering wholesale, which actually prevented the army from advancing almost as effectively. There was a new kind of tension in the camp and among the soldiers. Everyone knew it was a matter of days and more than one man seemed fatalistically certain that something awful was going to happen to him now that the war was nearly over.

The Soviets took Berlin on the 21st. Dachau was liberated near the end of the month, then news came that Mussolini had been caught and publicly executed. Mere hours later they learned that Hitler had committed suicide. As April turned to May, rumors flew like wildfire and combat slowed further. The entire German army in Italy surrendered, and then on the 7th, the announcement finally came over the radio of the unconditional surrender of German forces to the Allies. May 8th was declared Victory In Europe Day.

The war wasn't over. Fighting in the Pacific remained fierce, and there was no telling how long it would take to conquer all the islands of Japan, but Christine spent much of the day like everyone else, crying, praying and holding on to her comrades-in-arms. She thought of the naïve girl who'd left New Orleans on the train bound for Baltimore and it seemed impossible that only four years could have wrought such a change in her and in the world. So much death and loss, so much hatred still remained. She had no idea how any of them could move past this, how the world was going to look in the future, once the war finally ended.

Work didn't stop at the hospital even with the armistice. They still had patients to handle even if combat had ceased. Some of the commanders of the Nazi war machine attempted to go into hiding and they had to be searched out, and the remaining army units disarmed. The Allies spread out across Germany, occupying the country in order to impose some semblance of order, without which civil strife might well break out.

The medical staff would not be leaving Germany right away for obvious reasons, but Janice was already doing what Jim had suggested and talking about wedding plans. She vowed that she wouldn't get married if Christine and Len weren't there to witness it, which raised the question of how soon any of them would be sent home. Jim was still in England, where doctors had performed an operation on his leg to remove bone fragments. Len was irked that he wasn't there, until Christine reminded him they wouldn't have allowed him to operate on Jim in any case.

Christine was somewhat avoiding Len otherwise. Now that the European war was ended, she had to face the future soon. But she didn't know what that future would entail, or who, and the burden of more than a year of uncertainty had taken its toll.

Then in late May Christine received a letter from Mike. It was postmarked in Hawaii and dated from March, when he must have been on his way home after his injury. Puzzled, she slit the letter open and began to read. For a long time she sat on her bunk, staring at the letter, not entirely able to grasp the contents.

Mike had ended up at the regional hospital where Roger had been working. Knowing that Christine had been wondering all this time what happened to her fiancé, Mike asked around at the hospital, trying to find someone who had known Dr. Korby. He finally got one of the surgeons, a Dr. M'Benga, to talk to him after explaining that his sister had been engaged to Korby.

Roger wasn't MIA. He was AWOL – absent without leave. Apparently some young woman who had been assisting at the hospital had caught Korby's eye. A very young woman, Mike stressed, barely more than 18. The hospital commander had been furious and fired her, forbidding Korby from contact with her. Not long after that Roger didn't show up for work and then the girl's family showed up at the hospital, reporting her as missing and demanding to know where the American doctor had kidnapped her to.

The best Mike could guess, Mrs. Korby had gotten the notification that her son had abandoned his post and was listed as a deserter. She probably couldn't bear the truth to get out so she told everyone Roger had gone missing instead. She hadn't counted on anyone actually arriving at the hospital and asking questions.

It explained many things, including why Christine had never gotten any details of how or why Roger had been close enough to combat to go missing, why it had taken so long for news to reach her and why Mrs. Korby had never written to provide answers.

But Christine still couldn't quite make it sink in. For a year she'd been in a hellish limbo where Roger was concerned, her sense of loyalty and her illogical conviction that he wasn't dead keeping her going. For six months she'd been struggling against her feelings for Len versus her obligations to Roger.

Roger, who had not only begun a relationship with another woman but who had abandoned everything including his patriotic duty to run off with her, without bothering with even the tiniest apology to the woman he had professed to love and planned to marry.

Fury, jealousy and a bittersweet sense of relief warred within her. She'd been right. Roger wasn't dead. She'd known it, deep in her soul. Perhaps not from some special bond of love and affection but more from her Grandmère's sixth sense of impending doom, but she'd been right.

And now she was free, without the slightest need to feel guilt or grief over the loss of a man she didn't love anymore, who had treated her feelings with utter contempt. Part of her was relieved but part of her was in free fall from such an abrupt resolution.

Janice found her pacing restlessly in the tent. Christine couldn't be coherent so she finally put the letter in Janice's hands and started pacing again, chewing on her thumbnail nervously. For several minutes, Janice merely read and occasionally blurted, "Oh my. Oh my." When she finished the letter she looked up at Christine, who opened her mouth but couldn't make a sound.

Janice stood up and hugged her tightly. "I'm sorry, Chrissy."

Christine clung to her tiny friend. "You are?" She'd have thought Janice would be pushing her out the door and toward Len as soon as such news had arrived.

"He treated you awfully," Janice said with fierce anger. "You were faithful to him all this time and he ran off with some floozy! He's despicable and you shouldn't waste one more minute on the cheating bastard."

Logically, Christine knew that was true. But she suspected it was going to take her heart more than a few minutes to get over this.

*~*~*~*~*

Christine wished futilely that Janice would handle the task of telling Len the contents of the letter but it was a long shot at best. Jan brought her something to eat in their quarters that evening and predictably, within half an hour, Len was banging on the door.

He stormed in, firing questions and looking at her critically. "What's wrong? Janice said you weren't feeling well. Are you sick?"

"No, I'm okay. I just... got a letter from my brother."

His face grew alarmed. "Is he all right?" Christine sighed, sitting down on her bed.

"It's about Roger." There was a pause. Len sat down gingerly on the edge of Janice's bunk, watching her anxiously. Christine folded her hands together in her lap tightly and took a deep breath. "Mike did some digging and found out what happened to him." She explained the story. When she mentioned the other woman, Len reared back, his hands clenching on his knees. When she finished, Len rubbed a hand over his face.

"That miserable son of a bitch!" Len burst out. "Excuse me. But there's really no other words for him at this point. A cheater and a traitorous coward!"

"Those would be other words," Christine pointed out, her mouth twitching with an unholy desire to laugh. Possibly she was feeling a little hysterical at this point. There were only so many shocks one person could deal with.

He looked slightly sheepish but he leaned forward, elbows on his knees. His voice dropped, and the soft, gruff sound of it made her shiver. "How are you really?"

She made a helpless gesture. "I knew he wasn't dead. I just didn't expect... who would ever expect this?"

Len nodded. There was another silence and when she forced herself to look at him, he was staring at her with a heat in his eyes that nearly took her breath away. "Christine-"

"Don't," she interrupted him. He recoiled a little and she put a hand up. "I just... I need time, Len." At the incredulous look on his face, she amended. "A little time."

He accepted that and stood as if to leave. But instead he leaned down and kissed her forehead. Coming from anyone else, the gesture would've felt brotherly, but not coming from Len. Christine felt warmth blush through her down to her toes at feeling his lips against her skin. But he didn't say anything else, just brushed one finger against her cheek and left her to her brooding.

As she sat there in the twilight, Christine made a promise to herself. She'd done the decorous and proper thing with regard to her engagement for far longer than anyone would have expected. She wasn't going to let herself be imprisoned by propriety again, or waste any more opportunities. Her life had been on hold long enough.

*~*~*~*~*

Christine didn't actually get a chance to act on her resolution right away. To their surprise, the hospital was closed and the staff ordered back to England in June. They finished up with their patients, packed the equipment and then made the slow journey back across France to the coast. The devastation of Europe was far more apparent now that they weren't constantly moving and handling casualties. There was already talk of massive aid that would have to come from the U.S. to get the Continent back on its feet, though that would have to wait until the Japanese were defeated.

The Allies were fighting fiercely in Okinawa and the Philippines and although the Japanese forces were retreating, they were not giving up any ground willingly. The Americans were doing their best to shift all their resources to the Pacific war. Christine and Janice wondered if they were going to receive new orders once in England, sending them to the Pacific theater. There was no news on their arrival, at least. Christine wasn't sure if she could stand starting all over again at this point. It was selfish but she wanted to go home.

About a week after they arrived at the base in England, Janice got leave to go see Jim, who was in a hospital closer to London. Len had stopped there before coming to the camp on the pretext of checking on Jim's surgery. It had gone well but as Len had feared, there was damage to the muscles in Jim's leg. His limp would be less noticeable, but it would be permanent.

The morning Janice left, Len approached Christine after lunch. He looked nervous, which in turn made Christine nervous. "Hi."

"Hi."

"Do you, um, have any plans for tonight?"

Her stomach lurched as she suspected what he was going to say. She strove to keep her voice calm. "Nothing specific. Why?"

He fidgeted. It was rather cute. "I was wondering, hoping, rather, that you'd have dinner with me." When she didn't answer right away, he added, "In my quarters, I mean. Just the two of us. And if it's too soon, just tell me and I'll back off, Chris-"

She brushed her fingers against his hand, silencing him. It had been a few weeks since she got Mike's letter. That was long enough. She felt almost dizzy with nerves but she only said, "What time?"

"Six?" His voice actually croaked a little and she smothered a laugh as he glowered.

"Okay. I'll see you then."

He clasped her hand for a second before letting go and they went their separate ways but Christine was rather useless all afternoon. No matter how many times she tried to tell herself it was just a date, there had been more than a year's worth of build up to this meal. It was, she fervently hoped, the last first date she'd ever have.

Her dress uniform, which she had been carting around Europe for two years, hung off her after so many months of rations and skipping meals, but it was presentable and also the only thing she had that wasn't a daily uniform intended for work. She had one sole surviving pair of stockings that had no tears or rips in them. Shoes were a bigger problem. She'd lost the heeled shoes that went with the dress uniform during the evacuation from Anzio and never bothered to get them replaced. There was no time to go to the quartermaster. Janice's shoes were much too tiny so Christine sought out Gaila, who was closer to her height. Gaila had a pair of shoes that were half a size too small but Christine figured she could endure it for a few hours. Gaila also had a stash of cosmetics that she loaned to her, in honor of the important occasion.

At ten to six, Christine took a final glance in the mirror. The uniform was neat, if loose, and she had applied a tiny bit of makeup to her face. Her hair was twisted up in a simple but elegant knot, with a few stray blonde curls free over her neck. It had been so long since she'd worn anything but her boots, trousers and a plain blouse that she hardly recognized herself.

For one horrible moment she was paralyzed as she turned to the door. Was she really going to walk across the base to Len's room, so clearly not going to make a simple visit? Was she ready to announce this to everyone and possibly start the rumors going fast and furious?

She set her jaw, threw open the door and walked down the row of tents toward the men's quarters. She'd been waiting forever for this moment and she didn't care who saw her or what they thought, not anymore. Though she did walk rather quickly and avoided making eye contact with anyone.

She knocked on the door and it opened immediately. Len ushered her inside and then stopped as he got a good look at her. Christine felt warmth flow through her at the scrutiny. He was in his dress uniform as well, at least the shirt and pants. He was actually wearing a tie, something she'd almost never seen him do. Like her, his uniform hung off him a bit, but she had to resist the urge to lean in and wrap her arms around his broad shoulders then and there.

Len cleared his throat. "You look amazing."

She chuckled, smoothing a hand over her skirt – she had the belt as tight as it would go to keep it in place. "This old thing?"

He grinned and offered to take her jacket. He folded it carefully on his bunk and sat her at the small table in his room. Christine noted that even though it was warm, he had the flaps lowered on the tent so nobody walking by could look inside and observe them.

It was hardly a gourmet meal, since Len had simply raided the mess hall and brought the food here. That didn't stop Christine from struggling for a bit to make small talk. She was acutely conscious of being alone with him like this, and the fact that no one was going to mark when she got home to her own quarters tonight.

They finished eating and she stacked the dishes while Len went to the small radio set he had. He found a music broadcast and approached the table again. He held out his hand. "Dance with me?"

Christine blushed for at least the tenth time that night as she stood up. But she glanced down. "Take your shoes off."

"What?"

She stuck her foot out. She'd shucked her shoes when they sat down at the table because they were pinching her feet terribly. "I borrowed a pair of Gaila's shoes and they're too tight to dance in. I don't want you stepping on my toes."

Len grumbled even as he reached down to pull his shoes off. "I know we've only danced together once but I do not step on toes."

She grinned as he stood there in his stocking feet. There was a hole in one of his socks. "There's a first time for everything, Len."

He tugged on her hand and drew her into his arms. She felt a thrill go through her just from that, and leaned into his hold as they swayed slowly in the middle of the tent. Len was capable of more flashy dancing than this, but right now she didn't want to do anything but be here, leaning against him.

The song ended and another one began and she felt a gentle kiss pressed to her temple. "Christine?"

"Hmm?"

He nuzzled her cheek and she drew back to look at him. Len looked down at her and took a deep breath. "I love you." She didn't notice that they stopped moving. In fact, she forgot everything else in the world but the tiny bit of space between them.

Once he got the words out, it seemed like the dam had burst and he continued, "I've been in love with you for a long time. I know it might seem soon, since you just finally got word about Korby, but I've been waiting for so long to tell you, and I wasn't sure I would ever be able to, that I'd have the right to say anything-"

Christine leaned up and kissed him gently, stopping the babble of words. Len relaxed, letting go of her hand and sliding both his arms around her waist as he kissed her back.

When the kiss ended, her arms were around his neck. "I love you, too," she whispered, feeling a tremendous weight lift off her at saying it aloud at long last.

He smiled, the rare, full smile that lit his face up, and then he kissed her. She lost track of time as they stood there, Len's hands sliding up and down her back as they kissed slowly. When they finally separated for air, Len laughed. She understood how he felt. She was slightly giddy and probably not just from the lack of oxygen.

His hands came to rest on the small of her back and he met her eyes. His voice went low and soft as he said, "Marry me?"

She hadn't expected him to jump ahead like this, but they had waited so long she didn't see the point in playing coy. She gulped down a lungful of air, slightly afraid she might pass out before she could reply, so she kept her answer simple. "Yes."

Len lifted her up in his arms as his mouth crashed against hers, kissing her wildly. Christine laughed, trying to kiss him back and hold on and wipe the tears away from her face at the same time.

Some time later she found herself in his lap, Len sitting in one of the chairs and devoting his attention to finding every sensitive, vulnerable spot on her throat, nibbling and kissing his way from her ear to her collarbone. It was quite possibly the most wonderful sensation Christine had ever experienced in her life but some part of her brain was reasserting itself and she murmured, "Len, we should probably talk."

"Mmph," was all the reply she got and his teeth teased her earlobe. She sighed and reached for strength.

"Leonard." She swatted his shoulder for good measure.

"Hmm? What?"

He looked adorably rumpled, his expression hazy and his hair a mess from her fingers sliding through it. His lips were swollen as well and for a moment she forgot why she'd interrupted him. "We need to make some plans. At the least talk about a wedding date."

He wrapped his arms around her hips, his fingers laced together against her side. "Pick a date, I'll be there."

She chuckled. Unable to resist temptation entirely, she ran her fingers through the hair on the nape of his neck and his eyes closed in bliss for a moment. "I'm afraid my parents are going to insist on a formal affair in a church, no matter what."

"I figured as much."

She weighed her next words. "If we're going to have to do that anyway, I'd just as soon get married now."

He went still. "You don't want a church wedding?"

"I'll have one," she said. "Which makes waiting all that time seem a little silly. Especially after we've already waited so long." Her voice caught as she thought of the needless months of anxiety and frustration and he leaned in and kissed her gently.

"It's up to you, honey. If you want to get married here and now, or you want to wait until we can be at home with your family, I'll go with whatever you choose."

She nodded. "I want to do it now. No more pointless delays."

He grinned at her, a touch of wickedness in his eyes. "I'm all for that, sweetheart."

She shot him a look but he merely tightened his grip and nuzzled her neck again. She refused to let him distract her for long. "What about after? Where are we going to live?"

He looked at her in surprise. "You don't want to settle in New Orleans? You've been talking about getting back to your family for as long as I've known you."

She sighed, propping an elbow on his shoulder and leaning on her arm. "I don't know. I mean, of course, I want to go home and see them, but I'm not sure if I want to live in the same city and have them nosing into our lives all the time." He made a face at that. She picked at his shirt collar. "There's also your career to consider."

"I can practice anywhere," he pointed out. "What about you?"

"My mother used to insist that it wasn't proper for a married lady to work. Of course, she spent all her time on societies and charity work, and she didn't have a college degree." She thought about it for a minute. "I'd like to keep working, at least for a while." She looked at him curiously. Roger had been very much on her mother's side on this question.

Len shrugged. "Whatever makes you happy." When she didn't speak right away, he nudged her. "What is it?"

She gripped his tie in one hand. It had come loose a while ago but he hadn't taken it off. She looked at that rather than meeting his eyes. "When Roger proposed... I had this whole grand plan for my life, Len. I started planning my future out when I was about fourteen. China and silver patterns and flowers. I knew what size house I wanted, even what colors I wanted to paint the rooms."

He pried her hand off his tie and laced their fingers together, bringing her hand to his lips. "You know that I'll give you anything that you want, right?"

She sat up, huffing in frustration. "That's just it, though. It shouldn't be just about what I want. This is your life too. I want to do this together."

He shrugged. "I'm willing to yield to your decisions on things like china and paint colors, darlin'."

She didn't laugh at his teasing. This was too important to her. "I want more than things, Len. In fact, I don't want things at all. That life seems cold and empty now when I think about it. I'm ashamed that I put such a priority on what didn't matter, not really."

He tucked a stray curl of hair behind her ear, though his expression was serious. "What do you want, Christine?"

He surely knew the answer but she said it anyway. "You. I want you."

Len kissed her, cradling her close, his mouth hot and hungry against hers. She held on to him tightly, sinking into his warmth. She could go anywhere, face anything, if she knew this was waiting for her at the end of every day, she thought.

Eventually she snuggled into his arms, her head on his shoulder, and Len sighed. "Okay. I haven't thought all that much about it, but I want to keep being a surgeon." She glanced up at him. He'd said before that his ambition in life was to be a country doctor, to take up the practice in his hometown. He must have guessed her thoughts. "I don't want to sell the farm. That may make things more complicated, but I want to keep it in the family. But I'm not sure living there is the best idea." He played with her fingers as he spoke, almost to himself. "One thing the war has taught me is that I can't really uphold my oath as a doctor if I hide myself away somewhere."

"You'll need to be at a hospital, to keep doing what you've been doing."

He nodded. "So a city, somewhere. Maybe Atlanta?"

"I'm sure you won't have trouble finding a place to practice, not with your skills."

"You're gonna make me blush, darlin'," he growled. His ears were in fact turning pink. She kissed his cheek, and then decided that turn about was fair play, and began to nibble on his earlobe. The noise she got in response was more than worth it.

"What about children?" she whispered before returning to teasing him.

"Yes," he mumbled, shifting her slightly in his lap.

She chuckled, blowing a breath gently on his ear. "I was looking for more information than that, honey."

He pinched her side and she squeaked. "I want kids," he said seriously. "I've always wished I had brothers and sisters, a family."

She laid her head back on his shoulder. "Maybe we could convince Janice and Jim to settle near us. I'd like our kids to know each other."

"Jim may have trouble finding work," he said somberly. The injury to his leg might prove to be a problem, she knew, especially depending on what happened at home when the war ended. Millions of men returning from war, how would they all find work?

Len distracted her by picking up her hand again. "I need to get you a ring," he said before kissing her fingers.

"We need to set a date," she added, slightly breathless as his mouth began to explore her hand rather thoroughly. Little shocks of pleasure were going up her arm, making her lightheaded.

"We probably won't be here all that much longer," he said, though how he could manage to do so with what he was doing to her fingertips was a mystery.

"Two weeks?" she managed to get out. That would hopefully be enough time for the paperwork to get sorted out.

The look in his eyes made her glad she was already sitting down, because her knees would have buckled from the raw desire on his face. He nodded. "I want Jim as my best man, which might mean we have to go up to the hospital."

"It doesn't matter," she said, wrapping her arms around his neck and leaning her forehead against his. "I don't care where it happens, as long as you're there."

"Wouldn't miss it," he told her, his mouth twitching just before he kissed her once more.

It took some time to disentangle themselves and for Christine to smooth her clothing back into place, but later that evening Len walked her back to her room, kissing her hand as he said goodnight. She knew he was teasing her but she was too happy to do more than roll her eyes at him and go inside.

She changed into her nightclothes and climbed into bed. The night Roger had proposed, she'd lain awake, refining her plans for the future. Tonight she relived every moment of the evening while simultaneously wishing Janice was there to talk the night away. There would be time for that, she supposed, falling asleep with a smile on her face.

*~*~*~*~*

During the next few days, Christine received more letters, this time from her parents, full of outrage at the Korbys. Her mother was particularly livid since Mrs. Korby had told everyone she was going to Washington to find information about her son while secretly having her belongings moved out of the house. Christine wasn't far behind her mother in anger.

"She was just going to leave me hanging forever," Christine fumed to Len. "Just have me grieve for Roger for who knows how long, putting my life on hold for a lie."

"You would've learned the truth eventually," Len pointed out. "If you'd returned home without Mike finding out the truth, what would you have done?"

She considered for a moment. "Contacted the War Department, tried to find out for myself."

"At which point they would've told you his status was AWOL and the whole business would've come out. Though I'm grateful your brother saved us that much time," he added with a small smile.

She had to agree with him on that point.

She wrote a letter home of her own, explaining her feelings on Roger and then announcing to her parents that she'd already met someone else and was going to marry him here in England. The news was going to cause a bit of an explosion at home, she knew. Her hope was that by the time she arrived back home as Mrs. McCoy, her mother would have calmed down sufficiently, particularly since Christine assured her parents in the letter that she and her fiancé were expecting to have a church wedding in New Orleans once they were back.

After a few days, they went to London as planned, to see Jim and bring Janice back to the camp. Of course, nearly as soon as they got to the hospital Jim was suspicious and it didn't take much prodding for them to share the news. When Christine said they were getting married so soon, Janice shot a pointed look at her own fiancé. "You see? Christine doesn't mind having two weddings."

Jim shook his head, grasping her hand. "I'm marrying you once and that's it. No do-overs."

Len laughed out loud. "If someone had told me I'd live to see the day when Jim Kirk was insisting on a proper church wedding, I would have sent them to a psychiatrist for examination."

Jim looked a little sheepish. Christine swatted Len on the arm and shushed him.

While Jim was resting in the afternoon, Len disappeared on an errand and Janice and Christine went to the hospital cafeteria and had coffee and she recounted some of the details of their dinner. In the evening they all sat in Jim's room, eating hospital food and talking for hours. It was the most peaceful Christine had felt in a long time. Finally the three of them retired to the nearby hotel, Christine sleeping in the extra bed in Janice's room.

Jim's doctor said he would be able to go to the wedding. He was getting around well on crutches now and would be shipped Stateside soon. Christine noticed Len slipping something to Jim before they left, but she reined in her curiosity.

Christine and Len filed the paperwork for permission to marry, which was returned with rare speed by the Army higher ups. They weren't the only people seizing the opportunity to get hitched now that the war had ended in Europe. It turned out that Christine and Janice were being discharged shortly – married women weren't allowed to serve in the Army, so the brass was willing to allow the wedding to go forward. The next task Christine had was to get herself a decent pair of shoes. She would be married in her dress uniform, since she would go through the whole white dress ritual at home, but at the least she wanted shoes that matched her uniform. And fit.

She had among her few personal possessions a lace handkerchief that had belonged to her Grandmère. Fresh flowers were too difficult to find, so she decided to keep things simple and just hold the handkerchief in her hand. Janice had a necklace with a blue stone, so that along with the shoes and handkerchief covered the old, new, borrowed and blue items.

Several people they had been working donated their rations and the mess hall was able to conjure up something resembling a cake. Christine was rather moved by the generosity of her colleagues, although it raised the question of just how long everyone had known about her and Len. She decided not to ask.

A wrench was nearly thrown into the proceedings when orders arrived two days before the wedding. Christine received her discharge papers, as did Janice and Len, to his surprise. Many of the doctors hadn't been released yet, due to the ongoing fighting in the Pacific. The majority of the company was being sent home on a hospital ship that was leaving in a week. Christine and Len had been granted three days of leave for an abbreviated honeymoon, but now it was cut down to one day, since they had to be back to pack up the hospital and get to the coast. The good news was that as a married couple they had a good chance of getting a private room on the ship.

Jim arrived the day before the wedding. After supper he insisted on having a men-only gathering in Len's quarters, in lieu of a proper bachelor dinner. Len didn't look very happy about this, though his default expression with Jim was "grumpy" so it was difficult to tell. Christine kissed his cheek and let Janice and Gaila tug her away to her own small celebration. A handful of the nurses from the company, mostly those who had been together since shipping out for Sicily in '43, gathered in Christine and Janice's tent. The women pooled their supply of chocolate, as well as contraband wine which Christine avoided, since the last thing she needed was to overindulge the night before her wedding.

It hit her as they were laughing and talking that in a few days, these women would be gone from her life. It was hard to grasp, having spent nearly four years with some of them, that a day would come when she wouldn't get up and put on her uniform and be alongside these people anymore. It was actually more disorienting than the idea of waking up the day after tomorrow as Len's wife.

On impulse, she grabbed a blank sheet of paper from Janice's desk and had them write down addresses. She promised to copy the list out and send it to everyone once they were Stateside. That got them talking about what they were going to do next. Janice's plans were known, of course. Gaila was staying in England. She had been seeing a young man from Scotland who was still in the service and she didn't want to leave without him. They planned to get married but they hadn't settled on where they were going to live. Major Baker was remaining in the Army, going to a hospital near D.C. to work with men with serious injuries who needed long term care. Several of the others were planning to return home and either marry their sweethearts or go to work in civilian nursing.

Janice laughed as she leaned against Gaila's shoulder. "We should plan a reunion. Once a year, like the Ziegfeld girls."

They all laughed through their tears and drank a toast to that.

The evening wound down and eventually Christine and Janice were left alone. As they were getting ready for bed, just like they had done a thousand times before, Janice noticed Christine was fussing unnecessarily with her toiletries. Janice knew her too well. "Chrissy, are you nervous about tomorrow?"

She let out an explosive sigh. "Horribly." She felt more than a little foolish. "It's embarrassing, after all this waiting, to be so scared right now. I've been wishing for this for so long."

"I don't see why. You spent how many years pining for each other from a distance? And now within a couple of weeks you're getting married. That would make anyone's head spin."

Christine nodded and sat down on the bed, tucking her feet under the blanket. Janice was still looking at her. "Spill it, Jan."

Janice, as usual, got down to brass tacks. "Is it tomorrow night that's got you worried?"

Christine swallowed, looking down at her hands. "That obvious?"

Her friend shrugged, teasing her a little. "I'm assuming a proper Southern lady wouldn't ever do such a thing as go to bed with a gentleman before marriage." After four years, Janice could do quite a good imitation of Christine's accent. They both laughed at that.

"You'd be correct," Christine told her. "Although I think it's more the whole situation than the wedding night. Or at least just the wedding night." She blushed. "I'm not particularly worried about Len's... capabilities on that score, anyway."

Janice burst into renewed giggles. "Oh really? Just exactly what went on while I was away?"

"Nothing," Christine hissed. "Almost nothing," she amended, remembering the evening of Len's proposal, as well as a couple of stolen hours in his quarters, and a few days ago when Len had run into her in the supply room when no one else was around.

Janice cracked up again and reached for the lamp. "If you're going to have that look on your face, we should probably turn the light off." In the dark, Christine considered throwing her pillow at her friend, but she might not get it back. She stretched out, wondering how on earth she was going to get to sleep, when Jan's voice came through the dimness. "He loves you, Chrissy. And you love him. That's all that matters."

She nodded, even though she couldn't be seen. "Thanks, Jan."

"You're welcome."

*~*~*~*~*

Her nerves didn't abate much overnight. The wedding day was sunny and warm and Christine would've been at risk of becoming drowsy if she wasn't so tense. Janice helped her dress after breakfast, though there wasn't much to do. At ten they left the tent, walking toward the mess, which was the only space large enough to accommodate everyone. This wasn't the first wedding in the camp but Christine felt like half the world was watching.

Thankfully she forgot everything as they entered the hall. Len was standing near the far end with the chaplain. Jim was beside him, leaning on his crutches and grinning. Both of them were in their dress uniforms. But Christine didn't notice anyone else. The way Len was looking at her... she was never going to forget that look, not as long as she lived.

Janice walked ahead of her and then she was standing beside Len and the ceremony started. It was a simple service but Christine hardly heard a word of it. She managed, barely, to pay enough attention to answer when the chaplain asked her if she would promise to love and honor her new husband. Len was looking at her in amusement, which helped fortify her, until it came to the rings. They hadn't bothered with an engagement ring at her insistence. Len turned to Jim, who pulled something out of his pocket, and Christine knew her suspicion of what Len had been up to during that trip to London had been correct.

The ring was simple, fitting for Len himself. There was a small diamond stone with two tiny diamond chips on either side. It was slightly loose, but she reflected that was preferable to him having to force it onto her finger.

He'd purchased a man's wedding band that matched hers – she silently said a prayer of thanks he hadn't been quite so frugal as to reuse his old ring – and she slipped it onto his left hand. Looking at him, she prayed fervently that he would never have to put her ring on his dog tags to protect it.

The chaplain pronounced them man and wife a couple minutes later and ignoring all boundaries of propriety, Len tugged her into his arms and kissed her passionately, causing the audience to whoop and holler. She blushed bright pink but her new husband was unrepentant and she laughed before letting Jim pull her into a one-armed hug and smack a kiss on her cheek. Janice was embracing Len and then it was time for the reception.

Despite rationing and the lack of alcohol, people managed to enjoy themselves. Christine suspected the sugar in the cake had a lot to do with that. Janice and Jim both offered toasts to their friends – Jim's actually brought tears to some people's eyes, while Len looked rather astounded at it.

They were leaving around noon in order to get to an inn that was north of the camp. Some of the corpsmen had tied cans and strips of bandages to the Jeep they were taking and it felt like the entire camp was flinging rice at her head as Len tugged her out of the mess to the car.

He helped her in and hurried around to get into the driver's seat and they headed off, Christine waving over her shoulder as they drove out of camp. She felt one small pang of regret that she didn't have a bouquet to throw, but she pushed the thought away and reached over and squeezed her new husband's hand as he drove the car. She would never regret this wedding, no matter the traditional trappings it had lacked. It had the most important things: friends and family.

*~*~*~*~*

The inn was a private place hidden among old stately trees that had managed to avoid severe damage during the Blitz. It wasn't big but it was elegant. The front lawn had been torn up and turned into a vegetable garden, but behind the manor house was a meditation garden with precisely trimmed trees shadowing stone benches, creating a cool and tranquil refuge.

They arrived late in the afternoon due to congestion on the roads. They cleaned up in their room, Christine keeping herself from looking at the bed too much, then wandered the grounds for a little while, talking quietly until it was time for supper. The matron of the establishment apologized that the food wasn't better and that the inn no longer had the staff for room service to give them privacy, but Christine assured her truthfully that the meal was the best one either of them had eaten in years. The other guests discovered they were newlyweds and to Len's immense embarrassment, someone began clinking a glass with a fork until the whole room was chiming and Christine leaned over and kissed him just to shut them up.

After supper they retired to their room and Christine felt all her nervousness return. She excused herself to go into the bathroom to clean up. She washed her face and brushed her teeth and then shot a look at her reflection, scolding herself for dawdling like this.

She stopped short as she came back out. She'd left her husband sitting on the edge of the bed, taking off his tie. Now he had flopped onto his back, his feet on the floor. His eyes were closed and for a moment she was sure he'd actually fallen asleep.

One of his eyes opened slightly, though, and he reached out a hand. She let him tug her down beside him and then gasped. The bed had a real mattress, possibly even a feather one. She sank into the soft material and understood why Len had sprawled like that. She couldn't resist the temptation and mimicked him, lying down beside him and sighing at the sensation.

He chuckled. "After four years, I'd nearly forgotten what a genuine feather mattress feels like."

"Me too."

Her eyes were closed so she jumped when his fingers brushed her neck, pulling back a stray lock of hair. Len turned so that he was on his side, facing her. His fingers touched her face, caressing her cheek and her forehead, and the warmth of his touch and the softness of the bed was enough to let her relax, at least a little.

"Christine," he said, taking a slow breath. "We don't have to rush into anything. Tonight, I mean." When she looked at him in confusion, he sighed. "Everything happened so fast. If you'd like some more time, you know, before..."

Part of her was touched that he was willing to postpone consummating their marriage. She had no doubt that if she said so, he would merely lie beside her all night, for as long as it took. The sense of trust, of safety, she'd always felt with him wound around her.

But a larger part was irritated. She sat up. "Leonard McCoy, I would not have agreed to marry you, or to such an early wedding date, if I wasn't ready for, well, everything that would entail." Her cheeks flushed despite herself. "I'm a trained nurse and I happen to have had a very informative grandmother. I will not have you treating me like I'm some delicate, ignorant damsel who needs protecting."

His lips were twitching, which only irked her more. She leaned closer, allowing her body to press against his brazenly. Even in the low light in the room, she saw him swallow. "Unless you're the one who needs more time?"

"Hell no," he growled with a gratifying urgency. He pulled her down into a hungry kiss before trailing his lips over her jaw. His voice was so low it made her shiver in his arms. "You have no idea how long I've wanted you in my bed, Christine."

"Oh really?" She smiled at him as he pushed her onto her back and hovered over her. "How long, exactly?"

His fingertips slid down her neck, playing with the first button of her blouse. "It would be ungentlemanly to admit to a date."

She rolled her eyes, laughing. "That cursed honorable streak of yours rears its ugly head again."

He unfastened the button, looking at her for any sign of uneasiness. "I would think a wife would be grateful to have a husband who won't kiss and tell." He leaned down and kissed the hollow of her throat. He unfastened her next button and his mouth moved lower, kissing her abdomen through the camisole she had on underneath her shirt. Just the pressure and the warmth of his breath made her body begin to tense up in pleasant anticipation.

"You'd better not," she growled herself. Her fingers threaded through his hair as he worked the rest of her buttons open and tugged the blouse free from her skirt. She sat up and let the shirt slide from her shoulders. Len tugged the camisole off as well, then his hands were spanning her waist, pulling her into his lap as he kissed her frantically.

She managed somehow to get her hands on his shirt. He'd opened the first button earlier, so she attacked the others. Len helped and a minute later he yanked both his shirt and undershirt off. She didn't get a chance to look, not then, because he pulled her close, their upper bodies pressed together, and he bent his head to mouth kisses across her shoulder. The scratch of his beard stubble and the light touches of his lips made her squirm in his lap, her breath coming faster as he worked. The strap of her brassiere slid down as he moved. Her eyes closed as he kissed and licked his way across her skin. Then she laughed lightly when he cursed. He was struggling with the clasp of her bra and she reached back to help him.

The material fell away and Christine felt a bit dizzy as her husband stared at her with a hungry expression. The sight of her seemed to affect him strongly, but she was more surprised at her own reaction, the heady feeling of power and pleasure mixed together. She'd never felt this way around a man before, not even that night in Sicily. Curious, she pulled away and stood in front of him. Len made a protesting noise until he realized she was undoing her belt and unfastening her skirt. A quick shimmy had it sliding to the floor, followed by her slip, and she stood there for a moment, watching his reaction.

She half expected Len to pounce on her, but he reached out and put his hands on her hips, drawing her closer. He kissed her stomach gently, which made her squirm from the ticklish sensation of his lips and his hair against her skin.

When he pulled back, though, she recognized the look in his eyes by now. He did grab her then, flipping them around so that she was on her back on the bed, but instead of climbing on top of her, he unfastened one of her stockings and began to roll it down her leg slowly. His lips followed the fabric, leaving kisses on her exposed skin, all the way down to her ankle. Christine was shaking by the time her one leg was free, and when he finished with the second, she was sweating and breathing heavily, more aroused than she had imagined possible.

He hesitated only a moment before removing the last of her clothing, and despite the desire, she blushed terribly as he stared. She couldn't pry her hands loose from the tight grip she had on the quilt, and Len seemed in no hurry to move, which only made her face flush even more.

Finally he let out a breath and fumbled off his trousers and the remainder of his clothing. Christine had seen plenty of naked men over the course of her career, but always in a medical context. She couldn't keep from staring in her turn. Despite the fact that they were married, she felt slightly wicked, particularly after all her attempts not to think about Len this way.

Her nervousness started to come back as Len urged her to lie down with her head on the pillows. He settled above her, the solid heat of his body pressing her into the mattress. But he just kissed her, slowly and thoroughly, distracting her so that when his hands began to explore, she jumped a little. He smiled but didn't stop kissing her even as he caressed her until she was shifting impatiently underneath him. He broke away from her mouth finally and looked into her eyes. "Christine, if it's too much, just tell me and I'll stop, okay?"

She nodded, unable to speak, and then he moved, bringing their bodies together. It was a strange combination of pleasure and then pain. He must have seen it in her face, because he stopped moving. He cupped her cheek, brushing his lips against hers. "Relax, darlin'. Just relax."

She closed her eyes, not entirely sure what to do, but after a minute of his light kisses and touches the pain faded. When she shifted her body experimentally, Len responded, and within moments only the pleasure was left.

He moved slowly at first, building the sensations within her gradually until Christine was clutching him so hard that she was afraid her nails were going to draw blood. Finally the pleasure peaked, leaving her stunned and breathless, and a few moments later Len followed. He whispered nonsense in her ear, some of it things that would've made her blush in the light of day, until he drew away, leaving her grabbing for the quilt to cover her chilled skin.

She was half-asleep as they cleaned up, then grateful when Len curled himself around her, his body warm and solid at her back. He leaned over and kissed her ear. "You okay, darlin'?"

"Mmm." She heard him laugh at that. He played with her hair, combing it back from her face and her neck. Eventually she caught his hand and intertwined their fingers. "I suppose I should've asked before this, but I'm guessing I'm not the first woman you've shared a bed with?"

He kissed her shoulder. "No." Even though she didn't say anything else, her questions must have been obvious because he sighed. "There were only two. Jocelyn, while we were in college, and a young lady I met while I was a resident."

Christine nodded. She wasn't sure what had prompted her to ask about this right now and had no idea what to say. She stared at their joined hands until Len lifted a finger and nudged her chin so that she would meet his eyes.

"That was a long time ago, Christine." He was looking at her seriously, the intensity that unnerved so many other people radiating from him even in the dark. "And it was never like this. I didn't love either of them, not the way I love you."

The tiny hint of fear in her heart melted and she turned so that she was facing him. Len went eagerly when she pulled him into a kiss and they lay there, holding each other and kissing, until Christine felt her body beginning to respond to his wandering hands and realized the same thing was happening to her husband.

He drew away, slightly abashed. "If you're too tired-"

She cut him off by boldly crawling on top of him. The groan of pleased surprise he let out was worth it. She rocked her hips against him deliberately. "We've only got one night for our honeymoon, Len. I wasn't planning on sleeping much, were you?"

He answered in the affirmative, though not with actual words.

*~*~*~*~*
*~*~*~*~*

 

The journey across the Atlantic was more pleasant this time, partly due to the July weather but mostly the lack of fear of submarine attacks. Christine and Len were assigned to a private room. Although the bed was not nearly as comfortable as the one from their honeymoon, they spent a lot of time on the journey sleeping. It was the first time in years they'd been able to sleep late or merely lie in bed resting and Christine enjoyed the laziness for the moment.

Of course, they used the bed for other things (as well as the small shower in the tiny bathroom). Jim teased them occasionally about what they were doing in private until Janice scolded him or Len glared enough to shut him up.

Christine found it oddly easier to get used to sharing her bed with Len in the privacy of their quarters than with other, more public changes. Though not the most demonstrative of people, he would take her hand or slip his arm around her waist when they were standing or sitting next to each other. Sometimes it was in response to some young patient casting flirtatious looks in her direction, but sometimes it just seemed to happen. For the first few days of the trip, she would tense up a little when he made some sort of public display.

Janice rolled her eyes when Christine mentioned it and reminded her that the two of them had just spent nearly two full years having to guard against even the most casual of touches in public for fear of gossip. Of course it was going to take some adjusting.

By the time they reached New York she was mostly over it. She and Janice shared another round of tearful goodbyes with their fellow nurses before they disembarked, then they all headed into the city. The four of them were spending the night at a hotel before getting on a train for Vermont the next day. Christine's parents weren't happy that she was not coming home directly but Janice and Jim's wedding had been delayed long enough.

The Rands had aged a lot in the two and a half years since Christine had seen them at that last Christmas stateside. The loss of their oldest son and worry about their daughter had taken quite a toll. Even planning for the wedding didn't seem to improve Mrs. Rand's spirits all that much. She spent a lot of time glancing at the crepe-framed photo on the mantle, while her husband and children pretended not to notice.

Jim was on his best behavior around his new in-laws but Christine and Len both concluded that it probably wouldn't help much. Jim wasn't a church-going man and that was a mark that he couldn't entirely overcome with the devout family. Fortunately, no one said as much aloud during the week leading up to the ceremony.

The wedding was small and simple but Janice was a pixie of a bride and Jim smiled with the old exuberance Christine remembered from when they met. The reception was modest as well, mostly friends of Janice's family pervading the house. As the afternoon faded, it was time for the bride and groom to depart. Christine went upstairs to help Janice change into the traveling suit she had gotten at the store a few days earlier. Len appeared to take Janice's suitcase down to the car and the two women were alone.

Janice took her hands and then laughed. "It feels strange to be going somewhere without you."

Christine smiled though her eyes were filling with tears. "I know but trust me, tonight of all nights, you don't want to be sharing a bunk with me."

Janice lunged forward and hugged her tightly. "I'm going to miss you so much, Chrissy. I don't know what I would've done without you."

"As though I didn't need you just as much?" Christine retorted, holding on just as hard. "It's not forever, Jan. When we find a place to settle, Len and I want you and Jim to come too." She hadn't been planning on mentioning this just yet, but she wanted to put the idea out there.

Janice chuckled. "Jimmy's been talking about that. He says he's worried about what might happen to Len if he's not there. Like you can't keep your husband in line without him."

"I'm pretty sure it takes all three of us to keep Jim in line, actually," she joked and they separated after a brief kiss on the cheek. "I'm so happy for you both."

A car horn honked downstairs and they both rolled their eyes before heading out of the tiny bedroom. Janice hugged Len tightly while Christine hugged Jim, and then he and Jim embraced before the newlyweds walked out to the car, Jim leaning on his cane and the guests throwing rice indiscriminately all over them. Len slipped his arm around Christine and she leaned against him as their friends drove away to their honeymoon.

They stayed a little longer before heading to the train station themselves. Christine's parents had gotten them a private compartment on a train to New Orleans and they spent the next couple of days sleeping and watching the countryside go by out the windows. It was the first time they had been surrounded by strangers since they had met and it threw her a little. The next couple of months were going to require a lot of adjusting, it seemed.

The morning of the day they were due to arrive in the city, Christine woke to find her husband watching her. She frowned at him and he gave her an innocent look that didn't fool her for a moment. She wasn't thrilled with the idea of him watching her sleep while she made heaven knew what faces or her hair went every which way. Len had told her she was being silly, and more than once she'd woken up like this.

Today he seemed pensive. He leaned down and kissed her good morning and she touched his cheek as he pulled away. "What's wrong?"

"It occurred to me that we haven't discussed how we're going to explain some things to your parents." When she raised her eyebrows, he sighed. "Such as my previous marriage. They might not look too kindly on their daughter marrying a divorced man."

She had not considered that, in fact. She lifted her left hand and wiggled her fingers at him. "Not much they can do about it now," she pointed out.

He grumbled. "I don't want to start off on the wrong foot with your family, darlin'. I'll already be in the doghouse for eloping with you instead of waiting to ask your father's permission to court you and all that."

Christine felt that the realities of war-time rendered old fashioned courtship rituals pointless, but her personal feelings on the matter would not change how her mother would feel. "They might not need to be told, you know. Only a handful of people knew you were married."

He stretched out on his back. "They'll find out. You know they will. Things like that always come to light somehow."

She sighed. "You're probably right. But Len, I think you're worrying too much about this. You did an honorable thing. Why don't we just tell my parents the truth?"

"It still might cause a scandal," he said, looking at her worriedly. "It was one thing when we were in an Army camp where gossip came and went like the wind but didn't go anywhere, but this could be following us for the rest of our lives if it causes problems."

Christine propped herself up on her arm, looking down at him. She'd married a hopelessly overprotective man, she knew. It was a good thing she found it endearing. But if he thought that some idle talk could be a problem for her or her family? "Honey, what have I told you about my Grandmère?"

He blinked in confusion. "Not all that much. I know she died when you were sixteen, and that you were very close."

She smiled slowly, which only made Len more confused. "Well I think it is high time I explained to you a few Chapel family traditions, because even though my last name is different, I'm afraid they still come with the package and you're part of them now. Starting with the story of Grandmère and her first husband."

As they approached the city, Christine told him the tale of Grandmère and the musician. That, along with some more creative distractions on her part, was enough to get Len to relax at least a little. Her family and her aunts and uncles were waiting at the train station when they arrived and Christine was enveloped in an enormous hug from her mother almost as soon as her feet hit the platform. Her father and Mike were not far behind, Mike with his left shirt sleeve pinned up, a reminder of how the war had touched all of them.

Before the rest of her relatives could claim her, Christine stepped back and reached for Len's hand and tugged him forward. "Mama, Daddy, this is my husband, Dr. Leonard McCoy."

He shook hands politely with her parents, evading the rather dark look her father was shooting him. Mike was more friendly and also suggested they should gather the luggage and get back to the house, giving everyone a chance to breathe.

Christine got a bit of a shock when she got to the house where her younger cousins had been waiting. They had all grown significantly; Lucy was now a young lady of fourteen but she still had a bear hug for her favorite cousin. The cook had made as many of Christine's favorite dishes as could be managed with rationing and supper was the biggest meal Christine had eaten in four years.

There were questions, of course. In the evening after the meal was over, Lucy sat on the couch and begged to hear the story of Christine's engagement and marriage. Len merely looked at her with raised eyebrows and Christine recited the basic facts, skipping over some details that her parents didn't need to know.

When she'd finished, her mother turned to Len, a hint of frost still in her voice, "And who were your people, Leonard?" Christine squeezed his fingers as he cleared his throat and explained that his father and grandfather had both been doctors, that he owned a farm in Georgia that dated back to before the War (which of course meant the Civil War, and Christine suppressed a smile at Len showing off his Southern credentials for her parents' benefit).

The mention of Georgia clearly alarmed her mother, particularly when Christine observed blandly that she still hadn't seen the farm. But her father relaxed visibly with the knowledge that his new son-in-law was at least not flat broke and hunting for money.

Christine had a bit of a headache by the time the evening was winding down and was thankful when Len yawned rather loudly and apologized, saying he was tired from traveling. They went upstairs where the guest bedroom had been prepared, but Christine paused in the doorway to her old room. It was the same as she had left it. The maid had clearly been cleaning it, because there was no dust on the surfaces. From the doorway she spotted a vase of dried flowers on the vanity – gifts from Roger that she had preserved carefully during their courtship. Christine shut the door rather swiftly. She would wait and deal with cleaning things out in the morning.

But the next day she was distracted by the news of the atomic bomb being dropped on Hiroshima in Japan. Nobody could manage to concentrate for the rest of the week as there was no immediate response from the Japanese government. The Americans then bombed Nagasaki and after a tense weekend, news finally came of the Japanese surrender. Christine breathed deeply in relief. Her cousin Joe was still in the Pacific, but now he would at least be safe.

Len was relieved as well, though he expressed worries about the use of atomic weapons against an entire city. They had both seen the results of the bombings of cities in Germany and that had been with more standard weapons. The reports of the devastation in Japan raised alarms with a number of people, even as the country celebrated victory.

Near the end of August, Len broached the idea of going to Georgia to check on the farm. Christine was grateful for the excuse. Her mother was knee-deep in wedding plans and it was all she could do to keep things from ballooning out of control. It gave her a chance to breathe for a few days as they hopped on a train to Atlanta.

The farmhouse was old and not in the best state of repairs. Len's father's illness had been costly, she knew, and no one had been around to see to the house adequately. It was a little spooky at night, given the size of the house and it was just the two of them rattling around. Christine felt an odd surge of sympathy for Jocelyn, who had been living here with Joanna for a while. It must have been unnerving to have this whole place with no one but a baby for company.

Len busied himself with some repairs and finding a caretaker. Christine did some cleaning which was desperately needed. They spent the evenings sitting on the porch swing together, watching the fireflies and listening to the crickets. The peace and quiet only confirmed for Christine the desirability of settling somewhere away from her family.

The wedding couldn't be avoided forever and they went back to New Orleans, where Christine put her foot down about some of her mother's more grandiose ideas. In September Janice and Jim arrived to play their part in the second wedding ceremony. Jim charmed Christine's mother and her aunts without breaking a sweat, which was handy as Len's resistance to the more ornate wedding details hadn't endeared him to his mother-in-law.

The church wedding went without a hitch. This time Christine was more nervous that something would go wrong and upset her mother than she was worried for herself, and she and Len both had trouble not laughing through most of the ceremony. But this time she got to dance with her husband to a real live band and throw a bouquet to Lucy as they left to go on a brief honeymoon trip to a hotel on Lake Pontchartrain.

A few weeks before the wedding, Len had accepted a position at a newly-formed hospital in Houston. It was close enough to see her family frequently without having to live right nearby. In the days leading up to the wedding, Jim and Christine's brother had a number of conversations about their future plans. They were both considering opening some sort of repair shop but Mike couldn't manage one entirely on his own. They elected to go into business together and do it in Houston too. Jim made a joke about calling the place "An Arm and a Leg Repairs" but thankfully Janice talked him out of the idea.

By Christmas, Len and Christine had bought a house in Houston. Christine and Janice were both working, though Janice worked in a hospital and Christine in a private practice office. Jim and Mike opened their repair shop during the winter.

It was summer of 1946 when Janice had her first baby, a little girl they named Julia. Jim doted on his daughter, and on the son who came along two years later, though he still suffered from bouts of depression. Periodically he would go out drinking and Janice would call Len, who would head out to keep Jim out of trouble and bring him home. Fortunately Jim was usually not a belligerent drunk, at least not when at home. That he and Janice were never as well off as they would have liked didn't help. The repair shop did all right but money was usually a little tight, and Janice went back to work once the children were old enough to be left.

Christine grew worried as 1946 turned into 1947 and she hadn't gotten pregnant. Her mother's comments on grandchildren didn't help, even if they were coming via letters rather than in person most of the time. Len found an expert at the hospital where he worked who examined them both and said nothing appeared to be wrong. He counseled patience, which wasn't easy while seeing Janice and Jim and their daughter and then Janice getting pregnant again. Most of Christine's girlfriends were sending letters full of pregnancy and baby stories, and cousin Margie gave birth to twin boys with her new husband of less than a year. It made it hard not to worry about her own situation. Finally in late summer Christine found herself nauseous in the middle of a heat wave and abruptly realized it wasn't the heat that was bothering her.

Len Jr. was born in April of 1948, three months after Jim and Janice's son George. The little boy inherited his father's cranky disposition, or so Christine observed as they struggled to get him onto something resembling a normal sleeping schedule. Her husband's mood wasn't improved by the lack of sleep either, though Christine reminded herself some nights that at least there were no bombs going off or German soldiers approaching in tanks.

Two more children followed in the next several years, both daughters, and Christine was amused to watch her husband play doctor for stuffed animals and dollies as Clarissa and Jeanne grew old enough for such toys. He played baseball and football with all the kids in the backyard, because he firmly believed the girls should be as active as boys, and read bedtime stories whenever he was home from the hospital in time to do so. One of Christine's favorite pictures was of Len with his son on his shoulders, getting a piggy back ride one day at the park. She didn't know what day it had been precisely but they were both smiling at the same time, Len's hand on the boy's back to ensure he didn't fall. She ended up leaving her job to stay home full time and babysit Julia and George along with her own brood so that Janice could work. It was hectic and sometimes loud – Julia had her mother's tenaciousness and, being the eldest, tended to get a bit bossy – but it helped Janice and Jim out.

Lucy moved to Houston to go to college and lived in the house with Christine and Len, since her parents refused to let her get an apartment of her own while they were paying her college tuition. In between her studies Lucy helped take care of the children. When she announced that she wanted to become a doctor, her parents cut her off, as it was not at all the thing for ladies to do, and her father felt her bad leg meant Lucy wouldn't be able to cope with the workload. It was Len who helped Lucy get into a graduate program and who supported her ambitions. She eventually opened her own practice in Houston, one of the first women to do so on her own. Once she had, she consented to marry the young man who had been courting her since medical school – she joked that she had to reward him for all those years of persistence.

In 1956, when little Jeanne was still a toddler, Christine and Janice and their respective families traveled to Florida, to meet up with a bunch of their girlfriends from the Army for an "eleventh year reunion." They took over most of a hotel, between all the couples and all the children. The kids had a glorious time running wild on the beach and the adults sat up late into the night, talking and reminiscing.

Christine sat on a blanket under a beach umbrella, watching the kids and their parents (mostly the fathers) romping in the ocean one afternoon. Jeanne had fallen asleep a little while ago, as this was usually her naptime. The baby's short blonde curls were still damp from the water and Christine was warm from the heat in her lap, but she felt no desire to move.

Len Jr. and Clarissa were building a sand castle with more industry than skill, while Gaila's husband tried to offer engineering suggestions. Len came out of the water and dried himself off before sitting down behind his wife. She leaned back into his arms when he reached for her, careful not to jostle Jeanne.

Len reached down and gently brushed a stray curl off his daughter's face. Then he looked at Christine curiously. "You've got an odd look on your face."

She sighed. "I was thinking about the war. About how cold and dark it seems when I look back." She looked at the sleeping girl in her lap, then at the children running around happily in the sunshine. The cheeriness was a startling contrast to her memories. "I wish the war hadn't happened. I wish I didn't have to remember all of those terrible things."

Len kissed her behind her ear, his arms resting at her sides loosely. "But you wouldn't be here if they hadn't," he said, completing her thought, as he did so often.

She nodded. "And I don't regret that part. I'm grateful for you and the children, for our friends."

Len looked at the kids, who were shrieking as the waves approached dangerously close to their sand castle. "So am I."

He nuzzled her hair and she heard him murmur "I love you" quietly. She answered in kind and for a few minutes they simply sat, leaning against each other, listening to the voices and the sound of the waves. Christine remembered that sound from England, Sicily, even Anzio, but she opened her eyes and focused on the bright scene before her. The past was past.

Clarissa ran up to them. She had inherited Grandmère Chapel's eyes as well as her name. Christine sometimes saw glimpses of her beloved Grandmother's irrepressible spirit in her eldest daughter and knew they'd named her correctly. Now she gestured to the beach. "Mommy, can you help us with the sand castle?"

Christine turned and carefully shifted Jeanne into Len's arms. They were experts at handing the children off by now and Jeanne snuggled into her father's chest and didn't wake up. Christine stood and let her daughter lead her into the sunshine.