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what a difference a day made

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After the trench raid it took Jack a good thirty minutes to work out that he was still alive, though to be fair he’d been unconscious for twenty. The pain was faster than consciousness, so that before he knew he was awake he knew that something had gone wrong with his leg. And his side, somewhere-- and his forehead-- He wondered if he had a fever, and then if maybe he'd lucked into cholera, and then realized that the clamminess at his neck was mud, and that he was awake after all. He hoped he hadn't said any of that out loud.

"Not a lot of it," said a woman, reassuringly.

He opened his eyes, or tried to. It was still dark. A woman was kneeling astride him, and her hair was falling in long hanks into his face. Something had gone wrong with his face, too, and when she shifted to wrap a bandage more firmly against his side it brushed against an open cut and distracted him from the other pain. That was another thing that seemed wrong. "You a nurse?"

"An ambulance driver. Some of the time." She tucked the bandage under, and turned her attention to his leg.

"What are you the rest of the time?"

She said, mostly to herself, "A debutante. I'm afraid this is broken."

"I know," he said. He closed his eyes. Rosie swam before them; Rosie looked sorry and a little impatient and pulled his leg out straight, so his vision went white. Rosie had done the Red Cross training, the bandages and the warm sweaters for the boys at the front. It was easier than it should have been to imagine this stranger's cold, chapped hands as hers, even when they bound the splint on; even when he ran out of ways to clench his teeth and had to yell.

"Oh, hell," said the debutante. "Look-- I'm going to give you a gag."

"You're what?" he demanded. On the second word she shoved something between his teeth. He choked, coughed; he reached up to pull it out and found out that she had sharp elbows.

"You really mustn't," she said. He opened his eyes again, belatedly. "We're behind enemy lines. Not," she said, elbowing his hands away again, "that anyone is going to think anything of some more screaming. But we can't take any chances. Unless-- can you scream in German?"

With effort, he relaxed, lowering his hands to his chest. One of them seemed to hurt as well. Broken fingers, he supposed. No-- it didn't hurt enough compared to the leg. He'd probably just bent them back when he-- when-- He groped for the memory. High explosive, he thought, dimly. Something had come plunging out of the sky; something had whistled, and then he had been midair. After that he had been unconscious.

She was doing something to his leg again, and he couldn't stop from swearing, the gag shifting in his mouth. It tasted less like mud than his mouth did.

"Such language," she said, absently. He had the feeling that she had forgotten, now that she'd shut him up, that he could hear her.

What was he chewing on, anyway? She wouldn't waste a bandage, but it was white, and long, and trailing. A scarf, maybe. Strange that it was so clean.

She was moving away. "Well, that'll settle you for now." Her hand hovered near his mouth, and then, unexpectedly, she broke into a grin. It made him focus on her face, instead of the fact of it. She was pale, skinny, and pretty, and her eyes were enormous. "Unless you're going to bite me, Lance Corporal?"

"Nnnnnffff," he said, since he couldn't say, "Maybe."

"I'll take my chances," she decided, and pulled the scarf gently from between his teeth. "I won't insult you by asking how you're feeling."

With attention, he levered himself up--one inch, then two. It was enough to see that they were on a flat stretch of land behind a trench. They were a little elevated; the woman had been leaning so close to him so that they would not be seen. It meant that he had a good view, without the constant haze raised by the shells and the walls of the trenches. He could see clearly enough that nothing else was moving.

He sank back down. "I'm sorry," she said.

"What's your name?" he said, and had the pleasure of seeing her disconcerted.

"Phryne Fisher," she said. "I'm the Honorable Miss Phryne Fisher, actually. I just found out last week. Isn't that a racket?"

*

They couldn't stay exposed, of course. The dawn was already advancing. It felt like a mile and a half down into the half-collapsed German trench, and the leg banged against every rock, so that his vision was white with pain again by the time she said, roughly, "That's it."

"Christ," he said, and let his head hit the back of the trench. "That's plenty."

She moved away-- he couldn't tell if she was silent, or if he'd gone a little deaf. Both, maybe. She moved like she'd learnt how to be quiet. The nurses at camp had the knack of it too, though probably not on all fours, examining the mud for any stray mortars. He closed his eyes for a moment, to still the vertigo, then trained them on the top. No good. The damned thing was still pitching like a ship's rail.

Come on, Jack, Rosie said to him, and he forced his mind to work. Proposition, synthesis. The wood siding had fallen in all along here, after whatever had exploded had exploded. So the trench was a wreck. The Germans would be back to shore it up, but they'd come in force, in daylight, under fire. They'd make enough noise for him and the girl to get away. So they had a couple of hours, probably; and then--

Then--

As long as the sun was up they had nowhere to go. They had a couple of hours and then the Germans would come back, to collect their bodies and clear the front line, and they would become either casualties or prisoners of war.

Miss Fisher, straightening up. Oh, God, he was going to have to be comforting. He began, "It was good thinking, getting--"

"Did you have orders for an advance?" she said. "If you survived the raid?"

"No," he said, after a beat.

"So the army isn't coming," she said decisively. "Or they might be, but we can't rely on it. It'd be stupid of them, but that doesn't tell us anything either way. Wouldn't it be easier to make plans if anyone else bothered to do it too?"

"I'm sure--"

"You're sure someone will come to rescue us," she said. Her eyes went wide and sympathetic. "That is sweet of you to say. But very unhelpful, because actually we're going to be shot by German soldiers unless we think of something.”

"Think of--"

"Don't be so defeatist. I've never not thought of something yet. Well? Any ideas, Lance Corporal?"

"Are you sure you wouldn't rather gag me again?" he demanded.

“I don’t think it’s come to that yet. Do you?”

He narrowed his eyes at her. When it became clear she was actually waiting, probably to time her next interruption better, he realized he’d been churning through an idea after all, and said, “The officer’s dugout. There’s got to be one.”

“Yes, I saw the sign, down past the collapse,” she said, and he put away another question. “But it won’t be safe, and even if it was it’d just be another set of stairs you’d have to get back up.”

“I had no intention of moving us into it,” he said. She immediately looked faintly affronted. “I was talking about the gas curtain.”

“Oh,” she said. “Camouflage!”

“Camouflage, Miss Fisher.” He lifted an eyebrow at her. “Could you get to it?”

“Yes. And…” she said, and vanished as he was still trying to imagine what that might entail.

He swallowed against the dust in his throat and looked around again. There were good things about summer in Armentieres. For one thing he hadn’t had a winter yet this year, and for another, the dawn was slow—still grey. He tilted his head straight up and watched the sky. No aeroplanes. Clouds in the northwest. A charcoal sky turning to blue. He knew, from where they’d fallen, that there was a copse of tall trees not two hundred yards away dead east, where the birds were making that racket from. From where they were it might as well have been Arden, but he pictured the debutante saying wisely, an escape route!, and felt better.

There she was. “I bring many gifts,” she announced, and dropped the gas curtain first, and then a pair of long poles, splintered unevenly. “For a biouvac. And,” she said, triumphantly, “rations,” and dropped first a trio of canteens and then a parcel of biscuits onto the ground in his reach. “The Germans provide.”

She shook out the gas curtain and began, methodically, to smear it with mud, and he picked up the nearest canteen. He shook it, feeling its weight, then unscrewed the top and sniffed inside: nothing too awful. This’d get them through a day, alright. He glanced at her, saw her nod, and took a drink, and the warm water ran down his throat and reawoke the rest of him. The pain in his ribs made him grit his teeth, but the aftershock of clarity was worth everything. Where had she found this? Surely she hadn’t raided biscuits off a corpse, not tied up and neat, as though they were still just delivered; the way you’d find them—

Flatly: “You went down into the dugout.”

Her eyes darted to his. “I just peeked inside.”

“Just a quick peek inside something which could have collapsed on you at any time, where there could have been mortars, where there could’ve been a shell strike without anyone to know. What were you thinking?”

“It was perfectly safe. It’s mostly sandbags.”

“With nothing holding them up.”

“I’ve heard it said that the Army ruins a man,” she said despondently, “but I’d never seen it demonstrated.”

“It wasn’t the army that taught me not to do anything so bloody stupid,” he said, “it was the Victoria Police, not to mention the common sense God gave a child!”

The affectionate look on her face flickered out. She was silent for a moment; then she said, “It’s really none of your business.”

“I fail to see how that’s possible!”

“All right,” she acknowledged testily, “it’s your business insofar as we’re trapped in a German trench together, but as I’ve taken care of myself to date, Lance-Corporal John Robinson, you can put away every temptation to tell me what to do.”

“Believe me,” he said, “I’m less and less tempted by the minute.”

She stepped on his line by picking one of the poles and slamming it with a thunk into the opposite wall. The second pole went a yard away, then the gas curtain, flicked over them both like a bullfighter’s cape. It listed to one side, then slid back down. She swore, and he reached for one of the biscuits.

She said, petulantly, “Aren’t you going to ask how I knew your name?”

“I assume you read it off my dogtags,” he said. This time she had managed to get the curtain balanced. With the mud, it did look like detritus at first glance. Not a bad shelter, if no one looked twice. “Also, you don’t know my name.”

There was a beat. “I’m sorry?”

“It’s Jack,” he said. Some part of him was aware that he was conceding information to the foe. “No one’s called me John since my graduation.”

“Yes, I’d almost forgotten. From the police academy,” she said. She said it as though she was describing a communicable disease he might have.

He’d met wealthy girls like her, idealists, people who thought they were communists. Generally they believed in the redistribution of somebody else’s wealth. They didn’t volunteer to be ambulance drivers. Maybe her family had kicked her out of Sydney to get some peace and quiet.

“The biouvac isn’t going to do it,” he said.

“It’ll buy us time,” she said. “For the second part of my plan.”

Your plan?”

“You’ll recognize it as my plan,” she said, “because it’s brilliant, and you will hate it.”

*

"Oh no," he said, when she brought out the German uniforms. "No, no, no, absolutely not."

"You're going to have to help me cut off my hair," she said. She was already unbuckling her belt, shimmying out of her skirt. In the confined space under the gas curtain the motion seemed to fill all of the available space with knees. "And you'll have to keep quiet, since you don't speak German."

“There are penalties for espionage, the uniforms won’t fit either of us—they smell like a bloody charnel house—" His hands were fumbling with his shirt buttons, clumsy with pain. Thank God she'd already taken off his jacket. "I have a broken leg!”

This last one stopped her. “Damn! I’d forgotten about that. No—we have resources. We’ll cut the leg open.”

“How will that help?!”

“The trouser leg,” she said, quellingly. Her shirt slipped off; he caught a glimpse of a startling bruise wrapping over her shoulder before she yanked the German shirt on over it. His own jacket wouldn’t fit on over the bandages, and he wrestled with it for a precious minute before giving up and unwinding them. Whatever was under them had stopped bleeding, at least. She’d gotten the German trousers on. “I’m taking your boot off.”

“I’m not dying in a German prison camp!”

“Well, Jack,” pointedly, as she yanked at his boot, “you have to remember that camouflage was your idea.”

He swallowed a laugh, hastily, and flexed his foot to make it easier for her. The boot slid off. “You’ll have to cut off the ones I’m wearing.”

“Don’t get ideas,” she warned him, and slid open her field knife. “I have medical friends. I know where the femoral artery is.”

He took a moment as she hacked at the cloth to take in the enormity of that statement. “Of course as a field nurse you never got your medical training.”

“I got the crash course,” she said. An intensely personal moment was coming up. He fixed his attention on the gas curtain one inch above his head. “I did a good enough job wrapping you up, didn’t I?”

“Unwrapping me, too. God! Jesus, woman--”

“Sorry, sorry,” she said, not sounding remotely sorry enough, and began pulling the German trousers on over his left leg. “Does the hat fit?”

He jammed it on over his head. It was too small, but no worse than the rest of their ordnance. “It’ll do. Did you get fresh dogtags?”

“Shit,” she said. Her eyes met his, sudden and shocked. “No.”

After only a moment’s hesitation he yanked his off over his head, bundling them up with the rest of their discards that he could reach; a laundry basket’s worth of clothes. If this was what they found, he’d be pegged as a deserter. If this didn’t work—or if it did, and they were shot by friendlies on the way back to the hospital—or if it was cholera after all, and he died on a German cot under—he ducked his head and read the name off the shirt. Lieutenant Muller. Well—at least he hadn’t been demoted.

“Give me your hair,” he said, and she stopped inflicting new tortures on him and came to kneel down next to him, twisting her hair as she went, one long wet horsetail covered in mud. He braced himself against the back of her neck and started to saw.