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Half-Sick of Shadows

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AN: The version of 'Clair de Lune' Lucy sings here is by Merry Ellen Kirk! All rights go to her and her beautiful brain.  


 

The gaslight reflected off the rain-slick streets, shimmering beneath Lucy’s boots. Long, glowing lines of gold seemed to lead her straight to Alice’s door; entirely too beautiful for what she had told her of Birmingham. The brass handle of her suitcase had grown warm from her clutching it, a steamer trunk filled with the non-essentials on its way from the train station. The man at the counter had assured her that it would arrive by the next afternoon, and directed her towards a line of cabs willing to take her to wherever she was staying.

She had walked the five kilometres to Alice’s happily, brushing away the voice that murmured that she wasn’t safe. She had learned to be invisible, and the dark blue of her coat and hat let the eyes of others skip over her. The city had taken her by surprise: Ottawa had been busy, but never this cramped and… industrial. Steam seemed to collect around the feet of the buildings, spewing from furnaces dotted around with no apparent rhyme or reason. Despite the hour, streams and masses of people filled the streets, clamouring together and shouting. The air stunk of factories, but as she drew nearer to where Alice lived, she found it had its own charm. She had always enjoyed being where it was lively, and the bright energy of Birmingham lacked the frantic fear of the medical tents that had tainted the bustle.

Before she knew it, the small door that read Alice’s address was before her face. The paint was peeling in the corner, something George would have fixed. She had barely lifted the knocker when the door swung open, the worn metal slipping from beneath her fingers. And behind the frame stood Alice.

She had changed in the months after the War’s end. Her hair was shorter, cut to her jaw in the current fashion. She looked smaller somehow. Carried herself differently. Lucy wondered how she had changed.

“Lucienne!” Alice gasped, throwing her arms around her. She still smelled like lavender and soap, still buried her shorter head in the crook of Lucy’s neck. Her nose burned with tears.

Resisting the urge to babble away in French, Lucy pulled back, “let’s go in off the porch, ma cocotte, before I start crying in the middle of the street.”

In a flurry of movement, Alice had taken her bag and ushered her into her little apartment. “It’s got two bedrooms,” Alice chirped, “we had planned on making the second a guest bedroom, but that can be yours now. Tiny though, I hope you don’t mind, love.” 

Her tone was forced, and Lucy offered her a sympathetic smile. “Never. I’m just glad you got my letters.” 

Lucy’s side had been itching all the way here. She wasn’t sure if it was the wound itself, or the fact that she knew it was there. She had scratched the skin raw during her nearly week-long trip across the Atlantic. Dropping her hat, she crossed the room to the fire. A long iron poker lay to the left, and she propped it up so the end was properly thrust into the coals. “Do you have any whiskey, Alice?”

“Where are my manners?” she said, dashing off to the small kitchen. “Would you like it watered down any?”

“No,” Lucy replied, shrugging off her coat and starting to work on the buttons of her blouse. “Straight, if you don’t mind.”

By the time Alice reappeared in the living room, Lucy stood naked from the waist up in front of the fire. Alice stopped dead in the doorway, eyeing her like she had lost her mind. Lucy remained unabashed. Alice was more like family than anyone who shared her blood, a sister in every way but biology. She drew nearer to where Lucy stood, eyes focused on the ugly raised skin on her right side. She handed off the whiskey, voice low, “did — did he…?”

“With a knife,” Lucy said, knocking back her whiskey. The rush of it flooded her from head to toe, glowing warmth settling in her chest. She put down the glass, grasping Alice’s hand in her own. “I need to ask a favour of you.”

“What?”

Pulling the poker from the fire, she eyed the metal. The edges glowed a bright orange, and she handed it off to Alice. “Burn it. Please, for the love of God. I can’t walk around with it any longer.”

“Lucy,” Alice said, swiping at tears that hadn’t fallen yet, "you can’t ask that of me.” 

“Please, Alice,” Lucy begged, raising her arm to show the full effect of the scar. Two jagged letters, FV, sat in the curve between her breast and ribs. “I feel like a cow.”

Alice nodded, grabbing the poker with two hands. “Arms up on the mantel. I don’t want to catch you somewhere else by accident.”

Bracing herself against the fireplace, Lucy sucked in a sharp breath as Alice dragged a chair over, propping her legs against it in case her knees gave out. The poker met her skin, blinding pain blooming across her ribs. Her death-grip on the oak mantel kept her from drawing away from the poker, but she wouldn’t have in the first place. The pain was cleansing. Rebirth lived on the razor’s edge of it, each wave of agony burning away the letters, the words, where his knife had dug into the flesh. She wished she could do this to her whole body. That the Lucienne who had loved him could go up in smoke as easily.

“It’s done,” Alice said, dashing away as if she had been the one burned, “I’ll get water to draw the heat out, and I think I have cooling gel here somewhere.”

Finally letting herself fall away from the fireplace, Lucy flopped onto the chair. As her head lolled back, she smiled at Alice. “Thank you." 

Alice paused in the threshold of the kitchen. The apartment, Lucy realized, was arranged strangely. Alice’s things littered the rooms, with strange gaps. Like she had left space for George to put his things, and the holes still had yet to be filled. Her belongings, she supposed, could slot in to the empty spaces. “No,” Alice said, “thank you. For coming when I needed you."

 


                                                                                       

For a moment when she woke, Lucy forgot where she was.

She came to thrashing, just as she had for the past week and a half. But Alice’s familiar smell clung to the sheets of the guest bed, and all at once she came back to herself.

Her new burn made dressing difficult, but it didn’t hurt nearly as terribly as she thought it would. The skin was a jagged block of new and old flesh, the once raised scar now lowered compared to the surrounding skin. Alice had informed her of a nearby bar in need of staffing, and she refused to languish unhelpfully for longer than she had. The past few days had been spent with Alice dashing off to work at the hospital, while Lucy cleaned anything she could get her hands on. She had assembled her and Alice’s things into a tidy order, the gaps where George’s belongings had been easily forgotten.

The dress she wore today reminded her of her uniform during the war, the sky-blue of it matching her eyes rather wonderfully. Little bluebird, a familiar voice hissed in her mind, mon alouette. She brushed harder against her palm. Despite herself, she couldn’t bear to cut her hair. It remained far past her shoulders — horribly old-fashioned. The curls helped a little, even if she spent a solid half hour a week brushing them out. The golden red of it didn’t suit the new style of bob anyhow, unlike Alice’s shiny black hair.

Staring into the mirror, she stopped seeing the woman she had been for the past seven months. The Lucy that had slogged her way to the medical tents and worked twelve-hour shifts on her feet reappeared. She almost expected to turn her head and find her face splattered in fresh blood.

She wondered if she would ever be the girl who had never seen war again, or if she was lost to 1913.

Twisting her hair back into the same bun she had worn for the four years of the War, she felt more and more like her old self again. By the time she had stepped out the door, her spine was straighter than it had been in months, and she met the eyes of each person she passed dauntlessly. And they stared. Both her dress and cloak-like coat were the same bright blue, admittedly standing out amongst the darker colours the people of Birmingham seemed to prefer. Otherwise, her old-fashioned sense of style and red hair made her stick out like a sore thumb.

When she swung open the door, the bar — pub, she reminded herself — appeared empty. She called out into the silence, cringing as her voice echoed back to her, “hello? Anyone here?”

“We’re closed right now love,” a voice answered. The man it belonged to came around the corner. He was fairly tall, wearing a suit of a fine make with the jacket and tie cast off. He had an impressive moustache, laid against a somewhat old, weathered face. His ears were quite large, and she tried desperately not to stare at them.

“I was told there was a job opening? For someone to come sing.”

He narrowed his eyes. “What’s your name? Where are you from?”

“Lucienne Frasier,” she said, cursing her blend of an accent. “But most English folk call me Lucy. I’m from Ottawa, in Canada. My mother was French, and my father was Scottish, so I sound a tad strange. But I’ve moved to Birmingham.”

She was babbling, and she knew this, but it was proving rather difficult to stop. Out came the hand gestures, and the rushed voice, but words kept spilling out of her. “I’ve worked in bars before. Before the War, I mean. As a singer, and as a barmaid. During the War, I was nurse. Served on the Western Front. But that’s not relevant, is it?…”

Her question hung in the air as a second, utterly familiar man rounded the corner. Sergeant Major Thomas Shelby stood staring back at her, a look on his face like he had just seen a ghost. She supposed he had. She hadn’t even considered the fact that she might bump into him in Birmingham, despite the relatively small size of the city. God, how could she be so stupid?

 


                                                                                                     

Northern France, November 4th, 1916.                                                                                   

 


 

“Seven more wounded!” Someone called. Men dragged in the dead and dying on stretchers. A beat. Lucy was too slow, five other nurses had already flocked to the dead bodies. They were the easiest, only needing someone to properly pronounce them dead before moving on. She settled for a man with blood staining his torso, who lay still as a corpse. Dragging him over to her workspace, she began to cut away his torn and dirty uniform. Beneath, she saw that he was littered with stab wounds.

“Leave him,” Nurse Bernadette said, “he’s almost dead anyway. It’s not worth the effort.”

Maybe it was the fact that Bernadette was a raging bitch, and every nurse, medic, and doctor this side of the Marne knew it. Maybe it was the faint fluttering of the soldier’s eyelashes as she spoke. Maybe it was the fact that he was beautiful. Either way, a surge of anger and protectiveness rose in Lucy’s chest, and she snapped back, “mind your own damn patient. He’s mine to take care of, and I’ll do as I please.”  

Bernadette, ever the arsepiece, turned to Doctor Thompson. “Tell her to leave him be, she’s wasting time and resources.”

Doctor Thompson scanned the man, and saw Lucy’s face. “Her patient, her decision. We don’t have time for this, Bernadette. Mind your own.”

“Thank you, Doctor,” Lucy said, eyeing Bernadette murderously. She got to work, splashing her hands in Dakin solution and tossing on a pair of gloves. Anesthetic was administered quickly, and with expert technique. Thank God, his organs weren’t damaged. The stab wounds were numerous, but shallow. From the size and shape, it looked as though they had been made by an idiot who didn’t know how to use a bayonet. The work was painstaking, each stitch made with the utmost precision. Other nurses whirled around her in constant movement, stretchers flying across the medical tent as men were either healed enough to be taken to Recovery, or died on the table.

“Lucy,” a voice called. It was Nurse Russell, she realized. “Your shift is up, someone else can take over for you.”

“No,” Lucy murmured, shifting the man’s skin so the layers lined up with one another. She was hoping to reduce scarring, if possible.

She lost herself in the work, slaving over the dozens of minuscule stitches needed to piece him back together. By the time she was done, the clock informed her that it was an hour and half past the end of her twelve-hour shift.

“I’ll take him to Recovery,” she said, her tiredness crashing down on her now that she was aware of the time. She tugged him onto a rolling stretcher, and carted him off to the Recovery tent. She put him in one of the nicer ones, with ‘rooms’ sectioned off with hanging canvas. It was thick enough to block out some of the noise, and provided about as much privacy as one could expect.

Before she left to go sleep, she cast a backwards glance at him. His chest rose and fell slowly, but steadily. He was out of the woods. A strange feeling of relief passed over her. An odd affection for a man she had never so much as spoken to blooming in her chest.

She needed to sleep.

 


                                                                                                     

Northern France, November 6th, 1916.

 


                                                                                                     

“How’s Caesar?” Alice asked, poking her head into the room.

Lucy still wasn’t quite sure how she had swung it with Nurse Russell to let her momentarily switch from Incoming tents to Recovery. Well, she was somewhat sure. Not one full sleep after she had carefully stitched him back together, nearly every nurse in Recovery and otherwise had started fighting over who would get to watch over him. It wasn’t because he was good looking, though that certainly helped. He was a mystery. He still hadn’t woken, and there was absolutely no form of identification on him. It tickled the fancy of the girls who had signed on to be nurses out of a botched romanticism, and at least stirred the curiosity of the others. Lucy insisted that she should be the one to care for him, given that she had treated him, and therefore knew his wounds best. Nurse Russell had no doubt seen an easy out there, and deemed it the perfect solution.

“Still sleeping,” Lucy answered, absentmindedly feeling the cloth on his forehead. He had started running a bit hot within the first day of her taking him into her care. It seemed to stem from whatever he was dreaming of, however, as she had checked thoroughly for any signs of infection and found nothing. He was healing remarkably well. “You’ll be the first to know if he rises from his slumber.”

Grinning, Alice tossed her a canteen of fresh water. “I had better be. Don’t forget to grab some food, lunch’s in an hour.”

Lucy took a grateful sip, nodding as she made to soak Caesar’s cloth in bowl of cold water at his bedside. Settling down with her book of Tennyson, she made a mental note to change his bandages in a half hour.

She could pass hours like this, entertaining herself with small menial tasks and the minutiae of tending to him. She supposed she could have gone and checked on the others, but it wasn’t as though Recovery was short-staffed. She took up darning a pair of socks Alice had handed off to her, insisting that if Lucy was going to sit around Caesar’s beside all day, she might as well make herself useful. Without doing much in the way of thinking, she began to hum, which grew into full-out soft singing. It was a Scottish song her grandmother had sung to her as a child, some ballad that doubled as a lullaby. She kept going as she went to change Caesar’s bandages, turning to the side to grab her medical bag.

A rough voice echoed through the room, nearly scaring her out of her skin, “are you an angel?” 

Any song died in her throat, and she turned back to see Caesar staring at her, bleary-eyed. “Not an angel,” she managed, ignoring the little thrill in her chest as she took in the bright blue of his eyes. “Just a nurse.”

“Ah,” he said, nodding a little. “Figured an angel wouldn’t be singing a Jacobite song, but thought I’d check.”

He had a thick accent, that while being unmistakably English, was unlike any of the other accents she had come across just yet. She gently tapped his bandages, “I need to change these, do you mind?” When he waved his consent, she began to peel back the thick cotton, examining his wounds as she spoke, “everyone will be so pleased to hear you’ve woken. What’s your name, by the way? You lost your identification, so we’ve been calling you Caesar I’m afraid.”

His eyes drifted open a little wider, surprise and amusement swirling in them in equal measure. “Caesar?”

“That’s my fault,” she admitted, cheeks heating. “I started it. We’re supposed to call unidentified men John Doe, but I thought Caesar was a little more apt, what with all the stab wounds.” She gestured to his torso, which was littered with stitches.

He peered over his chest, craning his neck to see his stomach. “Ah. I nearly forgot.”

“Forgot being almost stabbed to death?”

“You’d be surprised what a man can forget when he doesn’t want to dwell on something.”

“Well,” she drawled, “you’re healing wonderfully. You’re welcome, by the way. I had to fight to be allowed to stitch you up.”

“Bit of a lost cause, was I?”

“In the opinion of some,” she sniffed, slathering a poultice over the stitches to keep them from getting stiff.

A smile was tugging at the corner of his mouth. “But not in yours?”

She turned to made eye contact with him, growing serious. “No one is beyond saving until their heart stops beating. Anyone who says otherwise is just lazy.”

“In that case, you have my eternal thanks,” he joked. “My name’s Thomas. Thomas Shelby.”

Tugging his chart out from beneath her pile of recreational activities, she wrote his name in clear print. “Age, rank, and affiliation?”

“Twenty-six, Sergeant Major, Small Heath Rifles, British Royal Forces. And you? Do you have a name?”

“Lucienne Frasier,” she murmured, offering him a drink of water, “but you can call me Lucy, if you’d like. Twenty-three, Nursing Sister, Canadian Army Medical Corps.”

“Ah, you’re one of the bluebirds,” he said, accepting a swig from her canteen. Shifting in his bed, he cocked an eyebrow at her. “Tell me, do all Canadians have an accent like yours?”

“No, I’m special I’m afraid,” she quipped. “I’m from Ottawa, so I suppose I have a bit of the Valley accent. But my father’s Scottish, and my mother’s Quebec French from across the river in Gatineau. Blend all that together, and you get my voice.”

“Well, it’s lovely,” he said, tone ringing with a sincerity that made her toes curl in her boots.

“And where are you from? I’ve never heard an English accent like yours.”

“Small Heath, in Birmingham.” His tone was fond, and her breath caught in her chest as the smallest of smiles bloomed across his mouth. “The Brummie accent’s quite a bit different from anything else, you’ll find.”

“I see,” she teased, “so you’re special too.”

“Quite,” he said, schooling his face into the model of seriousness. “Unbelievably special. You’ve no idea.”

Silence hung in the air for a few moments before he cracked a grin, and she exploded into quiet laughter, shoulders shaking with the force of it. He joined her, though he winced in pain. “Careful,” she giggled, “you’ll rip your stitches. And they were an absolute bitch to put in, so they’d better stay put.”

“Aye aye, Nurse Frasier,” he said, eyes drifting around the room. They landed on her book, and his face lit up, “is that Tennyson?”

“Yes, do you care for him?”

“My mother used to read poetry to us before bed,” he murmured. “One of her favourites was The Lady of Shallot.”

“That’s right after the one I’m on, at current. Would you like me to read aloud?”

“God, please,” he groaned. “It’s been so long since I’ve done anything but play cards and drink. Bless my compatriots, but war’s not a particularly intellectual pursuit.”

Settling back into her chair, she opened to the page she had last read. “I’ll start back at the beginning, it’s not particularly long. It’s Oriana.”

He nodded, settling back into his pillows with a small noise of contentment. A warmth filled her chest and entered her voice as she read, but she ignored it. “My heart is wasted with my woe, Oriana. There is no rest for me below, Oriana…”

 


                                                                                                     

Northern France, November 20th, 1916.

 


                                                                                                    

As she tugged her book of Tennyson out of Tommy’s hands, she couldn’t help but think that his pout was adorable. “Let’s go, physical therapy.”

“I was halfway through Lady Clare,” he complained, shifting his blankets off his legs anyway. “I’m thoroughly enjoying your notes in the margins.”

She tucked the book into his pack, snug between a thermos and a rather large matchbook. “You can keep it until you finish, now let’s go.” She tugged Tommy up and out of bed, his legs giving way beneath him as they hit the floor. In the span of a few seconds she had nearly the full one-hundred-and-thirty pounds of him draped over her. She wasn’t shorter by much, but her own knees halfway buckled, a small noise of surprise escaping her throat. For the briefest of moments her brain refused to work. All she could register was the heat from his chest against her palms, and the smell of him in her nose.

Snapping out of it, she timed her breaths to still the racing of her heart, pulling away. “Careful, it’s my night off. If you break a bone, you’ll be fucked ’til the morning.”

“If it’s your night off, where are we going?”

“Out of this tent,” she said, steadying him on his feet. “You can walk now, and I’m willing to be you’re bored out of your right mind. So come with me.”

Laughing under his breath, he let her help him into a coat and shoes and lead him out of the maze of army canvas. “I’m not complaining, but aren’t there rules about this sort of thing?”

“The only person who could get me in trouble is Nurse Russell, and she adores me.” Turning to face him, she flashed a bright grin. “Besides, I won’t tell if you don’t.”

They tumbled out into the night air hand-in-hand, giggling to themselves. A group of nurses and medics were clumped together, bottles of liquor from home clutched in their hands. “Lucy!” Alice called, waving her over.

“Alice,” she greeted amiably, “meet Sergeant Major Thomas Shelby, formerly known to all as ‘Caesar’.”

Laughing, Alice offered her a fresh bottle of champagne. She grinned at Tommy, “right clever, isn’t our Lucy?”

“The cleverest,” he said solemnly, his hand migrating from hers to the small of her back. She tried to pretend that the sudden warmth in her stomach was from the champagne as she tilted her head back, cheeks heating. She handed him the bottle, admiring the line of his jaw as he took a swig.

“Lucy!” a voice called, Doctor Harding waving at her, “guess what we’ve got!”

“What?” she called back, offering him a wave in return.

“Brigadier General Alexander gave us his record player for tonight, bless him!”

“No!,” she said, drawing nearer to see the player and a stack of records propped on a table someone had carted outside. “How on earth?”

“I have my ways,” Alice said, batting her eyelashes playfully.

Snorting, Lucy took another drink of champagne, “does he know you’re engaged?" 

Alice shrugged, “he knows what he needs to.” 

“Sing for us, will you?” Doctor Harding asked. “You’ve such a lovely voice.”

“Doesn’t she?” Tommy said, tugging her a little closer. “First thing I heard when I woke up. Thought she was a bloody angel.”

“Reminds me of my wife,” Doctor Harding said carefully, as though he was defusing a bomb. “I hope our daughter inherits that, I can’t carry a tune in a bucket.”

Something about Tommy softened, and Doctor Harding seemed to settle as well. God, she would never understand men. Loosening herself from Tommy’s grip, she approached the pile of records, deciding on Clair de Lune. Her grandmother used to sing a version with words to her as a lullaby, and she was in the mood for something sad and comforting. The soft crackle of the player was achingly familiar, and she was forced to remember how long it had been since she used one.

The song was soft, and she revelled in the feeling of everyone’s eyes on her as she sang. Most of all, she shivered beneath Tommy’s gaze. He looked at her as though she actually was an angel. Some primeval creature descended from the heavens. She wound up staring at him as the final chords of the song played. It was him who began to clap first, a rare, bright grin spreading over his face. Something a little like relief flooded her chest, and she grinned back.

For the rest of the night, they were glued together at the hip. Settling beneath a tree with their champagne, she found herself growing bolder. “You have a girl back home?”

A cloud passed over his face, and he took another pull from the bottle, lighting up a cigarette. “Used to, before the War. Her name was Greta. She died of consumption before I enlisted.”

Clutching at her chest, a dozen feelings filtered through Lucy before she spoke. Regret. Empathy. Relief. Self-loathing. “My mother died of consumption when I was ten. I’m so sorry, Tommy.”

“She did?”

Lucy nodded, fisting her hands in her skirt. “We sent her to a sanitarium early on, so none of the rest of us caught it. Broke my father’s heart. He’s never stopped regretting not being able to be with her at her deathbed. Suppose I haven’t either.”

“What about you then,” he said, taking another drag as he changed the subject, “you have a boy waiting for you somewhere?”

“Good question.”

“What do you mean?”

Biting her lip, she dropped his gaze. “I was seeing someone before the War. We’ve known each other since the cradle, and I suppose we’ve loved each other just as long. He enlisted before I finished my nursing course. We’ve never… put a name to anything. He told me before he left that he thought it was for the best if we put whatever we had on hold until after the War. After all, God knows if one of us is going to die before everything’s over.” Her voice turned to ash in her mouth, and she tried not to mumble. “ Alice thinks he just wanted to be able to fuck someone overseas and not feel bad about it. But then again, her and George heard about the War and were engaged in a week. She’s an odd duck.”

Silence hung between them for a moment, and she felt the rough pad of his finger under her chin, forcing her to look at him. His face was earnest as he spoke, “he’s a fucking idiot.”

Her breath was shaky, and she found herself speaking before she thought, “honestly, I don’t know if I even really love him.”

“Why?” Tommy asked, voice rough.

He doesn’t make me feel like you do. “I’ve never tried to love anyone else. We just grew up and decided we were in love and that was that. I was his, and he was mine. What if we made a mistake?”

“I think you should expand your horizons while you have the chance,” he murmured, tracing her cheekbone with his thumb. She melted into his touch, jolting upwards as a round of applause split the night air.

Whoever was performing had just finished. Now someone was strumming a guitar, the beginning to a sailor’s song everyone knew the words to. “C’mon,” she said, struggling to her feet. “I’ll teach you to dance the reel.”

The next few minutes consisted of her attempting to teach a very drunk Tommy a dance she knew from childhood, all while being equally ossified.

“No,” she giggled, showing him how to move his foot, “like that!” 

“Okay,” he said very seriously, “like this?”

They made it about halfway through, until the section where they were supposed to circle one another, palms about an inch apart with the other hand tucked behind your back. Instead, he laced their fingers together, curling his free arm around her waist. Everything stopped, the earth grinding to a halt on its axis. Everything but his face lost colour and was shrouded in darkness, all sounds but their loose pants falling into quiet. Every inch of her was on alert, all too aware of every single place where their bodies met.

“Could I kiss you?” he murmured, eyes sweeping over her face. 

“God, please,” she begged.

He did, mouth ghosting over hers in a soft kiss that sent shivers down her spine and curled her toes in her boots. It was unbelievably short and chaste. Hardly enough. She pressed herself closer to him, stretching onto her tiptoes to kiss him again. His hand left hers, burying itself in her hair.

Tipping slightly off-balance, she flung her arms around his neck as she tumbled into his chest. He groaned into her mouth, arm tightening around her waist as the kiss deepened. She felt like she was on fire and drowning all at once, skin far too sensitive and breath coming in a rush between kisses. God, how long had she wanted to do this?

As he pulled back, she pressed a kiss to his jaw, “I knew there was a reason I saved your sorry ass.”

“Am I ever glad you did,” he said, his hand rubbing soothing circles into her hip.

“I should bring you back, curfew’s soon.”

“Would you stay?”

She almost said yes. Between his hand in her hair and the taste of his cigarette still lingering in her mouth, she couldn’t imagine prying herself away from him. She swallowed a lump in her throat. ”You know I can’t.”

“I know,” he said, kissing the tip of her nose. Her heart melted in her chest. “But God, I want you to.”

Tugging herself from his grip, she intertwined their fingers. “Let’s go, I’ll see you to bed.”

When she finally did help into his cot, he stole another kiss from her as she leaned over to fix his blanket. “Thank you for tonight. I did need it.”

She smiled, running her fingers through his hair, “don’t I know everything?”

“If I say you do, will you kiss me again?”

“Bribes are unnecessary, I assure you, mon coeur,” she said, pressing a quick peck to his mouth. “Now go to bed, you can hassle me in the morning.”

“Could you stay until I fall asleep?”

Sighing, she stuffed his blankets to the side to lie on top of them. He eagerly made way for her, wrapping an arm around her side. “Just until then, and then I have to go.”

He hummed his consent, burying his nose in her hair. She had to admit that they fit together well, his ribs slotting into the negative space left by the curve of her spine, arm slung perfectly across her waist. For the briefest of moments she though of Félix, and her heart withered in her chest. How could she lie with someone else, knowing he was out there somewhere?

No. She was being an idiot. He was the one who had called off whatever they had. And like Alice said, she had no assurances that he wasn’t off seeing other women as soon as he got a bit of leave. And god, she had never felt anything like this before. The soft rush of Tommy’s breaths ghosting over her ear filled her with a strange kind of inner peace. All she wanted was to lie like this until the end of time; to fossilize and stay frozen with his weight against hers.

He had fallen asleep, she realized. With great chagrin, she gently extricated herself from his grip. Pressing a kiss to his forehead, she left him sleeping happily for the night.

As soon as she entered her own room, she felt any energy she had leave her. She barely had the strength to peel off her boots before she fell into bed, the smell of him still stuck in her nose.  

God, she was fucked.

 


                                                                                               

Northern France, November 21st, 1916.

 


                                                                                                    

She burst into Tommy’s room, a ball of panic. She had woken up late, and incredibly hungover. But she had still come to with a smile on her face.

To her surprise, the room was empty. Absolutely barren. Someone had stripped the bed and remade it, all of Tommy’s personal effects having disappeared. Poking her head out of the room, she called to a gaggle of nurses a few feet away, “where’s Sergeant Major Shelby?”

“Oh,” Nurse Jameson said, “we thought you knew, and that’s why you didn’t show up this morning. He’s gone.”

“What do you mean, ‘gone’?” she snapped, a ball of lead settling in her stomach.

“He was called back to the front,” Nurse Jameson said quietly. “They came for him early, barely gave him enough time to gather his things. Apparently they have a big project planned for the Clay-Kickers.”

She was hyperventilating, she noticed dimly. Her hands came to her chest, clutching at her heart. He couldn’t be gone. Just… gone. She felt like the wind had stolen her five-dollar note, and she was staring after it helplessly, grasping at the empty air where it had been.  

Retreating back into his — the room, she collapsed onto the bed. She hadn’t realized just how much it had smelled of him in here, now that his familiar scent was replaced with antiseptic and bleach. What had she really expected? That he would stay here forever? That she would get to wake up every morning and get to discuss books and poetry with him, teach him silly songs, exchange stories from before the War? She didn’t know. All she knew was that it felt as though someone had carved up her heart and taken a piece with them, and now she was supposed to live on without it.

 


                                                                                                    

“Well,” the moustached man said, “if you’re gonna’ apply to be a singer, might as well sing us something.” He gestured to a record player in the corner. 

In the stack of records lay a copy of Debussy’s greatest works, and a strange boldness filled her. Her hands trembled as she lowered the needle onto the record, the grainy sound of Clair de Lune echoing through the pub.

Turning to face the brothers, she took her hat off, fully revealing her face. She began to sing, her shaky voice joining the swell of the piano:

 

You there, pearly white.

Can you see those stars, in my eyes?

A nice reflection it may be, so it seems, to me.

A kiss from Heaven lightly breathed,

Nightly unsheathed.

 

As she settled into the familiar rhythm of it, her voice grew louder. She began to move about the floor of the Garrison, tracing the shining wood of the tables as though it was full of patrons to be entertained.

 

You there, pearly white.

Can you hear those, stars tonight?

How I wonder what they might say to you.

O, how they wander but hardly they ever move.

What do they whisper while hardly they ever move?

 

The piano picked up in pace, and Lucy turned to face the brothers again, catching their gazes as she pushed forward. Tommy was staring at her like she had grown wings and flew, and she couldn’t help maintaining eye contact. Something about the look on his face made her feel powerful. Unearthly.

 

What do they tell you?
Tell me what they tell you.

What do they show you?
Show me what they show you.

And if I know you,

Like they likely know you,

Could I die?

Oh my dear. 

 

And then she was no longer in 1919, in Birmingham. She was back on the Western Front, with blood still under her fingernails and Thomas Shelby’s eyes on her as she sang to a scratchy record on Brigadier General Alexander’s record player.

 

Love.

A lasting love,

Like a dove that flies

Right over the years.

Truth.

Precious truth.

 

She drew closer, making direct eye contact with Tommy as she sang the next few lines. A shiver ran down her spine and crept into her voice, curling into a gentle vibrato.

 

As in youth, I’d like to fly

Up above.

Lasting love.

Lasting love, enough to rise up

Through the evening sky tonight.

How you wander right over the evening sky

Like a dove.

Lasting love.

Everlasting love, like I never knew.

Quite, like you do.

Precious truth.

 

For the briefest of moments she directed her attention back to Arthur, who looked positively enraptured. But it was the heat and the memory in Tommy’s eyes that drew her back to him, moving a little further away as she sat on one of the tables, crossing her legs and leaning backwards as though she were draping herself over a piano. The rolling chords of the song slowed to a gentle plucking, framing the breathiness of her voice perfectly.

 

As in,

You there.

Pearly white.

Can you feel those stars tonight?

How I wonder if they are kind,

Are they kind to you?

How I wonder if maybe they sing this song for you?

 

There was the shortest of musical interludes, and in that time Lucy drew her finger across the shining wood of the table, lowering her eyes from Tommy’s. When she looked back up he had taken a step toward her. His chest moved up and down too quickly, breathless. And thank God, because she was too.

 

You there, pearly white.

Can you sing a song tonight?

Just for me,

Just for me dear.

Of a lasting…

Ever…

 

More music. Lucy slipped off the table, coming into Tommy’s space. He was quite tall. How hadn’t she remembered that? She was of a fairly average height, nowhere near Alice’s pixie-esque stature. But he dwarfed her. She had to crane her neck to meet his eyes.

 

Everlasting,

True love.

 

The piano drew to a beautiful close, and with a scratch and a jostle the record switched to a different Debussy. Chest heaving, she was still staring at Tommy, who stood in front of her like a marble statue. Arthur’s loud, bellowing voice echoed through the Garrison, “bloody beautiful! I’d say you have a job, Miss Frasier.”

All at once, the spell was broken. Shaking herself from her trance, she flashed the elder Shelby brother a bright grin, “thank you very much, Mr. Shelby. When should I start?”

“Tomorrow, if you can,” he said, taking her wrist and pulling her towards the bar. Removing a glass, he gestured to the wall of liquor with a questioning glance.

“Scotch, if you please. Straight.”

Chuckling, he pulled the whiskey from the first shelf, pouring her a glass. She took it gratefully, shooting half of it in one go. Her heart was still thumping a mile a minute in her chest, and she needed to still her shaking hands before someone noticed. “Now,” Arthur began, “our establishment is rather casual, so you’ll double as a barmaid. A couple of the boys can be a little handsy, but they’re a good bunch.”

“I’ve worked in bars before, Mr. Shelby. If one of them tries to get me against the wall I’ll give them a swift kick in the couilles, no need to worry. Now what would my duties be?”

As Arthur went over exactly what her job would entail, Tommy didn’t move from where she had left him. Twenty minutes later, she was back out on the street with a job and some future prospects. She couldn’t contain her giddiness, permitting a small grin. But she found herself waiting at the corner of the building. She wondered if Tommy would follow her out. Explain. Discuss. Praying no one would mistake her for a whore, she leaned against the brick wall, drawing her hat low.

A few beats. The sound of a door.

Tommy Shelby appeared at the corner, a cigarette already drawn between his fingers. “It is you.”

Raising the brim of her cap, she nodded, “it’s me.”

“Why’ve you come to Birmingham?” he asked, lighting the cigarette with an efficient strike of his match and a puff. 

“You remember Alice,” she murmured, “she lives here now. This is where her fiancé was from. He died at Verdun, and she didn’t know where else to go. She’s been lonely, so she sent for me.”

“And your boy, did he ever come home?”

“He did.”

Tommy raised an eyebrow, offering her his cigarette, “he came to England with you?”

She waved it off, resisting the urge to cross her arms. “No.”

He leveraged a curious look at her, “why not?’

“We’re not together,” she explained, praying he’d leave it at that.

“Decided not to rekindle the romance when you both returned home?”

“No.”

Thank God, he did leave it at that. Nodding to her, he took another drag of his cigarette, “I’ll be seeing you tomorrow then.”

This surprised her. “You will?”

“My family’s company owns the pub,” he said. “You’d be surprised how often I’m here.”

“Well,” she said, flashing him a grin, “it’ll be lovely to see you. We should catch up.”

His eyes were as intense as ever, burrowing into her soul. God, he was beautiful.

Something about his voice was rough, “I didn’t mean to leave so suddenly. I had to go." 

“God,” she said, trying to instill a false cheeriness in her words, “I hope you haven’t been worrying about it. I was a little shocked, but I lived.”

“Good,” he said, pulling his cap further over his face. “Have a good day, Miss Frasier.”

“Same to you,” she murmured, cursing herself for creating a distance between them. All she wanted was to see his face properly.

Instead, she peeled herself off the brick wall and kept walking, headed back in the direction of Alice’s apartment. She had done the right thing, she reassured herself. How could she be close with Tommy so soon after everything that had happened with Félix? And it had been years since she last saw him. For all she knew, he was happily married. It was incredibly bold of her to assume that he’d even feel the same way after all this time, or even to ascribe the same depth to his feelings as hers in the first place.

Feeling reassured, she slipped her copy of her employment contract from her coat. 

Tomorrow she would begin her job with Shelby Company Limited.