Harriet knew it was some trick of sleeplessness -- of the blackout -- knew so it hurt like hell this was not real, but the bright-burning candles showed the blue of Eleanor’s eyes, the gold of her hair. She had to bite her fingertips to keep from shouting; her teacup slid and smashed on the floor.
“Yes, as it happens.” St Clair was closing some conversation from the corridor, their voice a little strained from weight across their shoulders. The soldier braced between them and Rose was so very like --
“Harry! ” Eleanor shouted, and tried to reach for her, in a confusion of crutches and bloodstains and snagged-up webbing. Everything went out of Harriet, wits first, and she found herself on the damp carpet among bits of china.
“St. Clair, if brandy’s on the ration, there’s whiskey in my bag!”
“I’m fine.” Harriet thought no one must have heard her. Moshe, sliding a little in worn shoes, darted past and returned with a first-aid pouch; he hesitated between Harriet on the floor and Eleanor, bleeding on the FitzGeorges’ sofa, until his mother took the kit from his hands and his other parent spoke.
“Take this lot upstairs, Moshe, and get ready for bed.”
“Tateleh, the sirens?”
“The sirens won’t go tonight. Luftwaffe’s too fucking piss-drunk to get aloft.”
“ Dad …?”
“Upstairs, all of you, and play Twenty Questions until midnight if you want.” Rose shooed them with her hands, like chickens, but Lily lingered, crouched, and fiddled with one bitten-ended ribbon just in Harriet’s sight. She licked a cake crumb from the corner of her mouth before speaking.
“Our Sophie Ochs owes me sixpence.” Lily patted Harriet’s hair, just lightly. “I bet her I knew Uncle Nate would come back, and didn’t she take the bet! Mameh, Aunt Harriet needs the styptic-- you’ve got a hole in your knee, did you know?”
Perhaps two minutes had passed since Eleanor -- Eleanor, here -- had come into the room, looking half-dead, held up by friends and cheap crutches, still shedding sand from her uniform’s creases. Harriet got up, with difficulty but without treading on a small child. Her knee was bleeding down into her torn stocking. A three-cornered curve from what had been a teacup clinked to the floor a second time. Rose or St. Clair had gotten Eleanor’s boots off; they were shoved, forgotten, half under the desk and they were small, they really were Nora’s, ammunition boots in size six were not anything Harriet’s mind would hallucinate.
Eleanor was too badly hurt to be anything but real. Her chin was hidden in white gauze, and her cheek, straight up to the black eye. Three fingers of her right hand were splinted together, sand-scraped down to the wrist; her left hand was entirely muffled in bandages that ran up her forearm, under her sleeve. Her legs, propped on the low table meant for tea-things and children’s games, still bled through their wrappings. Rose stood by Eleanor’s left knee, and St. Clair at her right, so Harriet could hardly see -- never mind reaching Nora without shoving one of them. They spoke to one another in Yiddish, low and calm, opaque to Harriet as a wall.
Something happened, fast, and Eleanor howled.
Such a sound might have frozen anyone; it ran down Harriet’s bones like flame. She got to her wife, over the back of the bloodied-up chintz sofa, before she knew she had moved. The back seam of her skirt went to hell, one of Harriet’s shoes had caught on Lady Lowborough’s petit-point cushions and her ankle was twisted beneath her, but she was alive and Eleanor was, too. In the wild near-spent candlelight she kissed Nora’s forehead -- there was nowhere else she dared -- and tried to work out how to hold her without further hurt. “Nora. Dearest. It’s over, it’s all over.”
“Harry,” she whispered, shuddering as if the room were cold. She tucked her bandaged cheek against Harriet’s shoulder, nuzzled close as she could, and her sigh was as much gratitude as exhaustion when Harriet hooked her thumb over Eleanor’s unbandaged one.
"Isn't there sulfa left in the Empire?" St. Clair sounded furious. Swathes of gauze, spotted and stained, pooled at their feet. “When were these last seen to?”
“In Athens...this morning… yesterday morning?”
“Oh, that’s nice. Have you had anything for pain since? I’ve got diamorphine or a punch in the head.”
Eleanor tried to laugh. Between the desert and Mitre Street, someone had cut her trousers just below the knee; Harriet knew with one look that St. Clair and Rose had been kind in an awful way, getting the bandages off so quickly. One look was all Harriet could bear.
“Please. Please take something.” She risked running a hand over Nora’s hair. “It’s safe. I won’t go anywhere.”
“Will. I promise. Soon. I love you,” said Nora, over and again as if to make up for a year. “I love you, how are you here ?”
“They reported,” Harriet tried. Her voice went out like a candle. “They said. You’d been killed.”
“Only blown up, a bit.” She drew Harriet in, with her better hand, and it must have hurt her to speak, so hushed but so clearly, utter prattle about mistakes in wars , and the best will in the world , and at last we were all so frightened, dearest, we each thought the others -- and then Eleanor saw what Harriet reached for and turned a little aside, to breathe. "Harry...? What on earth?"
“I dreamed -- you don’t understand, I saw -- it’s cut,” she held up the lone disc of Eleanor’s field tag on its cord. “It’s cut!”