It had been over a year since the Germans bombed their house. The news had been passed on by Lady Mary, who had written a letter offering to go see what could be salvaged from the rubble; Hilary had thanked her for letting her know, but reserved judgment on what ought to be done about the wreckage, and as far as she knew Jerry hadn't sent any instructions either, let alone taken leave to go in person. By now, either Aunt Mary had gone to see to the matter regardless, or anything worth recovering had already been taken by people who likely had much more urgent need of it than anyone in the Wimsey family.
If Hilary were honest with herself, something she sometimes wished not to be quite so skilled at, she knew perfectly well why she had no desire to think much about the matter. She was all too familiar with the temptation to think of one's own life as a story, something constructed for an ultimate purpose-- and if this had been a story, one of her own writing, Hilary hadn't any illusions about what the destruction of their house would so transparently symbolize. The fact that she couldn't bring herself to be too sentimental about the place itself or about its contents--china and upholstery and all the other tiresome trappings of the domesticity she and Jerry had tried to build together, made ten times more stifling by the eventual prospect of Jerry's dukedom--only seemed to bolster her faint superstitious alarm.
The end result was that, although Denver and the Red House were still safe and intact, Hilary and Jerry as a combined unit were more or less homeless; most of the time this made no practical difference, but at the moment it meant that home, defined at its simplest, was for the next few days a minuscule room in a bed-and-breakfast in Lincolnshire.
The single bathrobe the hotel had provided was threadbare, but perfectly wearable. Hilary huddled into it-- it was easily big enough to hold two of her-- and returned from her shower to find her husband sitting up in bed and reading a three-day old newspaper. Pausing only to retrieve a pack of cigarettes from her suitcase, she swung herself cheerfully over to sit astride his knees and push the newspaper away from between them.
"Hullo," said Jerry, "mmm, hul-lo--" as she kissed him soundly. "And what do you want?"
Hilary spared a moment to pretend to be affronted. "A light? I lent my matchbook to someone on the train up here yesterday and never got it back."
Jerry pondered. "Trouser pocket, I think. And I've got a spare you can keep, if you manage to avoid matchbook thieves on the way back to France."
"How terribly generous of you." Hilary scrambled off the bed again; a brief rummage through Jerry's uniform, discarded on the floor, revealed not two but four matchbooks in various pockets. Thus equipped, she found a perch on the windowsill; the room was small enough that from there she could stretch her legs out in front of her and rest her feet on the bed, ankles crossed. "Anything exciting going on in the outside world?" she asked, lighting a cigarette and nodding at the newspaper in his hand.
Jerry opened his mouth-- and paused as engines roared overhead, much too low to allow for conversation. Three of them, Hilary guessed, from the sound. "Not a damn thing," he said when they had passed, a strained joke at best. "I was thinking I might have a stab at the crossword."
In fact, he had let go of the newspaper in favor of letting his hand settle on Hilary's ankle, thumb stroking absently; Hilary shifted her weight a little more onto one hip so he could reach more of her leg, and the robe fell away from one of her thighs. She didn't bother fixing it; on the slim chance that anyone had felt the need to peep through their window lately, they'd most likely already seen far worse. "There must be something interesting to do around here."
"Besides the obvious?" Jerry grinned, and Hilary put her tongue out at him in return. "I know a few places we could go for lunch, but I'm hardly the only man on leave in town this week. I can't guarantee we wouldn't be unexpectedly beset by men I've the misfortune of calling friends."
"We'll have to risk it sooner or later," Hilary pointed out, sucking in smoke lazily. "But I'd rather not just yet."
Incongruously, Jerry frowned, hand still trailing up and down her shin. "Hilary-- what happened to your legs?"
"Nothing," said Hilary automatically. "They're fine." But she knew perfectly well what she'd see when she followed his line of sight down to her exposed thigh. The bruises were nearly two weeks old, but they had been deep, and while much of her skin had faded to an unpleasant assortment of yellow and green, there were still a few dark splotches. Her shoulders still ached, too, though she hadn't bothered recently to actually twist around and see how well those marks were fading. "Don't tell me you only just noticed."
"Oh, I noticed, but I had more urgent matters to distract me at the time. Just an accident of some kind, though, I suppose?" There was a definite note of hope in Jerry's voice that suggested he knew perfectly well it wasn't. "It can't have been an encounter with the enemy; I doubt you could have resisted telling me if you'd come that close to a Kraut."
"It wasn't-- and you're right, I couldn't have." Hilary bit down on the end of her cigarette. "It's not important," she said unconvincingly. "Really, I don't think you want to hear about it."
He nodded. "That bad. I see."
Hilary glanced down at her hands and was horrified to find them shaking. "One of our own men happened," she said deliberately. "Corporal Evans. Quite a lot of soldiers have some rather narrow ideas about what a woman's duty is to her country's troops; he was just much more determined than most that I should do mine by him."
Jerry was quite still, eyes wide and fixed on her, face pale. "And did he succeed?"
Hilary shrugged. "I was lucky. Lucky I got out a good yell, lucky there was someone about to haul him off me, lucky I've the free rein to reattach myself to a different regiment when I go back off leave. Don't look at me like that," she went on, in a flash of irritation. "It's not even the first time a man's tried. You're a soldier, aren't you? You've seen the way men act every time a girl comes on base-- it must've occurred to you what your own wife was letting herself in for."
If the blow hit home, it hardly showed-- in a tightening of his jaw, the downwards flicker of his eyes. "It's happened before, then."
"Men making passes at me?" Hilary pinched out the end of her cigarette. "Every damn day, Jerry. Three from your own squadron, and one American pilot, yesterday alone while I was waiting for you at the rail station. And a good handful have tried to manhandle me-- though with Evans it was the first time it went far enough that I was seriously afraid."
His face twisted into a strange kind of smile; it looked as though it knew perfectly well it had no business being there. "What if you wrote under your married name?"
"Don't." Hilary gestured with the dead cigarette-- more of an involuntary jerk of annoyance, really, at this unexpected segue towards a whole host of familiar conflicts. "For God's sake, Jerry, don't start that again. It's my job, and has been since before I ever knew you, and I'll damn well do it under my own name, not yours."
"You might give me a little credit," said Jerry shortly. "It only occurred to me that you might get less trouble if men knew you were married."
"There isn't a British man, woman, or child who knows who I am and doesn't know who I'm married to, no matter what name I write under." Hilary laughed bitterly. She was editorializing at him, and her annoyance was probably unjustified for once, but she didn't much care; it wasn't as if she'd have a chance in hell of keeping her job if she let it out to the actual newspaper. "Hell, the Army has its fair share of men who'd just love to boast that they bagged a woman who's going to be a Duchess one day. I certainly get enough trouble from soldiers who ask if I'm really only there because I want to get a free go at a real man. I'm sorry," she finished, miserably, seeing that blow hit hard and finding her rant derailed by the sight. "I really am, and it's been better some places than others, but it's just awful and it never ends."
"Look," said Jerry hopefully, and immediately gave up. "No, honestly, I haven't a damn clue what to do-- just tell me. Anything you like. We'll run away to California or someplace, if you ask."
"And have the Japanese invade America the next day, with our luck. No, could you just--come here?" Hilary suggested, softening entirely and then--remembering the open window at her back--was on the bed at his side before he could even get out from under the blanket. "I'm getting used to it," she confessed, shoulders hunching under his arm. "That's the worst thing, having to be just resigned to the job being this way, because it's like that for every woman I know who wears a uniform, honorary or otherwise. It isn't all the men, but there's an awful lot of them who still think war's a man's game and no one else's, and it gets so damned tiring having to be afraid of the people on one's own side. And I feel like it ought not to be a pleasant surprise, being alone with you and being treated decently by a man for once--but I'm getting used to it, that's what I was saying. It was ghastly at first, Evans, but I'd barely even been thinking about it until you asked."
"You're writing a column at me," Jerry observed, warm and quiet.
Inexplicably, Hilary loved him a jot more than ever for noticing. "Well, what good are you, if not for that?" she demanded, and was startled when he smiled--a genuine smile, this time.
"You could quit," he pointed out. "Not that I endorse such a thing, because then I'd be the one stuck with you moping about and whipping yourself endlessly over it, but if you really felt the need you could."
Hilary wavered back towards annoyance and made a deliberate decision, for once, to take the sentiment in the spirit in which it was meant. "If flying Hurricanes into combat were dangerous, would you still do it?"
That got a full laugh out of him, which--seeing as it was Jerry who was meant to be cheering her up--shouldn't have felt like quite such an accomplishment. "I'd like to see you stop me."
Hilary stretched her legs back out, draping them over his. "Then you see my problem."
"I'm afraid I do." He looked down at her thoughtfully for a moment. "I don't suppose you'd believe me if I promised everything was going to be fine?"
Hilary shook her head. "I appreciate the effort, but--no, Jerry, nothing is fine. I can't imagine how it ever will be."
"You're here." Jerry kissed her temple. "That's not just fine, that's /marvelous/, so surely there's hope yet for a few things in the world."
Hilary let out a shuddering laugh, comforted despite her best efforts. "You're mad," she said, resigned. "You're quite mad, but I can't fault your logic there, so I suppose I love you anyway."
It occurred to her too late that this might not have been as harmless a joke as it might once have been, but if it stung, Jerry said nothing about it, and with her head on his shoulder she couldn't see his face. "I'd like you to take my sidearm," he said instead.
"Why?" Hilary blinked; if she had expected any response, that had not been it. "To protect me, or to make you feel better?"
"Both, damn you." His fingers closed around a spare fold of her bathrobe. "It's my own gun, not part of the official kit, so I can dispose of it as I please. And anyway, I've got an expensive aeroplane to protect me, and you've got a patch on your shoulder. It seems a bit out of balance somehow. You can shoot, can't you?"
"You know perfectly well I can." Hilary nodded. "All right, I suppose it can't hurt anything--if you're sure you haven't any silk scarves you'd rather tie around my arm."
"I'll see about one of those, but have the revolver all the same."
"Just as long as you get yourself a new one; I doubt my noncombatant patch is likely to explode and drop me into enemy territory any time soon." Hilary sank back more heavily against him. It was taking a conscious effort not to dwell quite so much on the outside world, to focus instead on the fact that she loved Jerry and he her and they had each other, for the next few days at least; but her mind was beginning at last to settle back down. "Tell me something," she suggested.
"Anything." Jerry was warm and familiar at her side, still bent towards her, still trying to be comforting. "Ask away."
"That's what I meant--tell me anything." It was an awkward way to encourage confidence, perhaps, but Hilary worried; she worried because even if Jerry had escaped physical injury for two years he could not possibly have escaped other kinds of hurt, and because stoicism was so atypical of the man she'd married that the prospect of him closing things off from her was outright frightening. "It's only fair, since I've talked up my own problems so thoroughly."
Jerry rested his chin on her shoulder. "I'm concerned about Winnie. Does that count?"
It wasn't what Hilary had expected, but she decided it would do--and immediately went on to wonder whether this was Jerry catching on that when she had mentioned /every woman I know who wears a uniform/ that category had included his sister. There were things in Winnie's letters that Hilary had always suspected weren't also in her letters to Jerry, and that weren't Hilary's business to share if not, but she wondered all the same if she were alone in worrying that Winnie was only seeing the men she wrote about out of a sense of obligation to the Navy. "Why so?"
"I don't think she's in London any more." He turned his face into her neck, and Hilary shifted further over onto his lap to accommodate this. "If she ever was."
Hilary wrinkled her nose. "Of course she's in London; she's stationed there, isn't she? Unless you mean she's deserted."
"Of course not." Jerry snorted. "But her post takes too long--longer than the letters I get from, say, Aunt Mary, who most certainly is in London. I think Winnie's somewhere else, and the London address is a cover."
"Ah, yes, Holmes, the speed of the Royal Mail during wartime; I seem to recall you publishing a small monograph on the subject a year or two ago--ow, Jerry, I'm being serious." She returned his half-hearted swat.
"So am I, and I'm quite sure post ought not to take a week to get here from London." He shrugged. "Most likely you're right and it's something not worth worrying about."
Hilary laughed. "You honestly think she's been put on something really secret? Like Foreign Office serious?" Although she had to admit, the thought had an oddly plausible ring to it.
"Stranger things have happened," Jerry admitted, "though offhand I can't think of any specific examples. But the possibility had crossed my mind."
"Well, I have faith that Winnie can look after herself, if it comes to it." Hilary dropped her head down against her chest. "And if Uncle Peter has anything to do with it-- look, I could ,i>hear</i> you not saying it-- he'll look after her if the need arises."
"So I keep telling myself." Jerry sounded unconvinced. "I can't help it, Hilary. I've known her since she was an hour old."
Hilary was mercifully preserved from answering this logic by another swarm of engines overhead; she estimated the number at twenty at least, heading south, and forced herself not to speculate how many of those would be returning north.
Jerry had always encouraged her to be brave to and past the point of stupidity, to leap without looking at least sometimes, and Hilary genuinely believed she was better off for it; but having gone without his company for months and years at a time she could almost feel parts of herself tightening down again. Two years ago she might yet have followed the feeling in her gut that said that, despite all the evidence to the contrary, there had to be a way to make their marriage work; now she couldn't seem to help thinking the prospect into the ground, or to bring herself to confess any of this to Jerry. They only had these few days, after all, before she went back to France and then he was shipped out to Algeria, and they'd wasted more than enough of that time already in serious conversation. "But I'm afraid," she said aloud, only because the Airacobras overhead would prevent him from hearing a word of it. "God, I'm so afraid, Jerry, what am I going to do?"
Some of her tension must have been apparent to him all the same, because he nuzzled against her and kissed her ear, and when the racket faded she realized that he was murmuring her name. "Lee, what is it?"
"Nothing." Hilary let out a breath and forced her spine to relax. "Just wondering whether I'd rather go out for lunch or have a nap."
Jerry considered. "I happen to like the sound of both in combination, but I'll leave it to you which you'd like to do first."
Hilary closed her eyes. She felt an hour or two more sleep might, at the very least, settle her mind; in fact, she found herself comfortable enough as they were that she thought she might just fall asleep sitting with her back against Jerry's chest. "I don't think I want to move just yet. Too much effort."
"As you like." Jerry tightened his arms about her waist, leaning further back against the pillows. He was so terribly warm, even through the bulky bathrobe, and she tried to focus on that to the exclusion of all else. "I wish you could come home," he said softly, after a few minutes.
Hilary, already dozing, somehow found it easier as a result to appreciate his care in phrasing; it was an admission that she could not come home, that there were reasons beyond the professional that she had to be away from him. "Believe me, so do I."