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of punctured damn-the-things

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He expected there to be pain, but there was none; only the blow, like a wall slamming into him, and then a spreading warmth that bloomed into a bright blue light. When dark shadows began speeding back and forth, engines curiously muffled, Jerry realized it must be the sky, though he'd never felt himself fall.

The soft bright light was quite pretty, really. It reminded him of another morning a lifetime or two ago when the church doors had opened and the sunlight had flooded in, bringing Hilary with it, sleek and tall in ivory satin. She had smiled at him from behind her veil, as close to shy as she ever got, and he had prayed with all his might: please, don't let me make her unhappy, I'd rather die than make her unhappy.

It was a pity, Jerry thought, slipping away out of the world; he'd never expected to be taken quite this literally.

-------

After that things were very confusing for a very long time. Not much made sense, nothing seemed to happen in the right order, and things that had made sense only a minute ago seemed to slip through his fingers. Jerry felt shaky and too warm and lost, all the time; he could hear people talking to him, twenty of them all at once so that it was impossible to know what anyone was trying to tell him, even though he was sure some of these people had been terribly important to him at some point. Every so often the warmth would flare up into flames and he would crash and burn, but at least at those times there were no voices to be heard apart from his own screams.

At some point he realized that every time that happened he was landing somewhere, in a bed or something like it, and after a while longer still that he might like to stay there, where things were painful but at least made sense. It felt like fighting the entire war all over again--he had forgotten there was a war until that thought came, and wondered if perhaps he'd only dreamt it--but it was nearly impossible to determine what had once been real and what he'd only dreamt up. The war, he concluded eventually, was real, though little of it seemed to make much sense regardless; but he'd dreamt up a beautiful redhead, too, the kind of woman too vivid and wonderful to exist outside a man's dreams, dreamt he'd married her, and as Jerry struggled endlessly towards consciousness he found himself unable to decide whether he dared believe that or not.

And then, one day, he opened his eyes--and that hurt too, seeing what he was nearly sure was the real world for the first time in what felt like years. The real world turned out to be very pale and, once his eyes had grown accustomed to it, rather bland, though it was also terrifically noisy and smelled awful. Jerry tried to move, found it unexpectedly difficult, and coughed once or twice on the vague principle that someone ought to be told he still existed. Someone might well have noticed, for all he knew, but before they did he had drifted off again into a peace that was, for once, neither noisy or painful.

-------

The next time he woke up there was a nurse standing over him, which likely explained why everything looked so horribly bland. "Good evening, Captain." She smiled thinly down at him, a solidly built woman with close-cropped curly hair and an accent Jerry wasn't awake enough to place. "You're just in time for dinner."

Jerry tried to speak but nothing came out; she offered him water, and he had swallowed two cupfuls before realizing how warm and stale it was. "I hope that wasn't dinner," he croaked.

"You'll wish it had been, if Doctor Whitely lets you have solid food." She set the cup down somewhere to the side, out of his field of vision. "Do you understand what's happened?"

Jerry closed his eyes and wished, after all, that he weren't awake so that he wouldn't have to remember. "They got us." He liked to think his voice sounded a little clearer. "Came right down over the base, woke me up, everything was on fire, but I never--" He hesitated, the two ends of his line of thought suddenly joining together. "I'm in hospital. That means I've been wounded."

"Very clever. You must be one of those British university boys." Italian, that was it; she sounded Italian. "Cambridge, that's the big one, isn't it?"

Jerry spluttered, but he hadn't the energy to correct her. "How bad is it?"

"Not as bad as it looks." She glanced down at him, irresistibly.

It took a monumental effort, but he managed to lift his head and look down at himself. There was a blanket, but it was thin, and even through it he could see that one side of himself was soft, misshapen--bandaged, he concluded belatedly, thoughts slow and muddled still. Coincidentally, this was also the side of himself he couldn't seem to move. "That doesn't seem to be saying much."

"You've taken a good pounding, yes." Her smile didn't look quite as convincing as it had a minute ago. "But you've been lucky compared to some men here. None of the metal went too deep. The doctor thinks he's got it all out."

"So I'll heal, won't I?" Jerry let his head fall back against the thin inadequate pillow, staring at her. "How soon can I go back?"

The nurse's smile wavered and failed.

"Oh, no." Jerry's voice had gone irritatingly hoarse again. He wished it would stop doing that. "Don't joke about that. Please don't. What am I supposed to do if I can't go back?"

"Your wife is here," said the nurse after a moment, with forced brightness. "She's been worried sick. I'm sure you'll be glad to see each other, next time she stops by."

This change of subject was largely effective for the moment, if likely not for the reasons she'd intended, and Jerry beamed in relief. Even smiling was tiring. He wondered whether he was dozing off again. "My wife? She's--" real, was the question he wanted to ask, but some dim instinct reminded him that that wasn't the right question-- "here?"

The nurse nodded comfortingly. "Got herself transferred, didn't she? She's been here every day or two, sitting by you and pestering the doctors out of their wits. Sometimes she goes and asks all kinds of questions of the other men, too. Her job, she says, and I suppose that's true."

Jerry laughed feebly, and stopped again very quickly; laughing felt different, as though some mechanism within him that allowed for laughter had got all gummed up. "I'd like to see her."

"She'll be back," the nurse reassured him. "I wish I could tell you exactly when."

-------

He woke up just once more that night, when the ache all down his right side burned slowly up and up until he was overwhelmed, crying helplessly with the pain. At last some angel came and did something about it, and everything vanished at once in a sweet rush of medicine.

In general the real world didn't seem worth his time, so Jerry went back to sleep.

------

He didn't know what time it was when he next stirred, but he knew he had been brought back by a kiss to the forehead. It seemed like an important thing to pay attention to, so Jerry forced his eyes open to find Hilary hovering over him, raw and anxious-looking. "Jerry," she whispered. "Is that you in there?"

Even through the haze of sleep and morphine his heart turned right over in his chest; it felt like being nineteen again. "Oh, thank God." He reached for her, and was genuinely surprised to find that his unbandaged arm worked.

Hilary perched on the edge of the bed and took his hand, and no, he definitely wasn't dreaming that. "How do you feel?"

"I thought I'd dreamt you," Jerry admitted, and held on as tight as he could, which didn't feel nearly tight enough. "But I don't think you'd look like so much hell if I had."

She laughed, which was a damn good job for all concerned, because she looked like she hadn't slept or washed in a week. "You're certainly one to talk."

It took a minute for Jerry to understand why she was laughing when he'd been perfectly serious; then he decided he'd better just let her think he'd been joking. "I missed you," he said helplessly.

"Well, someone had to come kick you out of bed." Hilary's eyes were suspiciously bright--oh please God, let her not be crying--but then she leaned down to kiss him, a gesture greeted by a smattering of applause and cheers. When she sat up again, Jerry caught her making a rude gesture at the rest of the ward, which was how he realized quite belatedly that they weren't by any means alone. Another instinctive twinge reminded him that he ought to be more reserved, that one wasn't supposed to be this visibly distraught in front of one's fellow soldiers, but he couldn't seem to remember why it mattered.

His friends, he remembered; he had friends, and he ought to be getting back to them.

"Hilary." He clutched anew at her hand. "I've just remembered--you've got to help me. They said--the nurse, she said--"

"Said what?" Hilary leaned over him, stroking his hair. Jerry decided, through all his confusion, that he had been right; she was marvelous beyond comprehension, and even if this was all a dream--he still wasn't entirely decided on that point--he deserved everything he might get for having been such a poor husband to her.

"She said they might not let me fly again," he said hoarsely, not wanting to hear the words even from himself. "Hilary, if you go, and then that--I wouldn't have anything. You've got to make them see sense and let me go back."

"I'll do my best." Her fingers brushed his face; it looked as though she were trying to smile but it wasn't quite working out the way she wanted. "And you needn't worry; I'll be here with you as long as you need."

"I always need you," protested Jerry faintly.

For some reason, it was this that brought a real smile to Hilary's face. "Then you've nothing to worry about, have you?"