Hilary was expecting the knock on her door, but she had had no idea when it might come. It happened to come while she was changing her bandages, but she couldn't very well help that, so she said "Come in," without hesitation.
"Thanks," said Jerry, ominously casual, and slipped into her bedroom. It was really a credit to him, she thought, that he was even able to manage a movement graceful enough to be called slipping, although he stopped in the doorway rather suddenly. "I'm sorry-- didn't realize you were occupied."
Hilary shrugged and immediately wished she hadn't. "I do this every day. It hardly needs much attention."
Jerry nodded, looking unconvinced, and abandoned his stick by the bedroom door to limp across the room and sit down heavily on the bed next to her. "May I--?" He nodded slightly backwards.
"Of course." Hilary managed a smile that felt wan even to her, and watched him maneuver the rest of himself onto the bed, settling down to lie on his side. He stretched his leg cautiously-- and abortive though the attempt might be, something about the restrained movement genuinely distracted Hilary for a moment. "How does it feel?" she asked, resting her hand on his knee for a moment before remembering that there was still gauze to be taped to her shoulder.
"It's stopped aching," Jerry said hopefully, "but it's stiff as hell; I feel as though one side of my body were strapped to a board. It'll wear off, though. It generally does. You, on the other hand--" He frowned, though the expression lost something for being sideways. "You look awful. All puffy and red in the face."
"Now that's a hell of a thing to say to your wife when she's got her shirt off." Hilary eased her bra strap back into place over the fresh bandage, and then rebuttoned a few buttons of her blouse, almost purely as a formality; if he was there to talk, then talk they would, but it wasn't as if she felt any particular need to be /modest/ in front of him.
"I've thought about it." Jerry didn't sound as forlorn as he had that morning, but he did still seem terribly subdued. Subdued was not his natural state, and Hilary had come to hope dearly that it never would be. "And I've realized-- in all the time I've known you, I can count on one hand the times I've seen you cry."
Sling retied, Hilary slumped back against the pillows next to him, trying to hide the inevitable flinch when her shoulder first met the bed. "It's not a thing I like people to see. You know that." She did find that she felt slightly better already, though, just for having him there to talk to about it. There was a /rightness/ to being with him of which she had never quite been able to pinpoint the origin; it had been there even in the first few years of their marriage, when their long-accustomed bickering had descended more and more into genuine conflict, and only made each argument hurt all the worse.
"I know." Jerry pillowed his head on one elbow, looking up at her through his eyelashes. "Which only makes it all the more terrifying a sight to behold-- especially when it happens to have been my doing."
"I was trying to make you feel better," Hilary reminded him. "Not that I seem to have done a very good job-- running out on you like that just when I was trying to convince you I've no intention of doing any such thing."
"I'm sorry." He pressed his lips together. "I honestly am. I get in these moods sometimes, lately, and there's honestly nothing to be done but wait 'em out. And I'd been doing ever so well at keeping from taking them out on you, too; you don't deserve it."
"It's a funny thing, really." Hilary squirmed slightly, making herself more comfortable, and drummed her fingers on her bare stomach. "I've been so much in the habit, for years now, of worrying I wasn't adequately getting across how important you are to me-- it never occurred to me it might sometimes be true."
Jerry's fingers crept up her side and slid between hers, where the sling kept her hand pinned to her stomach. "It isn't you I don't trust, I promise it isn't. It's me-- if that makes any sense."
"It doesn't," said Hilary promptly, more for the easy and familiar satisfaction of needling him than because she was sure she wanted clarification.
His fingers twisted restlessly between hers for a moment. "It's worst in the mornings, I think, because I still wake up most mornings and take a few seconds to remember what's happened. Maybe that morning it seems bearable, but maybe it doesn't, and then I get to thinking how disappointed you must be, to have married an athlete and wound up with me instead, and what a terrible letdown I must be for my family. And after that I get to thinking that maybe today's the day you decide you can't put up with the nightmares any longer, or with me clomping around your ancestral home like Long John Silver, and things go on from there."
"Jerry, stop it." Hilary forced her voice to soften. "We've already had this conversation. Just this morning, remember?"
"And that once was one time too many, I'm sure." Jerry shook his head sharply, with a grimace. "I get in these moods," he began again, with great deliberation, "and it always seems at the time that the only way to fix it is to go prostrate myself before someone-- you, lately, being the only readily available candidate-- and be reassured I'm worth a damn to someone."
"Which I failed to do," reiterated Hilary, still guilty on that point.
"Because I touched off a nerve I ought to know not to touch-- and Lee, dearest darling, that isn't the point I meant to make at all. My point is that being reassured doesn't do a damn thing about it. These things have happened a little less often since you've been here, but they're no easier to get out of for your presence. I know perfectly well you've no longer any intention of leaving me, and that I was a heel and a half for even suggesting such a thing to you; but there are days when I can't seem to unconvince myself of it no matter how damned hard I try. There's really nothing to be done for it but to find a distraction and try to wait the mood out-- which is why I've tried to keep you out of the way. It isn't that I mind on principle if I look pathetic in front of you, you know that, but I'd much rather it made you laugh than the opposite."
Hilary squeezed Jerry's hand and offered him a rueful smile-- which she was pleased to see him return, though it appeared to cost him a bit of an effort. "If you do need someone-- to talk to, or prostrate yourself before, or whatever-- I'll steel myself better next time. I promise." She would have done anything, really, to help him stop hurting. Once upon a time, she had been fond of saying that he could stand to take a few knocks in life; perhaps she had even been right, and the ones he'd had since had proven to be good for him, but Hilary had never been able to cope with seeing him actually take them. In practice, every dent Jerry took to his substantial good humor only seemed to her increasingly unfair.
"I must admit." Jerry swallowed. "I realized, a moment after I said it, that I was going to get you someplace that would hurt you worse than it was hurting me-- but I wasn't expecting tearful flight. If I may ask so as to avoid doing the same thing again-- just how the hell did I send you to pieces that badly?"
Hilary bit her lip, hard. "I don't know whether I ought to tell you. Something you said reminded me of-- something else in the past, that wasn't your fault but that I expect you'll feel guilty about anyway, and you couldn't have done much about that either."
Jerry snorted, eyebrows lifting. "Well, now you've got to tell me, after dropping a bundle of hints like those."
Hilary let out a long breath of her own. "When you were in hospital--" she began.
"Oh, Lord, that's a hell of a promising beginning." Jerry caught her eye and snapped his mouth shut hastily.
"I'll try again," said Hilary, not precisely in response. "I had already decided not to divorce you, you know; I had been so sure that I was going to, when the News Chronicle first sent me to France, and that with time apart it would only come to make more sense. But somehow I never got used to the idea of breaking off for good-- and then last year I realized quite suddenly that I couldn't bear it at all any more, that it was tremendously important to stay attached to you and I wanted to fix things up if I possibly could. It was only that I couldn't seem to explain myself in a letter, so I thought, oh, I'll just tell him the next time we have leave together in a few months, and I did so want to see your face when I told you."
Even right now, Jerry's face was a study; he was watching her intently, eyes wide in comprehension. "Let me guess-- and then I wound up in hospital instead?"
"And then you wound up in hospital." Hilary closed her eyes. She had the childish urge to draw her knees up and hide her face entirely, but Jerry's arm across her waist, his hand still clasped in hers, made it impossible. "I got there and there were so many drugs in you you didn't know which way was up. I'd be sitting at your bedside and you'd keep asking for me all the same. Please, Hilary, please come back, I'll do better-- days and days of that, unless I happened to visit when the morphine was wearing off and you weren't due for the next dose yet, and then--" She broke off with a shudder. "I was so afraid you were going to die. Or even worse, that you'd die without knowing I'd decided not to leave you. It got to be the most important thing in the world that you should know that-- and I did think you knew, by now."
Jerry made a small strangled noise and fit himself more closely against her side, one hand sliding up and down her leg, warm and soothing even through Hilary's trousers. "Oh, Lee, I'm sorry. I know, I know, you're going to tell me it wasn't my fault, and perhaps you're right; but you've been hauled through this really beastly thing with me and I'm sorry it hurt you so badly."
"You are far too good to be true," said Hilary, for lack of anything better. "It isn't a bit fair." It was a sentiment she'd expressed to him before, though it seemed to her that somehow she had usually been more coherent about it.
"Hilary-- listen." Jerry squeezed her knee, as if for emphasis; at any rate it startled Hilary into opening her eyes again. "I am alive-- you may have noticed-- and I do know you're staying, I swear to God I do. Everything else we can sort out as we go along."
"Fair enough." Hilary smiled-- hardly even having to work at it-- and retrieved his hand from her leg so that she could kiss his fingers. "Jerry," she said after a moment, watching him thoughtfully. "Are you terribly lonely? You did mention you've no one else here to really confide in."
He freed his hand to tug gently at her wedding ring, which hung from a chain around her neck where her WAAC tags would usually have rested beside it. "You might wear this on your hand where it belongs, you know; I doubt you're likely to see combat in Fenchurch St. Paul any time soon."
Hilary craned her head down to watch him fidget. "I've tried," she admitted, "but I keep panicking for a moment every time I realize it isn't around my neck. I suppose I'll have to put it back on my finger eventually. And have I mentioned you've no skill at all at evading questions?"
"It's awfully quiet around here," Jerry went on; whether in answer to her question or in continuation of his own thought, she couldn't quite decide. "And your friends have all been so kind--" he put a wry emphasis on the word with which Hilary found she could thoroughly sympathize-- "to Hilary's poor young man. And I can't say it hasn't been a relief, being kept safely out from under Mother's eye for a little while-- you know what a terror she turns into when she starts worrying about things-- but I'm starting to feel like I'm hiding from everyone, and that really just won't do. I'm an officer in His Majesty's Royal Air Force, Lee; I can't go on being terrified of my seven-year-old cousin forever."
He had stopped fidgeting, but his fingers were still half-curled around the chain; Hilary removed them with care. "What have you got in mind?"
"Bloody mind-reader," said Jerry, affectionately. "I thought I might go stay in Town, once you've gone again-- or get it done with and visit Peterkin and Bredon and /then/ go up to London, maybe. They're both always writing about how much they'd like me to come visit." He grinned. "Bredon's awfully clever about it, really, for his age; keeps trying to say it's Aunt Harriet who desperately misses me as if it were nothing to do with him at all."
"I expect she'd like to see you too, though." Hilary bit back all her immediate objections; she couldn't possibly have many that he hadn't already thought of. "Any particular plans? We haven't got a house in London any more, for one thing; at least not one fit to live in."
"That's where I thought of starting, actually; it's past time one of us went to clear all that lot up. Winnie'd probably let me use her flat-- she hasn't much use for it herself right now, after all, and it hasn't even been touched. And after that?" He shrugged. "I'm not sure, Lee, I just want to find a way to help out somewhere. I know there are charities and things, but I want something to /do/, not something to throw money at." Hilary laughed before she could catch herself, and his brow creased indignantly. "What?"
"I was only thinking," said Hilary soothingly, "of a young man I knew at university, and how utterly horrified he'd be to hear you talk like that."
Jerry relaxed almost immediately. "A young man, hey? Anyone I ought to be worried about?"
Hilary pondered. "Well, he was quite handsome, and very charming-- but the sort who's so full of himself he hasn't any room left over for brains."
"So not your type at all, then?"
"Oh, I shouldn't say you had anything to worry about, no." Hilary smoothed her fingers through his hair.
"Excellent," said Jerry contentedly. "I say, Hilary; what did change your mind?"
Hilary blinked at him, shaken out of a brief reverie. "About what?"
"About staying married to me. If there's anything I did particularly right, I'd like to know so that I can keep on doing it."
"As a matter of fact, there was." Hilary smiled reminiscently. "It was a letter you wrote me-- oh, about a year ago now. Not at Christmas, but not too long before it."
"Really." Jerry shifted a little higher against his pillow; he looked much more relaxed than he had when he'd come in, but his grip on her hand was still a little tight. "Which one?"
"It said-- oh, God, I feel silly saying it aloud, but I promise you that in written form it made a hell of an impression." Hilary tilted her head-- though in all honesty she had committed the words fairly firmly to memory. "The part that won me over-- it went I know that you think you're marvelously reserved about your feelings, and never give away anything you don't mean to, but I can always tell when I've made you happy; in fact, when I'd once realized how you felt about me and knew to look for the signs, I could almost always see it. When I said just the right thing, or kissed you just so, or sometimes for no reason at all that I could discern, you'd blush-- you do blush, though I know I'll never get you to admit it-- and smile so widely, but not quite certain, as though you'd never imagined being quite so happy. I may not be there to make your face light up like that, but I like to think my letters can do the same trick, if only for a moment. I'd like to bring a little sunlight into your life for a few minutes, when I know it seems there's so little to be had." She broke off and laughed sheepishly. "I've-- well, I've read that one quite often."
"You're doing it now," said Jerry, watching her with rapt attention. "In case you were wondering-- though I do recall that letter, and I recall writing it in rather a hurry and thinking it was one of my more heavyhanded efforts."
Hilary grinned helplessly, looking down at their hands joined on her stomach, and found that her cheeks did indeed feel hot. "It did the job, regardless. I don't know why it was that letter particularly; it got me thinking about knowing someone and being known so intimately, I suppose, and how much that meant to me, and a lot of things suddenly made sense to me that hadn't before. Being married-- it had still been feeling like a trap to me, deep down somewhere, being tied to someone so permanently, and I realized that it didn't any more; it felt safe, knowing that when I came home from the war you would be there, that you were my home." She found she was talking far too fast, but didn't dare slow down for fear that she might not be able to continue. "And I found-- I don't know whether it happened all at once, because I read your letter, or if it had already happened and I simply hadn't realized it, but I found that I wanted to be married to you. Not to spite your mother, or because you wanted to marry me, or to keep you from marrying someone else, or because I was tired of having to smuggle you into my bed at night, or any of a thousand other excuses I'd told myself when I decided to propose to you-- just because I wanted to be married to you, as an end in itself." She could feel her eyes beginning to prickle again and blinked the tears back almost savagely.
Jerry was staring at her, visibly stricken. "For the record--" He reached over and wrapped his hand up loosely in her hair, giving it an affectionate tug that made Hilary suddenly glad she'd fallen out of the habit of cutting it short. "All of that would have made one hell of a letter."
"Well, at least you know now." Hilary slid a little lower against her pillow, the more easily to turn her head and kiss him. "I'll tell you every day, if it helps," she promised; her bound arm was trapped awkwardly between them, but that didn't much seem to matter.
"I can't say I'd complain." Jerry's free hand found her jaw and they kissed again, and then for some time after that.
Hilary closed her eyes, holding tightly to him; it was so easy to forget everything else for a little while and imagine that nothing at all mattered but the two of them. It seemed to her utterly miraculous that they should have this second chance together, that despite everything she could wake up in the morning knowing he was sleeping at her side or in the next room, safe if not entirely sound. Not a rare miracle, given what the world had been like for the last few years, but no less marvelous for all that. "Jerry," she murmured after a good while. "Oh, my handsome love."
He beamed. "That's terribly poetic of you."
Hilary kissed his cheek. "But accurate, you have to admit."
"It sounds as though you meant to write a song about me," said Jerry comfortably. "I carry a picture of my handsome love, who blasts damned Germans from the skies above-- a terrible first effort, but I'm sure you could improve upon it."
Hilary laughed, rolling onto her side to face him properly. It occurred to her that this was by far the most like himself he had been in days; before she knew it her laughter had turned to shuddering tears, and for once she simply let them come, clutching at the front of Jerry's jumper.
Perhaps he was right; perhaps it shouldn't have been such a revelation, after nearly a decade of loving a man, that weeping in his arms was a comfort rather than a humiliation. It certainly seemed to take Jerry aback at least as badly as it took her. "Lee," he said uncertainly, fingers skittering over her face and hair and shoulders. "Lee, my beloved, oh damn it, please don't; whatever it is I said, I swear I didn't mean anything by it. What did I do?"
"Oh, nothing." Hilary, who could not for the life of her have said what had set her off, gulped back more sobs and sniffled pathetically against his shoulder. "Only been a far better husband to me than I can possibly deserve; only stayed home to keep house while I go off to war; only made me desperately happy for ten years, even when you've been frightening the life out of me."
"How uncommonly ghastly of me." Jerry kissed her eyes and then her nose, hand flattening against her back. "But I'm afraid I mean to go on making you as happy as I can for as long as I can; you'll simply have to get used to the idea."
"It's an unpleasant prospect, but I'm sure I can find a way to endure." Hilary squeezed her eyes tight shut and shivered, trying to pull herself back together.
Jerry murmured nonsense briefly into her hair. "Do you know, the other day my doctor told me I ought to have a goal? Something to work towards. I wasn't sure I ought to tell you what I said; you might think it too sentimental."
"And yet you're going to regardless." Hilary let go of his jumper, finally, smoothing it back down with care; it wasn't as if wool garments were too easily replaceable.
"I told him," said Jerry with great earnestness, "that I miss dancing with you, and I'd like to be able to again-- by the time the war ends, if it ever does."
"It will," said Hilary, feeling a pang of nostalgia. "Hell, if that's what's at stake, I'll make sure of that personally."
"Don't get your hopes up; I'm afraid I'll never be as graceful as I once was." Jerry touched her jaw apologetically. "All I ask is to be able to stay upright for a little while without that blasted stick-- and not to step on your toes too often."
Taking the hint, Hilary kissed him again. "I'd rather have you, stepping on my toes or not, than a thousand Fred Astaires-- and anyway, I've certainly stepped on yours enough in my time. It only seems fair to give you a turn."
"Imagine dancing with a thousand Astaires all at once, though. You wouldn't have a prayer of keeping up." Jerry smiled against her mouth; his fingers trailed down her throat to rest in the hollow of her collarbone, and when he kissed her again it was with the definite beginnings of intent. "Do you know what else I miss?"
"Mmm." Hilary squirmed, her insides already beginning to knot up in a very familiar way. "Many things, I'm sure."
"I used to scoop you up and carry you to bed," Jerry said against her cheek, "and you would wriggle like a hooked eel and feel me up and make a complete nuisance of yourself," nipping at her jaw, "but it always made you laugh like nothing else," pressing a sloppy kiss to her throat that made Hilary's breath catch. "It's not a thing one tells one's doctor, but I mean to do that again someday, too."
Hilary blinked, startled; it wasn't a thing she would ever have thought to be sentimental about, but the thought of it never happening again was indeed a depressing one. "I'll try to be an easier passenger in the future."
"Lee," Jerry said, with impressive solemnity considering the circumstances, "I love you desperately, and I hope you will take it as the high praise I intend when I say this: you are many things, and easy is most certainly one of them."
Hilary laughed-- hard enough to hurt her shoulder, but she didn't mind-- and nudged Jerry over onto his back. It had proven tricky, figuring out ways to accomplish this kind of thing without interference by either of their injuries, but she liked to think they were starting to get some idea of it. "Jerry." She leaned down to kiss him, letting her free hand work up under his shirt, tracing the dense tangle of scars there. "Promise me something?"
He hissed at the touch, but grinned up at her with a delight that was more than worth the tearful mess in which they had begun the day. "Anything at all."
Hilary kissed him again, long and deeply enough that she very nearly forgot what she'd meant to ask. "Just don't grow up too much? I might have to start worrying for real if you did."
"No worries there," said Jerry, twisting her hair around one finger. "I can most certainly promise you that I haven't any intentions of it whatsoever."
Hilary settled down gingerly against his side, arranging her slung arm carefully to keep it more or less out of the way. "You'd better not."
All the same, she admitted to herself, he wasn't really the same man he'd been when she'd married him, any more than she was the same woman she had been-- but it had been such fun getting to know each other the first time, years ago, that perhaps a second time could only be even better.