Snow for Christmas, at Denver, was a rare phenomenon indeed; Jerry knew from a lifetime's experience that it always seemed to be only just too warm out. So it wasn't a real disappointment that it didn't snow for the Christmas of 1944, but it felt somehow as though it were just about to, which was really the most one could hope for.
And Jerry felt he could use a bit of hope that morning. Getting out of bed early of one's own accord because of the holiday was one thing, especially when there was a hot breakfast involved. Being hauled out of bed early by one's wife, and then led outdoors where there was no breakfast of any kind in sight, was quite another.
"It's lucky for you that I love you," he told Hilary, trying to pretend his arm around her shoulders was purely affectionate and not at all there to help him find physical support. The walk was long enough that he was leaning increasingly on Hilary as well as on his stick, and the frost on the grass was crunching under their feet, accentuating the unevenness in his gait just enough to irk him.
"I know," said Hilary cheerfully. Her own arm was around his waist, hand tucked into the pocket of his overcoat; she had tied a scarf over her hair, but otherwise it fell loose down her back and over his arm, and her nose and cheeks were pink with cold. She looked tremendously happy, which was all Jerry could ask out of life, but he did rather hope she intended to tell him why.
In two more weeks she would be back in France and hard at work, but Jerry was trying very hard not to think about that because he was determined that they were damned well going to have a good Christmas no matter what. It was their first together in five years, and neither of them felt entirely pleased with the idea of spending it here. Jerry had promised to stop hiding from his family, though, and Hilary seemed to have reached some kind of truce with his parents for the first time since he could remember, so here they were. In another hour or two they would have to go to breakfast and cope with his parents and grandmother and aunts and one uncle--Uncle Peter and Winnie being notably absent, with the usual lack of explanation--not to mention his small army of young cousins, all of whom would want to idolize him for his infirmities. Looking at the situation that way, he was almost glad to be out here in the cold with Hilary.
"Are you all right?" she murmured, leaning into him more heavily--and she wasn't doing it for physical support, Jerry knew, because it meant putting more pressure on her healing shoulder. "I'm sorry, I didn't think about the cold, and I know it's quite a walk."
"It aches rather," Jerry admitted, only because he knew it wouldn't be worth the effort to try to lie to her. "But it's nothing I can't handle, I promise you."
"Here we are, anyway," said Hilary, and opened the door.
For all his curiosity, Jerry had only half been paying attention to where they were going, being much more inclined to devote his attention to Hilary--but he knew the grounds like the back of his hand, and he knew this particular small building to be his father's dog kennels, even if the sudden riot of greeting from the dogs within wouldn't have tipped him off regardless.
It was unexpectedly cosy inside; the gamekeeper, who had undoubtedly already been and gone that morning, had left a little electric heater going in the middle of the building. To either side of it the dogs, shut up safely in their stalls, were going mad with joy at the prospect of company. Jerry would have very much liked to provide it, but he was just about done with staying on his feet. "Tell them hello for me," he suggested, and let go of Hilary to sit down on the bench that stood just inside the door, leaning his stick against the wall at his side.
"Don't worry, you'll get your chance. Just give me a minute." She bent to kiss him, and Jerry tugged gently at her hand--her good arm, just in case.
"Are you planning to let them all out?" he inquired earnestly. "I can't very well complain if so, having tried it a fair few times myself, but I promise that you can't possibly imagine the chaos that will result."
"You'll see," said Hilary, patting his cheek and grinning. "One minute, that's all I ask."
She passed the stalls without opening them, to the disappointment of Jerry and the dogs both, though she did pause and stick her hand through the slats for their inspection before vanishing around a corner towards the gamekeeper's little workroom in the back.
"Someone," she called back after a moment, "has etched PEKLD GERH into a post back here with a knife. You wouldn't know anything about that, would you?"
"Nothing whatsoever." Jerry leaned back against the wall and stretched his leg out; something shifted and eased in his hip as the chill began to wear off. "And anyway, I was six years old and someone caught me partway through, so you can't say I didn't do my best."
It would be so easy, he thought, listening to her crash about in the workroom, to ask her not to go away again--and she really wouldn't go if he asked, that was the devil of it. They had been doing so well lately at being married, for the first time since just about the day the honeymoon had ended. It was hard work, but it was working, somehow, and he had complete faith that if he only told the truth--if he only admitted outright that he was afraid not for her safety but for his own emotional health once she went away again--she would stay.
Berlin by Christmas, she'd promised him in September, utterly ecstatic. I'll send you a postcard, shall I? But instead she'd come home again with a hole in her shoulder, and the men she'd shipped out with were no nearer to victory than ever.
No, she'd missed Normandy for him, and now Berlin; he couldn't ask her to give up still more. He would hack it somehow or other, that was all, even if it felt some days like his marriage was the only thing left going right in the world. The tide of the war was turning in their favour, or so all the papers claimed, and surely it wouldn't be too much longer.
"Lee," he called, since this was neither a new nor a productive train of thought. "Do you need help back there?"
"I'm not sure," Hilary admitted, sounding muffled. "I did bring you here for a reason, I swear, but the reason is being a bit shy at the moment--oh, there you are, come on, it won't be so bad, honestly it won't." Before Jerry could interpret this last addendum, she reappeared with something in her arms and deposited it into his lap: a small warm bundle of liver-and-white.
The bundle blinked up at Jerry; Jerry blinked back in speechless delight. "Oh," he said at last, watching the bundle disentangle its own limbs and find footing on his thigh. "Hello. Bit out of season, aren't you, old chap?"
"I'm afraid I woke him up from a very comfortable-looking nap." Hilary joined him on the bench, propping an elbow on the back of the bench to look over his shoulder. "I'm told he was a sort of accident--the mother was fixed years ago, only you know how one time in a thousand it just doesn't quite take. Harris told me he didn't even know it had happened until suddenly she started producing puppies."
Jerry laughed, only half listening; he offered a finger to the puppy, who tested it gently with what felt like a mouthful of needles. "Excuse you," said Jerry indignantly, withdrawing the finger, and knuckled the puppy's head instead, which won him a happy yip and the enthusiastic bathing of his hand. "Where are his siblings, then?"
"All given away by now. I asked Harris to keep one about for you to meet." Hilary grinned. "What do you make of him? I thought, as a matched pair of insanely lucky bastards, you'd have a lot to say to each other."
Jerry gathered up the puppy, trying to come up with something intelligent and expert-sounding to say about him. "Looks healthy enough," he concluded, though really what he wanted to say was He's perfect, like a little boy who'd never met a puppy before. "Some kind of spaniel--six or seven weeks old, I'd say? Nice long legs under that fat somewhere, and the usual supply of very sharp teeth, and far too clever for his own good," he added, as the puppy wriggled free of his grip and scrambled up to his shoulder. "He'll make someone a magnificent bird dog in a year or so--or be utter hell to keep up with. I'd call it a pleasure to meet him, all in all."
"Someone?" Hilary echoed, and lifted her eyebrows. "Jerry, I know I woke you up awfully early, but I wouldn't have bribed your gamekeeper with a bottle of Scotch and then dragged you out here on Christmas morning just to visit."
Jerry choked. For some reason, this was a possibility that hadn't even occurred to him. "What--really?"
Hilary laughed, chin resting on his shoulder. "I mean, I got you a respectable grownup gift too, for later--the sort of thing your mother would actually allow inside her drawing room--but I don't know, this seemed right somehow."
"It's amazing," said Jerry solemnly, ducking his head; the puppy was nosing around in his hair, whining softly. "He's amazing, and you're amazing, and oh God but I love you." He felt he ought to be more eloquent--it being a holiday and all--but he was more than a little overwhelmed. He had been coming down here to visit since he was so small that he had to climb up onto this bench, since things like wars and Hilary were enormities utterly beyond his imagining, and yet this single thing hadn't changed: the feeling of the one crucial moment where responsibility for something small and living passed wholly into one's hands.
"Merry Christmas," said Hilary happily, and then, after a pause that belied the lightness of her tone: "I mean, I can't very well leave you completely unsupervised while I'm gone."
Jerry glanced first at her, then up at the puppy--whose tail was drumming against his ear--then back at her. "You're leaving me supervised by something that's trying to eat the scarf off your head," he pointed out.
"That sounds just about suitable--ow, ow, stop that." Hilary batted at the puppy, but his jaws were clenched firmly; in the end she gave up, pushed the scarf down off her head, and he scrambled triumphantly down to flop with it in Jerry's lap.
"Merry Christmas," said Jerry ruefully, remembering he hadn't said it back. He ought to have been finding a way to retrieve the scarf without making the puppy think they were playing tug-of-war, but he was so much more interested in Hilary just now. "I don't know how it could possibly be better, and it isn't even breakfast-time yet."
"It will be soon, I'm sorry to say." Hilary ruffled the puppy's ears; he was still slobbering all over the scarf, which Jerry tactfully replaced with his own hand. "Let's not go," she suggested. "We'll get something right from the kitchen and have breakfast off on our own somewhere."
"Or we could bring him to breakfast with us," said Jerry brightly. "Feed him scraps under the table. I think either prospect would horrify my mother about equally, which makes them both quite tempting. If only we didn't want this to actually go well."
Hilary sighed. "If only. What are you going to call him, do you think?"
"Haven't a clue, if you must know." Jerry rested his cheek on her head in turn, pondering the creature in his lap. Perhaps he'd been wrong; almost everything in the world had gone horribly wrong, but there was no one and no nation powerful enough to make the average puppy anything less than wondrous. It was an immensely comforting thought. "He looks rather like a boy I was at school with," he concluded. "Edgar. Commonly known as Badger."
"You can't really mean to name the poor thing Edgar." Hilary shoved her scarf into her coat pocket, hair falling into her face. "Or Badger, for that matter."
"Badger's a perfectly good name for a dog," said Jerry indignantly. The puppy was falling asleep wrapped around his hand, snuffling and still swishing his tail half-heartedly; Hilary was settled snugly against his side. Going back out into the cold just to change for breakfast with his parents was looking less and less appealing with every minute. "A bit undignified, I'll grant you that, but have you ever known a dog that wasn't?"
"Breakfast," said Hilary again, with less certainty, and reached over to tug gently at Badger's tail. "We really should."