A/N: Who would have thought that the first fic of the year would be a short sequel to Wraiths? I certainly didn't. The idea came to me on New Year's Eve/early hours of New Year's Day and it was *supposed* to be fluffy and involve much cuddling and kissing between Antoine and Konstin, but then my brain thought, no. Make it angst and about Marguerite and historical medicine and all that good stuff you love.
Honestly, I meant to write and post this last week. But then I had a shitty time with mental health and general writer's block which has left me way way way behind on messages here, and filling prompts on Tumblr, but I'm *hoping* that is behind me now.
Anyway, please enjoy the angst ahead. I hesitated on posting this because part of me feels it's too original, but then I told that part of me to shut up. Title comes from the song 'Grace' by Kate Havnevik, which I think is very Marguerite.
Warnings for blood, wounds, limb loss, death, and reference to drugs.
(And please do review when you get to the end)
She spent this night last year sitting by the bedside of a young man who was dying. His hand was still and cool in hers, the fingers limp, as lifeless as he was about to be. He came in in the ambulance with a man who was already dead, who had been shot in the chest and stomach several times and succumbed en route (and she had been helpless to prevent herself from thinking, as she pressed her fingers into a throat in which she knew there would be no pulse, of what Konstin had once written her in a letter, about Edouard's younger brother, who had once died in an ambulance too.)
But the young man, who was still very much alive, had survived the ambulance journey, and even as she felt the flickering pulse in his throat, he sucked in a weak breath, the air whistling in his throat.
It was Carrière who examined him. They already knew he had lost his legs. The flatness under the blankets where his legs should have been told them that. But it was Carrière who pulled the blankets back, Carrière who frowned as he eased open the boy's coat, his shirt, and revealed his chest, mottled black and blue, rising and falling unevenly with each breath, Carrière whose fingers were gentle as they palpated the boy's ribs on his right side, but the boy was so deeply unconscious that he never stirred, his eyes remaining stubbornly closed, lips slightly parted.
And it was that unconsciousness, the head wound that caused it, that made Carrière's frown deepen. He slowly unwrapped the bandage from around the boy's forehead, and revealed the neatest, smallest hole in his left temple, black against his white skin, and Carrière shook his head and looked up, towards Lefevre who was examining a shoulder wound across the room.
"Julian," the name was caught between a question and an order, and Lefevre looked up, lips pursed, "can you look at this a minute?"
Lefevre whispered something to the man he was tending to, and came over, and a hushed conversation followed, Lefevre making his own examination. Ribs, head, eyes, pulse, missing legs. And Marguerite tried not to listen, tried to tune them out, but snatches of their words reached her ears, nausea roiling in her stomach.
"…you think?", "…ought to…", "…pupils uneven…cerebral haemorrhage…wake him?", "…unable to…flail chest and weak respirations…pulse rapid…", "…amputated or blown off?", "Blown off, I suspect…blood-stained bandages…", "…send for Dumas….", "…surgery?"
Marguerite was not certain, afterwards, which one of them said it, but the words made her blood run cold. "I think it would be an unnecessary cruelty."
She looked down at the pale face of the young man, the words still ringing in her ears …unnecessary cruelty…unnecessary cruelty… The surgeons kept whispering, "…do not think he would survive…", "…trauma of it…", "…his heart under too much strain…", "…extensive brain damage already…", "Surgery would only prolong the inevitable."
And she wanted to scream at them, wanted to scream at them that he is still alive and as long as he's alive then there is hope, and where would Konstin be if they had not decided to take a chance on him? But all of her inner protestations died in her throat, and deep down she knew they were right, knew this young man could not hope to survive, and pain twisted deep in her chest. It must have shown in her face, because Carrière's voice was soft as he addressed her. "Give him two minims of camphor, please, De Chagny. And morphine. Cover him back up, and keep him comfortable until he—Until. We'll put the screens up. I'll send Dumas to you right away, and tell Matron to excuse you." He touched her lightly on the arm, and she nodded, her throat tight as she whispered, "all right."
And that was how she found herself, at ten minutes to midnight, sitting beside the bed of a young man who was dying. He had never stirred, not once, through all of the time she was sitting there, his fingers as still as when she had first taken them, his eyes just as closed. They had re-bandaged his head, to hide the small condemning hole from view, but she could still see it in her mind. One little hole, and all of the future that was or ever could have been reduced down to this, to the dwindling moments of a life in the dying minutes of a year.
She checked his pulse every five minutes, felt it in his throat and slipped her hand under the blanket to lay flat on his clammy chest, felt the shifting of his breastbone with every breath.
It was between fifteen minutes to, and ten minutes to, that his heart began to falter.
She did not lift her fingers away from his throat.
Ten minutes to midnight.
The whole world, beginning and ending in those ten minutes.
If she strained her ears, she could hear the distant crash of shells. Would the guns fall silent to see in the new year? Or would the bullets still fly? Little flashes of light zipping back and forth through the darkness, claiming more and more young men for whom the changing of the calendar would not matter?
"Just hold on," she whispered, to the boy whose hand she was holding though he likely did not know she was there, likely was not aware of anything at all. "Just keep fighting, just a little longer. Just until the clock strikes the hour. Let them…let them all think that you at least saw that, at least saw the coming of the year. That you were happy, that you celebrated. Let them have that to cling to." Suddenly it seemed so important that the ones he was leaving behind, in some town or some village or on some farm, be able to believe that he was alive at the dawning of the year. She could not explain it, not even to herself, and she cannot explain it even now, but it seemed so very vital.
His pulse was faint when she lifted her hand away to dig out her watch, and lay it open on his chest for her to see. Three minutes. Three minutes until the tolling of the bells across the land.
"Just hold on," she whispered, and squeezed his cold fingers, and sought out the pulse in his throat once more, and tried not to hear the gurgling of fluid in his chest with each weak breath (so few, now, silence stretching between them.) "Just hold on."
And all at once she thought of Edouard, of whispering the same things to him a little more than three months ago, of begging him to live, of pleading with him. Was it only three months? It felt—it felt as if it had been centuries since he stopped breathing in her arms.
Tears burned her eyes thinking of him, and she tried to force him away, the memory of his still face, of his closed eyes and parted blue lips, mirrored before her by young man in the bed. She could not—must not think of Edouard, not when she had to look after this boy. So much a boy. He should not have been lying there, should have been off at a gala, or a dance, gathered in a street somewhere with a pressing crowd of others, holding his sweetheart in his arms, waiting to kiss her at the coming of the hour. Not lying in a bed, silent, but for the faint gurgling of each breath, waiting for death to steal him away to peace.
Ninety seconds, and he coughed weakly, pink froth appearing on his lips. And all Marguerite could think was, perhaps one of his broken ribs has punctured his lung, and his pulse was fainter than even a moment before. She knew it was futile to call for Carrière or Lefevre, futile to give him more camphor to stimulate his heart. It might only make him worse.
And he coughed again, and gasped, and she cradled his fingers to her lips, as if she could breathe strength into him, could will him to hold on, just fifty seconds longer.
"Keep breathing," she whispered, watching as he coughed again, and a little trickle of blood ran from the corner of his mouth. She wiped it away, but he did not draw another breath, and if not for the blood she would have pressed her lips to his, forced her own breath into his lungs, just so he would hold on, would live another half a minute.
But though he did not breathe, his pulse still flickered beneath her fingertips, and she clung onto each faint beat as the seconds drew nearer. Twenty…Fifteen…Ten. Nine. Eight. He should be smiling at his sweetheart now. Seven. Six. Five. Bowing his head. Four. Three. Two. Pressing their lips together. One.
And Marguerite saw the second hand hit twelve, and in the pause before it slipped away, his pulse gave one feeble throb, and disappeared.
Distantly, as if she were disconnected from herself, she felt herself kiss his hand, felt herself press her fingers into his thin wrist, and then lay his hand down beside him when she found nothing. She lifted the blanket back, revealed his mottled chest, shirt still open from the examination, and she slipped her hand beneath the waistband of his blood-stained trousers, pressed two fingers into the crease between thigh and torso as closely as she could remember Carrière doing, and sought out the site of a pulse there.
And could not find it.
She had not expected to, not truly, and she eased her hand back out, and took both of his hands, and folded them over his heart. Then she slipped the pillow out from beneath his head and drew the blanket back up to his chin.
He looed as if he were merely sleeping.
"I'm sorry," she whispered, the words caught in her throat, as her fingers hovered beside his cheek. "I'm sorry."
But all she could feel was the numbness, the same heavy numbness she had carried in her heart for more than three months, ever since Edouard—since she held him for the last time.
A year tonight since that unnamed boy died. One full turning of the earth around the sun, and she has not forgotten his face, not once, or the tiny hole in his skull that heralded his death. A year in five minutes' time, and a ball of tears catches in her throat. How very far away she is from his bedside now. How very far away the world is. As if, when the guns fell silent for the last time fifty days ago, everything tried to tilt back to how it had always been, to how it had been Before, but got stuck halfway because there were too many spaces left to fill, too many gaps that had appeared.
(Too many hearts that had ceased to beat.)
A New Year's gala at the Garnier. It could have happened at any time. But it is happening after, and suddenly the room is too small, too claustrophobic, the crowd pressing in too tight. How many of these young men, out of uniform at last, were in a trench somewhere this night last year? How many of these young women, like her, were sitting by the bedsides of dying boys, their fingers stained with blood?
And now here they all are, laughing, dancing.
It is as if none of it ever happened.
(Did they see ghosts out there, these former soldiers? A wraith cloaked in black with golden eyes? A gaunt ghost with dark hair and green eyes and the softest smile she had ever seen those rare times she did see it? A young man with a neat little hole in his head? And the hundreds and thousands of other ghosts scattered over those battlefields-now-burial-grounds? She might ask them, if she did not think they would laugh at her.)
Her palms are slick with sweat. She needs to get away, needs to get out of this crowd. It is almost midnight and she cannot be here, cannot be surrounded, when the clock strikes. It would be doing him an injustice, a disservice, to smile at the exact moment of his death a year ago. And her head spins but she needs to get away, and out of the side of her eye she sees Val de Courcy smile down at Anja, sees her mother lean closer to her father who is standing but not dancing, too frail to dance, sees Uncle Raoul and Christine wrapped in each other's arms as if they are the only ones in the world, Guillaume swaying slowly with someone she recognises as a nurse from the Grand Palais, Émile grinning at someone who may be a ballet girl, Antoine leading Konstin away from the crowd, Konstin hobbling with his bad leg because he left his cane somewhere when he decided to dance and his lungs are still weak from the Spanish Flu, from the pneumonia that followed, and it is six and a half weeks since he regained his senses to find the war had ended while he had been delirious.
(The moment she heard the news of the Armistice she slipped away to Edouard's grave, and stood there a long time feeling untethered, as if if she fell she would fall into his arms, and sometimes she wonders over how she grew to love him in only a handful of days, feels as if she is an imposter who is not supposed to have these feelings, as if it is not her right to still ache for him after more than a year, and it all came rushing back as she stood there, knowing it was all over, and the whole world swam around her as if it were a dream.)
Her family, and strangers. So many strangers pressing close, and she cannot be surrounded by strangers when the time comes.
She swallows a breath, and pushes her way through the crowd, towards the door she saw Konstin and Antoine go through, and there is no sign of them now. They must have slipped into some little alcove, one of the secret passageways that Konstin knows like the back of his hand, the only truly safe place they can be in each other's arms, hidden from prying eyes.
The crowd starts counting. She hears them muffled through the walls as she walks and walks, puts as much distance as she can between them and her. Thirty (and she would have breathed for him), twenty (and she would have shaved minutes off her own life to have kept him out of the way of the shrapnel that pierced his brain, would have given whole years to have had another day with Edouard), ten (and she was praying silently for him to hold on, was imagining him how he ought to have been.)
And the stroke of midnight. And she hears the chorus of cheers and Happy New Years from somewhere behind her but all she can feel is heavy, and tired, and she sags against the wall, unable to keep her tears at bay another moment.
A year ago exactly now a boy died beneath her hands.
And somewhere, in some other world so far away from here, a different, whole, unbroken Edouard who only had a small wound, is taking a different, lighter, freer Marguerite into his arms.
And what good is it to them, to the Edouard who died in her arms, to the boy that died at midnight, to any of them, that she is left here, still breathing?