Age of Edward Contest
Your Pen Name: justduckie
Title: Red Knight
Type of Edward: WWI/Red Baronward
If you would like to see all the stories that are a part of this contest, visit The Age of Edward 2010 C2 Community.
Disclaimer: No copyright infringement is intended.
"An airman can easily lose his way if he forgets for a moment to examine the territory."
– Baron Manfred von Richthofen
With a whir and growl of speeding motors, an unmistakable streak of triple-winged scarlet chased its eighty-first victim through the gray skies over the Somme.
The pilot of the red Fokker Dreidecker pulled at its steering column, fingering the built-in firing controls for twin Spandau machine guns. Air chilled by altitude whipped at the muffler around his neck and raindrops assaulted his face in the open cockpit.
He glanced at the sparse instrumentation panel. The cramped quarters kept man and machine in such intimate contact that once airborne, the airplane practically became an extension of the ace. Rolling his shoulders to loosen them, the pilot prepared to engage in the world's oldest mode of warfare: individual combat.
He had killed scores of men this way, above the clouds: shot them, smashed them, hurled their burning aircraft down to earth in spirals of smoke.
With a hand signal to his squadron he spun off from the Jagdstaffel's formation and dove upon today's unlucky flyer. The single-seat biplane, Sopwith Camel by the lines of it, bore the blue and red roundrels of the Royal Flying Corps. Impassively, he had watched the British airman clumsily empty his machine gun cartridges, piercing nothing but blankets of fog, then struggle to rejoin the dozen planes in his unit.
The Sopwith was a machine worthy of the Germans' combat aircraft, but its pilot was no match for him. A novice, undoubtedly.
The triplane, brilliant even under thick cloud cover, pushed menacingly through the swarm of fighters in pursuit of its quarry. In response the skittish biplane, now alert to the imminent scarlet danger at its heels, turned tail and fled toward the safety of the Allied frontline.
Good boy. Here we go.
Had visibility been better, the flyers of Jasta 11 would have been alarmed by their Rittmeister's uncharacteristic tactics that morning. As the red pilot left the safety of their number for the erratic path of his target, he inexplicably abandoned the combat lessons he had patiently drilled into his students. Secure the upper hand before engaging. Attack in groups of four or six. Always know your line of retreat.
Alone, deep into enemy territory, and dangerously close to the ground, he chased the Sopwith and waited for the inevitable rat-tat-tat of anti-aircraft fire from below.
He was soon rewarded with a telltale whistling and clink of metal against metal as bullets from the ground lodged in the rear of his fuselage. A quick personal assessment reassured him that only his crate had been struck. He clenched and relaxed his fists around the plane's controls as he tried to regulate his breathing.
That will make tomorrow's war reports, for certain. Hope the bastards got photographs.
The Sopwith abandoned, he banked hard to the right and began to climb. Another whizzing sound, close enough to startle, made his heart thump and he peered up to see the edge of a left wing rip away. The triplane stumbled in mid-air, and its pilot cursed under his breath, forced to slow his ascent in order to maintain control.
The force of the impact triggered a too-familiar stabbing behind his left temple. He shook his head, hoping to keep the accompanying vertigo and nausea at bay a little longer. Behind his flying goggles his eyes watered and he squeezed them shut momentarily.
A softly lit face, her face, dispelled the temporary darkness. She smiled gently at him, as she had so often these last months, though only in his dreams. An unexpected calm washed over him as he drank her in.
I'm breaking all the rules now. I can't be apart from you any longer.
His desert oasis was revealed as a mirage by a tremendous bang from the engine.
The motor stuttered, then stalled completely, and the stench of benzine filled the cockpit. Liquid under his boots confirmed that the Fokker was not yet out of anti-aircraft range, and that its fuel tank had been perforated by ground fire. The white smoke that nearly always preceded an explosion unfurled like a ribbon into the sky.
The myth will die today, Isabella. But perhaps the man may be resurrected yet, the pilot thought, as he called on every ounce of skill he possessed to check the plane's desperate descent.
Angry flames licked at the Maltese Cross emblazoned on his fuselage and the mortally wounded triplane plummeted through the fog toward no-man's land.
3 Years Earlier
Twenty-two-year-old Cavalry Lieutenant Edward Cullen passed the winter of 1914 and the early spring of 1915 sitting in various frigid dugouts at the Eastern and Western fronts, watching the war go on without him.
It was not the war he had envisioned for himself.
He was not a born soldier, he would claim. His people were Prussian landowners, from fighting stock, surely, but since they had won the title of Freiherr — a Barony — from Frederick the Great in 1741, the Cullen family had taken little part in subsequent wars.
They managed their sprawling estates with efficiency and preferred to fill their considerable leisure time with aristocratic pursuits like hunting and riding. Edward's father Carlisle became the first of the Cullens to enter active service as an officer of a light cavalry regiment.
Young Edward was expected to follow cheerfully in his father's footsteps and at age eleven was sent off to begin his military training. He excelled at sports but chafed at the strict discipline required of young cadets. He was an unrepentant daredevil, inclined to risk-taking, though never foolishly so.
By the time he arrived at the War Academy at age seventeen he was known for that brand of confidence that could be easily misconstrued as arrogance, and perhaps his intensity encouraged that interpretation. His extraordinary marksmanship and skills as a horseman were the object of envy among his fellow cadets.
Among the local girls, he was the object of an altogether different kind of covetousness. Disarmingly handsome, with broad shoulders, wayward hair that was neither brown nor red, and piercing green eyes, he was not unaware of the figure he cut in his Prussian army uniform. But truth be told, his bravado extended only as far as the range of his shooting rifle. His female acquaintanceships, though sometimes intimate, were always casual by his own choice.
When the conflict began in 1914, he was commissioned as a cavalry reconnaissance officer. He soon discovered, however, that the new fighting conditions of trenches and barbed wire and machine guns made the horseback combat for which he had trained virtually impossible.
His idealized portrait of war — of waving standards and the thunder of charging hooves — slowly dissolved, and on its canvas appeared the dismal realities of water-filled dugouts and dirty bombproofs.
On an April morning, Edward joined fellow officer Jasper Whitlock behind a ten-foot wall of wet soil and sandbags near Combres, in north-central France. The unseasonably warm weather made for a pungent combination of earth and infantryman.
Before them sat the soldiers in their charge, to a man stripped to the waist and trying futilely to delouse their uniform tunics.
"Another bread run today, Cullen?" Lieutenant Whitlock grinned.
Edward sipped hours-old coffee. "Go to Hell, Whitlock."
Jasper snorted. "I'm standing in it. Isn't there a circle of Inferno where nothing ever happens?"
"Are you asking if there's one where Dante gets transferred to the Supply Corps? I don't think so."
Earlier that month they had heard that a large-scale attack was planned on Verdun. After excitedly imagining the part their Uhlan regiments would play in the coming offensive, both officers were instead assigned to administrative positions, far from any actual fighting.
Neither particularly embraced his new role as German Command lackey.
Edward slid heavily onto a wooden stool and braced his forearms against his knees. "Jasper, look at us. There are more spades and picks in this trench than rifles. We're cavalrymen, not engineers. What do we want with digging?"
"This war has made dirt-farmers of us all, Edward. You were expecting flashing sabers and the elegance of hand-to-hand combat, maybe?" Jasper smirked.
"I expected more than tossing the occasional grenade into enemy trenches or taking haphazard potshots at the French."
Jasper nodded and took a long pull from his cigarette. "I have to say, I expected less… mud."
Edward emptied his cup onto the saturated ground. "I want to contribute, Jasper. I want an opportunity to prove myself in a way that matters. In a way that's valued."
"Hungry for recognition, are we? Never going to win that Iron Cross, First Class from this far behind the line?"
"This is about more than medals, Jasper," said Edward. He looked thoughtful for a moment. "But no, not a chance. Not unless I disguise myself as a Frenchman, sneak into the fortress of Verdun, and single-handedly blow up a gun turret," he deadpanned.
Jasper chuckled. "A fine plan, my friend."
"I just feel so… restless. Our talents are being wasted here."
"Would you rather be up there?" Jasper pointed his cigarette in the direction of the frontline. "Manning the big guns?"
Edward grimaced. "There's no glory in bombing hundreds of men at once into oblivion. It's inhuman."
Lieutenant Whitlock plucked an errant nit from his jacket sleeve. "You'd prefer to kill them one at a time? There are a million more where these came from."
Edward couldn't determine whether Jasper was referring to lice or infantrymen.
Presently their attention was diverted by the rumble of an approaching aircraft motor. A low-flying plane appeared from the southwest and turned toward their ground position.
Edward squinted at the sky. "Friend or foe?"
Airplanes were so new to the war effort that troops had difficulty identifying to which side they belonged. More than a few had been brought down by friendly fire.
Jasper cupped a hand around his hat's narrow brim to get a better look. "One of ours, I believe. See? There are cross markings on the rudder. They're reconnoitering."
"That's our job," Edward muttered. Until six months ago, reconnaissance missions had fallen to their Uhlan cavalry regiments. Now, the Imperial Air Service had become the lookout for the army while he scouted supplies and answered telephones.
Jasper crushed his spent cigarette under the toe of his boot. "Unless your horse sprouts feathers and soars over these mudpits, I don't think that's our job any longer."
Edward sat silently, tracking the lone observation airplane across the sky until it disappeared into the mid-morning sun.
The next day he composed a letter requesting a transfer to the Luftstreitkräfte, which began:
"My Dear Excellency:
I have not gone to war to collect cheese and eggs, but for another purpose."
In spite of — or perhaps because of — his brazenness, by May he found himself packing his bags for Air Service observer training in Cologne.
"Edward! Welcome home, darling."
The newly-minted pilot stepped over the threshold of his family home in Schweidnitz to the great delight of the elegant woman rushing toward him.
"Mamma, hello. Happy New Year." He leaned forward to kiss first her left cheek, then her right. "How are you?"
"Better, now that I have you here," said Edward's mother, Esme. "Don't scare me like that again, dear. Your brother told us that your trainer crashed last month, and not a word from you! Our friends have been sending us condolences instead of holiday cards, to my great dismay.
"I even dressed for the possibility," she joked, rustling the skirts of her extravagant black evening gown.
Edward chuckled at his mother's dark humor. "Mamma, you can't believe everything you read. I barely injured one little finger." He held up the pinky finger in question, slightly tortured but still in good working order.
"As you can see, I am alive and well." His eyes danced with amusement.
She sighed contentedly, then held him at arm's length for an inspection more thorough than any given by his superior officers. "You do look well. Splendid, in fact. And so handsome in your dress uniform!" She ran her fingers over the diagonal brass buttons on his gray tunic, coming to rest on his freshly polished pilot's badge.
"Flying seems to agree with you."
Truer words could not have been spoken. "I couldn't be happier in my new position," he said. "Every day brings movement, a new challenge."
Edward removed his hat and tucked it under his arm. "There is nothing finer for a young cavalry officer than to fly off to the chase," he proclaimed, with the ageless wisdom of the young.
"Quite so." Esme Cullen regarded her son's newfound maturity and enthusiasm with undisguised pleasure. "Although you could do with a haircut. Shall we?"
Edward hastily smoothed the unruliness in question as best he could. Always straight to the heart of a matter, his mother.
Esme linked her arm in his and they made their way from the foyer toward a pleasant dissonance of orchestra and excited chatter. "The guests are assembled in the ballroom. Emmett and Mary Alice will be so very pleased to see you."
"You know I'm not one for gaiety and dancing."
"Yes, well, I expect your brother and sister will dance enough for all three of you. Be of good cheer, darling. It isn't often I have all my children gathered together. I have to take advantage of this good fortune."
Near the entranceway, Esme turned to Edward apologetically. "I'm afraid I have a few things to tend to. There will be a riot if we run out of champagne. Have a good time, dear." She kissed him quickly on the cheek and hurried off in the direction of the wine cellars.
Edward took in the ballroom, festooned in hothouse flowers and festive sparkles for the occasion. Guests drank and danced and made merry. If not for all the military insignia on display, no one could have guessed that there was a war waging around them.
He waved across the room to a petite woman wearing a red silk gown and tiny flowers in her dark hair. At the sight of him, the woman let out a small shriek and immediately released her dancing partner, squeezing her way through swaying pairs of bodies.
"Oh, you're home!" She crushed herself to Edward, pressing her cheek against his jacket.
He kissed the top of her head. "Happy New Year, big sister."
She smiled up at him. "Same to you, little brother." She craned her neck around hopefully. "Did you bring any of your handsome friends with you?"
He shook his head. "Not this trip, Mary Alice."
"Not even Lieutenant Whitlock?" Her face crumpled exaggeratedly.
"Sorry, no," laughed Edward. "He's back in Cologne, finishing his training flights. But believe me, you're not half as sorry as he is that he missed this party."
"Hmmph. Well, I suppose I forgive you. You did somehow manage to send me these divine earrings for Christmas." She lifted her chin to call attention to the twinkling, teardrop-shaped rubies that dangled from her ears.
He touched one and watched it reflect the light. "Very pretty. I'm glad you like them."
Edward loosened his sister's vice-like hold and peered through the dancers. "Where's Emmett?"
Mary Alice pointed to the corner opposite the orchestra's makeshift stage. "Being charming, as usual. I invited some of my friends from the Red Cross tonight."
Across the room, a large brown-haired man held court at a table littered with half-empty wine glasses. Emmett was flanked by half a dozen well-turned-out ladies. One clutched at his upper arm as he gestured wildly, regaling his audience with captivating stories of, Edward was sure, nothing at all.
Edward envied the easy affability of his younger brother. Although they both naturally drew people into their orbit, there was a lightness about Emmett that put others at ease immediately.
Emmett flashed a wide, dimpled grin. "Welcome to the party, brother!" He slid an open wine bottle and a glass across the table.
Edward remained standing but poured himself a drink. He raised it to the group with a nod. "Cheers, Emmett, ladies."
"Edward is with the Imperial Air Service, girls. One of Germany's finest pilots," said Emmett. He winked at the woman beside him. "Yours truly will be joining him soon."
Emmett's statement earned Edward several admiring glances. "I don't know about 'finest,' Emmett," he replied. He had neglected to mention to his brother that it had taken him three tries to pass his flying proficiency exams. Airplanes were much more complicated mounts than horses.
"Only a matter of time, brother. We are all expecting great things from you." Emmett raised his glass. "To greatness," he intoned broadly. His companions lifted their glasses in toast.
Emmett slapped his forehead. "Where are my manners, ladies? Let's introduce you to this fine gentleman, shall we?" He set his glass on the table and pointed to his left. "From the end there, we have Jessica, Kate, Lauren, Angela…." He pulled his arm around a striking blonde, who beamed at him. "This beautiful girl is Rosalie, and…."
He indicated the empty chair. "…Angela? Where'd your cousin run off to?"
"Powdering her nose," whispered the woman to his immediate left. She leaned around Emmett and rested an elbow on the table. "Oh, here she comes."
A slim brunette clutched a beaded evening bag tightly against her as she navigated the edge of the dance floor. A dozen feet from her destination, she was waylaid by a handsome uniformed man who was clearly trying to coax her into joining him there. Edward had an unobstructed view as she smiled and shook her head politely at the blond officer's attentions. A few loose tendrils of dark hair brushed lightly against the paleness of her collarbone as she repeatedly declined his offer. Edward noted her delicate features: heart-shaped face, slightly upturned nose with a smattering of freckles, expressive brown eyes. Her blue evening dress was not as elaborate as the other women's, but it suited her. She wore no jewelry that he could see.
He had no idea how long he watched her: seconds, maybe days. Eventually Mary Alice's excited voice broke the spell.
"Alright everyone, enough sitting. Let's dance!"
Mary Alice released her grip on her eldest brother. Without a word she plucked a surprised young man from the corner of the dance floor and whisked him away into the crowd.
Emmett stood and smoothed his uniform tunic. He bowed with a flourish and offered a hand to Rosalie, who now appeared thoroughly enchanted.
"You heard the lady, Edward," he said. "I'm sure any of these angels would be glad to do you the honor."
Edward remained where he stood. He felt a little light-headed, as if he had stopped breathing accidentally. The table's other occupants looked at him expectantly.
He had spoken the truth to his mother: he really wasn't much for dancing. Peripherally, he noticed that the blond officer's persistence had been successful. The girl in the blue dress stepped in time to the orchestra's bright waltz, her arm about the man's shoulder.
He needed some air.
On the way back from a bracing sojourn on the balcony Edward spied his father, who had taken refuge in a far corner of the library to avoid neighborly small talk. He was ensconced in a large, comfortable armchair and studying the wisps of smoke that curled from his cigar. Edward stood in the doorway, silently willing his father to notice him.
His patience was unrewarded. "Good evening, Father," he prompted.
The elder Cullen startled from his contemplation.
"Edward!" He sat up straighter and flicked ashes into a crystal dish on the table next to him. "Do come in. Your mother said you would be arriving soon."
Edward took the chair opposite his father. The room smelled of Carlisle, oiled leather and tobacco and the must of old paper. It was one of his favorite parts of the house as a young boy, though it always made him feel a little nervous, even when his father wasn't present. "She made me promise not to miss tonight's soirée. Not even a war can keep her from ringing in the New Year properly. You know how she likes her parties. "
"That she does, that she does," mumbled Carlisle. He reached into the pocket of his waistcoat. "Cigar?"
"Yes, thank you." Edward rarely smoked but was grateful for his father's attention.
For some time the two men sat together in mildly uncomfortable silence. Theirs was a formal relationship, and conversation between them seldom strayed from trivialities such as hunting expeditions or the latest advances in automobiles.
"I hear congratulations are in order," said Carlisle abruptly, his gaze locked on the paneled ceiling. "Your brother told me the good news. He says he wants to follow in your footsteps and become a pilot himself."
"Yes, I received my certifications on Christmas Day." Edward felt the unspoken weight of his father's expectations keenly. Carlisle's own military career had been a disappointment to him, and he held high hopes for his sons.
"Well then, Happy Christmas to you, son." Carlisle's complimentary tone cooled. "Though I don't understand why you and Emmett would be content to be drivers when you could be contributing so much more as reconnaissance men. Such a waste of two fine young soldiers."
Edward bit back a response, reminding himself that his father was of another generation and had no inkling of the potential value of airplanes in a conflict. Of course his father would see observation — on horseback or in the air — as the more valuable occupation. To him, the pilots were simply glorified chauffeurs.
Edward hadn't given the distinction much thought when his transfer to the Air Service was granted. He chose observation training because it promised to get him to the action two months sooner, and for no other reason. He had worked hard at Cologne that summer and finished first in his class of thirty, taking instruction in map reading, photography, camouflage recognition, troop and artillery spotting, even meteorology.
Once in the air, though, he couldn't deny the draw of the sky. Even as a passenger during routine observation flights, he found the sensation of flying thrilling. It was as if a whole new world opened to him, one in which he could be master of his own destiny. He watched men strap machine guns to their fuselages and suddenly, airplanes weren't simply transportation, they were deadly weapons. He could clearly see the future of combat and he wanted to be a part of it, at the helm of his own fighter plane.
It was no use trying to explain that to his father. As usual, Carlisle had no idea how deeply his off-the-cuff aspersions wounded him. It would be best to cut his losses for the evening. "It's after midnight," he said flatly. "I should go find Mother and say goodnight."
Edward turned when he reached the door. "I am contributing, Father," he said emphatically. "And I will have more opportunities now, not fewer. You'll see."
He strode back to the ballroom, past the orchestra packing away its instruments, past the waiters clearing the evidence of celebration, past his mother deep in conversation with a wilting party guest. The corner table that Emmett and his companions had occupied was empty. He spun around, scanning the room once, twice, then pulled at his hair in frustration.
"She left, Edward." Mary Alice, a little disheveled by drink and dancing, appeared at his elbow. At his look of bewilderment she continued, "The brunette who made you bolt before? She and the other girls are on duty early in the morning; they left about fifteen minutes ago."
Edward scowled. "I didn't bolt. And what makes you think I was looking for her?"
She leaned her head against his shoulder and smiled. "Oh, just a feeling."
The next time Edward saw the Verdun front was from two miles above it. He sympathized with the mud-covered soldiers toiling away in the trenches he had occupied the previous year. Still, he wouldn't have traded with them; he enjoyed sleeping on clean sheets and eating meals in a regular officer's mess.
For months he moved from post to post, honing his piloting skills during observation and light bombing flights, as well as a few accidental skirmishes. He gained experience in different kinds of aircraft, learning the strengths and weaknesses of various models: pusher versus tractor, monoplane versus biplane, single-seat versus two-seat. The day he was finally granted permission to fly solo in a Fokker monoplane was a happy one indeed.
Although the mechanics of flying hadn't come naturally to him, he found that his prowess as a hunter served him well in the sky. He was especially gifted at anticipating the movements of other flyers, sometimes before they could. His fellow pilots jokingly accused him of being a mind-reader, but he replied that it was just careful observation, honed by years of chasing big game on his family's estates.
There was nothing more exhilarating than the chase, he was certain. Edward began to live for the surge of adrenaline that crackled through his body every time he engaged an opponent. The first time he brought down an enemy plane, he could barely contain his excitement.
He thought little about the human cost of his sport or what drove him in pursuit of his prey. Was it a simple dedication to duty? A desire to please? A Nietzschean drive for excellence? The thrill of the hunt?
He only knew that in the air, he felt immortal.
His victories mounted, and so did his accolades. He was awarded a few minor combat decorations but the one he thirsted for eluded him. The previous year a pair of top pilots — both now deceased — had been awarded the Pour le Mérite, Prussia's highest military honor, after their eighth victories.
Edward's frustration grew as his own score climbed from eight to twelve to sixteen — but no Pour le Mérite.
"What are they waiting for?" he wondered aloud one afternoon. His group had just returned from an uneventful scouting flight. He tossed his helmet and goggles on the table in the wood-paneled planning room.
"What are who waiting for?" asked Jasper, tugging off his flying jacket and falling into a nearby armchair.
"Command. Why do you think I've not yet received the Pour le Mérite?"
Jasper shrugged. "Why do you need it?"
"Because…" Edward hesitated. Despite his impressive and well-publicized performance with the Air Service, he had yet to hear a single word of acknowledgment from one Carlisle Cullen. "Because… then everyone will know I am the best."
Jasper gestured to the half-dozen other flyers milling about. "We all know it already. You're just looking for another reason for us to worship you," he joked. "I'm kidding," he explained at Edward's dubious expression. "Quit worrying. I'm sure it'll be any day now."
At that very moment, a wiry enlisted man rushed into the room. "Lieutenant Cullen. Telegram for you from Headquarters."
Jasper trained Edward with a look of mock surprise. "See? Ask and ye shall receive."
Edward's mouth curved into a broad smile as he read the short message. "His Majesty has the pleasure of awarding me the Pour le Mérite."
His eyes widened. The deep blue enamel Maltese Cross trimmed in gold was not the only reward he had received for his outstanding service. "And my own command," he said incredulously.
Jasper whistled in appreciation. "Commander of a fighter squadron at 24. Not bad, not bad at all, Cullen. I think this calls for a celebration."
After a ceremony at Command Headquarters, Edward was loudly feted at a club popular with young officers and their admirers. His new medal displayed triumphantly at his neck, he sat surrounded by well-wishers, drinking martinis and thoroughly enjoying being the center of attention. Gentlemen and ladies alike offered toast after toast to Lieutenant Cullen's continued health and prosperity, and congratulated him on his citation.
At a lull in the festivities, Edward's gaze began to wander about the darkened space. Through the haze of cigarette smoke he spotted her, adrift in a veritable sea of revelry, her countenance a sharp contrast to the club's other patrons.
She was every bit as beautiful as the last time he saw her.
Jasper nudged his elbow. "Edward, you've been staring at that girl for half an hour."
"I know her."
"Very funny, Jasper. No, I don't really know her; I've never even spoken to her, actually. I saw her in Schweidnitz a year or so ago at one of my mother's parties."
"She's pretty. You should go talk to her, show her your decorations. The ladies, they love a dashing young war hero."
Edward blanched. "Not this one."
"Edward, you get sackfuls of adoring letters from lovesick girls all over Germany. Hell, even I sleep with your official postcard under my pillow, you handsome devil."
"Jackass." Edward tossed an olive at Jasper's head. It landed directly between his eyebrows. "I meant 'not this lady.' She doesn't seem the sort to be impressed by those kinds of accomplishments." He didn't know how he knew this to be true.
"Plus," Edward continued, "I couldn't possibly entertain the idea of an attachment right now." At his words, however, he realized he was doing exactly that.
"Edward, sometimes you can be so ridiculously old-fashioned. I didn't say anything about courting her," said Jasper. "Just say hello, see if she offers to keep you warm tonight." He raised his eyebrows suggestively.
Another olive scored a direct hit. "Do you talk like that to my sister, Whitlock?"
"Wouldn't you like to know?" retorted Jasper, but he shielded his face from any more vodka-soaked munitions.
In spite of his resolve to keep his distance, as the evening wore on Edward found himself drifting toward his lovely brunette. To his great surprise, he was dangerously close to where she sat alone, nursing a cocktail, when she called him out.
"Can I help you, Leutnant?"
Edward started involuntarily at her voice. He had somehow left his seat and was now practically hovering over her table. He tried to cover for his inappropriate stalking by making polite conversation. "I've seen you before," he said. "You were at my parents' house for a holiday party. I apologize for not introducing myself back then."
He extended a hand. "Hello, I'm Edward Cullen."
She eyed his offering skeptically. "I know who you are, Lieutenant. Your reputation precedes you." Her voice was neutral.
He waited, arm extended. Reluctantly, she offered her hand in return. He lifted it gently and bent to brush a kiss across her knuckles. His lips warmed at the contact.
Brown eyes stared at him dispassionately, but they were betrayed by a flush of color across her cheeks.
He released her hand. "And you are?"
"Isabella. Isabella Swan."
"It's a pleasure to meet you, Miss Swan."
She shrugged and sipped her drink, refusing to meet his eyes again.
Edward looked at her quizzically. "I'm sorry. I don't know what I've done to offend you. I was merely trying to make conversation. You've been sitting alone all night."
For a brief moment, she looked like a cornered animal, deciding whether to fight or flee. She carefully placed her glass back on the table and drew herself to standing. When she addressed him again, he had no question as to which option she had chosen.
"Let me ask you something," she said sharply. "The new bauble you wear so proudly? The Orden Pour le Mérite? For what do they award that?"
Her non sequitur puzzled him. "I… it's for bravery. The highest honor in the Prussian army." He scrubbed a hand through his hair. "I don't understand… this displeases you?"
"How many men did you kill for that medal, Lieutenant Cullen?"
"I scored sixteen victories. Last year a few flyers were awarded it for eight, but…."
She cut him off. "Sixteen. Sixteen. You and I are working at cross-purposes, Lieutenant. Every day I try in vain to stanch the flow of blood from dying soldiers while you spill it anew with your fancy flying machines."
Edward remembered that Mary Alice's friends were fellow Red Cross volunteers. Isabella must have seen terrible injuries from the German trenches. But he didn't put those soldiers in her care.
"No, you are mistaken. The only blood I target belongs to Germany's enemies."
"You'll forgive me if I can't tell the difference between enemy and friend when I'm covered from stem to stern in it."
"Do you have something against soldiers, Miss Swan?"
"Butchers," she muttered, searching the room. She caught the glance of another woman Edward recognized from the party — the cousin — and nodded toward the exit.
"Butchers?" he repeated. Edward took offense at the characterization. What he did in the air was graceful and noble, a true test of courage and skill between men of uncommon abilities.
"You have it all wrong," he tried to explain. "We pilots are more like sportsmen, like hunters — only our quarry is in the sky."
"Hunters?" she said in disbelief. "Surely the Royal Flying Corps isn't employing wild boars as pilots."
Edward didn't know where he had gone wrong in this conversation. He tried to lighten the mood. "Could be," he mused, smiling. "Some of the British flyers are remarkably porcine at close range."
Her eyes flashed. "You mock me. Call it what you like, but please do not try to convince me that what you do in your airplanes is sport. I've read about the silver cups you collect, Lieutenant. One for every kill, like trophies? It's a shame you can't have French and British soldiers stuffed and mounted to decorate the walls of your lovely country home."
His indignity got the better of him, and he caught the sleeve of her coat as she buttoned it. "It's not like that at all. We respect one another's skill, even though we fight on opposite sides. We pilots have the utmost consideration for our enemies."
"Right before you shoot them out of the sky, yes? Do you think it's chivalric, your pilot's code? That you're some kind of Teutonic knight boldly defending the honor of the Fatherland?" She brushed past him, then paused.
"You airmen may enjoy glamorous parties and good liquor and a healthy dose of hero worship, but the only difference between you and the average infantryman is the amount of mud caked on your boots. You're no better than any of them. Excuse me."
Edward watched her retreat, feeling once again as though all the air had disappeared from the world.
In the days that followed, Edward didn't have a spare moment to give his verbal dressing-down at the hands of Miss Swan the consideration it deserved. Not that her words hadn't resonated with him; a few of them had made an immediate impression.
Edward arrived at Jasta 11's airfield as Germany's most successful and most decorated living airfighter. Although he had earned the respect of the men now under his command, he wanted to set a new tone for himself as a leader. This was the opportunity he'd been waiting for.
Isabella had likened him to a Teutonic Knight, he thought, of the same order that had conquered Eastern Europe seven hundred years earlier. While she hadn't meant it as a compliment, obviously, he now imagined the valorous Knights, inspiring fear in their infamous bright white cloaks adorned with black crosses — the very cross under which he currently fought.
He considered his own Albatros biplane's natural wood fuselage and drab olive and brown wing surfaces — the standard color scheme — and inspiration struck.
"Red?" The airfield groundsman was incredulous. "You want me to paint it red? The whole thing?"
"Yes, red. All of it. The brighter the better." Edward slapped the tail of his trusted Albatros and strode out of the hangar.
But Lieutenant, the enemy will see you from miles away!" the groundsman protested.
"Very true," Edward called over his shoulder. "But they'll see me and run."
As expected, Lieutenant Cullen's "red bird" was the talk of the entire Air Service. Reaction was mixed, ranging from abject dismissal as a sure sign of insanity to wondrous glorification of both the Lieutenant's bravery and his cheek.
Soon all the pilots of Jasta 11 featured bright swaths of scarlet on their fighters, partly in solidarity with their leader and partly to mislead the Allies during engagement. Edward quite liked the aesthetic effect in the air; it reminded him of the old cavalry standard colors. Not only that, the brilliant hue gave his men a tactical advantage: instead of offering enemy gunners better targets as German Command had feared, the red proved to be disorienting to their adversaries.
It was the first of many decisions that would cement Lieutenant Cullen's reputation as an innovative and fearless leader.
Shortly thereafter he insisted that in order for his squadron to be effective and avoid Allied bombers, they had to be mobile. He eschewed a fixed base of operation, preferring to house men in tents alongside their planes so that his entire unit could move en masse to wherever fighting was thickest. Thus, "Cullen's Flying Circus" was born: the red hunting swarm performed its deadly show all along the British front, putting its commander's instructions into practice.
Edward's demands on his pilots were as rigorous as those he placed on himself. He was a tough but patient teacher, spending countless hours reviewing the aerial tactics that had made him the best of the aces. He taught them to keep the sun behind them, fire only at close range, and not be deceived by their enemies' ruses. After each sortie, he would conference with his officers to debrief and critique their performances.
The results were immediate. Jasta 11 was wildly successful and their victory totals grew by the day. They downed so many Allied aircraft that the newspapers began to refer to April of 1917 as "Bloody April." Edward himself scored twenty-two victories that month, including four in one day.
Only three months after taking command, Edward was promoted to Rittmeister, or cavalry captain, as a reminder of his former service. There was a formal ceremony to mark the occasion, complete with handshakes and staged photographs. Afterward, Edward received word that he'd been invited to breakfast with none other than the emperor of the German Empire. The Kaiser, he was told, wanted to present the young Rittmeister with a bronze bust of himself.
The next day brought an even more prestigious honor: a telegram from his father, offering praise for his considerable contribution to the Fatherland. Edward's meteoric rise was complete.
Jasta 11 was breakfasting al fresco, as usual, its canvas circus tents scattered around the edges of the field that served as their current runway. Emmett had rejoined the group the previous evening after a short convalescence in Schweidnitz.
The men were glad to see the Flying Cullens together again. "Emmett, good to have you back," exclaimed Benjamin Cheney over a hearty handshake. "How are you?"
"The hip is much better, Cheney, no thanks to the French." Emmett rested his walking stick against the table and eased himself gingerly into a chair.
"I heard you got a personal visit from the Great Rittmeister himself, is that so, Emmett?"
"Knock it off, Cheney," growled Edward over his newspaper. The men knew he didn't entertain talk of his celebrity. He claimed it distracted them from their day-to-day mission; in reality it had become a sore subject for him.
He had enjoyed, even encouraged, the attention and the accolades at first. But as his accomplishments had grown so had German Command's generous use of them for their war propaganda purposes. It seemed there were always reporters and photographers following his group to their various locations on the front.
Perversely, he felt that his fame, over which he had little control, had begun to overshadow his work in the air. As the Rittmeister's celebrity blossomed, Edward's command of his own destiny withered. It troubled him.
Jasper angled toward Emmett. "Don't let Edward fool you with his cooler than ice routine," he said. "You scared the hell out of him when you went down, Emmett."
"We've lost too many good flyers already," said Edward matter-of-factly.
Despite their great achievements, Jasta 11 had suffered losses, too: Crowley, Yorkie, and Clearwater had all been killed in combat. Every fallen man weighed heavily on Edward's conscience, and increasingly, his heart. His brother's near disaster had unsettled him greatly, shaking his faith in his own durability on the battlefield.
Emmett shoveled eggs into his mouth. "Jasper, you wouldn't have believed it," he said between bites. "The day Edward came home to see me, Mary Alice met him at the train station at 7 a.m. and by the time they reached the house, they were covered in gifts and cards. It was like a parade, complete with little nursery school children in paper helmets. Oh, and lute players."
"My hand to God. Flowers and trinkets kept piling up at the door all day. I've never seen anything like it."
Edward shrugged. "I thought I could slip in unnoticed if I went early in the day."
"There are crowds wherever we go now. It's fabulous. Rittmeister is more famous than the Kaiser," quipped Michael Newton.
"Newton," Edward warned.
Newton was temporarily saved by the ring of a telephone. "Sir, two RFC units approaching German airspace from the northwest. Approximately thirty miles out."
"Alright men, so much for breakfast," announced Edward. He folded his newspaper and drained the last of his coffee. "Let's go scare some hostiles."
He motioned to his brother. "Are you coming?"
Emmett shook his head. "Not for another week or so — doctor's orders. But between Mother and Mary Alice I was feeling a little stifled at home," he said with a grin. "You fellows have fun out there."
"Fun, right," mumbled Edward. Fun was not a word Edward would have used to describe the brutal pace he'd been keeping. He'd been flying multiple sorties every day, training new men as they arrived to replace those who'd died, and managing his ever-growing public obligations.
At night, when he at last retreated to his mobile quarters, he slept fitfully. The words Isabella had hurled at him months ago began to take root in his head. Over and over they spilled harshly from her perfect lips: Butcher. No better than any of them.
He had vivid recurring nightmares of shooting down hostile fighters in triumph, only to be horror-struck on ground inspection that the dying, blood-soaked pilots in the broken planes were not his enemies, but his own men.
Pushing the chilling images aside, he buttoned his leather flying jacket and headed for the makeshift runway, where ground crews bustled with activity. Mechanically, he completed his pre-flight checks, breathing in the familiar scents of oil and leather as his propeller sputtered and his plane growled to life beneath him. He closed his eyes briefly and gave the signal that ordered his men into the sky.
The inbound British fighters were accompanied by several Vickers heavy bomber aircraft. The Jagdstaffel dashed across the sky to intercept before they could drop their explosives on German ground troops.
Edward had not even flicked the safety catch off his guns when he took fire from one of the Vickers. He was still hundreds of yards from the British planes, well outside of the capabilities of his own weapons. He preferred to engage his adversaries at shorter range, fifty yards or less if possible. He felt pilots sacrificed both accuracy and ammunition by attacking over longer distances.
He swung to check the position of his squadron behind him. Without warning, he felt a searing pain in his head and realized that he could neither see nor move. His plane plunged 10,000 feet before his mobility returned and he could grab blindly at the controls. Disoriented and in agony, he managed to get his aircraft down in one piece by force of will alone.
Blood gushing from his temple, Edward stumbled out of the plane and the ground rushed to meet him.
"I can take over here, Sister Kate. You've been on duty all night; you must be exhausted."
Edward felt the air move, a waft of sweetness dispelling the harsh antiseptic odor in his nostrils. Exploratory fingers exerted gentle pressure on his head as he floated between waking and sleep. He was aware of pain, somehow dull and sharp all at once.
"I owe you an apology," a quiet voice said. "I behaved abominably when we met. I've regretted it ever since."
He opened his eyes and silhouetted against the early morning sunlight he saw the face that had become familiar to him in his dreams.
"It's you…." he started.
"Shhh, Lieutenant Cullen. Don't try to talk. You have a skull fracture; you'll disturb the wires around your jaw."
"But, how… how…." His tongue felt thick and heavy in his mouth. Perhaps this was a dream, too. His eyes fluttered closed again.
"You should sleep, Lieutenant," said the voice.
"No," he mumbled. She was so beautiful when she wasn't berating him. "I'm Edward… call me Edward."
"Isabella," came the soft reply.
"I thought you might be hungry. You've eaten so little since you arrived."
Isabella stood in the doorway with a dining tray, steam still rising from its contents. She was dressed in a Red Cross uniform, starched white pinafore over a long-sleeved, ankle-length gray dress. Her long hair was swept up under a nurse's cap.
For the first time in a week, the odor of cooking seemed inviting instead of repellent. Edward's doctors had explained that the nausea was likely related to his injury, but his inability to stomach solid food made him irritable. Some of the nurses were starting to avoid him.
"Thank you. Whatever that is smells good. Much better than hospital food ought to."
"You're half-starved, that's why. But I called in a few favors, so you should find it an improvement over the usual fare."
She placed the tray across his lap. "Can you sit up for me?" she asked. He scooted forward and she adjusted his pillows so that he could eat more comfortably. She smoothed his blankets, then turned to leave.
The words were out before he could stop them. "Isabella, wait."
She spun around quickly. "Edward? Are you alright?"
"I'm fine, only… can you stay?" he asked. "Keep me company, while I have my lunch?"
She hesitated. "Edward, I… I really should see to the other patients."
"Please?" He was taking a risk that he might be in for another round of verbal pummeling, but he sincerely hoped they could start fresh. He didn't think she seemed the type to kick a man when he was down.
Isabella glanced into the hallway, then back at him. "Okay," she said. She took a seat in a hard wooden chair near the window and folded her hands in her lap.
"You're looking better today," she began. "How does your head feel?"
Edward picked up his cutlery. "Like someone shot a hole in it." He grinned at her and speared a large bite with his fork.
"My, what a strange coincidence. I think someone actually did," she said wryly.
"Tell me about yourself."
Isabella looked up from her book. She was seated in her usual spot by the window of Edward's room. For nearly a week she had spent lunchtimes with him, sometimes reading, sometimes listening to his outlandish tales of airborne derring-do, but never sharing much except pleasantries and her time.
Edward couldn't be certain whether her kindness was simply the routine care any nurse would give to a patient, or was in some measure an attempt to make up for their previous encounter.
Secretly, he hoped it was neither and that she genuinely liked him. The more time he spent in her company, the more fascinated he was. He studied her at every opportunity.
He'd seen glimpses of her cleverness and sardonic humor beneath the veneer of professionalism. And fire, of course — he'd been on the receiving end of that. But there was deep sadness, too, under her smiles and reassurances. Sometimes when she gazed out his window she let it rise to the surface, and her eyes would glisten. He always pretended not to notice.
"Really, Edward, there's nothing to tell."
He changed tack. "I've been trying for ages to place your accent. You're… Belgian?"
He was relieved when she didn't deflect him again. She closed her book and set it on the windowsill. "Yes, from Leuven, in Flanders," she said hesitantly. "I grew up speaking Dutch and French. My German is not so good, unfortunately."
She smiled. "I think that's your head injury speaking."
Edward frowned at the mention of her hometown. The name sounded familiar to him; he had heard tales from some German infantrymen early in the war. "Leuven?"
She took a deep breath and met his eyes meaningfully. "Yes, Leuven."
The stories came flooding back to him. German forces had moved violently against innocent civilians during the 1914 invasion of Belgium, in retaliation for actions of the Belgian army. Hundreds of Belgians were killed, homes plundered, entire towns razed. He looked at her in horror.
"I was a student at the University there. They set fire to the library. Almost a quarter of a million books destroyed, priceless Gothic and Renaissance manuscripts. Irreplaceable."
Her voice was small and detached when she spoke again. "The German army killed my parents. Shot them and dumped their bodies in a ravine with dozens of other townspeople."
At her words, Edward scrambled to where she sat and knelt at her side. He took both her hands in his and gave them a gentle squeeze. Tears trickled down her face. "I'm sorry, it's still hard to talk about," she said.
"Don't. I shouldn't have pried," he entreated.
She sniffed. "The night you spoke to me at the club would have been my mother's fortieth birthday. Angela wouldn't let me stay home alone. But I found I couldn't stomach the company of others, either. All the uniforms, and everyone celebrating… it was too much. I'm sorry."
Edward reached up to wipe her cheek with his thumb.
"I can't be patriotic about war like you. I can't," she cried softly. "So much destruction, so many people lost… and for what? It's such a waste. All of it.
"I'm so sorry for how I treated you," she whispered.
"Please stop apologizing. I deserved it; you were right about me then. I am a butcher. I've slaughtered dozens of men, good men, who didn't deserve to die."
"No, Edward. You are a brave man doing what your country asks of you. I needed to take my anger out on someone and you were convenient. There you were, this heroic figure, and everyone was toasting you for blasting men from the sky. It was as if everything that was wrong about the war to me crystallized in that one moment. In you.
"I know now that you are so much more than the figure in the newspapers, on the autographed picture postcards. I'm glad to have met you again, even under such unhappy circumstances.
"After my parents… died… I escaped to Prussia to stay with distant relations on my mother's side. That's how I met your sister, Mary Alice — through my cousin Angela. They were both Red Cross volunteers. And so here I am still, patching up holes in men's bodies in hopes that I might somehow patch the holes in my heart."
Edward could think of nothing to say that would ease her grief; he doubted anything could. He pressed his bandaged head in her lap and wrapped his arms around her waist. Isabella kissed the tips of her fingers and lightly touched them to his broken temple.
"So then Newton says, 'I'm a helluva pilot, baby, but the RFC has got a price on my head. Every sortie could be the end of me. We should probably make love, just in case this is my last night on earth.' Can you imagine?" Edward was laughing harder than he had in months.
Although neither had mentioned Isabella's tearful candor in the three days since, something imperceptible had shifted between them. It was as if the strings that tethered them to the earth had been loosened, somehow, and they both floated.
Isabella giggled as she unwound the gauze from around his forehead. "I can't believe it. Did it work?"
"It did! The girl took him right home. We didn't see him for two days," he exclaimed, struggling to hold still so Isabella could tend to his wound.
"And just how many of your friends have talked their way into a woman's bed with such ridiculousness?"
"More than would admit it, probably. We just never expected Newton to be so lucky. It's Newton, after all. The man wears a nightcap instead of a helmet when he flies."
Edward looked suddenly serious. "I should tell you, there is an actual price on my head. The British government has offered the flyer who shoots me down the Victoria Cross and five thousand pounds sterling."
"Edward, you don't actually believe that, do you? It's just a rumor that made its way to the newspapers. The Allies are only trying to scare you." She finished rewrapping his head and began to gather her supplies.
"Anyway, you never know when you're going to bite the big one, so…." He grasped her hand and held it to his heart. "How about it?" He batted his eyelashes.
"You rascal! You're using that line on me!" She wrenched her hand away, grinning, as he doubled over in stitches.
"I've never tried it out before," he managed between guffaws. "How's it working?"
He flopped backward into his pillows and sighed dramatically. "Damn, as I suspected. I'm going down in flames no matter what."
Isabella's bright smile radiated through him. In all the times he'd been miles above the earth, he'd never felt so wonderfully weightless.
"It's my move."
"No it isn't! It's mine. You spent ten minutes poring over the board and moved one little pawn. Which I am about to take, by the way."
Isabella slid her rook three spaces, dislodging the black piece and adding it to her considerable collection on the blanket. They were enjoying the summer afternoon breeze with a picnic under a bank of trees. Edward was at last allowed out of his room for short trips around the hospital grounds.
"No fair taking advantage of the man with the hole in his head," Edward grumbled.
"This was your idea, remember? And I did warn you I was an ace chess player."
"I'm the ace here. I thought you were bluffing to get me to play cards instead."
"No, my father and I used to play all the time. Are you going to move?"
"Don't rush me, please." He studied his options, but only after carefully studying the tiny buttons lining the sides of Isabella's heeled leather boots. She shifted on the blanket and tucked her feet under her skirts. He mourned their disappearance with a sigh.
Reluctantly, he returned his attention to the board, capturing one of her bishops with his sole remaining one. "I used to be pretty good, too, Miss Swan," he bragged.
"I can see that," she said. Edward watched her face as she mobilized her queen. She looked entirely too happy; a moment later she dangled a carved ebony horse's head aloft.
"Oh, not my knight, too," he groaned. He rolled onto his back.
"No, not just your knight, Edward," she replied. He peered at the chessboard in disbelief. He was trapped on every side.
Isabella leaned over him. "Checkmate," she whispered.
"Ah, excellent!" Edward exclaimed as he unwrapped the brown paper package.
"What do you have there?"
"A new flying helmet. Some British bugger shot a rather nasty hole through my last one." He smiled as he tried to ease the leather over his still-bandaged head, then thought better of it.
"Have you been cleared to fly?" Isabella asked anxiously.
"No, the physicians won't hear of it, even though it's been two weeks and I feel perfectly fine."
"Edward, we both know you're not fine. Your headaches have worsened and you've been terribly moody."
"Nonsense. How do you know I haven't always been moody? Come here." He beckoned to her.
She crossed the room and perched on the edge of his bed.
"Closer, please. I won't bite," he grinned. He pulled at her hand and she scooted in until their legs were touching.
Edward carefully removed one of the hairpins that held her nurse's cap and tossed it to the floor.
Isabella turned to watch the trajectory of the pin. "What are you doing?" she said, laughing.
"Shhh. Don't move. I want to try something." One by one, hairpins sailed through the air, followed seconds later by a slightly crumpled white cap.
Edward gently tugged the leather helmet over her hair and fastened it under her chin.
"Edward, I feel ridiculous. And hot. It's August and this hat is full of fur," she protested.
"Wait! Stay right there," he ordered. He flew from his bed to the suitcase propped open on the floor. He sorted through it, finally withdrawing a long fringed muffler.
He returned to where she sat patiently despite her complaints. He slowly wound the scarf around her neck, tucking the ends under the straps of her apron.
He admired his handiwork. "There. Now you look like a proper airman. Only far prettier than those Jasta jokers."
Isabella flushed a lovely rose color, whether from the helmet's fur lining or his compliment, Edward didn't know. He felt time slipping away from him as it always did when he watched her.
She stroked the silky fabric of the scarf absently, holding his gaze. "Edward, what's it like?" she asked, vaguely. "Flying?"
The air buzzed around them, drawing them closer until their breaths mingled and their foreheads were nearly touching. Edward slid his palm along her cheek, then pushed the cumbersome helmet back and tossed it away to join the other castoffs on the floor. Her hair spilled fragrantly around her shoulders and he wound his fingers through it as he pulled her toward him.
He brought his mouth to hers, softly. She sighed against his lips and wrapped her arms around him, melting into his body. For minutes or hours Edward reveled in the warm sweetness of her mouth, her face, her neck as he covered her with kisses.
He pulled back for a moment, breathless and a little delirious. She had asked him something, he remembered. His lips slid along the softness of her jaw, his voice barely a whisper. "Like making love for the first time," he breathed. "Terrifying and exhilarating all at once. Like you're privy to God's own secrets."
"Do you ever wish you could start over?"
Edward was in a dark mood. He had received yet another visit from his supervising officers, inquiring as to when he would be healthy enough to return to duty. After all, his men were counting on him. Germany was counting on him.
"What do you mean, Edward?"
"Do you ever wish you could disappear, be someone else?"
"No, I like being me. I'm pretty fantastic," Isabella said, smiling playfully. At his serious expression she pursed her lips and considered. "But if you mean 'do' something else, then yes, I doubt I would have chosen nursing if circumstances had been different. It chose me, as it were. The war interrupted all our best-laid plans."
"Not mine," said Edward bitterly. "I'd be nobody if it weren't for this war. This war was the best thing that could have happened to me."
"That's not true, Edward. The qualities that make you exceptional in the air make you exceptional on the ground, too." She frowned. "It won't last forever, you know. You can resign your commission, try your hand at any number of things… after. "
He shook his head. "There is no 'after' for me, Isabella. I can feel it. Even if I live to see an armistice, the German government will own me — my image, my victories, my legacy, whatever it may be — forever. Rittmeister Cullen will live on forever," he said flatly, with no hint of conceit.
"What are you saying? That you would rather just… give up?" Isabella replied, alarmed.
"Dulce et decorum est pro patria mori." The ancient words of Horace's Odes, oft-quoted by eager war recruiters, floated back to him. It is sweet and fitting to die for one's country. "Millions of men have done the same. Why not me?"
"Edward, look at me." she said firmly. He turned toward her; he remembered this timbre from their first meeting. "Stop this wallowing this instant," she ordered. "We'll have no morbid Latin poetry readings, nor any talk of dying whatsoever, do you understand?"
Her voice softened. "I certainly didn't spend the better part of a month tending to you so you could fly yourself into a mountain or a fleet of enemy fighters at the first opportunity."
She sat down next to him and her posture eased slightly. Edward's head was swimming, a sure sign that one of his headaches was approaching. He leaned into her warmth and she reached up to stroke his cheek. He closed his eyes, relishing the sensation and the way they breathed almost in tandem.
"Edward, you must realize how many people look up to you, admire you… love you," she said into his shoulder. He folded his arms around her and held her as close as he dared.
"Do you… admire me?" he asked, wishing it weren't too soon for a different question.
"Of course," she whispered. She raised an eyebrow. "I both admire and like to admire you," she said, with an mischievous grin. Her fingers wandered across his chest. "You have many admirable qualities."
He caught her hand and held it against his heart. He adored her teasing but needed her understanding even more at that moment. He kissed her fingertips and gazed purposefully at her.
"For months I had nightmares about what you said to me that night," he began. "About how I never stopped to examine what it was that I did in the sky or what kind of cavalier devil I had become. I was too caught up in the bloodsport to care.
"Sometimes I feel buried under the weight of expectations: mine, my father's, people at Headquarters, the squadrons under my command — even the Allies. It's crushing."
Edward kissed her forehead, his lips lingering there. "You ease the heaviness of those things. I feel light with you…." He searched for the words. "I… can't explain it properly."
"It's okay, I understand. I feel the same way," said Isabella with a nod.
"When I lie alone at night, I imagine that I am someone else altogether, someone new, and it's as if the monster never existed. In those dreams… you're always with me." He needed her to know that in every variation of his escapist fantasies, she was the one constant. "I know it's only a dream, but you make me yearn for a future. An 'after.'"
"I can't make you promises, Edward. Neither one of us knows what will happen when you walk out that hospital door. But I will be with you," she said smiling. "I'll write, and we'll have each other here." She tapped her fingers where he still held them tightly against his chest.
"I want to show you something," she said. Edward freed her hand reluctantly and she withdrew a postcard from the pocket of her apron.
He took the card and flipped it over. It was his face staring back at him, in full dress uniform. The Pour le Mérite hung at his neck. The card was battered and there were rusty smudges around the corners.
"An infantryman gave it to me not long after you and I met. It was like a talisman for him. 'The Great Rittmeister Cullen,' he said. It gave him hope to know that brave, honorable men like you were fighting to protect him."
"What happened to the soldier?" Edward asked, although he already knew the answer.
"He died," she said quietly. "Edward, I don't agree with German Command for perpetuating myths that have nothing to do with you. But I saw what your service meant to that soldier."
Edward looked at the picture again. He didn't recognize himself. "That man doesn't exist anymore."
"I know," she said. "I want you to take this with you. Whenever you feel overwhelmed, I want you to look at it to remind yourself that you are more than this image.
"You're right; you have responsibilities," Isabella continued, "but your most important responsibility is to be true to the man you are."
Edward pressed her closer until he could feel her heart beating against his body. "I've only just begun to realize who that is."
Winter turned to spring at the front, but the rebirth of nature around him failed to breathe new life into Edward. He felt so much older than his twenty-five years. He thought frequently about the boy he had been three years ago, eager to test his mettle in combat, and the battle-hardened shell of a man he had become.
At times he feared he would go mad. Even his dreams of Isabella had become a torture instead of a comfort to him. She was so tantalizingly close in his fantasies, only to be stolen from him by the sunlight each morning.
He was increasingly taciturn and distant with his pilots, retreating to his quarters as soon as his feet hit the ground after each flight. He couldn't even muster excitement for the new fleet of superior Fokker triplanes at his disposal.
Concerned by reports of Edward's continued headaches and depression, the head of the German Air Service ordered him not to fly in combat unless absolutely necessary. The war was not going well for Germany, and they could not afford the blow to troop morale should their famous ace be lost in combat.
"Enemy aircraft approaching our line, sir."
Edward acknowledged the news with a nod and ordered his men to the airfield. This was his duty, one that he performed flawlessly and better than any fighter pilot on either side of this conflict. At one time he'd thought it his passion, but his victories no longer brought him any pride or feeling of accomplishment.
Rather he felt strangled in a noose being tightened by two opposing forces, both equally determined to ground him permanently. From day to day he did not know whether he had more to fear from the Royal Flying Corps or the German propaganda office.
Once he had told his men, "Fight on and fly on to the last drop of blood and the last drop of fuel, to the last beat of the heart."
Germany was almost out of blood and fuel and Edward's own heart beat at a makeshift hospital hundreds of miles away.
Air Service Command be damned, he thought. He would fly today, and it would be 'absolutely necessary.' If he succeeded in his dangerous gambit, it would mean the beginning of a new life, and maybe — if she would have him — a new love.
Edward coaxed his brilliant red triplane's motor to life for what he knew would be the last time.
Every news service in Europe carried the story: A Hero Falls, Germany Mourns; Red Wings Clipped by Allies; The Great Cullen, Grounded at Last; Le Diablé Rouge Est Mort.
Isabella read every article she could get her hands on. They all told of how Rittmeister Cullen had led his flyers into battle that morning. How he disappeared into the fog while engaging a British plane. How Australian gunners had fired on him, likely puncturing his fuel tank. How his red triplane had plunged into a beet field, scorching nearly a quarter of an acre.
She didn't know why she tortured herself this way. The photographs were the worst. There were Allied shots of the damaged plane in flight, trailing smoke in the direction of the German frontline. There were German shots of the Fokker's charred skeleton, burned beyond recognition. The plane had exploded just before or just after impact.
Afterward, there were celebrations: in Germany, of Rittmeister Cullen's remarkable life; in Britain and France, of his fiery demise. All agreed on the red pilot's singular skill and exemplary contribution to air combat. The legends that swirled about him during his lifetime were only magnified by reports of his death.
Both sides exploited the news. The Allies used it as a rallying cry, proof that the tide of war had turned in their favor. German command, in response, printed thousands of postcards urging German soldiers to avenge their beloved Red Battle Flyer. Isabella hated that even now, Edward was nothing more than a political tool to his government. Her only consolation was that he could no longer witness the shameful exploitation.
It had been weeks since the crash, and she was still numb. She continued to minister to wounded soldiers as best she could; she knew there was nothing to be gained by giving up on them. Some days, though, the hole in her chest threatened to swallow her completely and in darker moments part of her wished it would.
Her tiny hope beyond hope that somehow Edward had survived the crash, that he would come looking for her as they had once fancifully imagined, faded with each passing day. She was a naïve fool for ever wishing it.
A soldier tapped her on the arm, interrupting her hospital paperwork. "Sister Isabella?"
"There's a package for you. I was asked to deliver it in person."
"That's curious. I'm not expecting anything." Isabella turned the parcel over in her hands, but there was no return address. She slid the twine over the corners and ripped open the heavy brown paper.
Inside was a smooth, black leather flying helmet. The chin strap was tattered and there were dark stains on the fur lining. Isabella's hands trembled as she picked it up and blood began to pound in her ears.
"Where did this come from?" she demanded. She felt dizzy. "Who gave this to you?"
"I… don't know," stuttered the soldier. "He didn't tell me his name."
"Was there a message? A note?" Isabella was frantic now, rifling through the torn packaging and string.
"No ma'am. Just the package."
There was nothing. Her mind whirled as she lifted the helmet and held it to her cheek, breathing in the rich smell of the leather. Then she pressed it against the place where her heart had once lived, letting the floodgates of her grief open at last. Sobs caught in her throat and her body shook as the sorrow flowed from her.
When she had no more tears, she kissed the leather gently and began to examine it. She fingered the torn strap and saw that part of the lining had come loose. She would mend it, make it whole again. She pulled at the seam to see how many stitches it would require and a folded scrap of paper tumbled out from between the leather and the lining.
She held her breath as she opened it.
Written in an elegant hand was an address, and a single phrase: ~As if I never existed.
"I… I have to go," she announced to no one in particular. "Please, ask Sister Lauren to take over. Please! I have to go!"
As the taxi wound through the rain-slicked cobblestone streets, Isabella tried to keep her emotions in check. She had no idea what she might find. Or whom, for that matter. Edward had been so very troubled in his last letters.
Now on foot, she checked the street sign against the note in her hand and hurried around the corner. She found the address she was looking for in a block of mostly burned-out buildings. Breathless, though not from exertion, she flew up the steps and knocked on the door.
After seconds that seemed like hours the door swung inward, the dull street light revealing a tall, ghostly figure.
There in the doorway, Isabella saw a beautiful man, broken by war and tortured by his own demons.
Edward saw his future clearly for the first time.
As they fell to their knees together, embracing, the scrap of paper she had clung to for her entire two-day journey slid from her fingers and glided gracefully to the ground.
A/N: The real Red Baron, Manfred von Richthofen, was credited with eighty air victories for Germany between 1916 and his death on April 21, 1918, more than any other fighter pilot in World War I. Many of the aerial combat tactics he pioneered are still relevant today.
Endless love to Anais Mark and Gothic Temptress for holding my hand and kicking my butt, respectively. Peaches, I love you more than Snoopy loves chasing the Red Baron(ward). Becca, if it weren't for you I'd still be staring at diagrams of fighter planes.*smooshes*
To my husband, Mr. Clementine, who promised he would read a fanfiction but only if it had airplanes and military jargon: here you go, babe.
Thank you for reading.