I don't own Twilight, the factual events that occurred at Bastogne during WWII, or the description of the wounded soldier in the battlefield. The rest is all mine. See A/N at the end for full credits.
Special thanks to Jadsmama and les16 for prereading, kikikinz for pushing me to give more, and jennde for lending me her eyes and red pen.
To my darling friend Becky (RTGirl/mblsac), I hope this is everything you wanted it to be and that you have a very happy birthday!
Blood rushed through my ears, and my lungs burned from exertion as my feet pounded on the frozen, packed snow.
"Medic!" I heard someone scream to my left just as another round of mortars lit up the night sky like the Fourth of July. I dove for the nearest foxhole, and someone grabbed my arms and pulled me inside as a nearby tree crashed to the ground only inches from where I'd been.
"You okay, Doc?"
I examined myself for injury and nodded when I found none, already numb from what had long ago become a common occurrence in the field. I looked up and found McCarty and Whitlock huddled close, shivering – from cold or fear, I wasn't sure which – eyes wide as explosion after explosion filled what had been a quiet night.
All around I could hear people screaming for me, the guttural, frantic shouts of soldiers watching over fallen comrades permeating the cold, winter air.
"You both okay?" I asked as I pushed through the branches they were using to cover their makeshift shelter.
"Go, Doc. We're fine," Whitlock assured me. I didn't look back as I crawled out of the hole.
As I frantically ran for the first group of soldiers huddled around an injured brother, I suppressed the urge to feel, to absorb their pain. Instead, like the trained medic I was, I pulled down the shield of inhumanity I often wore and went to work.
By the time things quieted down, I had pronounced four soldiers – Black, Call, Grieves, and Jankowski – dead, cleaned and bandaged countless shrapnel wounds, and evacuated three soldiers whose chances of recovery were slim. War weary and exhausted, I descended the stairs of the aid station in town, praying I'd find the girl who had managed to captivate me from the minute I'd first seen her.
I scanned the stifling, overcrowded room and spotted her near the wall at the far end of the space. She was hunched over a soldier, holding a cup to his lips and whispering what I assumed were words of comfort.
Even in the low light and in bloodstained clothes, she was beautiful. Her brown hair, covered in a light blue kerchief, was pulled into a knot on the back of her head, and stray pieces that had come loose lay against her cheeks. I watched her pat the shoulder of the soldier she was talking to, stand up, and turn to another one beside him. I could see her heart and compassion pour through every touch. In the midst of so much suffering and sorrow, she was a ray of sunshine, and the desire to know her, to really know her, filled me to the brim.
I wound my way through the maze of beds and bodies until I was standing next to her.
"Need some help?"
Her head jerked up, and her eyes widened in surprise. A smile spread across her face, highlighting every beautiful thing about her.
"When did you get here?" she asked as she stood and took a step toward me.
I moved a little closer, my arms itching to touch her, to pull her against me, but I didn't.
"Just a few minutes ago. I brought three soldiers back with me and needed to get some more supplies."
She nodded and moved toward the supply closet. "We don't have much, but I can give you a little of what we have. What do you need?"
I listed off the necessities – morphine, scissors, bandages, and a pair of boots. She dug through boxes and loaded me up, all the while telling me how things had been since I'd left the day before. Casualties had been pouring in from the surrounding areas, and while she and the other nurse, Irina, were highly capable, they were overwhelmed and barely treading water.
"Is there relief in sight?" I asked, knowing full well there probably wasn't. The Germans had surrounded the city and were waiting for their opportunity to strike.
She just looked at me as we walked through the cluttered room to a small enclave underneath the stairs.
"How bad is it out there?" she asked as she began making tea over the small stove that had been set up for just such a purpose.
"Freezing," I said, shivering at just the thought of going back to rejoin the troops.
She nodded. It was no secret our Company had been sent on the mission undersupplied and unprepared for the freezing temperatures we'd been in for the last four days.
The 101st Airborne, the Division to which I'd been assigned before the drop into France, had been going practically nonstop since the invasion at Normandy and had just finished two months of heavy combat in the Netherlands. We were supposed to have had a chance to relax, regroup, and resupply, but General Eisenhower had ordered us to Belgium in an attempt to prevent the Germans from gaining ground.
As I made countless trips between the field and the aid station for supplies and with the wounded, I'd met Isabella Swan. She was the daughter of a British general, and after volunteering for the British Nursing Corps, she'd agreed to return to the small town of Bastogne, her mother's home village, as the war heated up.
When I first saw her, she was frantically sponging away blood from a deep stomach wound. I could tell almost immediately the soldier wouldn't survive, but as a doctor, I knew she would do everything she could to save him.
She hovered above him, desperately trying stem the flow, but eventually the soldier closed his eyes and breathed his last breath. I watched her shoulders sag and her head hang down, her arms still fully extended and pressing against his chest. When she didn't move, I walked up and placed my hand on her shoulder in a gesture I hoped would convey that she had done her best, that there was nothing she could have done to save him.
When she looked up at me, her eyes so tired and clouded with failure, I knew I needed to know her. I could tell there was something special, a feeling or instinct deep in my gut, about her by the way she'd worked tirelessly on that soldier, how she silently mourned and honored him in death.
Over the course of the next couple of hours, when she was relieved of duty to get some fresh air and much needed rest, we sat with mugs of hot coffee and talked. At first she was quiet, and so was I. Seeing the blood and gore of war numbed the normally visceral response one would expect, but with every soldier's death, it was like a piece of you died. Sometimes… most times, there was simply nothing to say.
Eventually, she'd told me about her family, how she'd come to Belgium, why she was working at an American aid station, and how she was unsure she'd ever return to London. The sound of her voice – quiet but strong – was almost hypnotic. I found myself leaning in, shifting my chair closer, and losing myself in her stories.
At one point, she pulled out a bar of chocolate, a smile lighting her face and a blush warming her cheeks, and handed me a piece. I watched her bite into the small piece she'd broken off for herself, her tongue flicking against the little bit that had been left on her bottom lip. If I'd had any doubt I wanted her, it was gone instantly. Even exhausted, run down, and with fingers stained red, she lit me up inside.
Later that afternoon, when the air raid sirens sounded and casualties came rolling in, she'd run off, but not before she turned and looked at me. She smiled a wide, beautiful smile and told me to find her when I came back from the field.
I had. And from there, over the course of the next few days, something powerful and bigger than the ongoing war blossomed between us.
"Tea?" she asked, pulling me from my thoughts. I smiled and sat down at the small table against the wall.
A few minutes later we were both seated, our hands wrapped around the cups for warmth.
"How's it been here?" I asked.
She blew on her tea, the steam billowing away from the top, and closed her eyes. "Hard."
I sipped my own tea, ignoring the way it burned my tongue. "Have they sent for more nurses?"
She nodded. "Yes, but as you know it's difficult for them to get through."
I knew the chances of additional supplies or help were unlikely. Thus far the Americans hadn't been able to gain air superiority, and until they could fly planes with relatively little threat of being shot down, we were on hold.
"Edward, what do you want when the war's over?"
I pursed my lips, enjoying the sound of my name on her lips. I had avoided thinking about that question. It was too hard to stay focused and fully present in the thick of battle if I allowed my mind to wander.
"I haven't given it much thought. I suppose I'll settle down, start a family."
She nodded, her teeth digging into the bottom of her lip.
"Have you thought about it?" I asked, tipping my cup up and taking a drink.
"Same as you. I know I don't want to work in a hospital for a long time, if ever again," she said, chuckling grimly.
I was surprised by the darkness of her laugh. "But you have such a gift, Isabella. It would be a shame to waste it."
"What I have is not a gift, Edward. It's a curse. To see this much death, this much pain and suffering… I wouldn't wish it on anyone," she said, roughly setting her teacup on the table.
There really wasn't much to say to that. I knew what she meant, knew how it felt to watch soldiers die, especially after pouring every ounce of yourself into trying to prevent it. That was one of the reasons I'd tried to keep my distance from the men in the Company. It was too hard to watch them die, to know I was supposed to save them but couldn't.
"I'd like to travel, see some other parts of the world. Maybe America," she finally said, breaking the heavy silence between us.
I smiled. The thought of her wanting to come home with me, well, to America at least, made my stomach flutter.
"I'd like that."
"A bit presumptuous aren't we?" she asked, a playful grin forming on her tired, beautiful face.
"You said it."
A short while later, after I'd finished my tea, I knew I needed to head back. I'd been gone long enough. I checked on the three men I'd brought in. Two had already died and the third was fighting for his life. If he made it through the night, there was a chance he'd survive. I sent a silent prayer above that he would.
I stood at the bottom of the steps that would take me back outside and waited, reluctant to leave the warmth, and Isabella, behind.
"I guess I'll see you next time," I said, more statement than question.
She nodded and looked down.
There was something about seeing her close off that made my stomach feel like it was in a free fall. I reached out and brushed my hand against hers, testing, tentative, and slowly wrapped my fingers around hers.
She looked up, her already dark eyes surprised and maybe… excited?
"Thank you for having tea with me today, Isabella," I said in a near whisper, but with all the conviction inside me.
She smiled, her face softening and a slight flush rushing to warm her cheeks. "It was my pleasure."
I rubbed my thumb across the back of her hand, relishing the strength and the slight roughness of her healing hands, and then with a squeeze, I pulled away and returned to the field.
The next few hours passed miserably. I delivered the boots Isabella had given me to the soldier who was missing one and checked his foot for damage; he had the beginnings of trench foot. I urged him to keep his feet as dry as possible, to change his socks frequently, and to do his best to move around to keep the circulation flowing.
I examined blisters, nicks, and scrapes – most the product of flying debris and skidding across the cold, snow-packed ground – and forced the soldiers to move as much as they could manage.
By nightfall, the temperature dropped even lower, and while the holes we had dug into the earth gave some measure of protection and blocked the coldest gusts of wind, it was nowhere near enough. The men bore their lot with strength and dignity, but I knew they were almost at their breaking point.
A stick snapped in the distance, and the two men next to me grew still. No one said anything as we listened. It happened again. One of the guys with me moved stealthily to the opposite side of the foxhole and peered between the protective tree branches they'd laid on top.
"Do you see anything?" he asked as he adjusted his rifle and peered out the other side.
My heart began to pound.
I shook my head, and we waited. Another twig snapped, and just as he raised his weapon, a deer stepped from behind a nearby grove of trees.
He let out a low laugh and slumped back against the earth wall. "Shit."
Just as he disengaged his weapon, the sharp crack of a mortar sounded in the distance.
"Incoming!" someone shouted. "Take cover! Take cover!"
Soldiers that had been moving about above ground dove for cover just as a barrage of mortars landed. I could hear the cacophony of bullets, mortars, the crack and crash of falling trees, and the screams of agony from those who'd been hit.
As if tethered to those sounds, I bolted out of the foxhole and ran with everything I had. It was almost impossible to see anything between the smoke and debris. Adrenaline coursed through my veins as my boots pounded on the snowy ground.
Just as I turned in the direction the shout had come from, a mortar hit. I dove for cover, throwing one hand out in front of me to break my fall and using the other to keep my helmet from flying off.
"Medic! We need a goddamn medic!"
I clawed at the ground and scrambled to my feet. I followed the shouts until I found one of my favorite men, Peters, lying on the ground with half his leg missing, surrounded by two other soldiers.
"Doc!" he whispered, panic and fear oozing from his voice as blood pooled in this white snow.
Peters was squirming on his back and flopping from side to side. A massive amount of blood was spurting out of the artery in his exposed thigh, soaking his body with blood. He flopped back and forth, back and forth. I got down on my knees beside him, pulled back his torn pant leg, then leaned forward and pressed my leg against the stub of his shattered limb in desperate hope of at least slowing the flow of blood.
"I need you to calm down, Peters. Jackson, Masen, hold him down."
As they held his arms down, both telling him he was doing fine and was going to make it, I ripped off the torn part of his trousers and used it as a tourniquet. Then I dug into my sack for a morphine kit and gave him an injection of the painkiller in the abdomen. Perhaps the most difficult task of all followed, when I began to sew the jagged flesh shut with my largest needle.
Satisfied that Peters would stay still, I sent Masen off to get a litter. Again and again I forced the needle into his flesh, in the hope of reaching his retracted femoral artery. I sutured and sutured until I felt I'd combined enough flesh to help stem the bleeding. Finally, I rapidly covered the wounded areas with sulphur powder and then I applied my largest bandages. Taping down the bandages was difficult because the remaining stump of leg was still slippery with blood.
Once satisfied the bandages would hold, I slowly removed the tourniquet, which had probably been in place for too long a period of time. Then I hoped and prayed for the best.
The litter bearers arrived and carted him off the battlefield, and I moved on to the next soldier.
Dawn came and went, and by the time the shelling came to an end, fifteen soldiers had been killed. I'd lost count of how many had been wounded, but as I rode in the back of the jeep with the last of them, I prayed the war would be over soon.
I was weary and numb when I stumbled down the stairs of the aid station My hands were still shaking and covered in bloody residue and who knew what else. It didn't matter how many times I'd seen a bloody wound or a soldier die, it affected me just the same. But the longer I was in the field and the closer I became to the men in the Company, I'd had to shut off part of who I was. Those men were my comrades and my brothers, but above all things, I was their medic. And in order to survive and to help them, I had to find a way to separate the work I did on the field and the friendships I'd made.
The main floor was full of chaos and hysteria as Isabella, Irina, and a nurse I'd never seen before darted from bed to bed, trying to ease the suffering of each soldier. I walked through the mess of beds and blankets littering the floor in search of the soldiers from my company. One by one I found those who hadn't already died, checked their vitals and bandages, and gave them water and morphine as needed.
The room was stifling, despite the freezing temperature outside, and after I'd completed my rounds, I trudged up the stairs and found a stray bench against the brick hospital wall.
I plopped down, my body heavy with fatigue, and just sat. I breathed in the cold air, trying to rid myself of the bloody stench that had surrounded me the entire day. I looked down at my bloodstained hands and realized Isabella was right. Being among the sick and dying wasn't a gift, at least not one anyone would actually want under the circumstances in which we'd found ourselves. Regardless, it was my job, and the men on the battlefield and inside that decaying building were my men. It didn't matter how I felt.
A short while later, the sound of approaching footsteps pulled me out of my quiet meditation.
Isabella stopped before me, a subtle smile on her face, and held out a steaming cup. I took it, grateful for the warmth, and gingerly sipped the hot liquid. It was sweet and rich, despite being a bit watery, and I'd never been so happy to have a mug of hot chocolate in all my life.
She sat down next me, closer than was probably acceptable, but not nearly close enough. I looked over to see her fingers toying with the blue kerchief she usually wore on her head. I followed the line of her forearm and elbow, admiring the slope of her shoulder and the delicate slope of her neck. Her hair was a mess, and without thinking, I reached up and tucked a stray lock behind her ear.
She tilted her head, and the soft skin of her cheek brushed against my retreating fingers. There was something so real, so good about her. Maybe it was everything I'd seen since the war began, or the barren, tundra-like conditions I'd been living in for nearly a week, but the warmth of her skin on mine was like a fiery inferno that had just been fueled.
She breathed out, and I couldn't stop myself from scooting closer to her. Shoulder to shoulder, hip to hip, knee to knee we sat pressed against each other. I reached for her hands, rough like mine from saving lives, and I felt like I could breathe for the first time since I'd landed in France.
We sat, silent and content, and I thought back to the question she'd asked me the day before.
What do you want when the war's over?
I allowed myself, for the first time in a good while, to actually imagine what my life would be like if I made it home. I saw myself settling down on a nice piece of land, marrying a dark-haired beauty with pale skin and bright eyes, and lots of little ones who looked like her – and maybe a little like me – running around.
The vision was powerful, filling me with a happiness I'd never known. I turned my head to look at her, admiring the arch of her brow, the way her eyelashes fluttered as she blinked her eyes, and the simplicity of the soft smile on her lips, and I knew it was her.
"Come to America with me," I said without thinking.
She looked at me, her eyes widening slightly before she furrowed her brow. "We've likely got a lot of war left before we start talking about such things."
True. There was no doubt the war still had life, but I knew from General Taylor that things were closer to ending than most people thought.
"Maybe. But when it's all over, Isabella, will you come with me?"
I squeezed my fingers around hers, hoping to reassure her I was serious and I meant it with every fiber of my being. It was irrational for me to feel that way, to feel such certainty, but I did. I'd say it had something to do with having my mortality thrust in my face day in and day, but I knew it was more than that.
Being around her filled me with contentment and warmth, and I couldn't imagine my life without her.
It was as simple as that.
Her gaze locked with mine, and I watched as she searched my face, my eyes, for the answer she was looking for, and I knew the minute she found it because her lips spread into the most beautiful smile I'd ever seen.
"Yes. I'll come with you," she said softly.
I turned my body to face hers, our knees bumping, and I gently cupped her face between my hands, my fingers splaying the length of her neck and jaw. "Bella," I said quietly, shortening her name as if we'd been together for years, "I'll come back for you. It doesn't matter where I go from here, I'll find you.
She closed her eyes, her thick lashes fanning out on her pale skin like paintbrushes.
When she finally looked at me, tears had filled her eyes. She bit down on her lip, just as she swallowed, and simply nodded.
"Okay," she said, her voice rough and thick with emotion.
"Thank you," I whispered as I leaned in and pressed my lips gently to hers, squeezing my eyes closed at how soft and warm they were. Her lips slid against mine in the sweetest kiss, and something deep inside me stirred. I didn't have a name for it, but as I pulled away and saw the depth of emotion in her eyes, I knew she'd felt it, too.
When I returned to the field a short while later, General Taylor was knee-deep in mission planning with the Company. I stood toward the back of the group and listened as he explained what would happen at midnight.
I checked in with each soldier, making sure he was in as good shape as possible, circumstances considered.
Midnight struck and the soldiers moved. The battle felt like it lasted forever. German planes fired from above while their troops on the ground engaged with mortars and artillery. The casualties were high, and as much as I might have preferred to take the wounded myself, I knew where I was needed most. We were on the verge of collapsing, exhausted and rapidly running out of ammunition, but when dawn broke and the American planes flew overhead and dropped fresh pallets of supplies, I knew we'd won. Cheers erupted as the troops scrambled forward and dragged the supplies to cover.
It was a short while later before I could get back to our encampment and a good while after that before I made it back to the main village.
As I drove the jeep through the outskirts of town, I was still amped up about our victory and anxious to find Isabella. But as I got closer to town I noticed the eerie quiet and the abundance of shattered rock that hadn't previously been there. The skin on the back of my neck prickled, and that's when I realized something terrible had happened.
All around me, buildings lay in ruin; concrete, metal, and wood littered the ground. I pressed on, praying Isabella was safe, that the main buildings hadn't been hit, but when I turned the corner I felt my entire world fall apart.
I came to a stop in front of what used to be the aid station. It was nothing more than a pile of rubble. People milled about, broken and dejected, loss and grief written on their faces and in the slump of their shoulders. I slammed by foot on the brake and didn't bother turning off the engine. I jumped out and ran to the makeshift hospital and saw what should have been the entrance, the hole where the stairs used to be, and as I frantically looked around and called out for her, I saw it.
Her blue hair kerchief.
I spent the next two days digging through the rubble that had buried much of Bastogne. The Germans essentially destroyed the city center and a good majority of the residential zone.
The entire Company, having successfully completed the previous mission, had been pulled from the line and ordered to help in the aftermath of the bombings in town. It was an atypical assignment for the 101st, but as we slowly learned, the standoff in the clearing had been a critical win in Eisenhower's larger campaign. It afforded us a few days away from the battlefront.
The search for survivors was slow and grim, and we pulled out more dead than alive. Word trickled in that a number of survivors were evacuated to field hospitals in neighboring towns well before we'd come back from the field, but the reports, as hopeful as they seemed, proved unreliable.
In the few free minutes I managed to find, I ventured to the next town only to discover no one from Bastogne had been taken there. The same proved true at the next two towns. I returned defeated and empty.
On the evening of the third day, I lay in bed, more exhausted than I'd ever been. In the bleakness of day, in the midst of the chaos of cleanup, I had managed to shove aside all my feelings, relishing the familiar numbness that had served me well on the battlefield. At night, though, the loss, the grief of losing Isabella, proved almost unbearable. Thoughts of our time together relentlessly flashed before my eyes.
The soft smile on her face as she comforted a soldier.
The moments shared over hot tea and cocoa.
The feel of her fingers twined with mine.
The warmth and softness of her lips when I'd kissed her on the bench.
The intensity in her voice when she'd finally said 'Yes' to coming home to America with me.
The loose piece of hair that never stayed inside her kerchief.
I brought the blue linen to my nose and breathed in, wishing I could still smell traces of the rose water she'd worn. Since finding her kerchief in the rubble, I'd clung to it like a drowning man at sea. It was my one link, the one tangible piece of her I had, and while I knew the chances of finding her alive were slim, I knew I wouldn't rest until I at least saw her body and got confirmation she was really gone.
Much to my dismay, the Company was ordered to leave Bastogne in early January to head to Germany. I had left a letter for Isabella with the local constable before I departed in the hope that should she return, she would know I was alive and searching for her. I'd included my address in America along with information for how to find me through the Army, but I knew, just like finding her alive, my chances were more wishful thinking than anything.
As hopeless as it would likely prove, it felt good to do something.
The Company was moved to Haguenau, France under General Eisenhower's orders. A small contingent of our forces were set to cross the river under cover of nightfall to capture as many German prisoners of war as possible. We got two.
By early May, we were moved to Austria to continue occupation duties. Aside from the occasional squabble between the locals, many of whom still had Nazi ties, and the retreating German soldiers, our days were free.
In the five months since Bastogne, I had managed to suppress the ache deep inside, but it hadn't gone away. In fact, the further I got from Belgium and any chance of every seeing or finding Isabella, the more depressed I became. I preformed my duties professionally, limited though they were, but in my down time I rarely socialized with the other troops. The guys tried to draw me in on occasion, but I always gave some excuse. Though we all shared an intense bond only time served in battle could forge, for my own self-preservation, I had managed to distance myself from them.
Instead, I spent much of my time walking and remembering. It was torture of the sweetest kind, one I wouldn't trade because it was all I had left of her.
We'd been disbanded. The war, at least on the Western Front, was over, and those of us with enough credits were free to return home.
I was one of them.
But I wasn't ready to go home.
In the months that passed since I'd last seen Isabella, I had decided I needed to close the European chapter of my life. I had to say goodbye, to let her go; it was the only way I could survive.
And so I found myself walking the streets of London in search of Isabella's home. I wanted to pay my respects and tell her family of her great service to the American troops she had so graciously served and treated.
I didn't have much to go on, but I knew her last name was Swan and her father was a British general. After inquiring around, I made my way through the battle scarred neighborhoods and ended up in front of a small, terraced house. The windows were still covered in paper tape, and it, like all the other houses in the neighborhood, bore the signs of neglect and war.
I looked down at the piece of paper in my hand to check the address. After confirming it was correct, I shoved it into the pocket of my uniform and walked up the stairs of the porch. My palms were sweating, and my heart was pounding. Every fiber of my being longed to see her, and the familiar ache of loneliness and grief washed over me. I swallowed the knot in my throat, took a deep breath, determined to be strong, and knocked on the door.
I waited, then knocked again.
Disappointment welled up inside me, and I turned to walk down the stairs, unsure exactly what to do. I was almost to the front gate when I heard a voice call out.
I stopped and whirled around and saw a frail old lady step onto the porch of the house next door. With large strides and an urgency I hadn't felt in months, I moved toward her.
"They've all moved on," she said, her voice and speech slow and weathered by time.
I nodded and stuck my hands in the pockets of my pants. "Would you happen to know where I might find General Swan or Mrs. Swan? I'd like to pay my respects."
A crease formed in her already heavily wrinkled, age-spotted face. "Your respects? For whom?"
I ignored the pricking sensation behind my eyes. "Miss Isabella. I was in Belgium last December when the hospital where she worked was destroyed."
She pressed a shaky hand to her lips, but not before I noticed the hint of a smile. "Why son, Miss Isabella isn't dead. She's been working at the hospital downtown since she returned."
I stared at her, completely dumbfounded and unable to process a word she'd just said. As if she sensed my overwhelm, she slowly made her way down the stairs and over to me, grasped my arm and led me up the stairs into the parlor of her home. At some point on the way, I recovered enough to actually help her instead of her helping me, but once I'd taken a seat and waited for her to return with "tea and a little something extra" I replayed her words over and over.
Isabella wasn't dead.
She was working at a hospital.
Which meant she was alive.
I squeezed my eyes closed and leaned forward, my elbows on my knees and my hands buried in my hair. Every part of me wanted to believe her, to trust she knew what she was talking about, but the part of me that had been living with the loss of Isabella… No, I couldn't allow myself to believe she was really alive.
Eventually, Mrs. Clearwater, as she had introduced herself, returned with a tray of tea and biscuits. She passed me a cup of hot tea to which she'd added a healthy dose of whiskey, and explained that Mrs. Swan, Isabella's mother, had been killed in an air raid in London just before Christmas the previous year. Upon hearing the news, General Swan had immediately wired that his daughter was to return home at once. He knew, as we all did, that the Germans were closing in on Bastogne, and he wanted to get her out of harm's way. She'd arrived not long after and had been working at the hospital ever since.
As I tried to process everything she'd said, I wondered if she'd planned to let me know. Had she left a note? One that I hadn't received because of the subsequent bombings?
Doubt and indecision warred inside me, but in the end, I knew I had to go. Even if she'd left behind nothing, it didn't matter. She was alive, and like Thomas the disciple, I had to see her with my own eyes to believe it was true.
Hours later, I stood in front of the hospital entrance. After I'd left Mrs. Clearwater's home, having thanked her for the information and the tea – which had actually helped calm me down – I'd made my way toward the hospital.
I was nervous, more so than I had been when I'd knocked on her front door. Then it was simply to pay my respects, but this was so much more. This was me finally seeing her with my own eyes, and just the thought set my heart to thundering.
Slowly, I made my way through the double doors and to the station just beyond the entrance. A young woman dressed in blue was shuffling a pile of papers. I waited for her to look up, but when she didn't, I cleared my throat.
"Excuse me, Miss. I'm looking for a nurse that might work here. Miss Isabella Swan."
She looked up at me and without saying a word pointed to her left. I thanked her and moved that way. I followed the hallway, and the farther I walked the more intense the smell of antiseptic became and the more settled I felt. I was at home in settings like that. I rounded the corner, having followed a sign to the main floor, and saw a long narrow corridor with a line of beds on either side of a center aisle.
A number of the beds were occupied and being attended by a host of nurses. I scanned the room, but didn't see Isabella anywhere. I made my way down the long aisle, keeping my eyes ahead of me until I came to the back of the row. I noticed another set of doors but didn't know if I should enter. I turned around and decided to ask the nurse on duty.
She looked up. "Yes?"
"I'm looking for a nurse I believe works here. A Miss Isabella Swan."
"She's taking her dinner in the cafeteria," she said dismissively.
After giving me instructions, I made my way through the doors I'd seen and down the narrow hallway. I stopped outside the door marked 'Cafeteria' and took a deep breath. I couldn't believe it was really happening.
All the time it had taken me to get to that point seemed almost like a dream. The thought of seeing her after so long was both daunting and exhilarating. I whispered a small prayer that all would go well, crossed myself, and pushed the door open.
The room bustled with activity and chatter. Nurses, all wearing the British blue uniform I'd grown familiar with, sat at long tables eating dinner and drinking tea. I looked at each woman's face and didn't see her. I frowned and took another step inside the room, and that's when I saw her.
She was sitting by the window, a teacup resting in her lap as she read a book. Her hair was pulled back, like all the other times I'd seen her, but instead of bloodstained clothes, she worse the same British blue uniform and white apron as the other nurses I'd seen. She looked pale and thin – thinner than I remembered – and like a magnet drawn to its other half, I walked toward her.
I stopped a few feet from her, unsure how to get her attention. Just as I was about to say something, she looked up. Her eyes widened and she slowly lowered the book she'd been holding to her lap beside the empty teacup.
"Edward?" she whispered, her voice barely audible above the din of the room.
"You're here," I said, equally dumbfounded.
She looked to the things in her lap and quickly set them aside and stood up, her eyes finding mine almost immediately. All the feelings I'd felt for her in Bastogne and the ones since came rushing back, and unable to stop my self, I closed the distance between us in three large strides and immediately pulled her into my arms. She was warm and strong and like home. I buried my face in the soft, slightly exposed skin at her neck and just breathed. She smelled of sweat and antiseptic, but I could still make out the subtle hint of rosewater I had missed so much.
"I've missed you," I murmured against her skin.
"Me, too," she said as she slowly stroked the exposed hair at the nape of my neck.
As we stood there, I soaked in the fact we were finally together, facing each other, touching, and, breathing, and alive.
After we broke apart, I leaned forward and chastely brushed my lips against hers.
Her cheeks flushed with color, and God help me I felt like I might explode with happiness.
"Was that okay?" I asked, unsure where we stood but wanting it to be all the same.
She reached out and smoothed her hand down the front of my uniform. "Yes."
There was so much I wanted to say, to ask, but as the world around us came back into focus, I realized it was neither the time nor place for such a conversation.
"What time do you finish?" I asked.
"I have another four hours. I finish at ten."
"May I see you then?"
She bit her lip, a small smile pulling at the corners of her lips, and she nodded. "Yes. Perhaps you could walk me home?"
I smiled. "I'll be here."
I stared at the birds flitting between the trees in our yard. Isabella was inside our house – her childhood home next door to Mrs. Clearwater – preparing dinner. I took a sip of the lemonade she'd brought me and thought about everything that had happened in the last six months. I was still amazed at how my life had changed in ways I could never have imagined.
Isabella never received the letter I'd left for her. I assumed with all the chaos of the war's end and the subsequent rebuilding it had gotten lost somewhere along the way. In the end, it hadn't mattered, though, because once I'd found her, I'd had no intention of letting her go. Fortunately for me, she hadn't given up hope or the belief I'd follow through on my promise to find her once the war was over.
After the initial surprise of finding her alive, I'd chosen to stay in London to court her properly. She and I had spent the first few months getting to know each other again. She'd introduced me to her father, and while he'd been skeptical, he'd also been impressed I had kept my promise and found her. I was grateful he'd given me his blessing to court, and eventually marry her.
My decision to remain in London hadn't been made lightly. My family hadn't seen me in over two years. When I'd called my mother, she'd insisted I come home, but after reassuring her I was safe, that I'd been released from military service with commendation (like all the other soldiers in the 101st), and about Isabella, she'd relented. I'd promised her I'd be home for a visit and possibly for good at some point, but until then I'd keep writing and calling.
Once the details were settled, I'd immediately gone in search of work and found there was still a shortage of medical personnel. I wasn't initially excited about the possibility of working at a hospital, despite my training, but in the end I'd realized, like Isabella, I had a gift. After some inquiries into my military record, I'd been offered a position at the same hospital where Isabella still worked as a civilian nurse. It seemed despite all the pain and loss she'd seen, she couldn't quite walk away from work she'd so clearly been gifted to do.
Isabella and I married on a cool but unexpectedly sunny day in April. We'd stood side by side, our fingers laced together, and had made our vows before God and her family. Together, we'd promised to love and cherish one another through all manner of adversity as long as we both should live. When I'd lifted her veil and saw her eyes shimmering with tears and love and happiness, I'd thanked God once again for bringing us both through the war and back to each other.
That night, for the first time, I'd undressed my wife. As each layer of clothing had fallen to the floor and my fingers had caressed her exposed skin, I'd told her how beautiful she was, how lucky I was, and how happy she made me. Her answering kiss, hungry and wanting, had made my heart swell. With tenderness, I laid her on the bed and then found myself hovering above her, our eyes locked. "I love you," I'd told her. She'd whispered that she loved me, too, and then slowly I pressed inside her. Her hips rose to meet mine, every thrust more intense than the one before until we found our release together.
"Edward?" Isabella called as she came out onto the front porch.
I shifted a bit, my body having reacted to the mere memory of her touch. "Yes?" I said as I smiled at my bride.
I nodded and stood up. After reaching for her hand, we walked inside and ate dinner together, chatting about the day, the weather, and about our upcoming trip to America.
Like always, sharing life with Isabella was nothing short of a gift. She chattered on about crossing the Atlantic, what it would be like once we docked and made our way across the country to my family's home in Chicago, and how she was looking forward to meeting my mother. Watching her bubble with excitement was the perfect reminder of how much I'd been blessed.
After helping her clean the kitchen and then sharing an evening cup of tea, we'd moved to our bedroom where I took my time making loving her.
Long after she'd fallen asleep for the night, I lay beside her, my arm draped across the curve of her waist, and returned to my earlier thoughts. In all my life, I would never forget what it was like to think I'd lost her. And yet, out of the rubble and ruin of war, across time and the distance of nations, I'd found her and made her mine.
I pressed my lips against the skin of her shoulder and pulled her a little closer, though still not close enough, and realized for what felt like the thousandth time, I never had to let her go again.
See my blog for the lovely banner that jaimearkin made for me, as well as the inspiration behind the entire story! Jessyptff dot blogspot dot com
The battlefield scene of the soldier who lost his leg was taken from Raymond D. Butler's real life medic experience during WWII. You can read more of his stories here: http : / www . mtaofnj . org / content/WWII%20Combat%20Medic%20-%20Dave%20Steinert/ . htm
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