As the days passed, the hospital grew progressively quieter. Soldiers trickled out of the tent flaps like muddy water down the side of a cliff—the generals not giving them any more reprieve than was absolutely necessary. They left with wounds still open, and hasty treatment instructions intended to prevent the spread of infection. A select few would have the good sense to return in the evenings for fresh bandages, but the majority would relish the ugly scars that marked improperly tended skin, treating even the most easily fixed blemishes like well-earned trophies of their victories.
Marinette did her best to tend to all of the soldiers equally—taking on both her allotted area, and approximately 30% of Chloé’s patients—but her thoughts continued to drift back to Private Agreste.
She no longer found him to be quite as puzzling as she had been before. She recalled his initially angelic appearance, nearly overshadowed by a deep sadness, and though of how beguiling he had seemed. At first, she had seen him as a challenge—a dark web of mystery that she needed to pick apart, in order to find the person underneath—but with the correlating buckshot wounds found on 50318, the mystery had been all but solved. Now all that was left was the delicate matter of breaching the question.
Marinette decided to do the responsible thing, and avoid Adrien at all costs. She went so far as attempting to send Chloé to change his bandages, but when she mentioned the routine for the abdominal wound, Chloé recoiled in disgust and silenced the idea with a dismissive wave. Sabrina was nice enough to assist the first night, diligently following Marinette’s routine down to the letter, and working with a mousy silence that kept her lips pressed shut even in answer, but by the second night it was clear that she had already run herself ragged handling not only her, but Chloé’s patients as well. Marinette didn’t have the heart to ask her for another favor.
Alya, smart cookie that she was, had taken note of Marinette’s avoidance of what ought to be her favorite patient, and had taken to avoiding Marinette herself.
“Can I ask a little favo—“
“Not right now.”
“It will only take a sec—“
“I said I’m busy, Marinette! Go talk to him yourself!”
Alya had her friend’s best interests in mind, of course, but she couldn’t have known of Marinette’s ulterior troubles. Finally, Marinette mustered up her courage, gathered her supplies, and approached him herself.
“Oh, hello!” he said, startled. Adrien had been somewhat preoccupied with his own recovery, and had not observed the lack of attention he’d been shown as compared to the other soldiers. He’d taken note of the redheaded nurse the other night, and the way her silent diligence did nothing to dull the pain of the iodine, but he was a newcomer to the hospital scene, and was oblivious to the change in Marinette’s demeanor.
“Hello,” she responded, avoiding his gaze. This, he noticed.
She set her supplies on the same table as before, and unwrapped his bandage in silence. The arm was healing nicely. The tiny cavity where the bullet had slept was scabbing over without any of the signs of infection. There was no fluid, no redness, his lymph nodes looked fine, and his temperature seemed perfectly normal—Oh, she was doing it again, wasn’t she? She emerged from her automated stupor to find her the back of her wrist pressed to Adrien’s forehead, face only inches from his. Yes, his temperature was perfectly fine, but his cheeks were very obviously discolored.
“Sorry…” she mumbled almost inaudibly, as the crimson blush passed from patient to nurse.
She put in the extra effort to move her supplies from the table to the bed, and clumsily slid her chair over to the side of his body where the wound resided. She wasn’t interested in another misadventure in proximity. She didn’t even have the forethought to preface the iodine with a simple warning, and he yelped as the liquid dripped outside of its intended area and made its way into the raw center of the wound.
“Sorry, sorry,” she muttered again. She did her best to remove the excess, and continued the procedure with only minimally more attention than before. She was rushing, and he could tell. “Talk to me,” had been her signature phrase upon first meeting, but tonight she’d barely spoken more than a word at a time—and none of them had been directed towards conversation.
Still, he held his tongue while she worked, anxiously hoping she would explain herself without prompting. But when, after the last coat of tannic acid had been applied, she’d yet to give any explanation to her actions, he decided to bring up the matter himself. She stood up quickly and prepared to leave, but he caught her by the wrist.
“Wait.” He didn’t even need to say it. She stopped in her tracks and turned to face him.
“Yes?” she asked with a false smile.
“Something’s bothering you.”
“You must be mistaken, sir. I’m perfectly fine,” she stated, without hesitation.
He wasn’t sure how to respond to this. He dropped her wrist and let her leave, still puzzled by her obvious lies. At this point, though, he had no one to discuss the situation with. Nino had been checked out yesterday, as, he suspected, he himself would have been, had the cast-iron wound not have been discovered. He lay back in his cot and took to examining the patchwork ceiling, his brow knit with unease. He did his best to focus his thoughts on rough needlework of the tent while his concerns about the young nurse flitted in and out of his consciousness. It wasn’t an ideal way to pass the time, but at least this way his other worries remained buried one layer deeper in his subconscious, where they were less likely to surface.
At this point, Marinette didn’t even understand why she was acting this way. This was a warzone, for goodness sake. She’d met men and boys who had been through every level of hell, and she’d listened patiently to their stories. She’d already unraveled one level of the soldier’s sadness. She’d already caused him pain. She’d already watched his face fall as he spoke of his father’s betrayal. She’d already poured stinging liquid on his open wounds. She’d already seen his heart break before her very eyes. Why did this feel so much worse?
She knew why, though. It was because this wound… this wound was far fresher, and far more terrifying than any of the others. This was a wound that would leave him tossing and turning in his bed for years to come This was a wound that would haunt him on the battlefield—leave him petrified of an encore he would most assuredly receive. This was a wound he would carry with him into every encounter he faced, hostile or otherwise. This was a wound he was far too young to have. It wasn’t fair. It wasn’t at all fair.
But she knew one other thing. She knew this wound needed to be examined, and—if possible—treated, before it scarred.
In the darkness of the corner room, she abandoned both her supplies, and her professional demeanor, before returning to his cot. Silently, she resumed her seat on the stool, and sat looking at him—grasping for a way to begin the conversation. It took him little more than a second to notice her presence, but when he did, he flinched. She could see fear overtake his entire body for a split second, and then it was gone. He relaxed out of it, and sat up to face her—asking, nearly pleading her to pretend she hadn’t seen that.
“Is there a problem, ma’am?”
She breathed, the question still forming on her tongue. When her lungs had filled to capacity, it slipped out on the exhale:
“50319. What was his name?”
Adrien stared at her in stunned silence. How could she have known? What had tipped her off? Had Nino said something? Was she secretly a telepath? Had she read his mind, and unearthed the memories he had been trying so desperately to burry since the moment he’d received them?
In truth, Marinette had pieced together the situation herself. The matching buckshot wounds, the sadness she had seen, and the way he seemed so desperate to avoid the present. The numbering system for their regiment had been the final clue. “Five,” he was a member of the fifth division, on the right flank. “Zero, three” he had been in the third row on the offensive. “Eighteen, nineteen, twenty.” Private Nino had been the eighteenth man from the left. Adrien had been the twentieth. Who, then, had been the nineteenth?
“His name was Nathanaël,” he said quietly.
“I’m so sorry…” she nearly whispered, letting the tension she’d been holding onto for the past two days burst like a pocket of air breaching the surface of the water, “I never knew him.”
“Really?” he chuckled shyly. It was a nervous laugh, designed to make light of the situation, “He knew you.”
She stared at him, not sure where to take the conversation.
“He…” he began, “He was an artist.”
Tears began to well up in his eyes. He bit his lip in an attempt to steady himself, but it was obvious it wasn’t working. She didn’t know what to do. She didn’t know how to comfort him, so she let him speak.
“He used to sit outside of the hospital tent every chance he got. He had sketches of almost everything in the camp—all hung up in his tent or tucked under his bed—but I could tell… I knew he liked sketching you the best. I think… I think he was in love with you.”
This was too much. Marinette had known his answer would be heartbreaking—she had known whoever it was had been someone he knew, possibly quite well—but she had no way of predicting that she, herself, would have been involved.
“I think he was in love with you.” How could she have known? How could she not have known? Why did these things always surface when it was too late? A solider, an artist, a young man… had been in love with her, and now he was dead.
She’d never hear it from his lips. There was nothing she could do to change the situation. Would it even have mattered? If she had known his of feelings, would she have reciprocated? Or would she have brushed him off the way she did the grabbing, sex-starved old men who haunted the hospital tents with fictitious ailments? There was a cold emptiness in her chest, as though her heart had filled with black bile. It was choking. She didn’t know what to say. She had no encouraging words to offer him, no false comfort to ease his mind. She couldn’t reassure him with talk of an afterlife, or promise him that at least his friend was free of pain and far removed from this hell. Here, there is no way to honor the dead without damning the living. She froze.
“A-are you alright?” he blurted out, snapping her out of her stupor.
“I—“ What could she even say?
“I’m sorry…” he offered. This was wrong. He shouldn’t be apologizing for this. She was supposed to be the nurse. She was supposed to be able to heal him.
“No,” she finally sputtered, “You can’t be sorry about this. It… It wasn’t your fault.”
“But… I upset you.”
“No,” she repeated, “This isn’t about me. I’m so sorry. I wanted to help you… but I don’t know how.”
He took her hand in his, and looked her straight in the eye.
“I remembered him.”
He absentmindedly rubbed his thumb up and down the back of her hand as he spoke. “I said his name. I pictured the way he looked when he drew.” He looked down at her hand. “I haven’t been able to do that. I just kept thinking about…”
He stopped. Marinette squeezed his hand tightly in hers. “How did he look when he drew?”
“He…” he sniffed, “He looked so peaceful. He was always lost in thought when he was creating. Not like he was on the battlefield… He was so scared—“
“What tools did he use?”
“His—his pencil. He had a set, I think, but he’d pick one and use it down to nothing. He was carrying it in his pocket when—“ He choked.
“Did he keep all of his drawings?”
“No… He was always throwing them away or burning them in the fire. He never thought they were good enough… but the ones he liked he hung up—“ He choked again.
“In his tent, and under his bed,” she recalled, squeezing his hand even tighter.
“What will we do with them now?” he sobbed, finally breaking down. “What if they won’t send them back to his family? What if his family won’t keep them?” He leaned forward suddenly. His chest collapsed and his shoulders shook. Wet, hot tears streamed down his face and marred his features. When he’d spoken of his father, his eyes had been dry. He hadn’t shed a single tear in the face of his injuries. But now he wept. The final layer of melancholy had been exposed, and the floodgates had opened. She held him close, and let it pour out of him.
After what seemed like an eternity, his shakes subsided, and the waterworks stopped. He sniffed, and dried his eyes. She could feel an apology in the air, but she wasn’t about to allow it.
“It’s alright,” she soothed, “You’re alright.”
“Thank you,” he said instead, pulling away from the embrace. He wiped his eyes again and indicated that it was time to sleep. She took the hint and stood up once more, this time expecting to be stopped. She was right.
“Before you go….” he added, eyes downcast, “He had a stool he liked to sit on—out the door, 1100, and about twenty paces. It’s probably still there.” His eyes flicked up to meet hers. “Someone should probably bring it inside before it rains.”
She nodded in promise, despite the fact that she knew no rain would come. She exited the tent to find the little stool exactly where he had said. It was a three-legged, wooden, dwarf of a thing, but it had a sort of rustic charm. It was much shorter than the hospital’s seats—clearly from another part of the camp—but she was sure she could find a use for it. She picked it up, and didn’t stop until she was well within the safety of the nurse’s private tent. She placed the tiny thing at the end of her bed, and set on it a simple flower vase fashioned from a bottle of medicine. In the vase, she placed a single pencil. It wasn’t much of a memorial, but it was something. It was more than so many soldiers would ever receive, but so much less than he deserved.
That night, Marinette dreamed of bright, auburn hair, and a shy smile she had never noticed before.