'Well done!' Millie squeezed Susan's shoulder again as they pushed out through the door into the blackout. Susan grinned freely and caught Millie's hand in the darkness. Lucy jostled into them and they waited while she snicked the door firmly behind them all. There was a moment's pause. They all hovered together on the step.
'Who's got a torch?' Lucy spoke.
'Oh.' Susan jumped and fumbled in her bag. She always had a torch. She was always the one who guided them. How could she have forgotten? Millie chuckled low and close to her ear.
'Here.' She used their linked hands to pat Susan's coat pocket. The missing torch tapped against her hip, the pressure of Millie's fingers soft through the layers of fabric. Susan twitched away from the creeping flush that pressure triggered, then quickly leaned back again to show her friend that she didn't mind.
'Oh.' It was so silly that she kept saying that. At least no one could see her confusion. Millie could sense it though, of course. Susan could almost hear her lips parting in a smirk, even as she refused to release Susan's hand but gripped it tighter, rubbing a thumb over her knuckles. Susan had to reach around herself to dig in left pocket with her right hand, wrestle the torch free.
'Sorry,' she muttered when she finally got the wretched thing out and switched on. 'Here we go.' She kept her voice low and steady and pointed the tiny dot of light downward, as per regulations.
'Come on then, let's get cracking.' Millie's voice was typically cheery but she spoke dangerously close to Susan's ear, her breath warm in the chill night.
Not for the first time, Susan was thankful for the things the blackout could help to hide.
They set off, following the narrow swinging path of the torchlight. Only a few steps on and Lucy stumbled. Susan felt Millie reach out and link with her, pulling the smaller girl in to form a trio. And so they picked their way in silence until they came to the door of Lucy's digs.
'Can't have you wandering around in the dark by yourself,' Millie said warmly. 'Anyone might run off with you.' There was the usual split second of silence while Lucy worked out that it was a joke.
'Oh, no. Well. Good night.'
The door closed behind Lucy and they could hear her moving away from it, and still they stood there. A breeze ruffled Susan's hair and carried a waft of Millie's perfume, heavy and exotic. Susan breathed it in, let a small smile escape her and then widen as she remembered that it was totally secret. Her hand was still in Millie's, warm there. She looked down and noticed that the torch was lighting up their shoes, her sensible low black heels and Millie's higher, sleeker ones, dark red tonight. Standing close. Susan's heart pattered.
'Well,' Millie breathed and she really was as close as Susan had thought. 'Shall we? My clever girl.' She tugged lightly at Susan's hand and tucked it close against her. Gathering her wits, Susan aimed the torch at the path onward to their own lodging house and allowed herself to snuggle closer into her friend. She could always use the cold as an excuse, although she didn't think she needed to.
These walks had become one of Susan's favourite times over the last few months. Things seemed simpler like this, just the two of them in the dark. It was easier to be close out here. And things seemed clearer. In the huts with the other women all around, in the canteen so bright and busy, Susan had great trouble sorting out the meaning of things, which bothered her. Certain things seemed to be connected, somehow – the way Millie caught her eye; the way she sought Millie out at every opportunity, without thinking about it; Millie's generous little touches, a brush on the arm, a squeeze, a tap on the shoulder in passing, so casual yet so warm; the leaping in Susan's chest, the unexpected smiles she found on her face, the warm buzzing under her skin. All of these things, so strange and complicated in the daytime and under the electric lights, seemed to fall simply into order when the two of them walked together in the dark. Susan wasn't sure she understood the pattern they formed yet, not fully, but she could feel it, sense its shape and order just out of reach of her consciousness. And she knew that feeling from the work that she did. It was a good feeling. One of the best. Anticipation of waiting for the moment it became clear mixed with a quiet confidence that it would, was about to, if she would only persevere.
'Thank you.' Susan surprised herself slightly by speaking.
'What on earth for?'
'For earlier. Listening to my mad idea and giving me the push to do something about it.'
'Well, as it turns out, your idea wasn't that mad at all.' Millie chuckled again. 'And you know me, I'm not shy.'
'No.' Susan continued in silence for a few more steps then spoke again. 'It's silly to be shy. Me, I mean, I'm silly.'
'It's part of your charm, darling.'
'But tonight, that was important and I could have let it go, maybe, because I was scared to speak up.'
'Oh you wouldn't have let it go.' Millie hugged her even closer. Susan looked up, searching through the darkness for her friend's face, trying to read the expression there. The torch wavered and they stuttered to a halt.
'You couldn't have,' Millie continued, absolute certainty in her voice. 'I know you and when you're sure of something you don't let anything stand in your way.'
Susan's heart had surely got twice as strong in the last few seconds. The space between them was surely smaller and tighter than it had been. The air disappearing.
'Not even Jean McBrian.' Millie always broke the tension with a joke but this time it didn't work as her voice dropped away to a whisper. Susan leaned closer still – it was so dark she could barely see the outline of her head, the glint of her eyes.
'I still need you,' she said, low and serious, 'to tell me when I'm right, to give me that push.'
Millie's fingers traced the line of her jaw, up over her cheekbone.
Susan caught her breath. This was it, the sensation she recognised deep in her gut, excitement fizzing through her, a small flame of confidence burning brighter and taller, total clarity in her mind. This was the moment the pattern became clear.
She tipped her head into those fingers, waited until she felt Millie's palm press against her face, then leaned forward, face tilted upward, following the warmth of Millie's breath until their noses brushed. Millie laughed shakily and Susan could almost taste the cigarettes and coffee and the sweetness that was just Millie. They stood like that, breathing each other, and Millie's fingers twitched against her cheek and the torch was lost somewhere in the folds of their coats and Susan wasn't quite sure where the rest of their arms had got to except that somehow they had formed a warm closeness that made her feel more safe and excited and sure than she had thought possible.
'Susan?' Millie breathed, her lips moving so close, so almost touching, but her voice uncertain now. Millie should never be uncertain, Susan thought. So she kissed her. Because, given all possible variables, that was the only logical outcome.
Susan's kiss was firm and determined but Millie's mouth opened under her lips and she answered the kiss with all the warmth and hunger that made her Millie. Susan pressed into her and Millie wrapped her tighter, her hand cupping her face to hold her for kisses and more kisses and more. Susan was breathless by the time they stopped, her head spinning.
'Mmmm,' Millie hummed against her lips, sending tiny buzzes through her mouth and the bones of her face and even tinier sharp shivers right down through her body. 'I always knew you were fierce, really.'
Susan dropped her head, feeling suddenly out of her depth, exposed. But it was Millie, the well-known knit of her jumper, that coat she saw every day, and her scent more familiar than her own. She didn't need to run or seek reassurance. This was where she found it. So she stayed in Millie's arms for a minute, just breathing, waiting for her heart to fit more comfortably back in her rib-cage again.
'Shouldn't we go?' she asked at last. She felt Millie nod, her chin dipping into the top of her head, Millie's sigh ruffling her hair. Susan wasn't sure if this solution would stay with her back in the world of light, but she wanted it to. It was up to her, she realised – that was the message behind Millie's sigh. Whether this new answer to the questions that had been nagging at her for ages was allowed to change things, was all up to her. And she wanted it to. If she could only bring herself to be the bold, sharp Susan in life like she was with puzzles. She would try, she promised herself. She would be fierce as Millie called her, even if the mere thought of it made her blush. And to seal this new determination she reached up and kissed her again, making Millie gasp.
'Now we really must go.' And laughing slightly, wobbling and clinging to each other, they found their way home.