Z's parents had plans for her. She'd just finished school, and they expected her to marry her steady, like just about every other girl in her class. It wasn't a bad assumption; Z had known Mickey practically since she was born, and they'd already been going together for two years. Mickey was sweet and handsome and would make a great husband for a girl some day. The problem was Z wasn't that girl.
He'd enlisted, of course. There was a war going on and Mickey knew all about duty and patriotism, really believed in it, too. It was something the two of them had in common. Z loved her country more than just about anything -- definitely more than Mickey -- and she believed in the war effort.
Two days before he went into basic training, they lost their virginity to each other in her parents' cramped attic, and it was sweaty and nice and an ending. They promised to write to each other; Z lied.
When she told her folks that she and Mickey were done, her parents changed their plans for her again. She could still get a nice husband for herself; lots of girls didn't marry straight out of high school anymore. It was important to be well-rounded, even though Z thought she was already rounded well-enough as it was. But a girls' college was the next on the list, maybe somewhere back east instead of in California, where she grew up. The schools were better there, at least as far as her parents were concerned. Radcliffe was one option, Barnard another.
Well, her parents thought it was an option, at least. Z politely disagreed.
"That's a ridiculous idea."
Ryan had been Z's friend for a very long time and knew her very well. He tended to tell her things straight out and Z respected that about him. Even in 1943, it just wasn't usual for a guy to see a girl as a person first and anything else second. So much for modern times. But Ryan didn't see most of the world the way other people did, so they were friends.
"It's not ridiculous, Ryan." Z hopped up onto a stool at the drugstore counter where Ryan worked. He slid a soda her way, a complimentary scoop of vanilla ice cream floating in it. "I saw a news reel, and they're recruiting. There are lady pilots, you know that! What makes them any better than me?"
"No one's better than you," Ryan said in his strange monotone. People who didn't know him thought that Ryan didn't have any feelings, but Z knew better. He was worried. "You're going to enlist and be the best pilot there ever was."
Z waggled her eyebrows. "Wrong order. I'm sneaking flying lessons out in Inglewood now, but I'll join up in a few months. Please don't tell my parents."
"Only if when you promise to write me, you don't lie about it."
"Oh, Ryan Ross, it's not like I'm about to forget you."
Ryan sighed and Z saw his shoulders drop a fraction, a little tension leaving them. "I'm holding you to that."
Z's parents had a plan for her, but those plans were shot to hell when she was accepted into the Women Airforce Service Pilots. Elizabeth Berg wanted to fly and no one else's plans were about to stop her.
Abilene was a nice place.
She'd been stationed there for about four months now, after basic training in California, which wasn't so much basic as it was hell on earth. Of course the WASPs weren't going to see any combat, but that didn't mean anyone went easy on them. Z was happy about that, even when she was operating on a couple hours sleep at night and getting shouted at for not having her boots tied to regulation. She was making friends with the other girls, too, most with stories like hers. Reni, with her shock of red hair, who liked to tap out beats on her thighs, or Laena who was the best damned mechanic Z had ever met. There was Charlotte, too, and Z loved and hated her best of all. She was an army brat who'd lived all over, the only one of them who knew her way around Dyers because she'd already lived there for two years. She knew where all the best bars were and she knew how to sneak out without the higher-ups ever realizing they were gone. It was a scary, wonderful time, made scarier because spending time around all of these women was only confirming something Z had long suspected of herself.
See, Mickey had been a nice guy, but something was always missing. He was handsome, with rough stubble and all muscle. The other girls in her hometown used to giggle when he walked by, telling Z she was so lucky because he had such nice arms, such a good chest, a cute backside even. But all Z ever thought was it didn't look right, didn't feel right, didn't smell right.
Flying, being here in the WASPs. That smelled right.
"Z... Z! Elizabeth." Charlotte shook her shoulder. "Jesus, knock it off, it's not like I'm going to report you. I know you're not asleep."
Z's eyes snapped open. Charlotte was perched on the edge of her bunk, her legs dangling over the side. "It's oh-two-hundred hours," Z said. "Why do you think I'm not sleeping?"
"Because you're not," Charlotte said, rolling her eyes. "First, I have the bunk below you, so I know you snore. Don't deny it because Reni's willing to back me up. Second, I heard you writing. Postcards back home?"
"Yeah." Z lifted her pillow and showed off her flashlight, pen and pad. "Writing to Ryan."
Charlotte clasped her hands together and made kissy faces in Z's direction. "Ryan. Telling him all the dirty things you're going to do to him when you get back home?"
Z wrinkled her nose. "Ryan and I aren't like that. We're just friends. Really!" she insisted when she saw Charlotte's incredulous face. "Cross my heart and hope to die. Not a boyfriend, just a boy friend. There is such thing."
Charlotte shrugged. "Whatever you say, great and enlightened one. You sneaking out with us? Laena's got a really bad jones for some cheap whiskey and gropy townies and who am I to deny her?"
Z laughed. "Yeah, I'm in. Give me a minute."
Z loved this almost as much as she loved being in the air, the rush of sneaking into civvies -- stockings, frilly dresses, high heels, the whole nine -- and putting on the makeup they'd all sneaked into their luggage. Z loved slicking her lips up with waxy red and carrying her shoes as they escaped base camp. Laena and Reni were just as giggly as she was as they followed Charlotte, which really wasn't the best attitude for a soldier, but what did that matter? They were young and free from parental pressure, and there was a war going on. If that wasn't a reason to be a little bit giddy, what reason could there possibly be?
Charlotte led them to one of two bars in town, a dark, smoky, and cramped little dive where the locals crammed in nightly. They were always polite to the lady pilots, buying them all their drinks and offering up local stories and snatches of news in their cute little Texan accents. Z liked this bar better than the only other one, which was also a dark, smoky, cramped little dive with pretty much the same clientele, but there was one difference: music. Sunsets Lost had little stage set up with a band and the world's smallest dance floor that probably didn't see any use in between visits from the WASPs. Every time Z wrote home, she rhapsodized on about this place, so much so that Ryan threatened to dress up like a lady and try and pass the physical so he could be a pilot, too.
The thought of Ryan dancing made her smile. Ryan couldn't even put one foot in front of the other most of the time.
Z and Laena grabbed a table close to the stage. There was a house band, four guys who took frequent breaks to get drunk, which Z admired. Tonight seemed to be different, though. The band, for one, seemed eager to be there for once, dressed up in their Sunday best. Two, there was a singer.
"Hi, I'm Tennessee," the singer told them. She had a lilting British accent. "If you couldn't tell, I come from England, but they named me after an American state because they love it here so much. I love my mum and dad, so if you give me any shit about it, I'll break a bottle over your head." Then she smiled sweetly and cued the band.
Z couldn't stop staring. Tennessee wasn't a particularly good singer; she was talk-singing more than sing-singing, and she didn't seem to realize that songs sounded better when you kept to one key. Heck, Z knew that she was a far better singer herself. But there was something about her, something that made it so Z's eyes stayed glued to the stage through Tennessee's torch song. It could have been her legs, which were long and went up and up, or maybe it was her hair, hanging in thick waves halfway down her back. Then Tennessee turned her attention to the table where Laena and Z were sitting, flashing a bright smile Z's way, her eyes sparkling, and Z got it then. It was all in her eyes. Z hastily swallowed a gulp of her whiskey-and-soda, relishing the burn in her throat and happy for the momentary distraction.
Tennessee sang two more songs, each ending with a polite smattering of applause. When she was done, she curtsied and walked right off the stage and to the bar. Z was compelled to follow, but she didn't, consoling herself by staring more.
"Your eyes are going to fall out of your head, Elizabeth," Laena told her. Z blinked at her. "Not that I'm one to judge curiosity, but if I noticed someone else might, too. You know what they say about women soldiers already."
"Maybe they say that for a reason," Z said.
Laena shot her a kind smile. "Maybe. Maybe in your case especially."
Charlotte bounced up to the bar then, tapping Tennessee on the shoulder, and Z was startled by the squeal of happiness Tennessee gave, easy to hear even over the bar's clamor. They hugged each other hard, each second that passed only serving to feed Z's curiosity (and maybe a little of her jealousy), but she didn't have to wonder long because once they had their drinks in hand, Charlotte was grabbing Tennessee's wrist and tugging her over to Laena and Z's table. Laena gave Z a not-so-subtle nudge in the ribs.
"Tennessee, these are my fellow soldiers. Z and Laena, this is my dear friend, Tennessee Thomas." Laena smiled warmly and shook Tennessee's hand; Z just shook.
Despite this inane display, Tennessee still nodded her approval. "Very formidable. I'm happy the Yanks and the Brits are on the same side."
"Yanks," Charlotte said with a laugh. "Like you didn't spend half your childhood in the States with me." She turned around and stole two empty chairs from nearby tables, gesturing to Tennessee to sit down. "Tenn is a military kid, too. Probably lived in as many countries as I did before she turned eighteen."
"Eight of them," Tennessee confirmed. "But I didn't follow my father's footsteps like some of us."
Charlotte shrugged and reached over to give Tennessee's knee an affectionate squeeze. Z tracked the movement like Charlotte's hand was a target that she needed to take out. "What can I say? I'm Daddy's little girl. Not that you escaped that completely!"
"What do you mean?" Z blurted, the words out of her mouth before she could stop them. It was only then that Tennessee seemed to realize she was sitting there at all, something that made Z feel warm all the way down to her toes.
"Oh, our fathers fancy themselves musicians," Tennessee said. Her voice was even sweeter when all her attention was focused on Z. "He's not much of one. Actually I'm not much of one, either, just having a bit of fun."
"I could tell," Z said. She sort of hated herself a second later, but Tennessee just threw her head back and laughed in delight. "Z, right? What an interesting name."
"Says the English girl named Tennessee," Charlotte said. Z had nearly forgotten she was there.
"It's short for Elizabeth," Z explained a little breathlessly. "But that's a stuffy name and I shed most of my extra letters before I was old enough to walk. I'm no princess."
Tennessee grinned. "Could have fooled me."
They stayed at the bar as long as they possibly could without being caught out of bed before reveille. Z was glad that she wasn't scheduled for a flight in the morning, but she was gladder still that she'd had a chance to talk to Tennessee one-on-one. After a drink, they ended up alone, having a conversation about movies they'd seen and the places they'd grown up. Laena had floated away when Reni shot her their 'come save me, this guy's a dud' signal, and Charlotte only managed a few raised eyebrows at her old friend and her new friend before someone asked her to dance.
Z found Tennessee fascinating in a way she'd felt just twice before in her entire life: once was when she'd met Ryan at the beginning of high school, when he transferred into their school district and was dressed like he'd stepped off the pages of some glossy magazine, inviting dozens of attacks from bullies, and then again when she'd enlisted and Charlotte told off a senior officer when the officer got her regulations wrong. She knew those backwards and forwards since before she could walk and knew when someone wasn't following one.
Tennessee had none of Ryan and Charlotte's defensive defiance, though. She was just traveling as much as a single girl could during wartime, which wasn't very much without doing something stupid like joining up (and when she'd said that, she'd turned those same sparkling eyes in Z's direction again), so she'd decided to stay in Abilene because she knew a few people here already, as former military brats always did, and she knew Charlotte was stationed here, too. Tennessee asked after Z, too; she wanted to know how Z ended up in the WASPs and laughed when Z sighed and told her the story of Mickey, Not Quite the One. They talked about music a bit, too, even going so far as to coax Z into singing a bit of 'Stormy Weather' and then exclaiming happily over Z's voice.
"Oh my lord, I love it. Promise you won't hide that lovely voice. It's so... husky, you know?" Tennessee said, leaning into Z's space and sounding pretty husky herself.
It was one of those memories that Z knew she'd keep tucked close to her heart to keep her warm at night. That was nice. There really weren't a lot of things that kept her warm, not thoughts of home, not anything other than a couple of friends and being up in the air, and even those didn't mean a slow burn in her stomach and a fuzzy feeling in her head.
Two days later, Z still had girls with state names on the brain, and she was barely paying attention to what Laena was telling her. Reni hip-checked her to get her attention.
"Some pilot you are," Reni said, flicking Z in the side of the head. "A navigator can only do so much, you know, and we don't need an extra hundred or so pounds of dead weight." At least Z had the decency to look contrite.
"Anyway, as I was saying." Laena tucked a wrench back into her coveralls and dragged the back of her hand over her forehead, leaving a streak of grease behind. Neither Reni or Z mentioned it. "I had to replace a couple of belts and the engine needs an overhaul that I don't have time for today, so go easy on her. No hot dogging."
Z saluted mockingly and patted the side of Your Kind of Girl, her trusty B-26 Marauder. "We're training at Randolph and then right back here, I swear. Nothing to hurt my baby."
"And just when I thought you were going to take me on a scenic tour of the Rockies," Reni sighed.
"Funny." Laena made a fist and shook it threateningly. "Everyone here is a comedienne."
Once they were in the air, Z could relax. A lot of people got jumpy the first few times they went up, the great expanse of nothing stretched out on either side while stuck inside a tin can that could go down at any minute. Z didn't worry, though. Everything felt like second nature from up here, like riding a bicycle.
When she turned six, her parents bought her first bike for her birthday. Z remembered the way her dad held onto either side of the seat as she pedaled wobbily and after a few tries up and down the road that ran behind her house, she was pedaling faster, knowing that her father was running right alongside her and holding her up, keeping her safe. But when she looked back, her dad was gone, and it was just her, pedaling and going faster, the wind blowing her hair back from her face.
She got her first taste of it then and she'd loved it ever since. And being up in the sky was a thousand times better than any Raleigh ten-speed.
It was a short flight and she fantasized all the while about taking Tennessee up here with her, even though that was an impossibility. But she liked the idea of it, of showing someone else the sky through her eyes. They'd only met two days ago, though, and she was Charlotte's friend, not Z's, not yet. Not that what Z felt was friendly, at least not quite, and she wasn't stupid about it. There were more impossibilities than just taking someone else up in the tin can.
"Hey," Z hissed that night, hopping down to the floor and shaking Charlotte out of sleep. "Char, wake up."
Charlotte peered at Z, one eye open and one eyebrow raised. "What time is it?"
"Late," Z admitted. "Sorry, I'll bother you in the morning..."
"No." Charlotte sat up in bed. "I'm already awake and you never do this. Must be important."
Z shook her head. "Not really. It's silly."
"Spit it out, Berg."
"Okay." Z took a deep breath and let it out slowly. "The next time we go out, can we invite your friend to come along? I really thought she was interesting and I want to talk to her again. You know, if it's not too much trouble."
Charlotte's mouth dropped open a little when she realized what Z was asking, but to her credit she quickly recovered. Z was going out on a very long limb asking this, and even if Charlotte could be loud and brash and not give a damn what people thought of her, she was also still military through and through.
Then again, she was also friends with Tennessee already and really perceptive to boot. Z felt very sure about what she saw in Tennessee and thought that maybe Charlotte had seen it, too. Maybe she'd seen it in Z, for all that she knew, even if Z was still getting used to seeing it in Z.
"Yeah," Charlotte said. "Tenn's still in town. I think she's planning on it for the long haul, or at least for the time being. She's got a regular gig at the Sunsets Lost now. I guess the locals get a kick out of her English songbird routine."
Z smiled. "I can see why."
"Oh, Z." Charlotte reached over and patted the back of her hand. "I hope you know what you're doing."
"I don't." Z bit her bottom lip and shook her head. "I don't know at all, but I want to try. I'm not good at letting things I want go."
"Well, then," Charlotte said, "I guess all that's left to say is this: Hurt her and I'll hurt you worse."
Z laughed suddenly, loud enough that Reni groaned and threw her pillow at them from the next bed over.
Three more nights passed before Charlotte was able to sneak everyone into town again, and in that time Z managed to worry herself into a tizzy. She'd written four increasingly frantic letters to Ryan, frustrated with the amount of time it took to get back a reply. Ryan's last letter only told her that he'd met some clever writer friends who introduced him to alcoholic drinks that didn't taste like the piss-swill beer his father drank and reefer, which wasn't at all helpful to her own situation.
"How do I look?" Z asked, straightening her skirt for the fifth time. Charlotte was rolling her eyes at everything that came from Z's mouth, not that she could blame her.
"Fine. Honestly, if you looked anything less than perfect, I'd be surprised." She walked up and roughly rubbed at Z's shoulders. "Relax."
"Easier said than done," Z complained.
The bar was already three-quarters full when they finally arrived in town, and the men present looked eager for female companionship. Z had no time for them, though, or rather no patience. Tennessee was already setting up onstage, looking even prettier than she had the first night they'd met. Z always thought people were being melodramatic when they talked about someone taking another person's breath away, but now that she was experiencing it firsthand, she immediately apologized to everyone she thought had been exaggerating.
She considered sitting at a table, just to do things properly, but she felt her feet driving her towards the stage without mind to any logic. Tennessee seemed surprised and pleased to see Z standing there, smiling down at Z's spot on the floor and gripping the microphone in its stand.
Tennessee sang two songs, old standards that Z mouthed along. Then she paused to look down at Z again.
"This is my friend Z," Tennessee said, pointing down. Some applause rose up from the bar's patrons. "She flies airplanes with the WASPs, which makes her several degrees more talented than me already, but to add insult to injury, she can also sing much better than I can. Unfair, isn't it?" She bit her lip and grinned down at Z, then offered her hand. Z shook her head, but Tennessee just raised an eyebrow at her, staring until Z took it. It all seemed like walking through a dream, getting pulled onstage and coaxed into singing 'I Get A Kick Out Of You.' Tennessee's voice dropped out after flying too high with some guy in the sky is my idea of nothing to do as she stepped back and just watched Z. It was strange and new and Z was halfway in love.
After Tennessee's set, they grabbed beers at the bar and fended off the advances of several young men, choosing instead to dance together once the band started up. It wasn't anything scandalous, two young women swing dancing with their arms held away from their bodies and enough room for the Holy Ghost in between, but it felt scandalous to Z. It was like she was getting away with something private in full view of a few dozen people and when Tennessee leaned in and said, "Would you want to walk me home?" it felt like she was getting away with something dirty, too.
Z was maybe a bit overeager when she agreed, nodding and practically tripping over her own feet to blushingly tell Reni and Laena that they were going. Charlotte was nowhere in sight and Z almost preferred it that way.
Tennessee's place was close by, a boarding house she shared with nine other girls and a matron who didn't seem to realize when any of them went missing.
"The base is nothing like that," Z said, trying not to overthink it when Tennessee slipped her hand into Z's as they walked. Her palms were sweating, though, no matter how much she tried to stop them. "If I'm found out of my bed after lights out, they might arrest me."
"You sneak out an awful lot for someone under the constant threat of military retribution."
Z caught Tennessee's eye and grinned. "Well, it's fun. I'm a risk-taker."
"Lucky for you," Tennessee said, "I happen to get on well with risk-takers."
They found themselves standing on Tennessee's porch a moment later. Z didn't really know what to do, but Tennessee didn't make any moves to go inside, so neither did Z. "I had a really nice time tonight," Z said eventually.
Tennessee leaned down and kissed Z as soon as the last word was out of her mouth, and Z let out a soft sound of surprise. She let herself get tugged in and found her arms wrapped around Tennessee's waist, tilting her head back to deepen the kiss. Z was glad that breathing wasn't required of kissing because she wasn't sure she was going to manage for awhile, especially not when Tennessee was matching her sound for sound and her fingertips were digging into Z's shoulders.
Tennessee broke away, and only then did Z remember to breathe again, though much more quickly than normal. They stared at each other for a moment, Z's lips and heart buzzing, until Tennessee stumbled back two steps and opened her front door. "Do you feel like taking another risk tonight?" Tennessee asked.
Z followed her inside.
At 0600, the bugles went off as always. Charlotte climbed up to the top bunk and shook Z awake.
"Didn't know if I'd find you here this morning," Charlotte said when Z stretched and yawned in her face.
Z batted her eyelashes. "Why? I'm exactly where I always am."
"Hmm," Charlotte said thoughtfully. "Well, I hope you're ready to fly today."
Z touched her mouth, rubbing two fingers over her lips and thinking about Tennessee, of how she smiled and shooed Z three hours earlier, telling her go, go, I'll see you again soon. "Of course I'm ready to fly. That's what I'm here for, isn't it?"
And Z was already soaring.