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found a calling as sweet as a lover

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1942

Hut Four is abuzz tonight. Rumour has it one of the fiendish naval enigma codes has just been broken, and a new code book has been recovered from the enemy.

Not that it’s anything for Susan to concern herself with. Like so many of the Bletchley girls, she does menial work. The glamour of cryptanalysis is left to the men, those hand-picked mathematicians and spies trusted to unlock the war’s deepest secrets.

Still, the women get to do a lot of the same work; steely Jean McBrien sees to that. Back in the summer of 1940, when Susan arrived at Bletchley, Jean had taught her to read ciphertext, how to look for patterns and how to keep a sharp mind at the end of an eight-hour shift when the meaningless symbols are starting to move on the page.

Jean is at Susan’s side, now, unsmiling and determined. “Susan. There’s someone I’d like you to meet.”

Susan looks up. There is a woman, her auburn curls scraped back off her face with a mess of pins. Her mouth is red with lipstick, and Susan at first wonders how this woman has managed to get hold of quality cosmetics in the midst of wartime shortages.

The woman beams. She shakes Susan’s hand, strong and firm, and her curls bounce.

“Millie Wells. Pleasure.”

Susan is dazzled by Millie’s smile. She is reminded of strings of code on a page, mysterious and beautiful all at once.

“Millie’s been seconded from one of our other projects,” Jean explains, carelessly pushing her glasses up her nose. “She speaks several languages, and she’ll be helping with translations. I’ll need you to show her the ropes.”

Nodding, Susan draws herself up straight and tries to look businesslike and sensible, all while she feels flustered and caught off-guard.

Jean turns back to Millie, and her lip curls (and Susan thinks how Millie would be the sort of girl Jean doesn’t particularly approve of, the flighty type more concerned with stockings and lipstick than the war effort).

“Susan is one of our best,” Jean says, and her face softens, betraying a crack of the motherly tenderness she pretends not to have when it comes to her girls. “If I had my way she’d be up in Hut Six with Turing and the others.”

“Such is a woman’s lot,” Millie says, shooting Susan a shrewd glance. “We do all the work, and the bloody men take the credit.”

Jean tries to hide her smile, unsuccessfully. “I’ll let you get settled in.”

As soon as Jean is gone, Millie leans in with a conspiratorial look. “Tell me, Susan. What does a girl do for fun around these parts?”

Susan finds herself smiling a funny half-smile. “Well, I can play a decent round of gin.”

Millie quirks an eyebrow, and settles into the chair next to Susan’s as though she belongs there already. “Good enough for me.”

*

As luck would have it, Susan’s current roommate is seconded to another branch the very same day. Millie takes the room, and appears perfectly delighted at her choice of companion. Susan still doesn’t quite understand what bright, vivacious Millie sees in a quiet, steadfast girl like her, but she doesn’t mind. It’s rather nice to have a friend for a change.

“If I close my eyes, I can pretend it’s the Ritz,” Millie says on a slow exhale, stretching out her long limbs on the narrow bed.

Susan is busy knotting curling rags into her hair, but she looks over at Millie. “If you put an extra blanket on the mattress, it's a lot more comfortable."

"Thanks." Millie sits up a little. Her red hair is splayed out across the pillow, and Susan can't help but look. "You know, I was quite glad to be assigned here. Before, I was at the listening station over at Beaumanor. Beastly dull work, but there was plenty of entertainment, if you get my drift."

"I'm not sure I do." Susan has entirely abandoned her hair for the time being.

Millie smirks. “Well. Even a proper girl like you can’t think that sleeping’s the only thing that goes on in a bed. Wartime has a habit of changing people’s morals a little.”

“Not mine,” Susan says primly, and Millie laughs with abandon.

“Oh, Susan. I think I’m going to like you very much.”

“Millie,” Susan says, trying to keep her voice steady. “You shouldn’t be telling me where you’ve worked before. Careless talk costs lives, remember?”

Millie is still regarding her with an amused look.

“You’ve never, have you?”

Susan looks away, and says, “No. One day I might marry, I suppose, but my work keeps me too busy for anything else.”

“There’s always time for anything else, darling.”

Hearing the bedsprings squeak, Susan turns. Millie has propped herself up on an elbow, posing coquettishly.

Red rises up her face, predictably. She’s never been good with these sort of conversations.

To distract herself, Susan winds a rag around her finger deftly and ties it in her hair. “Didn’t think there were many men around these days, anyway,” she mutters.

“There aren’t.” Millie’s smile is wicked, and Susan feels herself blushing all over again.

She’s heard about this — about girls who sneak off together; school friends who practised kissing on each other; the two spinsters who lived together on the next street over, and people had talked — but here is Millie, right in front of her, beautiful in a way that suggests she knows it.

Susan is not prepared for the rush of want that fills her.

*

“No, it’s nothing really,” Susan is always saying, whenever she picks up on small inconsistencies in the work that crosses her desk. She always passes over the invitation to take her findings to the mansion; she does not like to draw attention to herself.

“You’re better than the lot of us, Susan!” Millie hisses through the dark. They’re crouched outside the side entrance of Hut Four, sharing a furtive cigarette. “Jean knows it, I know it. We all do. One of these days, someone else is going to pip you to a big discovery, and you’ll regret it.”

Before the war, Susan had never even thought of smoking. But here at Bletchley, when her days and nights bleed into one and she lives by the dark circles beneath her eyes, sometimes she needs a small crutch to get her through.

She meets Millie’s gaze in the dark, her face illuminated briefly by the glow at the end of her cigarette.

“I’m content where I am,” Susan protests. She swipes the cigarette from Millie and pulls the smoke into her lungs. “Saving lives, doing my bit,” she adds dryly.

Millie puts a hand on her shoulder and huffs out a laugh. Susan can feel the touch even through the thick wool fabric of her dress. Millie’s hand is warm, so warm that Susan feels like she could draw all of Millie’s strength out through the one touch, keep a little of it for herself. That would be nice.

“That’s just it, Susan.” Millie sounds quiet, resigned. “You could be more.”

Susan takes another drag of the cigarette, trying not to think about how she wants more.

*

She starts to think about Millie more and more: about the curve of Millie’s hips in her thin nightgowns; the gossamer stockings that hug her shapely legs, that she gets from God knows where; the red, red bow of her lips.

One sticky summer evening, Susan jolts awake, her skin clammy and her heartbeat thumping.

She can hear the soft sound of Millie breathing across the room, clearly asleep.

And Susan has never done this before, has never thought of it or wanted to, but she’s reaching a hand under her nightdress, to rub herself where she’s slick and aching with want.

While she presses fingers inside herself and rolls a thumb over her clit, she tells herself she’s thinking of the rakish Royal Artillery lieutenant she saw last week in the village. But by the time the want is twisting in her belly, it’s Millie she’s imagining doing this to her, Millie’s hands between her legs, touching her like she knows how (because Millie must know how, must be good at this).

She comes, shivering and ashamed, catching a quiet moan between her teeth before it can slip out.

*

Susan is precise, meticulous and leaves no stone unturned in her work. Her routines are the same as they have ever been: a life filled with pages of Ultra code, evening card games with Millie, knitting, the Times crossword, and occasionally, a stiff drink if Jean manages to procure it from somewhere. Susan’s patterns are comforting and predictable, and rarely waver.

There are no patterns to Millie; she defies classification. She is haphazard but brilliant, her red hair falling into her eyes as she speaks animatedly, switching between Italian and German and French in the space of a sentence. She laughs uproariously when they are supposed to work in near silence and nudges Susan in the thigh playfully, not knowing that it burns Susan from the inside out.

Ever since her arrival at Bletchley, Millie has managed to charm everyone around her, even the indomitable Jean. The few men they have around here fight over her at the village dances, and every time, Millie will meet Susan’s eye and giggle uncontrollable while yet another sixteen-year-old boy or middle-aged man treads on her toes.

Still, Susan cannot begrudge Millie her popularity, because Millie is also unfailingly kind, and humble when she wants to be.

A new girl starts in their hut: Lucy Davis. Though she is barely sixteen, her eidetic memory quickly earn her respect, and her quiet manner draws Susan to her. They become fast friends, and Millie regards Lucy like a little sister; she loves to tease her and make her innocent face red with blushes.

These days, Susan doesn’t blush so easily, and that’s not much of a surprise to her (though it makes her blood freeze to think of Millie ever finding out what she dreams about).

Time rolls on; U-boats are sunk, tank divisions scattered and enemy troop movements disrupted by their efforts at Bletchley. Like all the women who make up the workforce in the hurts, Susan takes fierce pride in these small victories, though she knows that her part in them will never be told.

Susan trails helplessly in Millie’s wake, a moth following an impossibly bright lantern flame.

Though she tries not to, sometimes at night she still puts a hand between her thighs until she’s panting, turned inside out with want for Millie.

*

It’s not right; Susan knows this. She isn’t supposed to feel this way for another girl.

Millie may have counted women among her intimate partners, but that was surely just a game, the hedonistic spirit of war.

It is not a game to Susan. She has fallen in love with her best friend. It weighs heavy on her heart, a secret she cannot speak aloud to anyone.

Sometimes, Millie looks at her with soft, open eyes and a wide smile, and Susan has to wrench her gaze away, feeling sick with all the things she wants and can never have.

There’s no way Millie could ever want her — her mousy, dowdy, quiet best friend — not when she could have anyone she wants in the entire world.

*

She is lying awake in the darkness, the buzz of adrenaline still humming under her skin from her visit to the House. The cryptanalysts up at command had sprung into action, listened to her — a woman, no less — and taken her ideas seriously. Now she has played a possibly crucial role in the war, and she’s bloody proud of it: there’s no other way for Susan to describe this warm feeling.

“Millie,” she whispers. “Are you still awake?”

There’s a groan from across the room. “Is this going to be one of those nights where you second-guess every decision you’ve made?”

Susan huffs. “No. I just can’t sleep.”

“I’m not surprised, old girl. You’re quite the hero tonight.”

The thump of feet hitting the floor, and then Millie is squeezing into the bed next to Susan, her slippery satin nightgown rustling as it moves over the sheets.

Susan feels her heart catch in her chest. They’ve done this before — when Millie’s cousin Archie got shot down in France and Susan held her while she sobbed all night; and often when Millie is seeing someone new and wants to dissect the details with Susan — but this time, it feels different. Risky, when she is giddy and drunk on her own success.

“So, how do you feel?” Millie says, and her voice is quiet, huskier than usual. “Susan Gray, top cryptanalyst.”

Susan’s breathing hitches; she can feel where Millie is pressed into her side, all warmth and softness. “I feel like celebrating,” she answers honestly.

Millie inclines her head. “Well. I know a few ways to do that.”

And then she’s kissing Susan, one careful press of lips that makes Susan open her mouth a little in surprise. Millie seizes the opportunity to deepen the kiss, and suddenly there is fire under Susan’s skin; Millie’s mouth is wet and warm on hers, and she can feel the tingling between her thighs start up.

Susan has never been kissed like this before, like it’s about trying to breathe someone in, sharing their space and air. It’s erotic and achingly good, and God, shouldn’t she have known that Millie would kiss her like this?

Then Millie draws her fingers across Susan’s jaw, and Susan tenses. She is painfully aware of her own hands resting on the bedspread, the hands she has no idea what to do with.

“Relax,” Millie murmurs in encouragement, and Susan tries to slow her breathing.

Maybe it’s wrong, but she can’t stop, not now. Susan lets herself fall.

The sheets rustle between them as Susan kicks away the coverlet, then Millie is kissing her again, and her thighs are falling open. Sure hands pull down Susan’s underwear, and there’s a rush of heat as Millie rucks up Susan’s night attire and mouths at the inside of her thigh.

“Ah,” slips out before Susan can stop herself. She isn’t sure what Millie is doing, but she has a fairly good idea — though she only half-listens most of the time, a lot of the gossip about men still reaches her ears, and she has heard about men doing this — and the idea of it makes her entire body tremble.

Still, a sense of her own propriety comes back to her, and she reaches a hand into Millie’s hair.

Millie looks up in the half-light their eyes have only recently adjusted to. “We can stop, if you want.” Her eyes are hooded, her face bare of makeup and flushed; she looks real and beautiful and full of life.

Want throbs at Susan’s insides, and she finds herself saying, “No.”

She closes her eyes, falls into the sensation of Millie’s large palms skating across her belly on an ever-downward trajectory, her manicured fingernails dipping into the soft curls below.

Then Susan feels Millie kiss her there.

“Oh,” she breathes, and feels Millie laugh softly against her. It feels obscene, and for once, Susan doesn’t care a bit.

She lets Millie tease her with fleeting licks and presses of her mouth until Susan is gasping, twisting a hand in Millie’s hair. When Millie slips two fingers inside her, working them in and out, Susan can’t breathe. She is unfolding already, a shattered mess of fragments under Millie’s hands and mouth, warmth crawling up her spine.

Millie sucks at her clit, and with a sharp gasp, Susan comes, her thighs trembling, fingers taut in Millie’s hair.

Pulling back, Millie wipes her mouth on the inside of Susan’s thigh and raises her head, a lop-sided grin on her face. Susan’s heart is beating fast enough that she feels like it’s going to burst from her ribcage.

“Millie, that was —” Susan tries to say, but she is silenced with another kiss, tasting herself on Millie’s tongue, heat and salt.

Millie slumps against her, breathing heavily into the crook of Susan’s neck, and Susan is suddenly terrified.

“What shall I do?” Susan asks, trying not to feel awkward (after all, Millie’s just had her head between her thighs; any pretence of modesty has long been abandoned).

“I should think it’ll take about a minute,” Millie says, a little sheepishly.

She takes Susan’s hand and guides it under her nightdress, where she’s slick and hot. Susan rubs clumsy fingers at her while Millie covers her hand and shows her what to do. Soon, Millie is shaking, hips thrusting into Susan’s hand, until she arches her back and comes from Susan’s touch.

They fall asleep curled around each other, two pieces of a puzzle they have no desire to solve.

*

Susan used to find it easy to be objective; she always found it simple to analyse patterns, to track the seemingly disparate threads of a problem, look at every variable until she finds a solution.

There’s no solution for the way she feels about Millie.

At work in Hut Four, Millie treats her no differently; she is still as tactile and outrageous and full of laughter as she always was. She touches Susan on the shoulder, brushes her fingers over her wrist thoughtlessly, like she isn’t even thinking about it.

It seems no effort for Millie, switching between the two roles. Susan finds it more difficult: she stares over Millie’s shoulder at maps, passes her stacks of undeciphered code and forces a neutral expression, when all she wants is to kiss off Millie’s lipstick, unravel her perfect pin curls and take her apart, piece by piece.

“What do you think you’ll do, after the war?” Susan asks thoughtfully when Lucy is sitting with her, helping her piece together incomplete Luftwaffe decrypts.

Lucy flushes.

“Oh, now you have to tell us!” Millie’s eyes glint. “Have you got a sweetheart?”

“Harry,” she says after a while. “He’s overseas. He's lovely, treats me like a queen. Last time he had leave, he said he’d marry me.”

(Years later, Susan will remember that conversation with a pang, when Lucy is lying in a bed, bloodied and bruised from her husband’s fists.)

Susan smiles at the hope in Lucy's youthful face, and says, "Hope we get an invite to the wedding."

“Susan and I, we’re going travelling,” Millie announces, obviously trying to spare Lucy her blushes. "We're going to be regular bohemians."

Lucy sighs enviously. “Wish I was brave enough to do something like that.”

Privately, Susan sometimes wonders if she is brave enough to leave everything behind, to be the sort of person who sticks a pin in a map and decides her feet will take her there.

Jean comes past and clocks Millie on the head with a file. “Back to work, ladies. Gossip hour’s over.”

Susan bends forward over her pile of decrypts, and thinks of being under a searing African sky with Millie, someday when this war is a distant memory.

It’s a foolish dream, but she keeps it close, takes it out and looks at it in quiet moments.

*

“Susan, you don’t have to —” Millie says, but her words turn into a bitten-off moan when Susan mouths at her nipple, all heat and barely-there pressure.

“I know. I want to.” And Susan does want to, wants to make Millie fall apart under her tongue. She’s thought about this during slow, uneventful shifts in the hut, when the second hand ticks like a pulse, stretching out the hours endlessly.

Tentatively, she pushes Millie’s thighs apart, looks at her where she’s pink and damp and beautiful. Leaning in, she kisses at her a little, and is rewarded with a high, keening moan.

She licks a long stripe up, and Millie murmurs “Susan,” low and throaty. Millie is an ocean on her tongue, salt-damp heat, and Susan breathes her in, thinking how she never imagined wanting this, but couldn’t dream of not having it.

Inexperienced as she is, Susan lets Millie direct her, listening to every whispered instruction, repeating any movements that draw those lovely moans from Millie’s throat.

“That’s it. To the side. Yes, there —oh, there!” Millie shudders.

Susan slips one finger into her, curls it a little like Millie does with her, and sucks at her clit, determined though her jaw is cramping and her tongue starting to go numb.

Millie comes and comes, seizing around Susan’s finger, her hips bucking into the friction of Susan’s mouth.

“Bloody hell, Susan Gray,” Millie says, and she sounds wrecked. “Can see why you were known for being a swot at school. Fast learner, indeed.”

Susan crawls up the bed, buries her face in Millie’s neck, kisses it and breathes in the perfume still clinging to her skin.

“You’re making my shoulder wet,” Millie protests, and Susan laughs against her.

Reaching over to the bedside table, Millie grabs her box of matches and lights up a cigarette.

“Millie, I think you might very well be the death of me,” Susan says, her voice shaky.

“Well, that’s what the French call it anyway: la petite mort.” Millie takes an effortlessly cool drag of her cigarette, looking every inch the Hollywood film star.

“Not quite what I meant.” Susan smiles fondly.

“I know," Millie says. "We’ll see how much I can make you die once I finish this cigarette.”

Susan plucks it from Millie’s fingers and stubs it out in the ashtray, looks at Millie with teasing intent in her eyes.

“Or we could do that now,” Millie says, with a grin.

Later, Susan thinks how she has never felt so alive. She feels as if she could fly apart under Millie’s capable hands.

In this hidden world of secrets, all they have is each other. It's enough.

*

1944

“Where do you suppose she’s gone?” asks Lucy.

“I wonder,” Susan says, thoughtful. “And Jean, too.” She furrows her brow.

The day before, both Millie and Jean were given new assignments. Susan had got home from her shift to find Millie’s bed bare, her side of the room empty of all her things: even the Cary Grant and Clark Gable prints had been torn from the walls.

Her heart had ached, then.

Lucy drops her voice. “I’ve overheard people saying they were seconded to the Special Operations Executive.”

And yes, Susan has thought about that. Millie, with her uncanny ability to decipher the unfathomable patterns hidden in maps, might well be of use to the SOE: that shadowed, fearsome institution that is said to do unspeakably brave and dangerous things. With all the languages Millie speaks, they could be grooming her to be a spy, an infiltrator in enemy territory. The thought makes Susan’s breathing falter, and her heart starts pounding in her chest.

“I think a lot of people in this building have forgotten we’ve signed the Official Secrets Act,” Susan snaps.

Lucy blinks, her mouth turning down. “Sorry, Susan, I just thought —”

“Let’s not talk about it,” Susan tells her briskly. “They’re gone, and that’s that.”

“I’ve got those German army decrypts you asked for,” Lucy says delicately, handing her a file.

Susan focuses her eyes on the lines of code in front of her. She tries not to think about going back to a cold, silent room, and the lonely expanse of her bed without Millie in it.

Thank God she still has this. Her pencil moves in a blur over the page, annotating ciphertext and checking it against her key. Slowly, the sense starts to come out of it. The message is nothing — just general army traffic — but for a moment, Susan manages to forget everything else.

*

After the war, Millie sends postcards from France, Egypt, Morocco, Bombay; so many places, Susan can hardly remember them all.

She never answered the letter Millie sent to her right after VE Day, asking her if she still wanted to have their big adventure; the guilt eats at Susan for a long while.

At the time, Susan had wanted to go, but something tethered her feet to the ground. The last months of the war without Millie had been lonely, and just as Susan had convinced herself she was past it all, there was Millie, offering her a chance like she hadn’t left and broken her heart (Susan knew it was orders, nothing Millie could have done a thing about, but that’s what it had felt like).

The way she still felt for Millie — ached for her, burned for her — scared Susan. She knew she could never bear the weight of losing Millie again, and so she did nothing instead.

One day, the postcards stop coming. Susan thinks it’s no more than she deserves.

*

1947

Susan touches the soft swell of her stomach and looks down at the wedding band on her hand.

She glances over at Timothy, reading his paper over the breakfast table, and smiles.

“Look at that smile, darling. You’re radiant,” he says, uncharacteristically soft.

He is a good man, hardened in so many ways by war — and isn’t everyone, these days? — but he has never raised his voice to her, and though he is proper when they are in company, in private, he can make her burn under her skin like fire.

Susan would have settled for nothing less.

Once, she loved Millie, but some loves burn too hot and fierce, leaving nothing but a pile of ashes in their wake. She never regrets loving her, not for a second, but Millie was too bright and soaring to ever be tethered to one person. Somewhere inside, Susan had always known that.

There is joy in Timothy’s love, too, in his steadfast acceptance of her, despite the fact he will never know the biggest part of her.

Susan knows what awaits her: a future where she can mention nothing of the ‘clerical work’ she did during the war, where her days will be spent caring for children and eking out the family rations. Around others, she will need to guard her tongue, be careful and quiet, and not draw attention to her abilities.

But she does love Timothy; that’s as much of a consolation as she can hope for.

*

1952

It's more than Susan has ever hoped for, to be at Millie's side, working with respected friends and colleagues, doing what she does best. Feeling useful, after years of living restlessly and longing for something more than homemaking.

This gift comes at a great cost to Susan; the victims of the crimes they solve, and lying to Timothy, who has only ever wanted to make her happy.

She never manages to talk to Millie about before; it's something they don't speak aloud, but it hangs there between them in the air, a glimpse of a past they were never supposed to have.

Once, there were no secrets between them. Susan misses that part most of all.

*

1953

After her escape from the Maltese traffickers, Millie is different.

She knows how to put on a show; she smiles and laughs, but it’s forced. Susan can see right through it, to the hollow look in Millie’s eyes that suggests she’s barely holding herself together.

There are only a few weeks until she and Timothy leave for Bombay. The least that Susan can do is be there for Millie, as much as she can be.

Timothy is encouraging of Susan’s frequent visits to Millie’s flat to cheer her up with card games and puzzle books. Susan is grateful for her husband and the way he accepts her idiosyncrasies, perhaps now more than ever.

“I remember, Millie,” Susan blurts out one day when they’re sitting on Millie’s bed, dealing out a hand of poker. “You and me, when we were at Bletchley,” she hastily clarifies.

Millie laughs, putting her face in her hands for a moment. “Oh, darling,” she breathes. “That was nothing: just a bit of wartime madness between friends.”

And Susan won’t, can’t let Millie do this, reduce the complexity and joy of their relationship to nothing but a few stolen trysts in a Bletchley boarding house.

“No,” Susan says quietly, putting a hand over Millie’s. “I loved you, Millie, and you know that. Still do, in, well — a different way.”

“I know, Susan.” Millie’s smile is fondly nostalgic, if a little sad around the edges. “I loved you, too. I’m going to miss you.”

Unexpectedly, Susan finds tears spilling from her eyes.

“Come here, you sentimental old thing,” Millie says, opening her arms to pull Susan into a hug.

“You’ll be alright, won’t you, Millie?” Susan asks, holding Millie tight, her face pressed into her shoulder.

Millie draws back. “Of course I will.” The old warmth is in Millie’s eyes, and upon seeing it, some of the worry inside Susan softens. “I’ve been looking in the papers for a thoroughly respectable job. Absolutely no dodgy dealings whatsoever.”

“I’ll believe that when I see it,” Susan says, wiping her eyes.

They laugh and laugh, with the sting of old wounds gone from their hearts.

*

History will not tell their story.

It never matters to Susan. She carries Millie in her heart wherever she goes, never feeling the need to define what they are and were to each other.