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Straight on Til Morning

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They would never have met if it hadn't been for the war.

They would never have met. Julie would never have died. Maddie would never have lived.

Of course, none of that is true. Maddie lived before the war, a full and passionate life. No one lives forever, not even those who are like Julie, the golden and the mad. And somehow, somewhere, somewhen they must have met. It was too cruel to think of a life in which that didn't happen.

But it was also cruel, this life which brought them together only during wartime and then tore them apart at the end of their beginning and the beginning of the war's end. It's all very well in books and films, the white-hot heat of a wartime romance, the tragedy of the early end. There are tears, and then the book is closed and the lights come up. It's quite another thing in the real world, where you always know that the end could come for you, but you don't really believe it.

The young always think they'll live forever, even through a war. It's the magical thinking of children. Their blankets protected them from the monsters of their childhood bedrooms, and their routines and rituals protect them from the true monsters now.

An umbrella in an air raid shelter. That's the only way they can fight the darkness.

::

Maddie had gone to the squadron hop out of her usual sense of obligation to authority. Julie was gone, heaven knew when she'd get back, and Maddie was not in a particularly festive mood. But it was "good for morale", and so there she was, getting into an argument about navigation with a pilot whose voice had barely changed and who had likely only clocked half her hours.

Suddenly, she felt a hand at her shoulder and heard Julie's best Scottish burr low in her ear, asking her to dance. She reached up and caught her friend's hand, only to find herself pulled up out of her seat and twirled around. "I can't," Maddie said, torn between annoyance, delight, and no small amount of terror. "I don't know how, not to this." She waved her hand vaguely, indicating the music.

"You must learn," Julie argued. "Otherwise, how will you ever trap one of these fine lads?" Maddie made a face, but let Julie tug her out onto the floor. "It's a bit like the waltz," Julie said. "You do know how to waltz?"

"Oh yes," Maddie said. "My grandfather and I would practise in between reassembling engines."

Julie's eyes twinkled as she pulled Maddie in close. "It's a matter of rhythm. Slow slow quick quick. Walking backwards. You can walk backwards, can't you?" She peered at Maddie with mock doubt. "Start with the right, and follow me."

With Julie's hand warm at the small of her back, it was all Maddie could do to remain upright. "Slow, slow, quick, quick," she muttered. "Slow, slow, quick, quick." Tripping over Julie's feet, over her own feet, over her own nerves.

"Shh," Julie said. "Stop counting. Listen to the beat, and trust me."

Maddie imagined what they must look like: their heads together, Julie slightly smaller but still dancing the man's part. She thought they looked silly. She thought they felt right. She thought they were beautiful.

She thought: this is why I never wanted to dance with the boys.

She wondered if it was another of Julie's games.

::

Maddie was never sure how much was truth when Julie was acting, not at first. There was a switch inside her that she would flip, and she would become someone else. Anyone else. It was a game. It was also, Maddie came to realize later, armor.

If she was a radio officer, if she was Jamie, if she was Eva Seiler, it was all a way of being something other than Julia Beaufort-Stuart. If you're keeping busy, you can't be frightened. If you're someone else, you can't be in danger.

If you're not thinking about death, you cannot die.

::

Julie was mad for acting, stories, and films. For her they were all just different ways of getting at the truth. She took Maddie to see The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp, and spent most of the 163 minute running time peering at her friend in that desperate way when you're hoping someone you care about loves something as much as you do.

Maddie was quiet much of the way back to quarters, letting Julie chatter on, but then almost as a doorway confession she said, "Wasn't Deborah Kerr's Johnny just dashing?"

Julie put her arm around her waist, pulling her close as they slowly navigated the path. "Not half so dashing as you."

Maddie's breath caught in her throat. "You think so?" she said, feigning lightness.

"Have all along," Julie said airily, but then, with utter seriousness paused, stretched up on her toes to meet Maddie's height, and kissed her. "I've wanted to do that all along too."

::

For the better part of year, their duties kept them apart, and to Maddie afterwards it seemed like particularly cruel lost time. They wrote intense letters telling each other about their pasts and dreamy letters considering their future, but nothing about the present. Careless talk costs lives, and no talk is as careless as print, so easily intercepted by the enemy.

They had one brief holiday, tearing around the Pennines on Maddie's motorbike. Even then, they could not speak of what they had been doing, but instead enjoyed the safe silence of being together, of touching, of pretending briefly that this was their normal life, sailing on two wheels through the hills. Maddie piloted the motorbike with Julie's arms snug around her waist, her chin on her shoulder, her laughter in her ear.

Even pooling their coupons the food was terrible, and the weather was worse, but now when Maddie thinks back on those days she only remembers Julie's sunshine golden hair, and how safe she felt with Julie riding behind her. As if nothing could ever go wrong as long as they were moving, as long as they were together.

She thinks too of that last night they spent together, after their wildly different evenings: Maddie's first flight to France, Julie's hellish interrogation. She hopes that Julie felt half as safe in her arms.

She thinks maybe she did.

::

Maddie still flies. On the darkest nights, through the storms, she thinks of Julie there in the rear cockpit. A second soul on board. She reaches her hand up and finds the memory of Julie, slipping her hand through the gap in the bulkhead. Hands clasped at Maddie's shoulder, they're flying out of the dark, second star to the right, and straight on til morning.