Etta Candy was quite perfectly aware of who she was. She knew people tended to look right past her, as if a short, dumpy woman couldn't possibly have anything to contribute to the conversation. Captain Trevor hadn't been any different, at least not at the first. He'd been polite, of course; he was polite to everyone. It was the least attractive part of his charm. But he hadn't expected much of anything from her, so it was rather delightful to prove him wrong. It hadn't taken long for him to actually trust that she could get jolly well everything taken care of without his supervision, and after that, they'd become, as the Americans always said, a team, Etta handling Whitehall and the Home Office and Steve off running about the Continent with his group of ne'er-do-wells.
Losing him would have been hard regardless, but to have it happen on Armistice Eve was almost more than she could bear.
People said not having a grave to visit made the loss harder—everyone Etta knew had lost someone dear to them—but Etta rather thought knowing that he had died a hero, sacrificing himself to save millions was an acceptable substitution. She liked the idea of him always in the air—he'd loved flying so—and the discreet memorial the Department had erected (no names, of course) was perfectly suitable for her occasional need to see something more physical.
In the early days after the armistice, of course, she simply kept her spine straight and her handkerchief tucked firmly in her sleeve and carried on. There was work to be done and doing it kept her well distracted. By that Christmas, though, she could see the writing on the wall at the Department. Cutbacks were coming, and not only was she not attached to a particular agent, but her previous assignment had been with the Yank. Her work had always been exemplary, so she might not be the first out the door, but she wasn't going to last long after. Fortunately, she did have an excellent reputation with Mr. Churchill at the Home Office. She was putting her mind to how best take advantage of that when telephone at the front rang with the news that she had a visitor downstairs at Reception.
Etta wasn't expecting anyone, but things were still more than a bit chaotic in the city, so she thought nothing of it, expecting a messenger of one sort or another right up until she walked into the lobby to see Diana standing tall and calm, that serene half-smile on her face as all the puffed-up junior staff scrambled to see who might fetch her tea.
"Etta," Diana said, reaching out to take one of Etta's small hands between both of her bigger, more callused ones. If Etta had ever doubted the ownership of that amazing sword (which she hadn't, not once), Diana's hands were the proof of the pudding, so to speak. The puffins all deflated rather comically as they realized Etta had arrived to steal their treat; they scarpered off as quickly as they could. "I am sorry to have not called upon you. It has … been hard, lately."
"No, no," Etta said stoutly. Her throat was unexpectedly tight, but the grief in Diana's eyes was not something she could ignore. "Not a bit. No apologies necessary; I haven't been talking much myself." It was the truth, she realized. She'd known life had been in the dumps lately, but now that she put her mind to it, she hadn't been anyplace that wasn't MI5 or her flat since long before the Christmas holidays.
"I am sorry to disturb your work, but I have a question and an invitation for you."
"An invitation!" Etta said. "For me?" She shook her head, unable to remember the last time anyone had invited her anywhere. To be fair, that was mostly her own fault, as she'd perhaps turned down a few too many offers in the first weeks after the armistice. She hadn't the heart to be out celebrating, though, and that was the truth.
"It is a little... complicated," Diana said. "And a little private."
"Well, then," Etta answered. "We should take ourselves off for a proper tea." She looked at the watch she had pinned to her blouse. It was actually past time for her to leave even if she'd spent most evenings at her desk rather than face her quiet flat. She'd gotten used to the long hours with the Captain, and it sometimes felt like giving up on their partnership to leave at a normal time now. This was different, though. "I'll just pop back up to my desk and tidy the day away and be back in a jiffy."
It was a raw, cold January night; Etta decided that the weather, plus the occasion of dining with a friend, was worth the expense of a proper restaurant, not just the chip shop around the corner. As this necessitated a streetcar journey and more than a bit of a walk at both ends, it took some time before they were settled in at a nice table of their own, a pot of tea under a cozy and a hand-written card with the day's offerings in front of them, and a promise from the girl waiting on tables to be with them in a trice.
"Ohh," Etta sighed after her first sweet, milky sip. "That's lovely. Just what the day needed." Diana smiled at her and drank from her own (sadly plain, in Etta's opinion) mug. It was all very companionable, moreso than Etta might have imagined. It made it easy to say, briskly, "Now. You have some complicated and private questions for me?"
"And an invitation," Diana answered, as if she didn't want Etta to forget, waiting until Etta nodded before continuing, “When we first met, everything was so rushed, and then we left for the Front… I know that Steve trusted you, but I am not sure if you know the others he worked with.”
“Well,” Etta said, choosing her words carefully. It was force of habit--one couldn’t work for the Department and not have secrets piled on top of even more secrets. “I know of them, but I’ve only been introduced to… Sammy.” Privately, Etta found the nickname a bit demeaning for a man of Sameer's talents, but names were one of the secrets held most closely. “They don’t exactly fit the traditional mold, but they did get the job done.”
“Yes, exactly.” Diana smiled, and Etta realized how well she fit that description herself. “One of the other… gentlemen is the source of the invitation.” She frowned slightly, more in confusion than any other emotion, Etta thought. “There is a poet that his people honor with… sheep’s pudding and whiskey?”
Of all the many unusual things Etta had heard in her time with the Department, this certainly ranked near the top. She stared blankly at Diana, her brain scrambling in its confusion.
"It has a name," Diana continued. "But I did not know it, and when I asked Sammy, he said it was a pudding made of sheep and considered such a wonderful thing that the poet wrote of it--"
"Haggis!" Etta exclaimed. "Robert Burns!" She was inordinately pleased with herself--she had not been the most enthusiastic of students, but she did remember Miss Smythe-Collins standing at the front of the lecture hall, declaiming Scots, wha hae wi' Wallace bled with much passion.
"Yes," Diana said, beaming. "Yes, to both." Etta poured them both another cup of tea to celebrate this cultural breakthrough. "There is a feast to honor the poet, and that is the invitation."
"A fea--oh," Etta said. "Burns Night. You’ve been invited to a Burns Supper?"
"We have been invited," Diana answered. "Sammy and the others say that your efforts helped them greatly and if you did not mind being reminded of…" Her composure faltered every so briefly, but then she recovered in the blink of an eye. "...Steve and the war, they would like to meet you personally.”
"Well, I--" Etta knew her face was pinkening; she could feel the heat of it even in the warmth of the small, crowded room. "I’d be very pleased to accept." All flustered pride at her work being recognized aside, she didn’t have anyone else in her life with whom she could talk about so much of her days. She swallowed hard. "It would be lovely to meet them all and share our memories."
"That is what I thought as well," Diana said. She picked up the menu card and studied it, giving Etta a chance to settle her dratted feelings and not fall into the blubs at the table. "Etta," she said after a bit, holding the card out. "What is a 'fish sausage?'"
"Oh, it's--well," Etta began, looking at the handwritten list and discovering there weren’t really any other choices. "Oh, how unfortunate. I think it’s probably best we don’t ask," she said in a low voice. She didn’t want to offend, but she would be very happy when the shortages all eased up and they could all stop the kitchen guessing games.
"I think that, too," Diana said, conspiratorially, right before she smiled a slightly guilty smile at the girl taking orders as she came swooping down to their table. They did manage to keep from laughing, though Etta was never quite sure how. She did know that it was wonderful to have someone to share silly things with, though, and that was worth all the strained tummy muscles in the world.
* * *
It was, of course, Charlie who had extended the invitation. Etta knew him as the keen shot of the group, but apparently, he was a fan of poetry as well--or at least that of Scotland's native son--and was, as relayed through Sameer and Diana, very happy for his family to be hosting them all for the village's Burns Supper. Fortunately enough, the date fell on a Saturday so that Etta and Diana could take the overnight train from London to Edinburgh, where Sameer met them with a car and plenty of rugs and crocks of hot soup to keep them warm for the remainder of the journey.
"Charlie is helping with the festivities," he explained as he navigated the narrow, twisting streets of the city. "The Chief is not a city man, so I volunteered for this most happy task."
Diana laughed at the dramatic flourish in his delivery, and Etta--who, truth be told, had been the tiniest bit worried about intruding upon the comradery of a fighting unit--relaxed under his wide and welcoming smile. Once out of the city, Diana blossomed as they drove along the rocky, craggy coast, the sea gray-blue and wild with foam on this winter's day. Etta could see that the Chief was not the only one happier out in the wilds. Etta herself was a London girl, born and bred, and she recognized a kindred spirit in Sameer, but even she could appreciate the sweep of the water and mountains.
Sameer suggested they stop for a luncheon, but Etta could see that Diana was eager to arrive, to see her friends, and so she agreed that it was just as easy to press on. In truth, she was looking forward to the evening's events nearly as much as Diana. She had been worn down by this winter and the fresh, crisp air and clear skies had her spirits higher than they'd been in what felt like years. Sameer took them at their word, and drove on with only brief stops for petrol for the car and to stretch their legs a bit, and they reached the village square in the early afternoon.
"My word," Etta murmured as Sameer drew up to the inn and pub with a flourish. "Is the whole village waiting for us?" The small square was full of people doing their best to seem to be going about their business, but Etta hadn't worked amongst spies for as long as she had without gaining an eye for tomfoolery.
"You are the ladies from London, about whom Charlie has spoken nothing but good things," Sameer answered. "They are all wild with curiosity."
"Charlie?" Diana said, laughing. "Speaking?"
"Well," Sameer admitted, "most wouldn't have even noticed, but here, they know our boy and know how valuable each word is. They understand."
He stepped out of the car and opened Etta's door for her. Diana was out of the back seat before Etta had managed her skirts and hatbox, and the crowd pressed forward, giving up all pretense at not being there to welcome (and examine, if Etta didn't miss the mark) the 'ladies from London.' Their eyes weren't unfriendly for all that, and Etta didn't feel at all uncomfortable to look right around to see if she could spot Charlie. Sadly enough, it wasn't all that difficult--like so many small hamlets who'd sent their boys off to fight, they hadn't had many come back. Etta spotted him, tall and gangly and looking like he'd rather be out beating the hedges, just as Diana was calling, "Charlie!" in a pleased and happy voice that lifted all of their spirits.
Etta couldn't stop him from calling her "Miss Candy" no matter how she tried, but he took her hand and stammered that he'd heard so much about her from the Captain, and she didn't have the heart to fuss at him after that. Sameer unloaded their boxes and bags and the crowd swept them along the lane to Charlie's mother's house, a modest cottage at the end of a rocky path, where, with great fanfare, Etta and Diana were installed in the lady of the house's bedroom for their stay. Indeed, it was the only room aside from the front parlor, and Etta wanted to exclaim indignantly that she was not so grand as to put a woman from her own bed, but Sameer 'accidentally' dropped Etta's heavy carpetbag with a clatter, and by the time everyone had made sure nothing and no one had been broken or hurt, she'd gotten the message keep quiet so as not to give a horrible insult.
Mrs. Charlie (for that had been Charlie's father's name, as well, as everyone explained to Etta) was honored to have them stay in her house and would be happy to sleep the night at her eldest daughter's. Etta could tell she was proud to be able to say that, to have that luxury to share her hospitality and that of her daughter with the guests of her son. She wondered what they all would think if they knew the truth about Diana, and how she was Princess of Themyscira. Since Etta wasn't sure what she quite thought about that herself, she didn't linger on it long, but thanked everyone for their welcome and told them (truthfully) that their village was worlds away from the city and that she was delighted to be there with them all.
Mrs. Charlie had the kettle on the hob and the table laid for what looked to be a splendid tea. Etta and Diana were shooed off to sit by the parlor fire while their hostess bustled about, slicing bread and cheese and laying out jams and pickles and biscuits and cakes. Etta's mouth fair watered at the delicious smells, even before Charlie was put to work toasting the thick slabs of bread over the fire. Diana was watching everything with that air of interested curiosity she had, the one that made Etta wonder about the kind of life she'd been used to before the Captain had crash-landed in her back garden, so to speak.
Etta tucked that thought away for the future, when she might have gotten to know Diana well enough to ask about her home, and instead leaned close to say, "Not a fish sausage in sight, thank heavens."
"No, it all looks delicious," Diana answered with a smile.
"She's been baking since I told her you both was coming," Charlie said, in his halting way. He kept his head ducked off to the side and Etta, who didn't have much of a maternal instinct, had to keep from reaching out to reassure him everything was fine. "Worried we'd not have anything grand like you'd be used to down London way."
"We don't get much like this in the city," Etta hastened to explain. "Not with all the rationing still going on." The bread he was toasting had taken on a lovely golden color, just like toast was supposed to have, nothing crumbly or dry about it at all. Etta had almost forgotten what fresh, nice bread was like, let alone good, real butter like the crock Mrs. Charlie had just thumped down on the table. "We'll be lucky I don't cry once I start with all this."
She was rewarded with a surprised guffaw from Charlie, and a beaming smile from his mother right before she announced all was ready.
* * *
The tea was splendid and Etta very nearly did cry, not so much from how much she'd missed good food, but from the warm, homely hospitality and from knowing she was there only because of the Captain. She was forced to dab at her eyes once or twice, but Diana sat tall and true next to her and Etta didn't want to bring her down, too. It did help, knowing that there were others right there with her who missed the Captain as much as she did. Etta wasn't quite used to that--hazards of the job and all--but she thought she could become accustomed to it far too quickly.
They had just finished the last bite of stewed apple tart when a horse and rider passed in front of the window. Diana's eyes brightened, and Charlie, noticing, said, "The Chief thought you might like a bit of a ride before the supper tonight."
It was the easiest sentence Etta had heard him say since they'd arrived. Diana rewarded him with another one of her lovely smiles and they all trooped outside.
"Napi," Diana called, running lightly down the steps to where the last of the team, the big American sat astride a black horse that was quite scarily large, at least to Etta's city eyes. He was holding the reins of another horse, equally as large, but white. Diana approached them fearlessly. "He is so beautiful," Etta heard her murmur.
Mrs. Charlie came fussing out of the house, near to buried under an armload of heavy wool jumpers and scarves. Diana had her pick and then was up on the white horse's back before Etta could blink twice. Etta expected them to be off in a trice, but Diana hesitated, though, holding her brute of a horse to a circling walk and beckoning for Etta to come close.
"I'm sorry, Etta," she called, as Etta edged a few steps closer. "Will you be comfortable on your own?"
"Oh!" Etta answered, more than a little touched. (She was also a bit bemused, because no one ever thought she might ever have a problem chatting up a new acquaintance.) "I'll be just fine, luv. You go ride out some of that energy before it turns dark, and I'll just have another cup of tea with Mrs. Charlie."
Diana's face lit up in a smile that came near to blinding Etta and then wheeled her horse around and took off at a dead run or gallop or whatever the proper term was meant to be. Etta stood and waved, and then did just as she'd said and went back in for another cup of Mrs. Charlie's quite delicious tea.
* * *
The actual supper was quite the affair.
Unfortunately, since the event came along with near-endless 'wee drams' of whiskey, Etta's memories of it were a trifle blurred.
The next morning, back in Mrs. Charlie's front room, nibbling on toast and sipping cautiously at more tea, Etta considered the evening. She definitely remembered assembling here in front of this very fire, Sameer in a fine wool suit, beautifully cut, while Charlie was resplendent in his dress uniform, the buttons on his jacket shining bright while the plaid of his kilt was rich with the muted colors of his clan. The American they all called Chief, but whom Diana called Napi, cut an imposing figure with his leather coat and the stones and beading work he wore around his neck and in his ears. His hair, when he doffed his hat, was bound in more of the leatherwork and Etta didn't know that she'd ever seen such an impressive sight. Diana appeared a dress that Etta might well have killed for the ability to wear, while Etta herself was quite glad she had spent some time refreshing her best suit. She had worn it to too many funerals, but now it felt right to have had it pressed and brushed, and better still to have updated it with new buttons and a handkerchief of the finest lawn.
They had made their way back down the lane, under the stars of the early Scottish night, Charlie out front with a lantern, followed by Etta and Sameer, with the Chief and Diana bringing up the rear. Charlie had met his mother and escorted her into the hall; Etta firmly remembered the warmth and brightness of what seemed to be hundreds of candles augmenting the electric lights. The first toasts had come soon after they stepped inside, though, and the rest of the night was nothing but blurred, frozen moments. There had been the storm of applause and cheers as Charlie had finished reciting the evening's poem; blast after blast of laughter as the toasts flew back and forth between the ladies and the gents. She did remember the haggis being ceremoniously brought into the room on a silver tray and even more ceremoniously cut by an elderly man in his Regimentals and sabre, but for the life of her, she couldn't remember tasting it.
It had all been tremendously convivial and soul-restoring, but Etta did not remember a single moment of the trip back to Mrs. Charlie's cottage. She was going to put a good face on it and assume that it had been Diana who had loosened her stays and gotten her safely into the enormous feather bed piled high with warm woolen blankets in the same tartan as Charlie's kilt. The other options did not bear thinking about, she decided.
Diana, thankfully, did not bring the subject up--and upon a second look, appeared to have been a bit affected by the celebration as well. She was still the most beautiful woman Etta had ever known, but the sparkle and warmth in her eyes had dimmed a bit and she was more quiet than she had been during the rest of the holiday. Etta was about to suggest that perhaps she might like another ride with Chief, but Diana spoke first, asking, "Would you like to walk with me?"
She spoke so diffidently, as if she were certain that Etta would refuse, but felt compelled to ask regardless, that Etta heard herself answering, "A nice walk would be lovely," before she even thought about it. She blinked, and then added, "Though, I'm more of a stroll around the grounds sort of a girl, in case you hadn't already guessed."
Diana nodded. "That is perfect for this morning."
Etta availed herself of Mrs. Charlie's woollies, and they set off into the grey morning. The clouds were low and billowy, no hint of sunshine anywhere, but the air was fresh and the not-quite-fog muffled all the sounds of the Sunday morning. Truth be told, Etta's head was grateful for both the dim light and the quiet. Diana seemed content to wander aimlessly, occasionally stopping to watch the game birds exploding out of the tall grasses or to peer at a plant clinging to the rocky outcroppings. Ett had never been what you might call a nature enthusiast--she was, as mentioned previously, a city girl, born and bred--but the fresh air and peacefulness was, she decided, enormously restoring.
They picked their way carefully along the narrow path, stepping around the occasional patch of snow until they came to the top of a small rise that let them see the sweep of the land and the village that had welcomed them so warmly.
"Now, that's a lovely view," Etta murmured. "No matter the fog and gloom."
"You are very right, Etta," Diana said. She stood looking out at the cottages and the square for few quiet moments before she added, "It is strange how different this place is from what I had been used to, yet how there is much that is the same."
Not for the first time, Etta wondered about Diana's mysterious island home. She'd heard the story of the plane crash and the terrible invasion in abbreviated bits, but even so, the island was clearly something quite amazing. She imagined that Diana must miss it fiercely, but wasn't quite sure how to express her sympathies for a loss as staggering as a home, especially since she wasn't certain of the depth of their tentative friendship. Diana, meanwhile, reached out to run her fingers through the fine, powdery snow that rested lightly on the branches and needles of the gorse bushes alongside the path.
"Did you know," she asked, "that I had never seen a snowfall before I came away with Steve?"
"Well, I shouldn't imagine islands in your part of the world fall in the path of the stuff," Etta answered.
"No," Diana said, laughing lightly. She blew on the few flakes that had stuck to her gloved fingers and grew serious again even as they swirled almost merrily into the air. "We danced in it," she murmured. "In France, at the village. The night… before."
Etta thought about the man she'd worked with, his focus and drive, his increasing desperation to find some way to help end the hideous war that had been dragging on for so long, and his equally increasing dread that there was nothing that might work. She thought about the risks he'd taken to try and find something, anything, that might help, and the end to his story not more than a day later. She almost couldn't imagine that man taking the time to dance in the snow, but looking at Diana's profile, at the care and compassion and determination she saw there, it wasn't so hard to see how it might have happened after all.
"I'm so glad," Etta told Diana and blew a little snow of her own into the cold, crisp air.
* * *
Sameer found them as they made their way back toward Mrs. Charlie's cottage. "I am sorry to have to cut our trip short, but the weather does not look to be helpful and I wouldn't want to strand you in the countryside."
It was a practical thought, no matter how little Etta wanted to leave, so they packed their cases with the finery from the night before and made their farewells. Mrs. Charlie wrapped them up some of her fresh, delicious bread and butter for the trip, and Charlie carried everything back down to the square to load it into Sameer's open touring car. He stood waving long after they drove off, until he was lost in the blowing mist, and then Etta caught sight of Chief on horseback for even longer.
Despite the weather, the drive back to Edinburgh was uneventful, if a bit slow, Sameer delivering them to the train station only a little later than they'd expected. He helped them out of the car and seemed pleased when Etta quite firmly insisted he keep them both apprised of when he might next be in London. He, too, stood waving on the platform for as long as they could see him.The train was equally uneventful, though the weather grew darker and more gloom-filled with each passing mile. For once, Etta could barely be bothered. She found she remembered more of the previous evening than she'd first supposed, and she and Diana kept themselves nicely entertained sorting out who had said what and how everyone reacted to it. (Diana remembered everything, but could scarcely make sense of some of it. Etta had a grand time explaining the more naughty puns and toasts.)
For all that it wasn't that late, the sky was dark when the train reached King's Cross station. "The joys of winter," Etta sighed, but at the very least, it wasn't sleeting. Diana insisted on sharing a cab when Etta said she'd just be taking the streetcar home, so their time together was extended by another little bit. It was nice, for once being the type of young lady coming back to the city after a country weekend. Etta smiled at the thought.
The cab drew up in front of Etta's flat, and while Etta was gathering her things, Diana laid her hand on Etta's wrist, saying, "It will not be the equal of Mrs. Charlie's efforts, but perhaps we could have tea again this week?"
"Oh!" Etta felt her little smile grow into something that she was sure squinched up her eyes and made her cheeks as round as a red squirrel's. "I'd be ever so pleased." Diana's smile broadened, too, but Etta couldn't even be bothered that it just made her look even lovelier.
"Thursday, then," Diana called, as Etta bundled herself out of the cab. "I will come to your office building again."
Etta nodded and took her own turn to stand and wave until the cab turned the corner before she made her way up the three flights of stairs to her flat. She was due into work the next morning and knew she needed to give her hair proper wash after all the coal smoke from the trains. As she began the process, she considered her future. She would need to buckle down and see what connections she might have with the Home Office, but with the prospect of tea on Thursday, with a--she dared to think it--new friend, all of this seemed less daunting than it might have not three days earlier.
Humming a little under her breath--one of the many songs she'd heard piped over the weekend, she realized--Etta turned to unpacking her case and starting off on a fresh week.