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Flying Blind

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Maddie was deep in the heart of a Harley Davidson WLA, humming under her breath, when Benjamin called her name.

She looked up. Benjamin looked annoyed, as though he'd been yelling for her more than once. "A visitor for you," he said, in a dismissive way that let her know it probably wasn't a customer.

Her breath stuttered and her heart sped up in her chest. The only person she could imagine who might come to Stockport to see her was --

But then, they hadn't spoken in months. It wasn't worth getting her hopes up.

"C'mon," Benjamin said gruffly. "I've got better things to do than pour tea for some la-di-da."

Though Benjamin was running the shop now that Grandad could no longer make it down the stairs every day, Maddie was the one who knew engines. The two of them had come to a general kind of peace some time ago, and Maddie no longer let any of Benjamin's tartness affect her. She stood up, wiped her grease-stained hands on her overalls as best she could, and followed him out to the small office at the front of the shop, nerves fluttering in her stomach.

It was Julie. Of course it was Julie.

"Ah, there she is!" Julie said, and she was smiling that beautiful, warm smile of hers, and Maddie's whole body lit up in response. "I was beginning to think you'd dropped off the face of the earth."

"Hello," Maddie said stupidly.

"I've interrupted your day," Julie said, when Maddie didn't say anything else, too busy drinking in the sight of her.

The last time Maddie had seen her, Julie had been seated in a chair by the fire at Castle Craig, swathed in blankets, her eyes dark bruises in her face, and her leg propped up on a worn footstool. She'd been thin and gaunt, and so, so pale. Her hair had been chopped off at some point, all that beautiful blonde hair, and the tufts of it had sprung up around her head like a halo. The smile she'd given Maddie then was a poor imitation of the smile she was bestowing upon her now.

Julie looked as though she'd just stepped out of a fashion plate. She was still thin, and she was leaning on her carved wooden cane, but she looked -- well, she could never look the way she did before the war (Maddie didn't think anyone could), but she looked much better than she had that last time at Castle Craig, or the time before that, flat on her back in a hospital outside London. She looked stronger, steadier, more stubborn, and Maddie's eyes welled with pride.

"No," she said finally, as Julie was looking more uncertain by the moment, and Maddie couldn't bear that expression on her face. "I mean, yes, it is the middle of the day. But it's a slow morning." She offered Julie a smile, feeling its tentativeness on her lips.

Julie smiled back at her. "It appears I have perfect timing, as ever," she said.

Maddie said, dumbly, "I wasn't expecting to see you here," and flushed.

"I was expecting you to come to Craig Castle," Julie replied.

Maddie ducked her head, feeling a prick of guilt, her flush spreading hot across her cheeks. "I wrote to you," she said. She didn't point out that Julie hadn't written back, although it was on the tip of her tongue. Jamie had been the one to write her, full of effusions of how well Julie was recovering, and tales about the new ways Jock and Ross were driving his mother crazy, and the plans he was making for the estate.

Maddie had provided herself with many excuses for why Julie hadn't responded. Perhaps she'd written so much in Ormaie, she didn't have the heart to pick up a pen.

Julie just offered her a soft, sad smile, and said, "I'm sorry, I --. I miss you. I read all your letters."

Or perhaps, Maddie thought guiltily, Julie had spent so long writing for von Linden as Flight Officer Beaufort-Stuart, she wasn't sure how to write as Julie anymore.

"Would you--" Maddie said, and then felt abruptly uncertain. "I mean, I'd love if you came up for tea. It's only -- Well, I mean, it's nothing like --"

She broke off, flustered.

Julie said, cheerfully, "Jamie has given me strict instructions to never turn down sustenance. He'd run me up the battlements if I said no."

"Well, he hasn't suffered through one of my Sunday dinners," Maddie retorted. "I've told you about them, haven't I? They're infamous. Grandad claims it was the only time his stomach tried to fight him back."

For a moment, as they smiled at one another in the tiny office of her granddad's shop, Maddie felt light-hearted and hopeful, as though the two of them were, impossibly, themselves again.

~~~

Maddie spent a lot of time thinking about going back to Craig Castle.

She'd visited twice since she returned from France and before they found Julie. The first visit she'd spent crying: she burst into sobs when Esme Beaufort-Stuart pulled her into a hug, and again when Jock and Ross presented her with a medal they'd cobbled together out of a tin fork and a piece of ribbon, and again when she saw the open window in Julie's bedroom. The second time, Jamie had been there, and they spent one long night drinking wine, and then whisky, and talking long into the night before they fell asleep in front of the fire.

Then a group of American soldiers found Julie unconscious but -- amazingly, astoundingly, miraculously -- alive in a cellar in France. She woke up six days later, but it took three further days before the Americans convinced her they weren't German agents. She hadn't believed the war was over even when they showed her the newspapers about the liberation of Paris.

(Maddie thought of the first time she met Julie, steadily talking a scared German pilot down to land on the Maidsend airfield, and she thought, Of course she wouldn't believe them. Oh, my brave, clever girl.)

Julie spent another month in a hospital outside of London, and then was sent home to recover in Scotland. Maddie visited Craig Castle once more after that, and spent the two days trying not to cry. Julie moved around with an awkwardness and a hesitancy that Maddie had never seen before, and it wasn't just a consequence of her injured leg. All of her crisp brilliant edges seemed frayed and raw.

And Maddie felt useless. Worse than useless. Helpless. Unnecessary.

Craig Castle was no longer a place she could retreat to in her loneliness and grief, and she wasn't selfish enough to want it that way, not now that they had Julie back. Nevertheless, Maddie felt like an outsider, an intruder, in a way she'd never felt before. As though suddenly the social barriers between them seemed to matter in a way they hadn't during the war.

There was no denying that the truth of it was that Maddie had been the one to shoot Julie, and she'd also been the one who failed to kill her. Julie had asked her for something in that dark, horrible moment, and Maddie hadn't been able to give it to her.

So, if Julie needed time, that was within Maddie's power to give her. She'd always been practical, after all. So she went back to Stockport, and she started writing letters, and she tried to pretend it didn't break her heart not to get a reply.

~~~

Julie was only in Stockport for the day; she had a ride with a friend that evening who was going down to Oxford.

"I might go back to university," she said, raising her eyes to meet Maddie's gaze.

"You'd be marvellous," Maddie said fervently, even though Oxford seemed even further to her than Craig Castle.

"Now it's your turn," Julie added, as she slid awkwardly into the passenger seat of her friend's car. "To come visit me."

"Yes," Maddie agreed earnestly, and she waved until the car turned the corner and disappeared.

~~~

It didn't take long for Maddie to take a few days to go visit Craig Castle. When she arrived, there was an airplane on the field beyond the house. It looked so out of place there that Maddie blinked twice before she took another step.

"It belongs to a friend of Jamie's," Julie said, her eyes bright, once she'd enveloped Maddie in a hug. The scent of her perfume lingered in Maddie's nose.

"I didn't ask!" Maddie protested.

"I could see you thinking," Julie said, and she tugged Maddie into a sitting room where the window offered a picture-perfect view of the airplane.

Maddie's grandad had kept her motorcycle under a cloth in his shed throughout the war, and she'd got it running again and ridden it as often as she could in the last few months. It wasn't flying, but it was what she'd had.

Now, with the possibility of flight so close she could almost taste it, the longing seemed to well up deep inside her.

Julie smiled at her over the rim of her teacup, as though she knew just what Maddie was thinking.

"You can take her up," Jamie said, later that evening, when he turned up for dinner. He was grinning. "If you want."

"Don't be absurd," Julie said. "Of course she's taking her up."

"Oh, I don't know if --" Maddie said, even though her heart was saying yes yes yes.

"You're not yourself when you haven't been flying," Julie said, which was a ridiculous statement and Maddie opened her mouth to say so, but Jamie was nodding along with his sister. They were dangerous, the Beaufort-Stuarts, when they were working together.

"Just fly the plane, Maddie," Julie said. Maddie was so startled, it took her a long moment to realize she'd written Julie about that mantra.

She blinked back tears. There was a lightness to her limbs and to her heart, places that she even hadn't noticed had grown so heavy.

"Yes," she said. "Well, come on, then. I'll need some passengers to keep me company."

~~~

The week after she returned to Stockport, still giddy from being in the air again, she received a letter. It was on childhood stationary that bore Julie's full name in fancy script across the top, and it was the shortest letter Julie had ever sent her.

"I've never seen you cry like this over a letter," Grandad said, when Maddie's sobs lightened. "You're sure it's not bad news?"

"No," Maddie said. "It's absolutely not bad news."

Later, when she was taking the pieces of a bike's engine apart, she thought about how she would describe it to Julie, to try to make her understand the beauty of those static parts that fit together so exactly to create a moving, working, perfect whole. She laughed out loud, imagining the look on Julie's face, the way she might grin and say, "Maddie, you dolt, it's just an engine," because she never passed up an opportunity to hear Maddie's noise of outrage.

Benjamin said, from behind her, "Are you working or laughing?"

"A little of both, I think," Maddie said lightly, and Benjamin just grunted quietly.

The letters came regularly after that, and they got longer and more detailed.

Maddie wrote back, helplessly, indescribably happy.

~~~

The next time Grandad felt well enough to work for a few days, Maddie took the train up to Castle Craig for a night.

When Julie saw her, she grinned, wide and delighted. "There's no plane here this time," she warned.

Maddie laughed. "You don't have to bribe me here with a plane!" she said. "Though I'll admit it wouldn't hurt to try."

Julie's mother was away for the weekend with the boys, so they scandalized the remaining servants by curling up next to one another in front of the fireplace under a pile of blankets. It was the same fireplace where Maddie and Jamie had sat together one night, back when they were both mourning Julie's death. It felt almost dreamlike to be there next to her now, the firelight casting Julie's face in a warm glow.

"I'll need someone to live with in Oxford when I go back there," Julie said casually. She cast a look in Maddie's direction. "I don't suppose you'd be up for the job."

Maddie looked at her in surprise. "What would I do in Oxford?" she said. "Besides, there's Grandad's shop."

"I expect you could do anything you liked," Julie said. "There's still an airfield at Kidlington, you know. Jamie knows someone who works there."

Maddie had to clench her teeth at the idea Julie had that it could all be so easy. "I don't know," she said.

"It was just a thought," Julie said breezily, and Maddie wondered if she'd said the wrong thing.

"I'm sorry," Julie said softly, just before Maddie dozed off. "I should have written you back."

"It doesn't matter. I know it was hard to know what to say." There was a pause, and Julie didn't say anything else, so Maddie added, "You know, for a long time, I thought a part of me would be buried forever in Ormaie. And my part in -- what I did that night -- would be something I'd have to carry forever."

"I don't blame you," Julie said quickly. "I could never blame you for anything. I asked you to --"

"Oh darling, I know that," Maddie said, the endearment slipping from her lips before she could censor herself. "I've known that since the moment you smiled at me from your hospital bed." The fire caught the ghost of a smile on Julie's face, so Maddie added, "You looked awful, did anyone tell you that? Almost ghoulish."

"Well, I expect I was the best-looking dead girl in the place," Julie said at last, and Maddie laughed.

They were quiet for a while, the fire getting lower in the hearth, and the tears on Maddie's cheeks dried a little.

"It's just -- I'm not the same anymore," Julie said finally, a confession. "Sometimes I don't know who I am."

"I know," Maddie said gently. She added, "We still love you."

Julie was quiet for a long time.

Just as she fell asleep, Maddie thought she heard, "I love you, too."

But it could have been just a dream.

~~~

The next time Julie turned up in Stockport, it was for the weekend, and she hustled Maddie into her best dress and stockings to take her out dancing in Manchester.

"Don't think this stick of mine means I can't dance circles around you!" she'd said, using said stick to tap the back of Maddie's legs to get her to move faster.

"Have a good time," Grandad said from his armchair, amused, as Julie dragged a laughing Maddie towards the door.

"Oh, we intend to," Julie promised, mischievous.

Maddie broke away from Julie's grasp to peck her grandfather on the cheek. "Good night," she said.

"It's good to see you so happy," he said quietly, and Maddie flushed, and smiled, and followed Julie into the street.

She still didn't know about following Julie all the way to Oxford, but she thought about it sometimes, and it made her warm inside to imagine it. Benjamin could run the shop if he hired a decent mechanic who knew bikes, after all. And all Grandad ever said was that he wanted her to be happy.

She pushed it out of her mind for the evening.

Julie did indeed dance circles around her, though she sat out more dances than she used to. She bought Maddie expensive drinks, and by the end of the night, her head was spinning.

At least, that was the only explanation Maddie had for why, as they passed by a cinema, she said, wistfully, "Sometimes I wish I could kiss someone like they do in the movies."

Julie smiled at her. "Someone to catch you when you swoon," she suggested.

Maddie's head was full of those romantic scenes, the woman curving her body into her lover, her eyes closing, lips parting on a soft breath, raising her mouth for a kiss. "Or catch someone when they swoon," she said thoughtlessly, and flushed the moment the words were out of her mouth.

Julie stopped walking, and their linked arms forced Maddie to pause as well.

"I just meant," Maddie started, but she wasn't sure how to finish her sentence.

In barely the time it took to blink, Julie's face shifted. Her eyes widened, her mouth curved into a sultry smile, and her body melted into Maddie's arms.

"Darling," she sighed.

A chameleon, is how she used to think of Julie. A perfect, impossible chameleon.

It was instinct to pull her closer, to steady her and make sure she wouldn't fall, and Julie let herself be held, her eyelashes fluttering and a blush on her cheeks under the pale light of the streetlamp. Maddie's heart was pounding, and her breath was caught in her throat. It was so easy to imagine this, to imagine playing her part and dipping Julie's head to press a soft kiss on her lips.

So easy and so dangerous.

This was an act, she reminded herself. A game Julie played with outrageous expertise. It was what had saved her life in Ormaie, and the lives of countless others, but at this particular moment, it made Maddie think of all the things she wanted and could never have, and she hated it.

"Are you -- making fun?" she said quietly.

Julie's face changed again. She stiffened and stepped away from Maddie's arms, her weight shifting to her cane. "I would never," she said. "Not to you." Her voice dropped. "Not about us."

The word us whispered around them in the night.

"Wasn't it what you wanted?" Julie asked, and her voice was light but Maddie knew in that moment that Julie was unsure of herself.

Oh, she thought, with sudden clarity.

In this of all things, Julie was as unpracticed as Maddie.

Julie's expression was inscrutable, but Maddie loved it all the same. It was Julie's face, the one she knew so well before, with everything that had come after painting it all the richer. Julie was battle-worn and clever-eyed, impenetrable and incomparable, kind and warm and strong and lit from within, and she was Maddie's best friend and the love of her life.

"No," she said, and her heart was flying. "You're what I want."

This time when she leaned down, she did kiss Julie, their bodies curving towards one another again, and Julie's mouth opened in a gasp and they stood together kissing under a streetlamp on the street in Manchester. Julie sighed softly, smiling, and Maddie lifted a hand wonderingly to touch her soft golden hair. The war was behind them, she thought, but never beyond them, and the future was stretching out in front of them like a flight into the warm, green sunlight.