The steps sound on the gravel road every afternoon.
It’s not quite Tuscany. The colors of the fields are burnt by the sun, and the hillsides are not gentle slopes. There’s nothing around here, just the dust on the road and, set back among the crops, a finishing school for girls whose parents don’t want any distractions around them. In most cases, not any further distractions.
And there is the airfield.
And every afternoon, the pilots come down the gravel road, their flight jackets open, shirts stained by sweat under the burn of the afternoon sun.
It’s a small airfield, no questions asked. Here, they teach those who wouldn’t get into an academy back in England.
And every afternoon, they come down the gravel road, past the bench next to the well, where the girls are sitting. Flowing locks under wide-brimmed hats and parasols, white summer dresses and that silvery laughter that tends to happen when boys walk by.
And the pilots’ steps get a little broader, and hers among them. She keeps the heavy leather cap on, goggles pushed up high on her forehead. The flight jacket masks slim shoulders as the girls’ eyes slide over them.
There’s one dark gaze in particular, every afternoon, cool among the giggles of the other girls. She doesn’t sit, she reclines on that bench, her pale, aristocratic features shaded from the sun. There’s a challenge in her smile that turns Myka’s steps into a swagger. And it’s like flying all over again, in the middle of the dusty road.
“You coming, Bering?”
A large palm lands on her shoulder and Myka stumbles forward. Behind her, she hears laughter, tinged with warmth.
She wears the flight cap under her arm when she steps through the garden gate. She will put on a dress for the occasion, even though her father doesn’t mind. There’s very little that unsettles Sir Arthur Bering, and it’s usually about things going awry in his tinkering with flight altimeters and wing design. He invents by accident. The only thing he’s passionate about are his antiques. And, once, Myka’s mother. In the back of the garden, there’s still her old greenhouse.
She’s been gone for so long that Myka barely remembers her.
Myka strips off her gloves; it was a long train ride from the base. It is war now, and King George needs every pilot he can get.
The talent runs in the family and Sir Arthur never minded. His son became a pilot, and so did his daughter, even if she had to take her classes in Italy.
Myka looks at the garden chairs. Peter is on front leave for this and he has beseeched her to be present. She picks up a perfect triangle of white and light green from a polished silver tray. Greta has outdone herself, and when Myka’s gaze follows the buxom new housemaid, she realizes that Pete has to be serious about his sudden engagement. He would have mentioned this Greta to her otherwise.
Their tastes have always been quite similar.
Myka still chews on a bite of cucumber sandwich when she is picked up from behind and whirled around.
“You made it!” Pete has a smile that outshines the polished brass on his dress uniform and Myka breathes a sigh of relief that the front flights have left him unscathed so far.
“Now where’s this marvel of a woman who has reformed my brother?”
He pulls her along by her hand, deeper into the garden. In the back sits the greenhouse, where Myka used to curl up with her dreams as a girl.
The wasps buzz up in the cherry tree and the first thing Myka sees is a fall of hair, black as the night, gathered along a graceful neck. She stands out among the other women around her, their summer dresses dotting the lawn with speckles of white and rose.
This is not a place where the sun could ever be described as burning, but when one head turns at Pete’s proud voice, Myka is back on a dusty road in searing heat.
“So it is Myka, then.”
Helena’s voice is a cool breeze, but caught up in that dark gaze, Myka’s cheeks are burning.
She looks on as Pete slides an arm around Helena’s waist. She has never seen him smile quite like this. Helena is still looking at Myka. She smiles, as well, and it is still challenging.
Sir Arthur has long since given up on the idea of marrying his daughter off into higher nobility. He didn’t expect his son to get out of a cockpit long enough to do so instead.
Lady Wells is of a standing and a wealth that have allowed her to worry about neither one so far. There are other things she doesn’t worry about, either, and there are whispers about why her father sent her to finishing school in Italy.
Helena isn’t just cultivated and well-bred. Now that Myka actually has a chance to talk to her, she finds her intelligent and outspoken, and she is charmed to a point she shouldn’t be.
Helena wears lavender silk and enjoys contemporary French writing and her dark gaze keeps bearing an edge of challenge when she looks at Myka, and possibly there’s something else in it, too.
Myka never asks her about Italy.
Only Sir Arthur remains wary of Helena, but Helena is nothing if not charming and she can actually hold her own in a conversation about aerodynamics. She also has an eye for antiques.
The wedding is a quiet, but festive affair. Both Pete and Myka are on leave for the occasion, Pete from the Fight Squad, Myka from Cargo Flights.
Helena is devastatingly beautiful in something French that Myka can’t even pronounce and which raises a few eyebrows among the guests. Myka chuckles about it, until Helena’s eyes meet hers, full of mirth and gentle teasing, and then Myka quickly looks down at her hands and the dark lines of motor oil milled into her fingertips.
Sir Arthur has tinkered with the principles of platinum print for the occasion.
“Your headdress is slipping,” Helen murmurs behind her as they line up for the grand portrait.
Myka’s hand shoots up to her hair and the bow of delicate flowers adorning it. She would feel much more at ease under the weight of her flight goggles.
And then Helena’s fingertips trail up her neck, slower than necessary, adjusting a wayward flower, and Myka involuntarily closes her eyes.
She needs to be up in the air now, high among the clouds, for she feels like flying and like plummeting downwards all at once.
She asks to be promoted to front line cargo when she returns to the base. Her lieutenant doesn’t like the idea of women on the front lines. But he also knows a damn good pilot when he sees one.
“Take her up!”
“Take her higher!”
Myka is at home in the air. Just like her brother.
‘The Berings have a deal with the devil’. That’s what they say among the ranks. So far, both of them have come down without a scratch every time.
“Take her up!”
Myka smiles back at the smirks thrown her way by the other pilots. Her place in the barracks is with the nurses and more than one of them smiles at her a little longer than necessary.
“Take her higher!”
Her fellow pilots have photos of vaudeville girls and actresses pinned up in their lockers. Myka has a clipping from a society paper, a wedding announcement not her own, but with a photo of the bride.
When she’s on leave, she tries to be there when Pete is at home, as well, and when he sits in the breakfast room next to Helena in the morning. Helena wears a dressing gown of lavender silk, her hair only loosely pinned up, and when Myka shies away from a hand on her arm, Helena lightly suggests that she read some Zola.
Pete’s easy smile is gone, and Myka swears not to come home any more.
At the base, she keeps the platinum print from the wedding in her satchel underneath her bunk. When she looks at it, in the short, gray nights between flights, she feels Helena’s fingertips trailing down her neck and when she’s too tired to stop herself, she imagines those fingers all over her body.
“Shaw went down.” The lieutenant’s face is hard. Another fighter pilot down over the channel and the war draws on and on. “Fight squad’s heading out again at four, laying cover. – You up for it, Bering?”
Myka doesn’t pause to think. “Yes, Sir.”
She has trained for combat, in Italy, and the hot summer is unimaginably far away as she trots up to her plane in the early morning fog.
Some of her cargo colleagues wordlessly clap her on the shoulder. “Give ‘em hell!”
“Good luck, flygirl!” one of the nurses calls out, on a cigarette break in front of the sick bay.
The lieutenant stands on the airfield, coat collar up high in the cold. “Even the devil may not get you back from this one.”
Myka thinks of hair black as the night sky and a gaze as deep as the stars.
“Give ‘em hell!”
The sky is orange as they race across the channel and the left wingman staggers when combat staccato rings out. They say when you get shot down, you see the horizon on fire. Myka looks at the orange gleam on the metal snout and shoots back.
She hears the sounds again when it is the most quiet around her. The screech of metal, the rattle of fire, the whip of the air.
She got down without a scratch, again.
“You really ride with the devil, Bering.”
“Just like your brother!”
And just like her brother, she would get a commendation, but they aren’t for women. Her lieutenant has scratched up three days of leave – it’s the most he can manage – and when she refuses them, he tells her it’s an order. He needs her back in shape, when her ears have stopped ringing and the air doesn’t smell burnt in her nostrils any longer.
Myka hasn’t been home in months. Sir Arthur is happy, in his own, distracted way. Pete is out in the field, and Myka tries not to run into Helena, and to not be absurdly happy when she accidentally comes across her.
In the evenings, she curls up in the greenhouse, just like she did as a girl.
On the third night, Helena is standing by the shine of the small gaslight as she enters. The lamp sets her thin dress aglow, leaving its contours transparent. Standing tall and framed by lush palms, she looks like a pagan high priestess from times long gone.
“What are you doing?” Myka feels as if she should kneel down when Helena walks closer.
“I would say that I am trying to seduce you.” Helena reaches up with one bare arm, and her hair tumbles down over her shoulders. Myka momentarily forgets to breathe. “And your eyes aren’t protesting.”
“Are you out of your mind?” Myka’s voice isn’t more than a croak.
But Helena has always been so privileged that following rules hasn’t really occurred to her. “I have wanted to do this since I first saw you walk down that gravel road in Italy.”
The burn returns to Myka’s cheeks. She feels lightheaded under Helena’s determined gaze, and with the realization that Helena remembers Italy. “I can’t do this.” Myka can’t bring herself to say that she doesn’t want to. “I won’t. Pete–“
“Whatever you decide right now won’t change that when I am with him, I will think of you.” Helena shrugs, and her gown threatens to slide off her shoulder with the motion. “I always have.”
“Helena –“ The voice doesn’t sound like her own to Myka’s ears. “You are married to him!”
“Don’t be so petit bourgeois about it.” Helena is unfazed by Myka’s moral concerns. “I promised to bear his children and be loyal to him. And I stand by my word. But he does not own my body.” She is standing right in front of Myka now. “Or my soul.”
And Myka has nowhere to run. Helena’s hand presses against her chest, a flash of heat even in the warm humidity of the greenhouse.
“Can you deny this, right now?” Helena asks, and Myka thinks of fingertips against her neck and it is heaven and hell all at once. She wants to tug on her shirt collar, struggling for air, only to find that it isn’t even buttoned up.
Helena’s palm still rests against her sternum, cradling Myka’s heart, and Myka thinks that she cannot deny Helena anything, and she knows she should run, but her feet don’t move.
Helena’s expression changes, pleading with Myka. “You almost died out there this time. And you will go back out there tomorrow, and I…” Helena’s voice is faltering. “I have to know…”
But then Myka’s lips are already on hers.
And Myka realizes that she can fight anyone and anything, but she cannot fight Helena’s mouth, and Helena’s arms that wrap around her shoulders and Helena’s fingertips that brush over her neck.
And Helena is a sliver of silk in Myka’s arms, quicksilver and smooth, her tongue against Myka’s, and Myka’s world spins out of control.
They topple backwards against a raised flowerbed. Clay pots shatter to the ground – Greta will mutter something about mice in the morning – and the rustle of brushing leaves mixes with the snap of broken twigs as they fumble for skin.
A slender hand parts Myka’s shirtfront with surprising deftness and Myka thinks her hands aren’t soft enough to brush the thin gown up and out of the way, and to replace it with the caress her own fingers, but with how Helena’s breath shudders against her lips, she doesn’t seem to agree.
Helena’s legs wrap around her hips and Helena’s nails dig into her shoulders when Myka finds a hold on her thighs and even more so when Myka’s fingers slip between them and Helena’s thighs fall open and Myka tumbles into her in mindless surrender.
This is flying, the same rush, higher and higher, even as Helena’s lips move lower and lower across the slope of her torso. Myka’s pulse hammers like the airscrew and she’s above the clouds and everything turns to light. And not even flying is like this.
Blindly, she clings to Helena and behind her eyelids she sees horizons on fire.
The air of the greenhouse is slick against their skin when breathing returns to normal at last. There’s the feathery weight of Helena’s hair across her chest as they hold onto each other, knowing that they have to let go. On a quiet breath, Helena’s lips finally form words.
“Come back to me, Myka.”
And Myka knows she can never come back at all.
Myka leaves before dawn.
“I need to pull up a squad, Bering. I need the best. A commando over Arras –” Her lieutenant’s face is more worried than she has ever seen it. “I’d ask for your brother, but he is married…”
Myka gets the drift. “Count me in, Sir.”
“You won’t return from this one, Bering. Not even with the devil under your wings.”
“I understand, Sir.”
They meet before dawn, hardened faces mingling with lonesome bravado.
There are no easy shouts from the nurses in front of the sick bay this time, no jokes from the comrades as they walk to their machines.
Myka wonders how many of them are laden with guilt like she is, driven by the wish to wash clean a soul long lost. They are the ones nobody should be waiting for. Perhaps she isn’t the only one to give a last thought to a pair of impossible eyes as they mount their planes.
The wind is sharp, leaving torn edges on the clouds, and when the rattle of fire rings out beneath, it’s only the rhythm that sets it apart from the airscrew. To her right, she sees smoke already, and the ire in her veins paints a feral grin onto her face as she swerves to the side and then plummets downwards.
The fire is heavy rain, outlawing gravity, but the Berings ride with the devil on their wings. Myka can see the goal below and cuts a low course, laughing at the flames that lick at the metal as she races past, und pulls upward again.
She doesn’t see the others around her any longer, and there’s no time to think as she dips down again. Another curve low among the enemy lines, taunting their defenses. She’s far up again before she realizes the smoke behind her, and the rattling underneath her feet.
Around her, the clouds glow with an orange tint.
They say when you get shot down, you see the horizon on fire.
Myka sees flames, and she sees Helena’s eyes, warm like the sun, until the entire sky is nothing else but that gaze.
She smiles even as she begins to tailspin through acrid smoke, and there is one last memory, Helena’s legs wrapped around her waist, hot breath trembling against her ear, and the world is spinning out of control once more.
And she doesn’t know.
She doesn’t know that down there, among debris and fire of the French battlefields, someone is looking up at the sky, thinking of her.
Helena will never get used to the stiff white cap on her hair, but she doesn’t complain. The rough apron used to be white, but by the end of shift it never is, and most shifts don’t end at all. She has thrown up her share, stopped eating her share, and started eating again. She has gotten used to drinking really bad liquor from unlabeled flasks, and she has learned to lie without remorse.
France used to mean silk gowns and risqué novels to her. Now, it means blood. These grounds are not the places of glory her father used to speak of. They are nothing but a giant grinder that tosses about limbs and shrapnel like dice.
And Helena has to sort those beyond salvation from those with a sliver of hope.
She has learned to lie as they wander over her table and reach for her hand.
“Marietta, I’m so sorry.”
“Lydia, will you marry me?”
“Rose, I was wrong to – “
And Helena holds onto mangled hands and says over and other, “It is alright.”
So many has she been already, Marietta and Lydia and Rose, and Edith and Caroline and a hundred more. But the phrase she hears the most is as another one –
“Mom, I don’t want to die.“
And she holds their hands like the hands of frightened children and says. “You won’t,” or at least “It won’t hurt.”
And she is always lying. Always, since she was honest enough to leave.
Pete came home with the commendation, another shine to his uniform chest, but Helena couldn’t offer him what his eyes were searching for. Just like he could never fully give her what she was searching for in return.
It isn’t his fault.
Helena remembers meeting him, an airplane exposition after her return from Italy. A group of pilots walking off the airfield, light rain falling onto heavy flight jackets and leather caps, and a gait that reminded her of another. Someone calling out, “You coming, Bering?”
And he turned around with that easy smile and Helena forget about the rain.
She didn’t forget about Myka.
And then Pete spoke of his pilot sister, and by the time Helena saw the first photos of her – Sir Arthur always liked to tinker with platinum print – she wasn’t surprised any longer.
But when she met Myka again, finally knowing her name, Myka was so cool against her that Helena doubted whether she even recognized her.
It wasn’t until later that Myka’s strained indifference was the very thing to tell Helena that she remembered all too well.
Pete understood and Helena regrets ever thinking him bourgeois. They might not have seemed a good match to many, but their social ease and disregard for protocol made them a good fit, after all.
“She’s like me.” Pete said with a helpless shrug. “She likes the same girls.”
The conversation was amicable, one of the oddest Helena has ever had, despite stemming from the very environment that invented eccentricity.
“And I can’t make you love me,” Pete added. “Not like that.”
“No, not like that.” Helena refused to lie to him. She would to keep her promises, but he had to know what had changed.
There was respect in his eyes, and gratitude for her honesty. For a moment she wished she could have loved him back the way he did. Later, she noticed with relief how he looked at Greta. And when Greta smiled back at him, Helena knew that he was already moving on.
And Helena left, and tending to others among the senseless carnage became caring for Myka, over and over again.
Perhaps Myka is still up there, taking on daredevil missions and Helena’s heart goes out to every plane she sees racing over the camp. She hasn’t heard from Myka and she knows she won’t. Because Myka is so righteous, and Helena knows she will never forgive herself and she loves Myka all the more for her damn sense of honor.
And then they carry a pilot into her tent, uniform burnt into the flesh, and she knows her before the pilot speaks blindly,
And once more, Helena holds a hand and whispers, “It will be alright.”
And from here on out, it might be.
Helena tenderly cradles a hand in hers that is covered in fuel burns. “I’d prefer you up there, unscathed and far away from me.”
And perhaps she is lying again.
Just this night, she tells herself. If Myka only makes it through this night. Then, through a full day. Then, long enough to be declared fit for transport.
Helena doesn’t care about righteous principles. Helena cares about Myka. And Helena has money, and she will get Myka out of this carnage the first chance she gets. If only Myka makes it through another night. If only Myka regains consciousness.
The Germans still might blow their entire camp to smithereens before dawn.
Or one very far away morning, people will whisper at the funeral of old Lady Bering, who is eccentric even in death and has ordered to be buried in a singed flight jacket from the Great War. There would be more whispers if people realized that the jacket isn’t even her late husband’s.
Or perhaps before that, one summer morning not that far away, two women will sit on a bench by the dusty road. It won’t be quite Tuscany, possibly not even Italy, and the airfield will be covered in grass stubble, bleached and burned by the sun.
“You coming, Bering?”
Helena still stands a little quicker, and the hand that wraps around her waist then is scarred, but there’s strength implied in its gentle grasp.
And Myka’s touch is warm, and so is the sun, and they walk down the road without hurry.