The Angel On Her Wing - 10 - A Woman & A Plan.

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The Angel On Her Wing


THE ANGEL ON HER WING


War Changes Everyone.
Maria discovers new depths to the woman behind the mask.

 

Chapter Ten - A Woman & A Plan.

 

The vehicles made their way along the tree-lined roadways south of Vohburg. They were approaching Manching, a village to the south of the city of Ingolstadt. According to their maps, the village was home to a large Luftwaffe aerodrome. While potentially risky, it was unavoidable on their route. From what Matheson had gathered when speaking to a local shopkeeper, the base was home to a good number of training squadrons.

Maria felt far more comfortable in the car with the two Naval Officers since her conversation with Daniel Maddox. Now that they both knew of her condition and her inner turmoil, it gave her reassurance that she wasn’t alone in this mess. Their entire world had been changing since they left the confines of the camp and it was comforting to have one less issue to worry about.

Her confession to Daniel and her subsequent acceptance of the name as her own had brought her a surprisingly deep sense of inner calm that she struggled to explain. She wanted to convince herself that this was only temporary, that she would carry the name to England where she could put it to rest and return to being simply Brian. She hoped, rather than knew that this version of her was a costume that could be discarded when it was needed. Deep within her heart, however, the very idea of leaving this behind somehow felt terrifying. It wasn’t a thought she was prepared to entertain just yet.

She did not have a great deal of reference for existing in the world as Maria Campbell. Beyond the bartender and a few patrons at the tavern, she had only interacted with the others since embracing this version of herself. So far, interacting with the others as Maria truly seemed more natural as they adjusted to her. While some of the others seemed uncertain, Andrew and Daniel both seemed to have little difficulty in treating her as a woman; why was it that she loved that feeling so?

Even during her time in the hut with the others, she hadn’t fitted in with them as well as she did now. It seemed insane that after twenty-four hours on the run from the Germans, she felt somehow more at peace with her place in the world. Was the solution really that simple? Was this simply how she was meant to exist? The simplest explanation was that of a lightbulb in a dark room; its rays illuminating the dark and revealing the lavish decorations of the world just out of view. Being Maria wasn’t carrying a woman’s past for her or holding a memory. The more she thought about it, the more she realized that she was instead honoring a life lost by living her own.

The airbase at Manching hove into view as they drove onward. Maddox eyed the last row of fighters longingly as they passed the perimeter fence. “Why don’t we just waltz into a spot like that and tea leaf us some wings to get to Switzerland?” Maddox asked breaking the comfortable silence of the drive. “They can’t exactly be on high alert down here with them so far from the front.”

Matheson seemed to consider the proposal for a moment as they drove. “It’s not an awful idea, but it’s got more than enough risk,” he conceded. “We’d need to find a field that had something big enough for us all and has the range. I don’t think any of us have any experience on jerry kites.”

“They can’t be that different from our own,” Maria offered seeing sense in the plan. “We could fly into Switzerland, land at an airport, and surrender ourselves. We’d be safe in a day rather than a week or more.”

“What if Jerry sends up fighters after us to bring us back or shoot us down?” Matheson countered. “And no matter their alert state, no jerry installation is just going to let us wander in because we’re in the same military as them. We’d need orders and papers to back it up; a reason to be there. I’m sorry, but there are far too many moving parts. They might not be on high alert, but I doubt they’d just wave us through.”

“Then we could wait for night and sneak in,” Maddox offered, steering the staff car around a pothole in the road. “We half-inch something nice and be airborne before they can send anyone after us. We could vanish into the night, Jerry doesn’t have Radar like we do.”

“I suppose you have charts for Southern Germany too, and the experience of navigating around the mountains. I should also point out you and I fly single-engine spotter aircraft, old boy.”

“True,” Maddox accepted. “I still think it’s worth a shot, mind.”

“None of us are soldiers either; we’re pilots.” Matheson continued. “Sneaking into enemy airbases is not exactly our forte.”

“I just don’t like spending longer here than I have to,” Maddox sighed wistfully. “I don’t fancy gettin' shot as a spy either.”

Maria thought for a moment. A bad idea was forming in her head as they drove. She watched the hangars and buildings as they passed, and finally spotted what she had hoped to see. “I think we should steal the plane, and I think I know how.” she blurted before she could stop herself.

Matheson looked over at her in the rear of the car with a questioning expression. “Pull the car over Dan.” he never once looked away from her as though he was trying to work out what she had in her head. “I think I want to hear this.”

The group pulled to the side of the road along a low stone wall in the shade of an oak. Hamley and Down made their way back to the staff car uncertain as to why they’d stopped at random so soon after leaving town.

“Come on then, what’s this grand idea?” Matheson asked with genuine curiosity. “You’ve got something up your sleeve, haven’t you?.”

Maria looked at the others and nodded. She ran some numbers in her head and began to think over how her embryonic idea would function in reality.

“So, You know I fly Hurricanes right?” She asked not really expecting an answer. “I wasn’t originally slated for a fighter squadron until things got a little dicey during the withdrawal of the BEF. I was a lot of the way through my training for a bomber squadron and we had been training in Avro Ansons, I have some multi-engine experience.”

“So do I though, and big ones at that.” Down added.

“Yes, that’s exactly what I was thinking,” Maria agreed, “but your German is bloody awful.”

The American laughed and nodded, conceding the point.

“I saw at least one of their Junkers transports back at the base,” she continued. “We bluff our way in, nab one in broad daylight when they least expect it. Down and I can get us out of there with enough time to work out how to fly the beast. By my reckoning, it's about a hundred and fifty miles or so to Switzerland and the terrain gets pretty dicey the closer we get. By road, we’ll be driving for a day or more at least a hundred or so extra miles. Crossing the border without a travel warrant will be problematic for us. As much as you think we can talk our way past the guards there, they won’t let us cross: It’s an international border, they’re going to be on far higher alert. That puts us on foot trying to cross away from a town where we run the risk of patrols on both sides of the line. If we fly we dodge all of that, we just have to avoid getting shot down.”

“So let me get this straight,” the Irishman interjected. “We’re going to wander onto a Jerry aerodrome and nick one of their planes and just fly over the border?”

“Well, It was Maddox’s idea originally, but I think we can actually do it,” Maria nodded enthusiastically.

“So, how do we get in? We don’t have orders,” Maddox pointed out. “I don’t like it but the boss had a point there.”

Maria thought for a moment. “We might need to stop here tonight and do this in the morning. I think we need to do a little reconnaissance first. The breakout gives us our own excuse; we just need to make this sound urgent to them, more urgent than paperwork might make it down here; we need a plane to aid in the search, suspected British prisoners making for Switzerland, almost admit to it. The only thing is we would know some information like commanders' names, squadrons et cetera. I think if we do a little talking to folk around town we might get what we need to bluff this successfully. Hell, if we play our cards right, we don’t even need to worry about Switzerland, we could head for England.”

“Then what?” Down asked growing curious, “I thought you wanted me to help fly it?”

Maria nodded, “You don’t speak any German, and I think I can handle it initially. The less of us go in the better. We get the ship and we get out, and I land us in a field down by the river and we pick you lot up and scarper.”

Matheson looked thoughtful for a moment. He worked his jaw as though mulling the idea around in his head.

“Every moment we’re in Germany is time we can be captured and shot,” Matheson said slowly. “This plan has significant risk; a risk that you two can’t fly the damn thing. There is a risk that we can’t even get to a plane and the risk that we get shot out of the bloody sky. However,” he sighed. “It does pose our best and fastest chance of getting to safety. If we do this, it needs to be a unanimous decision, I won’t decide it for you all.”

He turned and looked at each member of the group in turn. Hamley nodded his assent, Maddox simply shrugged and both Down and Maria nodded, fully aware of the weight the plan placed on them.

“Then it’s agreed, we’ll do it.” Matheson concluded with a slight smile, “This is bloody crackers, but what the heck? We’ve gotten this far.”

With their plans solidified, the group made their way into the town of Manching, a mile down the road from the Airbase. Brief inquiries turned up a guest house that was no stranger to hosting visiting personnel and their plans for the evening were solidified. They would stay that night in Manching, departing in the morning by car or by plane depending on the night’s outcome. For most, it would be quiet, a night of relaxation and comfort. However, for Maria, it was destined to be the exact opposite.

 

* * *

 

Leaning into the bathroom mirror, Maria applied her makeup for the fourth time in a row. She was attempting a more bold look with the eyeliner pencil she had and keeping her hands stable was turning out to be a very significant frustration. A great deal of their plan revolved around their ability to learn vital pieces of information to be able to bluff their way into the base. Knowing names and squadrons would help them fabricate a reasonably urgent fiction that might suffice under the circumstances of war. Maria knew that Information was hard to come by, but alcohol, however, was not. The plan she had concocted was, on paper, quite simple. Its execution was however far scarier given her relative inexperience with womanhood.

With Andrew to keep an eye on her from a safe distance, they would visit a local establishment that was popular with the officers from the base. There, she would attempt to engage a number of them in conversation in an attempt to learn what she could to aid in their deception. It was very simple, and if she had been born the way she appeared, she had no doubt it would have been a doddle. Men loved to brag, she was already more than aware. Show them a pretty face, alcohol, and a little attention and you could loosen the tightest lips. What scared her all the more, was that it would be her pretty face she would show them.

The very idea that she was currently attempting to make herself more attractive for the express purpose of enticing men terrified her beyond words. Only days before, her ability to accidentally attract men had gotten her attacked, and… she didn’t want to think about the rest. She knew she didn’t have to actually do anything with them, not that she could in her current circumstances. The very idea, however, scared her quite deeply. Before the camp, she hadn’t really put much thought into the idea of romance. She knew her peers were quite obsessed with it and regularly frequented the local pubs around their home base in search of company. The truth was, she wasn’t entirely sure where her own compass lay if she even possessed one at all.

She knew girls didn’t seem to interest her; that was an idea she was almost comfortable with. She had always been under the impression that men didn’t interest her either, certainly not as a man herself. Neutrality was comfortable for someone who could barely establish who and what they were themselves. Deliberately going out to flirt and play for the attention of those very same men scared her. It was not because she found them repulsive, rather, she dreaded finding out that they didn’t.

The entire idea of making herself more alluring to the male gaze brought back memories of the attack in the camp. The very attack that had led to their present circumstances; was on the run in the heart of the Third Reich. That man had found her to be attractive, he had desired to possess her in the most carnal of ways. She could still feel the heat of his breath on her skin, the feel of his hands on her body. She shuddered, staring at the makeup brush in her hand as though it were a blade she held to her own throat. She was going out of her way to make herself more attractive to a man, to invite his lustful thoughts. No matter how she reasoned, it felt wrong, it felt, unsafe.

As much as she did not want to admit it, she also recognized that she didn’t have a choice in the matter. Her position was unique among their group and her task was necessary for the good of the group. She closed her eyes and took a deep breath to center herself before continuing to her apply her makeup, although now it felt more like corpse paint.

Finally satisfied with her reflection, she began to dress for her mission. A mission was easier for her to accept: If she reminded herself that she was a soldier, this was still just as terrifying, but it was a type of fear she could control. A mission took sacrifice and it took bravery, it involved planning and care to mitigate risk. She knew she would have Andrew on her wing, and he could keep watch over her. She knew that she wouldn’t ever be alone with any of the men, not if she could help it; she could do this.

Of the civilian clothing she had hurriedly packed from her namesake’s closet, there had been one smart dress amongst the number. It was a navy blue belted number with a pleated skirt, a sharp white contrast collar and a spray of white buttons down its bias-cut bodice. It was paired with a white belt, gloves, and a pair of high-heeled pumps.

While she had never really touched girls' clothes before this terrible adventure, she had always been close to her mother. Vivian Campbell was a stylish woman who reveled in wearing the latest and greatest London fashions. Maria had always considered her to be beautiful and used her impeccable sense of style now to guide her hand. She finished her look with a simple bracelet and a double strand of pearls at her throat that her mother would have chosen.

Finally satisfied, she turned to the mirror to regard her handiwork. The young woman who looked back at her was certainly living up to that label; she was even somewhat pretty in her own modest opinion. She was still getting used to seeing herself in the mirror this way, and it was difficult to rationalise the girl she saw with her psychological image of herself as a gangly slight boy. She wasn’t certain, but she could almost see a little of her mother in her reflection, maybe it was her eyes?

Finally satisfied, she turned and collected her handbag and made her way out into the corridor to find Matheson so they could make their way into town. She knocked softly on the door to his room and waited. A small part of her hoped he commented on her appearance.

Andrew had always been her greatest supporter and friend. Even before this whole escape business, he had shown her kindness since her arrival at the camp. Physically, the man reminded her in so many ways of the boys that bullied her in school but his temperament was the polar opposite. The big man was far more considerate and compassionate than those boys had ever been. He excluded a gentle confidence and a sense of honor; she was glad she knew him.

The metallic click of the lock brought her attention back to the present moment as the door swung open. Andrew was dressed sharply in a civilian suit. His hair was neat and his face was neatly shaved. He smelled of soap and hair oil and something else she couldn’t place. As he recognized her, his eyes widened.

“Bloody hell, I mean,” he coughed, adjusting his tie. “So, you’re ready to go then?”

Maria blushed and nodded. “Yes, I am. I ah, do you think I’ll do?”

Andrew swallowed and nodded, “I think you look quite smashing. Honestly, you look wonderful actually.”

Maria lowered her face and felt her blush deepen. Receiving this reaction from her friend was making her feel extremely uncomfortable despite a tiny part of her delighting at his words. Andrew recovered quickly and stepped out of the room. Closing the door behind himself, he turned and offered her his arm. After a moment’s hesitation, and an awkward glance at each other she took it with one gloved hand the way she had seen girls back home do when out with a gentleman.

Maria could feel her heart thump as they left the guest house. Beneath his suit, his arm was firm and extremely warm to her gloved hand. She fought the urge to drop it as they stepped out onto the street, her mind screaming that people would disapprove of her.

“Do you think this is such a wise idea?” Andrew asked quietly as they began to walk south along the street. “We could just stop in for a drink or two and see what we can overhear. I feel a little uncomfortable leaving you in there with those Nazi bastards.”

Maria set her jaw and nodded more firmly than she felt. “I think I have to try this myself, Andrew. While the entire idea makes me terribly uncomfortable, I don’t see a better way of getting them to talk so freely. You know it as well as I do; they will sell their own mother to impress a girl. Whether I like it or not, we can both agree I look enough like one right now for it to have a chance at success.”

Matheson chuckled to himself, drawing a confused look from the young woman beside him. Noticing her confusion, he smiled. “You don’t quite seem to realize quite how you look, do you?” he shook his head at the rhetorical question and continued. “Bri, or Maria; whichever is most appropriate at the moment. I don’t see a boy walking beside me, holding onto my arm in his dainty white gloves. I don’t see a boy in that pretty dress. I don’t see a single thing besides the beautiful young woman here with me tonight. More to the point, one for whom I worry greatly as I’m about to leave her alone in a room full of horny Jerry officers.”

Maria felt a strange tug in her chest at Matheson’s words. What he said seemed to bore into her very soul as she looked up into his eyes uncertainly. The feeling was very new to her, and while it wasn’t a bad feeling per se, she was struggling to place its meaning. “You’re staying in the bar with me, aren’t you?”

“Fear not, fair maiden, I will never be far away. I’m afraid I can’t escort you once we arrive as it might spoil your chances of looking available,” he chuckled, causing the sound to vibrate down his body into Maria’s hand. They walked in silence for a moment before he spoke again.

“I must say, you’ve taken to this whole business rather, well. Are you… do you think that there’s perhaps, ah.” he shrugged, unable to find the words. “It doesn’t matter. I am concerned, however; are you doing ok with all of this odd business?”

Maria pondered the idea as they walked down the quiet street. “Yes and no,” she replied thoughtfully. “I can’t say that I feel differently than I might have otherwise. Besides the clothes and cosmetics, I don’t really think I’m acting that differently. Quite honestly that’s what surprises me the most; the ease at which I’ve slipped into this role.”

She inclined her head and made a face, “Does my head spin from all of it? The meaning? Implications? The risk of us being here as we are? Absolutely it does. I vowed, however, to just get on with things until we’re home safe. I cannot really deal with all of this while we’re being chased across Germany.”

Andrew nodded and didn’t answer immediately. The street was quiet as the sun was falling behind the trees, the lights illuminating their path in ways it never did at home in England during the blackout. “Do you mind if I make an honest observation for a moment?”

Maria glanced at him for a moment before nodding. Andrew stopped and turned her to face him. He stared into her eyes for a moment before finally speaking. “This isn’t you behaving differently; this is you behaving the exact same way you have since I first met you in that blasted hell hole of a camp. The strange, quiet, nervous young pilot that I first met has not changed in their behavior or temperament since we left. Whatever has happened to you physically it hasn’t affected your mind as far as I can tell; you are very much that same person. There is no doubt that it’s odd, but I think that somehow, inexplicably, this just suits you far better.”

Maria frowned. “So you think I should stay this way? That there is some grand cosmic plan for me to spend the rest of my days in skirts?”

Andrew shook his head, “I cannot say for sure. That question can only be answered by you. I will say that I fully expect you to struggle with returning to Brian once we’re done here if you even try at all. Whoever you are by that point, it won’t be the pilot that left on that last sortie.”

“Then I only have one thing to ask,” Maria said, starting to walk onward before she looked back at Matheson. “If this is the flight path I find myself on, are you going stay on my wing?”

Matheson chuckled and rolled his eyes. “I’ve had the nav brief long before you did, silly bint.”

 

* * *

 

Maria nodded politely to an officer in uniform as he held the door upon her arrival. Stepping inside the bar, she was met by a wall of happy conversation and music as the patrons enjoyed their evening. Here, the war was a million miles away. Glancing around it was plain to see that the locale was favored heavily by the officer contingent of the local air base. Many of the men were still wearing their uniforms likely fresh from dinner in the mess.

She was momentarily frozen inside the door as she faced the room full of people. Some glanced her way, but most were lost in their own conversations, entirely unaware of her existence. Maria felt naked here, as though her appearance was shocking and so obviously incongruous that any moment someone would point and shout at the interloper. As the seconds passed, she could feel her heartbeat returning to normal. No alarms were sounded and no laughter pealed out in her direction. Approaching the bar, she slipped off her gloves and smiled at the bartender as he approached. “Ein Glas Weißwein, bitte,” she asked politely, trying to maintain her German accent.

The man smiled and nodded and disappeared to fulfill her request. She could hear the door open behind her and knew that Matheson was likely now inside somewhere. She did not dare to look for him, lest someone unravel their plan, but it was reassuring to know that he was out there somewhere watching over her. She could feel her heart beat faster as she waited for her drink. No matter where he was, she was utterly surrounded by Germans and she had to pass not only as female, but one of them in addition. The entire plan had seemed so simple and easy in her room, but now here amongst the enemy, it felt foolhardy and risky.

“Put her drink on my tab Reinhardt,” A tall dark-haired man in the uniform of an Oberleutnant offered from further along the bar, “That is, if the Fraulein does not mind?”

Maria looked over at the Luftwaffe Lieutenant and smiled graciously. “My thanks, Herr?”

“Oberleutnant Fischer, Fraulein. The pleasure is all mine,” he smiled, moving over to join her, “I do not believe we have met.”

“Maria,” She smiled cautiously. “I am visiting my aunt in town for the week. You are at the local base?”

Fischer nodded and smiled. “Staffel nine of JG.8, we’re training on the very latest generation of our fighters before we head north to prepare for the Invasion of England.”

‘Invasion of England? How bad have things gotten back home?’ Maria thought to herself while she faked a casual smile.

“A Fighter pilot? That sounds so dangerous.” she offered vaguely, trying to sound like an ignorant civilian. “You have been flying a long time?”

Fischer nodded and sipped his drink. “I have been flying for a few years, I’m halfway to an ace.” he grinned puffing out his chest. “The Royal Air Force has been giving our boys hell, but we will soon have them beaten.”

Maria bit her lip to avoid making a sarcastic remark to the German and instead smiled sweetly. “I do wish you the greatest success for the fatherland and the führer, Herr Fischer. I have no doubt that soon the glorious Reich will extend as far as America.”

Fischer nodded approvingly at her party line and smiled as he sipped his drink. “Time will tell Maria, of that I am sure.”

Wishing the Germans success was difficult for her to stomach, but she knew it was the rhetoric that they spouted and expected. Truth be told, it was almost harder than maintaining her masquerade.

“You are far too pretty to be single Maria, tell me, is there a man back home?” The officer asked coyly, raising his eyebrow.

Maria smiled politely and shook her head, “Alas no, I am currently unattached. I have been so focused on, ah, other matters that I have not had the time.”

“Most fortunate for myself then,” he grinned. “Who knows if you’ll be the last single girl I meet before I’m shipped off to fight the British.”

‘Not if I can help it.’ Maria thought to herself before forcing herself to laugh at his thinly veiled line. “Does that work for you often, Herr Fischer? Why not tell me your commanding officer’s name? I will march into his office and demand you are given a medal for your attempt.”

“As much as I would appreciate your attempt my dear, I doubt Major Bergmann would appreciate your tenacity the way I do.”

“Bergmann?” Maria asked, almost choking on her drink. “Markus Bergmann?”

Fischer frowned and nodded, “Yes, He commands our training squadron here at the base, you know him?”

“In another lifetime perhaps,” Maria offered dismissively, attempting to hide her misstep, “I think my brother met him once in France.”

Fischer nodded, “His stories are the talk of the mess I must say. He’s a fine commanding officer. We all benefit from his experience. Though he still carries the limp the British gave him.”

Maria thought back to the man she had spoken with in the garden of a French hospital. It seemed as though it had been an entire lifetime ago. “This war is a confounding thing,” she murmured.

“Your brother was a pilot?”

Maria nodded and glanced across the busy bar, catching sight of Matheson in the distance in conversation with a group of airmen. “My brother, he… My brother is dead.”

“I’m very sorry to hear that,” Fischer replied more gently, touching Maria’s arm on the bar top. “This war, it takes a great deal from us all.”

“You are correct,” Maria sighed, resisting the urge to flinch. “He flew under Major Bergmann while he was there. He always told me tales of his commander and friends.”

Fischer nodded, his posture shifting from one of pursual to a more open and sympathetic position once he realized this conversation would likely not lead to a romantic liaison. “Bergmann is a good leader, I’m sure he remembers your brother, you should visit him if you get time, you are so close. I…” He stalled for a moment, “Give the guard at the gate my name, I will leave word for him to direct you to Major Bergmann.”

Maria reached out and touched the German’s arm and smiled gratefully. “Thank you Oberleutnant, this means a lot to me.”

Fischer smiled and squeezed Maria’s hand. “It is all too often that we cannot get closure during a time like this, Fraulein. It is the least I can do: Who knows, perhaps one day, my sister or parents will come seeking answers from my boss.”

He was right, she realized. Closure was exactly what she lacked. Although unlike him, it wasn’t simply the loss of a comrade or a loved one. For her, it was a matter of her very existence. At this moment, sitting across from the young officer, she realized that they were fundamentally different. It wasn’t a matter of nationality or their respective sides in this war, but rather, their very being. The clarity of interacting with a man as this version of herself, with one that didn’t know her twisted beginnings was like a bucket of ice water to her psyche.

The men from the camp, as much as she cared for them had clouded her vision. They knew her as Brian, the young fighter pilot. It colored how they treated her and behaved around her. It led to their visible awkwardness; It made her behave awkwardly around them too.

With Fischer, she realized, she wasn’t acting. So taken was she with pretending to be German, that she had forgotten to specifically behave like a woman. Regardless of that, she still had; not a single person had expressed doubt or confusion as to who or what she was. She wasn’t romantically interested in the German but she could recognize his attraction to her… to her as a woman. Not something she expected he would express if he had his doubts.

Like a shiver of cold, the thought struck her deep within her very being. This was her default; her normal. The way she had behaved growing up had been what she thought others expected of her. It was what she had been told by society that she needed to be. Right now, deep behind enemy lines in a quaint bar, she was clearly and obviously a woman. The thought did not upset her.

 

* * *

 

After another hour with Herr Fischer, Maria excused herself to return to her fictional Aunt’s side. While he might be the enemy she did sympathise with the young airman. Like her, he was fighting for his country, his comrades, and his very life. Fischer was not a wild Nazi idealist hell-bent on world domination, but a hopeful young man, full of the bravado and fire of youth. She had known many like him in her squadron back home in England and she almost regretted the position they would put him in once their misadventures were traced back to their source.

Maria left the bar and turned south along the street. The night air was cool against her skin as she walked, raising goosebumps along her arms. She felt an unbelievable exhilaration at her deception; not her womanhood, but rather, her presentation as a German. Nobody, not even the man she had spoken with for so long, had seen through her deception; it filled her with confidence. Arriving along the riverbank, she stopped and waited at the point she had agreed with Andrew. They had arranged to meet here, rather than be seen to leave together. The river flowed by quietly behind her as she waited just outside the pool of light cast by a nearby street lamp. The very illumination of which felt utterly alien to her blackout-conditioned mind.

After a few moments, she spotted a man slowly making his way along the riverbank toward her. The unknown gentleman resolved himself into the shape of her friend as he drew closer.

“Sucessful sortie?” he called as he approached, his casual pace not wavering.

Maria smiled and turned to fall in step alongside him as they walked back toward the guest house. “I’d say so. A spot of luck in fact; my old pal Bergmann is commanding one of the squadrons on the base here.”

“That Jerry chap you shot down? The one that visited you at the hospital in France?”

Maria nodded, “The same, it turns out he convalesced here to train new pilots. It’s a small world after all.”

“So you think this is our opening?” Matheson asked cautiously. “This only really gets you past the gate.”

Maria nodded, “It gets me past the gate which is all we need. From there, I wing it, Andrew,” she sighed as they crossed the low-walled stone bridge over the river. “I just have to avoid actually meeting Bergmann and I’ll be fine. I don’t know if he’ll recognise me but I’d rather not run the risk if it’s all the same; the last thing I need is him raising the alarm.”

Matheson chuckled, the sound vibrating the arm that Maria had unconsciously tucked into the crook of his elbow. “I don’t think he has much chance of recognising you. I know who you are, and I barely recognize you myself these days.”

Andrew suddenly realized that Maria had stopped walking when he felt her arm slip from his grasp.

“How can you know who I am? I can’t even find the answer to that one myself anymore.”

“I thought you were going to see where this took you and work this all out back in England?” Andrew prompted gently.

Maria rolled her eyes and grinned manically at the night sky above them as if laughing at the heavens themselves. “Do you seriously think I can manage that? Do you really believe have the luxury of that amount of time?” She shook her head and sighed wistfully as she rested against the bridge wall, her arms outstretched beside her. “Look at me,” she implored, eying Matheson earnestly. “You said it yourself earlier, no? All you see is a woman: Well so do I, I have for some time even if I never wanted to admit it. The part that truly scares me is that I’m pretty happy about it.”

Matheson ran his hand through his hair and let out a deep breath. Turning, he sat down beside Maria on the wall, his eyes focused on the dark band of water retreating into the darkness away from them.

“I don’t think anyone can exactly blame you for that,” he conceded quietly. “What happened to you was a freak accident and even the doctors would be flummoxed. Your body betrayed you after your injury and then with what those jerries did to you; your head is just getting used to this new physical reality. It’s only logical that you’d eventually become accustomed.”

“No it’s not,” Maria sighed as she bowed her head, unable to look at Matheson.

“What do you mean it’s not?”

Maria looked over her shoulder at the river's surface as it sparkled in the moonlight below them. “I wish I could blame all of this on the Germans and the hands of fate, but a part of me is so very glad that this happened. A part of me has always felt that something was wrong with me; that something was missing. I don’t really think I could have explained things back in England, before all of this,” she added, gesturing to her body. “I have to admit though, that now, this feels… right. That is what scares me more than you can possibly know. It feels right because I think deep down, I’ve always felt this way.”

Andrew placed one of his hands atop Maria’s on the cool stone of the bridge and squeezed. “When I told you earlier that you hadn’t changed in the time that we’ve known each other, I meant what I said. I won’t pretend to understand how you feel or what causes any of this strangeness but I meant every word of what I have said: You do make more sense this way.”

“A boy…a man, he shouldn’t feel these things,” Maria whispered dejectedly, her tone almost guilty and pleading. “A man should not feel normal this like this, or glad about it either.”

Andrew chuckled, “A man would look bloody silly in that dress. A man would have been kicked out of that bar the second he walked inside wearing it.” He gently reached out a finger to turn her chin toward him. “A man wouldn’t have so elegantly charmed a Jerry Officer into accessing a secure military installation.”

“I was terrified the entire time, I had no idea what I was doing,” Maria admitted quietly.

Andrew smiled and nodded his agreement. “You might not have noticed, but I was watching you the entire time. What I saw was honest and real; that came from inside you. All you needed to do was put on the clothes and the world, I think, saw you properly for the first time.” He locked eyes with her and smiled softly. “Nobody in their right mind could ever confuse you with a boy.”

Maria opened her mouth to speak but couldn’t find the words as her chest clenched. She could still feel the afterglow of Andrew’s fingers along the edge of her jawline.

“But I’m so broken,” she whispered, her eyes locked on his.

Andrew shook his head and smiled softly across at her. “You’re not broken, you’re beautiful,” he murmured, leaning in and grazing his lips against hers.

Maria felt an electric jolt pass through her body as their lips touched in the still of the night. The kiss was subtle and sweet yet spoke of a far deeper meaning than she could possibly comprehend. There was no force or urgency; simply a soft and gentle meeting of two people in the cold of the night. It felt like an eternity had passed before she finally felt their lips separate... She opened her eyes, surprised to find them closed, and smiled sheepishly across at the man beside her.

“Most importantly, a man doesn’t kiss like that,” Matheson murmured as he hooked a lock of hair behind her ear affectionately.

Maria felt a strange warmth spreading throughout her core. Her heart felt like it was in her throat as her breath quickened its pace. Matheson watched her quietly, a gentle expression on his face. “What are you thinking about?”

“I suppose that answers a question I had never dared to ask myself,” she replied sheepishly.

“I’d like to pretend that my intent was purely scientific, but I’d be lying.” Andrew smiled as he stood and offered her his hand.

Rising, she smoothed her dress and fidgeted with her bag strap before glancing back at him nervously. “I… wasn’t expecting to find that as agreeable as I did,” Maria confessed sheepishly. “However, regardless of our feelings, we shouldn’t do that again until we’re safely home in England. Even then, Andrew, it might be wisest to stay away from me once we’re home. There is no scenario where I would be good for you.”

Matheson frowned and took step beside Maria as she started along the bridge. “I wouldn’t care what people had to say; this isn’t your doing. You don’t deserve to spend your life alone because of it.”

“It wouldn’t matter,” Maria sighed. “They would talk regardless. Even then, you’re an officer, the Admiralty would drum you out for the scandal alone.”

“They’d ignore it as long as there was a war on, I suspect,” Matheson muttered quietly.

Maria shook her head sadly. “Look, Andrew, we are caught in a moment here. I barely know myself and you’re being so wonderful and sweet. Let’s not spoil this. Instead, let us focus that energy on getting home. We can work out where we stand then; without the threat of Jerries on our arse. ”

“Well, a slightly different threat of Jerries.” he chuckled.

The pair returned to the guest house with little idle chatter between them. Their objective was completed and they had a way onto the base. While it presented more new challenges than she expected, it would give them the best chance they could possibly hope for. Success would depend entirely on what she did once she was past the gate; what that entailed was still a mystery to her.

That evening had been revealing for Maria on a far more personal level than she had expected. It seemed as though each new dawn managed to shed light upon as yet unseen parts of herself. Her interactions with Fischer had convinced her more certainly than ever that this was the right path for her. Andrew’s kiss, however, had presented far more of a challenge.

Now that she truly saw herself as a woman, at least for the time being, she was able to disregard a lot of her adolescent preconceptions. If she was female, his kiss was natural and normal. Girls kissed boys; this was a natural part of life; she just hadn’t been prepared to respond to it in the way that she had. It was obvious now that things she had felt for her entire life had new meaning here. Whether her current situation allowed her to understand herself better or had caused it, she didn’t know.

What scared her the most, was how quickly she seemed to be adapting now that she was out in the wider world. What would happen upon their return to England? She couldn’t possibly know, but she was certain that she would never be the same person again.

The camp had been a form of holding ground for her sense of self; a world devoid of outside stimuli where she had been able to change and evolve yet perceive none of it from her own perspective. The person she was discovering was quite different from the Brian Campbell that had taken off from the grassy fields of England that summer day long past. She was changing yet, and she wasn’t convinced that would end upon their return home.

Brian had been a decent boy. He had tried his hardest but he had also been somewhat adrift in life, the wind merely enough to lift his wings but not enough to truly soar. The war had given him a direction when he had found none of his own accord. Her direction now was clear, at least in the short term: She would find a way into that base and get them home if it cost her everything. She felt responsible for these men now, the men who had shown her kindness and compassion. These Comrades from many walks of life now felt closer to her than her own blood. They had become her brothers, but what was she to them? Somehow a brother in arms didn’t seem to fit anymore.

 

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Loved this chapter!

charlie98210's picture

I loved this chapter! You have really conveyed the depth of the emotion inside of Maria's change and also added a large measure of depth to Matheson's character as well. The interaction between all of the characters, both the British and even the Germans--showing their humanity--is what makes this story so compelling to me. Many layers of story-telling are being shown within your writing of this tale.

charlie.

Thank you!

Kit's picture

Beyond Maria's own internal journey and the more nuanced one of Andrew Matheson, I actually didn't set out to really look into the humanity of war as much as I have. That came later in editing, I began to notice themes that I went back to strengthen. This was originally a novella I expanded, and in doing so went back.
The doctor's storyline for example was added later and woven in to add more explanation and strengthen the humanity in war theme. Note, that there is evil and brutality on both the English and German sides, and also goodness in both too. I don't intend to comment on the horrors of that particular war or the politics. It was evil, and it was perpetuated by evil men... but I'm telling a human story, of particular humans.

Muller, and other more positive German characters that will come are just normal people trying to live their lives. Some of the horrific things the prisoners did, also... show what can happen to men in a cage; you produce your own horrors.

I like Turtles.

Great story!!

I don’t usually comment. I have large time constraints that usually prevent it. However, this story is so well written and compelling that I couldn’t be remiss and thank you. The character development is what has drawn me into this story and won’t let me go. Please continue writing this fine story. I thank you for sharing this with us.

<3

Kit's picture

I really appreciate you taking the time! for us writers hearing back from the reader is so fulfilling. I'm really glad you're enjoying this, I will tell you it is a finished story so you will get the end. I'll be posting it weekly for the next... uh, 8 weeks! It is all ready for your reading pleasure. I really enjoyed writing this story, it's been a real rollercoaster!

I like Turtles.

Maria is discovering who she is…….

D. Eden's picture

While at the same time she is becoming a real hero. It is her tenacity and her ingenuity and her bravery which will ultimately decide the fate of our little band of brothers.

I can’t help but worry about Major Bergmann. Somehow, I think that Maria will have to get past him in order to achieve her goal of taking a plane.

D. Eden

Dum Vivimus, Vivamus

She is indeed.

Kit's picture

Oh boy is there so much growth to come :D This is a bit of a turning point for our heroine :D I won't spoil anything but I will say, you have some good points :D

I like Turtles.

RLT

Well, she certainly came through under pressure so she is certainly made of sterner stuff than the others had expected.

Sexuality is a difficult subject whichever gender you are headed.

While it is affirming to be attracted to a man it does not mean being still attracted to women makes you less affirming.

Transwomen whose sexual attraction does not change during transition have stiffer headwinds to stand by their belief in their womanhood.

At least in this case, Maria lucked out and had the easy 'expected' sexual orientation which would make her transition that much easier.

It is good to clear the air for her as now she can truly keep her head in the game and hopefully steal what is necessary to get them home.

Goddess knows I would not want to have to do ones journey of discovery under such circumstances but it really serves to highlight the fact one should never underestimate the strength of women.

Mhm!

Kit's picture

I'm not making any statements regarding 'appropriate' or 'valid' sexualities in this, just that she is heterosexual. I have yet to write a lesbian trans character because it's not something I particularly know. In this case, I have a character that's never really had any prior interest in anyone, nevermind men or women, so shes discovering her sexuality as she goes. With an all male cast of protagonists,a lesbian might miss out on a romance subplot due to lack of options too :D

I like Turtles.

Write what you want!

It is a great story!

You write for yourself, never anybody else.

As for non-heterosexual relationships, it is not so different really. Love is love. The dynamics will be slightly different but not so much if for example if one part of a lesbian relationship is more aggressive/dominant, in some ways even more so then men to be honest, and the other half is more traditionally feminine. Other dynamics exist but it all comes down to appreciating the other person for who they are.

I am bi-curious myself and don't care as much about body parts per se (my deceased partner was non-op) but the love the people share is far more important.

Maria sounds like is strong enough to stand on her own, with or without Andrew (who is protrayed as an absolutely wonderful man btw) so should be able to acknowledge her own gender identity without needing anybody else to reinforce it.

I remember when I was ten years old, just old enough to be left alone for an evening where my parents were out at a function and I dressed up for the first time and it focused my identity. I am sure eventually Maria would've figured it out with or without requiring interaction with men. If she likes it then so be it *shrug* but it should not merely because of the fact women in general are supposedly natural for women to like men. Luckily she has a good head on her shoulders.

When she is back in Blighty, it is best she stays a she of course if there is any hope of a relationship with Andrew as homosexuality was frowned upon at that time. Ask Alan Turing.

I think that's the funky part

Kit's picture

I think that's the funky part there... She's not necessarily equating her identity to how she relates to men, more, she's finding her identity, and men are just one metric of relation she's sounding out... how does she relate to them? how does she do this or that... how, now she's letting herself be... herself, how does she connect with people... without the pretense of her upbringing.

As for back in Blighty... does anyone really think this gal is going to be able to do boy by then? :D

I like Turtles.

A Decent Human Being

joannebarbarella's picture

Brian was a boy who struggled all his life to be what others wanted him to be. Circumstances have brought out his/her true alter ego and that has forced her to become Maria. She is not exactly embracing it but is accepting it, not only for herself but for her comrades-in-arms, who are now depending on her.

She is putting herself at risk to save all of them and is a real hero. Her comrades also have a journey to undertake to accept her new identity, and some will find it harder than others. Matheson has it right. He is the most accepting and may even fall in love with her, but the authorities will only accept her while there is a war on.

Just look what they did to others like her once 'peace' returned.

Very True.

Kit's picture

Brian never fitted in, that's certainly a common thread with many of these storylines but it's often true. That listless, directionless feeling certainly matches.

Is Maria more likely to put herself out for others? yes. She can see the value in life more clearly than he ever could.

I like Turtles.