The stars shone glittering and brilliant in a sky that was free of bombs.
It was a miracle, or at least it seemed that way to the people of London who had feared that they would never escape the constant threat of bombardment that had hung over their city for the last four years. For many, they had forgotten what it was like to live in a city that was not reduced to rubble, to sleep through a night without the fear of air raids, to not constantly be checking the sky to see whether or not a German plane had slipped through the lines to rain death and destruction down upon them. Terror had become the watchword of London throughout the war, and now that it was over and life could slowly be patched back together once more, the people as one could breathe out the sigh of relief they had been holding in for far too long.
But first, before normality could begin to work its way back into the streets of London, there was a bit of celebrating to do. They had won, they had beaten back the Nazi menace that had seemed so sure to sweep over the entire world with its unstoppable might and unthinking hatred. For so long it had appeared as though even Britain, even the shining beacon of hope and strength that they all had thought never to fall, would be brought down by the German war machine and crumble into nothingness. But all of the struggle, all of the sacrifice, all of the countless loss and death and destruction had all been worth it for this victory. And so, before the tedious business of rebuilding and restarting could truly get underway, the survivors and the victors could indulge themselves in some well-earned revelry.
Music wove through the streets, flowing from pubs and dance halls and homes as people celebrated freely for the first time in years. There had of course been small parties and gatherings during the bombings, for whenever there were people gathered together music and drinks were sure to follow, but now there were no curfews to worry about, no threat of attack, no worries at all as people gazed into a future filled with limitless possibility. And so if tonight the drinks flowed a bit too freely, if the music was a bit too loud, if the laughter was a touch too feverish and bright, it was to be understood. It was only one night after all, and it was a night of indulgence and freedom that London had earned for itself many times over.
However, even in the midst of the raucous celebration taking place in one of the city’s largest dancehalls, there was one man who was not throwing himself headlong into the fray. Squadron Leader Martin Crieff tugged unhappily at the sleeve of his dress uniform, flicking an invisible speck of dust from the cuff and wondering moodily to himself how he had been persuaded to come out to an event he had no interest in whatsoever. Sure, he was as happy as the next bloke that the damn war was over, but large celebrations such as these were not his idea of a good time when he had a perfectly serviceable book and glass of whiskey to keep him company back in his room. But Douglas had insisted, saying that if he did not go out and talk to at least one pretty girl tonight of all nights then there truly was no hope for him after all. And so after much grumbling and many muttered comments about insubordination and the appalling lack of respect for senior officers that still existed in this man’s air force, Martin had dug out his good dress uniform and followed Douglas to discover what the night held for them.
Flight Lieutenant Richardson was of course enjoying himself immensely. The man was built for nights such as these, perfectly comfortable in crowds of people he did not know and ready to while away the evening mixing and mingling with all manner of people, especially those of the young female variety. Although he would never, ever dream of mentioning it aloud, Martin secretly envied Douglas the ease with which he spoke to others, his grace in social situations, the easy confidence that he wore just as easily as the uniform that somehow looked so much better on him than it did on Martin’s shoulders. No matter how he tried, Martin simply could not pinpoint what it was about his junior officer that made the stripes sit so much easier on his sleeve than on Martin’s own, nor what it was that seemed to pull every young lady in the vicinity in to speak with him despite the difference in their ages. Even now as they moved through the crowd in a dancehall packed with revelers, Martin found himself watching Douglas as subtly as he could manage to try and discover just what it was that gave him the careless charm that Martin would give anything to possess.
But then, in the midst of the crowd and the music and the laughter, the world stopped. There, visible briefly across the room as the flow of people drifted and parted, a vision of loveliness like Martin had never imagined appeared to steal his breath away. She was standing with a group of what Martin guessed to be nurses, laughing and talking with not a single care in the world, and she was the most beautiful thing that Martin had ever seen. He could not possibly begin to say what made her shine out in the crowd, what drew his eye like a magnet and held him riveted and breathless with awe. Was it the delicate sweep of hair pulled away to frame her face so perfectly in the soft darkness? Was it the fact that her dark blue dress would have looked so very plain on any other and yet managed to set her beauty in startling contrast? Or was it simply the smile on her face that shone with such warmth and joy that Martin could very nearly feel it through the press of the crowd? Martin could not say. He could not do anything but stare at the woman who was so beautiful he could not breathe and pray that he was not being too obvious in his attentions.
Time seemed to slow to a crawl. Martin tried to focus his attention on anything else, to drag his eyes away from the strange woman he did not have the courage to approach, but time and again despite his best efforts he kept finding himself turning to watch her. She was still talking, still laughing with her friends, still seemingly unaware of the man who kept glancing at her from across a room full of people who had faded into the background. Everything else had disappeared for Martin but her, even when he had turned his back to her to avoid being caught out.
“Sir? Are you even listening?”
Martin jumped in surprise, nearly spilling his drink all over his good uniform. He had in fact not been listening, but Douglas certainly did not need to know that, especially with the self-satisfied smirk that the Flight Lieutenant was wearing as he watched his superior officer fumble with his glass.
“Of course I am Richardson, I was just distracted for a moment. What was it that you said?” he asked in the best officer voice he could manage at the moment, cringing only slightly at his lack of success.
The smirk grew, and Douglas drawled slowly in the sardonic voice that Martin knew all too well, “What I said, sir, is that it pains me deeply that I need to point this out to you, but if that young lady over there spends any more time staring at you when you aren’t looking I’m afraid that her eyes will fall right out of her head.”
The drink nearly went crashing to the floor once again. “I…I’m sure I don’t know what you mean.”
“Then let me speak plainly.” Douglas stepped closer, eyes dancing with merriment at Martin’s discomfort. “If you don’t go over there and ask that lovely young woman who cannot take her eyes off of you to dance in the next two minutes, I will do it for you. And to be honest sir, I’m fairly certain that neither of us wants that.”
A flush that could not be excused by the heat of the room spread over Martin’s face, creeping up from his collar to turn his face a deeper red than he cared to think about. He knew exactly who Douglas meant, of course. He had seen the woman in blue glancing over at him when he had been stealing looks of his own, brushing them off as accidents or careless happenstance, refusing to get his hopes up that she was as interested as he. But as he looked back over to where he knew she was still standing now, his heart leapt to his throat as two pairs of eyes locked across a crowded room. Her eyes widened as they met his, the grin slipping from her face as they froze in mutual shock and embarrassment. In that moment, that briefest of seconds that lasted forever between them, Martin knew what he had to do.
There was nothing for it. He had to speak to her, even if it was only to say hello. He could not possibly let this woman slip away from him tonight, could not spend the rest of his life wondering what could have been if only he had been able to work up the courage to speak to her. He was a pilot, for God’s sake! He had fought the Nazis, had defended his country in its hour of greatest need, had risked his life in the air countless times when all seemed lost. Talking to a woman at a party, that was nothing. Or at least that was what he told himself as he began to move across the room, hands shaking gently in terror as his heart pounded in his ears. The distance between them stretched out further than should have been possible, crowded with too many people that needed to be navigated around on his way to his goal. And yet before he knew it he was there, brought up suddenly in front of her before he was ready and left without a clue how to begin the conversation.
With a nervous swallow, he began shakily. “Hello.” As greetings went, it was hardly the most imaginative or the most charming. But it was all that Martin could manage around the hammering of his heart, all he could possibly force out of a mouth that had gone dry with fear and anticipation.
The only thing that saved him from utter humiliation at his stammered greeting was that the woman seemed just as lost for words as he did. She smiled, open and honest and full of nervous laughter that was utterly sincere. “Hello,” she breathed out in return, her whisper barely audible in a room full to bursting with the raucous clamor of celebration.
“I was watching….I mean I saw you. Across the room. I looked over, and I saw you, and I think you saw me too –“ Martin cut himself off before he could do any more damage, swallowing heavily. This was exactly what he had been afraid of, but there was no going back now that he had begun, and he certainly was not going to turn tail and run from this woman. Taking a deep breath, he began again. “Sorry. I’m Squadron Leader Martin Crieff, and it’s a pleasure to meet you miss.”
Miraculously, the woman had neither begun to laugh nor walked away from him during his stumbling introduction like he had feared she would. Instead, she simply continued to smile as she reached up to brush an errant wisp of hair from eyes that were warm with mirth and a touch of something that Martin could not pin down. “It’s lovely to meet you, Martin. I’m Molly Hooper.” A slight blush to match Martin’s own tinged her cheeks, and his heart skipped a beat to see it. He had thought she could not be any more lovely, and oh how wrong he had been. She looked down at the floor and said quickly, as though she could not quite believe the words that were leaving her mouth, “To tell the truth, I, well I was. Watching you that is. I saw you across the room as well, and I’ve been trying to work up the courage to come speak to you.” The blush grew, and her voice sank to a murmur. “Sorry, that was horrendously inappropriate. I’m so sorry.”
“No!” Martin exclaimed, startling both Molly and himself with the forcefulness of his voice. “I mean, no, it’s fine. Don’t worry, I um, I was doing the same thing.”
Oh God, what am I doing? The first pretty woman to talk to you in ages, and this is how you handle it?
But to Martin’s utter amazement, Molly was not appalled, or terrified, or offended, or any of the other emotions she rightly should have been feeling after his bungled attempt at conversation. In fact, she was still smiling at him, and Martin even dared to think that he saw a note of what could be hopefulness in her eyes. Matching hope bloomed delicate and uncertain in his chest, giving him the courage to take the plunge and do the impossible.
“Would you care to dance, Miss Hooper?” he asked, heart beating nearly out of his chest in fear and anticipation.
Her smile was brilliant enough to light up the entire room. “I was afraid you’d never ask.”
The stars shone beautiful and endless in a sky that was filled with untold possibility.