Hiding in the back stairwell at Headquarters probably seemed pretty silly, so as Alex and Stephanie huddled over the file Jimmy had provided, Mike Strong stood with folded arms as their sentry. When people – mostly staff officers in battle dress, or wearing snow-crusted overcoats – occasionally passed by, and spared them curious looks, it was Strong’s glare that averted questions.
The whitecoat and the Lieutenant needed some privacy before they were thrown straight into the classroom with twenty-four young women who wanted to be like Stephanie.
“I wish we’d gotten some notice about this,” Alex muttered at one point, not caring if her voice carried through the stairwell. “Like, any notice.”
“You did the ‘like’ thing again,” Stephanie’s scowl was audible in her tone, though obviously it had nothing to do with Alex’s strange choice of vernacular. “Where did theyget these people?”
It was a good question, but as they awkwardly flipped through the folder of female officer candidates, trying to keep its many pages from flopping out all over the landing, they found no immediate answers.
At the top of the typed candidate list was someone called Cecily Atherton, and there was a star beside her name – inked in by pen after the fact. Did that make her important? Probably, but there was no way to be certain, and no detailed profile to back up the name.
As Stephanie dug carefully through what she did have, all that seemed to come up were signed consent forms – testaments from each of the candidates that they would be willing to subject themselves to rigorous and dangerous training as necessary, and that they would abide by the decision of the selection process.
Because apparently they had to sign waivers for that sort of thing now. It actually put Stephanie’s teeth on edge that such letters were necessary – she’d never signed one, and she couldn’t imagine that a male who applied for a commission did either. Was the implication that women were more likely to be harmed, or to complain about it? If the latter was the implication, was it wrong?
Already Stephanie’s blood pressure was edging its way upward, and detecting her friend’s growing frustration, Alex looked up from the page she was reading, “Hey, don’t start thinking about the politics of this right yet. Look here.”
Stephanie blinked at her friend’s warning, simultaneously realizing that the younger Lady Smith was absolutely correct and that she’d found something interesting.
“Sponsored by the Earl of Chatham,” Alex declared, looking from Stephanie over to Strong. “There’s a letter here from him to Churchill, insisting that capable women should be given the chance to follow Stephanie’s lead.”
“I like women,” Strong replied, still facing away with folded arms. “But if there are more of them like you two, I’ve clearly been looking in the wrong places all my life.”
That was actually a bit sweet, and Alex was about to ‘aww’ in appreciation, but Stephanie was scowling even more deeply, “The Earl of Chatham? That was one of the Pitts– as in, the Prime Minister from the Napoleonic Wars Pitt. They’re extinct. What the hell?”
Alex knew nothing about the peerage, despite being called a Lady, so she shrugged at her friend’s revelation, “They made new ones? Or William Pitt left seriously postdated orders, with some pretty specific predictions about the future?”
The latter was less likely than the former, but neither mattered. As Stephanie leaned towards her friend and read the letter from an Earl to the Prime Minister of Britain, she got a sinking sort of feeling. This wasn’t some pet project of the War Office; massive political pressure must have been laid upon Churchill himself, which meant there would be a lot of scrutiny on whatever happened with these twenty-four women.
Looking back to the list, the American Lieutenant therefore began scanning some of the names: Cecily Atherton, Helen Balsom, Marg Powers, Shoshanna Shor, Nancy Wake…
“Utah Young?” she blurted out the name as she read it, and Alex glanced at the list in the folder before raising her eyebrow.
“I’m going out on a limb and saying we have some American candidates.”
“I think Shor is a Jewish name,” Stephanie replied, as she nodded. “There’s a mix here. I wonder where they all came from.”
There were a lot of questions – questions that should have been answered long before the students turned up at Jimmystown Headquarters, expecting to meet their teachers. Why hadn’t this been handled differently?
“Well whatever’s going on, I guess we have to teach them something,” Alex gently laid the letter from the Earl of Chatham back inside the folder, then sighed. “If we’re really rough on them, and they all drop out, we get our year back.”
That sounded particularly tempting, so Stephanie began to nod.
“Yes. Yes, let’s be very honest. Either we’ll like them and they’ll impress us… or they’re going to run away and hide.”
“Talk about our nightmares,” Alex continued the thought.
“Tell them what happened to the last soldiers and Champions we tried to teach,” Stephanie’s tone pitched a little darker.
“Make sure they understand fighting isn’t a game,” the whitecoat added.
“Tell them if they’d been with Duncan in Scotland, they’d all be dead…”
“Or on Hood…”
That grim catalogue of reasons to be afraid halted abruptly, when Mike Strong suddenly appeared in front of both his girls, arms still folded as he looked down at the file.
“But give them a fair chance,” he said firmly, his eyes waiting when both Alex and Stephanie looked up in surprise. “They volunteered to come here, just like a certain American girl I know. You probably don’t have to do much imagining to figure what it’s like to have those hopes. Cynical though you might now be, you’re both going to assess them on their merits, because they should have a fair chance. Right.”
His last word was a statement, not a question, and his little speech caught both his charges off guard. Of course he was correct– no matter how frustrated they might be at not seeing action, and no matter how much they might hate the job they’d just been given, it was up to the whitecoat and the American to do right by a bunch of girls who could, in fact, be just like them. Hopefully funnier.
Leave it to Mike Strong to cut through their minor bout of self-indulgence, and stand up for the newcomers. The Colour certainly did love women… though perhaps not always in the way he wanted most people to believe.
Honestly a little chastened, Alex was the first to reply, her single word rather soft: “Absolutely.”
Stephanie let out a breath, then nodded slowly and closed the file, “That’s what you’d do, Colour?”
Looking between his beloved youngsters for a moment, Strong replied with a somber nod – one that made certain the seriousness of his point was clear. As their expressions revealed their acceptance, the Sergeant pivoted to humor, just to lighten the mood.
“I’ll also try to seduce all of them. And by try, I mean I will. It’s sort of like saying the tide will try to come in,” he added carefully, a practiced grin crossing his face.
It was probably a bad sign that such humor was considered a relief, but it was one nevertheless, and Stephanie’s response was easy: “They’re applying to be officers, Mike. Sergeants not allowed.”
“I’ll have the wash-outs then,” he shrugged, and in the face of that fictional logic, Stephanie rolled her eyes, and Alex shook her head.
“You would be so creepy, if you weren’t a harmless old man,” Alex was pretty mean with that retort, and she smiled just to emphasize her brutality.
Mike Strong gasped and clutched his chest as though he’d been wounded, but needed to say no more. Stephanie looked to her friend, Alex returned the glance, and then the American shook her head.
“So, no more hiding in the stairs?”
“Maybe another minute, just while we collect ourselves,” Alex succeeded in negotiating a further delay. The trio stood in the stairwell, glaring at passers-by, for another few minutes. Then they headed for the meeting room.