Disclaimer: this story is based chiefly on the Band of Brothers miniseries and the characters as they are portrayed therein, which are owned by Spielberg, Hanks et all. I have nothing but the deepest respect and admiration for the real veterans and this is not in anyway intended to portray them or their experiences.
London, September 1940. In a city suffering under the strains of conflict it was hard to imagine it had only been a year since the United Kingdom had declared Germany its enemy for refusing to withdraw their troops from Poland. Every day people would look at the memorials of the last great war, wondering what was ahead; the old remembering, the young speculating. Would they find themselves marching through fields of blood-red poppies, passing by the crosses of a lost generation? Would Hitler, the bold and underestimated upstart from Austria, dare to make a move against the stronghold of Albion? Little seemed certain now that Europe had taken up arms again.
In the midst of the troubled metropolis, the soft light and quiet music of Madame Fidolia's ballet school provided an unusual sanctuary to the handful of pupils she had left. Most could no longer afford her classes and even the grand dame herself had been forced to take up a second job, yet a lucky few were still able to escape to the solace of her studio every once in a while. The young man entering the building on the afternoon of a faithful autumn's day was in search of one of those few, taking off his hat as he seated himself along the back wall and marveled at the lithe motions of the dancers. A piano in the far corner wove a gentle Chopin melody around the young women while they moved through their steps, the blinds behind them half-drawn as though to protect their delicate figures from the anxiety and tribulations of the world outside. Scanning the room, the impeccably dressed gentleman's gaze lingered briefly on the bent and dainty form of the old ballet mistress before moving on to find the person he'd come looking for.
Taller and more curvaceous than the majority of her fellow students, Eleanor Fairfax was nevertheless an elegant presence, her limbs twisting and turning fluidly from one position to the next. From the back all her friend could see of her face was the arch of her neck under an intricate chignon of honey blonde hair, but he smiled in recognition regardless and watched her, silently, quietly enraptured, until the music wound down and the dancers eased into their final poses. Madame Fidolia made a couple of stern observations, then clapped her hands in dismissal and wandered off as her pupils scattered to retrieve their belongings.
Standing towards the front, Eleanor sighed and turned on her heel, ducking her head to pull the cumbersome pins out of her hair. By the time she raised her eyes again she was greeted by Peter Feversham's familiar smile. "Peter, darling!" she exclaimed in delight, hurrying forward to kiss him on the cheek, "Whatever are you doing here?"
Chuckling, he handed her bag to her and looked on in amusement as she dug through it to find her cardigan. "Why, picking you up, of course," he said once she was shrugging into the garment, "You didn't think I'd let you walk home all on your own, did you?"
Eleanor quirked a mischievous eyebrow at him, her fingers flitting over mother-of-pearl buttons with practiced ease. "Well, I don't know," she teased, "Given your recent interest in Lizzie Tallis I thought you might be otherwise preoccupied."
Peter let out an incredulous laugh. "You horrid little minx!" he declared, attempting a look of outrage but failing miserably when a grin broke out across his face. "You know Eliza could never steal me away from you."
Switching her shoes and tying the laces, his friend barely kept herself from snorting in derision, knowing it would be terribly unladylike of her to do so. She could not suppress a bit more mockery, however. "Aye, but her fortune might."
"You sell yourself short, my dear," Feversham observed, waiting patiently as she said a quick goodbye to one of the other dancers before turning back to him. Inclining her head, Eleanor linked her arm with his fondly.
"By consorting with the likes of you? Certainly."
They left the building together and stepped out into the watery sun beating down on the capital. There was an affection and familiarity to their banter born of years of friendship and mutual trust; though Eleanor had spent much of her childhood abroad in France, their families had always been close and visits had been regular enough for them to strike up a bond. Looking down at her bobbing curls as her heels clicked on the pavement, Feversham remembered what he had originally intended to ask her.
"Speaking of the likes of me, Andrew's having a jolly at his later."
Eleanor hummed thoughtfully. "Is he now?" she replied vaguely, mind already whirling. It had been an awfully long while since she had last seen her friends, but she also had an early class scheduled the next morning. Being a student at the London School of Medicine for Women was a great privilege, one she was all too aware of; indeed, being able to study medicine at all was an honor considering her gender. Peter, however, seemed oblivious to her busy timetable.
"Indeed he is," he confirmed, the slightest hint of a thrill in his voice, "It's not the Embassy, but it'll do for the evening. Goodness knows we all need a break from this gloomy business."
"I do believe you mean the war, Feversham," Eleanor remarked drily, gazing off into the distance to stall the conversation and ponder his proposal. It wasn't to be: she heard him scoff within the span of a heartbeat and was forced to return her attention to him not a second after.
"Oh, come on, old girl!" Peter chimed, noticing her hesitation and pouncing on it, "It's only dinner and some drinks. You can't seriously be considering not coming!" He paused, lowering his voice to an almost theatrical whisper. "Is it that silly school of yours again?"
She made a small sound of dismay and smacked his arm in outrage. "Peter! Don't be ghastly!" The fact that her friends in the bon ton didn't exactly approve of her choice in career - or her choice of having a career to begin with, for that matter - hadn't escaped her and their frequent ridicule of it was hardly new, but she loved what she did and wasn't about to let his nonchalant dismissal of it slide. "I happen to enjoy what I do," she protested, frowning up at him.
"Well of course you do," the young aristocrat shrugged, grinning impishly, "But it takes up so much of your time, Glorious. We barely see you anymore!"
Blushing at the old nickname, Eleanor burrowed deeper into her overcoat and ran through her options until she rolled her eyes with a sigh and finally gave in. "Oh, all right," she conceded, smiling at her companion, "But just for a few hours, and we're going to have to go by mine so I can change."
Feversham looked somewhat infuriatingly triumphant at her answer, but she ignored it much the same way she ignored the perhaps overly casual arm he slung around her shoulders. "Marvelous!" he declared, "Now all I need to do is get a good glass of champers down you and it's a party." Laughing at her appalled expression, he led her down the winding London streets and on towards her home.
Mere hours later Eleanor found herself clad in fine silks and perched on an ornate settee, the promised drink poised in her hand. All around her were the handsome and dapper youths she called her friends, drunk on the upperclass lifestyles they had been raised with and blase with all the worldliness of the young and not very wise. They dragged idly from their cigarettes, discussing the finer things in life and exchanging witticisms over a roaring fire; their chatter mixed with the upbeat tones of Glenn Miller coming from an antique gramophone in the next room over. For the time being at least, the war seemed very far away.
Leaning back against the velvet cushions, Eleanor laughed heartily at her partner's joke, happily buzzed from the champagne she'd been provided with upon arrival. Some small part of her nagged that drinking the finest money had to offer was hardly fair when millions lived off food stamps and rationing, but it felt good to simply smile and enjoy the company for once. It was, if nothing else, a welcome relief from the stress of her medical training. Still, her thoughts wandered to her parents almost inadvertently, imagining what their reaction to her current situation in life might have been like. Her mother, God rest her, would probably have fretted over the loose curls streaming down her shoulders (for goodness' sake, girl, fix your hair!) and worried about her marriage prospects (what eligible woman in her right mind chooses to study medicine?), while her late father would more than likely have lectured her on the need to serve her country. An American diplomat, he had always had a strong sense of patriotism and morality; it was his voice Eleanor heard whenever she thought of those less fortunate she ought to be helping. While enlistment was not particularly high up on her to do list, she felt as though she wasn't entirely throwing her life away on vain pursuits and luxuries either. Doctors were always needed in times like these, she told herself, and she could help the people that came to her hospital. It might not have been exactly what her darling papa had wished for her, but it was a happy medium all the same.
She rose from the couch and, having spotted Peter on the opposite end of the room, patted her friend on the shoulder in farewell and ambled over towards him. Her cheeks dimpled when Feversham turned around and called out an exuberant "Glorious!", letting herself be dragged into the folds of his little group of acquaintances. She took his hand without thought and inclined her head courteously as he introduced her to a few newcomers, about to respond to a question when the air raid alarm went off in the distance. Startling briefly, Eleanor looked around in a strange sort of awe as people began to move about and exchange alarmed glances until Andrew, in the midst of it all, raised his voice. "Everyone remain calm, please!" he urged, "It's just another drill, no doubt. We'll go down to the shelter."
Keep calm and carry on, as the government would urge them-and so they did. They were English, after all, and there had been so many false alarms in the past it was practically procedure by now. Nevertheless Peter clung to her hand as they went down to the basement, the touch of it a comfort she realized she did not mind. It felt good to have him close, her heart stirring peculiarly at the warmth of his grasp, when suddenly-
Somewhere outside, a blast rattled the old Georgian house and had the column of people halfway down its staircase freezing in fear. Boom. Boom.
Shocked gasps and mutters nearly drowned out Andrew's appeals to move along downstairs. "So much for it only being a drill," Eleanor breathed, biting her lip as they entered the shelter and tried to settle in for the night. Uneasiness grew as the bombardment went on for hours upon end; without any direct information, the young friends could only guess as to what was going on above ground. After so many months of preparations, it seemed surreal to be living through a genuine air raid.
When silence finally fell and the all clear rang out Eleanor was the first to rise, running up the stairs despite the protests that rose up along with her, sidestepping broken glass and throwing open the garden doors to look out at the world beyond. She gasped at the sight of it, clasping a hand over her mouth when she saw the smoke and dust and blaze of fire rising over the east of London, the awful truth now hitting her like a ton of bricks. This was it-there was no going back now. War had come to Britain at last.
"Dear God," Peter breathed, coming up beside her and reaching out to grasp her hand again, only to feel it slip from his fingers when she stepped back. "Nell?" he questioned softly, seeing her stagger dazedly inside. "Eleanor!"
Looking back at him briefly, she shook her head and searched her surroundings for her purse. "I've got to get to the hospital," she said faintly, grabbing the beaded bag and inhaling sharply when Feversham grabbed her by the arm.
"Don't," he implored her, "Don't go. Stay."
Sad eyes darkened by a new understanding stared up at him as she broke away. "I can't."
What felt like a lifetime later a distinguished elderly man stepped into the chaotic halls of the Royal Free Hospital, evading frenzied looking nurses and bloodied civilians. Taking off his hat, he made his way into the ward he had been directed to. The blackout blinds were still half-shut, as though their removal had been forgotten in the hectic early hours of the day, and yet it wasn't hard to find the person he had come to look for. Scanning the room swiftly the impeccably dressed gentleman found her between the beds, tending to a patient alongside numerous other staff. Tall, pretty enough, longish hair braided hastily back, she wore a medical apron over what must have once been a very fashionable ivory dress. Both were stained with red, and yet she was admirably composed for someone her age and given the circumstances. Seeing she was about to take off, the man cleared his throat.
"Miss Fairfax," he called, effectively halting her as she threatened to rush by him. She swiveled around, curious blue eyes finding his.
"There's something I would like to discuss with you," the man said, getting straight down to business despite the look of weary bemusement on her face. "Please come with me."