Sussex, England, 1936.
Willow Rosenberg tugged irritably at the collar that was threatening to cut of the flow of blood to her brain. Just once she wished for something a little more comfortable to wear instead of a uniform that had obviously been designed to cause it's wearer the maximum amount of discomfort.
Not usually given to excesses of vanity, at this moment Willow was staring intently into the decorative mirror opposite her. She regarded herself with a critical eye. Her red hair was bound up tightly now but unbound it would fall freely over her shoulders and frame her pale frame. Most of her face was dominated by expressive, bright green eyes. 'Cats eyes' her mother used to call them fondly. A smattering of freckles across the bridge of her nose and rosebud pink lips completed what was a very pleasant face. Although it was a little too girlish for Willow's liking. She had the distinct impression from several people in her life that, at the age of twenty-three, one should at least look a little distinguished and grown-up. Willow knew she was neither and worked hard to avoid meeting such a fate.
Of course the uniform, however uncomfortable it was, went a long ways to achieving the mature look Willow felt was unattainable. She wore the dress uniform of Air Command... dark blue dress trousers which were obviously not designed with the female form in mind and a double-breasted jacket of the same colour. It's aforementioned collar buttoned up just under her chin. The blue was complemented with gold, a thick stripe running down either leg, trim on the jacket and the two pips on her epaulets proclaiming a Captain. Willow puffed out her chest slightly and lifted her chin. Newly promoted to being the youngest captain ever in Air Command, she still enjoyed looking in the mirror and seeing it for herself just to reassure herself that it was not a dream.
Don't get too attached to them Rosenberg... they might be coming off darn soon... and you're going to be setting the Air Command record for the shortest stint spent as a Captain.
Her shoulders sagged and her nose wrinkled in annoyance at the persistence of her ego. At this point in time she really ought to be more concerned about her hair not sitting just right or the creases in her uniform being not quite crisp enough. She tugged the jacket downwards as if it were not sitting perfect enough already, the stiff fabric clinging to her curves in all the wrong places. Her vanity in this particular instance was for a good cause... Willow Rosenberg was in smack in the middle of the proverbial frying pan.
When Willow finally realised that nothing more could be done to approve her appearance she forced herself to keep her hands clasped tightly behind her back where they could do no more un-needed smoothing or straightening. A small sigh escaped her lips as she stood and stared at her reflection. What did it really matter what she looked like? Nothing short of a miracle was going to help her now.
The door behind her opened and Willow spun around to come face to face with a very stern looking man. He swung the door open a little wider to reveal a very formal, spartan office. His uniform was much the same as her own only there was an over abundance of gold braid around the cuff of his sleeve and he had four pips to match her two.
"Rosenberg, come in."
Willow marched rather than walked into his office and stood with a very erect posture in front of the desk. There was a small plaque sitting upright on the desk with writing in gilt letters,
Air Marshal Sir Reginald Bryant, DFC
The man himself took a seat behind his nameplate with a clearly irritated sigh. He did not offer Willow a seat and nor did she expect to be offered one. While Willow stood, for a few moments he appeared to be pretending that she wasn't even there. He shuffled the papers on his desk and took the time to peruse a few at his leisure.
Willow was fighting a silent struggle, trying to ignore the urge to tug at her collar again. Bryant's office seemed stiflingly hot even though she could look at the window to see rain splashing against the panes. Sheer force of will kept her hands clasped behind her back, her chin up defiantly.
After taking his time, Bryant finally did look back up at her. His lined face seemed to be one of those which was quite capable of breaking into a smile but the look he wore now made Willow want to scurry for cover. He regarded her through piercing eyes which seemed as though they were boring right into her thoughts.
"Do you have anything to say for yourself regarding yesterday's incident?" he asked her in a bored sounding monotone.
"No sir, except that I'm very sorry sir... I know it was very foolish..."
"Foolish?" his monotone gave way to a hint of anger, his eyes glaring and yet Willow surprised herself by meeting them evenly, "Your stunt was dangerous and totally ill-advised, whatever made you think you could do a victory roll meters from the surface of my airfield?"
Willow had to fight the urge to make an impertinent remark in reply. Of course she could do a victory roll meters from the ground without batting an eyelid... blindfolded even. She was one of the best pilots in Air Command. Bryant knew that, he had told her himself on several occasions. Willow knew full well it wasn't the answer he was looking for.
"I'm not sure sir, I think making Captain went to my head... I was thinking with my ego... instead of the rules"
"You never play by the rules Rosenberg. That is one of the reasons why I had very little hesitation in promoting you to Captain of the Devils after Captain Robson... when Teddy was killed," Bryant paused for a few moments and Willow shifted her feet uncomfortably as Bryant briefly entered 'don't go there' territory before continuing, "There are some people who are naturally inclined to live outside the rules. In most cases those people are just a thorn in society's arse... and have no place in the military. However, there are a few who do... god help us... find themselves a place. You know what those people become Rosenberg?"
"No sir," Willow replied, uncertain as to where this conversation was going.
"Heroes... well, mostly dead heroes to be precise... but heroes all the same."
Great, it's always nice to find you're on a one way track to deadness, Willow thought wryly.
Bryant pressed his hands together in front of him and pointed them at Willow, "You're exceedingly brilliant, an excellent pilot and a born leader... but after yesterday I'm beginning to wonder if I made a bad call. There are some lines you cannot cross, no matter how indispensable you think you are... at any other time yelling at you for a minute or so would have served adequate punishment... but you would have to pick the day the American delegation just happened to be visiting and the precise moment they were touring the base. Why on earth did you have to do it right above their heads? You jeopardised the whole joint alliance when you nearly killed one of their most distinguished Air Marshals!"
"He was impressed!" Willow replied quickly and immediately bit her lip to silence herself.
"Your wingtip took his hat off... an inch lower and it would have been his head!" Bryant snapped, he certainly wasn't impressed.
"Well, he was too bloody tall," Willow muttered under her breath.
"Did you say something Rosenberg?"
"Ah, no sir... well, actually, I'm very sorry for ruining our good relations with the American branch of Air Command but I think it was ruined before I had a crack at it. I mean, refusing to reequip our entire fighter division with the latest American plane was a wise decision if you ask me but I don't think it made them very happy..."
"No one is asking you Rosenberg! I know it is a very difficult task to ask of you but it would be very much to your advantage if you would just keep your mouth shut! Right now you are facing some very serious charges."
"I know sir," Willow replied a little glumly.
"You came this close Rosenberg," he held up his hand with his forefinger and thumb almost pressed together, "This close to being demoted to private and spending the rest of your days in the service filling sandbags without a hope of ever even thinking about flying again."
Willow gulped, her mouth suddenly going very dry. The thought of not ever flying again... well, they might as well put her in front of a firing squad and get it over with now. She waited for Bryant to pass his sentence on her, knowing that it could be any one of a number of very unpleasant assignments. A transfer to an American Air Command squadron... well, that in itself wasn't so bad, her mother would her being in another country a lot harder than she would. One of the squadrons in Pasadena or Sunnydale...
Willow paled slightly, No, please not Sunnydale... Bryant wouldn't dare...
Or even a flight instructor at Air Academy teaching teenagers how not to fly nose first into the ground? That didn't sound too bad. Then Willow remembered the dismissive attitude she had shown to her instructors during her time at the Academy. She felt a small twinge of guilt when she remembered her arrogance towards the people who were teaching her to fly. Even at the age of seventeen, she had known she was a better pilot than any of them. Also, modesty was a word Willow had never bothered to learn the meaning of. Just the thought of having to take the kind of attitude that she herself had given was enough to make Willow cringe. Poetic justice though...
"Carrier duty," Bryant interrupted her musing with two simple words.
"What?" Willow had been so caught up in thinking of the horrors involved in teaching teenagers how to fly she had missed Bryant's words.
"I'm dispatching you and the entire Red Devil squadron to the carrier HMS Odysseus, currently with the fifth fleet somewhere in the Atlantic... until I decide otherwise, you will fly escort for the fleet..."
"You're sending me to the middle of the ocean!" Willow burst out before she could stop herself.
Carrier duty was one of the least sought after assignments in all of Air Command. Flying from an aircraft carrier was one of the most dangerous tasks a pilot could engage in but that wasn't the only reason for its unpopularity. The Fleet rarely ever returned to port for security reasons. It was well known that life aboard the carrier was lonely, cramped, damp... and Willow hated boats.
"Would you rather I assigned you to Air Academy?" Bryant asked coolly.
For a few moments, Willow actually considered this... it was almost attractive in comparison to life on a Carrier. Then again, the Red Devils could easily be equipped for Carrier duty, which meant she would still get to fly her Draken. It was just that she would be flying it out over a vast expanse of ocean with nothing to look at besides water... Willow hated swimming as well.
"No sir," she managed to reply quietly.
"Right, I've already organised the Devils to undergo the necessary modifications..."
"You knew I'd say yes?" Willow asked in surprise.
"Rosenberg, you've been under my command for the past six years. I've seen you develop from being a headstrong, cocky young newbie to a... well, to a headstrong, cocky Captain. After the serious nature of your transgression, this was all I could do to keep you flying with the Devils... where you belong."
"I understand sir, thank you sir."
"The best of luck to you Rosenberg. You fly out for the Odysseus next week..."
Willow started to open her mouth as though she was going to say something but Bryant silenced her with a wave of his hand,
"No Rosenberg... there will be no leave for you or any of your squadron. You're going to need the whole week for training and the Devils have to be reconfigured for carrier-based operation," Bryant turned his attention back to the papers in front of him.
"No buts... you're dismissed Rosenberg," He glanced back up and at her to see she wasn't moving and raised his eyebrows, "Dismissed!"
Her eyes widened for a few moments at his uncharacteristic refusal of any leave at all, even twenty-four hours would have sufficed. There would be no time to drive up to London to see her parents, a quick phone call would probably have to suffice. Willow could hear her mother crying into the receiver even now.
She saluted Bryant and he nodded absently. As she left Bryant's office she thought that she really ought to have listened to her parents when they told her to take swimming lessons.
"You didn't tell her anything did you Bryant?" the voice on the other end of the phone was urgent, insistent.
Reg Bryant cupped his hand over the receiver for a few moments as he let out a frustrated sigh. He watched as the rain ran in rivulets down his office window, the gloomy weather mirroring his own mood.
"No, nothing... they're flying out next week," Bryant replied blandly into the phone.
"Next week...couldn't we make it any sooner?" the voice barked back.
"Not unless you want them to smash into the deck of the carrier on their first landing attempts," Bryant knew full well the Devils didn't have enough time as it was.
"Fine Bryant," the voice snapped impatiently, "I'll sleep more soundly when I know all the carrier-based squadrons are almost at full strength."
"Ah, prime minister... do we have an ETA?" Bryant ventured quietly.
"No Bryant we don't... but when it happens... we'd better hope like heck what we've done is enough... because I have a feeling that all of hell itself is going to be unleashed."