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Above the passion quivering

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Theresa keeps her word and doesn’t phone or write. She left behind a handkerchief, which is absurd, really, the stuff of novels, and Betty laughs and folds it into a square and tucks it away in a drawer, next to her warm woolen socks.

Kate won’t speak to her, doesn’t look at her – not when Betty’s looking, at least, but a flash of eye – auburn hair – pink-stained lip –

Resignation weighs heavy with guilt, and, try as she might, Betty can’t shake either away. She wakes mornings with the jumbled press of cold buttons on skin and Kate’s glinting voice, to the slick-soft slide of silk, worn by wear, and cool fingers steadying hers, polish brushed across her nails. Kate doesn’t come to her room; stands away from her as they change before shift; avoids her hands when they’re paired on the line. She’s as far away as she’s ever been, locked behind betrayed eyes.

Most evenings Betty spends distracting Gladys, and Gladys’ hand shaking as she learns to dice onions, her gritted teeth as she fumbles a needle, determined to stitch a button, the set of her shoulders as she scrubs, again and again, the cold enamel of the bathtub, worry Betty more than any time she’s seen her glassy-eyed and angry with drink. Betty aches with the waiting, with the knowledge that her friend will break, and fall, and finally feel the inevitable pain.

There’s a spare room at the boarding house, but Gladys rarely stays the whole night in the solitary bed, sleeping on the sofa or joining Betty in the cold chill of the early mornings. Her limbs are cold and sharp in the narrow bed and her breath very even. She doesn’t cry, not once, but sighs softly when Betty touches her arm the first night, wanting to say something comforting, but without the words, and moves into her touch. Betty places her hand more deliberately, and Gladys wriggles back, takes Betty’s hand, and wraps it firmly around her waist. Betty coughs a laugh into her hair; she’s never known one for taking what she wants, not like Gladys does, except maybe Theresa, and she’d – well, she’d wanted different things, hadn’t she.

Gladys settles in her arms and Betty relaxes around her; they sleep, entwined, and wake with the trilling of the alarm clock. Gladys rises easily and her lashes are dark against grief-bruised eyes; it might be the only sign of her mourning, those darkened circles her black crepe. They walk together to the factory in silence and Betty only stops her outside the door of the locker room, drawing her aside.

“You can stay with me anytime you –” Gladys nods, looking at a point over her shoulder. Betty wants to grasp her by the forearms and shake. “I’m here for you,” she says, fiercely, and only the harsh crack of her voice brings Gladys’ eyes to her.

“Yes,” Gladys says, “yes, you are.” She touches Betty’s arm, near the shoulder, and nods, very seriously, then steps around her to go inside. Betty leans her forehead against the cool concrete of the wall and groans, just a bit.

++

Most of the girls avoid Gladys, unable or unsure of how to express their condolences. Those that do receive a dull-eyed stare and silence, and soon Betty is the only one on the floor who will talk to her, except Mrs. Corbitt. Gladys’ hands move as sure as ever or else Mrs. Corbitt would have had her off the line in a flash, in spite of her protests, but Betty still works with one eye on the task in front of her and another on her friend. With all that worry, she hardly has time to think of Kate.

The lines of blue shift redraw themselves in Betty’s distraction. Reggie barks at Lizzie Edwards when her hand shakes on the amatol and the line goes quiet, half looking to Reggie and half to Betty. They catch eyes, and Reggie’s slide, just briefly, to Gladys, and Betty nods. “Back to work!” she says sharply, and from then Reggie’s voice joins hers in guiding the girls, watching out where Betty can’t.

++

Some nights, Betty goes to bed early, bathing in the evening and setting her hair and deliberately leaving the common room with a yawn and her bathrobe wrapped tight around her. Gladys won’t join her until the dark hours before daylight, if she does, so she locks the door and slips into bed and opens her robe under the warmth of the counterpane. Under, she wears her silk slip, the best she has left now, with its mended strap and fragile, worn seams, and remembers Theresa’s hands as they lifted it off her.

She hadn’t known what it would be to be revealed like that, and had shivered and looked to the floor until Theresa nudged her chin upwards with a knuckle. “I’d like to see you,” she’d said, and Betty had nodded, too rapid, and kept her eyes open. Her hands, on Theresa’s buttons, had been clumsy, but they’d managed, and Betty had pressed her lips to the skin exposed under the crisp-pressed collar and felt their pulses flutter together.

She hadn’t known it could be like that, with someone else, hadn’t hoped. Her nipples, heavy and slick from Theresa’s lips, had nerves created anew just for this, just for the heat of her mouth and the ache of its absence.

Under her sheets, Betty lifts her hips, settles the worn silk to her waist; its movement across her skin cool without the press of another’s hands, but memory enough. The springy soft hair parts beneath her hands as she finds herself slick and warm and wanting and touches, just there, and thinks of Theresa’s fingers doing just the same, her fingers, then later her mouth, and the nerves within her tighten and coil and sing.

She’d touched Theresa just the same, had rocked against her in an instinct only just revealed, had felt her wet and slick on her leg, then her fingers, had touched and touched and touched, Theresa’s hands on Betty’s thighs and hips rising, pressing, their bodies so near that every stroke of Betty’s fingers rubbed her wrist against her stomach. Betty tightened her thighs, gripping Theresa’s between them, and guided her fingers with the weight of her whole body.

Theresa’s voice caught somewhere above her ear, Betty’s lips against her collarbone, and her sounds were more breath than word, a shuddered, “Oh, oh,” and a “please,” marked only by the push of the p against her teeth.

“Yes,” Betty said to her skin, “yes,” and repeats that now, quietly, aware of the girls in the hallway and the common room, and the harsh, wet sounds of her hand pressing, needily, against herself. Her hips rise, hungry, and the universe centers deep, low, inside her, behind bone and flesh, wrapped in her blood, and then explodes.

She hadn’t known – so much – and now she does, a little, and sometimes the knowledge comes heavy in its solitude.

She rises with effort to wash up; her thighs, her hands, are sticky, and the cool air raises gooseflesh across her arms. The slip shifts against her nipples, hardened and aching still, and her eyes flutter closed, her hand fists the counterpane at the sudden and heated rush of blood to her depths. On shaking legs, she makes it to the sink and is thankful she’s still early enough for warm water, long though it may take to heat. The washcloth is worn and gone a bit rough with many washings, and when she presses it to her skin, the still-tender flesh throbs. Ablutions finished, she prepares for bed. Her pajamas, the fabric soft, the cut masculine, are rather like protective armor, and she is suddenly very aware of her own body beneath them. How queer, the things people can hide.

Gladys comes to her later, waking her with the creak of the door, and as they settle, Betty wonders if a body will again lay next to her in desire, not grief.

++

Departing together one morning, Gladys hollow-eyed and gaunt, Betty aching with too little sleep and too much worry, they find Kate kicking at her ever-frustrating door. She spins away with a cry, stumbling into Betty.

“Oh!” Betty catches her awkwardly about the elbows and helps set her right; Kate, red-cheeked in frustration, doesn’t pull away at once, and Betty’s pulse jumps in the hollow of her throat. “Alright there?”

“The – dratted door!” Kate’s hitch, her stumble over the near-curse, makes Betty grin. “It won’t lock – again – and I’m already late.” She grits her teeth, and if Betty hadn’t seen her in flashing ire and cold, composed defiance it would amuse.

“Let me,” she says, and Kate fingers the key. Betty holds her hand out; hesitantly, Kate drops it into her palm, their skin not touching. Betty cups one hand around the doorknob as she inserts the key, twisting just enough and pulling, and the metal under her fingers is familiar.

You’ll be safe here, she’d said, and she’d tried, but then there was nothing safe between them, and she’d shouted, and Kate had gone. And rightly so.

“Here,” she says, and when she returns the key she lets just her unpainted fingernails touch Kate’s palm. Kate’s hand curls around it, and she nods her thanks. They’re the only ones left in the hallway, and they truly are late, now, but Kate hesitates, looks to Betty then, behind her, to Gladys for the first time, and her mouth opens, then purses shut. She swallows and nods once more and distances herself from them as they all make their way to the factory.

++

“Is Gladys…” low and quiet, Kate’s voice hardly makes itself known above the general clamor of the cafeteria. Betty turns and looks up to Kate’s hands, fidgeting together.

“No, she’s not,” Betty says brusquely. “She’s not okay, and you could ask her yourself, you know.” She wonders when she stopped thinking of Kate as an angel, as compassion reborn. “And sit down, for god’s sake.”

Kate flinches, but perches on the bench, back straight and not touching the table. She leaves eight inches of space between them but still whispers. “I don’t know what to say.”

Betty bites her lip, ducks her chin, and tries to keep her anger out of her voice. “She’s not porcelain; she’s not going to break. And she could use the friendship.”

“She has you,” Kate says, looking at the floor. “And you two are – close.” Her voice is strained, and Betty looks over; Kate’s cheeks flush, pink high on the cheekbones, and the implication catches in her chest.

Thinking of all the times they had woken together, had left her room together, Betty swallows, tries not to let the hard, fluttering panic in her breast creep up her throat. For all her care before – with Kate – she’d hardly given a thought to what it would look. “She’s not – why would you even…”

“I heard you,” Kate says. Betty swallows, and glances around sharply to make sure no one else listens. “The night of the –”

“You have no right to ask me about that.” Betty stabs her fork down, and a pile of peas go rolling.

“I know.” When Betty says nothing, Kate touches her, just the tips of her fingers, on her forearm, and Betty jolts. “I know, Betty.” Her fingers hover; Betty closes her eyes and her breath shakes. “You’re my friend, Betty. I want you to – it matters to me if you’re happy.”

Betty pokes at the dry chicken cutlet still on her plate. In her silence, Kate shifts, then, with a small, hurt sound, moves to get up. “I’m sorry,” Betty says quickly.

“What?”

“I’m sorry – for what I said, before. I didn’t mean…I wanted to help you, because you’re my friend, not because –” she stops before she says something they both know isn’t true. “You’re my friend,” she says again, more firmly, “and you don’t owe me – anything.”

“Thank you,” Kate says, and squeezes her hand, quickly, around the fork still held limply. The word friend lingers, and Betty wonders when – if – it will be enough, when it will be able to encompass the fierceness that quickens her heart. There seems little alternative available.

++

The sun is warm on her neck when shift ends, melting away the last dampness from the shower, and beside her Kate walks in step. The silence between them, in these times when caught alone, is still strained, but she’s there, beside her. Kate says something about a card game later, and Betty’s eyes slide to her but catch on a figure by the gate.

Her hair is longer, the curls brushing past her collarbone, and her lips are bare, and Betty sees the way they quirk up, hesitantly, as she stumbles her step and stops, blinking. “You came back,” she says, and she knows she’s smiling because Theresa grins and takes a step forward and nods, too rapidly.

“Break in the – the tour,” she says, and her eyes roam over Betty, wide and hungry. Betty swallows and doesn’t let herself look away.

Theresa’s skirt is creased at her hips, like she’s been seated for a long time, and Betty’s fingers remember the feeling of the wool and covet it again. She flexes her hands. The sun glints off Theresa’s buttons, and her cap is very straight, and Betty’s never once wanted so badly a little bit of chaos.

“May I buy you dinner?” Theresa asks, and Betty nods quickly.

“Yes, I’d – yes.” She doesn’t remember Kate at her side until she turns and quick guilt flashes in her gut. Kate’s brow is knit and her eyes look – Betty can’t catch it, not before they clear and Kate smiles, tight, and nods once.

“Go. I’ll be – it’s fine.”

“Are you sure?” Betty asks, hot shame in her breast. If, at this moment, Kate said stay, would she?

She doesn’t, though. “Yes, don’t be silly. You two have –” she swallows – “have a good evening.”

“Okay,” Betty says, lingering, then Theresa touches her elbow, and she hadn’t even heard her step forward, but their eyes catch and Betty nods, knowing she can’t stop the way her lips want to curl up at the edges, then swallowing down the urge to kiss Theresa’s matching smile.

Theresa links their arms, tucking Betty’s elbow into the hollow of her waist like a secret, and lets their hips brush together as they walk.

++

Just inside the door of Betty’s room, Theresa takes her wrist to pull them together, hips breasts lips, and grins into their kiss. “Hello,” she whispers, and Betty echoes it.

Tracing her thumbs across the creased wool of Theresa’s skirt, Betty presses her fingertips into soft thighs, flesh malleable under her many layers. “I want –” she starts, then begins again. “I’ve been thinking about your hips all night.”

“My hips?” Theresa’s voice, amused, is surer than Betty remembers.

“Yes,” she says, nodding firmly, and the fabric crumples under her hands as she begins to work it upward. “And what they’d feel like beneath my hands, and –” she fumbles her words for a moment as the tops of Theresa’s stockings are exposed, then a strip of skin. Betty drops to her knees and hopes her hands aren’t shaking. “And how your thighs would open for me,” she says at a whisper, but it’s enough to reach Theresa’s ears, and Betty feels her moan; its presence thrums beneath her breastbone.

The skirt gives way to silk, which lifts from Theresa’s skin as Betty works her fingers under the lace edge. The crease of her thigh, damp with sweat, captures Betty’s fingers as Theresa moves her feet apart, and Betty looks up at her, flushed with the evening air, and Theresa nods. “Please,” she says, “oh, oh, please,” so Betty shuffles closer, and grasps one hand around her hip, and presses her mouth against silk, against her heat, and Theresa falls back, heavy, against the door.

Betty follows, body keening, and they clash together, roughly, Theresa’s hand at her shoulder, shaky, and Betty off-balance on her knees. She works her way forward, regaining herself. The firm edge of bone nudges against her upper lip, and she tilts her head back and suckles, tongue searching, pushing, silk sodden in her mouth, and Theresa’s hips jerk, just slightly, against her firm hold.

Fingers twist in her hair, and she hums her pleasure against barely-covered flesh, and Theresa tugs, just a bit, with impatience. “Steady on, soldier,” Betty murmurs, and she can feel Theresa’s laugh. She works the silk aside and breathes, because it seems to me you’ve waited a long time, and she has, long, long months since that first time, and all she wants now is Theresa’s taste on her lips reminding her of all the open possibilities of the world.

Her first touch is exploratory, tongue trailing thickly through swollen folds; Theresa’s thighs, at her cheeks, tremble. Seeking, searching, she delves, her mouth coated and wet and sodden curls tickling her nose, and Theresa’s hands woven through her hair urge her on. She remembers what Theresa had done and how their fingers had moved and sweeps the broad of her tongue across her, hard and wet and swollen, and Theresa’s breath breaks.

Moving again – again and again – Theresa’s hips making stuttered little jerks against her mouth, Betty breathes in the taste of her. Pressing one hand against her abdomen, fingers spreading a star across the soft, pale skin, she hooks her thumb around her pelvic bone, pressing just above the movements of her tongue and feeling the fluttering pulses of Theresa’s blood. She pushes, a bit more, and Theresa’s clit, hard and wet and warm in her mouth, throbs, and she sobs, fingers grasping, and nods her head, knocking it gently on the door.

Betty finds a pace more rapid, more needy and hard, and Theresa pushes back, dropping her hand away to press the heel of her palm against the doorframe, and she shakes and trembles and pulses against Betty’s mouth until she slumps back, hips falling hard to the door.

“Oh –” she says, shaking her head, eyes closed – “oh, kiss me, please, oh,” so Betty stands, and Theresa licks into her mouth, wet and salty and warm. Betty’s just – oh, she’s dripping and swollen and everything, every movement, feels too much – and Theresa pets one hand down her side, working her blouse out of her trousers, thumb across the rise of her hip. Betty shifts, opens, fumbles at her flies until Theresa’s hand moves between them, under fabric and threading through soft hair to part her. Fingers dip into Betty’s wetness; Theresa makes a pleased sound, lower lip trembling. “Oh, god, oh, you’re so – my dear –” she says, and kisses her, and her fingers run up the sides of Betty’s clit, and Betty gasps into her mouth.

“I’m – I won’t –”

“Oh – oh, please do, do let me –” Her two fingers move together now, and it rises up in Betty, needy and aching and too soon, and she gasps into Theresa’s mouth and shakes – shakes, her knees giving way and her hips shuddering forward with jerky little jolts – and falls against her, hands sweaty on the doorframe behind her and mouth buried in her neck.

She can’t look at her, can’t even open her eyes as Theresa eases her hand from inside Betty’s knickers and slides it, wet and sticky, under her shirt to rest against the warmth of her ribcage. Betty can feel the blood in her cheeks; her mouth remembers the needy gasps it had formed, her body demanding, needing.

“I – I’m –” she’s not sure if an apology can form, if it’s necessary, if, with its uttering, Theresa will push her away, but before she can decide, Theresa presses a kiss to her hair, and says, with lazy, sated musement, “Oh, oh you are. Oh my dear, oh my darling.” She brings her other hand to Betty’s chin, nudging her up so she can kiss, insistent and pressing.

++

“Are you pleased I returned?” Theresa’s feet rest against the headboard and she looks up at Betty, who takes her hand and intertwines their fingers.

“How can you even ask?” she says, teasing.

Theresa brings their linked hands down, pressing her mouth against Betty’s fingers. “I’m very fond of you, you know.”

“I bet you say that to all the girls,” Betty grins, teasing, but warmth suffuses her core, spreading out to reach her toes, tucked under the pillow.

“No,” Theresa says, smile very serious. “Just you.”

“Oh.”

Theresa’s mouth opens, helplessly. “And now I’ve – oh, dear, I didn’t mean to –”

“No,” Betty says firmly, and leans down to kiss her. “You didn’t at all,” she murmurs against her lips. “I’m glad you came back.” She shifts until their bodies are tight together, and their laughter keeps the quiet night at bay.