O Hesperus! Thou bringest all things home;
All that the garish day hath scattered wide.
~Sappho, “To Evening” (Trans. William Hyde Appleton)
Sybil swam into consciousness in the pre-dawn light when a hand, hot from the cocoon of bedclothes, slid between her thighs. This would account, she thought with a sudden clarity, for the dream she'd been caught up in moments before. The dream had featured a tangle of naked limbs on a sheepskin rug and a roaring fire in the great hearth of her father's library. She opened her mouth with a small gasp and discovered lips on hers, the sour taste of Gwen’s sleep and her own suddenly sharp on her tongue.
They've been doing this for some while, she realises, drawing a breath in through her nose and inhaling the scent of sleep and arousal in equal measure. Gwen's fingers slide easily down into her folds, a purposeful digit, then two, slipping inside, knuckles pushing down firmly, encouraging Sybil to shift her sleep-heavy and ill-coordinated legs apart to ease their passage.
She draws an exploratory hand across her own belly, seeking the angular planes of Gwen's hip as it rises above her on the left. Slips her fingers up under the edge of Gwen's worn cotton nightshirt and pushes the heel of her palm against the hollow of the join between thigh and belly, then up across Gwen's ribs to her shoulder blade, urging Gwen closer. Sybil's own flannel nightgown -- donned the night before against mid-December chill -- is already rucked up over her hips. Without breaking their kiss, Gwen rolls forward under Sybil’s guidance, pressing her now-exposed thighs and belly against Sybil's own, angling a knee to push Sybil’s legs further apart. This new angle allows her to press further inside her lover, curling fingers against the rough interior of Sybil’s opening, as Sybil spreads herself wide to take Gwen in.
Gwen’s wrist is caught between them, dragging across the curling hair below the rise of Sybil’s belly in a way that draws Sybil’s attention to just how rapidly her body is moving from sleepy-yet-interested to awake-and-aroused. Beneath the thick sweater Gwen wore to bed the night before, Sybil can feel the solid weight of Gwen's breasts pressing down against her own rapidly-hardening nipples. She tightens her thighs and pushes her hips down into their lumpy mattress, pulling Gwen's fingers further in and stretching up into the full-body contact, groaning against the drag of cloth across her breasts.
Gwen makes a wordless noise of pleasure and wonder in the back of her throat -- they've been lovers for almost two years now and still Gwen responds to Sybil's enthusiasm as if Sybil’s wanting as if it's an unexpected Christmas gift waiting to be unwrapped. Sybil smiles into their kiss, pressing her tongue into the corner of Gwen’s mouth, tasting, teasing. She hears a whimper and realizes it’s her own. She wonders how long has Gwen been lying awake next to her, teasing at her nipples, running sleep-heated hands across her skin? Sybil can feel her own breasts full, the aureole tight, the tips hard against the front of her nightgown. The six buttons down the front of the gown have been unbuttoned, she realizes, and shivers at the thought of Gwen sliding a hand between fabric and skin to caress her into wakefulness.
She’d returned home late the night before from a meeting at the Dreadnaught offices, sharing a cab back to Bloomsbury with Tessa and Di, then walking the two blocks to their third-floor walk-up in the bitter December air. Gwen had been long asleep, wrapped in a tatty wool sweater, with a hat pulled down around her ears to ward off the cold.
Artemisia had leaped down from the kitchen table at the sound of Sybil's key in the door, mewling imperiously for her customary bowl of cream. As silently as possible, Sybil had fed their calico cat, scrubbed her own teeth, let down her hair, and slipped into the pocket of warmth Gwen's sleeping body had created in their otherwise frigid rooms. Gwen had barely stirred, snuffling into the pillow as her body sleepily adjusted to Sybil's familiar presence.
It was a moment she looked forward to every day: the moment when all the worries and work of the day fell away and she could sink into the here-and-now being. Of wrapping weary limbs around her lover. Of sliding herself into place around Gwen’s soft, round bottom, and warming her cold hands against Gwen’s thighs before sliding her hands proprietorially down to cup the soft curls between Gwen’s legs. Even in sleep Gwen would sigh and press slightly into the pressure -- responsive, reassuring.
It was only then Sybil that could drift off into sleep knowing she was home.
Here and now, the dawn breaking over London promises a leisurely morning of love-making under the thick eiderdown comforter. This will be followed by a pot of strong-brewed Assam and hot porridge, made while Gwen hurries down to the stationer’s on the corner for the morning paper. They will read news of the war, write a few letters, plan their meals for the week. Sybil might sketch or prepare canvases, while Gwen turns the heel of a sock. Later, as the sun is dipping below the horizon again, they’ll make their way to the tea shop on St. Giles High Street. There, in the humid warmth of the tiny front room, Tessa and Di , and maybe Helen, will meet them for a plate of biscuits and a round of hot chocolates.
But in this moment -- the moment between sleeping and wakefulness -- the only event in Sybil’s conscious awareness that approaches a tangible, graspable reality is the feeling of Gwen’s skin on her own, the taste of Gwen’s mouth, the sweet, musky smell of her skin. She splays her right hand wide across the bones of Gwen’s spine, pulls her in and down. She rocks once, twice, three times against Gwen’s palm, feeling the slicked-up fingers sliding across the slippery folds, in and out around her own unyielding bone.
Breaking the kiss, she wraps her left hand against the base of Gwen’s skull, tucking the older woman’s forehead against her shoulder, whispers into her ear: “I missed you last night.”
“I missed you too,” Gwen whimpers into her shoulder, pressing kisses along her clavicle, licking in small short strokes up Sybil’s throat to her jaw, along her jaw to the soft lobe of her ear.
"I’m sorry --” Sybil gasps slightly at the whispering ticklishness of Gwen’s tongue, feels the way her belly contracts at the contact, and responds to the urge to bear down against Gwen’s hand, opening herself up for another finger pressed inside. “The meeting went late and then I--” another gasp, “had to share a cab with Tessa and Di--”
Artemisia chooses that moment to leap up onto the bed with a interrogative merp! putting her cold, black nose against the ear Gwen is not nibbling on and staring at both of them with her customary look of disdain.
“Oh, 'Misa ...” Sybil sighs, feeling Gwen groan into her hair in exasperation. They’ve been through this before and until the cat is fed there will be no further privacy. The kitten -- one of a litter Sylvia had found in a rubbish bin back in November -- refuses to differentiate the weekday mornings for their day of rest. Monday through Saturday, Gwen customarily rose at 5am to prepare for work. Sybil would follow soon after to prepare tea and toast and kiss Gwen goodbye before turning to a morning in the studio or making her way to the East End for a shift at the Federation soup kitchen or in the children’s school.
Sunday was their one day of leisure, and they savored it as they could.
There’s a pause lasting a breath or two. Then: “Here. Go feed the cat and come back to bed. I need the chamber pot. And to undress.” Sybil releases Gwen and rolls over, bracing herself to slip out under the covers into the cold of the unheated bedroom, and reach under the bed for the chamber pot.
Gwen pads into the front room, where Sybil hears the door of the ice box opening and closing again, and Artemisia’s eager mewling as Gwen puts down the scraps of stew meat set aside from the week’s supper.
By the time Gwen reappears, Sybil has shed her flannel and re-buried herself, naked, beneath the blankets. Gwen advances on the bed with intent in her eyes, the sort of look that causes Sybil’s heart to speed up and her breath catch in her chest.
“Here,” Sybil says softly, flipping back a corner of the blankets invitingly, “Undress and come back to me.” She lets herself gaze openly at Gwen as Gwen sheds the sweater and pulls the nightshirt up over her head, skin breaking out in goose flesh from the cold.
She urges Gwen back onto the bed, but on her knees this time, so Sybil can squirm underneath her lover and wrap her legs around Gwen’s hips. From this position it is only a slight strain to reach down and pull the eiderdown back up over them, creating a cave of warmth against the cold.
She pulls Gwen’s head down to her own for a kiss, then slides her lips across Gwen’s cheek to her ear and says, “So tell me what you had in mind.”
Gwen shivers, despite the fact their body heat is rapidly climbing. “I woke up and there you were, all -- soft -- and warm -- and here,” she whispered. “And I had to touch you. And you were asleep, but I could feel the way your skin responded when I slip my hands up your thighs and across your ribs.”
It is Sybil’s turn to shiver. She drops her feet to either side of Gwen’s knees, pushes herself up so that her groin meets Gwen’s and -- God -- her own sensitized skin meets damp curls and the heat of sex.
She watches Gwen’s eyes flutter shut.
“I was dreaming,” She says, repeating the action, pushing her pelvis into Gwen’s lap as Gwen’s knees fold and she collapses against Sybil’s chest. Sybil steadies herself against Gwen’s ribs with her right hand and slides her left between them. It’s her turn to slick her hand up against Gwen’s folds and tease her opening with the tips of her fingers as Gwen moans and rocks against her palm.
“I was dreaming that we were back at Downton only it was ours, or everyone was gone, and we were all alone. We were in the library, in my father’s library, on sheepskin rugs laid out on the hearth, the heat rolling out and lapping out our skin in waves while I lay underneath you like this and fucked you like this.”
She angles her wrist and pushes three fingers wide and two knuckles deep. Gwen is wet, but her muscles are still tight. She moans into Sybil’s shoulder as Sybil enters her, sucks hard against the soft flesh of Sybil’s neck in a way that Sybil knows would blossom into a bruise. The pain tugs her up again, canting her hips so that the back of her wrist meets her own clit as she rocks against Gwen, buttocks braced against thighs, her feet planted firmly against the mattress to hold two of them steady in the bed.
"What do you want?”
“Stay inside me.” Gwen pants, arching her back, pressing her pelvis down against Sybil’s hands.
“Just -- stay -- stay inside me. Please.”
Gwen’s breasts swing free and low, and Sybil leverages herself with her shoulders, pressing her buttocks flush against Gwen’s thighs and angling her head to take the nipple of one breast in her mouth. She loves tasting Gwen’s nipples from beneath her like this, feeling the flesh press down against her lips, working teeth and tongue around the rapidly hardening nipple. She breaths in through her nose and drops her jaw, flattening her tongue and sucking as much flesh as she can into the hollow of her mouth.
Gwen moans into Sybil’s neck, her face buried between skin and pillow, her hips rocking above Sybil in an unselfconscious rhythm. Sybil realizes her own thighs are tensing and relaxing in time to Gwen’s own, her pulse beating madly between her legs.
They have time, she reminds herself. This morning, for once, they have time.
She slides her free hand up Gwen’s ribcage and replaces lips and teeth with fingers, pinching and rolling the nipples between thumb and forefinger, noticing how each twist corresponds to a contraction of muscles lower down, the gradual widening of Gwen’s opening, the familiar hollowing out inside, so that the tips of Sybil’s fingers can curve inward, tucking around the slippery pucker of Gwen’s cervix and sliding back and forth across the tissue of her inner wall, pressing the flesh against Gwen’s pelvic bone.
Gwen might never grow used to her ability to draw out the desire in Sybil’s flesh; Sybil may never grow used to being allowed -- allowed to touch, allowed to linger, allowed to have. She sinks into this act of possession: d’avoir, she thinks to herself. Elle est à moi. Despite the frowns such language might receive from her fellow suffragists and the socialist agitators whose political sentiments were infused in the editorial journalism of the Women’s Dreadnaught. No human being was supposed to feel particular affections or possession for another. Many of her fellow artists who haunted the studios and night clubs of Bohemia espoused the doctrine of free love as expansive, generous, the way of the socialist future. When the smoke-filled, liquor-fueled late-night conversations turned to the question of love and revolution, Sybil keeps her mouth shut and avoids the gaze of the militants.
Tu es à moi.
She knows Gwen is as possessive of her as she is of Gwen, and neither of them are interested in making their life together the subject of political critique.
Je suis à toi.
She can feel Gwen’s skin heating up, now, as they rock their way into a lazy, yet intent-filled, rhythm. A film of sweat breaks out in the hollow between Gwen’s breasts. Sybil licks across Gwen’s breastbone with her tongue, mouths her way up across the mound of Gwen’s breast, and nips gently at the flesh of Gwen’s inner arm. Her muscles are beginning to tremble ever-so-slightly.
“Here--” Sybil knows, by now, what angle Gwen likes to be at when she’s on top. She pulls up her knees and works one leg, than two, between Gwen’s equally-trembling thighs. “Here, here--” she aligns her hips with where Gwen’s knees are folding underneath her, and settles Gwen down across her own pelvis, fingers cupped beneath and thumb pressed against Gwen’s fattening clit, tracing the periphery in steady, circular motions.
Gwen lets herself lean back against Sybil’s thighs and rolls her head back, exposing the arc of her neck, the line of which never fails to take Sybil’s breath away. Sybil reaches up and presses the heel of her hand against Gwen’s left breast, providing and anchor for Gwen to push against, and the steady near-painful pressure she likes against her bosom when she’s this close to coming. Anything less, she’s explained to Sybil, feels pricklingly unpleasant and so frustratingly inadequate it pulls her attention away from the concentration she needs to climax.
Sybil works her thumb through the slick, watching Gwen’s face, waits a beat and thrusts up with her hips. Gwen moans low in her throat, lips slightly parted, cheeks flushed, pulse pumping almost visibly in her pale skin.
Winter sunlight slants through the narrow window, outlining her hair in gold.
“Come for me.” Sybil whispers,” flexing the fingers she has pressed against Gwen’s chest. “You ready to come for me?”
Gwen whimpers wordlessly, curls inward against Sybil’s hand. Not that Sybil was expecting words when Gwen is this far gone. Out of long habit, Gwen is quiet in her love-making, near-silent as she grows closer to climax. Sybil can feel, this close, the moans and groans and small pleading sounds resonating in Gwen’s chest -- but if it weren’t for the slight scrape of the bed frame against the wood floor as they move, or her own words in the quiet morning air, no one would be able to tell by sound what they were doing.
Sybil listens, almost by feel, to the rhythms of Gwen’s body, her hands above and below urging Gwen onward it’s safe I’m here it’s safe we’re home you can let go now it’s safe I’m here -- and then with one choked-off gasp Gwen’s gone, her thighs rigid, her shoulders arching back into Sybil's bent knees, fingers pulling fiercely at the breast Sybil has no hand to cover, another hand pushing frantically down against Sybil’s thumb, doubling the pressure and ceasing the movement all in one motion that brooks no argument. Sybil can see the muscles in her jaw spasm, her teeth clench as she curls inward with a grimace of near-silent ecstasy.
She doesn’t realize she’s holding her own breath until Gwen gasps and it triggers her own throat to open back up and welcome air into her lungs with a rush.
Gwen rolls weakly onto her left side, right knee dragging deliberately the dampened curls at Sybil’s groin. Sybil lets out a gasp at the almost-painful sensation of wirey hair against engorged, desire-heavy folds and the pulsing nub of her clitoris.
Gwen plucks, almost languidly, at Sybil’s nipples, already hard from a combination of cold air and arousal. “Mmmm.” Sybil purrs at the touch, encouraging, shifting her shoulders so as to have more leverage for pushing into Gwen’s hand.
A laugh bubbles up from Gwen’s diaphragm rippling through her chest and extremities in the way it only ever does this soon after orgasm. She slides her hand down under the bedclothes, pushing her fingers through the sparse hair that curls below Sybil’s belly button and onward until her fingers dip under the edge of her own thigh, into the dark pocket of space created by her leg spanning Sybil’s slightly-parted thighs, holding her down with the heavy post-coital weight of muscles drained of tension.
Sybil struggles for a moment or two to re-focus her attention from where it has been trained on Gwen back to the sensation building between her own legs, to the feeling of weight and fullness and emptiness and need.
For a moment or two she panics, as she always does -- what if I’m too far gone, what if I can’t, I can’t, I’m too slow, it’s too much, what if I disappoint Gwen, what if I, I can’t, what if I can’t remember what it feels like, how to -- oOh --
-- she flings out a hand and catches hold of one of the spindles at the head of the bed, pulling herself taut from white-knuckled fingers to flexing toes. The hand Gwen isn’t keeping busy between Sybil’s thighs turns between Gwen’s belly and Sybil’s hip, clasping Sybil’s other hand in a wordless offer of something to grip. Sybil bears down. Struggles to quiet her mind, to pay attention to -- oh, oh -- oh and just when the anxiety threatens to overwhelm her the rippling waves of the tide begin to rise and she lets go.
She knows Gwen will be there to catch her.
They rise properly as the clock in the front room strikes half ten, after dozing in a tangle of limbs as the sun makes its way around the room and passes into the western hemisphere of the sky. Artemisia, sated by scraps and seeking warmth, sidles back into the bedroom and settles, purring loudly, on Sybil’s pillow, which is vacant while Sybil sleeps on Gwen’s shoulder.
They wash each other with a basin of water heated on the stove, and then Gwen steps out wrapped in her sweater, wool coat, and muffler, for the morning paper and a twist of brown sugar for their porridge.
Sundays in London, Sybil thinks with smile, are really much to be preferred over Sundays at Downton.