The first time Sybil wakes up and discovers Gwen slipped away while she was sleeping, she feels the hollowness of loss. Not that she had expected – well, she wasn't sure what she had expected. Just not this: the aching loneliness of having fallen asleep safe in Gwen’s arms -- the warmth blooming against her back, arms wrapped tight, left hand cradling Sybil’s small breast close and high -- and waking up in a bed that suddenly feels like it stretches out for acres, cold and barren.
It hurts so much she almost forgets to breathe. Her chest feels tight, her pulse rapid. Sorrow momentarily immobilizes her, making the act of rising an impossibility. She had fallen asleep suffused with a sense of well-being and wonder, her mind still catching up with what the relaxation in her muscles already signalled -- that Gwen wanted this. Was willing to push the boundaries of propriety beyond breaking for this. For her.
Waking alone, her treacherous mind whispered -- what if it had all been a fever dream? Gwen had been sent to keep watch at her sick bed the night before. What if -- what if her imagination had run away from her, the headache making it impossible for her to distinguish between dream-scape and reality?
A sudden wave of panic and nausea overwhelms her and she rolls over on her side, curling up protectively, waiting for the vertigo to pass. She’s naked, she realizes, hands curling loosely around her rib cage. She hadn’t fallen asleep naked. She remembers, distinctly, her mother coming to check on her before the dinner party, the adjustment of the coverlet, her mothers cool hands through the thin cloth of her gown.
There is a brisk knock at the door, then the rattle of the doorknob and the tap-tap-tap of shoes across the floor. The gentle clank of a breakfast tray being set down on the table by the fireplace, a rustle of skirts, and then -- “Your mother asked me to bring you a breakfast tray, milady.” Gwen is at the window, drawing upon the heavy curtains to welcome the sun that is creeping in from the east.
She turns toward the bed and Sybil blinks, her pupils contracting in the sudden flood of light. Gwen is outlined in gold, a black shadow. Against the light, Sybil can’t see Gwen’s features and, her mouth suddenly dry, she opens her lips, licks them, in preparation to ask (say?) -- what? “Did you stay last night?” Too vague. “Did we--” what did one call it -- carnal intimacy? Making love? Copulation? Fucking?
Before she could say anything, however, Gwen is at the bedside, up on the bed on her knees, and leaning over Sybil close, so close. Out of the sunlight, Sybil can suddenly see the warmth -- the knowingness -- in Gwen’s eyes. And relief floods her instantaneously, replacing the nausea with a different kind of shaking immobility.
“Welcome to the morning, milady,” Gwen says, bending down to kiss her fiercely and deeply. Sybil arches up into the touch with a whimper -- only to find Gwen pulling back. “Oh, love,” Gwen says, her breath stuttering, “we can’t -- not here -- not now. We need -- we need to get you dressed and -- dressed, properly. I can’t.” Gwen’s hands are clenching in the sheets and Sybil suddenly has the wicked urge to lean over and press her mouth to Gwen’s bosom, in the place where she imagines Gwen’s nipples are hardening beneath her camisole, dress, and starched apron.
For now they have to get up and wend their separate ways through the day.
Sybil learns that Gwen has a cold from O’Brien, who had ill-temperedly appeared after tea to assist with the girls’ preparations for supper.
“Someone gets sick, twice the work for the rest of us. Some of us can’t afford to be coddled.”
“Are you saying Mrs. Hughes treats the staff with an uneven hand?” Mary’s eyes never leave the mirror as she adjusts her the pearl earring dangling from her right earlobe, but the tone is quelling and O’Brien pulls her lips together in a thin line, conscious of how close to the edge of propriety she skirts -- and that perhaps even in front of the daughters Crawley she would be advised to watch her tongue.
After making her appearance at supper and in the parlor after, Sybil slips away to the kitchen for a quick word with Cook -- who’d already prepared a tray -- and a brisk nod of approval from Anna -- before making her way up the back staircase, balancing a bowl of broth, two thick slices of bread and cheese, and a mug of licorice and barberry tea and fighting with her heavy skirts.
“You shouldn’t be here.” Gwen’s voice is thick with phlegm, her eyes red and running, her nose rubbed raw by the well-used handkerchief she has clutched in her hand. The volume of Conan Doyle that Sybil had lent her several weeks’ previous is open on her knee to “Scandal in Bohemia,” though when Sybil appears she lets her head drop back against the pillows wearily and closes her eyes. “You shouldn’t be here. You’ll get sick.”
“Mm-hm.” Sybil ignores her and sets the tray down on the chair by the bedside, settling herself with a rustle of satin on the edge of the bed and learning over to place a cool hand against Gwen’s forehead. It’s hot to the touch, though not alarmingly so.
“Anna says you’re to drink all of the tea.”
Gwen groans. “Everything hurts.”
“I know.” Sybil extracts the damp handkerchief, wrinkling her nose, and sets it aside before pulling one of her own out of her bodice and laying it on the bed within Gwen’s reach. Then she plucks the book from Gwen’s knee and tucks it to one side, nudging her knees so she’ll straighten her legs and then settling the tray across her lap. “The beef broth is good -- we had it before the fish course this evening, and I saw Cook adding extra ‘specially juicy bits for you when she was preparing the bowl.”
Gwen groaned, “Tell me O’Brien didn’t see.”
Sybil snorted, “She wasn’t in the kitchen when I went down -- probably sulking out behind the back pantry. I had to put up with her sulks as well as her yanking this afternoon when we were preparing for supper. And she still managed to get the French roll uneven, look.” She leaned forward and tilted her head so Gwen could see the hair swept up behind her ear.
Gwen reaches warm fingers up, runs them from the soft skin behind Sybil’s ear to the knot of hair at the back of her skull. Sybil leans in to the touch until Gwen’s palm cradles against the nape of her neck, angling for a kiss.
Gwen ducks away, “No! Not until I’m better!” But she’s smiling, so Sybil drops a kiss on Gwen’s flushed cheek and lets it go.
“Have your soup before it gets cold and then I’ll tell you, in minute detail, every twist and turn of the after-dinner conversation until you fall asleep.”
“I’d much rather you let me help you out of that dress which is showing your bosom off to such charming effect.”
“Eat. Then sleep.” Sybil does her best to look stern, but can’t help planting another kiss on Gwen’s forehead.
When Gwen finishes her soup they’re still alone and both of them know that Anna and the other household staff won’t be retiring for another two hours at least. And anyway, Sybil tells herself, she has Anna’s blessing to be here, and it’s only polite to make sure Gwen has finished eating and fallen comfortably asleep before departing.
She settles against the headboard of Gwen’s narrow bed, Gwen tucked under the covers with her head pillowed against Sybil’s hip, and picks up where Gwen had left off in “Bohemia”:
… "And when will you call?"
"At eight in the morning. She will not be up, so that we shall have a clear field. Besides, we must be prompt, for this marriage may mean a complete change in her life and habits. I must wire to the King without delay."...
Gwen drifts into sleep, snoring lightly, and Sybil lets her voice drop to a whisper and then come to a stop completely when Gwen doesn’t stir. She sets the book on the bedside table and considers going through the motions of slipping off the bed, gathering the dinner tray and her kerosene lamp, and retreating to the kitchen and then her own wing of the house. When her leg muscles contract in preparation for movement, however, Gwen mutters in her sleep and rolls in closer, wrapping an arm across Sybil’s waist.
“Shh, shh, it’s okay, I’m right here.” Sybil reaches down and brushes the damp hair away from Gwen’s temple. There’s contented murmuring and Gwen’s fingers flex against her hip. The weight of her arm is comforting, this time they have together made possible by Gwen’s illness. The sickroom atmosphere lends an air of unreality to the evening and Sybil thinks to herself that a few more minutes, surely, can’t hurt. That her presence can all be explained away by tending a patient -- something any good lady of the house would be expected to do.
She slides down the mattress, staying atop the blankets but bringing her body into alignment against Gwen’s. Gwen mutters her approval, adjusts, rolls over. Sybil tucks herself against the curve of Gwen’s back, slipping her hand around to cradle Gwen’s breast.
Just a few more minutes.
Anna finds both of them, sound asleep, when she comes to bed at close to two in the morning. It hadn’t escaped her notice that Sybil failed to return from the servants’ quarters and she’d had to cover the situation by slipping word to Lady Crawley that her youngest daughter had felt mildly indisposed and retired early. Her instincts had told her this was a situation where concealment was necessary, though she had not been able to put words to why.
Now, however, she stands in the halo of light cast by the kerosene lamp and considers the way Sybil is curled around Gwen on Gwen’s narrow cot. Neither girl had stirred when Anna had opened the door. Sybil’s skirts are tawny gold in the flickering light of the lamp; she is fully dressed and atop the bedclothes, one thin arm around Gwen’s shoulders, the other pillowing her own head.
Anna bites her lip. There's nothing exactly -- perverse about any of this. Though the presence of a sleeping Sybil in Gwen's bed is definitely ... improper. She knows Gwen and Sybil are close -- has seen them talking and laughing together. Has been meaning, in fact, for some time to caution Gwen against forming too close an attachment with Lady Sybil. The time has never been right, somehow, and then of course the presence of the typewriting machine and Gwen’s intention to leave service -- despite the fact Anna feels like Gwen is as a little sister to her she has never quite determine how to go about articulating her concerns.
The sleeping pair on the bed do nothing to help her untangle her thoughts. The only thing she does know is that Sybil couldn't stay here through the night or there would be hell to pay for all of them. So she goes over to the bed and lays a tired hand on Sybil's pale white shoulder, shaking her gently into wakefulness in hopes that they can extricate Sybil without waking Gwen.
“Unh?” Sybil pulled away from Anna's touch – then lifted her head blearily.
“You can't stay here, Lady Sybil – let me help you get back to your room.”
Sybil pulls her hand gently out from underneath Gwen's arm, then rubs her eyes and rolls into a sitting position. “Yes. Right. I'm so sorry. I --” She pauses. Blinks. Is that a blush Anna sees creeping across her chest? “I haven't gotten you into any trouble, have I, Anna?”
Inwardly Anna sighs. “No, Lady Sybil, I told your mother you went to bed with a headache. Please – I'll take you through with my lamp.”
Sybil turns back, reaches out as if to put a hand on Gwen's shoulder – then stops and withdraws her hand.
“Yes. Yes, of course.” She clears her throat. “Yes, please. I'm sorry. I didn't even bring down the tray.” She stands up and brushes her hands down the front of her skirt, glances around. Then nods to herself and turns toward the door.
Anna follows with the lamp.
“Oh, I am clever, girls! Aren’t I clever?” Cynthia blows through the door of the guest bedroom with a force akin to the bitter January wind off the Thames. Gwen pauses in the (ostensibly innocuous; in reality frightfully distracting) act of brushing Sybil’s hair so that Sybil torque her body around to look at her cousin.
“Prove it to us,” Sybil challenges the older girl with a smile, pulling Gwen’s hand across her shoulder and holding it loosely against her chest with a hand still damp from her morning wash. Gwen knows that Cynthia knows but the gesture still makes her pulse speed toward discomfort. The house is unfamiliar and for the past eight days, since their arrival in London, she’s been on edge. Since the combination of Cynthia’s presence and the relative freedom and anonymity of London has made Sybil bolder than usual, Gwen’s body has been warring between yes oh yes please and can’t can’t possibly every waking moment.
Cynthia flings herself with studied artlessness across the bed and studies them conspiratorially.
“You and you” (she points at Sybil and Gwen in turn) “and I are going out this evening.”
“Out?” Sybil’s voice holds reserves of both skepticism and delight. “Out where? All three of us? Whatever do you mean?”
“Out. Yes. All three of us. Yes. And to Theresa’s. Well, that’s what I told Mama when I suggested it. She doesn’t strictly approve of Theresa but, well, Theresa does have a fairly impeccable reputation in artistic circles and I told her an introduction would do wonders for your chances when it comes time to apply to Slade. So I said ‘Mama, I should like to take Sybil to Theresa’s for a dinner party this evening,’ and promised her I’d look after you, and she said yes.”
Theresa Delmonte was one of those rare creatures who managed, by dint of family and connextions, to keep one foot in Bohemia and the other in Society. She had married young to a man with a considerable fortune who had died of dysentery in South Africa during the Boer War leaving his wife with a not-inconsiderable annual allowance and an infant daughter whom (rumor had it) Theresa had insisted on raising in London, despite her mother-in-laws protests. The child was now half a dozen years old, occasionally seen at Theresa’s fetes accompanied by one or another of Theresa’s set. They were (scandalized gossips reported) paid a guinea or two for their efforts, providing the child with a patchwork of lessons political, artistic, and literary. She was a member of the Fabian Society and ran an art gallery in Bloomsbury that hosted half a dozen shows a year by the up-and-coming talent of England (whether they lived at home or abroad).
Gwen knew Sybil had been eager to meet Mrs. Delmonte ever since Cynthia had mentioned their acquaintance. This alone, however, failed to account for the sly smile that pulled at the corner of Cynthia’s mouth.
“That’s what you told Aunt Marian?” Sybil’s attention had apparently been caught by the same turn of phrase that Gwen had noted.
“I might have forgotten to mention,” Cynthia admitted with a note of triumph in her voice, “That dinner parties which begin at Theresa’s rarely end at Theresa’s. And I didn’t include the bit about the invitation having been extended to you both.”
“Both?” Gwen squeaked, and immediately blushed crimson when Cynthia’s gaze fell upon her in her customary workday skirts and apron. She licked her lips. “I mean-- surely--”
“Both.” Cynthia’s voice was firm and, suddenly sincere, she said -- almost shyly -- “I thought you might like a night out, a proper night out. With people who understand what it’s like, you see. Fred and Gillian will be there, and Michael and Patrick and Diana and -- well.” She looked from Gwen to Sybil and back again. “I thought -- it’s a risk, but.”
Sybil looked up at Gwen, and Gwen realized that the decision rested with her. Sybil wouldn’t accept for both of them, since Gwen was in the more vulnerable position. But Gwen could read the suppressed excitement in her eyes and feel the exuberant tension in Sybil’s shoulders. This was, in a way, the moment Sybil had been waiting for since they’d disembarked from the train at Euston Station on the 12th.
She licked her lips and opened her mouth. Shut it again. Then: “How am I to get away?” The servants quarters, here on Queensbury Crescent as they were back at Downton, were full of people who had honed observation to a finely-sharpened point and made it their business to know the comings and goings of everyone and everything.
“You’re being given the night off,” was Cynthia’s ready reply,” to visit with your sister in Tottenham.”
“I don’t have a sister in Tottenham. Francis is--”
“Yes, but they don’t know that, do they?” Cynthia waved a careless hand. “If you leave mid-afternoon, after laying out Sybil’s things for the evening, I’ll give you the address of my room off Russell Square -- my maid, Parker, will let you in no questions asked -- I’ve phoned to let her know to expect you -- and we’ll come and collect you at six.”
“I’ve nothing to wear!”
“Details, details. You’re about Tessa’s size. I’ll ring her up immediately and ask to borrow something suitable.” She gives Gwen a shrewd once-over and purses her lips. “Something in blue or green, I think.”
“I--” Gwen opens her mouth, flushes, then closes it again. Sybil is watching her face, trying to hide the hopefulness, trying to back away and let Gwen make her choice.
Gwen closes her eyes tight and takes a breath. Imagines an evening with Sybil in which they are equals -- not just with each other, but in the presence of other people.
“They’ll know. I don’t -- I can’t sound like you.” She whispers this, knows she’s giving in.
“They won’t care.” Cynthia, once again, has an altogether impossible and yet somehow utterly rational solution. “Anyway, if you’re going to make this work -- which, forgive me for being straightforward here but, from what Sybil tells me you seem to be moving heaven and earth to accomplish -- you’re going to have to get used to a few awkward moments. Even among people who are your comrades-in-arms.”
Gwen takes a deep breath, opens her eyes, and looks down at Sybil. “Shall we then?”
Sybil’s smile lights up the room.
They end up, at half past one in the morning, at Madame Strindberg’s underground cabaret. Smoke from pipes, fags, and dainty cigarette holders climbs the walls and drifts against the low ceilings. The smell of stale alcohol reminds Gwen of the pubs where, as a small child, she’d run to fetch her father for supper. The Golden Calf couldn’t be further away from the coal-crusted world of Wigan -- and yet the chaos of sound, the jostle of crowds, the easy familiarity of people who’ve been loosened by liquor, these all echoed of a home Gwen never thought to see again. She wasn’t sure whether she was pleased or not to find herself here.
The musicians up on the stage are playing and a woman’s voice sings through the smoke and chatter:
Then she pulled off her silk finished gown
And put on hose of leather, O!
The ragged, ragged, rags about our door
She's gone with the raggle taggle gypsies, O!
She catches Sybil’s hand, gesturing to Cynthia and her set -- Fred and Gillian are already wading in the writhing sea of dancers -- to indicate the direction she’s moving Sybil in, and sets off through the maze of tables for a secluded spot next to a pillar. One of the few she can see from the base of the stairs down which they had descended that isn’t already sheltering groping couples of indeterminate gender.
The dress she’s wearing clings to her body as she moves, making her feel exposed and vulnerable -- though she realizes halfway across the floor that she’s shifted her body to protect Sybil from the casual glance and grope of strangers, the way she used to put herself between Alice and Alice’s father and his friends when they’d had more drink than was wise.
Sybil is pliant in her arms, allowing herself to be led where Gwen wishes to go, as she lets her gaze roam freely around the room.
They’re both tired -- beyond tired, if truth be told -- but if Cynthia showed signs of bidding their companions farewell and bundling her charges back to Queensbury Crescent Gwen knew that both she and Sybil would deny their fatigue, deny their discomfort with these unfamiliar surroundings, in the interest of not letting this go: the being together, being seen as pair.
Gwen wasn’t sure if Sybil consciously noticed it, but Gwen certainly had: the way the guests at Theresa’s had given them the once-over upon introduction and nodded, ever-so-slightly, with faint smiles and the offer of a hand. We understand, the nod and smile seemed to say, You are our kind. We approve. And they were treated with -- deference was not exactly the word she was looking for -- Lord above she was tired -- Fred, in her tailored suit complete with pocket watch and tie, had pulled out chairs for them both at the table. Theresa had addressed questions to Sybil over the fish course (it felt so strange to be sitting next to Sybil rather than serving her) that Sybil had responded to with “we” and “our,” words which caused no visible consternation among the group.
Here and now, at the Calf, they’ve reached the semi-sheltered privacy of the far wall and Gwen leans back against the exposed brick, pulling Sybil back against her chest and tucking Sybil’s head against her chin. The musicians are taking a break between songs, but the sound is still a whirl of confusion and neither of them seem inclined to speak. Instead, Gwen lets herself sink into the feeling of being allowed this: allowed to stand here, in this cabaret, amongst this sea of slumming Society types and self-styled artists, working girls (she’s sure she’s spotted a few), and possibly boys as well, in addition to creatures who inhabit the land of either/or depending on the way the wind blew. Here in this space -- both alien and familiar -- she’s allowed to pull Sybil into her arms and let the world see Sybil is hers and she Sybil’s. It’s frightening and awesome feeling, one she has trouble trusting, trouble feeling the shape of. It’s lodged sharp in her chest, difficult to breath around.
Soon -- too soon -- Cynthia will come weaving over, stumbling with a giddiness borne of fatigue and alcohol, and collect them for the cab ride back to reality. For now, Gwen is content to hold Sybil to her chest and breathe.
Anna and Mrs. Patmore are away in London to visit the eye specialist, leaving Gwen with more privacy than she can remember experiencing in her lifetime. The walls of the servant’s wing are thin, and Mrs. Hughes carries a key to every lock -- yet still, she thinks as she pulls on her light summer night dress, the privacy is heavenly. For once, she’ll be able to spread her legs, slick herself up, and bring herself to climax without worrying that the shush shush of the back of her hand against the sheet or the near-silent moan that escapes between her gritted teeth will rouse Anna from sleep.
She blows out the lamp and settles back with a sigh as the room descends into full darkness. Midnight has already been and gone, and the house has only just settled down for the night. She’ll be up again at first light to carry washing water, lay out fresh clothing, prepare the breakfast table. If she’s lucky, she and Sybil will be able to snatch a moment or two alone before or after the morning meal, or in the late afternoon as she’s helping the girls dress for dinner.
She slides a sleepy hand slowly up her thigh, pulling the worn cotton cloth upward as she goes. She arches her feet, stretching the muscles of her legs taut, pushes out toward the far corners of the bed. In the dark, with her eyes closed, she can imagine Sybil on her belly between Gwen’s knees, bringing her warm mouth down to press wet lips against the tender spot where Gwen’s fingertips are gently circling.
So tired. She was up with the dawn that morning (the previous morning, now) and busy all day doing the work of two without Anna there to help. Her arms and legs ache from lifting and carrying, the space between her shoulder blades tight with tension.
She closes her eyes in the dark, takes a deep breath, lets it out, pushes the air out of her lungs and wills her muscles to relax.
Her fingers continue to circle -- dipping down through silken folds to seek the gathering dampness in the heat of the opening below. She slips a finger down, hooks it around the bone to scrape the spot inside that Sybil likes to tease. Lifts her pelvis to push against her own hand, shoulders pushing down into the pillows, a shiver running down her legs.
She can feel the cloth of her nightdress pulling against her pebbling nipples. Wishes Sybil were there to slide her soft hands -- always startlingly hot against Gwen’s skin -- up her ribcage to pinch and tug, and compress with sure fingers, fingers that were quickly learning just the amount of pressure, and when, Gwen liked to have on her nipples and Sybil’s hand or mouth, or Gwen’s own fingers, winds her slowly toward climax below.
A soft moan escapes the back of her throat, because for once she knows it can with no consequence.
She pushes her hips down, into the mattress, her chest rising, the fabric pulling that little bit tighter against her breasts. Visions of silk scarves dance across the back of her eyelids, Sybil’s playful smile, cloth biting at the skin across her breastbone, restricting movement, anchoring her against the tide of sensation building below.
Except -- tired. So tired. The motion of her fingers is repetitive, rocking, her wrist is sore from the hours she spent beating rugs out behind the summer kitchen. She bites her cheek against a sudden cramp and has to stop the pressure and motion to flex her fingers, flex her wrist back and stretch the muscle out.
Her eyes are closed. She’s drifting. She’s just awake enough to tell she’s not entirely awake. Silk scarves. Hands. Hands, everywhere. She can feel her pulse beating beneath her fingertips, the slick dampness between her legs, the full folds of her arousal cupped against the palm of her hand. Her legs spread wide, for the first time that day no longer required to keep her in motion, she’s come to rest.
At some point during the night, she swims to the surface of consciousness half awake, half dreaming. The part of her that’s awake realizes that she’s still dreaming because she can feel Sybil’s hands on her skin -- here, in here, in Gwen’s room, in the middle of the night. An impossibility. Her conscious self schools her breathing, wills herself not to move her corporeal form and thus break the illusion. She has these dreams sporadically -- more at certain times of the month than others, more in those times of drought when she and Sybil are frustrated in every attempt to see one another for what seems a geologic age.
She holds her breath as the ghostly hands slide with their signature warmth and suppleness up Gwen’s thighs and across her belly, mirroring the motions Gwen herself had been making before sleep overtook her. She keeps her eyes closed, swears she can feel the weight of another body shifting on the bed above her, the gust of a breath as Sybil leans over her body. The ghost-hands glide up under the nightgown and cup her breasts and massage hold the flesh firm and possessive, as Gwen was yearning for in those moments between waking and sleeping.
Her dream self, she thinks, knows her too well.
The dream Sybil is quiet, methodical. She even smells of the real Sybil, Gwen thinks hazily, all of lavender and mint with the sour tang of sweat and the musk of her hair, which seems to be hanging loose and drifting across Gwen’s breastbone as Sybil bends low to plant warm, wet kisses against Gwen’s throat, up to Gwen’s mouth.
Gwen’s dream-self has certainly taken note of Sybil’s kisses, for this is a near-perfect facsimile of the taste and touch and feel -- the pressure of tongue and lips, the worrying of teeth against her lower lip. Gwen opens her mouth and risks allowing the dream to carry her up into the body above her, the solidity -- God, how she wishes Sybil were truly there --
-- which is when she realizes that the body looming above her is, well, naked, and that somehow she, too, is in the process of becoming naked -- that the covers have been thrown back and the already-naked Sybil is fumbling with laces, rucking up the gown, gusting a noise of frustration, almost laughter, as she works the cloth down Gwen’s torso and over her hips, down to her ankles, and off.
At some point in the proceedings, Gwen has ceased to worry about jolting herself into full wakefulness and allowed herself vision: the soft glow of lamplight, the achingly beautiful sight of a naked Sybil in gold and shadow working intently above her. Gwen is loose-limbed and compliant with sleep. There’s no need to worry, as she usually does, about Sybil’s ability to focus on intimacy while also keeping one ear open for the ever-present possibility of intruders. Here, in this dream-time, she can sink beneath Sybil’s hands and submit to the pleasure of nimble fingers, the shiver of the draft across her exposed skin, the taste of Sybil’s lips against hers as Sybil leans in for another kiss, fiercer this time.
Gwen arches up into the taste, pressing her breasts against Sybil’s chest with urgent need, spreading her legs open wide and whimpering in wordless want.
Sybil nips her lip in response, pushes her back against the bed without a word, and slides her hands from Gwen’s naked shoulders up the arc of her arms, pressing her into the pillows with insistent pressure.
Gwen’s heart picks up speed.
Neither one of them speaks as Sybil’s eyes glint down at her. For the moment, Gwen thinks, swallowing, Sybil comprises her entire world.
Sybil leans over -- bringing one small, pebbled nipple close enough for Gwen to take into her mouth -- which she does. Sybil let’s out a soft mewling sound, the first she’s made since the dream began, and Gwen sucks harder in response, running her tongue in a tight circuit around the hardening flesh at the tip of Sybil’s breast. She can feel the other breast brushing her ear as Sybil leans in and -- Mary mother of Jesus, that’s just -- she’s conjured up the scarves. Sybil is binding her wrist to the brass work of the headboard, securing the knot and shifting her torso so the nipple pulls out of Gwen’s startled lips with a pop as she moves to repeat the process with Gwen’s other hand.
And finally, as Gwen lays with her eyes closed, straining slightly against the sensation of the ties, testing her range of motion, the swift, sure fingers weave a final scarf around Gwen’s ribcage, secure across her breasts with a final firm application of tension that brings the fibers biting into her sensitized flesh, causing the wetness between her legs to rush down in what feels like a small flood.
Sybil leans back and blows out the lamp.
Once again, Gwen is plunged into darkness and a world built entirely of a flood of sensations. The bindings on her wrists and ankles keep her spread-eagle on the bed while Sybil’s hands and mouth work down -- pressing warm kisses to her chest, licking whorls of saliva across her belly, smoothing sure hands down her thighs, then back up again.
Gwen squirms and whimpers. arching into the touch that is at once entirely too much and maddeningly lacking in fulfillment of her desires. She screws her eyes shut and wills the dream forward to resolution, desperate to reach the end before her body brings her fully awake as it so often does when she is lucky enough to conjure such elaborate nighttime fantasies.
The muscles of Gwen’s inner thigh spasm under Sybil’s touch. She clenches her muscles, but is unable to stop the questing hand because the scarves at her ankles bring her up short -- she twists, near frantic -- to bring Sybil closer or push her away, she is no longer certain. It’s all too much and yet she thinks feverishly that she may never, ever, have wanted anything more than she wants Sybil inside her, now.
As if Sybil’s fingers are primed to respond -- why not? it’s her dream, after all -- Gwen feels three fingers presses inside her in one swift, forceful motion at the same as Sybil grinds the heel of her other palm down against Gwen’s aching nipples.
Gwen bites back a cry, and Sybil shifts swiftly to catch up her mouth in a kiss, silencing her, “Shush -- love -- we cannot afford for the others to hear.”
She mustn’t think of O’Brien now, or her mind will surely conjure her -- bring this fragile thing crashing down around her in damp and tangled sheets and fearful, racing heart.
Gwen arches up into the taste, pressing her breasts against Sybil’s chest with urgent need, spreading her legs open wide and whimpering in wordless want.
Sybil draws her hand back, pushes in with four.
Gwen’s legs are shaking now from tension. Sybil stills her fingers -- still deep inside -- and presses her thumb down against the warm, hard nub of Gwen’s clit, base of her thumb sliding down and around, quick, insistent circles that maintain pressure but never cross the line from pleasure to pain.
Gwen can feel herself disintegrating from her fingertips inward, as if she is both anchored by sensation and set loose by it, scattering like fractured candlelight and shadow through the darkness of this space. They are in her room; they are falling. They are rushing against time; they are timeless. Her consciousness narrows to the circular motion of Sybil’s thumb --
-- and then the wave crests over her and she’s choking off a cry between clenched teeth, hands gripping the cloth that binds her wrists and pulling tights against the bed frame as she arches up and over, hips canted into Sybil’s firm hands, the muscles across her belly trembling --
-- and it’s over. Stillness descends, the only sound in the room the rush of Gwen’s blood in her ears, the slowing thud of her pulse. Sybil is making whispering, soothing noises, hands running across Gwen’s sweat-damped back, fingers tugging at the knotted scarves, loosening them.
She should have woken, Gwen thinks stupidly, as she sinks back into the incoherent darkness of sleep. This always wakes her. Frustrated. Yearning. She’s never been able to --
-- but Sybil’s arms are easing her back against the pillows now, smoothing back her hair, her mouth kissing Gwen’s temple. Gwen allows her pleasure-sodden limbs to sink back into the mattress with a sigh. And, cradled into Sybil’s naked skin, she drifts away into deep, dreamless sleep.
In the darkened room, Sybil listens to Gwen’s breathing grow deep and even, her body slack with satiation and sleep. Experimentally, she shifts her shoulder to pull her arm out from under Gwen’s neck. Gwen mutters, turning her head into the pillow, but doesn’t wake. Letting out a careful breath Sybil slides from the bed and feels around in the shadows for her discarded dressing gown. In the process, she finds Gwen’s nightdress and drapes it by feel over the chair she knows stands in the corner by the wardrobe. She collects the scarves from the four corners of the bed, loosening the knots by feel and wrapping them into soft coils and pushing them into the deep pockets of her robe.
The fifth scarf -- the one she’d wrapped around Gwen’s chest -- she leaves for Gwen to find in the morning, a talisman against forgetfulness. Then she picks up the extinguished lamp and tip-toes away into what’s left of the night.
Sybil knows it’s a pointless risk: They’ve co-existed together for seven years, have been lovers for fifteen months, and miraculously evaded discovery by anyone who would make it their business to tear them apart or bring them down.
They have twelve hours left and Gwen will be on the train bound for London. Thirty-seven days after that and Sybil will be joining her. Yes, living with Aunt Marian to begin with but once out from under her parents’ roof she planned to start making changes. She and Gwen will be living -- properly living together in their own flat in Bloomsbury before the year is out, war or no war. They’ve worked too hard and waited too long for this.
And yet she can’t help herself: with twelve hours to go she’s desperate to lay her hands on Gwen’s naked flesh. She knows she should be patient -- but she’s been patient enough damn it and -- well, they won’t be in the same county for the next five weeks and Gwen is going to London where already there is talk of air-raids.
Which is why she’s prowling the halls of the Abbey looking for Gwen, restless, full of want and need. It’s closing in on suppertime and she knows Gwen will be going through the motions of preparing the table, folding napkins, lighting candles. Even though she has all her worldly possessions packed away in the battered brown valise that Mrs. Hughes had gifted her as a going-away present, even though she’ll be able to take off her white cap and apron tonight and consign them to the laundry to be washed for Daisy or the housemaid who will inevitably take her place -- Sybil hasn’t let herself think about the strange distastefulness of, well, having a stranger come to wake and dress her.
She’s grown used, over the past two years, of the hands of her lover more often than not, and bathing and dressing has become an intimate affair -- one she is reluctant to share with someone to whom she’s only just been introduced.
“Anna -- have you seen Gwen?”
“Not, ah,” Anna pauses on her way to the dining room, wipes her brow with the back of her hand. “Not since half six. Try the East Wing? Mrs. Hughes may have sent her to lay the fire in the Tillingham’s suite. I’m sorry, Lady Sybil.”
“Thank you, Anna. Please. Don’t apologize.” Sybil lays a placating hand on Anna’s before moving past her. Thank you for not asking, for never asking. Thank you for the warmth that’s never left your eyes. Thank you for standing by Gwen. Thank you for looking away from our thousand upon thousand indiscretions.
She isn’t able to find Gwen before the dinner bell rings, and is forced to make her way to the dining room where her family is gathering, then sit through a tedious three-course meal acutely aware of Gwen making her unobtrusive way around the room, placing and removing dishes, pouring sparkling water -- and bending down to pick up the spoon Sybil drops in her path simply because she can’t bear to have Gwen walk behind her one more time without making physical contact.
“Thank you, Gwen,” She says, plucking the spoon from Gwen’s fingers.
“Lady Sybil.” Gwen bobs lightly before turning back to the sideboard.
Under the table, Sybil fingers the tiny slip of paper that Gwen has slipped into her palm along with the returned silver. Taking a sip of her wine, she waits for the distraction of the fish course so that she can peer surreptitiously into her lap and make out the tiny, neatly formed letters: Stop haunting the kitchen, you lovestruck ninny , it read -- Sybil’s mouth curved upward in a private smile -- or they’ll send you to a sanitarium in Brighton where I’d be forced to infiltrate the cleaning staff. Horrible thought! I’ll come to you later for proper goodbyes. Un-addressed and un-signed, though her hand must be familiar to everyone who worked belowstairs at Downton by now. Still, they had always reasoned, if a note like this were intercepted there would be no way to determine source or recipient to the satisfaction of Mrs. Hughes or Lord Crawley.
Sybil looks forward to sending Gwen letters in London that began “My dearest Gwen,” and were signed with, “Yours always, Sybilla.” It’s a childhood affectation that she had once recklessly confided in Gwen. It has since become an endearment whispered in her ear in the heat of love-making -- hardly childlike in connotation now.
She colors, poking at her sole and capers with her fish fork and hoping that her family will write the heat in her face off to the chardonnay.
The last three weeks, since Sybil had found Gwen the position with Mr. Fredericks have been a whirlwind of preparation. The time had sped by, yet it was hard for either of them to believe that the moment could actually come when Gwen would depart Downton for good.
Gwen will be renting a room in a boarding house off Tottenham Court Road, in the neighborhood where Cynthia has promised to help them set up on their own, already putting out enquires among her friends, even as she writes to Sybil darkly about the high cost of city living, unreliable landlords, and the problem of roaches.
It was understood by Sybil’s parents, of course, that Sybil would be looking for fellow students with whom to rent rooms -- her desire to live out from under her Aunt’s roof treated like a childish whim they were indulgent enough to entertain until the foolishness passed. Cynthia, Sybil had pointed out, maintained her own rooms -- why couldn’t she?
“Cynthia is a spoiled child who has always been allowed entirely too much freedom to go her own way, darling,” her mother had pointed out gently -- though there was an edge to her voice. Lady Crawley had never cared much for her sister-in-law.
“But mother,” Sybil argued, “I’ll be expected to have a studio, and I’ll be working on my painting at all hours. Surely it would be better for Aunt Marian and Uncle George if I were able to come and go as I need to without disturbing the staff.”
Her father hemmed and hawed around her mother, but in the quiet of his own study eventually gave Sybil leave to begin searching for “suitable” accommodation, and extended her an allowance sufficient for making a down payment.
Once Gwen was in London, she and Cynthia would begin to view possible apartments in earnest.
Meanwhile, they had to get through the next eight hours, which somehow felt more agonizing to Sybil than any other eight hours they’d had to live through since Gwen had turned away from the fireplace and dropped her nightgown fifteen months before.
Sybil take another sip of chardonnay and tucks Gwen’s promise carefully into the top of her stocking.
Proper goodbyes. Only if there will be hellos as well, she thinks: Hello London, hello adventure, hello a shared future. She remembers the smoke-filled cabaret and the sure grasp of Gwen’s hand at her elbow. Remembers noticing, despite her exhaustion, the way Gwen’s body re-arranged itself over the course of the night from not-quite-belonging to some subtle and breathtaking combination of “I have a right to be here” and “She’s mine.”
Ever since then, she’s been waiting with a frission of anticipation and, yes, arousal, for this aspect of Gwen to re-emerge and begin making her claims upon the world. It’s a bit intimidating -- even, if she’s truthful, frightening -- but also, she suspects, worth both the wait and the courage it will take to keep company with such a force. It’s what drew her to Gwen in the first place, after all, that core of knowing and doing that whispers to those who pay attention: I dare you to defy me.
Sybil wishes she had such confidence.
Perhaps, with enough time spent at Gwen’s side, she will master the technique.
She reaches for her glass to take another sip of wine.
Gwen is at the door of Sybil’s bedroom shortly after the grandfather clock on the landing strikes half twelve in the morning. They both know they have a scant four hours before Branson will be pulling the car around to drive Gwen to the station for the 5:17 to London.
Sybil pulls her inside the room, pushing the door closed and reaching around Gwen’s waist to turn the key in the lock. Gwen laughs, holding her candle away from them both, “Wait, just -- wait, love.”
“I’ve been waiting all day.” Sybil’s voice sounds a bit petulant even to her own ears. “I can’t believe I have to say goodbye to you tomorrow -- today.”
“You’ll be in London yourself before September is out,” Gwen responds. It’s a well-worn conversation, but there’s something comforting to them both about its repetition. They’re tracing out the steps of their soon-to-be-life, testing its veracity.
“I just --” Sybil slips her arms around Gwen’s waist. “I’ll miss you so much.” She pulls the older woman into an embrace, buries her face into the warmth of Gwen’s shoulder, nuzzling the base of her neck which smells of sweat and the lavender soap she and Anna keep in their room.
“I know, I know.” Gwen tilts sideways and leaves her candle on the little table by the door, then presses forward into Sybil’s grasp, pulling back. “I know.”
Anna must know Gwen is here, Sybil realizes, and wonders if she’d just turned a blind eye or actually given Gwen her blessing. There would be time to ask later. Right now, she wanted Gwen in bed, naked, where Sybil can press her whole body against the warm, muscled length of Gwen, where she can lose herself in the scent and taste of sweat and arousal that will soon cling to both of them, where she can push away the dawn for as long as possible.
She slides her palms back around Gwen’s waist and up, gripping the lapels of Gwen’s cotton dressing gown and backing them both toward the rumpled bedclothes. She’d been sitting in bed, trying to read without much success. She slides her thumbs under the cloth and feels the lack of a nightdress beneath. Feels her lips curve up in a smile.
“You came prepared.”
“You expected me not to?”
She feels the edge of the mattress against the back of her knees and sinks down to a sitting position, pulling her hands down to loosen the ties of Gwen’s robe so she can slide her palms underneath, anchoring herself against the curve of Gwen’s hips. She rubs her thumbs back and forth against the dimple of flesh between belly and hip, feeling the tickle of a few outlying wiry hairs.
“I would not have expected anything less.” She smiles up at her lover and then leans forward, pressing kisses along the half moon of Gwen’s belly, sliding her hands further under the cloth so she can caress and knead Gwen’s buttocks, pulling against the flesh, spreading Gwen wide and taut in the way Sybil knows she likes.
Gwen’s hands dance around Sybil’s shoulders, head, into her hair. Sybil flicks out her tongue and traces saliva down the crease of Gwen’s left thigh, up the other. Presses her forehead against Gwen’s belly and inhales audibly.
Gwen let’s out a sigh, pulls Sybil closer, flexes her thigh muscles against Sybil’s hands cradling her behind.
“I’m scared,” Gwen admits, “What if … what if I can’t dress right? Or my accent makes them hate me?”
The future will never be far from them, tonight, Sybil realizes. As much as they try to push their fears away.
“Then we’ll find you another position.” She presses her warm mouth against Gwen’s belly button, flicks her tongue inside. Slides a hand around. Presses an encouraging knee between Gwen’s legs to open her thighs. Gwen shifts to accommodate Sybil’s leg and gives Sybil enough room to turn her hand sideways and slide into the warmth of Gwen’s folds.
It’s a moderately warm August night, and the bedroom is further heated by a small fire banked against the night-time chill. Gwen’s body temperature is already slightly elevated from the beginnings of arousal, and between her legs she is startlingly hot against Sybil’s fingers. When Sybil’s hands reach her there, Gwen moans and rocks gently into the contact. They’re simultaneously eager and restless -- aware of the hours melting away -- and slow-moving, trying to make this last.
Something to carry them through the coming weeks of separation.
Sybil leans back, using her weight to pull Gwen up onto the bed and into a kiss, pushing her tongue between lips that eagerly open and accept her. She tastes tea and fish and garlic on Gwen’s tongue -- or perhaps her own. Gwen shifts above her, settling against Sybil’s hip, their legs scissored together, the slick of their arousal smearing across skin. She pushes up into Gwen’s mouth, into her chest, grinding her pelvis up into Gwen’s hip.
“You come to find me in London, hear?” Gwen pants around Sybil’s tongue. “I can’t do this without you.”
“I’m coming to find you.” Sybil affirms, rocking up and in, pushing fingers through Gwen’s curling hairs, seeking the opening, sliding the first finger inside. “I always find you.”
“Gnhh.” Gwen melts against Sybil, plastering them together from hip to chest, separated only by the thin cotton nightgown Sybil is still wearing, twisted around her torso.
Sybil undulates her body between the mattress and Gwen’s weight, pulling them both across the bed until they’re fully supported by the bolster beneath them. Then she rolls Gwen over onto her back, pulling back momentarily to rid herself of her nighclothes so that finally, finally, they’re fully naked and together.
It’s been months since they’ve been brave enough to steal this sort of time together; it takes her breath away to imagine that soon they will have the opportunity every night to be this close, to sleep wrapped in one anothers’ scent and taste and feel.
She gazes down at Gwen, whose skin is flushed pink with lust, vibrant hair in dis-array against the pillow. Gwen is watching her unabashedly enjoying the newly-exposed skin, tracing Sybil’s contours with her eyes, hands sliding idly up and down Sybil’s thighs where she kneels astride Gwen’s hip.
Sybil lowers her body, hands either side of Gwen’s ribcage, and brings her mouth to Gwen’s right nipple, laving her tongue over the straining nub, listening to the small sounds Gwen is making in the back of her throat. She loves this -- loves the way she can cause Gwen to feel this much pleasure, and just as much loves the way that pleasure fuels her own, drawing out the tight, urgent heat in her belly and pulsing deep in her groin. She can feel the wetness accumulating between her legs, rocks her hips once, twice, to feel the slick slide of her folds against Gwen’s thigh muscle, which comes up to meet her, almost painfully present against her sensitive flesh.
This time the sounds made in the back of a throat are her own.
She moves deliberately slowly, easing her mouth from one breast to the other with wet, open-mouth kisses, occasional nips, and follows her mouth with the pinch and caress of a hand. Gwen arches up against her fingers and palm, biting back the groans that threaten to escape from between her lips.
Sybil pauses to pull herself up and muffle the sounds with kisses. Then continues working her way down until she’s left a wet trail of saliva from Gwen’s nipples to the fur between her legs, and a wet trail of fluid from the top of Gwen’s thigh almost to her ankle, as she shimmies her way down, always keeping contact.
“Mmm.” With a sigh, she settles comfortably between Gwen’s legs, pulling her arms in and tucking them under Gwen’s thighs to cradle the prone woman’s hips and arse in her hands. With her shoulders she pushes Gwen’s thighs wide and lays her temple against the soft flesh of Gwen’s inner thigh.
Above her, Gwen whimpers.
Sybil inhales, once again deliberately noisesome so that Gwen will hear. She loves the scent of Gwen, part salt like sweat, part tang like citrus, and sharp like vinegar, all underlayed with a musk purely Gwen’s own.
She presses her forehead in against Gwen’s russet curls and inhales a second time, then settles in at her task. It isn’t a new experience, exactly, but given their usual opportunities for love-making she’s only had so many chances to taste Gwen like this, properly, tease her open with tongue and teeth and fingers working together. It still takes a fair amount of concentration to do well (she feels).
And so: inhale. She presses a firm tongue along the seam of Gwen’s folds, slides into the wet. She can taste and smell and feel Gwen’s arousal pervading her senses, filling her world. Gwen is velvet-soft and full with desire. Her hips tremble from an effort to let Sybil set the pace, and Sybil can feel Gwen’s thighs flexing against her neck and ears.
She breathes carefully through her nose, finds Gwen’s clit and circles it with her tongue as firmly as she can, sliding slippery skin against slippery skin.
“Oh, Sybil, God -- please -- ” Gwen is half moaning, half whispering, the murmur of babble that Sybil knows will subside into near-total silence the closer Gwen moves to climax.
She smiles and continues the tongue-twirling until her muscles grow sore, then shifts to long, firm strokes from Gwen’s clit down to her opening, then back again. Long, looping parabolas of want and love and lust all wrapped in one.
Above her Gwen is panting, shifting restlessly, pushing her hips down without regard to Sybil’s ability to inhale.
In other words, Sybil feels this is a job well done.
She returns her mouth to Gwen’s clit, then works a hand back under Gwen’s thigh so that she can press to curling fingers into Gwen’s opening, pushing down on the pelvic floor and opening her wide. She presses her lips around Gwen’s swollen clit and sucks in with steady, insistent pressure until she can feel her cheeks go concave.
As if in response to the suction, Gwen’s whole body contracts in one long, trembling line, her legs scissoring against Sybil’s skull in a vice-like grip and her hands flailing out for anchoring folds of blanket. Unable to say anything, Sybil slides her free hand up and offers it to Gwen’s questing hand.
She feels the rough tips of Gwen’s fingers thread through her own, anchoring them both in this moment.
She closes her eyes and waits until she’ll be able to breathe once more.
And then it’s over -- all the tension in Gwen’s muscles melting away as she falls back with rag doll limpness against the pillows.
Sybil pulls her head away and heaves herself up to lie gasping beside Gwen’s inert form.
“I said: I always do find you.” She whispers into the darkness.
Gwen stands on the platform, fingering the crumple of paper in her pocket nervously, feeling exposed, as if she were wearing a giant placard like Miss Pankhurst’s suffragists handing out their “Votes for Women” leaflets, only hers reads: “Invert.”
A word only recently learned, something to replace the uglier slurs she’d heard whispered behind closed doors when they thought she couldn’t hear: “unnatural,” and “perversion,” “a sin against God.”
It sits uncomfortably on her shoulders, as does “Sapphic love,” another phrase she has heard Cynthia’s friends toss off between cocktails. She prefers simply: love. Or, as Sybil is fond of murmuring: amante.
Amoureux, she thinks, rolling the vowels around the pathways of her mind. Amoureux des femmes. The words always came to her in Sybil’s insouciant tone, managing to be simultaneously refined and full of a heat which spoke of shared secrets.
Ma amante, Sybil croons as she slides slick fingers up the length of Gwen’s thigh. Ma amante.
The telegram now crackling in Gwen’s pocket had come from Grantham three days previously, delivered to her office by a young boy who couldn't have been older than ten. She tipped him tuppence and tore open the yellow envelope, unfolding the thin paper and reading the scrawl of the telegraph operator in London who'd taken the message down:
Arriving on the 6:16 Euston Thursday evening stop Cynthia agrees to arrangement as discussed stop please meet me at station stop counting the hours Sybil.
There had been letters, obviously, which Gwen no longer had to burn. She’d locked them into her valise during the two weeks she’s stayed at Mrs. Fosdick’s boarding house -- she hadn’t trusted either the other girls or the landlady to mind their own business. But then Cynthia, by way of Fred who had heard of a young man about to depart for an open-ended walking tour of Cumbria, had helped her secure a two-room flat three floors up in Torrington Place. The building was shabby, with a dimly-lit front hall with chipped tiling on the floor and peeling lincrusta that no one could be bothered to repair. There was one shared toilet and bath per floor, but the flat had its own gas stove with small oven and ice box.
The front room was a combination kitchen and parlor, with a window looking out on the mews; the bedroom had a similar view from a slightly smaller room. Electric light had been installed several years previous, and the hot-water heat appeared slightly noisy yet reliable (“If it give you any trouble,” young Elliot had said when Cynthia and Gwen had visited for a tour, “I usually give it a right kick at this end, see, and that’ll set it to rights.”)
Cynthia had helped Gwen furnish the place -- mostly discarded pieces from her parents’ townhouse and a few items she “just picked up” on her endless shopping and socializing rounds throughout the city. There had been a few modest house-warming gifts from Cynthia’s set that Gwen had abashedly accepted with no real idea of what to say.
She felt entirely out of her depth around Cynthia’s friends when encountering them on her own. As “Sybil’s Gwen” she had an explanatory purpose and a role within the group; in Sybil’s absence she was acutely aware of her accent and clothes, the way her years in service marked her apart from the rest -- no matter their espoused values of classless bon homie.
Yet at the same time, Gwen couldn’t shake the sensation that she was being welcomed, however vaguely, into a group the boundaries of which might eventually bend enough to provide her and Sybil shelter and friendship. Just the night before, Fred Ashby had come by with two wooden chairs for the battered kitchen table standing in solitary splendor in front of the range.
“Thought you and the lass might like a place to sit when eatin’ supper,” she’d offered, gruffly, without introduction, when Gwen had opened the door.
“I -- thank you,” Gwen had said, standing back to let Ms. (Mr.?) Ashby pass through and set down the burden. “That’s -- very kind of you. May I offer you some tea? I’ve just put the kettle on.”
“Lovely.” Fred dropped unceremoniously into one of the chairs she’d just set down and fumbled in her pocket for a fag. Gwen was about to offer a matchbox but Fred had one of her own, striking the match against the sole of her sturdy shoe and lighting up.
Gwen retreated to the chopping block next to the simmering kettle and pulled down a second china teacup and saucer, along with the tin of Darjeeling.
“When’s the lass arrive, then?”
“She wrote to say I’m to meet her at the 6:16 from Manchester at Euston Station tomorrow evening.”
“You used to be in service to Lord and Lady Grantham, Cynthia tells me.”
Of course Cynthia would see no reason not to talk about this, though Sybil had introduced Gwen at Theresa’s dinner party as a secretary in training.
“Aye. Since I were thirteen.” Gwen can hear her accent broaden in the space of a few words and cringes internally. Get her hackles up and it’s suddenly her mother’s voice that comes out from between her lips, despite the fact she hasn’t been back to Wigan since aught-seven.
“And Lancashire before then.” It isn’t a question, though Fred is clearly waiting for some sort of response.
“My father was a chemist on the high street; my grandfather worked down pit. My mother was in service before she married my father and joined him at the shop.”
The kettle began to steam and she lifted it from the stove, hefting it for a moment until it was just off the boil before pouring the hot water over the tea leaves in the pot, leaving them to steep while she set out a plate of biscuits, milk and sugar.
“My father ran a photography studio,” Fred offered by way of a response, carefully stubbing the cigarette on the saucer Gwen set down before her. “On Marlybone High Street. Portrait photography, camera repair. It’s how I learned the tricks of the trade. My baby brother runs the shop these days.”
Gwen sat down in the empty chair and poured the tea, cradling the warm china in her tired hands. Her fingers ached from the unaccustomed operation of the type writing machine, and the heat felt good.
“Do you --” She closed her eyes a moment in consideration, then tried again. “How long have you and Gillian known one another?”
Fred chuckled. “I met Gillian managing a gallery in SoHo, one of Theresa’s projects. I helped organize her first solo show back in ‘08. She was still living with her parents at that point -- you did know her father’s an Earl? Yes, it would be the sort of thing Theresa would mention. We escaped to Paris for a few years, but moved back when her mother began to ail. Theresa was kind enough to offer me regular work as her assistant. It’s enough for us to live on, when combined with Gillian’s annual allowance.”
“Do you find it -- hard?” Gwen isn’t even sure what she’s asking: Hard to work for Theresa? Hard to spend your nights with the daughter of an Earl? Hard to live on your lover’s income? Hard to be passed up as proprietor of your father’s shop?
Part of her also, unexpectedly, wants desperately to ask: Do they know? Do you worry they will find out? Was Fred still on speaking terms with her brother? Her mother? Did Gillian’s parents understand their daughter’s companion was more than a friend? The aristocracy were eccentric, Gwen knew, but their ability to bend and break the rules often depended on their willingness to keep up appearances. And Gillian, she knew, remained unmarried at the unconscionable age of twenty-eight.
Fred gave her a shrewd look -- one that made Gwen suspect the older woman might understand without being told in so many words all of the questions wrapped up in her imprecise interrogative.
“It hasn’t always been easy, no.” Again, that unhurried look of consideration. Fred took a sip of her tea, bit into a biscuit. “The Society types, they don’t always accept you. Even the Fabians and Socialists and other self-styled radicals who imagine themselves proponents of natural living and free expression, all the rest. There’s always someone who feels more comfortable looking down their nose at the wrong accent or the lack of social connections than they are acknowledging that you’re an invited guest, or a paying visitor, or even their host for the evening.”
“But I’ve seen your lass,” Fred nodded, thoughtfully. “She’ll insist they acknowledge you, and she’ll stand behind you when you choose to stand up for yourself.” She smiled wryly. “If anything, you’ll probably have to rein her in occasionally, when it would be imprudent to insist on being -- noticeable.”
“Aye.” Gwen smiled into her tea, “I know what you mean.”
Fred reached across the table to lay a hand on Gwen’s wrist. “It won’t always be easy, but you know that already. Come to me if they give you a hard time, Gillian and I’ll give ‘em what for.” She grinned, leaning back in her chair with an easy confidence. “You’re not alone, you know. You’ll be among friends, now. Enough of them that the enemies won’t have the power they used to.”
The noticeboard at the station had indicated platform six as the arrival platform for the train that had begun in Manchester that morning and made its steady, chuffing way down the length of the country through Grantham to London. The clock hanging above the ticket master’s office gives the time as nine past six.
Gwen shifts from one foot to another. The platform is starting to fill with others like her, who are waiting for passengers, porters prepared to offer their services, drivers sent to pick up a returning employee or a week-end house guests. Up the track, Gwen hears the distant vibration, then the echo of the whistle signaling the train’s approach. The white plume of steam and smoke appears, and then the engine is pulling into a stop with a final wheeze and belch of hot, soot-laden air.
Bodies surge gently forward in the murk as doors begin top open, passengers disgorging to meet the waiting crows in a counter-wave of motion.
Gwen stands still beside her chosen pillar, watching and waiting. Sybil knows to look for her -- both of them in motion will simply increase the chance they’ll past by each other several times over before making the connection.
Suddenly, Sybil is there in overwhelming three-dimensionality, her cream traveling suit trimmed in blue, her autumn coat over her arm and a small valise in hand. As arranged, Branson would be driving her luggage down on the week-end when Lady Crawley descends for an ill-timed visit to Queensbury Crescent.
Friday evening, however, is twenty-four hours away and between then and now Sybil has arranged to arrived early, ostensibly to attend a performance of La Traviata with Cynthia and retire afterward to a small dinner party at Cynthia’s flat. She isn't expected at Queensbury Crescent until the following night.
Gwen has to be back at the office at nine o’clock sharp the next morning, but the time between now and then is theirs. A taste of what will soon (if they play their cards carefully and cannily) be their everyday life.
Sybil is breathless, smiling, full of the restless energy of someone who has been cooped up in a railway carriage for several tedious hours. Gwen has been waiting -- waiting -- for this moment since they parted in the pre-dawn light of Downton Abbey’s gravel drive thirty-five days previous. Yet now all she can do is stand immobilized by the sudden and overwhelming need to wrap herself around Sybil’s aliveness and her acute awareness that any such demonstrations of passion need to wait until they were behind closed doors -- their closed doors.
The air between them crackles with excitement and constraint.
“I--” Gwen’s mouth is suddenly dry. “Shall I take your bag?”
Sybil laughs softly at that, some of the tension breaking, and leans forward to place a warm, chaste kiss on Gwen’s cheek. “Oh, how I’ve missed you,” she says breath warm against Gwen’s skin, and holds out a gloved hand: “The bag is no trouble at all. Just take me home.”
They make their way home down Woburn Place and Montague Street, dodging fellow pedestrians, prams, the occasional bicycle, omnibuses and automobiles. Just off Russell Square they stop at Mr. Kemp's pushcart for two meat pies wrapped in newspaper.
Gwen considers the feel of Sybil's soft kid glove against her palm and marvels at the mundane setting of this momentous moment: their first moments of freedom in London, taken up by mutton and potato pies, and conversation about the prevalence of pet pugs among the matrons of Bloomsbury.
The climb up the three flights to their two-room flat takes a geologic age and is over in the blink of an eye. Since leaving her office at five o'clock and making her way to Euston Station, Gwen has been quietly panicking over the rooms she will be bringing Sybil back to. Never mind that she's written in her near-daily letters every detail of finding and securing the flat with Cynthia's help, the generosity of Cynthia's friends in providing the essential furnishings.
Now she's confronted with Sybil in flesh and blood for the first time in thirty-five days. Thirty-five days during which Gwen has begun the transformation from housemaid to typist – from being in service to being one of the army of shop girls and office workers who moved with alarming liberty (and with independent income) around the city.
She feels she's just barely learned how to move around the city in his new role herself, and now here she is keeping pace with Lady Sybil Crawley, in her cream and navy travel suit and the soft leather boots with a dozen tortoiseshell buttons up each ankle.
They've just been out in public, holding hands like school girls, and will, in a handful of moments, be behind closed doors – their own closed doors – with no fear of interruption, with no threat of discovery.
They have, in other words, what both Gwen and Sybil have been longing for since their very first kiss.
Gwen is both thrilled – and terrified.
Sybil steps back on the – their – landing to let Gwen fumble with the key in the lock, then steps through with an air of expectation.
“It's a bit dark this time of day, but the east-facing windows mean we have sunlight in the mornings, and Gillian told me she'd found yellow curtains to --”
“Gwen.” Sybil's set her valise on the floor and is pulling off her gloves, finger by finger, turning back toward the door, where Gwen is securing the lock and turning up the light. “Gwen.”
Sybil takes the pies from Gwen's hand and sets them down on the table, then turns back to cup Gwen's face in her hands. “It's perfect.”
Gwen closes her eyes for a moment or two, breathing in Sybil's scent – lavender soap and rosewater and the underlying scent of warm skin, sweat, and, yes, arousal.
“Sorry. I'm sorry.”
“It's perfect. We chose it together, remember? And I trusted you. I trust you. It's going to be home. That's what matters.”
Gwen takes another deep breath, steadies herself. “Right. Yes.” Another pause. Sybil's hands on her face feel warm, comforting. It's been too long, and she's reluctant to pull away. It's a magical feeling to realize she doesn't have to: they could stand here, touching, like this for minutes or hours with no fear that O'Brien or Edith will come barreling around the corner and discover them.
The sun is going down, however, and their rooms will grow chill. “Tea?” She whispers.
“Yes, please,” Sybil kisses her softly, chastely, on the lips, and releases her.
It all feels easier, after that, albeit still – not “awkward,” exactly, but newly shy. They'd never had a chance to be shy, back at Downton, in that other life – the life Gwen has already begun thinking of as “before.” The situation had required boldness, insubordination, living under the threat of discovery. Tonight, for the first time, they have just – themselves. There's a door, locked, between the two of them and the world outside. And no one to rattle the handle and inquire what on earth Sybil could possibly have to hide, or suggest that Gwen has secrets that could be cause for dismissal.
They share a pot of tea and the meat pies, warmed in the oven where Gwen had left a banked coal fire that morning. She'll have to teach Sybil to use it, she thinks with a start. Sybil – as a student with an irregular schedule and the need for solitude to work on her painting – will be here in these rooms more often then Gwen – and there will be no one else to prepare the tea.
“Let me – let me show you--” Gwen gestures toward the back room, the bedroom, where a brass bedstead stands, made up with linens and quilts. The last of the evening light is slanting in through the south-facing windows as the sun sets to the west.
She precedes Sybil into the room, turning up the wall-mounted lamps to compensate for the creeping shadows. Sybil steps through, valise in hand, and takes in the space at a glance. The wardrobe, table with wash basin below a slightly clouded mirror, bed, a chair and small writing desk by the east-facing window. The rag rug on the floor. She sets her luggage by the wardrobe and walks over to the bed, trailing a hand on the bedspread before coming to a stop before the small bedside table. A stack of Sybil's letters sits next to the kerosene lamp, weighted down by Gwen's battered copy of Sherlock Holmes.
Then Sybil raises her head and Gwen hears her inhale sharply when she catches sight of the tiny sketch pinned to the wallpaper beside the bed.
She reaches out to touch the slightly curled paper.
“You've kept it.”
“Of course I have.” It had never occurred to Gwen to destroy the sketch, imbued as it was with so much promise for their life to come.
“That was – dangerous.”
“Yes.” There's no denying what they both knew.
“Someone could have found it. You could have been dismissed.”
“And you could have been sent away. But I wasn't, and you weren't.”
“No.” Sybil brushes her fingers across the paper once more, then turns her head to look over her shoulder where Gwen still stands near the door, reaches back with an open hand. “No, we weren't. And now, here we are. Look--” she tugs as Gwen crosses the floor and clasps the open fingers in her own. “Look: You don't have to hide me any longer.”
“At least not in here,” Gwen allows, sliding her free hand around Sybil's waist and resting her chin on the shorter girl's shoulder.
“At least not in here,” Sybil echoes. She turns in Gwen's loose embrace and places both palms flat against Gwen's bodice, thumbs to the tiny row of buttons, fingers splayed across the swell of Gwen's breasts below the fabric. “Come here. I can't be here another moment before touching you properly.” She slides her hands firmly down from breast to belly and digs her fingers into Gwen's hips, pulling her close, nosing into a kiss – the first of its kind they've shared since Sybil stepped off the train at Euston over two hours previous.
The sigh from Gwen's mouth comes out as an almost-sob; she hasn't realized until it happens that this is what she's been waiting for, thisis what she needed to resolve the tension jumping under her skin – the familiarity of Sybil's taste and smell, the confidence of her hands seeking and finding the contours of Gwen's form, reeling her in.
“I'm here,” Sybil whispers, smiling, against Gwen's lips, “I'm here.”
And she is, Gwen lets herself realize. Sybil is here. And soon, here will be home.
She should be elated, she thinks. She expected, in anticipation of this moment – the culmination of their combined efforts over the course of two years. Instead, a sudden wave of exhaustion rolls over her with such strength that her legs nearly buckle beneath her. Sybil feels her tremble and her hands on Gwen's hips tighten in concern.
“It's all right. I'm fine. I just --” Gwen blinks, trying to push the tiredness away so that she can explain, reassure. “I just – I couldn't be sure. Not until you stepped off the train. And then, what if you found the flat objectionable? Or the food too – coarse – and –”
Before she can say anything further, Sybil is kissing her again. She tastes of mutton and onions and the dregs of the over-brewed Assam they'd had with the meal. She tongues open Gwen's mouth and presses in, nipping at Gwen's lip with her teeth. “Foolish, foolish woman,” she's licking the words into Gwen's skin, feeling her way by touch around to the hooks at the back of Gwen's skirt, “foolish, impossible – didn't I tell you I'd come after you? That I'll always come after you? Haven't we been counting down the days until we could be together again?”
“But—you could have had second thoughts! It's – there's so much risk. And, and, I've made my own way now, but your art, your reputation, and –”
Sybil's hands are pushing her skirts away now, sliding up under her bodice in distracting caresses. “Shush. What nonsense. It doesn't matter. Let them say what they want, think what they want, they won't keep me from you. I promise. I thought we'd agreed--”
“Of course it matters.” Gwen puts her hands on Sybil's chest, pushes – though without real force behind the motion. She drops her forehead onto Sybil's shoulder, leaning into her body, half in frustration, half for support. Her limbs were still shaking from dissolving tension she hadn't fully understood she's been carrying.
Carrying since they'd first taken the leap, she realizes. Carrying since she made the decision to take this risk, decided to trust that Sybil will be kind and fearless and follow her into the unknown. The tension borne of fear that it could all, so easily, at any moment, go horribly, horribly, wrong.
And that, once again (and selfishly), Gwen would be cast out, cast away.
“It will matter when the whispers start. It will matter when someone refuses to purchase your paintings, or someone else refuses to include you in a gallery exhibition. I know more than you think, Sybil, about how it works, what it means. I haven't been listening and watching all these years for naught.”
“Yes, all right, yes, it matters. But the people who wouldn't buy my paintings, who wouldn't support my work – they're not the people who'd like my work in the first place, over and above whatever rumors are flying about the unsuitability of my connections.”
Gwen isn't sure how they've arrived here – rehashing arguments they've had a thousand times over the past two years. She can hear them both, echoing themselves from moments past. It's an empty conversation, since self-evidently they've made their choices, forged their path. Left service. Secured the flat. Gained entrance to Slade. Furnished the flat. Trusted Cynthia's friends. Stepped on the train. Stepped off the train. Walked hand in hand through the autumn evening. Shared supper at the – their – kitchen table.
And now, here: Sybil's hands circling absently in the space between her shoulder-blades. Her voice, rehearsing already-established truths in soothing tones, the argument containing no heat: complacent.
Complacent and sure: there's no need to fight anymore because they've won. They're here. They're home.
“I've missed you so – missed you so much,” she whispers into Sybil's collarbone.
“Yes.” Sybil whispers, in turn, into Gwen's hair, as she works her fingers up the buttons on the front of Gwen's blouse, works her fingers into Gwen's ginger locks loosening pins and letter Gwen's hair fall free.
Gwen lets Sybil undress her, compliantly yielding to the Sybil's hands, savoring her lover's caressing touch, absent for far too long. Once she's naked, her skin pimpling slightly in the cool evening air, she begins to work on Sybil's costume in turn, tired fingers still deft at the familiar motions of clothing removal.
Sybil keeps her hands in contact: running through Gwen's hair, across her back, steadying against hip or shoulder.
They're quiet, in the gathering shadows, the only sound in the room the shush of fabric and the sounds filtering in from the mews outside.
In the moments between terror that this night would never come at all, Gwen has been anticipating their reunion to be filled with passionate, heated, full of the energy that had fueled their lovemaking after previous periods of drought. Yet their rhythm is, instead, unhurried and languid – slow, sure caresses, lips moving generously across warm expanses of skin, extended pauses during which they simply holdeach other.
They haven't done this, Gwen realizes. Hardly at all, since this began. Touch as an end in itself, without the urgency of culmination. Her body is starting to warm, to gather warmth and weight, to thrum pleasantly, both taut with desire and loose-limbed with arousal.
Sybil pulls Gwen down into bed, humming low with satisfaction as their bodies sink into the mattress, limbs settling against limbs, skin to skin, lips meeting.
Gwen can feel the slick of her arousal slide against Sybil's leg, knows if she slid fingers between Sybil's own legs she would find a similar slippery wet gathering in the folds, beading in Sybil's wiry curls.
Suddenly, she can't suppress a yawn. She muffles it against Sybil's breast, turns it into a licking kiss.
“Shh.” Sybil is half laughing, stifling a yawn of her own now. “Shh.” She's pulling Gwen's head down against her chest, wrapping an arm around Gwen's shoulders.
“Shh. Sleep. We have time.”
“We do, don't we now,” Gwen mumbles, overtaken once again by the wonder of it all. She could stay. Sybil could stay.
They would both be here in the morning.