Fandom: Upstairs Downstairs
Summary: The first time they meet, Portia steals Blanche’s hat and Blanche save’s Portia’s life.
AN: Guess what I spent today doing instead of working on my essays? :P
Hats and Pirates
Her hair had grown long and – inevitably – utterly out of control. There had been nothing but a man’s razer to hack at it with since they’d left Cairo, and Blanche had quickly determined that that did nothing but make it look far worse. So because she was young and still under the impression that what one’s hair looked like mattered a fig in the grand scheme of things, she had done her best to hide it, scraping it all up into a bun and then putting on a hat and keeping it there. Of course bits were always on the loose, creeping out from under the wide brim and getting into her eyes or tickling her nose, but the general impression was at least semi-respectable and that had satisfied her enough that she could get on with her work without feeling self-conscious.
Then Portia had arrived, with a trio of insipidly dull friends, a sleepy elderly matron who was meant to chaperoning and an oily creature named Henry, and promptly lost her own hat overboard, into the depths of the Nile. So she had asked for Blanche’s.
“My skin will burn! I’m very fair, you know,” Portia held out one thin, pale hand expectantly.
Blanche had eyed her sceptically. Had she not been so unnerved by how beautiful Portia was she likely would have laughed in the spoiled girl’s face and refused. She needed her hat and it was Portia’s own fault for being too silly to bring a spare. But the fact was that she was young and prone being bowled over by good looking young heiresses so all she managed to do was blink and open and close her mouth a little indignantly before taking off her hat and handing it over.
“Of course it’s an ugly thing but at least I shan’t go all red as a lobster like I did in the Sahara – have you been to the Sahara? It’s hot as anything and full of sand.”
Blanche had disliked her immediately, all the more because she also rather wanted to stroke the soft coppery locks of hair that fell to Portia’s shoulders. Portia, of course, had perfect hair – perfect everything, really, with her neat little finger nails and white teeth and pert nose and big, brown eyes. Even then Blanche had known it was silly to be so taken with such superficial finery, but she hadn’t had the wherewithal to out and out reject it.
“Good Lord but what have you been doing to your hair?” Portia, losing interest in her own reflection in a cabin window of the boat they were on, finally turned her attention to Blanche.
“I’ve no comb and brushing only makes it worse,” Blanche muttered, and then had to bat at Portia’s hands because she was tugging at the pins in her hair as if trying to assess the damage that six months on the Nile had done. “Stop that!”
“But this is frightful!” Portia cried, “no comb? For how long?”
“I hardly think that matters – I’m an archaeologist, not some bedecked high society fluzy – ”
That last had been a sly insult Blanche had thought Portia would not be bright enough to catch. She’d been wrong, but she wouldn’t find that out until some weeks later when they were sharing breath and sweat in the engine room (the only place they were certain they would not be overheard) and Portia pressed her face to Blanche’s neck and murmured: “rather impressive for a bedecked high society fluzy, don’t you think?”
“I’ve a comb,” Portia informed her, now, “we simply must see to you, Dr Mottershead – ”
“Yes! Now, sit still.”
Blanche was certain she would not have tolerated sitting on the deck, attempting to catalogue fossilized fish bones whilst Portia delicately teased her hair out of the ratsnest it had grown into, had she not been so beguiled by the scent of Portia’s perfume. (Why on earth was she wearing perfume anyway? It was summer, in Egypt – did she think it masked the smell of sweat? Because it certainly didn’t. Although that too was a little beguiling.)
“There now,” Portia subsided after an hour or so of this, “you look almost respectable.”
“I looked perfectly respectable before you took my hat.”
“I’m only borrowing it,” Portia adjusted the brim, “or else I shall be brown as a nut by the time I go back home.”
Blanche was about to attempt some quietly cutting remark about how there were far worse things in the world than to be brown, when there was a gun shot and the man standing ten feet to their left fell down dead with a dripping red spot in the centre of his forehead.
Portia screamed, as did almost everyone else in the immediate vicinity – and Blanche felt suddenly, eerily calm, which was a relief, because she had rather worried she’d panic in the event of pirates. She knew exactly what to do, however, and found herself thanking whatever higher power might exist that she had made sure to learn to shoot during the war.
The revolver had grown so hot in the midday sun that it was almost difficult to grip, but she clasped it between fingers that suggested only the vaguest tremor of fear and planted herself firmly between Portia and the first of several ragged looking men now clawing their way on board from the bank. Their boat were not unguarded, of course – there were the Egyptian gunmen immediately springing into action, a few of the more worldly of the British chaps – but she was the only woman who was armed. Not that that mattered moments later when all was gunfire and shouting and Portia frozen just behind her, wide-eyed.
Blanche fired only one shot, straight into the face of the first man foolish enough to try to get past her. The recoil nearly cracked her wrist and the man went down looking shocked and with a bloody mess where his left eye had once been.
When it was all over, Blanche was copiously sick over the side of the boat.
“You were terribly brave,” Portia told her, smiling anxiously as Blanche continued to wretch.
“It was only what was necessary,” Blanche replied, not looking at her, “I am going to go to my cabin now. Good afternoon.”
She lay down for a little while but then found it more soothing to continue cataloguing her fish bones, and then shards of pottery, and then the arrowheads she’d been sifting out of the silt in the various bays where they stopped off a few times a day to collect supplies. By that evening she was feeling perfectly normal again, until Portia arrived to ask if she was quite alright and then she felt a little dizzy and out of sorts chiefly because Portia had changed into a pale lavender evening dress that drifted about her in a cloud of gauzy silk and made her look more than a little heavenly.
“I thought you were terribly brave,” Portia repeated, “where did you learn to shoot?”
“I had a French soldier show me, during the war. I drove an ambulance in Belgium and it seemed wise to learn, on the off chance.”
“Oh, I see – that must have been exciting,” Portia offered.
Exciting was one word for it, Blanche supposed. Certainly it made an attempted hijacking on the Nile feel rather blasé by comparison.
“Was he a boyfriend, this French soldier?” Portia asked, “I knew a French man, once – he was very charming but had dreadful taste in hats.”
“Boyfriend? No.” Blanche had rather suspected Jean Paul had about as much interest in women as she did in men, but of course in 1917 in the thick of the trenches, no one cared so very much about that sort of thing. Once you’ve seen a man’s bones protruding through his chest, who he wants to take to bed with him becomes entirely irrelevant next to the question of how to keep him alive.
“Oh,” said Portia, looking a little funny at that. “Are you still unattached, as it were?”
“As it were.”
“You’ve such a queer way of answering questions – I only suppose it mustn’t be easy, for a modern woman such as yourself to find – companionship.”
“Well it doesn’t help that I find ancient civilizations a good deal more interesting than people.” Blanche replied. “Still, they’re all the companionship I need, really.”
“If you find them so interesting they must be,” Portia said – she still looked funny, but maybe Blanche was over-imagining things. “Still it seems sad – I do like having Henry to talk to. He’s very clever.”
“He’s not so clever as you think,” Blanche replied, before she could stop herself, though it was perfectly true. She pushed her glasses a little further up her nose. “Did you want something, Lady Portia?”
“I – no. Only to see that you were alright.”
“Well I am. Good night, Lady Portia.”
Portia left, and Blanche stared at the closed door for a moment and then inhaled the scent of her left on the air. Sweat, and lavender water. She tried to go back to cataloguing arrow heads, but couldn’t concentrate. The place still smelled like Portia.
She found a little writing paper and a pencil and wrote Portia a letter. Not one she would ever actually send, but still – an exercise in catharsis. I imagine you and I imagine kissing your mouth and your nose and your eyes and your neck and the way your sweat will taste – I imagine your pale thighs and kissing what lies between them –
All manner of lewd, undignified things. When she had finished she read it over, rolled her eyes at her own taste and scrunched the paper up into a ball. She was no writer, and even if she was – she was fairly sure that there was no language that could be employed to make her desires sound in anyway romantic.
She splashed her face with water and went to dinner, but found her temper only worsened with company. Portia was there with her ridiculous couple of friends and the young man who was nominally engaged to her (Blanche didn’t like to think of him as such; Portia was a little insufferable but no one, not even her, deserved to be shackled to someone so oily for the rest of their lives). They were discussing something or other of Portia’s – she was writing a story, and had apparently begun scribbling on a napkin at dinner and now her friends were teasing her.
“It was Blanche’s fault anyway,” Portia was saying, as Blanche sat down, “something she said gave me an idea and I don’t like to let ideas get away – ”
“You and your ideas!” Henry was laughing, “you’d think you didn’t have a new one twice a day. Give me the pen, Portia, for goodness sake – you’re getting ink everywhere!”
Blanche rolled her eyes, picked up her food and went to sit with the Egyptian guards instead. They made for better company.
Portia picked up and left dinner early, disappearing from the dining room shortly after. Blanche finished her meal and went back to her cabin and somehow felt that she shouldn’t have been surprised to find Portia inside. Still she was surprised, and then found time slowing to a desperate crawl about her because Portia was holding the letter Blanche had written to her, uncrumpled and perfectly legible.
Words were not Blanche’s strength at the best of times. Now, they utterly failed her, not least because she was certain there was absolutely nothing she could say in the face of such an appalling exposure.
Portia dropped the letter, looking guilty. “I’m – sorry – ”
And then she bolted from the room before Blanche could begin to wonder why she was apologising.
Cursing her idiocy and trying to tell herself that perhaps Portia had not had a chance to read the entire letter, Blanche picked it up and wasted no time burning it. At least that way if Portia decided to tell someone, there’d be no evidence, it would be her word against Blanche’s and nothing would ever be proven.
The next day Portia acted entirely as if nothing had happened so Blanche did too.
And then Portia arrived in her cabin after dinner looking harried.
“So – your letter – ”
“Portia – it wasn’t…”
“May I see it again?” Portia asked, entirely unexpectedly.
“Because I – I have an idea for a story and I think your letter would help.”
“What kind of story? And no. I burned it. The letter.”
“Oh.” Portia swallowed, “that’s a pity.”
“I doubt it could have been any use to you anyway,” Blanche folded her arms, “it wasn’t – terribly eloquent.”
Portia laughed. “No – well. I thought it was… interesting, at least.”
A long, pregnant pause, and then Portia asked something in too much of a rush for Blanche to hear it.
“I said – did you mean it?” Portia’s fair skin had flushed. “The letter?”
“Mean it?” Blanche swallowed. What on earth did Portia want from her? A confession? A declaration? Evidence for having her committed to an asylum?
Portia’s voice dropped, low and urgent. “Say you meant it. Say you meant every word. No one’s ever written to me like that before.”
“I…” Blanche swallowed. She could shoot a grown man in the face but confronted by a trembling and impassioned Lady Portia Fielding she was entirely at a loss.
Then Portia rather helpfully took matters into her own hands and kissed Blanche soundly. She was very small, Blanche thought, a little distractedly. Short and terribly thin. It was like clasping a bird to one’s chest – a squirming, desirous bird who was desperately trying to get at your tongue. But oh she smelled wonderful.
“Does this mean I can have my hat back?” She asked, when Portia had quite satisfied herself and Blanche couldn’t think of anything else to say that didn’t make her feel faintly ill.
Portia giggled. “Don’t you have a spare?”
“I could ask the same thing of you.”
“If I had a spare I wouldn’t have kept yours – it’s very ugly.”
“Thank you, dear.”
Portia was still laughing, breathless and warm. Blanche held onto her. Now she was getting used to it it was rather a nice feeling, to have her pressed so close and warm. It was making her tremble. Portia was so delicate, so finely tuned and dressed and quaffed – what she wanted with plain, grubby, Blanche Mottershead she had no idea.
“You’re not like anyone else I know,” Portia told her, when asked, a moment later. “Not a bit. It’s – wonderful.”
“Oh,” Blanche said. She took a lock of Portia’s hair between her thumb and forefinger, winding it very gently about her knuckles. “You really can’t marry Henry, you know. He’s dull. And he treats you poorly.”
“He treats me perfectly well!” Portia immediately stiffened in Blanche’s arms and Blanche regretted bringing it up a little – but she doubted she’d get a chance to make the point again.
“He treats you like a little girl when you’re a grown woman,” she told him, “if you have to marry someone find a man who appreciates the way you think, Portia, for goodness sake.”
“Do you appreciate the way I think, Dr Mottershead?”
“I am beginning to.”
At that, Portia seemed to relax again, her smile sudden and brilliant. She let her forehead rest against Blanche’s temple, leaning her weight against the other woman, and Blanche felt the fullness of her arms with her there and felt she never wanted to lose grip of her again. It felt a little dangerous to be so suddenly, dazzlingly happy. She tried to shrug away the fear that edged the sweetness of it as Portia glanced up.
“Now – all the things you wrote in that letter – will you do them?”
“To be quite honest, my dear, I’m not sure some of them are anatomically possible.”
“But wont it be such fun to find out?”