Fandom: Upstairs Downstairs
Summary: Which is how Blanche found herself, much to her own bewilderment, sat on a blanket on Portia Fielding’s bed in her hotel room at a little after one in the morning, stripped to a man’s vest and shorts, as Portia warmed a bowl of oil over a candle and chattered cheerfully about trapped nerves and the benefits of massage therapy.
Note: Another 'meeting' fic, now with added smut.
Midnight in Egypt
Over the past three months, Dr Blanche Mottershead had survived a riot, an attempted mugging, shot a pirate (and a mountain lion) and very nearly fallen off the side of a pyramid. That it was (admittedly slightly drunken) attempts at dancing that had finally felled her was an irony not lost on her.
She’d been trying to learn a particular local jig, because she found its use in marriage ceremonies of interest – and also because yes, she had been a little drunk. She didn’t normally partake but had not wanted to offend by turning down the offer of wine from her host. It was an expensive drink for him to have acquired so far from the nearest city, especially in a predominantly Islamic country where alcohol was accordingly rare anyway.
For her trouble, she had acquired a stonking headache and a cramp in her left thigh so bad that, back in her hotel room some hours later, sleep was proving impossible. It was the ghost of an older injury – tumbling from the back of her own ambulance in mid-flight from German shelling on the Somme, she’d cracked her femur. It hadn’t quite broken but it had taken a long time to heal and any very cold or wet weather sent the muscle into spasm now (as did, apparently, excessive jumping).
Giving up on sleep for the night she levered herself out of bed, grasped the edge of the frame to support herself and cast a disapproving grimace at her own face in the mirror over her dresser. At twenty eight here she was limping about as decrepit as anything she’d ever excavated from a tomb – bodies truly were tiresome creatures. Still the limb was a little improved for not lying on it. She stretched the leg, experimentally, and felt some relief. Perhaps if she tried a short, slow walk, the muscle would relax.
The rooms in this hotel were stacked in three rows of five, each five rooms linked by a long, open corridor with a set of stairs at each end allowing people to travel up or down. The corridor was really more of a veranda – there was a wall at waist height, the top of which was planted with flowers, and an overhanging roof, but the space between wall and roof was taken up only by air, framing the warm expanse of an Egyptian midnight beyond. It made as good a place as any to pace unevenly up and down on an uncooperative thigh muscle, although Blanche was almost immediately drawn up short by the presence of Portia Fielding sat at one end, entirely surrounded by paper.
Portia had arrived in the hotel with her father, trailing various servants and extended family members the week before. Aside from Blanche’s expedition group it was the Fielding entourage that were taking up the vast majority of the rest of the hotel – indeed they all made such a palaver (as English people not used to being anywhere but England are want to do) that Blanche had been quite glad to be spending so much of her time away from the place.
Portia, though… Portia was. Well. Argumentative. But bright. And Blanche rather liked argumentative women.
She was wearing a pair of blue silk pyjamas and was sat cross legged amongst notebooks and papers, with a pen, obliviously sucking ink off the fingers of one hand whilst she scribbled with another. There was a look of such intensity about the woman that Blanche momentarily forgot that they hadn’t parted on the best of terms the day before and stood stock still to watch her. Yesterday, they’d ended up debating (more than a little heatedly) the merits of a peculiar novel that Portia had pressed on her the week before, insisting that it was the most spectacular work of fiction produced by a woman in more than a hundred years. Blanche had not much rated Mrs Dalloway – she thought it elitist and extremely vague and Blanche was a woman who liked hard facts more than she did artistic licence. Portia had called her a philistine.
So now, Blanche approached her cautiously, wary of restarting an old, tiresome argument – but wanting to look more closely at Portia’s delicate face, her inky fingers. The fact was that she was starting to think that she knew something of Portia – but was not sure she dared put her suspicions into anything like concrete action. One didn’t, not when one had important work to do elsewhere, and besides – Blanche was anything but a seductress. She did not pursue others, as a general rule. It felt… ungainly, somehow, for one such as herself. She spent days at a time up to her elbows in dust and grime and bones and muck and it became difficult, sometimes, to remember that she was, after all, not quite as dead as the ancient kings she was excavating, but a living body with certain wants, a woman with certain proclivities. (Years later, Blanche would come to understand that was in part the attraction of her work – the way it afforded her a licence to neglect the less convenient of her own needs).
“You’ll strain your eyes, writing in the dark,” she warned, softly.
Portia started so violently that she knocked over her inkwell – gasped, snatched it up at once, but was too late to stop the deadly pool of Indian ink now gathering at the centre of one of her loose pages.
“Oh – Lord – sorry – ” Blanche flapped her hands – this was not at all the start she’d wished to make in the light of their previous disagreement.
“No – no,” Portia sighed, giving the spoiled page a helpless little shake, “my own fault, I suppose – father’s always telling me to stay at my desk – but I needed the air. It’s stifling in my room.”
“Are you able to see your own work, then?” Blanche asked. She did not have the best eyesight at the best of times, of course – even with her spectacles on she wasn’t able to make out what Portia had been writing.
“The moon’s bright enough,” Portia shrugged, “besides, when I started writing the sun was only just setting. I… what time is it now?”
“Nearly one in the morning, I believe.”
Portia’s eyebrows shot up. “Ah.”
“You find your work absorbing.” Blanche observed, “it’s admirable, really.”
“Father will be scolding me if catches me yawning tomorrow,” Portia sighed, “never mind – never mind. I had an idea and it never does to let those rest unattended too long.”
“I shall let you get back to it, then,” Blanche offered, but Portia immediately shook her head.
“Stay! The bulk of it is written now, it would be nice to have a little company – here, sit – the ground is not too uncomfortable.”
Blanche would gladly have accepted the invitation, but for her left thigh muscle abruptly cramping so badly she found herself clinging to the veranda wall and hopping most inelegantly about.
“Are you alright?” Portia got to her feet looking rather alarmed.
“Fine – a cramp in my leg, that’s all,” Blanche attempted to sound nonchalant, although suspected the effect rather ruined by all the hopping. “It’s an old war wound that makes itself known from time to time.”
“A war wound?” Portia looked impressed and Blanche felt immediately uncomfortable.
“I only fell from the back of an ambulance. Nothing terribly dramatic, except that it happened on the Somme.”
“That sounds quite dramatic enough if you ask me,” Portia told her, “is it so very bad?”
“It was a fracture to my femur,” Blanche sighed, “now the muscle is easily irritated and tonight it won’t let me lie down.”
“You poor thing,” the warmth of genuine concern in Portia’s voice caught Blanche off guard. She was already gathering up her papers and notes, her inkwell, pen and nibs. “Have you tried rubbing it down with a little warm oil? Father has an old back injury that does well under such treatment.”
“I’ve no oil to hand, I’m afraid,” Blanche replied.
“Oh – I’ve some,” Blanche smiled, brightly, “come into my rooms – you can use it.”
Which is how Blanche found herself, much to her own bewilderment, sat on a blanket on Portia Fielding’s bed in her hotel room at a little after one in the morning, stripped to a man’s vest and shorts, as Portia warmed a bowl of oil over a candle and chattered cheerfully about trapped nerves and the benefits of massage therapy.
“I think, really, that the muscle ought to be stretched a little,” Portia was saying, “that always helps father.”
She set the bowl of oil aside and came to sit on the opposite end of the bed to Blanche, picking up Blanche’s left foot and cupping the heal in her thin, ink-stained hands.
“Push against me,” she advised, “just a little.”
Blanche pressed her foot into Portia’s hands, and watched the woman’s hair fall into her eyes as she bowed her head, moving her thumbs in gentle circles over the tendons in Blanche’s foot. It felt… bizarrely intimate.
“Any better?” Portia enquired, glancing up, and Blanche blinked, then nodded, because all of her words were beginning to buzz about her head, illusive as mosquitos in the gloom. “Keep stretching it, then – I’ll apply the oil.”
Oh good Lord, Blanche thought, distantly – but she truly was watching Portia work slick fingers over her thigh, pressing the heels of her palms into the muscle, none-too-gently – a sort of business-like proficiency. She was also sitting between Blanche’s legs and was so close that, poor eyesight or not, Blanche could count the other woman’s eyelashes. She concentrated all her efforts on breathing at appropriate intervals and stayed entirely silent for as long as this went on.
Somewhat inconveniently, this happened to be working. The cramp was easing up considerably as Portia worked the skin, the heat and the stimulation soothing the muscle beneath – which meant that all this was likely to be over soon and Blanche would somehow have to get back to her room and look Portia in the face over breakfast tomorrow without becoming overly flustered.
“You know – I had a thought on something else you might enjoy – for reading, I mean,” Portia spoke, abruptly, her gaze still on her hands as she rubbed Blanche’s thigh.
“If you’re about to attempt to recommend anything else by Mrs Woolf…”
“Oh but you can’t write her off just like that!” Portia glanced up, “really, Dr Mottershead – I know her work is dense, but can’t you at least agree that it’s fascinating?”
“I’m an archaeologist, Lady Portia – my fascination is for bones, pottery, mummies – I’m sorry to disappoint you.” (She genuinely was).
Portia grimaced, but it was not an entirely malicious expression. “I suppose I’m grateful you at least took the time to read the novel. Father won’t even touch it to discuss it with me. He believes the rumours about Mrs Woolf.”
Portia cast Blanche a disbelieving look. “Have you not heard?”
“I’ve not been in England in two years – I’d never heard of Virginia Woolf until you were thrusting her work beneath my nose over my porridge the other week.” Blanche folded her arms.
Portia’s expression grew suddenly, unexpectedly impish. She leant forward – Blanche suspected she was about to be on the receiving end of some entirely banal pearl of gossip and braced herself to react with socially appropriate enthusiasm. Portia was still gripping her thigh, after all, and she would rather that not stop in the immediate future.
“There is some suggestion – that is – I know people who know, as you might say,” Portia lowered her voice conspiratorially, “that Mrs Woolf – takes up with ladies. Women, I mean – she – well, you know.”
“I’m sure I don’t,” Blanche retorted, dryly, which made Portia laugh. “Isn’t she married?”
“Yes – her husband knows all about it, he’s perfectly happy with it all,” Portia waved a hand, “at least, that’s what I’ve heard. They’re of a terribly liberal sort. I think it’s wonderful – father is a little less…”
“Yes. No. Less enthused,” Portia giggled again. She looked terribly girlish and young, all of a sudden, Blanche thought – a school girl imparting a secret. And she was quite young, after all – Lord, younger than Blanche, by quite a few years. Couldn’t be past her 25th birthday, certainly. And you’d never have caught a girl like this tumbling out of the back of any ambulances on the Somme – altogether Portia was not an especially worldly person, that much was clear (equally as clear was that she wanted to be, of course) and that was making Blanche increasingly uneasy.
What did she want from her? Some affirmation of her ‘terribly liberal’ ideals before she could run back to England for a nice husband, or was she genuinely… of a certain inclination?
“Is that better?” Portia asked, abruptly, referring to Blanche’s thigh, and because Blanche’s mind had gone entirely blank, she nodded, so Portia stopped. Which was rather a pity. “You’re a – modern woman, aren’t you, Blanche?”
“I am a woman and I live in the 20th century, yes.”
“Have you ever – I mean – entertained the idea of a woman – ”
“Yes,” Blanche replied, bluntly, “rather more than ‘entertained’, really. Although that was a long time ago. Have you?”
Portia’s mouth dropped open, so for one terrifying moment Blanche wondered if she had misjudged the situation (it would not be for the first time). Then the other woman was raking oily, inky fingers through her hair and looking self-conscious, but not, thankfully, as if she were about to run screaming from the room calling for guards to arrest the predatory woman currently semi-naked and up to her crotch in hot oil in her bed.
“No.” She shrugged, “well – no. No.”
“You don’t sound especially sure.” Blanche leant back, eyeing Portia thoughtfully.
Portia shrugged, still self-conscious, now looking even younger, for entirely different reasons. She looked – vulnerable.
“There was an incident. At boarding school.”
“Ah. Well, isn’t there always?”
“Yes, I suppose,” Portia laughed, nervously.
She got up, abruptly, making as if to go to the basin and wash her hands. But then Blanche decided that really, this particular dance had gone on long enough (and with her thigh in its current state she was not in the mood for dancing of any sort anyway), and she reached out and grasped Portia’s wrist before she could get away.
“Portia,” she said, making sure that the other woman was looking at her before continuing, “if you would like me to kiss you, you ought just to say. Lingering over these things is never especially wise.”
Portia sat back down on the bed as if her knees had gone out from under her. She blinked a few times, but did not attempt to extract her wrist from Blanche’s grip.
“Yes please,” she said, after a moment, meeting Blanche’s gaze. “If you would like to kiss me then yes – please.”
Had Blanche known how rare an occurrence it was for the word ‘please’ to pass Portia’s lips she would likely have savoured the moment a little longer (thereafter she was never to hear Portia ask for anything quite so politely again). As it was, however, she only leant forward and kissed Portia at once, for fear of losing her nerve if she hesitated.
It was clumsy, as kisses (especially first ones) are liable to be, and felt ungainly and really rather ridiculous. Portia’s lips were hot and dry and her breath came in off-putting little pants. Truth be told, Blanche was not fanatical about kisses – she had received only a few in her life time that were not from relatives, and she knew enough of the world to know that whilst kissing was all very well there were so many other more interesting things one could do with a woman that kissing often paled by comparison. But she was aware that this kiss likely held the moon and the stars for Portia, so she lingered over it a little – tried to be gentle, tried to be tender – was entirely unsure if she had succeeded at either.
(She did not know that Portia would, in fact, be the one and only person to teach her the joy of kissing another – to teach her an entire language in kisses).
When it stopped, a moment or so later, Portia looked a little puzzled, which Blanche supposed was preferable to disgusted or terrified.
“Is that all?” She asked.
Blanche laughed, “am I so very disappointing?”
“No – no – I only meant – ” Portia skin had flushed. “Here – could you – ”
She kissed Blanche again, very gently. She was trying for something, Blanche thought – questing for some feeling or other, and failing to achieve it. Which was a nuisance because Blanche was beginning to feel… conflicted. Certainly as if this second kiss was warmer and easier than the first and as if she’d have liked it to go on longer than it did. And she really didn’t want to spend an evening hoping too much as she provided fodder for Portia’s self-exploration.
This time when it was over Portia looked – not satisfied. But more sure of herself. She had crept closer, and now she was stroking Blanche’s hair.
“You are rather beautiful,” she said, with such sincerity that Blanche almost laughed.
No one, not ever, had considered Blanche Mottershead beautiful. Not even, she suspected, her own mother. Stringent, opinionated, a little awkward and angular, a good shot and terribly modern – but ‘beautiful’ had never been applied to her with any seriousness. She was too frequently grubby and her hair too obstinate. She wore glasses. She liked dead things.
“Don’t you take me seriously?” Portia asked, sounding a little hurt, “I mean it, Blanche.”
“I take you perfectly seriously,” Blanche promised, “but I’m wondering what all this is in aid of.”
“What on earth do you mean?”
“What is it that you want, Portia?” Blanche very gently took her hands, “you cannot have what you desire unless you can put words to it. Sitting and calling me beautiful and expecting the stars to fall and angels to start singing is not going to get either of us anywhere.”
“I’m not – ” For a moment Portia’s voice rose with indignation, but she dropped it a moment later, still sounding rather petulant, “I just – I read so many books and then do so little when it truly matters in the real world, and I want – I wanted an adventure.”
“Well, I’m not an adventure,” Blanche pointed out, quite reasonably, “I assure you I’m really quite dull once you get to know me.”
“But I know you a little already and I think you may be the least dull person I’ve ever encountered,” Portia replied. She was quiet for a moment, then began again. “I wanted to come with you, that’s all – on your next journey down the Nile. Father won’t like it, but I’ve a little money saved from the advance from my publisher and if I can pay my passage and you agree to take me there shan’t be anything he can do.”
“And you thought kissing me would aid you in this particular endeavour?” Blanche enquired, raising her eyebrows.
Portia’s smile was only a little sheepish. “No. I wanted to do that anyway. I was merely addressing two issues at once.”
Portia was beginning to giggle, even as Blanche bit her lip, amused.
“Is this too ridiculous?” Portia asked, “propositioning you and asking you to aid in my efforts to run away for a little while, all at once?”
“Well, it’s not the most preposterous thing that’s happened to me this week.”
“No – I nearly fell off the side of a pyramid on Monday. It’d be rather difficult to beat that.”
Portia laughed: a real, warm, easy sound in the back of her throat, and, impulsively, Blanche pulled her closer, kissing her brow. And it was as if something between them had unwound, grown fond and sweet, because when Portia cupped her face and kissed her lips she didn’t want it to end. It was a comforting, tender thing – not like anything else Blanche had ever experienced, and good god – if stars weren’t falling and angels singing.
They were interrupted, moments later, by the sound of a scuffle outside – a drunken, swooping voice, staggering past the door. Blanche recognised the sound of one of her own party – a young doctor – who sounded rather the worse for wear. Portia had frozen in her arms, her breath catching.
“Do you have a lock on your door?” Blanche asked, quietly. Portia nodded, and Blanche gave her a gentle nudge. “Then now may be an excellent time to employ it.”
Portia staggered off the bed – inelegant and flustered, she fumbled with the lock for a moment before a reassuring thunk promised that they could rely upon their privacy. Within the space of a breath she had returned to the bed – there seemed to be a certain momentum at work now, the irresistible pull of a tide on the turn. She wrapped her arms about Blanche’s shoulders and Blanche had to balancing trying to kiss her with trying to keep her off her still aching thigh – somewhat difficult given how distracting Portia’s hands were becoming and how dim the room was.
Still, for all the inconvenience of limbs and clothes and an aching thigh muscle (not to mention the heat of an Egyptian night in summer, which was leaving pools of sweat in every conceivable resting place on Blanche’s body) Blanche knew perfectly well that there would be no pealing Portia off her in the immediate future and found herself surprisingly unconcerned with the idea. The room was quiet, the night long, and Portia’s mouth was soft and gentle. She smelled faintly of sweat and rose water. She felt small but surprisingly strong – like being held by a tiny, passionate lobster. Blanche found herself giggling at the idea, burying her face in Portia’s neck.
“What?” Portia asked, sounding a little perturbed, and Blanche only shook her head.
“Nothing – nothing – can we lie down? My leg…”
“Oh, yes,” Portia looked sheepish, “sorry, I’d rather forgotten – your poor thigh.”
“I’m alright,” Blanche promised her, sliding down against the pillows and stretching out the offending limb, “come here.”
Portia lay against her – Blanche found it easiest to turn onto her side and lie her leg across Portia’s thighs, which she did, making Portia sigh and nestle closer, skimming her hands down Blanche’s sides and then back up to cradle her face. Blanche gently slipped her own fingers beneath the back of Portia’s blue silk pyjama shirt, finding the intimate expanse of her lower back beneath her hands. She hesitated a moment to see if Portia would protest the contact (she didn’t) and so left her hands there, moving only her thumbs, very gently, across the skin.
“You’re trembling,” Portia whispered, what might have been minutes or hours later.
Portia nodded, “I can feel you.”
“Oh,” Blanche considered – yes, she was trembling, which was alarmingly undignified. She couldn’t remember trembling (except, perhaps, with righteous anger) more than twice in her life before and that hadn’t been in front of anyone to see. It felt a very childish thing, to be so out of control of one’s own body that it was actually beginning to vibrate with pent up physicality.
“Do you like me that much?” Portia asked, softly, and Blanche drew breath.
“I suppose I must.”
“That’s nice,” Portia told her, kissing her nose (no one had ever, ever done that before). She laid a hand on Blanche’s thigh, which was still aching, dully. “Does your leg still hurt?”
“Not as badly as it did.”
Portia began rubbing in careful circles, “any better?”
“Much,” Blanche kissed her, “you’re very sweet, Portia.”
Blanche turned her over and kissed her again, then her jaw then her neck. Portia lifted her hands to Blanche’s face. “Are you going to make love to me, Dr Mottershead?”
“If you want me to,” Blanche met her gaze, “do you?”
“Yes,” Portia inhaled sharply, “no – I mean – I want to – I’ve been thinking – and writing – you see, since I first saw you, about what it would be to make love to you. If I were a man, you see, how it would feel – to love you as a man would – ”
“But I wouldn’t want you to love me like a man would,” Blanche pointed out, sensibly.
“No – I’d want you to love me like a woman would – there’s a world of difference.”
“I suspect there must be,” Blanche kissed her again, “do you want me to show you?”
“Yes – yes.”
Portia’s breasts were soft and small, the nipples not much darker than the rest of her alabaster skin, and when Blanche kissed them Portia gasped as if she hadn’t expected it (although what she had expected, Blanche had no idea). She tried to be cautious, to be gentle, but there was that momentum, still – and a need, not easily quenched now it was awake and begging attention – and Portia’s gasp didn’t exactly seem unenthused. She had threaded her fingers through Blanche’s hair, shifting and squirming, and Blanche found herself questing across Portia’s bared body, seeking a taught, hard reassurance that this was real – that she had the fullness of this woman’s attention and affection – that she was not merely a distraction, an escape. It was not something she would ever be fully sure of, but the uncertainty was a large part of what would forever drive her back to Portia, in the end – the need for an answer. It was the scientist in her.
It was odd, that first time. Wonderful, yes (there would never be any such thing as a bad experience making love to Portia), but odd – for they were still not much more than strangers and Blanche had a hard time being intimate with people she had known for years. Manufacturing such closeness to someone she had to admit she still hardly knew was difficult, and yet mutual desire was stirring up so much desperate need that it felt like closeness, and at least there was a joint acknowledgement that this was strange. It gave them a common ground to stand on. And Portia was magnificent in her needing – as Blanche turned her rough, calloused fingers to her mid-parts and found her slick and open, Portia keened, softly, against Blanche’s shoulder – her dark eyes glittered, her lashes cast spider-shadows down flushed cheeks.
“Yes – yes – please,” She gasped, and Blanche could only answer her with a kiss.
“You want this?”
“Yes –always – ”
“Tell me – ”
“Oh Blanche – go a little – Blanche, I’m not so delicate I’ll – break – just a little harder – there – yes – ”
Portia gritted her teeth, growled with ineloquent passion, and Blanche could be gentle no longer, for there was no room for gentleness between them with Portia begging like that – only a heavy, driving force that demanded obedience. They were bound together and helpless against it – a tumbling, chaotic tide of heat and light and sweat and prayers. Portia bit at her neck and Blanche didn’t care, liked the scrape of teeth there, because it felt real – whatever this was or might become there was no artfulness to that kind of passion, no design or outside motive – only Portia, twisting and sighing and beating like a pulse in Blanche’s grip.
Portia reached her peak and tumbled over it with a single, sharp cry then was quite still. Blanche had no idea how she returned to such solemnity so quickly – for her part, she was still trembling, perhaps worse than she had been before. She kissed Portia quickly, to distract herself.
“You pearl,” her voice was low, “you perfect, priceless jewel.”
“You will take me with you, won’t you, Blanche?” Portia wrapped her arms about her, smoothing Blanche’s hair. Her breath was still coming in short, sharp gasps, and there was sweat glistening on her neck – Blanche dipped her head and lapped it away. “I couldn’t bear to be separated from you now.”
“I’ll take you wherever you want. To the moon and back.”
“Will you, truly?”
“Well – the moon may be something of an artistic exaggeration on my part, but…”
Portia laughed, bright and breathless. “I don’t care where we go,” she whispered, “if you are with me and I have pen and ink I shall be the happiest person alive. I’ll write you stories, Blanche – better than any Mrs Woolf could ever come up with – and we’ll be happy.”
And just for a little while, Blanche decided to let herself believe that to be true.