Jess supposed it had all been a bit obvious, hadn't it? Rushing across the room like that to greet Emily's sudden return. It was – unprofessional, not to mention more than a little ridiculous. Indecorous, even, in three and a half inch heels.
But it had worked. Jess smiled a little, her back kept turned, as she'd promised. She heard the shuffle of fabric from somewhere just out of sight, followed by a soft curse. A surprised laugh shook the air, stirred up some long-forgotten dust. “I'm allowed to say that word now, aren't I?” Emily mused to herself, before the mirror.
“It's still not exactly polite,” Jess commented, her tone turning conspiratorial. “But you can say what you like. Especially here.” Her flat had felt so vacant since Connor and Abby moved out, having finally found a place close to work they could agree on. Sometimes, usually at sunrise or sunset, the emptiness seemed to swell up around her, as if it would swallow her whole. As if she were just too small to make much difference, in the midst of all that space.
Jess knew, in those moments of terrible, brutal honesty - knew that was why she filled her flat with a riot of contrasting color. Why she wore traffic light yellow and pillar-box red and jewelry that deserved its own postal code. Why the corridors at the ARC echoed with the sound of her shoes for long minutes after she'd passed. If she didn't declare her own existence in the loudest possible tones, one day she might just vanish altogether. One day, the silence might win.
“Jessica?” Emily's voice was hesitant, pushing away her morbid thoughts and Jess bit her lip. Won't turn around, I said I wouldn't peek and I shan't, I'll be good... “Do you think you could help me with this?”
She did turn around, then, a bit too quickly and nearly stumbled over a discarded pile of fabric. Emily's corset lay in a heap on the floor along with her shift, looking as though she had kicked it to one side. Her hair was down, brunette curls spilling across impossibly pale shoulders and the effect stopped Jess in her tracks. Stray beams of light through the windows picked out the brilliant strands of red and gold worked in among the brown, and Jess wondered if anyone had ever told her how lovely that was. Everything about Emily was gorgeous, and effortless and oh, Jess had missed her terribly. It wasn't her place, Jess knew, but keeping her nose where it belonged had never been her strong point. Never would have gotten very far in life if I had done, she thought, taking a moment to be inordinately pleased with herself.
Emily was struggling with a zipper at the back of a knockout green number, one of Jess's very favourite that, as luck would have it, looked better on the other woman. “Clothes in your time are supposed to be so simple,” she grumbled, looking extremely put out as she shifted back and forth, still attempting to zip it up. “I don't understand why they can't just fasten in the front.”
“Hold still,” Jess advised. “I'll get it.” She gently tugged the fabric back down, smoothing it over Emily's left hip before realising what she'd done. She flushed a bit, letting an errant strand of hair fall across her eyes. Holding the fabric together, careful (so careful) to keep her fingers from brushing against bare skin, Jess slowly tugged the zipper upward. The fabric was heavy and difficult, prone to catch, so she took her time. Emily's back was scattered with tiny freckles, and Jess wondered, fancifully, if she might ever count them all.
“There,” she said, softly, when it was finished, glancing over Emily's shoulder at her reflection in the full-length mirror. “Oh,” she gasped aloud. “It's perfect.” She prided her tongue on its miraculous self-censorship; her words had nearly been you're perfect. Emily Merchant, fierce and unapologetic. Emily, who hunted raptors with knives. Emily, who had left her home and everything she'd known to float, weightless, through time.
Emily, standing in her bedroom, in her great ridiculous flat, wearing her favourite dress. Wine, Jess thought suddenly. I should open a bottle of wine. Emily grinned at her reflection and leaned her head back with happiness, burying Jess's face in a sudden wash of perfume and curls. Jess's hands stilled over the clasp at the neck as she breathed in, deep, trying to catch the scent and hold it.
“You make that seem so easy,” Emily tossed over her shoulder, genuinely grateful and entirely ignorant of Jess's less than noble intentions in inviting her over to play dress-up.
“It's no big deal, really,” Jess dissembled, taking a hasty step back. God, Emily smelled good. She should be – anywhere else, her hands should be doing anything else. Should be getting that bottle of wine.
“Do you think,” Emily began, shyly, and Jess's attention was drawn directly back, magnetic. She turned to one side, and then back, studying her profile. “Will Matt like it?”
Jess barked a sharp little laugh, her fingers flying up to cover her mouth. Emily's scent had worked its way under her skin; Jess could smell dried roses and rain and the rich, musky scent of fresh-turned earth rising up from her fingertips. “He'd be an idiot if he didn't,” she answered, watching out her window as the last shudder of daylight gave up the ghost and evening stumbled, halfhearted, across the sky.