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(you may be) my final match

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When Dani Clayton turns thirty, she makes herself a promise: from here on out, it’s all surprises. Her life up to this point has been marked by a distinct lack of wonder, of awe, of plot points unexpected. She has been with the same man her entire life, has followed the logical progression of a passion for education to its endpoint, has never once looked any of her questions in the eye. It would have changed everything. It would have undermined her entire reality.

She has chosen, quite intentionally, to lean into that.

And, before she knows it, three decades are behind her. Three decades of slowly fading into the background of her own story. Three decades of smiling, nodding, shrugging off the nagging sense that something is wrong here.

Three decades buried. No way of telling how many more ahead. And Dani, silently watching the clock roll over on her thirtieth birthday, thinks, This is a tragedy in the making. 

It would be easier, probably, to just put her head down and let it roll over her. Easier, less painful, and infinitely more dangerous.

Because there are things in the dark--things that try to pull at her clothes when she’s out and about, moving through packed bars, laying with him in bed at night. Things she doesn’t know how to look at. Things that mean too much. 

Like the graze of a woman’s eyes at the makeup counter in the mall.

Like the graze of a woman’s hand at her back during a dress fitting.

Like the way she knows, knows, the woman at the florist shop is smiling at her as women do not smile at other women.

Some women do, she reminds herself, pointedly staring at a bouquet of purple flowers. She can hear the florist chatting with Eddie, her voice a lilting roll of consonants and amusement. The vendors always chat with Eddie, rarely with Dani herself--a fact Eddie points out on every single ride home.

“They should be asking you, Danielle. I don’t know the first thing about planning a wedding!”

And I do? she never says. Eddie seems to believe there is a school for this sort of thing, one attended solely by women--certainly women like Dani. Women who dress in soft pastels, and sit placidly during dinner conversation, and date the same man their entire life. Women who don’t ask questions. Women who don’t make themselves promises.

She’s dimly aware of the conversation scudding along a few feet away, the indiscernible rumble of Eddie answering questions, and it is only when a hand brushes her sleeve that she thinks to look up.

The florist is looking at her, smiling at her--that way, she thinks with a hot flush, the way this woman has smiled every time she and Eddie have stepped into the shop--and touching Dani’s arm. Barely. The tips of her fingers only, a gentle suggestion that Dani might offer her attention this way.

“Sorry,” she says in that pleasant accent. “Seemed not to hear before.”

“I didn’t,” Dani confirms, flustered at the idea that both of them have been trying to get her attention for longer than a few seconds. “I’m sorry, what were we...?”

“Flowers,” says Eddie impatiently. “Danielle, seriously, I have no idea what I’m talking about over here.”

“He doesn't,” the florist confirms with a crooked little smile that pulls at Dani’s focus. She swallows, tries not to think about how this has been happening with increasing regularity: this thing, which absolutely cannot happen, of zeroing in on a woman’s smile. Or eyes. Or the pull of a shirt up her stomach. 

Don’t, she tells herself, as she’s been telling herself for years. Don’t do that, he’s right there. 

Eddie. Always there, always waiting, always...stable. Eddie, who has never noticed the way she flinches from the press of a pretty girl against her in a crowded bar. Eddie, who has never recognized her discomfort with female friendships for what it is. Eddie, who only looks at her and sees what he’s supposed to, what she’s curated for him. 

Eddie wouldn’t care for her resolution regarding surprises. Eddie wouldn’t care for it much at all.

The florist is talking, she realizes, right to her. Her attention is warm, charming, and Dani finds herself loosening up the longer the woman goes on about color schemes, seasonal options, whether they’d like to go expansive or keep to a minimal number of arrangements. Dani doesn’t have the first clue about any of it, but the woman sounds powerfully certain. There’s something reassuring about how naturally she speaks, as if holding all of the cards.

Dani could use someone like this in her life. Someone who truly understands where they’re coming from at all times. Someone confident, steady, sure.

“I’d like, um, the kind with the really soft petals?” she hears herself say, and barely refrains from slapping her own forehead when the woman’s small smile turns into a full-fledged grin.

***

Flowers, Eddie tells her after that trip, are your deal. Dani isn’t sure how he’s come to this conclusion, and is absolutely sure he was incorrect in doing so--but he has decided he won’t be accompanying her to the florist anymore. 

Which leaves her with Jamie.

“Seem distracted,” Jamie says one afternoon, a gentle prod by all measures. In truth, Dani has been staring blankly into space, unable to focus on anything except the way Eddie had said your deal.

“Do I seem like a flower person?” she blurts. “Like. A person who is...aware of flowers?” 

“Seem like a person who knows what a flower is,” Jamie says blithely. She doesn’t pull punches, Dani registers, though she softens her words just enough to be endearing, rather than painfully blunt. It’s a quality Dani has not gotten nearly enough of in her life. 

“He thinks I should know,” she says, aware this is dangerous territory--that she should not be telling this professional woman any of her concerns regarding Eddie and what he does and does not see behind her eyes. “He thinks it’s in the woman handbook, flowers.”

“Must’ve been out sick that day, then,” Jamie teases. Teases, like she’s fine with Dani leaning against her counter, complaining about her fiancé. “I dunno what handbook he’s thinking of, but I’m afraid you did miss it entirely.”

“Sometimes, I think--” She hesitates. This is definitely not appropriate professional conversation, not with a woman she’s met three whole times.

Not with a woman who smiles at her like that

And still, the words are coming: “Sometimes, I think he’s disappointed that I’m not more like...I don’t know.”

“Wedding Barbie?” Jamie suggests. Dani laughs, louder than she’d intended, catching the attention of a startled old woman near the rose display. 

“Exactly. I’m all wrong for this.”

“Mm,” says Jamie, in the tone of voice one uses when one is deliberately trying not to meddle. Dani raises an eyebrow. 

“What?”

“Nothin’. Not my place to say.”

It isn’t. It really isn’t, not with a notebook open on the counter with Dani’s name next to Eddie’s, etched side by side so Jamie can keep her customers straight. And, still, there’s a feeling in Dani she associates with the night of her thirtieth birthday. Surprise yourself. 

“Say it anyway,” she challenges, gratified to see Jamie’s expression slip for the first time from professionally-charming to surprised. 

“All right. Just seems to me...there are two kinds of couples, right?” She leans in, as if imparting a great secret. Dani, unable to stop herself, leans to meet her, trying not to notice the light scent of mint on her breath. “There are the ones who listen to each other—I mean, really listen. The ones who prioritize one another in the story. Those are the ones, from my experience, that make it.”

“And what’s the other kind?” Dani presses, already seeing where this is going. Already mentally slotting herself into place, feeling tense and tight and sure

“The other just coasts along on a pretty fantasy.” Jamie shrugs. “Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don’t, but way I see it? That’s not the kind of love that’s really all there.”

“And.” Dani swallows, watching the curve of Jamie’s lips, feeling the familiar discomfort wind tight around her heart. “And which do you think we are?”

“That,” says Jamie, obviously feeling she has officially overstepped, “is between you and yours, I think, Miss Clayton.”

***

Surprise yourself, thinks Dani when she heads home after school. Surprise yourself, do the things that scare the living hell out of you. 

In this case: talk. Speak her mind, for the very first time since she was a teenager. Speak her mind, putting it all out there, and know that Eddie--if he’s right, if theirs is the right kind of love--will meet her halfway.

She hears herself say, I was wondering if we could just...tone it all down.

She hears herself say, Not go so big with it. 

She hears herself say, Eddie--I can’t. 

This wasn’t the plan. This wasn’t the idea at all, when she’d marched from the bus stop with her hands curled into comfortably tight fists at her sides. Surprise wasn’t supposed to mean telling him thisSurprise wasn’t meant to blow it all up. 

Take it back, she thinks with helpless terror, even as her mouth is forming words she never meant to say out loud. Words like I’ve always known, and I just didn’t know how to deal with it, and it isn’t you, Eddie. It’s not your fault. 

There’s a ring in her hand.

There’s a ring in his palm. 

There’s a voice in her head, a pleasant accent, saying, “That is between you and yours.”

Surprise, she thinks grimly, as her entire life self-destructs. 

***

Well--it hadn’t gone remotely to plan, shattering her engagement into tiny pieces. Coming out hadn’t, either. 

Is that what I did? she wonders, feeling a bit sick. Did I just write an ending for myself before even opening the goddamn book?

There are other things to think about, probably--the fact that she has to find an apartment of her own on the fly, has to update her mother about the broken wedding plans, has to set up all the little markers of a life lived Alone. The rest can wait. 

The awareness that she just told Eddie it wasn’t him, it was men in general--can wait.

The awareness that she still can’t look at women in cafes, in grocery stores, on the bus--can wait.

Thirty and single for the first time in half a lifetime, she finds herself deconstructing all the pieces of Danielle and reworking them to shape Dani.  What goes in which pile? Love of old movies? Dani. Fear of leaving the house without makeup? Danielle. Complete inability to make a hot beverage properly? Both.

Desire for the confidence to look at women? To speak to women? To want women freely?

Entirely Dani. 

There are support groups for this kind of thing, she’s pretty sure--the internet, and the library, and strangers who collect at the local gay bar for Drag Night. There are Facebook groups, Reddit threads, a million faceless souls all with opinions of their very own as to the right way to do this. The right way to approach women. The right way to build into herself this new, terrifying foundation.

She gets halfway through typing up a Facebook post--her relationship status now glaring Single for all its worth from the top of her page--asking for recommendations before her good sense kicks out against two glasses of wine. She snaps shut the laptop, shuffling back as though from an enormous spider.

There has to be a better way. There has to be a less public, less embarrassing way.

***

“Haven’t seen you ‘round in a bit,” Jamie says in greeting, pulling at last away from a man who seems terminally unable to choose between two varieties of orchid. Dani, who has been loitering in the shop for almost twenty minutes, trapped between the idiot thought in her head and the idiot desire to run straight out into the street, smiles.

She thinks, anyway, she’s smiling. Jamie’s eyebrows are raising slowly, as if in mild concern.

“Everything all right?”

You shouldn’t ask me that, thinks Dani, aware that it is only because Jamie asks things like that--in an endearingly easy manner, as though she’s known Dani years instead of the span of a few professional minutes--that she’s even here. 

Jump, she thinks, one foot already off the ledge.

“This is going to sound crazy,” she says. “Absolutely, you’ll think I’m crazy.”

“Okay,” says Jamie affably. She’s leaning on her elbows against the counter, the sleeves of her gray shirt cuffed. A large inked hydrangea spills out across her forearm, almost too distracting in its vibrance for Dani to go on.

Ask, she thinks wildly. Ask about the tattoo. Say you’ve been thinking of getting one. Change course before you can really do something this incredibly lunatic--

“I broke up with Eddie.”

“Oh,” says Jamie, her brow furrowing. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

It is the polite thing to say, to a strange woman bursting in to announce the death of nearly twenty-year relationship to an empty shop. It is the polite, normal thing to say. Because Jamie is polite. And normal.

And quite literally the only person Dani knows who can help with this.

“I broke up with him, because--well, sort of a little bit because of what you said.”

“What I said,” Jamie repeats blankly, clearly straining to remember. Dani see-saws a hand in the air.

“Sort of. Not really. It just gave me the push to--because, see, you were right. About the two kinds of relationships. And I knew which one I was in, and it wasn’t--it wasn’t good.”

“Okay,” says Jamie again, slowly, as though she is listening very intently to a conversation that has already gone off the rails. She isn’t calling Dani crazy to her face, not yet, but her puzzlement is impossible to ignore.

Just wait, thinks Dani with an almost amused mania. 

“And it’s over now. Because...because I’m too old to just coast, right? Too old to just--just go with the flow of things I don’t want, because someone else wants them for me. Right?”

“Don’t look old to me,” says Jamie, like she has no idea where she’s meant to pick up the thread of this conversation and is summarily grasping at straws.

“The thing is,” Dani says, taking a deep breath, plunging over the edge. “The thing is, I couldn’t marry him, because I couldn’t love him. Because he’s a...because he’s not a...”

“Ah,” says Jamie. Lightbulb, thinks Dani with staggering relief. 

“And, see, I can’t even say it. That I might be--that I am, I’m sure--that I think--” She closes her eyes, frustrated. “Because it was never an option, for me. But I need to...I need to be able to face it. It’s time.”

“Dani, you know no one else can tell you that,” Jamie says, as politely as anyone has ever said anything. Dani shakes her head.

“I know. I’m not asking for you to tell me anything.”

“Okay,” says Jamie a third time. “What...are you asking?”

“For you to sleep with me,” says Dani, feeling very much as though she’s lost her mind.

***

“For me to...sorry, what?” 

It’s not the cleanest way to handle it, Jamie thinks, but there’s a certain allowance to be made for shock. For this clean-cut, gorgeous young woman to walk into her shop and announce she’s newly-single is bizarre enough--albeit, not the first time Jamie has been in a similar situation. Except, normally, the women in question are already familiar: from clubs, from the gym, from her Instagram DMs. Normally, the only surprise is that they’ve finally pulled the trigger. 

This one, though. This one’s spinning her head around.

“It’s just,” Dani says, her eyes wide and hopeful and blue enough to send Jamie’s instincts reeling toward interest all on their own, “you’re the only one I know. The only--I mean, you are, aren’t you? Gay.”

“What gave it away?” Despite herself, she is amused. This beautiful not-so-straight woman charging in to exclaim over how she has picked up on Jamie’s rainbow is truly something else. 

“I’m sorry--I don’t mean to assume.” Dani looks like she might start wringing her hands. Best to take pity on her.

“I am. Yeah. Very.” 

“Oh, thank god,” Dani sighs. “So--so, I know it’s crazy. It really isn’t something I’d do, normally, or...consider, even. But I want to--I have to know.”

“If you’re gay,” Jamie repeats, feeling very much as though she’s only been given half of a puzzle, and more pieces are being stripped off the table all the time. Dani rocks from side to side, clearly struggling with herself. 

“If I--yes. That. If I can...be right, like that. Finally.”

“Just,” Jamie says, setting this wealth of new and confusing information all in order inside her head, “to be clear. You--broke up with your fiancé. Because you’re reasonably sure you’re gay. And you’d like me to sleep with you. To prove it?”

“Not to prove,” Dani says quickly. “There’s no proving, I know that. But I want to...I want to try it, anyway. I want to do something for me, for once.”

“And that something you’d like to do is...” Jamie can’t help grinning. Dani is pink in the face, but remarkably steady otherwise. 

“If you’re interested. It doesn’t have to mean anything. Just a--a fling.”

It is, somehow, not the strangest thing a woman has ever asked of her. Still, she should say no, shouldn’t she? She should back away, hands in the air, tell Dani Clayton she seems a very nice girl, and nice girls really shouldn’t get tangled up with her like--not first time out, anyway. 

She should. 

“All right, then,” she says. “I’m off in twenty.”

***

Dani had, privately, assumed the hardest part would be asking. It was an idea primed for disaster. An offer designed to be disregarded. She hadn’t actually expected the florist to say yes. 

The hardest part, as it turns out, is not asking at all. The hardest part is waiting around while Jamie sets to closing up for the evening, trying to look all the time like she isn’t going out of her mind.

“Should we, uh.” She’s standing awkwardly near the counter, watching Jamie move about with the practiced motions of one who has swept floors, tidied displays, locked up a thousand times. There’s a grace to Jamie moving around this shop which is not unappealing.

Nothing about Jamie is unappealing. Therein being the basis of Dani’s fantastically-bonkers plan.

“Should we what?” Jamie asks, her voice as politely-charming as it had been when first she’d asked Dani about her favorite flowers. It’s like she’s fine with Dani having marched in here to ask for her sexual education services. Like this happens to her every day.

Look at her, Dani thinks, watching the sweep of gray shirt and black slacks strolling toward her. It probably does. 

“Should we talk about it?” she asks. “Set...I dunno, ground rules?”

“If you like.” Jamie reaches around her, flicks a light switch. “C’mon.”

She’s tipping her head toward a door at the back of the shop, holding it open for Dani to pass through. Stairs, Dani registers, leading up. 

“You live here?”

“Saves time,” says Jamie pleasantly. “Anyway, what sort of ground rules are you thinking? Things you like? Don’t like? Would like to try?”

“I--don’t know.” It’s obvious, she knows, from even having to ask Jamie for this at all, but she says it anyway: “I’ve never done this before.”

“Sex,” says Jamie, her voice patient. Dani frowns.

“No, I’ve--I know what sex is, Jamie. I’ve had sex.”

“With him.”

And no one else, goes unspoken. Dani grimaces. 

“Yes.”

“And did you like it?”

The heat dragging up her body is unfair, she thinks. These are obvious questions. Things anyone in Jamie’s position would ask, like a therapist setting the stage for assessing someone’s mental health needs. 

Jamie, as if reading her mind, smiles. Dani watches her dig keys from her hip pocket, slot one into the lock as she talks. “I’ve asked the hard question first, haven’t I?”

She pushes open the door, gesturing for Dani to step inside, closes it quietly behind herself. Dani sighs.

“I...it wasn’t what I wanted.”

“Apparently.” Jamie is still smiling, setting her keys in a bowl near the door. “Right. Well. The important things first, I suppose.” She holds up a hand, genially ticking points off on her fingers. “Sex is well and good, but that’s as far as this goes. Should get that out of the way before anything else. It’s not really my thing, people, and I’m not looking to settle down.”

“If I were asking to settle anywhere,” Dani says coolly, “I would have gone about it differently.”

“Perfect. Girlfriend, I have not. A relatively frequent stream of...friends, on the other hand...”

“I’m asking you to teach me how to be with a woman, not share my bed for life, Jamie.” The frustration is almost a relief. Jamie, smiling that way, is equal parts attractive and annoying. 

“Just making sure.” Jamie shrugs. “I’ve...had women come into the situation with a different perspective. S’good to make sure we’re all on the same page. Also, for the record, I’ve a clean bill of health. Shining beacon, as it were. So no worries there.”

The irritation leaks away, replaced by an anxious swirl in her stomach. Jamie is leaning against the half-wall between living room and kitchen, her head tipped to the side, regarding Dani like a fascinating art exhibit. Or a movie whose plot she can’t quite guess in advance. 

“We don’t have to, you know,” Jamie says after a moment’s silence. “If you’d prefer, I can call you a ride home. We can pretend it never--”

Dani shakes her head, crossing the room with sharp, rigid steps that bring her within reach. “If I don’t,” she says fiercely, taking herself by surprise, “there’s no telling when--if I’ll ever--and I need to know. If you’re willing.”

Jamie reaches up, brushes a wayward lock of hair behind her ear. Her touch is gentler than Dani expects, the tips of her fingers just barely grazing Dani’s skin. 

“Willing was never the question,” she says in a low voice that sends Dani’s stomach pitching over sideways. “Bed’s this way.”

***

She’s pretty, is the thing. Almost too pretty. The kind of pretty that used to bowl a much younger, much less self-possessed Jamie over with a smile. And maybe Jamie’s just going soft, maybe she’s just forgetting herself a bit, saying yes to this--but it’s the pretty that really gets her. The pretty, and the eyes. 

God, the woman’s got some eyes. 

And now, half an hour after a possibly-disastrous decision, the woman with her pretty blue eyes is in Jamie’s flat. In Jamie’s flat, where no one goes, not ever, because it’s one thing to sneak out when all is said and done. Kicking a woman out the door, even in the kindest way possible, is another game altogether. 

Women, Jamie has learned, have a way of haunting a place when they’re gone. A way of leaving perfume on the pillows, forgetting socks under the bed, scrawling love notes on the refrigerator white board. Hard enough, to tell a woman who hasn’t quite taken the hint enough is enough, in this age of social media. So much harder, when they know where a person kicks off their boots at night.

So--why bring her? Ease, she thinks. Simplicity. And maybe because she’d been a little too taken aback by Dani Clayton’s proposition to even consider the other options. 

And--just maybe--because there’s something in the woman Jamie recognizes in herself. Something of her nervous, hopeful expression that reminds Jamie of being seventeen, taken into a basement after school by a girl who was quick, efficient, left lipstick stains on Jamie’s thighs before ensuring they never so much as spoke again. 

It hadn’t been great, Jamie’s first time.

She doesn’t owe this woman a damn thing, it’s true, but she wants to make sure Dani can’t say the same after a night in her bed. 

She leads Dani to the bedroom by the hand, registering the naked third finger with a smile. It’s good, she thinks, for Dani, that she stepped away before it was too late. It’s not the sort of truth she’ll ever utter aloud, that she could tell there was something off--something about the way the guy’s eyes always slid off Dani, as if too accustomed to her presence beside him to see her--but it was obvious from the start. She wonders if Dani has no one in her life who cares enough to point things like that out. 

Certainly, she has no one to point out how obviously she’d lit up when Jamie had smiled. And that’s not Jamie’s to do, either. Jamie is just a means to an end tonight. 

Doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.

***

“Here,” says Jamie, stopping just shy of the bed. “How do you want to...”

There’s a thin recklessness to Dani’s anxiety, a sense of jump or give up. She moves close, lays her hands on Jamie’s arms simply for somewhere to put them, surprised by the lean muscle under her hands. 

“How,” Jamie repeats, like she needs Dani to tell her before she’ll budge. “How would you like to do this?”

“Your way,” Dani says. “Whatever way you’d want, if you were just--if you’d never—just. Just do it.”

“All right,” Jamie says, very softly, and it’s all Dani can do not to sway under the weight of sudden fear. Jamie’s hand slides along her jaw, feather-light. Dani feels her eyes close, feels her head tip, accepting Jamie’s kiss like a wish. 

Make me someone else, she thinks, hands gripping Jamie’s shirt. Make me someone who understands. 

“Stop me,” Jamie murmurs against the corner of her mouth, laying small, sweet kisses as though they have all the time in the world. “If anything isn’t right. Stop me.”

Dani is nodding, dizzy, even as Jamie kisses her again, less sweetly this time. Even as Jamie kisses her, easing her backward onto the bed, she feels herself nodding: Yes, good, right. This was the idea. 

Sex with Jamie as a concept had seemed insane, but wise--Jamie walks with easy purpose, carries herself with studied calm, does not flinch from shadows or unexpected sounds as Dani has trained herself to do. 

Sex with Jamie as a physical act feels insane--but in a lovely way, like a impulsive day off work, a song with a melody much faster than its gentle lyrics, a summer day arriving in mid-spring. 

Jamie kisses like there’s nothing to it, like she’s never wasted a whole semester panicking over a woman smiling at her from the other side of the lecture hall. 

Jamie kisses like there’s nothing to it, like she’s never lain awake at night wondering if that was really it, the great pleasure everyone speaks of with such longing.

Jamie kisses like there’s nothing to it except to do it, her hands exploring Dani’s face, her fingers skimming down the side of her neck until she shivers. 

“More of this?” Jamie asks, kissing her earlobe, pressing down very gently until Dani stops holding herself so rigidly against her and lets her muscles relax into mattress. Dani nods again, giving herself over to the texture of Jamie’s hair curling through her fingers, the soft sound of Jamie’s breath in her ear. 

Dani nods as Jamie kisses her throat, nods as Jamie’s hand teases gently along the hem of her skirt, nods with Jamie’s fingertips tracing her thigh. All Dani can do is nod, it seems--her thinking brain has abandoned her, replaced by a nervous little song in her head that seems only to repeat, Doing this, you’re doing this, you’re doing this with her over and over again.

“Stop me,” Jamie reminds her in the kind of voice that makes Dani want to do nothing of the sort. She shifts, catching Jamie by the collar of her shirt, aware that she does not know what to expect, but she knows this. Knows how to kiss Jamie back, deepening when Jamie makes a pleased sound against her. Knows how to close her eyes, spread her legs, hope for the best.

There, she thinks, as Jamie’s hand creeps higher. There, that’ll be ityou’re doing this, you’re doing it with her. 

Jamie’s fingers brushing between her legs are expected, and still, she makes a surprised whimpering sound. Jamie hesitates, leaning back enough to look down at her. 

“Dani?”

She’s being too soft, Dani thinks, so unlike the too-charming grin and easy manner from downstairs. Too soft, like Dani is breakable, like Dani needs to be handled with gloves on all the way through.

Like Dani isn’t already panting, her skin scalding with the press of Jamie on top of her. 

She wrenches Jamie back down to her, kissing her with all the recklessness she’d never allowed herself over years of wanting. Jamie presses down against her thigh, rolling her hips in time with her fingers tracing soft cotton, and Dani registers the friction with a gasp. Her grip digs harder into Jamie’s collar, her tongue brushing Jamie’s like a question. 

The noise Jamie makes--uncontrolled, unconcerned for what Dani might think of her for it--is dark and low and threaded with desire. Dani fumbles for her hips with graceless hands, pulling her harder against a trembling thigh even as Jamie’s fingers are pressing, circling, pressing with an easy-to-track rhythm. 

There, she thinks again, hearing herself make a hopeless sound, her stomach clenching. There, that’s all it is, just a quick shiver. Not so hard. Not so much--

She tilts her face away, breathing hard. Jamie pauses again, fingers resting lightly in place beneath a rucked-up skirt. 

“Okay?”

“Yeah,” Dani pants. “Yeah. Not so different, really, than it was with--”

“Different?” Jamie tips her head in obvious confusion. “I--wait, you didn’t think that was it?”

Oh, thinks Dani, here comes the embarrassment. She shifts back along the pillows, Jamie easing aside to let her up. “I thought--that’s all it’s ever...I've never--”

“Never,” says Jamie, sounding baffled. “Never in your whole life.”

“It’s only ever been that,” Dani says, almost sharply. Her stomach is still tight, a low dull ache reminding her that sex has never been satisfying, or fun, or a release like everyone says. It’s only ever been that: brief pleasure, followed by a dim frustration. 

“Dani,” Jamie says, and she closes her eyes. 

“This was a bad idea. This was stupid, I’m so sorry I wasted your--”

Dani.” A hand, cupping her cheek again, easing her to look down at Jamie’s smile. Her expression is warm--amused, but not laughing outright. “Dani, it happens. You think you’re the first woman never to have an--”

Dani cranes her neck back against the headboard, blowing a breath slowly out to keep from slipping into a mortified spiral. “With him, I just wanted it to be over.” She’s never said that out loud before, never admitted how the trick with Eddie had been fast. As fast as possible, so she could forget it had ever happened. 

“Right.” Jamie’s thumb rubs lightly along her cheek, and Dani finds herself leaning into the motion, craving the comfort offered. “But on your own, at least? Never then?”

“It’s--exhausting.” It’s not supposed to be, she thinks. It’s not supposed to be difficult at all, but supposed to has never much mattered to her. “I’ve tried, but nothing I think about is--it doesn’t--I can’t do it. By myself.”

Not by herself, straining to keep in mind visions of handsome actors, of love scenes from movies, of Eddie. And certainly not with him breathing against her neck, trying his best, reminding her only of how weird it never stopped feeling, to get naked with her best friend. 

Jamie, not naked, not her best friend, not anyone except an attractive florist she’d just happened upon, feels better than he ever had. It almost hurts, thinking that. Knowing the truth of it. 

“Do you want to try again?” Jamie asks. Dani spares a quick glance down, taking in her expression, finding no mockery along the curve of her smile. Jamie is a bit rumpled--Dani’s fingers in her hair, Dani yanking her collar out of place--but otherwise no different from the woman who had said, Willing was never the question. 

“What if I can’t?” Dani can barely stand the words, whispered like a curse. “What if I--”

“Do you trust me?” Jamie interrupts. Dani sucks in a breath. Nods once, sharply, knowing full well it makes no sense. Knowing, at least, that she trusts Jamie to know what she’s doing. “Can you do me a favor?”

Another jab of a nod. Jamie’s hand curls lightly around her wrist, tugging until Dani stretches out beside her once more. 

“Try to relax.”

***

Dani does not say easier said than done, but every line of her body screams it. 

Dani does not say easy for you to say, but every clench of her muscles tells the story without words.

A different approach, then, thinks Jamie. 

“Here,” she says, pulling gently until Dani is flat on the bed, looking up at her again with those ridiculously blue eyes. “My mistake, going too fast. Not the way.”

“It isn’t?” Dani asks, like some part of her is waiting for Jamie to reveal the secrets of the universe. She still looks embarrassed, her face flushed with misery and what Jamie is fairly certain is lingering arousal. When Jamie bends to kiss her, she kisses back--slowly, but eagerly enough. A good start.

“Just,” Jamie murmurs against her skin, kissing her once, twice, never letting her get comfortable enough in the kiss to take it by rote. “Let’s just do this. For a bit.”

“This is--” Nothing, she can hear Dani not say, likely worried about offending her. Jamie laughs. 

“This is where it should start. Getting to know her body. Getting to know what she likes.”

“She,” Dani says, breathless, one hand smoothing under Jamie’s collar to rest at the back of her neck. Jamie kisses her again, letting herself linger just long enough to feel Dani pressing up toward her before breaking again. 

“When you’re doing this for the first time with someone you actually want to be with.”

“Want to be here,” Dani says, almost pouting, and Jamie resists another laugh. No shortage of endearing qualities to the woman, at least. It will make someone incredibly happy, once the nerves are all out of her system. 

“Someone you want properly, I mean. And not just because they’re the hottest gay woman in the room.”

“You were the only gay woman in the room,” Dani says archly. Jamie feigns a wince, ducking her head out of the way when Dani moves to kiss her again. 

“Ouch. That earns a time-out, I think.”

“A--” Dani’s hand flexes under her hair, the breath leaving her in surprise when Jamie very gently bites her neck. “Oh. Oh.”

“Slow,” Jamie says softly, enjoying the increase in heartbeat beneath her lips as she leaves light kisses down Dani’s throat, “gets a bad reputation. Think slow is really the best way to start out, with someone new.”

It sounds good, anyway. It sounds like something a person would say, if they ever let the same woman into their bed twice. Dani doesn’t really need that information just now. 

“Slow,” Dani repeats, her fingers toying with Jamie’s hair, her head cast back against the pillows. “Okay. Good--good advice.”

It is, Jamie knows, if only from how she can feel Dani melting into the bed with every kiss. Dani’s muscles are gradually unclenching, her body less inclined to push against Jamie’s as though caught midway between fight and flight. This won’t be a twenty-minute experience, Jamie is realizing, and feels guilty for not having seen it before. 

Of course, she’d need slow. Of course, even if she didn’t know it. Even if she thought all that was changing was the shape of the thing. 

She lets herself disappear into Dani’s skin, pulling the collar of Dani’s jumper aside with delicate ease as she kisses lower. It’s good, like this--different from most of her experiences of late. Women, lately, are fast-and-hard, hot-blooded, jumped up on the idea of her or the memory of recently-posted thirst traps. It gets the job done, but it’s not this. Having a woman beneath her for the first time. Feeling the difference between a light kiss hitching her breath and a long one arching her back. Registering what is good--a light brush of teeth--and what is great--a lingering stroke of tongue back up to her jaw. 

She lets herself drift along on the ease of it, one hand teasing gently against the soft skin of Dani’s stomach, enjoying the way Dani squirms at every brush of fingertip. No need to rush her along, she decides, her own body responding gloriously when Dani’s fingers ease open the first button of her shirt. 

“Okay?” Dani asks in a voice higher than it had been, even, when she’d thought her body had done all it was built to do. Jamie nods, pleased when initiative overtakes anxiety and Dani begins popping buttons with obvious excitement. 

Let her, she thinks. Let her have the fun of unwrapping, of pushing the shirt off of Jamie’s shoulders and giving herself that first good look. It’s satisfying, watching her eyes dilate. Satisfying, watching her bite her lip. 

“Not what I expected.”

Jamie--slim, accustomed to clothes with enough give to make physical labor easy--smiles. It’s been a long time, since last she’d found someone surprised by the cut of lean muscle along her arms, the taut line of her stomach, the flowers inked into much of the skin she keeps hidden away. Most of the time, women seek her out for these things.

Not Dani. Dani just wanted to know what it felt like to be in someone’s arms. 

***

The idea that Jamie is comfortable taking her time is having more of an effect than she’d expected. 

The idea that Jamie is happy to just explore her, without rushing to the end, is having...quite a lot of effect, in fact.

“It’s okay,” Jamie laughs when she clamps her teeth shut around an embarrassing noise. “Did he not like you to, uh. Respond?”

“I didn’t,” Dani says. “Respond. Like that. I’ve never--”

Made a sound like that in her entire life, if she’s honest, though all Jamie had done was time a hand up her sweater with a particularly pleasant stroke of her tongue. It’s not any one thing, Dani thinks--not just the kneading pressure of Jamie’s fingers or the heat of her kiss, not just the sweep of her breath or the soft sound of approval she makes when Dani accidentally pulls her hair. It’s...all of it. It’s everything.

It’s overwhelming, if she’s honest.

Overwhelming--and not something she’s remotely interested in backing away from.

She can feel Jamie’s question, silently woven between them each time Dani tenses, each time she chokes on a humiliatingly loud groan. Do you want to stop? Do you need me to slow down? She could grab Jamie by the shoulders, push her back, and Jamie would just smile. She’s never gotten that sense before, that slowing down wouldn’t lead to pouting and grumbling and annoyance. 

“Can I...?” Jamie eases the hem of her sweater up her belly, pausing before she can reveal much. Dani, who only remembers Eddie pulling at her clothes with a desperate delight, goes hot all over at the idea that Jamie--who has known her for all of ten minutes in comparison--respects her enough to ask.

She’s nodding, and Jamie is helping her sit up enough to undress, and then Jamie is just looking at her. Leaning back on her knees, one hand pushing the hair off her own forehead, a vision of inked skin and simple black bra and flushed cheeks. 

“I’m not,” Dani begins, knowing it’s a mood-killer to say enough, or like you, or any of the thoughts tripping along through her mind. She’s fine, probably--certainly, acceptable. Not a model, not like the girls on TV Eddie always liked, who seemed to walk tall and trust themselves completely. Just a woman, thirty and nervous and normal.

“Anything special,” she finishes at last, when Jamie only waits. 

“Don’t know,” Jamie says, grazing a hand along her sternum, “who told you that.”

“Oh, come on.” She’s laughing. She can’t help it, this jittery combination of breathlessness under Jamie’s touch and amusement that Jamie would wait until now to feed her lines. “You’re already getting me naked, you don’t have to say that.”

Jamie smiles. She shifts herself over, lets herself rest lightly atop Dani’s hips, fingers tracing the cup of her bra. Dani draws a breath, holds it, as Jamie leans down to kiss her lips again. 

“I don’t much care for lying,” she says, and Dani lets herself believe. Lets herself, for tonight--just this once--fall into what Jamie is seeing. 

More important: what Jamie is doing. Jamie, bending her head, sliding slowly down Dani’s body, kissing a trail from breast to belly with indulgent care. Jamie, mapping every rib, every freckle, with flicks of her tongue. Jamie, moving down the bedspread as though this is Dani’s place, Dani’s throne, and Jamie is merely here to worship.

“You don’t have to,” she hears herself say through the rush of blood in her ears. “He didn’t like to--”

Jamie smiles. It is, thinks Dani with dizzy wonder, a smile she could get used to, when pressed to her hipbone like that. 

“You wanted to know what it’s like my way,” she says, pushing Dani’s skirt high. “Trust me.”

***

He didn’t like to. Maybe the saddest sentence in the English language, thinks Jamie as she settles between Dani’s legs. Maybe the saddest goddamn sentence possible for a woman to utter. 

He didn’t like to. He didn’t like. 

As if this is about him.

With other women, Jamie might linger until they offer direction--might let them grasp her by the hair and steer her, as pleased by their engagement as her own ability to make them writhe. With Dani, who looks apologetic even as Jamie is tucking her fingers into the band of perfectly-ruined underwear and easing them down smooth thighs, she suspects a different approach is in order.

Dani looks almost embarrassed, to have Jamie kissing along the curve of her leg. Embarrassed, as Jamie presses a kiss to her pubic bone. Embarrassed, as Jamie looks up at her, waiting for the go-ahead.

Embarrassed, but interested, as she nods.

He didn’t like to--but Jamie likes this more than she has ever been able to put into words. The distinct scent, the distinct taste, the distinct awareness that for as long as she’s working a woman over, this is all that matters. As long as she’s kissing, licking, offering gentle suction as a woman pushes up against her mouth, there is nothing else. 

Dani is breathing in sharp, ragged pulses above her even before she really gets started, as if the very image of someone pushing her thighs wider, someone who doesn’t complain or groan over the idea, is appealing all on its own. As if the tentative stroke of tongue is enough to do away with all the he didn’t like in her head, replacing everything she’s known with everything Jamie is willing to give.

Good, thinks Jamie, who doesn’t see a point to dwelling on the past. Bad can be overwritten. Mistakes can be repented for. Anything he failed at, Jamie can prove is worth doing better. 

She lets herself go, reading every jump of Dani’s hips, every soft cry as it pitches louder, liking the way Dani looks when she opens her eyes to find blonde hair spread across her pillow, Dani’s fists clenched around the sheets. She doesn’t grab at Jamie like most women, as though unaware she’s allowed to reciprocate anything Jamie is doing to her--and that’s fine. Jamie, grinding herself against the mattress as she sinks into a rhythm, is getting plenty out of this as it is.

“Oh,” she hears Dani say, almost enough surprise in her voice to be funny. “Oh.”

Exactly, she thinks, increasing pressure, holding Dani’s hips steady to keep control over how fast she’s rising. Now you’re getting it. 

***

Whenever Eddie did this, it was quick; he complained that he couldn’t breathe, that he couldn’t read her if he couldn’t see her face, that he just didn’t feel like it made as much sense as spending time on other methods. Whenever Eddie did this, she let herself make the right breathy little noises, the ones he wanted to hear, and accepted that a little bit of pleasure without release was as good as it got. It wasn’t surprising; that was just sex in general.

She doesn’t recognize herself, with Jamie at work. 

She’d be embarrassed, if she had the energy for it--but all she has room for is the feeling. The waves of sensation pouring over her without break, Jamie’s lips and tongue and breath weaving a story against her skin she’s sure she’s never heard in her life. She feels herself moving as though out of her own body, her hips jerking, her thighs tensing as Jamie studies her with soft groans of her own that seem to settle low in Dani’s stomach each time. 

She’s happy to be doing this, she thinks dazedly, hearing her own voice wrench from her in sharp, wild coils. Jamie isn’t rushing her along, pausing every so often to ask, “You there? You good?” Jamie seems as though she’s lost in a world only the two of them are welcome to, her hand teasing along Dani’s hip, her stomach, tracing up to lightly stroke her breast. 

There is no rush, and for the first time, Dani isn’t worrying that it’s taking too long--that she can’t get there--that she’s wasting anyone’s time. For the first time since she can remember, she is only thinking in desperate little words like harder, like little more, like I think--almost, I think--

Jamie,” she hears herself whine, and she wants to be embarrassed about that, too--crying a strange woman’s name in a foreign bed--but there is a tight spiral seeming to clench, seeming to press toward an inevitable close, and if she can just push a little further--if she can just rock a little closer toward the curl and swipe of Jamie’s tongue. 

Gray-green eyes raise to watch her, and she thinks Jamie is smiling. Jamie, stroking her right hand gently against heat. Asking a silent question. 

Dani nods once, hard, and feels her eyes roll back as Jamie slides a finger gently in. Her body contracts in on itself, as if trying to get away from the feeling even as she desperately tries to pull Jamie closer. It is, she thinks wildly, too much. No one person can feel this and remain whole. No one person can feel this and remain here

She shifts her face against Jamie’s pillow, struggling to muffle the cries as Jamie does something with mouth and fingers both that drives her vision to black. She is losing her mind, she is sure, and doesn’t really care--not with Jamie making quiet noises of pleasure against her slick skin, not when she opens her eyes to see Jamie rolling her own hips hard against the bed. That, she thinks, is the thing to do it--the knowledge that not only is Jamie taking her over the edge, Jamie is enjoying doing so. Enjoying it, maybe, as much as Dani is.

***

She’s falling, Jamie can tell--hard and fast, judging by the surprisingly-obscene sounds even the pillow can’t entirely shut out. She’s falling, her hips bucking out of time, and Jamie slides a hand down her own trousers to coax herself along. The combination of Dani smeared across her lips, Dani saying her name in a high voice, Dani clenching around her is more than enough. 

She rests, her cheek against Dani’s hip, the skirt bunched under her head. Above her, Dani is panting for breath. 

“That--that was--that was--”

“Take your time,” Jamie replies, her own voice hoarse. Dani groans. 

That,” she says, “makes sense.”

Jamie raises her head, grinning. Dani is staring down at her with glazed eyes, her mouth hanging open. 

“All this time,” she says, “I thought it was some kind of joke. Or just men.”

“Funny thing, sex. It does work best when you’re fucking someone you actually want.” Jamie hoists herself up the bed, collapsing beside Dani in a sprawl. Dani reaches down, straightens her skirt, as if doing so will do anything to conceal the mark she’s left across Jamie’s sheets. 

“Is that...what you’d call it?”

“What’s that?” That old pleasant warmth is already fading to a biting energy, the kind Jamie associates with needing to get out of a woman’s bed and into the safety of a ride home as quickly as possible. She sits up against the headboard, reaching down to fiddle her belt back into place. 

“Fucking,” Dani says, looking as though the word is somehow more embarrassing than the act itself. Jamie would bet her life Dani says it infrequently, and only by accident.

Jamie leans off the bed to retrieve her jumper, and Dani looks relieved to be pulling it over her head. “I mean, nothin’ wrong with that, is there? Consenting adults, and all that. Just always seemed like the simplest word.”

Dani nods slowly. Her eyes drag along Jamie’s frame, lingering here and there as if memorizing. 

“I’m sorry,” she says, as Jamie gets up, pads to the wardrobe, retrieves a soft t-shirt and a pair of shorts. “I--I should have--” She’s gesturing awkwardly with a still-trembling hand. Jamie grins. 

“S’all right. I took care of it.”

When?” Dani asks with such surprise, she can’t help laughing. 

“You were distracted. And it’s not like I needed much. Not with you, ah...” She trails off, charmed despite herself by the pink bleeding back into Dani’s cheeks. “You’re something, is all.”

“So it was...all right? I was all right?” Dani is leaning forward, knees pulled up to her chest. Jamie glances at the rumpled pull of her skirt, the tempting shadow just visible between her legs, and bends to retrieve her underwear. 

“Thought this was about my performance, mainly. But yeah, you were--” Oh, just say it. “You were terrific. Honestly. And, I’m guessing, it answered some questions.”

“Like, do I really want to sleep with women?” Dani says wryly. She presses a hand into her hair, looking as though she still hasn’t quite come back to her own body. “Yes, it, uh. Answered that pretty perfectly.”

“Great.” And now, thinks Jamie, the awkward part. The bit that is easiest to avoid, if only she’s wise enough to keep her own flat shut off from strangers. “Anyway...”

She hefts the bundle of fresh clothes, hoping Dani will take the hint. Blue eyes go wide.

“Oh. Oh, no thank you.”

“Sorry?” Jamie frowns. Dani is scrambling off the mattress, awkwardly hopping her way into her underwear with an expression that says the cool damp isn’t exactly comfortable against her skin. 

“No, I mean--it’s very nice of you to offer. But I really need to be getting...home. I do appreciate the gesture, though.”

“Gest--these are for me.” Jamie is feeling as though she’s lost the plot agin somehow, though she’s not sure how or when that could have happened. Dani, halfway to the bedroom door, stops dead.

“Oh.”

“I didn’t think,” Jamie says. “I mean. I don’t usually invite...people...to stay.”

Never, is maybe a better word for it. Never, at least in the past couple of years, when she’d finally realized sex without strings is the easiest way to fumble around the needs of other people. It had taken too long, that realization, and she’s stuck to it firmly ever since. The alternative can be a nasty thing, sharp of tooth, difficult to shake loose.

“Right,” says Dani in a voice Jamie can’t decode. “Because that would be silly. Because all I wanted was for you to show me what it was like.”

“Yeah.” Silly. Sure. That’s the word for a woman she just brought to the first orgasm of her life looking at her so coolly, it almost takes her breath away. Silly. 

"And,” Dani goes on, her voice jaunting along at a perfectly stable clip, “you did. Admirably. And now I know.”

“Now you know,” Jamie agrees. This feels like a script written in circles, she thinks, a script that never quite reaches the logical endpoint where Dani calls a car and Jamie gets to take a nice, hot--

“But the thing is,” Dani says, still calm as you please. “I only know some of it.”

Jamie feels her eyes narrow, her brow pulling tight. Dani, still hovering by the door, is starting to smile. 

A dangerous smile, Jamie is beginning to feel.

***

“Look,” Dani says, knowing she’s pushing her luck and not quite able to reel back in. Not with the fresh memory of how good it had felt in Jamie’s bed, not with the fresh awareness of how she’s never felt that good in her entire life. “I was thinking.”

“Again?” Jamie asks, a bit sharply. Her arm, wrapped around clean clothes Dani had mistakenly thought were for her, hangs loosely at her side. Her eyes follow Dani as she moves back across the room, as though tracking an unexpectedly-dedicated predator. 

“You showed me what it felt like,” Dani says. “And I'm grateful. But I didn’t do anything.”

“Didn’t need to. Told you, I handled my--”

“But if I’m with someone,” Dani says hastily. “A woman I, as you said, want to be with for real. I’ll need to know that, too.”

Jamie says nothing. Her mouth is twitching to the right, as though she’s not sure if she wants to smile or frown. “This is sounding less and less like a one-time deal.”

“But it’s perfect,” Dani says. Perfect is a strong word, but still--she’s pretty sure she’s right. “You like sex.”

“Correct.”

“And I need to know what you know.”

“You don’t,” Jamie says, sounding thinly amused at the idea. “You really don’t.”

“Okay, but we’ve already done this,” Dani presses, waving a hand between them. “I already know where you live, you already know how I look when I’m--”

“Coming spectacularly?” She’s sounding really amused now, and Dani finds herself blushing and grinning at the same time, struggling to close her lips over her teeth to look less exultant.

“So that’s two of the most intimate things you can know about a person, right? Why not lean into it? You teach me everything I ought to know about sleeping with a woman. And I’ll...”

Here, she falters. What exactly does she have to offer Jamie? Jamie, who clearly has no trouble attracting women to her bed, who clearly was doing her a favor in even saying yes tonight. 

“You,” Jamie says quietly, “are proposing a friendship with benefits. With someone you only met because you were trying to get flowers for your wedding. D’you know how mad that sounds?”

Mad, it may be--but Dani doesn’t miss the way her eyes darken when she steps closer still, into her personal space, curling a daring hand around Jamie’s bare shoulder. 

“Could be interesting, though, couldn’t it?”

“Could be terribly interesting,” Jamie breathes. 

Surprise, thinks Dani, running on a wild energy all the way home.

Chapter Text

There are choices one makes because they are good, and there are choices one makes because they are fun, and there are choices one makes because--honestly, why not?

Dani has never really thought of herself as the kind of person who operates on why not, but it’s been working out well this week. She’s decorating a new apartment in a style entirely her own for the first time. She hasn’t had to argue with someone about what to pick up for dinner even once. And she has--

“Jamie,” she blurts, stopping short halfway to the register. “Hi.”

Jamie--who at last meeting, had been half-dressed and agreeing to a truly bizarre friends-with-benefits situation Dani still can’t quite believe she’d been brave enough to suggest--looks surprised. Not, Dani thinks, upset to see her, though. 

“I didn’t--I didn’t expect to see you here. Didn't know you liked coffee.” She’s talking too fast, she registers just in time for Jamie’s eyebrows to rise. 

“Don’t like coffee,” Jamie says. “Coffee’s for you mental Yanks and your depraved caffeine addictions.”

“Be nice,” the man behind the counter says in an English accent Dani is just now processing for the first time. “Here you are, uh--Dan?”

“Dani,” she says, accepting the enormous cup of coffee and dropping a five into the tip jar. He gives her a little bow, turning to Jamie.

“And for the unreasonably rude Brit, it’ll be?”

“Owen,” Jamie says in a perfectly cheerful voice, “isn’t it a bit early for this degree of twathood?”

“Jamie,” he says in a similarly cheerful voice, “aren’t you a bit bold, openly mocking the only man within a twenty-mile radius who can supply you with a godlike brew?”

“So, you know each other,” Dani guesses, grinning. Jamie shrugs. 

“You know what they say. Keep your friends close, and idiots who can actually make a decent cup of tea in your back pocket.”

“A fetching notion,” Owen drawls. “Keep her busy a minute, will you, or there’s no telling what calama-tea she’ll wreck.” 

He winks. Dani stares. Jamie makes a face like he’s just thrown a baseball through her shop window.

“Far, far too early for puns, Owen. Christ.”

“How, uh. How are you?” Dani asks when he has puttered a safe distance away, and she’s left clutching a steaming cardboard cup and staring into Jamie’s calm expression. “How has--the shop been?” Slept with any other repressed newly-out women since last your face was between my legs? She winces. Jamie, blessedly, does not seem to notice.

“No complaints. Bit busy.” A brush off? “Listen, Dani, I was thinking--”

Definitely a brush off, thinks Dani, repressing a sigh. She should have known the other night was too good--too insane--to actually seem like a viable plan by the light of day.

“--you should have my number,” Jamie finishes. “Be easiest for everyone.”

“Your...” There is, Dani recognizes, a phone--simple, space-gray iPhone, no different from the one in her own purse--in Jamie’s hand. Waiting. “Oh.”

“Unless you’re rethinking things,” Jamie adds, moving as though to pocket the phone again. Dani shakes her head violently. 

“No! No, not at all, I just--haven’t had the ol’ coffee yet, you know.” She shouldn’t be grinning like this. Grins this large should be reserved for winning the lottery and watching nightmare politicians lose enormously. 

Jamie’s chin is tipped up, her half-smile suggesting she’s not entirely sure Dani didn’t leave a significant portion of her brain back in Jamie’s bedroom. “Right. So, uh. It’s--”

Insane, thinks Dani, punching the number into her phone and sending a message through to test she has it right. This is insane. Asking a woman, out of the blue, to have sex with her was insane. Asking her to keep having sex with her, for educational purposes, is insane

And yet, with Jamie smiling at her in this cafe, her hair pulled back, her clothes clean and crisp and ready for work, she can’t quite figure out a reason to back away.

***

Jamie doesn’t actually expect to hear from the woman again. The idea, as stated before Dani had left her to a shower and the simplicity of an empty bed, had been intriguing, certainly. Friends with benefits. Sex without strings. No questions asked--just a simple agreement that two people can, in fact, enjoy themselves without issue.

It’s a quaint concept. Jamie has never in her life seen it go well, but she suspects that has a lot to do with most people’s inability to resist attachment. People, for the most part, are needy creatures. Even against the best judgment, habits can be formed. Expectations can crop up. A person starts feeling owed, after a while.

Jamie isn’t partial to any of it. Jealousy is for a younger crowd, a more dramatic crowd, a crowd she has been trying to avoid since her early twenties. It is so much easier to leave it all to the physical. Enjoy a person’s company. Say goodbye as gently as possible. Move on.

Probably, it’s what she should have done with Dani. 

Except there had been something in Dani’s expression, when she’d made the suggestion, that didn't resemble any other woman Jamie’s slept with. Not a faux-disinterest, crafted to appeal to Jamie’s wandering nature. Not a casual attempt at the cool girl who wouldn’t mind Jamie sleeping around on the side. Nothing fabricated at all. 

Dani’s expression had been firm. Resolute, Jamie had thought at the time. Determined, not to hold Jamie’s attention, but to genuinely learn from her. 

“It’s just sex,” Jamie had warned then, waiting for that determined cast to blue eyes to drop away and reveal something soft and wanting beneath. Dani had only blinked. 

“Right. Which you are, plainly, very good at.”

“Just takes practice,” Jamie had said, feeling proud and slightly sheepish at the same time. Dani had smiled, and it was that smile that really did the trick--a beautiful twist of her lips, a brightening of her eyes that did not say, I need you. Did not say, I’m owed this. It had only been Dani looking at her like she wanted to jump back into that bed and prove she could be worth Jamie’s time.

It was, decidedly, interesting. A challenge offered and accepted. 

 “Rules,” Jamie had said. “For real. This sort of thing, it gets people hurt if they aren’t careful.”

“No getting in the way of work,” Dani said instantly. “I’m a teacher, I can’t be rushing off on call at all hours.”

“Wouldn’t do my business any favors, either,” Jamie replied, slightly irritated that Dani might expect as much of her. “Job comes first. Fair. Right, my turn: no getting bent out of shape over other women. I meant what I said, I’m not built for it.”

“Deal,” Dani said, and Jamie had appreciated the beat of consideration before she’d said it. Not all in a rush, not because Jamie wanted to hear the word, but as though she’d actively processed the request. “Also, we’re not telling people, right?”

“No,” said Jamie quickly. “No, probably not.”

“Just because...no one in my life knows. About--about me. And why I broke off the engagement. And I don’t think it’s any of their business, anyway, who I’m sleeping with. Or why.”

A good head, Jamie had thought, somewhat surprised. Dani, when first she’d careened into the shop, had seemed incredibly pleasant, very pretty, and just a little bit too distracted for Jamie’s taste. Dani here, standing in her bedroom with fire in her eyes, had seemed perfectly present. 

A little too familiar, maybe. A little too much like another woman, in another life, the last time Jamie had let herself make a choice based on instinct and desire. That time--so much younger, so much more eager to please--she’d found herself regretting it soon enough. Learning from it. Learning that nice girls with pretty smiles, nice girls who say the right thing into your ear while they pick your proverbial pocket with a slick twist of their wrist, are dangerous.

She’d taken the fall for a nice girl, once. Gone right under for a nice girl, and paid a price too big to calculate at eighteen. Too big, maybe, to calculate ever.

But there was something about Dani’s smile that wasn’t her, that not-quite-nice girl who’d taught Jamie the value of love-her-and-get-gone. There was something about her smile Jamie had found so new, so bright and curious, that she--against all better judgement--hadn’t been able to say no.

And now, days later, Dani is here: standing in Owen’s cafe, saying, “There--did it go through?”

Jamie glances down, an unknown number topping the list of messages. She taps in Dani’s name under her contacts, sends back the first emoji in her list. Dani squints.

“Okay, we’re not doing fruit.”

***

She texts Jamie the next day, feeling as though she is skirting the line between entirely too soon, and giving up before they can even begin. She’s not sure how one usually goes about setting up a playdate of this variety, and taps out three or four rigid-sounding messages before settling on: You busy tonight?

It is a mistake, sending this message on her lunch break. It is a huge mistake, sending it and having to wait until the kids are released for recess to check for a response.

Nothing. She nods, taps her fist lightly against her thigh, trying not to feel as though she’s just slung an arm out of a moving bus in time to catch a vehicle going the other way. Job comes first, Jamie had said, sounding a little tetchy at the idea that she’d have nothing better to do than prod Dani with sexts all day. Evidently, she’d really meant it. 

Good, thinks Dani, shoving her anxiety down as far as she can and waving back to a whooping trio of students on the swings. Good, it means she was honest. This is only going to work if we’re both honest with one another. 

No strings. No possessive bullshit. Just two consenting adults making time when time is available. 

8? Jamie responds sometime between the 3:15 bell and Dani reaching the bus stop an hour later. can be your turn

Warmth drags up her spine, pleasant and overwhelming in equal measure. She’s getting used to the idea of that particular combination associated with Jamie’s name in her phone. 

Your place? she asks, and waits for Jamie to balk. Jamie’s place, their brief conversations have made clear enough, is sacred. Jamie’s place is her private tower against the world. 

you already know the bed, Jamie says not ten minutes later, and Dani grins.

***

Eight gives her plenty of time to shower after work, which Jamie appreciates. Suspects Dani, if she knew how much of the day had been spent hoisting heavy boxes around the shop, will also appreciate her pleasant half hour dedicated to washing away the stress and sweat of a long day.

Dani can’t know it, but her text had been perfectly timed. A delivery, meant for six that morning, hadn’t arrived until almost noon. Jamie had spent an aggravating couple of hours running back and forth, alternating between helping unload the truck into the stock room and assisting some of the grumpiest customers ever to stride into her shop.

By the time she’d had a moment to herself, frustrated and tense, Dani’s question had felt like a godsend. 

She dresses for comfort--a black t-shirt, a pair of sweatpants--and for the awareness that Dani isn’t coming here to play runway judge. There’s something to that: to the knowledge that Dani doesn’t know anything about her except for flowers, that Dani doesn’t care about any part of her except what she can impart physically. It’s nice, in a strange way. No risk of getting too close. No risk of anything bleeding over into exhausting territory. No risk of making stupid mistakes.

Dani is, if nothing else, punctual; her knock comes at eight on the dot. Jamie opens the door to a bright smile, a tensely-held straight back, those ungodly blue eyes.

“Find the outer door all right?”

Dani nods, sliding past her as Jamie moves aside. “Felt a little like visiting the Batcave.”

Jamie snorts, shutting the door behind her. “How was your day?”

A pause. She glances back over her shoulder to find Dani standing in the middle of the room, gripping the strap of her bag, looking startled. 

“Did I say something wrong?”

“No, I--” Dani’s fist tightens around the strap, loosens again, wringing it uneasily in a death grip. “I just didn’t realize we were...that was allowed.”

“What?” Jamie frowns. “Asking about your day?”

Dani nods. “I know you have...thoughts on...getting too close, and I--”

“Dani,” Jamie interrupts, taking her gently by the arms and giving a small playful shake. “Friends with benefits, yeah? When I say no strings, I don’t mean I don’t like you.”

It is, Jamie notes from the sigh Dani expels and the abrupt slump of her shoulders, the exact right thing to say. She wonders if Dani has spent the entire day muscling aside all instincts to speak, to ask Jamie anything not directly related to physical contact. Feels a little bad about it, if she’s honest; Dani really is nice. Really deserves someone who isn’t going to make her feel like shit for wanting.

For whatever else this is, that was never the idea.

“Your day,” she prompts. “And your coat, here, can hang it over here--”

It’s interesting, the way Dani watches her--jaw held tight, eyes almost hungry--as though she’s never quite been allowed this simple favor before. As if she’s spent a lifetime darting glances from the corner of her eye, looking away before anyone could catch her. Jamie finds herself moving more slowly, more casually, draping Dani’s coat and bag near the door. Dani’s eyes follow her every move, as if the very idea of Jamie in motion is a kind of art. 

“Day was fine,” she says finally, her voice faint. Jamie hides a smile. “Pretty normal.”

“You texted,” Jamie reminds her. “Must’ve been a reason.”

Dani, when she looks, is slowly growing pinker at the neck, the cheeks, the ears.

“I...look, don’t let this go to your head.”

“Too late,” says Jamie, aware of her own smugness, more aware still that women tend not to be put off by such when it’s warranted. Dani closes her eyes, sighs.

“I keep thinking about it. What you--how you--”

“Made you feel,” Jamie fills in, taking pity on her. Dani nods, eyes still firmly shut. “Well, that’s the whole point, isn’t it? Making that a regular occurrence.”

“That’s--” Dani seems to be trying very hard to war with something, her thumbs tucked so tightly into her fists, Jamie’s a bit concerned she’ll hurt herself. She slides her own hands around, loosening Dani’s fingers, wrapping them around her in a light grip. 

“Once,” says Jamie, “can be a mistake. Or a dream. Whatever you like. Twice is a choice, but Dani, if you’re not comfortable--”

Dani squeezes her hands, opens her eyes, gazes at her with unmistakable desire. “You’re not offended? That I’m just using you?”

Jamie’s stomach gives a pleasurable lurch at the thought. A beautiful woman, one who looks and speaks as Dani does, thinking it would be anything but a privilege to be used by her?

“By all means,” she says, delighted when Dani surges forward to kiss her. 

***

She’s less surprised by the pleasure this time, though no more prepared for the way her brain seems to leave her body completely. Certainly, it takes less time than before, when Jamie had spent what felt like hours building her up, patiently working her to a climax she hadn’t been ready to handle. 

This time, Jamie’s fingers are nimble under her skirt, the friction enough to send her over the edge almost before she realizes. They are back in Jamie’s room--having staggered backward in an embrace that had felt at once desperate and reassuring, her hands guiding the t-shirt up Jamie’s body and tossing it on the floor before they’d even left the hall--and she is intoxicated with the natural way Jamie seems to come to this. There is no hesitation, no anxious flutter binding Jamie’s hands; when Dani kisses her, she kisses back. When Dani presses into her, she folds her hands neatly around Dani’s back, pulls her in close, every move confident. 

None more so than the way she strokes over underwear, capable of great effect even without needing to get Dani naked. It’s a marvel, the ardent way she combines the pressure of her fingers and the slide of soaked fabric like a magician to produce sensations Dani has never quite figured out on her own. Shouldn’t be possible, she thinks, though her body is bucking to meet every move Jamie makes. Shouldn’t be this good, with Jamie exploring her as though she believes there will always be time for more.

She’s coming before she can stop herself, and there’s only time to think, Better than last time, somehow, before Jamie’s fingers are sliding up, dipping down beneath her waistband, picking up a pattern faster and rougher than before. She finds herself digging her nails into Jamie’s tattooed back, pressing her face into Jamie’s neck, sinking hitching cries into smooth skin as Jamie does something she can’t quite predict to push her that last little bit again, draining the strength from every muscle in a single gesture.

“How,” she gasps, when breath is an option again, “do you do that?”

“Can show you,” Jamie says easily, flopping onto her back. She looks so natural with hair tangled from Dani grabbing mindlessly at it mid-kiss, bare from the waist up, fingers glistening against the bend of her leg. 

“Please. Honestly, it’s--it’s incredible.”

“I just do what I’d do on my own,” Jamie says, like it’s no big deal. “But, y’know. Bit reversed.”

Dani raises her eyebrows, trying to imagine her own uneasy attempts bearing anything half that fruitful on another person. Jamie, reading her expression, shifts up to recline against the headboard. 

“Here. Give me your hand.”

She obeys, feeling foolish, her stomach tightening when Jamie guides her fingers to trace the curve of one breast. “I--”

“Like I said,” Jamie says patiently. “Slow. And what I do, when no one’s answering their phone.”

Dani’s mouth snaps shut on a protest, distracted by the gentle way Jamie presses their fingertips against her own skin. She’s soft, almost tracing, letting the barest of contact drag across until her nipple tightens. 

“See,” she says calmly, as though this is the most normal use of their time, “it’s good to pay attention to yourself, first. Figure out what you like. Odds are good it’ll be...transferable.”

“Sure,” says Dani, like she’s not going dry in the mouth. Jamie leans back, letting her legs spread more comfortably, her hand folding around Dani’s in a light squeeze until Dani is cupping her, skin warm under her palm. 

“Soft,” Jamie says. “Sometimes. Not always, but a cold night like this? When there’s no hurry? Soft is a good start. And it’s relaxing.”

Dani almost laughs. The idea of sex being relaxing has never occurred to her. Certainly not with the way her heart is racing now, as Jamie drags their hands slowly down her chest, urging Dani to exploring the flat of her stomach, the dip of lightly-clenched muscle, the vibrantly-inked vine teasing up from her hip. 

“It is,” she says, watching Dani’s face, smiling at the hint of disbelief. “It should be. After a bad day? Or a really, really good one? Nothing better.”

Dani’s given up on words, particularly with Jamie guiding her hand around the jut of one hipbone. Her sweatpants are slipping low, and there is no sign of anything but skin waiting beneath. 

“If you’re ready,” she hears Jamie say, in the tone of one who could easily do this herself, but is appreciating Dani’s place at the party. Like it’s Dani’s flushed face, sharp breath, trembling fingers that are really the source of Jamie’s pleasure. 

“Sure,” she says again, a rasp of air where voice ought to be. Jamie slides her hand beneath her waistband, careful not to move too fast or leave Dani hanging on her own. 

“Me, I’m partial to this,” Jamie says, lifting her hips slightly as her hand urges Dani to brush soft skin, soft curls, surprising wet. “Teasing, to start.”

“Don’t seem like you need it,” Dani breathes. Jamie laughs, the sound tightening into a low, dark coil when Dani experimentally traces her fingers down and back in a slow stroke. 

“I get a lot out of...helping. But all the same. If it’s just me, it’s nice to--” She inhales, smiles; Dani winces, aware she’s just pressed unexpectedly hard. 

“Sorry.”

“Nope,” Jamie says, letting her head fall back against the wood with a small thump. “Just showing you how the controls work. You do what feels right. That’s the other part, really. Just...exploring.”

Her hand slides up, drapes along the back of Dani’s with fingertips loose. Not abandoning, Dani senses with relief; only taking a backseat to supervise. 

“That’s the best part,” she hears Jamie say, as she inches nearer and lets her fingers trace lightly, trying to remember exactly how Jamie’s hand had felt on her own skin. “Reading her body language. Seeing what works, what doesn’t. Like that--” Dani has traveled a bit high, she realizes, the skin beneath her hand warm and relatively dry. “Doesn’t do much. But this.” 

Jamie’s hand, with gentle force, pushes hers lower. Her fingers brush a spot that makes Jamie’s breath catch, her hips jolting once. 

This is better,” she sighs, and leans back. Dani finds herself at the proverbial wheel once more, pressing with one cautious finger until Jamie’s hips twitch again. “Try two. And a little harder.”

It shouldn’t be sexy, she thinks, as Jamie reclines under her tentative movements. It shouldn’t be at all, but something about Jamie’s easy mood--the lack of hurry resembling that first night--is having an impact all on its own. The sensation of Jamie under her hand is something else altogether, something bright and sparking. Something, as she rubs a tight, quick circle around, her hand slipping out of rhythm, that feels almost like power. 

Jamie’s eyes are on the outline of her hand, her lips parted around soft breaths. Dani’s are on Jamie’s face, registering the way her brow tightens on some motions, how her eyelashes flutter on others. How sometimes her face won’t change at all until Dani does the same thing again, but faster--and then it’s like discovering buried treasure. 

“Good?” she asks, and Jamie nods once, her bottom lip pulling between her teeth. Dani leans into her, pressing herself against the sprawl of Jamie’s thigh and rolling instinctively in time with her fingers. Jamie makes a small noise like a whimper, her eyes closing. 

That, thinks Dani with a surprised pulse of hot glee. I want to make her do that again. 

She slides a leg over Jamie’s, aware her skirt is pulling up, not much caring. There’s just something about this position--Jamie breathing faster, her head turning to follow the roll of Dani’s hips instead of the movement of her hand--which is too good to deny. Something about Jamie gripping the loose material of her sweatpants with her free hand, the other still curled lightly over Dani’s. Something about the heat of her, the way she presses up toward Dani’s fingers as a rhythm which began clumsily begins to hit its stride.

Dani almost wants to ask--more? faster? how do I make you feel the way I did?--but it’s more interesting watching Jamie bite down harder on her own lip. More interesting feeling Jamie rock to meet her, her thigh flexing to give Dani something to grind against. Her own breath is quickening, her whole body growing hot as she moves her fingers in increasingly tighter circles. 

“Bit more,” Jamie says with soft urgency, and the fact that she can speak is almost more than Dani can take. She finds herself pushing harder against Jamie’s thigh, struggling for the right angle to relieve the pressure between her own legs even as she dips her fingers lower. Jamie makes a surprisingly high sound as Dani traces the source of heat, impressed with how impossibly wet Jamie is while still holding on. 

She turns her head, presses her mouth in an open kiss to Jamie’s bared throat, and Jamie’s hand slides from her own pants to Dani’s hair. She holds on tight, twisting her body in an effort to bring Dani closer, and Dani doesn’t need her to say it. Dani knows to curl in, sliding to the knuckle, feeling Jamie shudder as she muffles her own moans against Jamie’s neck. 

She still breaks before Jamie, the combination of tight heat around her increasingly staggered thrusts and the choked way Jamie says her name too much. She loses herself in a barrage of sensations, not the least of which is Jamie’s hand skidding down to cover her own, to press her in deeper with urgent need. 

“All that,” Jamie says, head still cast back against the headboard, eyes closed. “And without needing to look.”

“Almost easier,” Dani gasps. “Less to overthink.”

“Exactly.” Jamie reaches down, slides the hand still between her thighs out of her sweats, sets it gently back on Dani’s own leg. “That, I believe, belongs to you.”

Dani presses her face against Jamie’s shoulder, grinning. “Not bad for a first time.”

“Not bad for any time,” Jamie tells her. “Fuck, what do you need me for?”

“Practice,” says Dani slyly, and leans in to kiss her again.

***

It is the sort of thing Jamie expects to be occasional. Once a week turns to once a month turns to oh, yeah, I used to see you naked. She doesn’t truly expect Dani to keep calling. Dani is too nice, and a fast learner, besides. It can’t possibly last long.

Certainly, she doesn’t expect Dani’s calls to become a regular, stable occurrence of her week--maybe not every Wednesday, or every Friday, but often enough to count on. 

But she’d be lying if she said it wasn’t fun.

Especially when Dani bursts into her apartment in a rush like this, tossing her coat blindly toward the rack as her hands grope for Jamie’s shirt. It’s a relatively new event, Dani’s unexpected bravado. New, in fact, as of this very moment. 

“Rough day?” she asks, as Dani wheels her around and presses her against the front door. 

Dani, kissing her neck, hand fisted around the hem of her shirt, sighs. “Had a dream.”

“At work?”

“Last night.” Her hips are wonderfully solid under Jamie’s hands, pushing hard into her. Jamie is really starting to wonder if there’s a way to reduce the unfortunate essentialism of clothing, especially when Dani is kissing her with such a breathless lack of care. “Woke up feeling like I’d go crazy.”

“You know you don’t--mm, okay, that’s...” Jamie shakes her head, struggling to find her place in the sentence again as Dani licks up to her ear and begins working the lobe between her teeth. “You don’t need me for that. Just a quick, ah, self-session will do the trick.”

“Not the same,” Dani breathes into her ear, dragging a shiver up her spine. “You’re right, it’s way better with another person.”

You’re right has become something of a mantra with Dani these past few weeks. Jamie has lost track of the times she’s dropped back on the bed, the couch, the floor in a boneless heap and said, “Okay. Okay, you’re right, that was insane.”

Jamie has never been told she’s right so many times in a single month, and frankly, it’s doing wonders for her ego. That, coupled with the Instagram comments still rolling in when she posts after a trip to the gym, has her feeling the highest she’s been in ages. 

Though what Dani is doing just now, unceremoniously unzipping Jamie’s trousers while she nips just under Jamie’s ear, isn’t nothing.

“So you spent an entire day,” Jamie observes, pushing a hand into Dani’s hair, “hot and bothered, when you could have gotten yourself off first thing. Something deeply strange about you.”

“I blame you,” Dani says, still speaking against Jamie’s ear in a low voice that almost makes her squirm. “You went and broke me.”

You asked me to,” Jamie replies, spinning her in place, pushing her hard against the door. It’s satisfying, watching the shift in real time, Dani giving up the power as quickly as she’d taken it. There will come a time, Jamie suspects, where Dani’s bravado will not crumble.

That day will be fascinating.

But this is just as good--Dani hiking a leg around her, letting her head fall back as Jamie’s hand teases up her skirt. Jamie slips her free hand up just in time to catch her before a collision, even as she’s letting her fingers ease past lace. Dani doesn’t seem to mind the rough friction, the way Jamie takes instead of giving, the way Jamie pulls her into a graceless kiss with short nails scraping along her scalp. 

Dani, to all points, is learning incredibly fast. And Jamie is learning her, pleased to find her efforts to make Dani feel everything a woman possibly can in her bed have only grown more successful with the gift of time. Is it easier, to only sleep with a woman once and send her on her merry? Certainly. Is it intoxicating, to know Dani gasps when her lip is bitten, groans when Jamie digs harsh fingers under her thighs, comes hard and fast when Jamie--as she is doing now--props her against something solid and plunges three fingers deep without much coaxing?

Fuck,” she says, as Dani’s cries wind down, her head dropping against Jamie’s shoulder. “Feel better?”

“You’re not getting out of reciprocation,” Dani informs her, draped in Jamie’s loose grip like someone jabbed a switch. “Just. Lemme take a moment to feel my legs again.”

“By all means.” Jamie untangles herself carefully, holding Dani’s arms as she steps back. “All good? Knees still engage?”

Dani gives an experimental little bounce in place, shoots her the thumbs up. Jamie takes another step back, angling toward the kitchen. 

“Great. Then, if you don’t mind, I’m just going to finish dinner before you resume striving to fuck my brains out.”

“Oh,” says Dani, looking surprisingly unembarrassed. “Guess I was early.”

***

I’m starting to think I’m developing an addiction. 

not my fault. told you it was only going to get better. 

Yeah, but we did it yesterday. Twice. Aren’t you getting sick of it?

you’re kidding, right?

***

Texting Jamie is becoming a strange habit. Strange, mostly because Dani is starting not to think of it as strange at all. 

She asks Jamie one night, sprawled on the couch as Jamie finishes tidying up the kitchen, if this is normal. 

“Which part?” Jamie, stacking glasses in the dishwasher, looks amused. “The bit where you asked a strange woman to give you a sexual education, or the bit where it turns out you actually don’t mind her company?”

Dani heaves a throw pillow in her general direction, landing nowhere near the kitchen. “The part where texting you is getting to be more constant than texting my own mother.”

“D’you like your mum?” Jamie wonders. Dani scrunches up her face. 

“Not unless it’s a mandatory holiday.”

“Well, there you go. Question answered.” Jamie closes the dishwasher, stretches her arms above her head, reaches down to pull the shirt up and over. She wads it up and tosses it across the room, laughing with delight when it lands directly over Dani’s face. “Right. Bed or wall tonight?”

***

“You’re in a good mood,” Dani observes. Jamie, one hand under her blouse, leans back. 

“Is that not my usual demeanor, on days such as this?”

It’s a particularly good one, she does have to admit. A Saturday, for one--the air outside unseasonably warm for early spring, and the shop closed for a restful weekend. Having Dani propped on her kitchen counter, legs wrapped around her waist, kiss pleasantly fevered, is an added bonus. 

Dani makes a happy little sound into her mouth, edging forward on the counter to press herself more fully against Jamie. “You’re usually a happy-calm.”

“Calm?” Jamie strokes a thumb pointedly across the front of a lace bra, pleased when Dani slides an arm around her shoulders and arches her back. “Not generally the word, for when you’re around.”

“No, I--I mean--” Dani’s breath hitches as Jamie pinches lightly, rolls her fingers, tracks her thumb across more firmly. “It is really hard to think, with you doing that.”

“Consider it another kind of practice,” Jamie says affably, hoisting the blouse up over her head. From a muffled place against Dani’s breast, she adds, “For if you ever want to take the show public.”

She hears Dani squeak as she wraps her lips around lace and nipple, sucking gently.

“I--mean--you seem--goddammit, Jamie.”

“Language,” Jamie murmurs into her cleavage, delighted when Dani yanks the shirt over her own head, and grabs Jamie by the hair. 

“You’re getting insufferable, you do know that. Just because you can make me--make me--”

Jamie, letting her hand slip between Dani’s spread legs, grins. “You were saying?”

“Fuck it,” Dani sighs, and drags her into a searing kiss. 

Later, when Dani is leaning back on her hands, regaining her breath bit by bit--Jamie has spent a perfectly enviable twenty minutes on her knees, enjoying the impatiently-controlled bucking Dani had been forced to employ to keep from falling off the counter entirely--she says, “Okay. Now. What’s with the good cheer?”

Jamie shakes her head. “If I say it’s because I love the way you say my name--”

“--I call bullshit, you’re a terrible liar,” Dani says cheerfully. “C’mon, what gives? And don’t you get back down there, you can’t get out of every conversation by going down on me.”

“Since when?” Jamie slides both hands comfortably up Dani’s still-spread thighs, appreciating the way she tips her head back and sighs. “It’s stupid.”

“Going down on me?”

“No, that is an activity some woman, someday, is never going to want to give up.” It has rapidly become one of Jamie’s favorite parts of this oddball friendship. Dani is at her most expressive with her legs wrapped around Jamie’s head. “Nah. It’s my, ah. Account.”

“Account,” Dani repeats. “As in bank?”

“As in Instagram,” Jamie mumbles. Dani sits up, grinning. 

“You have a social media account. You.”

“Do I not seem like I can have a social media account?” Jamie is mildly offended. Would be more so, if Dani’s fingers weren’t creeping around the back of her neck, nails digging lightly in the way she knows makes Jamie crazy. 

“Do I get to see this famous account? Follow it, maybe?”

Jamie opens her mouth to say absolutely the fuck not, and Dani digs her nails in harder. Urges Jamie’s head back. Kisses her throat as though Instagram is, in fact, the last thing on her mind. 

“All right,” she groans, though it’s tempting to just pull Dani down and christen the kitchen floor instead. “All right, here. I reached 75k, all right?”

Dani pulls back, her eyes wide. “Seventy-five thousand? As in people?”

“Statistically, some are probably bots, but yeah. That’s the idea.” She fumbles the phone out of her back pocket, swipes it open, drops it into Dani’s hand. “Go on, laugh.”

Dani, scrolling through her feed with eyes that seem somehow only to get bigger, whistles. “I...am not laughing. This is not laughing material.” 

“It started as a joke,” Jamie says, scratching her head. “Owen bet me I couldn’t reach a hundred followers. Said I wasn’t personable enough. Which is rubbish. Everyone knows I’m personable as fuck.”

“The most personable,” Dani agrees idly, still scrolling. 

“Well, I posted some stuff--easy things, plants and everything, y’know--and then a photo. Or two. And they, ah. Just sort of started rollin’ in.”

“Well, yeah.” Dani holds up the phone, blinking. The image on the screen--Jamie in the locker room at the gym, the hem of her tank top held between her teeth, all abs on display--is one of her more popular. “This is...”

“Shameless,” Jamie agrees, grinning a little. Dani doesn’t seem to mind. “I know. But it worked, and I won the bet. And then just sort of...watched it balloon, I guess.”

Dani raises her eyebrows. “You know you’ve got a little, uh. Message thing?”

“Probably a few,” Jamie admits. “Haven’t checked them today.”

“Them? More than one? From today?” Dani looks amazed. “The most action I see on mine are little old ladies complimenting my sweaters.”

Well, something is very wrong with the internet, if that’s true, thinks Jamie. “That’s the other thing, y’see, I...sort of have never been much good with dating apps. They always want all that information, tell potentially interested parties about your likes and your strengths and all that fuckin’ nonsense. Instagram...”

“Just calls them in based on your ass. Abs. Face.” Dani, even after sleeping with her for several weeks, still manages to turn fascinating shades of pink. “It’s quicker, I imagine.”

“Much,” Jamie agrees. And involves so much less room for attachment, either way. Dani hands the phone back. “Best way to find interested parties within city limits, as so happens.”

“So, all the women you’ve slept with--except for me--come from...?”

There is, Jamie thinks, a remarkable lack of judgement in her voice. Even after weeks, Dani is holding up her end of the deal with magnificent steadiness. It’s one of the most attractive things about her, how the mention of other women does nothing to jar her ability to just sit and hold a pleasant conversation.

Often with her hand down Jamie’s shorts. 

“Not all,” she says, when Dani raises an eyebrow. “There are, y’know, bars. Chance encounters. The good old fashioned way of goin’ about it. But yeah, a fair few.”

“Impressive,” Dani says, and sounds like she means it. “Well. Congratulations on hitting the big 7-5. Now. I’m happy to give a follow...”

Jamie waves a hand, laughing, amusement turning heated when Dani grabs it and presses it between her legs. 

“After. Your pictures are...effective.”

***

Jamie’s Instagram account is easily the most interesting one on her feed. Dani almost feels silly, scrolling through--it isn’t like she hasn’t seen everything on display and then some, with fair regularity over the last month--but it’s one of those nights. The kind where she’s found herself riled up, craving Jamie’s apartment, bed, floor in ways she hadn’t thought she could crave anything.

Except Jamie’s doing inventory for the next three days, and there really isn’t much space in her head for anything else. sorry, she’d texted when Dani had sent a quick Free all week on Monday. not going to be much fun, m’afraid

And so, Dani is here: stretched out in her very nice-for-a-teacher’s-salary bed, the TV a poor distraction in the background, Jamie’s account open on her phone. 

It isn’t so crazy, she reasons. Jamie only has the account for women to ogle her, anyway, thirst traps punctuated by truly lovely floral arrangements, succulents, tips and tricks for coaxing wilting plants back to life. If she didn’t want Dani to look, she’d never have given Dani the username in the first place. It wasn’t like Dani would have looked her up. 

But now that she’s here, it’s hard not to keep coming back to this page. Jamie seems to have a knack for finding the perfect lighting, the perfect contrasting backgrounds, the perfect way of tilting her head so the sun catches all the colors of her eyes. Her photos are, to put it mildly, sensational.

And often fairly scandalous. 

She shakes her head, grinning, scrolling slowly past Jamie in a soaked white t-shirt, the material plastered to her skin, a sprinkler just visible behind her. She doesn’t even waste time captioning most of her pictures, Dani notes--unless the photo is of a plant, at which point the caption is a paragraph. The images of her own face, the ones depicting her own body, she seems to think speak for themselves. 

And they do, Dani thinks, lingering on an image of Jamie in what must be the back room of her shop. She’s fully clothed, which makes for a change, but there’s something about her expression--fully concentrating on her hands buried in potting soil, like nothing in the world matters as much as the tiny shoot she is transplanting--Dani can’t quite look away from.

It’s the same expression Jamie wears when sex makes its inevitable slide from teasing to almost-there. The expression she wears when her fingers are pushing deep, her eyes searching every inch of Dani for clues as to how to urge her higher. 

“If you’re not going to pay attention,” she said on one of the first nights, when Dani had shakily laughed that she’d never felt more attended to with another person, “don’t much see the point in even meeting up.”

“This isn’t a reason?” Dani had asked, and Jamie had leaned over her, the light press of her body unfairly exhilarating. 

“It’s a give and take,” she’d said, not dipping to kiss Dani, not pulling far enough away to render the idea unlikely. “If you’re going to have a woman in your bed, you ought to be all there. All in. Otherwise, she might as well go anywhere else.”

It’s the same philosophy she seems to bring to her work, Dani has observed while lingering around the shop on meet-up evenings. There is little point doing a thing if you’re not going to do it properly, and Jamie is careful to keep every inch of her attention focused on the task at hand. She speaks with each customer as though they are the only person in the room, never letting her eyes dart, never letting herself stretch too thin. Dani, who is accustomed to twenty-five little lives running ragged over her attention span, can’t imagine. 

Jamie’s ability to zero in on just one thing, giving it the care it deserves from start to finish, is probably her best quality--and it’s on display in this photo, somehow, a still-frame memorial to her devotion. There is nothing lewd about it--black dirt caked into her hands, her shirt neatly buttoned, her face in profile as an unseen photographer sets the moment in stone--but something about it pulls at Dani’s craving all the same. Something about looking at Jamie at work, remembering last week, when Jamie had gazed at her body with exactly the same intent drawing her brow tight, is...

She realizes her hand is drifting down her body and nearly catches herself. Nearly laughs, tosses the phone down, replaces her attention on the old movie running toward its finale. How many times has she told Jamie--mid-kiss, Jamie incredulous that she’d spent a whole day keyed up--that this doesn’t really work?

It doesn’t--but Jamie isn’t available, and it’s not like she has anyone else to call. Not like her brain is going to allow her to get work done, or read a book, or even pretend not to be thinking about how badly she’d prefer to be in Jamie’s apartment right now. 

We’re going to have to have a talk about this, she thinks with amusement. I think she really did break something in me. 

A problem for another time. For now, her eyes slide from photo to photo, letting each do its job in reminding her of Jamie’s finest attributes. There is one in particular, back-dated by over a year, a simple shot of Jamie’s hand resting on her stomach. Her shirt is cropped, her skin summer-kissed, all of which is distracting--but nothing holds her attention quite the way Jamie’s hand does. Jamie’s hands--worker hands, builder hands, hands both strong and patient--are uncommonly attractive in their own way. 

Only because you know what she can do with them, Dani thinks, amusement slowly fading into genuine desire. She shifts against a mountain of pillows, letting one hand tuck into pajama pants. Not going to work, she’s sure; a picture of Jamie is not Jamie, making her way down Dani’s body like it’s the best part of her week. A picture of Jamie’s hands may incite a certain heat, but it can’t actually touch her. Can’t actually do anything. 

I just...do what I like, Jamie had said. No harm, thinks Dani now, in using that very same logic in reverse. Just for a little while. Just to see if it’s still as fruitless as it always was before Jamie took her hand and showed her exactly how to...

Her eyes flicker shut, her lips parting in a relieved sigh at the first brush of contact. Sex has become a genuine release lately, the place she puts all her frustration over calls from Eddie, her work stress, her worries about juggling bills all on her own for the first time since graduating college. Jamie doesn’t seem to mind how often Dani comes reeling into her off of an anxiety day, channeling all that juddering energy directly into Jamie’s body.

“It’s healthy,” Jamie pronounces, Dani’s face held between her hands. “No shame in it.”

No shame here, either, in letting her fingers play across her own body. Scrolling mindlessly with one hand, she pushes up into the other, aiming for something quick and pleasant to shut off her brain. Here: Jamie leaning over the camera, her necklace swinging out from a half-unbuttoned shirt. Here: Jamie with tongue between her teeth, fingers pulling low the waistband of basketball shorts. Here: another picture of just Jamie’s hand, a silver ring around her thumb, her fingers splayed in dewy grass. 

She shudders, rubbing harder, lingering on that one. Imagining the slide of that ring against her skin, the metal cool in contrast to how warm Jamie always is. Imagining the way Jamie always looks at her with intense interest, following the speed of her breath, the telling quality of her voice as it breaks, the uncontrolled rock of her body as she follows Jamie toward--

This has never worked before, not once, but it’s sure working now. It’s working, and it’s all Jamie’s fault: Jamie’s hand on the screen, Jamie’s patient voice in her head, the memory of the way Jamie had taken her by the hips last week, holding her firmly to the mattress as her hand had teased for excruciating minutes of not quite, of little longer, of you can make it.

She swears, her voice pitchy, her fingers squeezing the phone even as her body jerks. The idea of being this wet, this stupidly ready, without another person present is so foreign, she wants to laugh--except she’s too busy gasping, shifting up off the bed into her own friction. Too busy staring at this randomly-chosen photo of Jamie with shirt fully unbuttoned, showing off the wildflowers patterned around the front of one shoulder. 

She’s gazing, remembering kissing each of those flowers, how Jamie had gripped her hair and softly urged her lower, when her tension snaps. Her eyes flicker shut, her tongue nearly able to recall the salt of Jamie’s skin, the tightening of muscles under Dani’s hands.

It’s only after--when her head is pleasantly fuzzy with the combination of orgasm and the shower she’d chased it with--that she picks up her phone to find a single line of text waiting.

enjoying the feed, are we?

She frowns, taps back, What are you talking about?

A beat. Then an image, a screen-capture pulled from Jamie’s own phone. The wildflower photo, with all its thousands of likes proudly displayed below.

The most obvious of which is Dani’s own handle. 

“Shit,” she mutters. 

***

“You know that was from two years ago,” Jamie says happily. Dani, head folded against her knees, heaves out an exasperated groan.

“It’s been three days, can we find something else to talk about?”

“We could,” Jamie allows. “But it’s so much funnier this way. Tell me again, how’d you manage that?”

“I,” Dani says with forced steadiness, “tripped.”

“Uh huh. Tripped. And just fell on the like button. For a picture a person would have to really work to--”

Dani scowls. “You know, I would never have started sleeping with you if I knew what an arrogant ass you can be.”

“Oh, sure you would,” Jamie says comfortably, taking one of her hands and kissing the smooth back. Dani’s scowl doesn’t lighten. “I have so many...” Another kiss, lips parted to allow her tongue to trace around Dani’s knuckle. “...fine...” And again, higher, making to slide Dani’s finger into her mouth. “Qualities.”

“Stop that,” Dani says, her voice shadowed with obvious desire, and Jamie gamely drops her hand. “Did wonders for your ego, I bet.”

“To imagine you all alone, pining away over old photos?” Jamie shrugs. “Yeah, s’all right.”

You have no idea, she doesn’t say. No idea how it had felt after a long day at work, her head pounding, to find Dani’s name waiting in her notifications. Shouldn’t have mattered, she thought, even as her heart bounded violently against her ribs at the notion that Dani had been alone, able to do just about anything with her time, and had chosen to give herself over to Jamie from a distance.

No idea, she thinks again, and casually turns away from the pleasant clutch of her stomach. Better to stay here, now, laughing when Dani gives her a little push, letting herself topple back on the couch. Dani wastes no time in climbing astride her, settling atop her hips like a queen. 

“You’re very lucky I’m attracted to you, or this would just never work.”

I’m lucky,” Jamie repeats, feigning offense. “Who taught you how to come so hard, you thought you’d forgotten your own name?”

Dani slides her hands across Jamie’s chest, squeezing her shoulders. She gives her hips an experimental roll, sighs. “I still think you’re being arrogant.” Her head tips back, her hips rolling again. “And smug.”

Jamie licks her lips, letting her hands rest lightly at Dani’s waist. “Hard not to be, when I get visions like this.”

“Smug,” Dani repeats, setting a slow grinding rhythm with little regard for Jamie’s input. Every cant of her hips brings her down against the rise of Jamie’s belt buckle, a factor she seems to be enjoying very much. “You really don’t mind being treated like an object by women you don’t even know?”

“Quite the conversation,” Jamie says, groaning when Dani squeezes her shoulders again, the grip on her shirt dragging soft cotton tantalizingly up her stomach, “for this view.”

“Get used to it,” Dani suggests. “Punishment for making fun of me for three damn days.”

“All the affection in the world,” Jamie protests, her eyes flickering when Dani pushes herself down harder and makes a truly filthy noise. “You’re really not going to let me have any fun?”

“None.” As if, thinks Jamie, they don’t both know full well how fun this is. As if having a beautiful woman astride her for any reason could fail to be fun. “I’ve had a rough day, and you’ve been less than helpful.”

“Could be helpful,” Jamie says, urging Dani’s blouse higher by increments with gentle fingers. The sight of her truly is spectacular, hair loose around her shoulders, skirt spread across Jamie’s lap. Not a bad Tuesday night, by any stretch. 

“Nope,” says Dani, bracing herself against Jamie’s shoulder with one hand, bringing the other up to brush the hair out of her face. “Nope, you have forsaken your helpfulness for the time being.”

Her rhythm is maddeningly controlled, her eyes fixed firmly on Jamie’s face, and Jamie thinks with wonder, Two months is all it took. Two short months, to unlock this. There’s a pride in the idea that she had anything to do with it, but the fact is, this is simply Dani. Dani, growing a little more comfortable in her body with every passing week. 

It’s a wonderful thing to watch, Dani leaning into this newfound confidence. There is a sense, even now, that this ought to have been Dani all along--that, given better circumstances, people who really wished the best for her, she’d never have looked at Jamie with such nervous eyes at all. 

“This,” Jamie says, “is a bit of an over-reaction, don’t you think?”

Dani smiles, one hand still buried in her own hair. “Depends. Is it annoying you?”

“Annoying?” Jamie pushes against the hand at her shoulder, pleased when Dani relents enough to let her curl into a half-sit-up. She slides an arm around Dani’s waist, letting her hand splay across Dani’s ribs. “Not by half. Be much more effective if I could just...”

She leans in, waiting for Dani to push her onto her back again--she wouldn’t mind, frankly, given what Dani’s current mood is doing to her own libido. Still, it’s better when Dani meets her with a slow kiss that says she isn’t mad, was never mad, is probably getting off on teasing Jamie as much as on the friction of Jamie’s jeans. 

Dani presses her forehead against Jamie’s, her hips still moving, her hand curling around the back of Jamie’s neck. “This didn’t quite go as planned.”

“Keep trying,” Jamie suggests, pleased when Dani gives a low moan, rocking harder into her lap. “Maybe you’ll make me properly crazy yet.”

Dani kisses her again, channeling any genuine aggravation she might feel into the gesture, and Jamie finds herself digging her free hand into blonde hair, grateful for the core strength keeping her upright. That she hasn’t even really touched Dani--that Dani’s increasingly frenetic little sounds, Dani’s relentless pace set and matched is entirely on her own merit--is doing things she hadn’t been prepared for, grinning up at Dani a moment ago. 

That Dani is reaching down, pressing a hand between her own legs, her knuckles dragging against denim, is far more than she was prepared for. 

“I could--” She moves to replace Dani’s fingers with her own, and Dani shakes her head. 

“Still--punishing--you.”

Jamie gazes at her, impressed, the throb between her own legs escalating to unmanageable degrees. “Punish away, then,” she says, and leans slowly back, one arm behind her head, to enjoy the show. 

Dani makes a helpless noise, clenches her teeth, her hand moving under her skirt in skidding patterns. She shifts forward on her knees, removing contact with Jamie’s body entirely, and Jamie groans. 

“Mind if I, uh...”

Her hand drags down, under the bridge Dani has made of herself, fumbling open her own belt. Dani looks down at her with wide eyes, as if to argue, then seems to think better of it. 

“Can’t tell you what to do.”

“Oh, you could,” Jamie replies. “But I don’t think you’re quite there yet.”

Smug, she waits for Dani to say, but Dani’s hand is quickening, Dani bracing herself against the back of the couch, and words don’t seem important anymore. Jamie allows her own fingers to set a brutal pace, racing to catch up with Dani’s lead, careful not to shift her hips in any way that might knock Dani off-balance. 

She wonders if Dani ever saw this in her future, asking Jamie if she’d be interested in a sex-only kind of friendship.

She wonders if Dani ever thought herself capable of such bravado, riding her own hand without allowing Jamie to intercede.

She wonders, most of all, what Dani had been doing on her account the other night. If she had, in fact, been behaving so innocently. Why her face would grow hot, her eyes darting away each time Jamie mentioned it, if looking was all she had been doing.

That idea--Dani, unable to get her physically, using static images to achieve the same goal--is thrilling in a way dirty messages from strangers has never been. She watches Dani throw her head back, pumping her own fingers recklessly, imagining Dani doing this very same thing alone in her apartment, and enough is enough.

It is, Jamie realizes as she cries out, the first time Dani has held on longer than she has. 

***

“Are you all right, Miss Clayton?”

Dani jolts at her desk, head coming off her hand, a guilty heat spreading up her back. Hannah Grose is frowning at her in a way that says she’s asked more than once.

“I--yeah. Fine. Perfect.” And not at all exhausted from getting home at three in the morning. She’s starting to wish she’d found an apartment closer to Jamie’s place, if only to make it easier on her when she resists good sense and stays too late. 

Not that she regrets it, she thinks, remembering how Jamie had looked at her. How Jamie had looked impressed, her eyes devouring Dani’s reckless decision to take matters into her own hands. In almost two months of this friendship, she’d never rendered Jamie speechless before. 

Of course, Jamie had promptly risen up to kiss the cry off her lips when she’d finally come apart, yanking her underwear down and reminding her why Jamie was the best choice in the world for this education in the first place. 

“Miss Clayton?”

She jerks her mind away from the memory of Jamie rolling a thumb across swollen nerves, Jamie sliding two fingers deep and urging Dani to break again almost before she thought she could. “Yes?”

Hannah is frowning. “I can come back, if it’s a bad time.”

“Not--not a bad time.” Dani sits up straight, brushes her skirt flat, trying not to think about how she’s been choosing skirts more often for the sake of ease at Jamie’s. “I’m sorry, I didn’t--haven’t been sleeping well. You were saying?”

“Henry Wingrave sent me,” Hannah says, “to talk about Miles? His behavior, I understand, has been...less than ideal.”

Dani grimaces. “I’m sorry he couldn’t be here himself to discuss this. I really hoped...”

Hannah Grose is one of the best women she’s ever known, the caretaker for Miles and his younger sister, and she does love these children like her own. Still, Dani prefers to handle matters of behavior with a child’s legal guardian. 

“I think he’s having trouble adjusting,” Hannah says, “to the idea of your...enhanced authority.”

Dani, who had spent the first few years of Miles’ life acting as what Wingrave insisted on calling an “au pair” over holiday breaks, isn’t surprised. She’d hoped, when Miles had been appointed to her in a classroom, those years would serve as a good foundation. 

Instead, they have gifted her a surly boy who seems to be growing ever more rebellious. 

“I’m sure it has to do with his parents, you understand. He still hasn’t recovered--well, neither of the children, really--”

Dani nods. “I’ve offered to talk to him about it. He always says he’s all right.”

“He’s the same at home,” Hannah sighs. “I keep asking Henry to put a little time in at the house, to talk to him, but with all his travel...well. You remember.”

Dani smiles. “I really would like to meet with him. I know he’s been difficult to pin down, but if there’s anything you can do...”

She watches Hannah’s smile harden, a sure sign things have only gotten worse in the Wingrave house since last Dani visited. More guilt; Eddie hadn’t been thrilled with her second job, and she’d allowed him to pressure her into quitting three years ago. It had been, at the time, a matter of summer job or teaching itself, and she hadn’t made the choice happily--but make it, she had.

At least Hannah has never seemed to hold it against her. A mark of absolute graciousness, if nothing else.

“I will do my best,” Hannah says now, both of them understanding it will indeed be Hannah herself back in this room a month from now to hold the exact same conversation. “In the meantime, dear, how are you? How have you been holding up since the, er...”

“Break-up,” Dani supplies. “You can say it, it’s all right.”

It is, except Eddie doesn’t seem to know it. He’s still calling several times a week, usually from numbers that aren’t his own. She’s given up trying to keep track of which is his new one, opting just to screen any call she doesn’t recognize.

“You do seem in rather good spirits,” Hannah says. “I must confess, I thought you would...well, look a bit more like I did after Sam.”

"Did you realize, after Sam left, that you actually preferred the romantic company of women?” Dani asks before she can stop herself. Hannah’s eyes widen.

“Well--no. No, I didn’t.” A pause. Then, a slow smile spreading across her lips, as warmly reassuring as the first truly good day of summer: “Well done. Good for you, Miss Clayton.”

“It’s been long enough,” Dani says, reaching across to touch her wrist. “Please, call me Dani.”

***

“I told a friend today,” Dani says. Jamie, who has been taking notes on an upcoming anniversary party, raises her eyebrows. 

“About us?”

“What? No.” Dani shifts in place on the counter, swinging her legs. She looks like she’s never felt more at peace in her entire life. “About me. About why I broke it off with Eddie. I haven’t told anyone else, except for you, and...”

“How’d it feel?” Wedging the pen between her teeth, Jamie flips back, searching for a buried note regarding lilies. Dani hums. 

“Amazing. Really great. I thought I would want to throw up, but it just sort...came out on its own. Like it’s normal.”

“Is normal,” Jamie says around the pen, smiling. “Good first step, you seeing that for yourself.” She steals a glance at Dani, surprised to find big blue eyes staring back. “What? What’d I say?”

“Nothing,” Dani says. “Just. You’re...a good friend, you know that? Listening to me talk about this.”

“Who’s to say I’m not just doin’ it because I’ll have your clothes off later?” Jamie teases. Dani’s smile is pretty, unimpeded by even a flash of second-guessing. 

“Well, you’ll get that anyway--but you listen because you’re good at it. And I want you to know I do appreciate it. I haven’t...had many people make that a priority.”

I know, Jamie doesn’t say, a pit of anger in her chest reserved for all the people who have known Dani for thirty years and never thought to take her wants and needs into account. It isn’t hard, she thinks with venom, to listen to the people who matter. Especially someone like Dani, kind and eager to please, always smiling like that even when the recipient of that smile doesn’t deserve its warmth.

“Yeah, well.” Scratching the back of her neck with the pen, Jamie shrugs. “Happy to help.”

Happier than she’d have guessed, at the start of all of this. Dani is genuine in ways she doesn’t think she’s ever known before. Genuine, and kind, and frankly better than anything Jamie deserves to be seen with, even in friendship.

Dani, who is leaning back, making a show of sweeping the shop for eavesdroppers. Finding none, she swings her legs over the counter, dropping down beside Jamie and pressing against her side. 

“Speaking of helping.”

“I,” Jamie says, with what she thinks of as a magnificent stab at decorum, “am working. What did we say about work?”

Like she never thinks about this while working. Like she doesn’t spend a truly ungodly amount of time, all things considered, thinking about Dani in her bed--pinned against her wall--saying her name in that breathy voice that makes her feel like she shouldn’t be allowed human contact until she gets herself in order again.

Dani has been proving a magnificent distraction from nearly anything else in the world, of late. Mainly because even as she’s doing this--arms looped lightly around Jamie’s waist, hands dipping into her back pockets--she’s grinning like half the fun is in making Jamie laugh. 

Women aren’t like this, Jamie thinks. Women are expectant, hopeful, each one assuming she will be the one to break whatever curse Jamie is under. Each one--even if kind, even if lovely, even if well-meaning--just reminding Jamie of how exhausting it is to interact with people beyond passing charm. 

This one, though. This one is something else. 

“It’s your rule,” Dani reminds her, leaning back against the counter and pulling Jamie irresistibly closer. “You get to decide if we break it. I’m only saying, it would be...new, for me. Having you in a public place...”

That--the casual way she says it, using Jamie’s pockets to reel her in until they’re pressed flush--is more than enough. Jamie glances over her shoulder to the door, which hasn’t opened once all afternoon. The rain is doing no one any favors; this kind of week nearly always results in loathsome profit margins. 

“Not making a habit,” she says sternly. “Right? Just a one-time experiment, s’all.”

“I solemnly swear,” Dani intones, brushing her lips lightly against Jamie’s jaw, “not to coax you into sex in the workplace more than this...one...time.”

Dangerous woman, thinks Jamie, even as she’s backing toward the stock room with Dani’s hand in her own. Dangerous, and more lively than anyone Jamie’s spent time around in years, as though unlocking this part of herself has given her room to be more Dani than she’d known was possible.

It’s having an effect Jamie can’t entirely bring herself to look at. Not just now. Not just yet. There are things waiting in the dark, things that remind her too much of being innocent and naïve and easily cracked open. She isn’t there yet. This is only good.

She can back away, if that ever changes.

“Have you?” Dani asks, when Jamie has flipped the stock room lock into place and pinned her against a rack of supplies. 

“Have I what?” 

“Taken anyone back here.” Dani is kissing her around the words, somehow managing to seem equally invested in conversation and making out at the same time. Jamie laughs.

“Not recently.”

“You have pictures,” Dani goes on, even as Jamie is coaxing her head back, burying her face eagerly between neck and shoulder. Dani grabs at her clothes, untucking her shirt without ceremony. “Pictures, from--from when you were replanting the--um--the little--”

She gives up, preoccupied with Jamie’s zipper, with Jamie sucking a sharp little mark into her shoulder. It’s only the second time she’s ever tried this on Dani; the first had been an accident, biting entirely too hard when Dani had been driving herself down on her hand almost hard enough to hurt. She’d apologized instantly, surprised when Dani--using her phone as a mirror--had raised her eyebrows. 

“Kinda liked it.”

She seems to more than kind of like it now, urgent fingers combing restlessly through Jamie’s hair. Jamie lifts her head, grins, the telltale spread of pink across Dani’s cheeks suggesting Dani has been thinking about this room maybe since seeing those pictures. 

Dani has been thinking about this room, wondering if Jamie makes a habit of making women groan her name in this half-public place, her curiosity growing over the past week or two. And she’d come here today, not to tell Jamie about her first coming out, but in the hope she could get back here and find out.

It should bother Jamie, maybe. If she thought there was any jealousy in Dani’s face when she asks again, it would bother her. But Dani is just looking at her, chest heaving, face flushed, like she doesn’t care if it’s the first time or the thousandth for Jamie, just so long as Dani gets to experience it now, too.

“Owen,” she says. Dani’s face crinkles in puzzlement.

“I--”

“Owen,” Jamie repeats, and spins Dani to face the rack, reaching gently down to take her hands, guide them up, wrap them around the metal bar. “Took the picture you’re talking about. A lot of the ones I didn’t take myself were Owen. He’s got an eye.”

Dani makes a small noise in her throat. “Oh.”

“Mmhmm.” Pressing neatly against her back, resting her chin on Dani’s shoulder, Jamie slides her hands around. With one, she fiddles open the buttons of Dani’s blouse until she can slip between the silky pink fabric and Dani’s bra. With the other, she reaches around to ease Dani’s skirt up. “Why? Were you thinking it was something else?”

“With the photos you post?” Dani’s laugh turns liquid as Jamie cups between her legs, pressing herself forward. Jamie eases her hair over one shoulder, kissing the back of her neck. 

“What’s that supposed to mean?”

She picks up a gentle rhythm to start, aware Dani has likely been thinking about this all day, equally aware Dani is probably sore from last night. Dani sighs, adjusting her grip on the rack. 

“I was only curious. If this was as off-limits as your apartment.”

“No,” says Jamie. “Not exactly.”

She has, in fact, brought several women back here--usually after a conversation spiraled from flowers to flirting. She could take Dani on a tour of stolen moments in this room--the couch, the table, the wall--and Dani would probably laugh and tease her about it all.

Not for doing it, though. Not for the array of partners, or the fact that she hadn’t caught most of their names. The only ones she brings back here are those who give the very obvious hint that this is a one-time deal for them, too. That Jamie is a thrill to ride exactly once, and then file away in a folder marked courage, to remind them they’d been capable.

She’d sort of expected Dani to put her in that folder, too, that first night. Before Dani had stood up straight and surprised them both. 

Before Dani had become the sort of person she looks forward to bringing into spaces like this one, making her laugh, sigh, grip at a rack with white knuckles. 

She’s kissing her way down Dani’s neck, across the backs of her shoulders through the thin material of her shirt, loving the way it seems to make Dani crazy not to have skin to skin contact. Dani is breathing hard, rocking into Jamie’s fingers, sounding as though any attempt to keep her head is going to evaporate soon.

It’s less what Jamie is doing, Jamie suspects, and more how she’s doing it. That they both know Dani has only ever let herself go in safe spaces--Jamie’s bed, Jamie’s flat, her own home. That this, while not exactly safe, is still Jamie’s, and therefore still a soft enough place to land. 

That Jamie doesn’t mind breaking her own rules, just this once, if it means painting this room with Dani’s presence. 

Dani is, if nothing else, clearly trying to keep quiet. It’s such a stark contrast to the last six weeks in Jamie’s flat that Jamie can’t help but find it appealing, how she tightens her jaw, trying to choke down increasingly desperate whimpers as Jamie picks up speed. Pulls her hand free just long enough to jerk the underwear down her legs. Readjusts to slide inside, two fingers curling, until Dani makes a deliciously sharp noise of pleasure.

What would she sound like, Jamie wonders, in a more dangerous place than this? 

What would she be doing with all that desperation, if Jamie were stroking her under the table at a restaurant?

How long can she keep control over herself, with Jamie easing in and slowly back out, taking her time, grinding her own hips against the back of her skirt until the breath hisses through her teeth?

“Everything you’d imagined?” she asks against Dani’s ear, keeping her own voice low. Dani bows her head, rocking so hard into Jamie’s touch that the whole rack shakes. Jamie eases her free hand up, wraps her fingers around Dani’s viciously-tight grip, squeezes. 

She’s close, and still, she’s keeping remarkably quiet. Keeping remarkably still, save for the frantic pump of her hips, the urgent way she seems to be silently begging Jamie for more. 

She’s close, and Jamie is just about to tell her so--voice calm as she can make it, with her own legs shaking--when the bell above the front door chimes. Dani freezes, her body going rigid under Jamie’s. 

“Ah,” says Jamie, “well--better go get--”

“Don’t,” Dani hisses in a strangled tone that could not be more attractive if she tried, “you dare.”

Jamie laughs, says, “Best hurry up, then.” Dani groans--softer than usual, but louder than anything she’s uttered yet in this room. Jamie thrusts her fingers again, again, registering the sound of a customer outside calling for assistance even as Dani’s knees buckle. 

“Did you really come,” she asks quietly, kissing Dani’s cheek, “because you knew someone might hear you?”

It’s the most embarrassed Dani has looked in weeks, and Jamie makes a mental note to take her out more often. 

Chapter Text

Spring is winding down at last, summer beginning to rear its head, and Dani Clayton has honestly never been happier in her life. It’s a cliché, she thinks sometimes, mulling over the past three months in the shower. A cliché, that she’d find true joy immediately upon kicking down the closet door. 

But clichés can be surprises, too, when they happen to someone whose every expectation for their life had been “white picket fence, his last name, kids to carry on the legacy.” This is better. This is, for the first time, Dani

Even if what is Dani looks an awful lot like awkwardly saying, “Okay, but you can’t laugh.”

“Won’t laugh,” Jamie says. She’s reclining on the bed, a pleasant sheen of sweat cooling across her skin, and there’s just something about her Dani can’t not want. Not the way she smiles, or the way the slim muscles of her abdomen tighten under Dani’s fingers, but this. The fact that she says won’t laugh, and Dani knows instantly how much she means it. 

“I just,” Dani says. “It’s stupid to be nervous. I know. Especially after all the times you’ve--”

“Dani,” Jamie says patiently. “We’ve talked about this.”

They have, on more than one occasion, when what she’s been doing finally catches up with Dani’s head. When she remembers she’s had more sex in three months than in an entire monogamous relationship, and with considerably less reservation. 

“It’s not stupid,” Jamie says. “If you weren’t still nervous about things, you wouldn’t still need me.”

It needles at Dani, her saying things like that. Makes her feel like Jamie believes she’s just a body in a bed to Dani, instead of the person she’s arguably grown closest to over the span of a season. 

“Three months,” she says hopelessly. “And I’ve never--I don’t know that I’ll be any good at it.”

“You think it was automatic, for me?” Jamie sits up, reaches over, squeezes her hand. “Dani, first time I went down on a girl, you know what happened?”

Dani shakes her head. Jamie is grinning. 

“I sneezed.”

“You didn’t.” But Jamie is actually laughing now, flopping back on the pillows, her arms behind her head. 

“I did. No better way to impress a lady, by the way, highly recommend you keep that one in your back pocket.”

“So,” Dani says through a well of giggles, “as long as I don’t sneeze, I’m--”

“Doing just fine,” Jamie confirms. “Look, Dani, it’s like anything else, yeah? Takes practice to get good. And I promise, I’m not gonna kick you out of bed if you don’t get me all the way there first time out.”

Dani is quiet, fiddling with the wrinkled sheets pulled up to her waist. Jamie lets her eyes close, stretching her legs out, crossing at the ankles. 

“And,” she adds, “if you don’t want to--if you never want to--that’s well and good. It’s not on you to like everything, you know.”

“Like it when you do it,” Dani mutters. It’s an understatement. Jamie’s hands are incredible, but Jamie’s mouth is a revelation. 

Not that she needs to know that. Not with her phone buzzing to life every couple of minutes, a shower of messages from strange women coming through from all corners of the state. Jamie, who follows exactly seven people on Instagram--mostly other plant enthusiasts, as well as Owen of the cafe and Dani herself--is a fixture of other people’s constant attention. She doesn’t need Dani stroking her ego, too.

Good friendship, Dani tells herself with a small smile, is about making sure smug doesn’t become her middle name. 

“You’re welcome to test it out,” Jamie is saying, like they’re discussing a new pizza recipe. “Now, or next week, or whenever. There’s no hurry.”

Dani sighs, lets herself fall onto the pillows, her hand creeping over to rest on Jamie’s thigh just below the leg of her boxers. “You make a good mentor.”

“Mentor,” Jamie snorts. “Am I Yoda or Mr. Miyagi in this scenario?”

Dani closes her eyes, considering. “Neither. Master Splinter.”

Jamie sits bolt upright, her jaw unhinging. “The fuckin’ rat? Low. That is low.”

Dani giggles, rolling onto her side. “Plans for the weekend?”

Jamie, still looking disgruntled, shrugs. “Work. Gym. Maybe a little fun.”

Fun, Dani understands, could mean her. It could also mean any of the women Jamie meets when they aren’t together, the ones who leave comments of such a filthy nature on Jamie’s photos, she’s lost whole afternoons to fascinated scrolling.

“You know they call you daddy?” she’s pointed out from Jamie’s kitchen table, stealing fries off of Jamie’s plate. “Look at this one: ‘daddy, rail me until I can’t feel my dripping--’ Jesus, nope, sorry. I draw the line at women asking you to actively pulverize their bodies.”

Jamie had winced. “Usually don’t respond to those ones. Some people can be a little...overzealous.”

Some, sure, but there are still plenty of perfectly normal messages. Normal, inviting, sexy--and these are just the public comments. Dani imagines Jamie’s inbox is a sight. 

“You?” Jamie asks, and Dani shrugs. 

“My friend keeps trying to get me to join her gym. Maybe I’ll take a leaf out of your book.”

In truth, she hasn’t had the energy for a workout since high school and the track team Eddie had talked her into joining strictly because it had been co-ed. These days, between school and Jamie, she doesn’t love the idea of burning whatever strength she has left on a treadmill. 

But Hannah has been leaving increasingly pointed messages on her Facebook, reminding Dani that she really should have a life beyond work and the quiet of her apartment. As with so many other things, Hannah is rarely wrong.

“You know you could come to my gym,” Jamie says, curling a hand lightly around Dani’s hip. The sheet pulling across Dani’s skin is cool, pleasant; the heat of Jamie’s palm only reminds her of what they’d just finished doing before this conversation. That fire in her belly, the one that never quite seems to go out, crackles to life again. 

You, she thinks for the millionth time, have a problem. 

“Right,” she says, pretending Jamie drawing spirals with the tips of her fingers isn’t winding her up. “What would I do at your gym? Bet you go to one of those specialized ones, with trainers on hand to whip you into shape.”

“There are, depressingly, very few whips,” Jamie says, grinning. She’s sliding closer, tugging gently at the sheet until Dani’s skin lays bare to her hands. “Few chains, maybe.”

Dani closes her eyes, enjoying the play of distracting fingers sliding up her back. Jamie kisses the curve of her shoulder, a lazy kiss that doesn’t urge Dani into action--that had been earlier, Jamie’s tongue hot in her mouth, Jamie’s hands pulling at her clothes with such eagerness, she’d actually torn a button loose. It had been the kind of fast and hard that only ever makes Dani want to go again, again, until Jamie is panting and spent beside her. 

Now, she strokes Dani’s hair, kissing her with slow patience, like they have all night. Dani sighs, opens her eyes, glances at the clock on Jamie’s bedside table.

“I should go.”

Jamie looks back over her shoulder, frowning. “Right. That time again.”

Dani slides from the bed, retrieving clothing from the floor, the dresser, the doorway. Her phone, she retrieves from its place beside Jamie’s, a silent reminder of her own meager social life. 

Maybe I will go to the gym with Hannah. It’s something.

She wriggles back into her skirt and buttons her shirt over bare skin, frowning when she reaches the loose threads where the fourth ought to be. Jamie winces. 

“Can fix that, if you leave it. Here, take this.”

Dani watches her move to the closet, retrieving a soft flannel in shades of brown, which she passes over. 

“Thank you. I’ll get it back to you--”

Jamie is shaking her head, carefully folding Dani’s blouse and setting it on the dresser. “Not like I won’t see you. I ruin anything else?”

Dani finishes dressing, checking over the rest of her outfit for unexpected tears and coming up clean. Jamie hovers near the dresser, clad only in boxers, a silver necklace, a sheepish expression. 

“Really sorry. I’ll keep a handle on...that, next time ‘round.”

Dani reaches out a hand, pleased when Jamie takes it. “If I didn’t like it, I would have said something.” Which is true now, and has been all along--since the very first night, that has been Jamie’s credo. Stop me. If it’s too much, if anything isn’t good. Stop me. And there had been nothing bad, nothing at all, about how eagerly Jamie greeted her at the door. 

Jamie, who had gone almost a week without her company, and had kissed her like a drowning woman seeking clean air. Jamie, who hadn’t made conversation or even asked, “Where tonight?”, using her hands and her mouth to get across anything Dani might have needed to know. 

Her stomach clenches, remembering how Jamie had sunk to her knees, looking at her perched on the edge of the mattress. How Jamie had spent so long between her legs, Dani had forgotten herself entirely. 

Someday, she promises herself silently. Someday, I’m going to be brave enough to return the favor. 

But tonight is a clock blinking 12:30, the incontrovertible evidence that Thursday has slipped over sideways into Friday morning, and Jamie is walking her to the door again. A bookend, Dani thinks with a smile, as she kisses Jamie goodnight. 

It is not until the next morning, silencing an alarm that bleats at 5 instead of 6:15, that she realizes her mistake.

***

Jamie hasn’t woken late in years. The alarm is really just a precaution, most of the time; her biological clock has been wound and set to precisely 5 since her early twenties, when she’d come out of a stint in prison with a green thumb and an awareness of how quickly time ticks away on a person looking the wrong way. She wakes with the sun on instinct, before the alarm can even go off.

Most of the time. When she isn’t worn out from a rather enthusiastic couple of rounds with Dani. 

She wakes to a familiar chime at an unfamiliarly-late hour, feeling groggy. The phone make and model, she registers, is correct, down to its lack of a case. 

The background image--a winter sunset behind skeletal trees, no green in sight--is not.

“Shit,” she hisses, sitting up, tapping the screen as though a magic beat drummed out will somehow unlock Dani’s combination. “Shit.”

Dani’s phone. Dani’s phone, in her flat, which means Dani has--

Don’t panic. Not the end of the world, she thinks. Mistakes happen. Mistakes are bound to happen, with how often she and Dani have been hanging out lately. Both of them are the same kind of reckless with their belongings--a joke Jamie had made early on, about her business not quite making enough to merit never putting a case on the most expensive thing she owns.

How do you think I feel? Dani had laughed. Teacher’s salary doesn’t line up with an endless string of phone replacements.

And still, Jamie had never gotten around to a case--Dani had never quite found one she couldn’t break--and so:

A mix-up. It happens. It isn’t so strange, isn’t so unexpected. And, she hastens to think, it could be far worse. Dani’s phone is passcode-protected, as is her own. Frankly, even if that weren’t the case, it wouldn’t matter. Dani is safe. She trusts Dani not to go rifling through her messages. 

Messages. She groans. Fucking embarrassing. Dani’d be better off shutting the damn thing down until she can get rid of it, lest the constant vibrations drive her out of her head.

Right, she thinks, groping for logic to pave over the thrum of unexpected nerves. The options. Can’t bring the phone back to Dani; she has no earthly idea where Dani lives, has never felt quite right bringing it up. Can’t just expect Dani to pop back to hers; address, she may not have, but she’s eighty percent sure Dani lives all the way across town. The school she’d mentioned once or twice is a million years from convenience, and she certainly won’t risk being late to work just to correct a phone swap. 

Which means, far as she can figure, they’re stuck--at least until the end of the workday.

“One day,” she mutters. One day without a phone isn’t a tragedy. It’ll be business as usual at the shop, no worries, and on breaks, she’ll...read a book, maybe. Watch the birds, maybe. Not like she’s been on top of all those messages lately, anyway. Not like she doesn’t, half the time, open her inbox just to stare blankly at unread DMs, shutting down the app without opening a single one. She hasn’t so much as thought of calling another woman in weeks.

Which has been...nice. Strange, after the past few years of religiously combing through strangers in search of one she’d actually want to kill an evening with, but pleasantly so. Less stressful, by far.

Not that the stress hadn’t been worth it, she thinks hastily, leaving Dani’s phone carefully on her nightstand and heading toward a hot shower. There’s a certain kind of good fortune, in being able to meet so many women, in knowing she is exactly what they’re looking for--for a few hours. It’s fun. 

But Dani is fun, too. And Dani is the kind of fun she doesn’t have to think about, doesn’t have to scroll back through a profile looking for hidden signs of darkness or a likelihood the woman is just going to show up at her shop in a week with a ring.

Dani is the kind of fun that makes sense. The kind of easy, natural unwinding Jamie gets not just sexual gratification from--though she’s starting to worry they’re going to hurt themselves, if they keep up this pace--but genuine relief. The last time she could say that about a woman in her bed was...

“Never,” she informs her shower, laughing giddily into the steam. True, or near enough to count. A little alarming, maybe, that the closest she can recall was the wrong kind of nice girl, the one she’s spent most of her adult life trying to banish. That one had introduced her to all manner of fun in her own right—the kind that didn’t make sense, the kind that was loud and hot and chemical, and only ever doomed to end in a cell.

Different. Dani is different. Dani is different, and the longer this all goes on, the less Jamie ever thinks of that other one.

None of which is important right now.

She finishes dressing, tucks Dani’s phone into her pocket, dimly registering a missed call on the lock screen. Not labeled. Wrong number, maybe. Not her problem. The problem is not wanting the damn thing in her flat if it isn’t in Dani’s hand. Not wanting to imagine Dani going stir-crazy without it. Not wanting this absurd, accidental breach of Dani’s territory without her consent.

Be easiest on everyone, she suspects, to just bring the phone up to Dani’s school. She could lock up early, drive over. It wouldn’t be difficult, and Dani would probably appreciate the effort.

Unless, she thinks, that’d be overstepping? Unless her turning up unannounced at Dani’s place of employment would, in fact, be exactly the sort of move that torches this whole friendship. Would it be better to just wait here? Dani certainly knows where to find her. 

But Dani doesn’t have a car. Doesn’t drive at all, far as Jamie understands. And, anyway, Dani shouldn’t be expected to do all the traveling. Especially for this, an honest mistake, when the end of a long day will probably leave her worn out and just wanting to go home. Hadn’t she said she had plans with a friend for the weekend? Why should she be expected to trek all the way back to Jamie’s side of town without having planned for it?

She spends the morning distracted, her mind waffling from one end of the decision spectrum to the other on a continuous loop. A list of hard-to-discount likelihoods springs up along the way: Dani needs her phone, to contact her friend. Dani must be going crazy, listening to Jamie’s go off every five minutes. Dani probably doesn’t even want to see her, she’s so irritated with the whole situation.

Plus, there’s that number that keeps popping up, over and over--up to seven missed calls now, by Jamie’s count. Someone important, probably, coming through that many times. A family emergency, maybe. Who knows what Dani is missing?

In the end, she grits her teeth and drives up to the school before she can talk herself back out of it. Dani--who takes the bus to and from Jamie’s on a constant rotation, which, now that Jamie thinks of it, really isn’t fair--doesn’t even need to talk to her. They can just pretend the swap happened in a perfectly platonic social setting, and Dani can get on with her weekend in peace.

Why are you even so worried about this? As if Dani isn’t a big girl. As if they haven’t been having fun together, the both of them, Dani grinning against her kiss like she can’t get enough. She shakes her head, brushes her hair back, straightens her shoulders. Tired. Just tired, and acting foolish as consequence. Just walk into that school, find Dani, and stop acting like having the woman’s phone for twelve hours is some kind of earth-shattering event.

Dani’s classroom is surprisingly easy to find. Dani herself, less so. Jamie suddenly realizes she has absolutely no clue what time elementary school lets out, but it evidently is earlier than 4:24 in the afternoon.

“Sorry,” Jamie says to the elegant, slightly familiar-looking woman she finds instead, poking her head into the classroom. “Have you seen Dani Clayton?”

The woman shakes her head, looking amused. “Hoped to catch her, too, hm? I know I should have called ahead, but she’s normally so hard to convince to leave before five.”

Jamie sighs. “So much for that plan.” Like this woman cares. This woman, looking at her with polite curiosity. She grimaces. “Sorry. Rude of me. Jamie.”

“Hannah,” the woman says, extending a hand. Her grip is strong, her fingers ensconced in a number of gleaming rings. Her eyes are bright, still looking Jamie over, though there is no hint of desire about her expression. It’s almost refreshing. “You look...have we met? Perhaps your children are in Miss Clayton’s class?” 

“What?” Jamie blanches. “No. No kids. I, uh, we--” Platonic, remember. “Just acquaintances. Same coffee shop and all. Thought I’d catch her with a...question, but if she’s gone on home already, I’ll just...just have to pick up with her next week.”

She winces inwardly, but the woman doesn’t seem to notice. 

“Anything I can pass along?”

“No,” says Jamie hurriedly. “No, nothing dire.” 

Hannah smiles. “All right. Well, if she’s already gone, I suppose there’s no point in me hanging ‘round, either. Have a lovely afternoon, Jamie.”

“And you.” Lovely. Sure. With Dani’s phone burning a hole in her pocket, Dani probably wondering how she’s tolerated Jamie’s company all spring after just one day watching her messages combust. Perfectly lovely all around.

***

Jamie looks startled to find her waiting on the steps outside her apartment. Dani, who has spent an entire day itching to make the clock run faster, aware Jamie must be going wild without her phone, raises her eyebrows.

“Hi.”

“Hey. You, uh. You’re here.” Jamie rocks back on her heels, perplexed. “What’re you doing here?”

Dani holds out the phone, trying not to look half as embarrassed as she feels. “I didn’t--I thought maybe you’d be mad, but I didn’t look at anything. Couldn’t, really, but even if I could, I wouldn’t have. Just. So you know.”

Jamie doesn’t move to take it. Her face is doing something Dani has never seen before, a sort of shuffle between surprise and...concern? “Mad?” she repeats. “Why would I have been--”

“I know,” Dani says quickly, “how important it is to have your privacy. And I know how much that’s at stake just with us doing...what we do, here. The last thing I ever wanted was to overstep on that. On you. I’m really sorry I couldn’t get over here sooner, but the kids had a test today, and I couldn’t just--”

All day, she doesn’t say. All day, I’ve been waiting for you to look at me like I broke a rule. The idea had nearly given her palpitations this morning, when she’d tapped the screen and found white flowers on the background, a scrawl as long as her arm of notifications waiting for attention. 

“You thought I’d be mad?” Jamie repeats, like Dani is speaking another language. She’s still just standing there, mouth open, not moving to take the phone. Dani wishes she would. This is feeling more and more like a make-or-break moment, a moment of actual reality encroaching on the bubble they’ve formed. 

“Well. Yes. I took your--”

“You thought I’d be mad,” Jamie says again. “At you. For a stupid mistake.”

She’s walking closer, stopping at the bottom of the stairs. From Dani’s position, they’re nearly at eye level. 

“Take this,” Dani says, feeling helpless on a level she can’t understand. “Please.”

Jamie doesn’t. Jamie, instead, takes her face in gentle hands, fingers cradling beneath her jaw. Jamie, instead, kisses her with palpable relief. 

“Mad,” she repeats against Dani’s lips, and Dani lets her hand fall into her lap, the phone forgotten, melting into the kiss. “You absolutely mental woman.”

“You know,” she says a little while later, when Jamie has dropped down beside her, still wearing that bizarre expression on her face. “You have an awful lot of messages waiting. You should look into a color-coding system. Or a personal secretary.”

Jamie’s laugh washes it all away--an entire day of other women knocking on a door Dani had accidentally found herself barring, an entire day of being exactly what she’d promised Jamie at the start she’d never claim. Jamie’s laughter in the stairwell, echoing off of stone and wood, is the best reminder in the world that there are two versions of any one person in the world: the one made of flesh and blood, and the dream. 

The dream, which can so easily turn to panic, even under the silliest of circumstances.

“I’m sorry,” she says, as Jamie takes her phone at last, hands Dani’s back, helps her to her feet. “I know it was ridiculous, but I just kept thinking...that you’d think I did it on purpose.”

“Why the hell would I think that?”

Dani heaves a sigh. “Because, we’ve talked about it. The other ones, the ones who think they’re entitled to pieces of you that aren’t on offer. I was afraid you’d think I’d--”

“Snapped?” Jamie suggests teasingly. Dani swats her arm.

“Changed. That this had changed for me. And Jamie, honestly, it...has.”

Jamie stops halfway up the stairs, frowning. Dani sucks in a breath.

“Look, you’re just--you’re not just a warm body. I’d hope you know that by now, but you’re...a friend. A real friend, and it’s only fair to tell you that I...look forward to this. Nights with you, sometimes it’s the best I feel all week.”

“Because of the sex,” Jamie says slowly. Dani laughs.

“Because of the sex, and because you make me laugh, and because I like you. As a, y’know. A buddy.” She winces. “A mate.” Worse. “But, uh, like. The British way.”

“Are you going to be weird all night?” Jamie asks. “Or are you going to come up and work through all the stress of thinking I could be mad at you the fun way?”

“Oh. I thought--I mean, I wasn’t going to stay, if you weren’t--”

Jamie takes her hand, tugging until Dani--standing on two different steps, feeling oddly as though they’ve just started the last three months all over again--is close enough to kiss. 

“You came all this way. Might as well make it worth your while.”

***

“You know,” Jamie says carefully, “I’ve been thinking.”

She watches Dani--who has been dozing with her head on a pile of her clothes, stretched carelessly across Jamie’s living room rug--sit up, yawning.

“Been thinking, like, for ten minutes, or two weeks?”

Six and a half days, Jamie doesn’t say--exactly the span of time since the Great Phone Mix-Up had led to a near-obsessive double-check each time Dani leaves the flat. Exactly the span of time since she’d realized just how much effort Dani has been putting in to see her. 

To have sex, she corrects herself. To have sex in my flat, which is above my shop, which is all entirely--

“Seems a bit unfair,” she says. “Doesn’t it? That you’re always making your way out in this direction.”

Dani shrugs. “It’s all right. The bus line runs until--”

Jamie winces, the idea of Dani riding a crosstown bus at one in the morning incredibly unpleasant. She’s genuinely bothered that this didn’t occur to her sooner. “Dani, correct me if I’m wrong, but wasn’t the whole point of this little exercise for you to stop accepting what people force on you and start goin’ for what you actually want?”

“If you’re accusing me of not wanting you,” Dani says, almost slyly, “we could always run a do-over on the last hour.”

Tempting. “What I’m saying is...d’you want me to come to you sometimes?”

It sounded in her head like a simple, nonchalant thing to say. Easy, careless, like asking a woman at a bar if she’d like to get to know you better.

Out loud, with Dani’s smile fading, it sounds like she just asked the woman to marry her.

“I don’t have to,” she says hurriedly, feeling naked and stupid and, frankly, deeply unlike herself. “It was just an idea. I just...you spend so much time on the travel...and the...late nights are--”

A hand covers her mouth, gentle, almost playful. Dani is looking at her like there’s something in Jamie she’s never noticed before.

“You,” she says, “are growing as a person, d’you know that?”

“What?” Jamie shakes her off, scowling. “I am not--that is not what this is--just ‘cause I don’t fancy the idea of you murdered in the wee hours of the morning by some mental patient with a broken bottle--”

“You like me,” Dani pronounces, ignoring all of this. She shifts into Jamie’s lap, easing her back against the couch, knees pressing into the rug. She is extremely distracting in nothing more than a black pair of lace underwear Jamie had very intentionally left alone. “You really, really like me.”

“Lots of people I don’t want to see murdered,” Jamie grumbles, lacing her hands at the small of Dani’s back. “Really, I’m very anti-unnecessary-death, you’ll find--”

Dani is kissing her neck, fingers toying with the chain of her necklace. “You liiiike me.”

“You’re being childish.”

“You like spending tiiiime with me.”

“I can take it back--” She’s laughing, hugging Dani tighter, shivering when Dani takes the necklace between her teeth. “Seriously, Dani, I just don’t want you wasting your time.”

Dani leans back, looking solemn. “Would you call this a waste of time?”

Her hand has found an extremely comfortable resting place down the front of Jamie’s shorts, fingers moving in testing circles. Jamie sighs and lets her head fall back. 

“Not even for a second.”

“I like being here,” Dani says idly, her attention mainly on the little sounds Jamie lets herself make largely for how much Dani seems to enjoy them. “Like being in this warm little bubble where all I have to think about is how to get you off.”

Jamie groans. “Very unfair, you forming complete sentences while you’re doing--” 

Her breath catches. Dani has slid her other hand down, into black lace, somehow managing to keep rhythm on both of them at once. 

“I like,” she repeats, her voice a bit higher this time, “being here. Could maybe use a toothbrush, though. Occasional use of your shower.”

The fingers sliding into Jamie are confident, coaxing; from the sound Dani just made, she’s mirroring the same action on herself. Jamie grips her tighter, struggling to keep her focus. 

“Shower,” Jamie repeats. “Toothbrush. Noted. Anything else you’d like to talk about while--while we’re here?”

“Well,” Dani says, sounding surprisingly stable for someone causing Jamie to clutch at her back, “we could discuss--how you--never ask--what I want for dinner--”

Jamie is still laughing when teeth close around her earlobe, Dani making sharp, breathy noises to command every scrap of her attention. Laughing through a whimper, even as she’s digging her nails desperately into Dani’s skin, twitching out of control under her. 

She never used to laugh, during sex. The women she’s accustomed to expect a certain decorum from her in bed: focused, hungry, attentive. Hot, she thinks with a wry little smile, as Dani muffles her own orgasm in Jamie’s neck, shuddering. The person she’d tried to be even for Dani herself, at the start.

“You,” she says, lifting her hips to offer Dani her hand back, “are ridiculous. I was only trying to help.”

Dani curls into her in a tangle of limbs, sticky fingers sliding up the back of Jamie’s neck without a care. “So was I.”

“Yeah, helping me remember why I keep things simple,” Jamie snorts. Dani nestles in closer with a little hum of agreement. 

“This is simple.”

She sounds sleepy, her breath beginning to level out in long drifts down Jamie’s chest. Jamie gives her a gentle shake. 

“Hey. Best get up, it’s getting late again.”

“Worst part,” Dani yawns. “Worst part every single time.”

“The bit where I make you put clothes back on?” Jamie watches her stand, tipping her head. “I agree. Though view’s not bad in the meantime.”

Dani stretches, struggling back into her bra. “The part where I have to convince myself to stay awake for another half hour. You know, I never used to understand that thing he always did, passing out right after.”

“That,” Jamie says with a small grin, “is because you never used to understand how hard you could--”

“Yes,” Dani says pointedly. “Exactly. And now I have to go, before I’m in danger of dozing off on the bus.”

Jamie sits up, scratching the back of her neck. “Honestly, Dani, I...meant that part. I’m sorry I didn’t suggest it sooner. The bus, this late, it’s...I don’t--”

Dani is looking at her with a fond, if exhausted, smile, pulling a shirt back over her head. “Jamie...”

“I’ll drive you,” Jamie says, a decision made in a split second. “Hang on, let me just--”

“You don’t have to do that.”

Jamie is scrambling into her shirt, scrounging for the jeans she’d dropped over the side of the couch. “You’re right, I don’t, but one of us has a goddamned car.”

“One of us also lives here,” Dani tells her gently, grasping the front of her t-shirt as she’s trying to shove a leg into the jeans. She stumbles, plants a hand on Dani’s shoulder for balance.

“New rule,” she decides, grinning up at Dani from her hunched, half-dressed position. “If you’re here after midnight, your reward is a lovely few minutes in my front seat.”

“Chivalry’s not dead, after all,” Dani says wryly. Jamie straightens, her grin fading.

“Come on. I’m a great driver, I’ll have you know. And you can just relax. Kick your feet up, rest your eyes. I don’t mind.”

She thinks, for sure, she’s gone too far somehow. That she’s taken one of the solid boundaries between them, turned it brittle in her hands with basic expectation. That Dani, who so gently pressed Jamie away from learning her address once tonight already, is running out of ways to tell her to keep her distance.

“You’re too nice to me,” Dani says quietly. “You don’t have to be. I know--”

What I signed up for, Jamie is sure she’ll say, and suddenly doesn’t want to hear it. She leans in, watching Dani’s eyes drop to her lips, and kisses her slowly until Dani makes a low noise against her and grips her t-shirt harder. 

“You can make it up to me tomorrow.”

“With?” Dani sways in place, exhaustion and arousal doing her equilibrium no favors. Jamie holds her by the hips. 

“Breakfast?”

Dani proves a sweet passenger, refusing to take Jamie’s advice and just doze off against the window. She insists on navigating Jamie through streets she knows just fine, like a little kid excited to bring a friend home for the first time. 

Jamie pulls into the lot, setting the car into park, waiting while Dani fidgets in the next seat. She feels, uncharacteristically, as though she has been holding her breath the whole ride over--like she’s just waiting for Dani to take this evening of tiny advancements in their friendship and jolt it forward by inviting Jamie upstairs after all. 

Upstairs, to a place that has only ever belonged to Dani, never tread upon by strange boots. Upstairs, where--once in her bed--Jamie is not entirely sure how she’ll make it home again before morning.

Would it be so bad?

“Thank you,” Dani says, very quietly. “Again. You’re okay to get home? Not too tired?”

Jamie, who has never felt quite such an adrenaline rush from operating a vehicle, nods. “I’ll text,” she offers. “When I get back. Though if you’re not asleep by then, there’ll be serious consequences come breakfast.”

Dani hesitates, as if unsure which version of Jamie she’s being presented with--lover or friend. Jamie leans over the center console, brushing a kiss against the edge of her mouth, and feels her all but collapse with relief as she turns her head to kiss back.

“Sleep well,” Jamie murmurs, her heart slamming an aggressive tattoo as Dani leaves the car with a smile. She waits until Dani has vanished through the front door of the complex, taking the long way home until she can trust her body to stop vibrating for reasons she absolutely cannot defend. 

***

runnin late, so sorry. don’t drink all the shit coffee before I get there

Dani taps back a quick, No rush, be safe and glances around. The cafe is, for a late-start Saturday morning, not quite as busy as expected, for which she is grateful. She’d spent an extra hour tossing and turning last night, plagued with dreams of grabbing Jamie’s phone again, of forgetting to set an alarm for breakfast, of turning up on time only to find Eddie sitting across the table. Each time, she’d jolted awake, fumbled the screen to her face, winced at bright white light. 

Each time, Jamie’s text had reflected back at her from the lock screen: home safe. Nothing more, nothing to say she’d felt electric getting into bed, struggling to fall asleep. Nothing to say the mere act of driving Dani home had felt like a decision not quite suited to their fuck-and-run style. 

She leans back at the cafe table now, sipping coffee, wondering how many women Jamie has ever driven home. How many women Jamie has, in fact, argued out of finding their own method out of her bed. 

Not many, she thinks wryly, since she usually just sneaks out of theirs. 

She hasn’t asked Jamie about the nights they aren’t together. It isn’t her business; her single day with Jamie’s phone made very clear what Jamie’s options are--so many, it makes Dani’s head spin to even think about picking from all those waving hands in an exceptionally-thirsty crowd--and anyway, Jamie is spending plenty of time on her. More than at the start, by far. If she still has an itch to scratch the other four days out of the week--or three days, or two; Dani always sort of thought sex would get boring, after a while, but that day seems not to be in any hurry to arrive--that’s her prerogative. 

Dani’s is just to be the best kind of friend-with-a-side-of-nudity she can be.

“Just the coffee, then?” Owen has appeared at her side, a notepad stuffed into the pocket of his apron. “Or can I interest you in a lovely croissant before I’m off?”

“Not sticking around for the lunch crowd?” Dani asks. They’ve only spoken a handful of times about topics not constrained to a drink order, but she likes Owen. He has one of those faces she finds instantly trustworthy, his smile bright beneath his mustache. 

“Nah. Mum’s been having a rough go this week. Meant to get her to the doctor by--” He checks his watch, grimaces. “An hour from now. You’re in good hands, though. I only hire the best moody teens to cover while I’m away.”

Dani gives him a sympathetic smile. “I’m sorry to hear about your mom. Anything I can do?”

“Afraid not. Dementia, late stages. Just a matter of keeping her comfortable, most days.” He sighs. “Anyway, enough of my personal tragedy. You’re waiting for someone?”

“A friend,” Dani confirms, unsure why she doesn’t just say Jamie’s name. It feels, somehow, like over-stepping. Like outing Jamie to this man, who is so clearly her actual friend, and who probably doesn’t even remember Jamie and Dani have met. 

“Well,” he says, checking his watch again. “Don’t hesitate to ring up at the counter, when they arrive. I’ve got to run, but again--croissants. You’ll never find batter.” 

She laughs as he drops her a wink and shuffles back toward the counter. She wonders how he and Jamie met, if they’d known each other in England, or if it had only been a matter of luck in finding one another after the big move overseas. She tends to go back and forth on the idea of fate, that people are ever destined to stumble into those they’re best-suited to. Sometimes, it strikes her as a romantic idea. Most of the time, it just makes her think of Eddie, who had spent twenty years telling anyone who would listen how Dani was his always-gonna-be. 

“Mornin’,” Jamie says, dropping heavily into the seat across from her. “So sorry, had a plant emergency.”

“Everything all right?” 

"Yeah, delivery got all fuckin’ turned around again. Meant to have seen it Thursday, truck showed up at seven this morning to--well, never mind, it’s sorted now.” She heaves a sigh, brushes sweat from her temples with a grimace. “Stupid-hot out there already. Not gonna be able to breathe, come mid-day.”

“Makes you wish you didn’t have to wear so many clothes,” Dani teases. Jamie--in a tank top that barely brushes her stomach and the shortest shorts Dani has ever seen in the wild--sticks out her tongue. 

“If you’re getting sick of seeing all of this, our arrangement can always be--”

Dani snorts. “Like you’d give up the sex. Speaking of, did I leave my socks under your couch again?”

Jamie leans backward over her chair, frowning at the breakfast special board. “Mm, maybe. Can check first thing back, if you like. Or...” She turns her eyes back to Dani’s, eyebrows arched. “If you’d like a cold shower after all this...”

“Shower,” Dani laughs, “maybe. Food first, though, or my first time exploring a shower, um--that way will turn into our first time stitching up a head wound together.”

“Seriously?” Jamie grins. “You’ve never--in a shower--ever?”

“Three months,” Dani points out, “and you’re still asking that question? It was a bed, or a car, and a desperate desire to forget when it was done.”

She barely thinks about those days anymore, she reflects as Jamie heads up to the counter to order. Memories of squirming uncomfortably in a bed that had always felt too much Eddie’s, not enough her own, have been slowly stripped away, replaced by much more pleasant images of Jamie, and laughter, and hours given over to dizzy pleasure. There never feels like there’s any rush, with Jamie--never the sense that she ought to be picking up her clothes and slinking out right after, or the feeling that Jamie wants to run through all the possible variations as quickly as she can, and then be done with her. This thing with Jamie might look exactly the same three nights in a row, following the motions of a gentle script, and still--every single time--it feels fresh. Different. Jamie kissing her slowly here, touching her roughly there, showing her in new and surprising ways that Dani can make her feel just as good in return. 

Never any rush, and never any sense of a running clock. In fact, each time she walks through Jamie’s door, she feels a little more certain she’ll be welcome again tomorrow. 

“Damn,” Jamie says over the rim of her cup. “Don’t look now, but isn’t that your ex?”

A flush of pure dread crawls up her back, Dani twisting in place to follow Jamie’s gaze. It can’t be. Eddie never liked it here, always said the coffee wasn’t strong enough for his taste. He wouldn’t be--

“Fuck,” she whispers. Jamie makes an undignified little noise into her tea. 

“If you’d like, I can play human shield whilst you sneak out the back. Owen’s got an alley--”

“I’m not running away from him,” Dani says sharply. “I’m not running from anything. I have as much a right to this place as he does.”

“Damn right,” Jamie says, approving. “Rather I tell him so, then?” She makes as if to sit up straighter, raising her voice. “Oi, ex-boyfriend--”

Without thinking, Dani claps a hand over her mouth. It’s the second time in two days she’s done it, this act of intimacy that somehow goes beyond sex, and she can see in Jamie’s eyes amusement and a thin thread of desire. 

“Sorry,” she whispers, ducking her head close to Jamie’s. “Not--you can do whatever you want, normally, but...not here? Not with him. Please.”

Not with his calls still coming in, his determination that he’ll win her back by sheer persistence making her feel as though the walls of this city are closing around her. Not with her feeling as though, until he stops, she’s never quite going to know what freedom tastes like.

Jamie’s smile fades under her palm, her head bobbing assent. “Right. Sorry. Was only kidding.”

“I know. I know, and any other time, it’d be--it’d be very funny. But I can’t--Jamie, I haven’t talked to him since it happened.” She feels as though she sees him, though, everywhere Jamie isn’t. Everywhere except her own apartment and the school feels as though Eddie has stamped himself upon it--like going to their old grocery store, or her favorite book shop, or even her own mother’s house might be inviting him back into her space. 

Jamie is watching her with no humor at all now, her brow furrowed. “Really bothers you, doesn’t it?”

Dani wants to shrug. Wants to say, No, actually, it’s all fine. Having sex with you like there’s nothing else in the world has resolved all of my problems with losing half my life to a dead-end relationship. Wants, most of all, not to look up and see him staring at her from across the room. 

“I just--I let myself forget, sometimes. How it was. How I was. With you, I let myself forget I was ever...”

Jamie’s hand is on hers, fingers light as though giving Dani room to pull away. “Hey. Dani. There’s no shame in it. You don’t just get over the wreckage of something that big in a few months.”

“I don’t love him,” Dani says miserably. “What if--what if that doesn’t matter? What if I’m only ever that girl, the one who said yes, the one who got into his bed because it was the only thing I was ever going to--”

Jamie pushes back from the table, her grip firming up around Dani’s. “C’mere.”

“Where--” Dani shakes her head, trying to force down the riot of panic squeezing into all the spaces she’d thought she had already shored up. She lets her vision reduce to Jamie, leading her through a group of giggling women, down a short hall, into the bathroom. “What are we doing in--”

Jamie drops her hand, pushing each stall door open in turn. Finding them all empty, she strides back, flips the latch on the door, slips a hand lightly around the back of Dani’s head. 

“Listen,” she says urgently. “You’re not his. You’re not anyone’s but your own, and if that person doesn’t love him, then he has no power. Understand? You do what you want. Nothin’ else. No one--not him, or me, or anybody--gets to take that from you.”

“What if,” Dani whispers around the hot pulse of panic, “I was wrong? What if I’ll always be her, deep down? And all of this is just a pretty--”

Jamie’s hand tightens in her hair, pulling gently enough to make her moan. She closes her eyes, embarrassed, an unruly confusion of adrenaline smothering the easy joy of breakfast. 

“You,” Jamie says, her voice firm, “are you. Whoever you want that to be. You feel me here, now?”

Her hand strokes through Dani’s hair. Dani nods. 

“And you felt me last night?”

Warmth of a different kind blooms in her chest, the memory of Jamie laughing that hungry, half-drunk sex laugh. “Yes.”

“And none of that is his,” Jamie says. “Is it? You chose this. You chose the thing that makes you feel good. Seeing him, that’s gonna happen, but Dani--you choose what you want. The rest, that’s all just history. Can’t change that.”

Dani sways into her hand, relieved when Jamie’s forehead presses against her own. “I want--I want to feel--”

She’s grabbing at Jamie’s shirt, her hands shaking. Jamie exhales against her lips. 

“This,” she says, “is a bad moment, I know. But it’s only a moment. Tell me how to help, and I’ll do what I can.”

Jamie, always looking for the exact pressure needed, the exact button to push to make Dani feel safe. Jamie, who pretends she doesn’t care about anyone or anything, kissing her cheeks now with soft, deliberate tenderness. 

“I need to feel,” Dani says, half a gulp, half a sigh. “I can’t go back out there yet, I need to feel like I have--like I’m--”

Me. The right version. The one I promised myself when I walked away from him. 

Jamie, she registers, is nodding. Jamie, she registers, is slowly sinking to her knees, kissing shoulder and breast and stomach through her sundress on her way down. 

She gets it, Dani thinks dazedly, even as Jamie is guiding the underwear down her legs, tucking them into her back pocket for safe-keeping. You can’t, she suspects, spend this much time studying someone’s body and not understand what they’re having trouble saying. You can’t, she suspects, watch someone as carefully as Jamie has always watched her in bed, and miss the signs. 

She has a hand in Jamie’s hair, her back against the door, her breath coming in jagged bursts as Jamie grips her thighs, easing them gently apart. It’s insane, probably, to be able to focus on this just now--when she knows he probably saw her, when she knows he probably is just waiting for her to come back out so he can start something she has been deliberately avoiding for months--

But Jamie is sweet, and Jamie is good, making low sounds against pliant skin. She tightens her grip, pulling Jamie closer, squeaking with surprise when Jamie tugs one leg sharply over her shoulder. Jamie’s fingers are gentle, spreading her open, her tongue rolling in steady strokes until she feels as though it doesn’t matter--that they’re hiding in this bathroom, that he might be just outside the door, that she might still have that tiny core of Danielle buried way down under everything she’s tried to build over it. 

It doesn’t matter, with Jamie’s mouth hot around her, Jamie curling inside, Jamie reducing the whole world to the stutter of her hips, the snag of her nails against Jamie’s scalp. It is more than a distraction; it is a stabilization of everything she needs to be. She finds herself holding with both hands, one curled at the back of Jamie’s neck, forgetting the panic and the desperation in lieu of Jamie’s head moving between her thighs. Jamie is unrelenting, digging blunt nails into the leg she has rucked over her own shoulder. Dani hisses, the burn of the scratch delirious next to the mounting pressure saying this is what it should feel like, this is who she really is, this is right, even when it’s crazy.

She gets it, she thinks, digging both hands into Jamie’s hair and thrusting hard against her mouth. She has just enough restraint to keep from crying out aloud, even as Jamie’s tongue teases in, Jamie making a dark sound of her own as Dani loses the last of her control. 

“Thank you,” she pants, smoothing Jamie’s hair, her leg shaking over Jamie’s shoulder. “Thank you. I--I needed--”

Jamie eases her back to balance, presses her face against Dani’s stomach. “Not so hungry anymore, I think. Back to mine?”

Desperately, Dani nods.

***

"They’re following me,” Dani says, sounding uneasy. Jamie frowns, leaning over her shoulder to look.

“Who?”

“I have no idea.” Dani shows her the phone, helplessly scrolling down a line of notifications. “I’ve never seen these people in my life.”

“Ah.” Jamie winces. “I, uh. Recognize some of those names.”

“Rec--Jamie. Jamie, are these yours?”

“Hey, not mine.” Jamie raises both hands in mock surrender, wheeling back a step. “Just...they maybe have some questions. About you.”

“About me?” Dani twists at the waist, tossing her phone arm over the back of the couch to glare at her. “Jamie, what did you do?”

“Okay, in my defense--” No statement in history has ever began that way and ended somewhere good, but she’s too far down the rabbit hole to turn back now. “In my defense, it was technically what you did. That photo, yesterday? At the mall?”

She watches Dani’s face go through the usual roll of expressions--confusion, as she casts back for the memory; arousal, as she remembers Jamie going down on her in a dressing room, one hand over her mouth to muffle the extremely pleasant whimpers; dawning comprehension, as she remembers the photo at lunch. 

“But that--that was nothing!”

To the average observer, Jamie understands, this might be true. To the average soul scrolling through Dani’s winsome Instagram feed--pictures of cute dogs, interesting graffiti, the occasional friend’s child--a picture of Jamie in profile at a food court table, a black hat tipped over her hair, a cup of tea held to her lips, would be nothing at all. 

Except for two rather small, terribly important factors. One: Dani had left a baffling minimalist caption, nothing more than a flower emoji and a tongue-out smile. Two: Dani had tagged her.

“The killing blow, m’afraid,” Jamie says apologetically. “You made yourself look mysterious.”

“It’s a picture of a friend,” Dani protests. “In a mall. What’s mysterious about that?”

Jamie drops a kiss atop her head, amused when Dani shakes her off and reaches up for a handful of Jamie’s shirt instead. Dani has gotten especially grabby lately, seemingly at her happiest when Jamie presents her with a collar, a pair of suspenders, a jacket to grasp hold of. 

Normally, it’s to steer Jamie where she wants her. Right now, she’s holding to Jamie like a life raft in a whipping storm. 

“What,” she says, eyes wide and panicked, “do I do?”

“Can go private,” Jamie says, taking pity on her. “Surprised you weren’t already, teacher and all. But I’m not sure that’s going to, ah, cap the champagne again, as these things go.”

She is proven correct in this assessment over the coming days--with Dani’s account locked down, all strange women shut out on the other side of dim internet privacy, Jamie’s fan club is having a field day. The conversations on her photos are switching from fuck, you make me so wet to okay, but who IS she? does ANYONE know? Jamie. JAMIE. 

“Ignoring ‘em,” Jamie says pleasantly when Dani, staring at a thirty-comment thread debating whether Dani is a girlfriend or a stalker, asks what she’s been doing with all of this. 

“Ignoring them,” she repeats blankly. “Jamie, I think some of them are making those boards. With the string. And the pins.”

“Let them.” Jamie takes her phone, sets it gently down on the counter. “What are they going to do?”

“Drive you crazy,” Dani suggests blithely, letting Jamie steer her down the hall. “Jesus, over one picture? The thirst is unreal.”

“You ought to know,” Jamie teases, propping her gently against the counter in her tiny bathroom. She gropes backward for the bathtub faucet, helping to pull Dani’s shirt over her head with the other hand. “Anyway, do you really care? It’s the internet. Let ‘em walk themselves in circles for a day or two, they’ll only forget.”

It’s the right thing to say, guiding Dani under the water, cherishing the rub of slippery skin. The right thing to think, with Dani bending to bite gently at a stiff nipple, her hands pulling Jamie flush against her until her breath catches. The right thing to not worry about, as Dani pushes her legs apart, dragging against her in a hot, not entirely unsuccessful bid for friction while Jamie’s back skids against a cool tile wall. 

The right thing to say--but maybe not actually correct. Not when, two days later, Jamie posts a quick selfie while Dani is off enjoying a shower on her own. It’s a picture intended strategically to look effortless: white tank, no bra, lighting chosen specifically to highlight this fact. She’s been paying more attention to lighting lately, aware that Dani checks this feed habitually when Jamie isn’t around. 

She should, as it turns out, be paying more attention to background elements while she’s at it--as becomes evident when the comments pouring in have less to do with what she looks like, and more to do with the “extremely un-Jamie” pair of pink panties on the floor. 

She groans. Dani, a towel wrapped loosely around her body, reappears in the doorway. 

“What happened?”

“They’re mad,” Jamie says, tossing her phone aside. “Utterly out of their goddamned minds. Look, it’s like being followed by a flock of horny Sherlocks, I can’t--”

Dani chokes, leaning over to look for herself.. “There are seven--no, nine--women claiming ownership over my underwear right now. Jamie.“

“Well, at least they’re...inventive...” There are no words for how reassuring it is, knowing she has Dani. Knowing she doesn’t have to call up a single one of these women, who are driving themselves into an absolute frenzy over an article of clothing on a stranger’s floor. 

“I’m starting to think it’s a miracle no one has ever tied you up in their attic, Jamie,” Dani says idly, scrolling through the comments. “Ooh, look, here’s one who postulates you’ve had a wife this whole time, and she’s setting you up for a fall--”

Jamie growls, tucks a finger into the loose fold of towel barely holding it shut, pulls until Dani spills gloriously free. “Put it away. Come to bed.”

“I did,” Dani points out sensibly. “Twice. And then a third time, waiting for the shower to heat up. Jamie--Jamie...”

Jamie, rolling her over, gently pins her hands to the pillows. Dani’s fingers slip between her own, palms warm and soft. 

“One more?” she asks, settling between Dani’s bent knees and pressing evocatively down until Dani groans. “One more, and I’ll make it quick...”

“You won’t,” Dani breathes, watching Jamie’s lips intently. “You won’t, you have that look...”

There’s something about this position, Jamie thinks, about rubbing herself slowly between Dani’s legs, smelling her own soap on Dani’s recently-scrubbed skin. Something about Dani clutching her hands, rolling her hips, her own desire leaving marks on the front of Jamie’s gray shorts. 

Something, thinks Jamie, pressing her forehead down, enjoying the way Dani’s warm breath smooths out across her lips in a sigh. Something about having Dani move with her like this, unhurried, her legs falling a little further open with every angle Jamie gets just right. 

“We could do this,” she says in a low voice, closing her eyes, letting the simple clean scent of Dani mingle with the familiar tang of arousal. “I could buy something to help. Kind of like it, being able to see you this way.”

Dani releases her hands, sliding her arms around Jamie’s back, digging her nails under the loose fabric of her shirt. “I’ve never thought about it.”

“I have,” Jamie says honestly. She’s not sure there’s a position she hasn’t thought about, with Dani. Best to go slow, best not to rush Dani into anything she isn’t ready for--a few months isn’t long at all--but the idea of Dani’s legs around her hips, Dani urging her deeper with eyes that gaze right into the heart of her is...

She utters a reckless little sound, pushing herself in closer, wishing she could feel Dani around her. Someday, she thinks--weeks, or months, or years from now. Someday. 

It’s the kind of wild thought that comes during sex, the kind of irrational silliness she’ll brush off in the morning. The idea that Dani would want to still be doing this, years from now. The idea that Dani would want to plan for this. Nice girl like Dani, who deserves so much, would never.

It’s just an education, she reminds herself, as Dani scratches long hot lines beneath her shirt, her knees coming up around Jamie in a tight clench. She’s starting to beg, twisting for better contact, and Jamie relents with a hand between them. She keeps her eyes on Dani the whole time, and Dani--though her eyelashes flutter--only looks back. 

Dani looking at her like that when she comes apart on Jamie’s fingers, Dani looking at her with such desire, such affection, leaves her shuddering. She folds down, face buried in Dani’s shoulder, and Dani hugs her close. 

“Are you all right?” She’s kissing the side of Jamie’s head, like Jamie is the one who needs reassurance. Jamie nods silently. 

Fine, she reminds herself, lingering in the embrace, in the slide of Dani’s skin against her clothes. This is completely and perfectly fine. 

***

The first time it happens, it’s an accident. 

It’s an accident, and Dani tells herself it’s okay--that it was bound to happen eventually, that the odds were stacked against this very thing from the start. She’s been spending so much time at Jamie’s place, wound up in Jamie’s sheets, that she’s frankly a little surprised it didn’t happen weeks ago.

Of course, she’d been careful. The rules of engagement are uncomplicated, and one of the most important has always been this line, this careful delineation between friend and expectation. She might spend an entire day in Jamie’s company, an entire night exploring Jamie in every room of the flat, but when all is said and done, that inevitability is waiting. Dani, bundling into Jamie’s passenger seat. Jamie’s steady hands on the wheel, guiding her safely home. 

It has, in its own way, become a comfort. The knowledge that Jamie does not feel an evening together is complete until she has deposited Dani back at her front door. The knowledge that, when she wakes in the morning, there will always be a text from Jamie blinking back: home safe. 

The familiarity of the thing is becoming a warm center of her universe. The familiarity of Jamie’s body, Jamie’s hand coaxing under her skirt, Jamie’s contented way of laying her back on the couch and kissing her for what feels like hours without pushing forward. Jamie is steady, and safe, and maybe the best friend she’s ever had. 

So, when she wakes to sunlight folding across her face from a window on the wrong side of the room, aware of her own nakedness and the crumple of sheets in shades of soft gray instead of her own lilac, it feels very much like she’s committed an inexcusable betrayal.

She sits up, feeling groggy, groping back for the events of last night. There had been dinner--Jamie had been in the middle of cooking when she’d arrived, had cheerfully offered Dani a plate if she was willing to help chop vegetables as payment--and there had been conversation--Jamie asking about the problem kids in her summer school class, Dani volleying back about sales--and there had been sex. Always sex, as reliable as Jamie herself. 

There had been Jamie working her up slowly, and there had been her pushing Jamie hard against the bedroom wall in return, and there had been Jamie laughing so hard, they’d both gotten distracted by the simple pleasure of nearly tumbling from the bed in hysterics. There had been Dani, mapping every one of Jamie’s tattoos, and Jamie’s hand in her hair, and Dani thinking, Soon. Soon, I’ll be ready.

She doesn’t quite understand the roadblock, the idea of taking Jamie with nothing more than her mouth still just beyond what she feels capable of. How a person can want another so much and still not be able to convince themselves of crossing this final line, she can’t say--and it’s frustrating. Maddening. She’s taken herself by surprise at all turns, jumping headlong into the ideas that frightened her most before meeting Jamie, and still: still, there is this. 

Jamie keeps telling her not to worry, that she’s perfectly fine any way Dani wants her, and Dani thinks, But it’s good, it’s so good, and I want--I want to be--

She wants to be that, for Jamie. She wants to prove to Jamie that spending all this time with Dani, on Dani, is worthwhile. 

“Silly,” Jamie said last night, breathing hard, kissing Dani’s fingers clean with slow indolence. “I don’t need it.”

Dani had let herself sink into the sweat-slick warmth of Jamie’s skin, the messy tangle of Jamie’s sheets, her arm thrown casually over Jamie’s stomach. She’d thought, in the haze of post-orgasmic exhaustion, she’d just close her eyes, as Jamie rained light kisses against her hair. She’d just close her eyes for a minute, and then--

--and then the clock was blinking 8:09, and there was sunlight in her hair instead of Jamie’s fingers, and she was hearing...hearing...

She rolls toward the window, the little cushioned seat where Jamie sometimes reads while Dani showers before heading home. She’s there now, Jamie, her fingers picking out a faint melody on the battered old acoustic Dani had remarked upon her first week over. 

Only thing, Jamie had said then, my dad left behind when he went. The most Jamie has ever said of her past, of her family, though Dani can sense there’s more waiting behind the curtain. There are scars imprinted on Jamie’s skin, not-entirely hidden under floral ink. There are scars imprinted on Jamie’s smile, turning up like unannounced houseguests sometimes when she doesn’t think Dani is looking. 

They are things, Dani tells herself, lovers share. Real ones, the kind of lovers who embrace not only skin and laughter, but stories. The kind she promised Jamie she’d never ask her to be. 

Jamie, leaning over the guitar now in a half-buttoned flannel shirt and boxer shorts, doesn’t seem to realize she’s awake. Her face is lined with that old familiar concentration, the give it all vibe she applies in bed, at work, during long conversations. Her hands seem more awake than the rest of her, fingers stretching to form chords, dipping up and down the fretboard with fluid ease. 

She is, Dani thinks with a plummeting heart, maybe the most beautiful thing she’s ever woken to. 

“You play?” Dani asks, her voice a rasp, and Jamie raises her eyes without a beat of lost music.

“Only for me.”

Dani searches the phrase--three little words, uncomplicated as the rest of Jamie--for broken glass, and finds no sign that Jamie loaded the notion with malice. Only for me--leaving unspoken an outstretched hand, a gentle opening of a door for Dani to walk through, even if just the once.

She hugs Jamie’s pillow to her chest, watching as Jamie closes her eyes and picks out the phantom melody. It’s familiar, though she can’t quite close her memory around an artist or a title. Familiar, and sweet, and rich, Jamie humming along with gold sunlight curving gentle fingers through her hair. 

“I didn’t mean,” Dani says when the last bars have faded into silence, Jamie draping her arm over the guitar’s body, “to stay. I’m sorry.”

"Are you?” Jamie is looking at her with a very faint smile around her lips, her eyes alive with questions she is not asking. Dani frowns, presses her face to the pillow.

When she opens them, Jamie is still in the window, still rimmed in summer sun, the guitar propped carefully against the wall. She’s just sitting there, waiting for Dani to go on, to answer. 

“Sort of,” she whispers. “Sort of sorry.”

She watches Jamie unfold from her seat, padding across to the bed, and thinks, This is where it ends. A good run, but she doesn’t do sleepovers. She won’t ever want to--

Jamie slides between the sheets, gaze steady on Dani’s face, and it’s only when she cups Dani’s cheek with a hand as certain as it had been in the music that Dani closes her eyes. What a way, she thinks with a sliver of despair, to let her down gently. What a way to say goodbye.

“It does,” Jamie says in a low voice, thumb drawing an arc across Dani’s skin, “offer a new branch of your education.”

“What kind is that?” Dani isn’t really breathing, is only listening to her heartbeat as it syncs with the pull of Jamie’s thumb across her cheek, the angle of Jamie’s leg finding her own beneath the sheets. 

“Morning sex,” Jamie says, very quietly. “Been a really, really long time since I’ve had morning sex.”

There’s more to say, Dani senses, more to calculate. More to break down and build back up more confidently than before, so this wall never crumbles. More furniture to barricade against the door, to make certain neither of them fall through. 

Jamie doesn’t want a relationship. Not that kind, anyway. Not the kind where she has to let Dani beyond walls she so happily reinforces with Instagram photos and strange women and driving Dani home each night. Jamie doesn’t need a relationship like the one Dani knows she will, one day, crave too much to deny.

But that’s for later. That’s for another woman, another version of Dani down the line. This version, the one sighing with Jamie kissing her way down, Jamie nipping along her ribs and disappearing under the sheets, can wait. 

Jamie doesn’t want a relationship. 

And there is no universe, none at all--not with the sheets following Jamie down, an indulgent tongue licking at her slowly until the rest of Dani starts to catch up with her waking brain--where Dani is going to risk losing this by arguing with that

***

It does not become a habit. Habits are dangerous, mindless things--too much goes sideways, when a person stops thinking. Sometimes, you wind up walking blindly into outstretched knives. Sometimes, you wind up trusting a pretty smile to catch you. Sometimes, you wind up looking deep into the eyes of someone who professes love, making promises that will only ever cut you open.

Dani isn’t her, she thinks, waking to a bed occupied. Dani isn’t her, but it doesn’t matter. Dani isn’t her, that woman whose name Jamie tries never to recall, that woman who once desperately begged Jamie to save her from herself. She isn’t, and maybe she never will be, but:

But. She will also never be anything more than this. Than a friend, admittedly lovely, admittedly funny and smart and capable, who sometimes falls asleep in Jamie’s bed. A friend who sometimes curls close across the mattress, even when Jamie is actively trying to keep distance between their bodies, her arms encircling Jamie with a sleeper’s instinct.

A friend. A friend who looks entirely too wonderful against the gray of Jamie’s sheets, all smooth skin and wild tangle of hair, who sleeps peacefully no matter what Jamie does.

It doesn’t become a habit, Dani falling asleep over here--Jamie letting her--and that’s all there is to it. Not a habit; merely a thing that happens. A thing that happens not on a schedule, but not entirely on accident, either. Not after the first few times.

Now, when Dani wakes on Jamie’s pillow, she does not look ashamed.

Now, when Dani wakes in Jamie’s arms, she does not look terrified.

It’s honestly the most frightening thing about her, how warm and easy and natural she looks in Jamie’s bed, framed in the clean summer daylight.

Sometimes, Jamie watches her sleep. She’ll ease out of bed, make herself a cup of tea, check on the plants. She’ll pad around her flat in quiet circles, opening cupboards, adjusting stacks of books or piles of laundry, waiting for Dani to wake and stumble out to join her. Sometimes, Dani does. More often, she does not wake for anything, a jumble of exhausted limbs and relaxed breaths tucked away in the safety of Jamie’s most private space.

Sometimes, Jamie will watch her sleep. Sometimes, she’ll play old blues standards, waiting for her to wake. Sometimes, she’ll slide back into bed, waking her slowly--her hands tracing bare skin, her mouth gentle against temple, cheek, the back of a curved shoulder. On good days, days she can remind herself this is all okay, this is all fine, this is all just fun, it’s nice waking Dani this way.

On days like today--days where Dani looks a bit too right, a bit too stable with Jamie’s sheets tucked into relaxed fists--she can’t watch Dani at all. She can’t just sit still, waiting on her to wake up and continue playing out this absurdist little story.

Days like today, she needs to move.

The gym is only a few blocks away, a nice warm-up jog getting her there in no time at all. For a minute, she considers running on: another block, two more, moving until her legs give out from under her. It used to be her favorite method of coping with too much energy, the restless drag of it under her skin making her feel crazy. Run. Run until there’s nothing left but the bite in weary lungs. Run until there’s no one left who knows her name.

The gym is better. More grounding. The gym is a place where women look freely, yes--she’s met more than a few hook-ups here, liking the way their eyes followed her every move, liking the person they’d clearly expected her to be--but more important, the gym is hers. A place where the burn of muscle strain, the comfort of repetition, the sting of sweat in her eyes remind her just how real and whole she still is. Even if there are parts she shut down too long ago to think about. Even if there are things she decided long ago never to be again.

The gym, especially on a morning this quiet, before she has to open up the shop and allow reality to skid back in, is a reprieve.

She begins with a set of weights, curling with mindless disregard for the count. The woman in the mirror is exactly as she should be: back straight, eyes forward, a picture of good health in sweats and a sports bra. The woman in the mirror is not feeling things she absolutely cannot feel. She does not have a friend back home, left alone in her flat, where people are not meant to venture at all.

This woman is in control: as Jamie sets the weights down, as she gets to work with sit-ups, planks, push-ups. This woman is in control: as sweat pours down her back, the air conditioning swirling across her skin, the rumble of treadmill and elliptical and wonderfully-bad 80s music creating a familiar soundtrack. This woman is fine. This woman is perfectly, absolutely in control.

And if she sometimes slips back to last night--to Dani’s fingers curling into her hair, to Dani’s slick skin against her lips, to Dani falling asleep with Jamie’s head resting on her stomach--she only has to grit her teeth. Hold herself aloft a little longer. Push the burn along her arms with another up-down, another repetition, until it all goes away again.

Dani, looking too comfortable in her space.

Dani, feeling too right in her space.

Dani, who seems so at home even when they’re not touching, in her space.

“Jamie, isn’t it?”

She jumps a little, unprepared for the gentle curve of her name from a strange woman’s lips. No--not strange. Dimly familiar, somehow.

“Yeah.” She presses forward a hand on instinct, wincing at the clammy collision of her own skin against the woman’s soft palm. “We’ve met, somewhere.”

“Miss Clayton,” the woman says, and it’s all Jamie can do not to lock up. “At the school? You had something not-incredibly-dire to share with her.”

Right. That fuck of a day. “Hannah,” Jamie remembers. “Of course. Sorry, still waking up.”

“Were you ever able to find her?” Hannah looks a bit too elegant, somehow, though the strength of her arms is apparent. The kind of person who comes to the gym not for Jamie, not for anyone at all, but because she genuinely likes it. Jamie is relieved, in a way, by the woman’s eyes settling easily on her face.

“Er--yeah. Yeah, I did, eventually. You?”

“Complicated children,” Hannah sighs, “merit endless meetings, as it turns out, little though I like putting that on her. Poor thing only wants to help, but…well, we don’t pay teachers enough in this country, do we, for all we ask of them?”

“No,” Jamie agrees, thinking of the many times Dani has stretched out on her couch with a notebook and a determined expression, trying to work out how to fix some kid’s home life in the span of a school day. “No, we don’t.”

“Anyway,” Hannah says briskly, smiling. “Didn’t mean to hold you up. Just thought I’d say hello. If you ever are looking for a workout partner, I’m happy to oblige.”

Not really why I do this, Jamie feels it is impolite to say. “Much appreciated.”

“Or,” Hannah says, almost slyly, “if you’re in need of a distraction, to make a hasty getaway. Seems you have something of a fan club…”

Jamie’s cheeks go hot, her head turning instinctively to follow Hannah’s gaze. Sure enough, a handful of young women have clustered by the weight rack, following her with eager smiles.

One, she recognizes, has actually invited Jamie over before, not long after taking up this weird friendship with Dani. She’d said no almost before she could think better of it, and had lain awake that night remembering the shocked hurt of the girl’s blue eyes, the way Jamie had impulsively thought, Not quite as clear as Dani’s.

It had been a red flag, probably. An alarm bell, probably.

She had ignored it, ignored this girl every time they’d run into each other since, ignored the way Dani’s smile had erased the entire interaction a few nights later. It was fine. It is all fine.

“I’m all good,” she tells Hannah now, and wonders if that’s ever going to be entirely true again.

Chapter Text

Dani Clayton has never exactly been a gym enthusiast, but there are times a person must make certain kinds of choices. Particularly when summer is running down, and summer school is out, and that person is looking for something to do with their suddenly-endless hours of freedom.

Relative freedom. She supplements the lack of time at school with tutoring jobs, with occasional afternoons helping Hannah wrangle the Wingrave children, and it’s enough to get her by for the final weeks of break. Monetarily speaking, she is fine.

Mentally, she is having trouble staying focused.

 “Honestly,” Hannah has said over and over, her no-nonsense smile firmly in place, “I can’t recommend my gym enough. It’s quiet, it’s clean, it might help you find your center.”

Privately, Dani thinks her center is most accessible in Jamie’s bed, and that saying so to Hannah will likely earn her a one-way trip to Pityville, USA. Hannah does not seem the kind of woman who appreciates a friends-with-benefits scenario, even if one is going as spectacularly well as Dani’s. 

Mostly well. Almost completely well. If she doesn’t stop to think about it, it’s the best thing she’s ever done.

If she doesn’t stop to think.

If she doesn’t stop to think of Jamie’s smile in that restaurant last week, when the waitress--a beautiful woman with a rose inked into her wrist and a playful sparkle in her eye--had slid Dani a receipt with a phone number on it. 

If she doesn’t stop to think of Jamie’s cheerful, “Your first pull. Nice work.”

If she doesn’t stop to think about the way she’d stumbled over her words, stuffing the receipt into the bottom of her bag, her mind reflexively comparing the woman’s rose to the infinitely more intricate one on Jamie’s thigh. 

If she isn’t thinking, the whole thing is great. Perfect. Couldn’t be better. 

If she thinks--if she hesitates--if she lets stark logic creep in--

So, it’s off to Hannah’s gym. Because at least if she’s suffocating on a treadmill, she can’t stop to think too long about any of it. 

She selects a Saturday morning on the simple hope that most people will not be interested in sweating to death on a July day already needling toward violently hot. She’d thought about calling Hannah herself, but something about the idea of having to talk while working out had rubbed her the wrong way. Better, she thinks, to try some things alone. Better to take it easy the first time out.

Anyway, Hannah keeps trying to talk to her about dating. 

She spends the requisite twenty minutes signing up, aware this will likely be another ten dollars down the drain each month. Pointless, really; as though she isn’t getting the workout of her life just meeting up with Jamie. She’ll probably slink in here a handful of times, toying with weight machines she barely understands, and then school will start back up. She’ll forget she was ever here. It will become a dim memory, an annoying bill on her credit card, a free t-shirt she wears to bed. 

And it will have been one more day not talking to Hannah about blind dates. One more morning with her phone switched determinedly off so she can pretend not to notice Eddie’s unlabeled number--down to only two or three calls a day--blinking at her from the notification screen. 

He’s stopped leaving her voicemails, at least. Small mercies.

“If you get back out there,” Hannah has said, “won’t it show him you’ve really moved on?”

Didn’t breaking up with him do that? wonders Dani with no small amount of bitterness. Didn’t giving the ring back do it? Every time she spots the back of his head at the mall or spots his glasses reflecting sunlight from across the street, it’s a fresh kick to the teeth. To think doing the thing--breaking the engagement, breaking his heart, making the hard choice, for once--hadn’t been enough is agonizing.

Can’t change the past, Jamie always says. You choose what you want now. That’s all there is. 

She’s right, and Hannah probably is, too--that dating someone for real, that even going on a real date, would prove to anyone who’s asking that Dani is ready to step out into the dark alone. That Dani is ready to start a fresh life, armed with everything Jamie has gifted her, armed with her own desperate need to live the right way.

Soon, she promises herself. Soon, I will. It’s a good word, “soon”, a catch-all for the fear. Soon she’ll be ready to explore the parts of herself she’s been too afraid to look at head-on. Soon she’ll be ready to test a life with strange women in it. Soon she’ll be ready to try--

Jamie?

It is, unmistakably, Jamie across the room, in a baggy pair of sweatpants and a sports bra. Jamie, hair tied off her face, doing pull-up reps on a machine Dani has never seen before like she does this every day. 

Maybe she does. She flashes back to Jamie’s bed weeks ago, Jamie curling tempting fingers around her hip and saying, You know, you could come to my gym.

Jamie’s gym. Hannah’s gym. Now Dani’s gym, for at least this one day. Great, she thinks wildly, watching with wide eyes as Jamie hoists herself up, lowers herself back down, her skin shining under fluorescent lighting. We can all make a party of it together. 

She’s staring, she realizes with a jolt when she narrowly misses crashing into a water fountain. She’s staring, and Jamie doesn’t even know she’s here. 

She’ll probably find it funny, when I tell her. Funnier still, when Dani goes on to describe just how many other women seem to be forgetting themselves in the name of watching Jamie work out. Not that Jamie needs the ego inflation. Not that Jamie, whose vibrating phone is still a most familiar soundtrack to their time together, needs Dani to point out how attractive she is. 

She’s aware she came out to this gym strictly to stop thinking about Jamie for a little while. To stop thinking about how Jamie has grown less strict about driving Dani home on weekends. How Jamie doesn’t seem to mind Dani passing out in her bed. How Dani can’t quite pin down why that might be.

She cares, some part of her insists, as it had with Jamie diligently driving her to the brink in a cafe bathroom.

She's just being nice, some not-entirely-unconnected part of her mutters back. 

Still staring, the bit that sounds a little like Hannah points out, and Dani takes a twitchy step toward the first machine she can find not facing the lean muscle of Jamie’s back.

She gets enough of Jamie’s time. More than she’d ever hoped, at the beginning, when Jamie had agreed to mentor her in the art of sleeping with a woman. More than she deserves. She gets Jamie’s home, Jamie’s cooking, Jamie’s voice wrapped raggedly around her name. 

Maybe not the place, she thinks, pressing her thighs together. Maybe not the time, or the place, or the--

Her eyes betray her, a glance over her shoulder showing Jamie has abandoned her pull-ups--thank god--for rapid-fire push-ups on a nearby mat instead. Dani groans. 

The part of her that views Jamie as a friend--a wonderful, surprisingly-sweet, incredibly attentive listener who makes Dani feel seen, and appreciated, and cared for even when Jamie owes her nothing--understands this is called voyeurism. This is called objectifying. This is called inappropriate. 

The part of her still remembering Jamie knuckle-deep last night, wondering in a low murmur if Dani could keep up the necessary stamina to ride her until the timer announced dinner, doesn’t really care about any of that. 

And then, of course, there is the part of her in between. The part that knows she is in public. The part that knows this is a dangerous game, staring unabashedly while Jamie pushes to her feet, reaches for a clean towel to blot the sweat from her face, looks up.

Grins.

Goddammit. 

“Funny seeing you here,” Jamie says, and Dani tries desperately not to look as though the sight of her jogging over is enough to make her wish for a private room. “Thought you didn’t do exercise. Well. This sort.”

She’s still grinning, her face flushed with exertion, and Dani is caught. There’s little point denying it.

“My friend--this is my friend’s--I thought I’d try it,” she says finally. Jamie is standing too close, months of habit evidently causing her to forget platonic friends don’t normally move in near enough to kiss. 

“And how’re you finding it?”

Dani makes a mulish little noise, irritated with the awareness that Jamie knows exactly what she’s thinking. Not that she’s figured out subtlety, where Jamie is concerned. Not that the way she’s gripping her own shirt hard enough to cramp her hands is subtle. 

“Last night didn’t tide you over?” Jamie asks against her ear, breath tickling the fine hairs she hadn’t been able to coax into a ponytail. Dani resists the urge to close a hand over her hip, wanting very much to wipe the smile off her lips.

“People are staring.”

“I’m at the gym,” Jamie says idly. “They’re always staring. They ought to pay me for the pleasure.”

“People are staring at me,” Dani amends, though her body is swaying instinctively nearer to Jamie’s hot gravity. Jamie takes an amenable step back, hands in her pockets. 

“Coming ‘round tonight? I’ve got a new recipe I’ve been thinking of trying out, but it’d be silly to make it for just me--”

Dani licks her lips. Standing back, just out of reach, Jamie possesses more of a pull, somehow. 

“--and I was thinking, maybe a movie? Doubt we’d make it through even half an hour fully dressed, but it could be a fun--”

“Is there somewhere we could go?” Dani interrupts. Jamie raises her eyebrows. 

"What, now?”

“Yes.” Dani clears her throat. The others are pretending not to look, their eyes sliding off. One girl in particular, her eyes a narrowed shade of blue, seems unaccountably irritated. If they keep chatting out here much longer, wasting time, sooner or later, they’re going to be followed. 

And so what? So they’ll see two consenting adults having a very nice time, and maybe these women will realize Jamie isn’t just a slab of meat to follow around.

If Jamie is bothered by her looking at her like a slab of meat, she is hiding it well. She darts a look around, too casual to look as furtive and fidgety as Dani feels, and takes one of Dani’s hands. “C’mon.”

***

Dani is really something else lately. Dani has really taken her usual brand of interest--nothing to shake a stick at to begin with--and cranked it to eleven lately. 

Jamie is starting to wonder if she’ll be able to keep up. 

Dani is kissing her in the locker room before she can even get them to a halfway-secure location, her hands hungry as they map across Jamie’s back. Dani is kissing her as though she hasn’t seen Jamie in days, and it’s driving Jamie crazy to think this is just what Dani is like these days. Just how Dani winds herself up in the twelve-to-forty hours she goes between seeing Jamie. 

“You all right?” she asks, pushing back from the kiss just long enough to give Dani the space to answer. In truth, when Dani kisses her like this--all eager tongue, sharp little bites, pulling Jamie’s lip into her mouth and sucking hard--it’s difficult to take a step back for anything. But Dani, for all the bravado she’s developed over the past few months, has never come quite so near to jumping her in broad daylight before.

It is exceedingly hot. It is also possibly a sign than Dani needs to talk.

Never stopped you before, Jamie thinks darkly. In fact, women needing to talk has usually prompted her to find the first door out, and fast. But Dani is different. Dani has become different, whether Jamie wants her to be or not.

It’s too late. Maybe was too late the time she’d woken at about three in the morning to find Dani wrapped around her back, hair spilling softly over Jamie’s shoulder, exhaling shallowly against her skin.

She hadn’t woken her. Hadn’t pulled the sheets down in the morning, either, except to climb between them and ease her into a lazy morning spent rolling around in bed. 

Friends, she’d thought then. Dani has earned the simple right of an occasional genuine rest in Jamie’s flat, and if it happens to be in Jamie’s bed she falls asleep--what of it? The bed is big enough for two, and it really just saves time. Dani doesn’t have to take the bus back over if she starts her day at Jamie’s. 

Friends. Friends who also, sometimes, can share a meal. Or a movie. None of it is a problem, none of it is out of her control. Dani wants to know how to sleep with women, and she’s come along in that mentorship quite earnestly, but sooner or later she’ll need to know how to date women, too.

It’s a dangerous testing ground, Jamie knows. Would be, anyway, for anyone else. Jamie, considerably more preoccupied with Dani pushing a hand into her sweats, is pretty sure she’s uniquely disposed to deal with this. 

“Someone,” she groans, pressing her face to Dani’s neck. “Someone is going to walk in on you doing that.”

“It’s your gym,” Dani mumbles back, trying to walk and climb Jamie like a tree in the same motion. “You don’t have anywhere more private?”

Like she thinks I do this every day, Jamie thinks dazedly. Like Dani really believes anywhere Jamie goes is marked by secret hideaways where she can take women and fuck them silly. 

She wonders what Dani would say, if Jamie told her the truth. That she hasn’t answered a DM in months. That she hasn’t opened a DM in weeks. That she hasn’t lost herself in any woman who wasn’t Dani almost since this all began.

She allows herself to imagine Dani’s face for a split second: recognition spilling into a grin, Dani kissing her all the harder for it. Maybe. Maybe she would approve of Jamie’s accidental slide into monogamy. Maybe. 

Or maybe she’d back away, apologize, tell her she never wanted to force Jamie’s eyes to settle on her alone. Not for me, Jamie, don’t tell me you’re doing that for me. 

“Private,” she repeats when Dani’s other hand digs into the back of her shoulder, her nails finding the exact same scratches she’d left last night. “Right.”

There are changing rooms near the showers, overly large painted boxes Jamie has never bothered with before now. She backs Dani into the last in the line, uttering a low sound of surprise when Dani latches the door, spins her, shoves her down on a small wooden bench protruding from the wall. 

“Did you even work out?” Jamie teases, like her body isn’t going haywire as Dani strips the shirt over her head and pulls it gently taut in a loop behind Jamie’s, using it as leverage to pull her into another kiss. She sinks down in Jamie’s lap, rolling her hips, shifting the angle of her head as though nothing about Jamie’s kiss is getting close enough.

“I had every intention,” she says finally, pushing herself down against Jamie with a roll of her eyes. “But then someone was in my gym.”

“My gym first,” Jamie corrects. Dani’s shorts are barely anything at all. Dani’s shorts, revealing miles of soft pink skin, should be illegal in public. Jamie’s hands cup under, squeezing, heat filling her body when Dani muffles a truly indecent gasp against her lips. 

“Be honest,” she says in a high, squirmy kind of voice when Jamie eases the shorts down her hips, curling a loose grip around the waistband of cotton underwear. “Be honest, do you come here to work out, or because hot women forget their own heads the minute you get sweaty?”

Jamie laughs, dipping her hand lower to push fabric aside, fingers locating wet heat with no trouble. “Christ, the state of you. Watching really did it, huh?”

“Not an answer.” Dani is still using her shirt to magnificent effect, forcing Jamie to look at her, urging Jamie in to kiss her. Her lips part over Jamie’s, the kind of reckless she gets when they haven’t had time together in a week. 

Last night, Jamie thinks wildly, her fingers parting and stroking while Dani’s thighs shiver on either side of her hips. She just had this last night. 

“I do it,” Jamie says, hearing her own voice darken as Dani spreads her legs as best she can, urgent in her rocking, “because I spend an awful lot of time carrying boxes, thanks. And because it’s healthy. And because--”

“--it gets you hot, to know women are thinking about you,” Dani says knowingly. Jamie can’t deny it. This woman, anyway. 

“Well, look at the fucking outcome.” 

That seems to end the conversation, Dani plunging back into a relentless kiss as Jamie’s fingers slide and stutter, trying to file away all the little sounds Dani is trying to repress for later. There is still, somehow, so much new in Dani--like she has been unlocking herself little by little, allowing herself to tip ever-nearer to whatever version is truest. She’s grown louder, and more breathy, and less afraid to cry Jamie’s name, and still, every time she swears or moans, Jamie feels privileged to hear it. Honored, to have caused it. 

Especially when, as now, she buries her face in Jamie’s shoulder, whispering that she’s nearly there, she’s almost, she’s--

She shudders, letting the shirt go slack behind Jamie’s neck. Her hips are still moving in little arcs, following the slowing rub, the easy come-down Jamie has learned she likes. 

“This,” Jamie whispers into her ear, grinning when Dani shivers, “is not generally included in the membership.”

Dani leans back, gazing at her with a furrowed brow. Jamie’s grin fades.

“Hey--you all right?”

“I’m sorry.” Dani looks mortified. “I’m so, so sorry. I’ve never--I can’t believe I just--I just dragged you back here. No warning. Just demanded that you--”

It’s hard, reassuring a woman out of an oncoming panic attack, with a hand inside her shorts. Jamie makes a valiant effort all the same. 

“What is the rule?”

Dani is silent. Jamie leans in, voice soft. 

“We talk,” she says. “If anything doesn’t sit right, we talk. That? What you just did? That was unexpected, sure. Didn’t come out today looking for it. But I’m not complaining.”

Dani mumbles something, shifting off of Jamie’s lap with some effort. Jamie tips her head.

“Say again?”

“I respect you,” Dani repeats in a lurch. “I respect you, and I don’t just see you as...as meat, and I need you to know that I--”

She looks small sometimes, Jamie reflects--so small, though they’re the same size, though Jamie has never wanted to reduce her down. It’s an old habit, she suspects, the way Jamie doesn’t talk about her family, the way Jamie doesn’t quite know how to lower her walls when someone wants to get close, the way Jamie can’t ever entirely forget a pretty smile, a nice girl, a prison sentence.

“You,” Jamie says, rubbing her arms lightly until Dani lets out a breath, “are welcome to do that. Within reason, you’re welcome to do that anytime you like. And I am welcome to tell you no, if I’m not up for it. That’s how this works. Fuck, Dani, we don’t need to have sex every time you come over, either.”

Dani looks surprised. Jamie grins, feeling a little self-conscious, but needing to say it anyway.

“We do it because we like it, right? Because it feels good. But Dani, I like you. I think you like me. I think we’re friends at this point, are we not?”

Dani nods shakily, letting Jamie fold her close. 

“Friends,” she repeats, to herself as much as to Dani. “And friends trust each other. Do you trust me to tell you if I need you to slow down?”

Dani nods again. Her arms slide up Jamie’s back, her breath warm on Jamie’s skin when she heaves a sigh. 

“How many of them do we think are waiting for us to come back out?”

Jamie laughs. “Do you care?”

“I was planning on coming back,” Dani mumbles into her shoulder. “Once. Maybe as many as three more times.” She leans back, plucks at the strap of Jamie’s sports bra. “And this? What is this? This is not helping anyone live their best exercise life.”

“Says you,” Jamie replies calmly. “It got me your first orgasm of the day, so I’d say I chose perfectly.”

***

Eddie is still calling. 

Eddie is calling, and now he’s got his mother leaving the occasional too-innocent message; instead of his petulant voice, she finds Judy saying, Dear, we miss you, you know you could come by for dinner any night. Dani has taken to screening all of her calls, just in case he borrows Judy’s phone one day to catch her unawares.

“That’s low,” Jamie says with disgust when Dani tosses her phone onto the kitchen table. “It’s been how long?”

Dani winds back the clock, weeks and weeks of time with Jamie spilling backward. “Almost five months.”

“Someone ought to get the man a girlfriend,” Jamie mutters. “Hey, maybe I’ll let Owen know. Man’s like a dog with a bone.”

“Owen?” Dani repeats. “What does he have to do with it?”

“Keeps telling me he has the perfect girl for me.” Jamie snorts, shaking her head, bringing her knife down with unnecessary force on a zucchini. “Oh, I know you don’t do relationships, but this one! This one, you’ll like! Twat.”

Dani fiddles with her pencil, gazing down at the syllabus she’s been trying to plot out for the better part of an hour. “Nice guy. I’ve been chatting with him a bit lately. I like him.”

“Means well,” Jamie allows. “But pushy, of late. Think he’s channeling all his own romantic desires into me, since he doesn’t think he has the time. You’ve heard about his mum?” Dani nods. Jamie sighs. “Yeah. S’all he thinks about. That, and my fuckin’ love life.”

"He knows you’re not interested?” 

Jamie shrugs. “Thinks this one is nice. Like any nice girl would deserve my bullshit.”

“Are you saying I’m not nice?” Dani asks absently. Jamie’s hands are distracting, shifting from knife to vegetable and back again with grace. Dani has tried and tried to mimic the things Jamie does, the strength and eloquence of her every move, but her own hands just don’t measure up. 

“You,” Jamie says with a grin, “are very nice. In every way a person can be.” She shakes her head again, leaning on the counter. “Look, Owen tries, and I can’t fault him for it, but I’m not looking to date. Especially a blind date with a nice girl.”

Dani’s chest tightens, something like relief spilling over into her stomach. She shakes it off as she’s shaken off every similar thought for weeks, since crashing into Jamie at the gym and dragging her into a round of ill-advised public sex. 

Every time, in fact, these thoughts try to crop up--the idea that Jamie has been smiling at her more, has been gentler with her, has been checking in at every turn with what Dani needs--she finds herself dragging Jamie into sex. Jamie, so far, has not seemed to mind. 

And why should she? It’s what she signed on for. Isn’t that more or less what she says any time Dani--embarrassment crashing down on the last vestiges of her need--apologizes? Isn’t that how she responds each and every time? We’re friends. I trust you. And this was always the idea. 

“Same,” she says, dragging her mind away from these thoughts with concerning difficulty. Jamie frowns. 

“Sorry?”

“My friend, the one I used to work with. She's been telling me the same thing. That I need to get back out there. That she met a lovely young woman she thinks I’d like very much.” 

Jamie raises her eyebrows. “Intriguing. Do we trust this friend’s character judgement?”

“We trust,” Dani says firmly, “that we’re not ready.”

“Dani...”

“Jamie, I mean it. I’m not ready.” Not ready to give this up, you mean. She grimaces. “Soon. I’ll do it...soon.”

“Hey,” Jamie says, setting the knife down and crossing the kitchen. “No one’s pushing. I’m happy to keep being your fuck buddy as long as you like.”

Fuck buddy. Crude words made even cruder by the smile Jamie wears, like she truly doesn’t mind being reduced to so little. It’s funny, thinks Dani, how Jamie only ever frames it from that direction--your fuck buddy, never my fuck buddy in return. Like she doesn’t think, after all this time, Dani really needs her for more. 

Because Dani isn’t supposed to. 

Because Dani has been explicitly going out of her way not to.

Like the other night, out at a bar with Jamie, both of them pent up with a restless need to stand in the middle of a crowd. There had been music, and drinks, and Dani had felt the itch beneath her skin to dance. 

Jamie had acquiesced happily enough, her hands smooth at Dani’s back, and everyone had been looking. Dani could feel them--approving, or judgmental, or simply curious--and she’d wondered if it was her. If it was obvious how she’d never been out dancing with a woman, or if it was simply Jamie’s magnetism drawing their eyes. 

“That one,” Jamie had murmured, grinding slowly against her in front of anyone willing to look. “With the red hair. She’s watching you.”

Dani had peered over her shoulder, one hand in Jamie’s hair, and sure enough: green eyes, a light smile, a woman tracking her every move. She’d caught Dani looking, had raised a glass, and Dani had thought, Jamie would go. Jamie would go say hello. 

The same Jamie whose hands were ghost-light at her waist, driving her wild with how carefully she kept herself from touching too much of Dani without permission. The same Jamie who stared openly at her lips when Dani let her tongue flick out to work away a bead of sweat. 

The same Jamie she’d dragged by the suspenders out the back door, pushed up against the alley wall, unzipped with a shaking hand. The same Jamie who had huffed against her ear with strangled amusement as Dani had rubbed with relentless fervor against the damp seam of her briefs. 

“This is not,” she’d groaned, “how you traditionally ask a woman out at a bar.”

“Complaining?” Dani had asked and, when Jamie only made a thin noise of desire, wrapped her free hand around suspender again, hauling her in. 

It’s been happening more and more, this urgent need to touch, and taste, and test Jamie every time the thoughts rise. Every time she catches herself thinking Jamie looks sweet, smiling at a movie with her chin resting on one upturned palm. Every time she catches herself thinking Jamie’s hand feels natural, resting innocently on her knee. Every time Jamie drives her home, and the urge to invite her upstairs, to give her a place in Dani’s apartment, to beg her to stay rises unbidden to her lips. 

Every time, she turns it into sex. Into a hand down Jamie’s pants, teasing her until the movie is only background noise to their mingled sighs. Into urging Jamie’s hand up her thigh, under her skirt, Jamie patiently letting her ride against willing fingers. 

The time she’d grabbed Jamie by the collar, tugging her over the console, she’d thought she had gone too far. Jamie had stared at her with surprised eyes, legs still sprawled across into the driver’s seat, and Dani had waited for the inevitable too much. 

Instead, Jamie had said in a low, urgent voice, “Backseat.” Dani had found herself muffling cries against her own hand as Jamie’s teeth snagged her underwear, Jamie’s tongue pressing soaked lace into her with urgent thrusts. 

Touch me, Dani says to keep from saying, Hold me. 

Taste me, Dani says to keep from saying, See me. 

Fuck me, Dani says, her cheeks burning, and Jamie can’t know--not now, not ever--that she’s only saying it to push down the cry of, Love me. 

Jamie isn’t the person for that. Isn’t the person for her. Jamie isn’t interested in nice, or in long-term, or in singular. Jamie’s Instagram is full of photos showing the world just how much there is to go around. Jamie doesn’t have the patience for the exhausting needs of one woman who is, as it turns out, in a bit deeper than intended. 

So Dani just doesn’t tell her. 

Jamie doesn’t need to know.

***

The day Dani barges in on her lunch break, Jamie can tell instantly something has happened. Dani has come over before, once or twice--usually bearing a sandwich and an idea for the evening--but never looking quite so determined. Jamie opens the door, ushering her in and locking it behind her.

“What’s wrong?”

Dani shakes her head, grasping for Jamie’s shirt in that wonderfully familiar way that says there are demons, and they are loud, and I need a distraction. Jamie lets herself be pulled along to the back room, her hands already seeking Dani before they even have the door shut. 

“You going to tell me?” she asks, when Dani lets go and just stands there looking at her. “Or d’you wanna do...”

Dani looks haggard, as though she hasn’t slept. “My mother.”

“Ah.” She doesn’t know much about Dani’s mum--more about her near-miss mother-in-law, in truth--but Dani has never once uttered those words with a smile. “About him again?”

“I told her,” Dani says. There’s a shell-shocked look about her eyes, a pursed quality to her mouth. Jamie suspects she had not planned this sort of day. “I told her about me.”

“Didn’t take it well?” There’s no point mincing, no point dancing around it. Not with Dani’s jaw trembling, Dani casting wild looks around as though for a hidden machine in this room to turn back time.

“No.”

Jamie waits. She likes that they can do this now--that there’s sometimes a window between what Dani wants and what Jamie gives, where silence can bloom. She likes that Dani, even at her most frenzied, seems sometimes to crave this momentary understanding first, just as Jamie does.

“Help me,” Dani says. Jamie frowns, imagining herself--not exactly a picture of heterosexual charm--striding up to the Clayton family home.

“Not sure I’ll be able to convince her of anything, but if you want--”

“Help me,” Dani repeats, “erase it.”

She turns, moves with purpose to the table at the back, which Jamie has recently cleared of all but a few supplies for a new shipment. Jamie follows, fairly certain she understands, particularly when Dani says, “I want to put it in the past. This. I choose this.”

“We can talk,” Jamie tries. Dani shakes her head. 

“Don’t want to talk. I did it. And she--and that’s done.”

Isn’t always so simple, Jamie doesn’t say. Isn’t always so cut and dry. She doesn’t say it, crossing to meet Dani. Keeps her mouth firmly shut on the matter. Because there are some parts of this Dani simply can’t give over. Some parts, Dani has to come to on her own. 

She suspects Dani knows as much, from the determined way she’s lifting herself onto the table, reaching down, dragging underwear roughly off. She suspects Dani is terribly aware that there are some shadows a person has to face on their own, navigating by the silver thread of moonlight, and that no amount of hand-holding can make it easier. 

Jamie can’t take the burden from her now--can’t erase it, either, no matter how Dani pleads. The best she can do is allow Dani to choose. To allow Dani the space the decide what she can and can’t handle. 

“I want you,” Dani says in the kind of voice Jamie’s been hearing in her dreams. “Please.”

She pulls at Jamie, sighing when Jamie raises a hand gently to her lips, closing her eyes with relief as her tongue dips out to trace the calloused pad of her thumb. Her arm drapes around Jamie’s neck, underwear still dangling from her fingers against Jamie’s back, and it can just be any other day. Any afternoon, Dani rushing in out of the summer heat to lick the sweat from Jamie’s skin in this room. Dani urging her up the stairs for a rough grind on Jamie’s couch, neither looking forward to the end of Jamie’s break. 

It can be any other day, Jamie teasing her open with the tips of her fingers, Jamie letting her do the work of rocking to the edge of the table. Any other day, Jamie watching her face tense and relax as she takes Jamie slowly in. 

They could talk, and Dani could cry, and it could all be a very serious hour of unpacking the hardest parts of coming out for the first time--or it could be this. Dani tight around her, whimpering softly, begging for Jamie to keep it slow. Dani’s hands clutching around her shoulders, sliding down her chest, grasping the front of her shirt. 

“This,” she hears Dani repeat, her voice thin and reedy. “This, just this.”

It can’t be forever, something in Jamie says quietly. It can’t always be just this.

Prove it, Jamie thinks fiercely, curling her fingers suddenly enough to make Dani cry out. If this is what she needs, this is what she gets. As long as I can fucking stand it. 

***

We don’t have to have sex every time you come over, Jamie had said, and Dani finds the idea extremely pretty--like an art display you can’t quite understand, though it speaks to the depths of your heart. They don’t have to have sex to hang out. She’s sure Jamie means that. 

She’s sure, too, that she wants it--a world where Jamie is happy with her for other reasons, too. Where Jamie wants to spend time just being. Where Jamie isn’t pushing her to call other women. 

“Another one,” Jamie says approvingly when the air conditioning goes out at her flat, and they opt to take in a movie at the theater for the sake of tolerable temperatures. The girl at the ticket counter has just spent five minutes making pleasant conversation with Dani about the new films out, culminating in a shy I get off at five Dani hadn’t known how to handle. 

“It’s nothing,” she says. Jamie laughs.

“And how do you think a person enters the dating pool, exactly, if all of these offers are nothing?”

Dani doesn’t answer. Doesn’t say another word about it, as they take seats in the back of a mostly-empty showing of an action movie neither of them care about. Doesn’t even think of that girl again, when the lights go down and she moves a hand up Jamie’s thigh. 

“What if,” Jamie whispers, licking her lips, like her legs aren’t falling open to accommodate Dani’s fingers sneaking up into her loose shorts, “I want to watch?”

“Who’s stopping you?” We don’t have to--but there’s something about knowing Jamie wants her to wait around for five to strike, to maybe ask that girl out for coffee, that pushes her to this, instead. To kiss Jamie’s neck through the previews, feeling Jamie grow slowly wetter against her fingers, wondering if she could tease Jamie through an entire movie.  

She can, as the case turns out, manage for a surprisingly long time. There’s just something about the way Jamie’s breath whistles through clenched teeth as Dani gives her just enough. There’s just something about Jamie’s hand bunching the material of her own shorts, Jamie’s pulse rocketing under the graze of her teeth as she leaves a very small mark. A strange woman could never match it. A strange woman could never come close. 

It has long since become something of a problem, Dani understands. 

Every time a woman smiles at her, every time one tries to ask her to dinner or slip her a phone number, she finds herself back here: falling into Jamie. Pinning Jamie to the wall outside a bookstore, or easing Jamie’s hand up her skirt under the restaurant table--anything to erase the memory of unfamiliar eyes roaming over her body. 

This, she thinks every time, helpless to deny it. This is all I need. 

It isn’t a relationship. It isn’t something she can bring home to her mother--not that Karen Clayton would accept it, anyway, even if Jamie’s view on the matter were traditional and clean-cut. She can’t announce it in a status change on Facebook--though her hand hovers over that button on a weekly basis, grimacing at the idea of the world seeing It’s Complicated flashing beside her name--or to her peers at school. She can’t explain to anyone how this, being this with Jamie, makes more sense to her than a cut-and-dry twenty years with Eddie ever had. 

Aren’t you sick of it? she thinks sometimes, watching Jamie tend to tiny buds in the shop. Aren’t you tired of the same kiss, the same skin, the same voice saying your name every night?

Not that it’s always her. Of course it isn’t. There are nights she doesn’t allow herself the pleasure of Jamie’s company, days she forces herself to clean her apartment or go out to lunch alone. What does Jamie do with all of those hours? Dani doesn’t ask. It isn’t Dani’s place to ask. 

She’s welcome to it, she thinks as she urges Jamie to her knees.

She can have anyone she wants, she thinks as she strokes Jamie to a trembling break. 

She isn’t breaking any rules, she thinks as she hears herself begging Jamie for more. 

Sex has, in its own way, become the great clarifier. It is the only time she allows her mind to tread into dangerous territory, the only time she lets herself venture in an ever tightening-spiral toward the awareness that Jamie is not breaking rules, but Dani has already smashed them to bits. Dani has already fallen. 

It’s getting clearer every day, but maybe the clearest of all comes on a pleasant August afternoon. They’re running out of summer fast, running out of chances to steal hours that will soon belong to school and parent-teacher conferences and grading projects. Dani, as she always does around this time, feels like a kid again, flinching from a ticking clock.

She’s doing well today--keeping her mind carefully out of the woods, keeping her hands carefully to herself--and Jamie is in a terrific mood. It feels, for the first time in a long time, like they really are just two friends with no rules, no confusion, no feelings spread invisibly between them. 

She’s doing well, until they step out of the mall and into a downpour. The sky is a rage of gray and wind, the rain torrential, and Dani is fine--until she turns her head to find Jamie standing with arms spread wide, head tipped back to welcome the storm. 

“What,” she says, sputtering, wiping water from her face, “are you doing?”

Jamie gives her a lazy grin, curls plastered to her forehead, and opens her mouth to accept the free refreshment. She does not look like the kind of woman who keeps a thirst-trap internet account, the kind of woman who can make Dani forget her own name with nothing more than her tongue. She looks soft, and sweet, the woman who has--on several dangerously memorable occasions--fallen asleep with her face pressed to Dani’s breastbone. 

She’s beautiful, and she’s grinning, and Dani’s heart is too full to stand. 

“We’re getting wet,” Dani says helplessly, her voice whipped away. Jamie shrugs, arms encircling her waist, dancing with her in a slow spin in the parking lot. 

“Already there. What’s the harm of enjoying it?”

Dani almost says it, then, almost unleashes catastrophe upon them both. Almost says, It’s too late, I think. I can’t take it back, I think. Her hands trace Jamie’s cheeks, thumbs skimming away the tide of rain coursing down over soft lips. 

Say it, a daring voice, the one that commanded her to surprise herself at every turn, murmurs. Tell her. 

Jamie is still smiling, but there’s an electricity to it now, her eyes flicking from Dani’s wide eyes to her mouth. It’s the most familiar thing in the world, Dani feels with relief, when Jamie leans in, and there is rain in her hair, rain gluing her shirt to her ribs, rain sluicing down her back and over their mouths when they come together, slide apart, come together again. 

Tell her, that daring little voice says, go on. Dani ignores it, fisting the sopping material of Jamie’s shirt at her back, Jamie’s hands dragging the tie from her hair and letting the rain have its way with them both. 

She loses track of time, focused solely on the delicious juxtaposition of cold rain mingling with Jamie’s warm tongue licking droplets from her neck, until the bleat of a car horn shoves the world rudely back into focus. Jamie is laughing, a jittery little-kid laugh in direct opposition to the hungry way she’s been gripping Dani’s hair. 

“Maybe not the place for it,” she concedes, taking Dani’s hand. “C’mon.”

Dani can’t remember the last time she stood in the rain, kissed in the rain, sprinted through the rain this way. Jamie seems gleeful at every puddle, stopping beneath the brief shelter of trees to kiss Dani breathless every so often before taking off with lunatic delight back into the deluge. Even when they’re squelching up her steps, her key sounding unnaturally solid in the lock, Jamie is still laughing. 

“God,” she says happily, “that is living. Best way I know how.”

“Catching cold?” Dani asks, shivering, arms wrapped around herself. Jamie shakes her head, sending droplets every which way without much care for her floor, lamps, rugs.

“C’mon, admit it. You love it.”

Dani opens her mouth, shuts it again, finding herself unable to safely do anything other than smile. Jamie nods, finger-combing the dripping hair back from her face. 

“Exactly. Nature. It feels right when nothing else does.” Her eyes drag slowly down Dani’s frame, her teeth sinking gently into her lower lip. “Most nothing else.”

Tell her, the part of her that has known for weeks says. 

Lose her, the part of her that understands this is all temporary, and that only a fool would rush toward the end faster than necessary, replies. 

Dani ignores them both, pulling Jamie’s shirt over her head, running her fingers over cool skin. She doesn’t have to think about any of that right now, not with Jamie pushing her irresistibly against the wall. She doesn’t have to think about anything but Jamie’s kiss, Jamie’s thigh warm and welcome between her own, Jamie helping her out of wet clothes as they stumble backward and miss the couch entirely. 

The storm is growing more frenzied outside, lashing the window, Jamie’s apartment warming by the second in contrast. The floor is unyielding under her back, shorts sticking determinedly to her legs as Jamie presses her down. The tip of her tongue is maddeningly soft at her breast, tracing mindless paths as Dani digs her fingers into Jamie’s hair. 

These are, she thinks as she sucks in a breath, as Jamie bites gently down and sucks a pleasurable bruise into her skin, the times she likes best. The times with Jamie writing an unhurried script, pinching and stroking, her hands firm. The times with Jamie whispering into her ear, into her neck, into the rise of her ribs things Dani won’t remember tomorrow--not the words themselves, though Jamie’s breath stains her skin, the caress of Jamie’s accent around the syllables coming back to her when she least expects. These times, with Jamie half-dressed and wholly in control, sitting back on her knees with that look at her face.

These are the ones she thinks about when she’s trying her hardest not to think of Jamie at all. These are the ones that come back--not so much Jamie’s roughly twisting fingers when they’re stealing time, but the way Jamie looks at her when it feels as though the entire day belongs only to this. The way Jamie looks at her with hands firm on her hips, one deft jerk dragging her lower body off the floor, pulling her flush against the clench of Jamie’s stomach. Jamie, leaning into her, watching Dani struggle to push against rain-cooled skin, wishing Jamie would just touch her, dreading Jamie putting an end to this slow rocking torment. Jamie’s thumbs digging into hipbone, Jamie’s fingers curling around in a confident grip, nails biting lightly in until Dani can’t resist saying her name. 

Jamie’s eyes, giving the gift of utter attention. Jamie biting her lip as she slowly urges Dani back and forth, Dani’s shoulders pressing into the floor, Dani’s back arched. Jamie smoothing her thumbs in frustratingly steady arcs as Dani groans, feeling herself spread against taut muscle.

Jamie smiles, and Dani shudders. It was, once upon a few months ago, that smile that told her Jamie would be the one to ask. The smile which told her Jamie was confident, was sure, had earned the right to both. That smile, the one Jamie wore when she introduced herself, when she first led Dani upstairs, when she’d agreed to all of this, has been her undoing from the start.

She rocks in Jamie’s hands, aware the slim friction Jamie is providing will never be enough, aware Jamie is having the time of her life just holding her in limbo. Jamie, bending over her, kissing wherever she can reach like tasting the rain on Dani’s skin is all she wants for the rest of the afternoon.

The storm outside is brutal, and Dani’s muscles are clenched, and Jamie is just watching her face. Just reading the hitch of her breath as she drags Dani against her own body, eyes flickering when Dani makes a sharp sound in her throat. 

“Please,” she says, knowing she wouldn’t mind if Jamie just held her here all day. “Please.”

Jamie pulls once more, hard, and Dani cries out even as Jamie lowers her back to the floor, shifting out of the way, looking her over like she can’t quite settle on what she wants most. 

“Anything,” Dani hears herself whine, and tries not to think about how that’s the word, that’s the thing, every time she comes back to Jamie in her mind. Give me anything. Anything you’re willing to spare. I want any part of you I can touch. 

Jamie takes her by the hand, urging her to sit up, kissing her with slow care even as she stretches out in Dani’s place. Her hands are coaxing, pulling Dani into position. Her hands are soft, resting on Dani’s thighs. 

Her mouth, when Dani sinks down, knees driving into rug, is almost tentative. She licks softly with hands braced around to lower Dani onto the flick of her tongue, making a low sound when Dani shudders, unable to stop herself from grinding incautiously down. 

She is lost--shivering from the increasing pressure, Jamie’s lips soft around her, Jamie’s hands holding her in place. She wants to be concerned about her own weight, about hurting Jamie if she should lose her balance, but Jamie’s thumbs are stroking her thighs, gliding up, spreading her open for an urgent tongue. Jamie is making that deep-chest sound of perfect bliss, and Dani finds herself bowing to it, kneeling with palms pressed hard into the floor, hips writing a needy rhythm. 

Tell her, she thinks, as Jamie beckons her toward the edge, urging Dani to bear down upon her with reckless pleasure. Tell her, tell her, tell her, as Jamie draws her tight, spurred on by Dani’s wordless exultations. 

Tell her, she thinks as the starbursts go behind her eyes, as her muscles snap tight and slacken again, as she folds nearly double trying to chase the last of the pleasure Jamie offers. 

She nearly tumbles forward, groping with one hand toward the couch for balance as she shifts herself away from Jamie, collapsing safely away from her head. Her breath is short and sharp, every muscle trembling as Jamie shifts to hold her. 

Jamie, kissing her eyelids, her forehead, her cheeks. Jamie, tasting so poignantly of her that she hears herself whimper again when Jamie’s mouth lands warm over her own. 

Tell her, she thinks. Tell her you can’t let this go. 

“Okay?” Jamie’s hands are rubbing her arms, her back, as if trying to coax warmth back into her skin. As if she is shivering from leftover chill, and not because every nerve in her body is still trying to recover. 

“Yes.”

“Sure? That felt...” Jamie trails off, but Dani suspects she’s thinking the same. That felt different, somehow. Not the positioning, not the residual rain soaked into their skin, but the way Jamie had been looking at her. The way she’d been breathing. The way they’d moved together, like whispering secrets neither is ready to hear. 

Tell her. Tell her, and let her go, if that’s how it has to be. You can’t keep doing this much longer. 

Little more, Dani thinks hopelessly. Please, just a little more time. 

“There’s a thing,” she says into Jamie’s chest, curling a leg over Jamie’s hips. “A school thing, sort of a...faculty party, next week. They call it black tie, but it’s just at the high school, and--and I was hoping I could get out of it, but they made it mandatory this year.”

Jamie says nothing for a minute. Dani clenches her eyes shut. 

“I--I’ve never gone by myself before.”

Call one of them up, she imagines Jamie saying. Use one of those fancy new phone numbers. No time like the present to learn how to fly. 

“D’you want company?” Jamie asks softly without missing a beat. “I look fantastic in a black tie.”

Dani chokes out a laugh that sounds more like a sob, and wishes she could stay right here on this floor for the rest of her life. 

***

There is a line, Jamie knows. 

There is a line, and this is as close to flirting with it as Dani deserves. 

There is a line, and if she lets herself step over, she’ll be doing Dani the biggest disservice of her life. 

One night, she promises herself. One night on Dani’s arm. One night, introducing herself to Dani’s colleagues, and then--then she’ll back away. She’ll turn her head, and she’ll stop this. All of it. She’ll finally, finally become the friend Dani needs. 

But first: one more glorious night.

She thinks idly about wearing a dress--it’s tempting, if only to watch Dani’s mouth fall open--but ultimately, there’s just something about giving Dani what she wants. Something that feels right about ensuring Dani isn’t blindsided, about Dani getting to make the most of exactly what she’s asked for one final time.

Hasn’t that been the trick all along? Dani asked for Jamie--the version of Jamie she’d thought she could learn from--and Jamie has complied every step of the way. If Dani has also been given more than she bargained for--if Dani has also been given a friend, an occasional bedmate tucked wearily in against her, someone to cook with and talk to about coming out to her mother, that’s fine enough.

If Dani has also been given Jamie’s heart--that is less fine. Maybe not fine in the least. 

Soft, she chastises herself, sitting outside Dani’s complex with the motor running. Gone too fucking soft. Everything ends, doesn’t it? Everything has a shelf life, an expiration date, a decomposition point. Everything. Even this. 

She’s gone too fucking soft, is what she’s done, and all for a woman who never wanted it. A woman who knows Jamie as a game well played, a pair of steady hands, a casual fling. Friends with benefits. Nothing more. Nothing deep. 

Dani deserves to try, and Jamie knows there’s fear in the way. Can see it all over Dani’s face whenever the subject comes up, can watch her struggle with the awareness that asking a woman out for the first time--getting to know someone real--opening herself up to that kind of hurt--isn’t easy. Jamie knows, maybe better than anyone, how hard it is. 

Jamie doesn’t bother. 

Dani deserves to find out for herself if it’s worth it. 

“There’s still time,” Dani says, bundling into the passenger seat, “to back out.”

Jamie grins. “And miss being seen with this?”

Dani flaps a hand at her, laughing, as though any part of Jamie is joking. As though any part of Jamie is looking at her in a dress anyone with eyes might call scandalous and thinking, Well, right, back off to a quiet night alone with me. 

“Trying to turn some heads?” she suggests, studying the low dip of Dani’s neckline, the dangerous slit at her thigh. Dani grimaces. 

“I hate it, honestly. But it’s the only thing I had that qualified for the theme.”

“The theme being pretending we aren’t on a teacher’s salary?” Jamie urges the car out of park, backing out of the lot, fully aware that if she doesn’t fix her attention on driving, they’re not going to make it to the school at all. “What’s expected at this shindig, anyway?”

“Smile, mostly.” Dani leans her head against the window with a sigh. “Drink in acceptably small doses. Try not to insult the superintendent.”

“Is that a trial?”

“The man is an ass,” Dani says sweetly. “Ten minutes alone with him, and I’m always itching for the nearest pointy object. Part of why I need you, really. Don’t want to be cornered alone in an empty classroom.”

“Now, there’s an idea.”

Dani makes a noise like she’s never considered it, which Jamie will believe just as soon as the grass turns orange. She’s not sure there’s a place in the city Dani hasn’t considered hauling her off to for a quick round. 

Not many left that haven’t already been crossed off the list, now that she thinks of it.

“So, not getting you fired,” she says to distract herself from the too-tempting image of Dani writhing beneath her. “What else?”

“As little as we can manage,” Dani says, sounding glum. “I hate this party, I really do, but Quint insists. Hoping we can put in an hour or two and then--”

“Off to more interesting pastures?” Jamie can’t resist letting a hand linger on Dani’s knee, fingers tracing lightly through the soft fabric. Dani’s head falls back against her seat, somehow managing to make a sigh sound filthy. 

“If I could take all the time I’m about to waste in there and give it to you--”

“You’d be out of a very fine job, and we’d have shamefully wasted this dress,” Jamie interrupts. If Dani keeps going down this path, if Dani finishes that sentence, they’re not going to make it out of the car. 

“Oh,” Dani says as Jamie is parking, switching off the engine, reaching for the door. “Also, no one knows I’m--I mean, this is going to be a surprise for everyone.”

“This?” Jamie says, somewhat surprised despite herself. Of course. Of course Dani would want to do this the easiest possible way, with a variable she can control. “I’m your coming-out party?”

Dani’s eyes are earnest, her smile bearing no trace of mischief. “I...feel safe with you,” she says quietly. “You know what you’re doing, and I...need my friend tonight. Okay?”

Yes, thinks Jamie without reservation, though her heart is squeezing in her chest. Yes, you need a friend. Better one than me, probably, but I’m what you’ve got, so...in we go.

She does not, as a rule, wander around high schools. There is something eerie about being here after hours, walking among the phantom strains of teenage existence: banners announcing pride in sports teams, welcome-back boards covered in student expectations, trophy cases brimming over with mementos of other people’s success. Jamie feels too old, too tall, too minute to matter, striding along the scuffed tile at Dani’s side.

“Never liked school,” she says, and though her voice is soft, the words still echo. “Dunno how you stomach being back every day.”

She expects Dani to laugh her off, to insist high school was a treasure, but all Dani says is, “Elementary school is easier. Kids make more sense.”

“How?” Jamie is genuinely curious. “Loud, impulsive little shits, aren’t they?”

Now Dani does laugh, tucking a hand through the bend of Jamie’s elbow, and the mere warmth of her fingers around Jamie’s ink-emblazoned forearm is intoxicating. “They can be complicated, but you just...you can’t help loving them. Even the worst ones. It’s just part of the deal.”

She sounds so free, when she talks about her work, as though her passion for teaching is the one thing she’s never had to question. Jamie, who thinks of gardening as an art, who thinks of cultivation as her purpose, can relate. 

“Hey!” They’ve just stepped into the gymnasium, a crowd of perhaps forty adults spread lightly across a beige basketball court. Several are waving to Dani, looking impressed. 

“You,” a beautiful young woman says, kissing Dani’s cheek, “look radiant. I didn’t think we’d see you tonight.”

Dani smiles, looking to the untrained eye pleased to be inspected at so appraisingly by a jury of her peers. “Well, you know Mr. Quint’s view on the matter.”

“Oh,” the woman says, waving a hand, “I’d have talked you out of any trouble with Peter, you know. And who is this?”

Her eyebrows are arched. Jamie is just wondering if perhaps this might be Dani’s first real shot at inviting a woman out--maybe starting familiar is the easiest way in--when Dani says, “This is my friend, Jamie. Jamie, Rebecca Jessel. She’s, ah...”

“You can say it,” Rebecca says, shaking Jamie’s hand. “Currently in the on-again stage of a very complicated relationship with our Mr. Peter Quint.”

Dani’s smile remains magnificent, as though she hasn’t recently professed to Jamie a strong desire to stab Peter Quint in whichever part of his body might bleed most extravagantly. “Yes. That.”

“And speaking of relationships,” Rebecca goes on with expression bordering on delight. “Danielle Clayton. Did you bring a date?”

Jamie winces. Dani does, too, though that might have more to do with her given name than the accusation. 

“No. Yes. Sort of.” She looks hopelessly to Jamie, who takes her hand. 

“Fun for an evening, if nothin’ else, yeah?”

Rebecca looks exceptionally pleased. Dani is turning the precise shade of pink usually reserved for Jamie undressing her over the span of several hours. 

“Well. It’s a stark improvement over that...man, anyway.” Rebecca tips Jamie a wink. “Much more impressive in a suit.”

Jamie allows the auto-pilot to click on, all charm, all showmanship. In fact, she’d managed to select exactly the outfit best suited to Dani’s goal of outing herself without words: a slim-cut jacket, a dark gray dress shirt, a teal tie just wide enough to tempt Dani’s hand. 

Leave them wanting, she thinks ruefully. A philosophy which has never let her down before.

Dani, at least, does not seem to require much assistance in making conversation--and, indeed, seems surprised when Jamie slides seamlessly into chatter about state test scores and the implementation of gentler discipline tactics. 

“Can’t go too easy on them,” Jamie tells a small group, “but nothin’ comes of humiliating the wee gremlins, either. Christ knows, I’d have done better with a firm hand and a soft shoulder, at their age.”

“You never talk about your childhood,” Dani points out when the conversation has dispersed. Jamie shrugs. 

“Seemed a bit private.”

“For me?” Dani frowns. “Jamie--”

Not the time. And go figure that she’d even settle on that bit, on the part of the story most Jamie instead of asking how Jamie had come by all those statistics. Not that she needs to know how many nights Jamie has stayed up, scrolling through education-themed reports and blogs, just in case Dani ever needs to talk about her job someday. 

Just in case Dani ever needs her to listen to something real, someday.

“I think,” she says hurriedly, when Dani’s hand slides up her arm as though to keep her present in this conversation, “we could do with refreshment, mm? Look, your friend Rebecca is over by the--”

“Shit,” Dani hisses. “That’s him.”

“Who?” Jamie turns on her heel, searching for dark curly hair, gold-rimmed glasses. Dani’s expression, however, is less primed for panic, more wallpapered with a bitter edge.

“Peter Quint.”

That?” Jamie scoffs, eyeing the man striding into the room as though his name is painted on the floor. “That’s the twat Rebecca--”

“Shh,” Dani hisses. She has pressed in distractingly close, her perfume winding around what remains of Jamie’s good sense and threatening to shatter it completely. “Shit, fuck, he’s looking over here.”

“Flip a table,” Jamie suggests under her breath, though it’s too little, too late; the man’s handsome face is splitting into a shark’s grin, his long legs propelling him in their direction. Dani’s hand constricts around her fingers.

"Brace for it,” she hisses, looking grim. “We’re going to be here a while.”

Jamie, who can’t imagine anything less appealing than making small talk with this man--already looking knowingly from her hand in Dani’s to Jamie’s face, from Jamie back to Dani’s dress. His smile is predatory, lingering around breast and hip and leg as though all have been arranged specifically for his pleasure.

How, Jamie thinks with revulsion, does any woman tolerate this?

“Go,” a new voice whispers like something out of a dream, a slim body pushing past. Rebecca, it would seem, has noticed the taut line of Dani’s back, and is acting accordingly. As they watch, she intercepts Peter, a hand on his chest, every inch of her body language captivating. 

“You heard the woman,” Jamie murmurs. “Lead on.”

Dani, to her credit, backs slowly away as though having just thought of something important to show Jamie elsewhere. Dani, to her credit, doesn’t break into a run until they’ve nudged back around the punch table, slipping out the doors with Rebecca shooting a very small thumbs up over Quint’s shoulder.

“She’s a wonder,” Jamie gasps, struggling to keep up with Dani as she tears down the hall. “Christ, how are you so fucking fast in heels?”

“Desperation,” Dani laughs, rounding a corner and dragging Jamie into a room. “Here, shh, keep the lights off.”

“Isn’t he going to notice? That you went up in smoke?”

“With Becca wrapped around him?” Dani snorts. “Not likely.”

“She seems too good for him,” Jamie observes, glancing through the window set into the door for signs they’ve been followed. Nothing. She leans back, exhaling. “Think you’re home free, for now.”

“Hope so,” Dani breathes, rubbing her forehead. “I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have dragged you to this. Just--“

“Not a worry.” A lie. Maybe the first lie she’s outright told Dani, because this is a problem. Dani thinking only of her for something as public as this is a problem. Dani, who shouldn’t be--

“I shouldn’t be using you for this,” Dani says, as if reading her mind. Jamie frowns, tipping her head, unwilling to interrupt as she goes on. “You’re not…here to help me come out. That’s not on you.”

“Friend,” Jamie reminds her, though Dani should absolutely be here--practically on a date, she recognizes with a thrill of misery--with someone she genuinely wants to introduce to people. Not Jamie. Not this parody of a relationship she’s allowed them to build because it feels good for her.

“Exactly,” Dani says with a thin relief. “You’re my friend, and you deserve better than to be a human shield between me and my…my letting them see me. I’m sorry. I won’t do it again.”

She won’t; Jamie will make sure of it, for both of their sakes. She won’t, because she’s sorry even though shouldn’t be, and Jamie absolutely should, and it’s all too muddled to go over in this dark room. Best to fall back on old standbys, she thinks. Best to take a step back, for just a little bit longer, from the truth.

“What else are friends for?” she says easily, taking Dani by the shoulders. “I am, as ever, here to help. Now. Be honest. This was just a master plan to get me alone in a bloody classroom, wasn’t it?”

It’s entirely meant to be a joke, though when Dani winds her tie around one hand and pulls her close, it seems significantly less funny.

“Would be much more fun than going back out there, wouldn’t it?”

Her smile is sweet and undeniable, her body winding in as though by some force of gravity neither is strong enough to avoid. Shouldn’t, probably. Shouldn’t, though there are some things Jamie simply isn’t able to step back from in the moment. She will do it, after. She will have to, after. It’s too late to pretend she doesn’t know better.

But first. First, Dani looking at her with unabashed want. First, Dani smiling at her the way only Dani can.

One more night, Jamie reminds herself, though she’d been planning for Dani’s dress on her bedroom floor. One more time, she reminds herself, though she’d thought it would involve Dani’s perfume on her sheets. 

Once more, for luck, she thinks, as Dani pulls her into a kiss that feels too much like coming home to let this go on another day.

She lets herself sink, lets her hands roam around Dani’s back. There’s a fever in Dani tonight, and she’s grateful for it--grateful that Dani is not embracing the languid, all the time in the world mentality so many of their recent engagements have possessed. Those are so much more dangerous, all sensual slide, all long kiss and familiar stroke. Those nights leave Jamie feeling as though she never needs to ask another question, never needs to set another boundary, just so long as Dani keeps touching--teasing--loving her. 

But she doesn’t, she reminds herself, and nights like this force her to remember. Nights with Dani yanking her in, hands fervent, kiss bruising. Nights with Dani unbuttoning her shirt in fluid, desperate motions, Dani letting her head fall back against Jamie’s hand when Jamie rotates her back against the blackboard. 

Nights like this, with fire in her blood, with desire running the show, are what Jamie has always preferred. Nights with a woman panting in her ear, painted nails scraping down her neck, straddling Jamie’s thigh. Nights with Dani’s dress falling soft over her wrist, her fingers searching for underwear and finding nothing but eager readiness. 

She raises her eyebrows, and Dani grins. There is no shyness, no apology, only the trust if she keeps surprising Jamie this way, Jamie will keep coming back for more. 

She wants to. She wants to so badly, it’s an ache in her chest--and she channels it into Dani now, turning her to face the board, catching her hands and pinning them in place. Dani utters a very soft laugh, leaning her head back to nip at the side of Jamie’s neck. 

“In a classroom,” Jamie murmurs. “Really. Is there nothing sacred?”

“It’s not my classroom,” Dani gasps back. “That would have been uncouth.”

Jamie laughs. It almost isn’t fair, how much fun she can have with this woman. Almost isn’t fair, how knowing Dani this well--knowing how she’ll wait for Jamie with feigned patience, so long as Jamie presses against her back, but if Jamie pulls away, she’ll be all grabbing hands and insistent groan in seconds. Knowing how she’ll bow her head against the board when Jamie kisses the back of her neck, shivering when Jamie sweeps parted lips along her shoulders, her back, all the softness on display through gaps in the dress. How she’ll say Jamie’s name once, very quietly, in the sort of voice that implies Jamie needs to be touching her within seconds, or she’ll go mad. 

That’s the voice Jamie hears sometimes, going about her normal life. That voice, rough and sweet and wanting, echoing through her memory without warning. That, and Dani’s hands, Dani’s eyes, Dani’s smile--

She growls into the back of Dani’s shoulder, one hand sliding under the gaping neckline of Dani’s dress. Dani, true to the evening’s form, has opted out of all undergarments, and the rough slide of Jamie’s palm makes her gasp. 

“Honestly,” Jamie says, unable to hide the desire twisting her sense into knots. “You just wanted this.”

“Is that so bad?” Dani is trying to turn back around, trying to catch Jamie’s lips. Jamie leans back, just out of reach, squeezing less gently than normal until Dani arches. 

“You tell me.”

Dani makes a dark little noise when Jamie presses a hand over her own, and Jamie is suddenly sure they’re both back in the stock room of the shop, Dani bent over a rack--and in her bedroom, Dani gripping the headboard--and in a dressing room, Dani’s knuckles stark around a railing for balance. She is abruptly aware of how many times Dani has given herself over this way, how many times Dani has yanked her into dark corners, teased Jamie’s hand up her skirt, kissed Jamie until there was no breath left in either of them to speak. 

How many times she’s lowered herself down on Jamie’s fingers this way, pushing back into each thrust, turning her face against her own arm to force quiet. How many times she’s dug a hand backward into Jamie’s hair, dragging her mouth to suck painfully at shoulder, at that spot that makes her twitch and sigh, knowing how easily it can be concealed with clothing the next day. 

Jamie bites down, channeling it all into the rough plunge of two fingers, adding a third when Dani says her name in that perfect, agonizing way only Dani ever has. Last time, she tells herself. Last time, for both of us. It’s the right way, the only way, to keep Dani from finding out how badly wrong this has gone. 

She feels Dani’s hand flex under her own, fingers spreading wide, Jamie’s notching instinctively between against the board. 

“You’ll think of this,” she says into Dani’s skin, aware Dani has heard her only when Dani moans. “You’ll think of me, sometimes, won’t you?”

A plea, not a command. A desperate allowance she gives herself only once, as Dani shatters, as Dani nods wildly and turns to kiss her. This time, she lets it happen, lets Dani shift around and drag her into the longest kiss of her life. 

Think of me, she begs silently, as Dani shoves her into a chair and kneels before her. Think of me, as Dani unbuckles her belt. Think of me, please, like it ever mattered, with Dani urging her trousers down her hips, bending to kiss lightly along the waistband of her boxers. 

“You--don’t have to,” she pants, heat working into every inch of skin as Dani’s hand pushes her half-undone shirt higher. “You--are you sure--”

Dani is nodding, though there is something hesitant about it--fear, Jamie understands instinctively. The fear that she’ll get it wrong. The fear that it’ll go south. This isn’t how Jamie expected it to go, all those times Dani had talked about it--I want to, I really do. I dream about it sometimes, but it’s so…

Big, she hadn’t said, though Jamie could sense it. A sort of tip over moment, in Dani’s head, and even if Jamie knows it doesn’t change anything, even if bending over a woman this way is second-nature to Jamie by now, she remembers the shivering anticipation of the thing. Remembers finding it all so new, so intoxicating, she’d once thought she’d cry with the stress of it all.

Dani, the way she’s looking at her now--that wild combination of fear and desire she gets in public, in all the spots around the city Jamie had thought she’d balk from--is feeling that same strain. She’s almost positive. Dani is so easy to read after all this time, the arch of brow and lips and shoulders like a well-loved book.

“You don’t have to,” she repeats, firmly this time, and she thinks for a moment Dani will stop here. Dani will nod and stand up, and they’ll get one final evening in Jamie’s bed. One last time, where things are safe--warm--too much like home.

Instead, Dani is reaching up, taking her hand, guiding it to her face. Jamie closes her eyes, letting her thumb grace cheekbone, letting herself paint into memory the exact curve of jaw, the exact slope of nose, the exact way Dani holds her fingers against the flush of her own skin.

“Help me,” she says, so softly, Jamie almost doesn’t hear it. “Help me do it right.”

She almost recoils--almost says, This isn’t the place. But why shouldn’t it be? Dani, who keeps coming to these surprises with such determination, who keeps trying new things and new places because she trusts Jamie to hold her hand through it all. Because Jamie is, for better or worse, one of the firmest figures in her life. Because she needs courage, needs to prove her own bravery to herself, and because sometimes a person can’t do that much without a friend’s hand.

Friend. Just a friend. Just a--

She lets her hand delve into Dani’s hair, lets herself apply gentle pressure, and Dani all but folds into her with relief. It isn’t the place, Jamie thinks, and maybe that’s why. Maybe because this night has been all manner of too much as it is--Jamie on her arm at a work function like she could ever belong here, Jamie chatting with her colleagues like she could ever fit in, Jamie taking her in a classroom like it was ever supposed to go this way. In every moment of this, it shouldn’t be Jamie. In every beat, it shouldn’t be Jamie.

For six months, maybe, it shouldn’t have been Jamie. Even if Dani doesn’t know it yet.

In another world, it’s someone Dani can reach, holding her by the hair. In another time, it’s someone Dani actually chose, guiding her in. In another life, it’s someone Dani really could love, someone Dani really could want, someone Dani really could have, leaning back and letting this unfold.

Dani deserves that. Dani will get that, if Jamie has even the slightest bit of say, because Dani should know--Dani should know what it is to be chosen by someone good enough. Someone who has never locked themselves away. Someone brave enough to open the goddamn door.

In the meantime, on this one final occasion, Jamie can be this. An education. A teacher. A memory.

God, please remember me.

Dani’s hair is soft under her fingers, and Jamie is letting her head fall back, and she is pleading, Remember me. With Dani’s fingers dragging boxers down, Dani’s mouth exploring with obvious apprehension. With Dani tasting her for the first time, making a low sound of surprised pleasure. With Dani pushing against her, curious and hopeful and more than a little needy.

She doesn’t need Jamie’s help--for the newness of it, for whatever clumsiness she brings, it doesn’t much matter. It’s her. It’s her, grinning with self-effacing delight when she leans back and looks up at Jamie for confirmation. It’s her, closing her eyes, dipping her head, offering an experimental kiss that drags a groan from Jamie’s chest. It’s her, and even as she’s picking up speed--licking in short, excited little bursts that make Jamie feel as though she might explode, in long strokes with more confidence than Jamie can handle--she’s unlike anyone else.

She doesn’t need Jamie to lead the way--she’s following the breathless tilt of Jamie’s hips, the quickening riot of her breath, the clench of the fingers coiled in her hair with the practiced ease of a woman who may not know this, but certainly knows Jamie. Knows, all too well, how Jamie’s muscles flex as she rockets toward the edge. Knows, all too well, how Jamie’s breath catches on a whimper when she’s taken by surprise. Knows, all too well, how incapable Jamie is of hanging on when she raises blue eyes and Jamie can tell she’s smiling against her skin.

Don’t forget, she thinks with mounting desperation, closing her eyes, giving up entirely to the moment. One last night. One last night, and then she will be better. For Dani. For her own sanity. One last night, and she will start doing things right. 

Dani looks up at her, mischief and pride mingling in her bright gaze, and Jamie genuinely isn’t sure she’s ever going to be able to remember anyone else. 

It is, she is painfully positive, entirely too late to turn back.

Chapter Text

September is here at last, carrying school in its wake, and Dani Clayton has planned for quite a lot. A classroom of new kids with new problems and passions to sort out. A host of new projects to hand out. Autumn in a new apartment, watching the sun filter in unfamiliar ways as the days grow shorter. She’s planned for it all, and it feels good

The only thing that doesn’t--the only thing she doesn’t quite expect--is the way Jamie is looking at her right now.

“You want to stop?” she repeats, trying to pitch her voice at a level appropriate for a woman who hasn’t just been thrown off-kilter with a sentence. Jamie scratches her head.

“Think we should, yeah.”

“Okay,” Dani says slowly, though it very much isn’t. “Okay...can you...tell me why?”

It’s weird, the look on Jamie’s face--like someone else is puppeteering her body, someone else writing a script against her will. “I just...I’m not comfortable with the idea that you’re using me to hide from what you really want, s’all.”

Since when? Dani thinks desperately. Certainly hadn’t felt like Jamie was uncomfortable a few days ago, rocking up to meet her with those gorgeous notes of need falling from her lips. Certainly hadn’t felt at all like discomfort, when Dani had leaned back, a little sheepish at her own bravado, and said, “Was that--I mean, first time--didn’t sneeze, so--“

Jamie had laughed, the sound shuddery and perfect in the dark, and she’d nearly fallen out of the chair in her rush to pull Dani into a kiss. It had felt, at the time, like a new beginning. It had felt, at the time, like something Dani didn’t dare look at too closely, even with the warmth of Jamie curling around her in a tight embrace.

And then, a few days of being too busy to meet up--Jamie, at the shop; Dani, preparing for the new school year. A few days of normal texts, of Jamie telling her what she was making for dinner, of Dani sending photos of the bulletin boards she’d finished. Simple. Normal. The way it’s been for ages.

“You aren't--comfortable,” she says now, her voice sounding flat to her own ears. Jamie, hands in her pockets, shrugs. “Did I--I mean, did I do something to make you feel uncomfortable? Was it…” Couldn’t have been. Could it? That bad? “Jamie, if I was that terrible the other night, I can always…you can teach me to--“

“Not that,” Jamie says, so vehemently, Dani almost recoils. “No, that was…that was fantastic. You’re fantastic. It’s not about that. It’s about…” She seems to be casting around for the right explanation, grimacing. “I want you to have an easier time of it.”  

“Can you...clarify that, a little?” Calm, she reminds herself. Calm and breezy, like I have any goddamn idea what she means. Like it doesn’t matter either way.

It does. Jamie looking at her like this, with the most obvious anxiety she’s shown since Dani’s known her, matters a lot. 

“Look,” Jamie says, and Dani fights the urge to follow her lips as they form the words. “It’s been six months. Six really great months.”

Really great, she says, and Dani wonders if this is how she’s let all the others down in the past. You’ve been great, this has been really lovely, think it’s best we go our separate--

“Dani?” 

“Yes,” she says, utterly unaware of what she’s just agreed to. Jamie nods. 

“Right. Glad we’re on the same page. Because, look, I know it’d be easier to just keep--and I’d be happy to, really, because it’s...it’s really good. You and me. But you can’t keep warding off the real stuff forever, can you?”

Real stuff. Real stuff, like--

“Dating,” Dani says flatly. “You think I need to start dating.”

“Well...yeah.” She’s honestly never seen Jamie look this young before, this out of her element. “I know, I know you've been saying soon, but--soon's one of those things that can be pushed off forever, if you're not careful. I don't want...to be the cause of that, for you. Anyway, wasn’t this always the idea? Eventually?”

It was, she has to admit, at the start. It was very much the idea, back before she’d started waking each morning with Jamie’s smile in mind, going to sleep each night wishing for Jamie in her bed. Before she’d realized sex can be a terribly inconvenient gateway to other things, no matter how casual things are kept.

“You don’t date,” she points out, feeling a little childish, but unable to stop herself. Jamie’s mouth twitches. 

“Think we’ve already talked about how you shouldn’t take all your cues from me, haven’t we?”

This is stupid. This is stupid, and she should say so. Jamie is clearly doing this for her, out of some misplaced sense of chivalry, and she should just point that out now so they can go back to having perfectly-engaging sex without ever looking too closely at what it’s doing on the subject of feelings.

Right, she thinks tiredly. Because that’s been going so well. 

"If I try--” She’s going to regret this, she can already tell. “If I try, will you stop blaming yourself for my lack of a love life?” 

“If you try,” Jamie agrees, “we can see what happens. Whatever you want. But try, Dani. Don’t you think you owe yourself a shot at real happiness?”

It’s tempting to argue, if only because the idea of Jamie lecturing anyone about letting happiness in is laughable--but Dani can’t deny it. Not knowing full-well why she’d made that promise to herself in the first place. Not knowing how close she’d already come once to living for other people, for ease and comfort, instead of what she really needed.

“One month,” she says. “I will try for one month.”

“Can’t find love in a month,” Jamie protests. Dani laughs.

“Found you by walking into a flower shop at random, didn’t I? Pretty sure there are no rules on the subject.”

She expects Jamie to grin, to spout off some cocky one-liner about being a once-in-a-blue-moon experience. Jamie only nods, her hands in her pockets, her posture weirdly rigid.

“Fair enough. Right. New rules. For one month, you accept every number you find remotely interesting. You will call those numbers. You have to give it an honest shot. Find a girl who…who agrees with you, and try.

“One month,” Dani agrees. “I’ll try. And in the meantime, no sex.”

“No sex.” Jamie frowns, rubbing her cheek thoughtfully. “With me, I mean. Can do what you like with anyone else, obviously.”

“Obviously.” Her stomach is doing unpleasant little barrel rolls at the idea. The notion that there are other women out there, other bodies she could invite into a bed Jamie has never seen, other hands seeking her out, is…anxiety-inducing. Too new. Too weird. Too not Jamie. “And you can return your full attention to your hoard of over-invested Instagram models.”

“I’m not sure they’ll be interested,” Jamie says blithely, “now they’ve gotten all those glimpses of my secret affair in the background.”

Dani snorts. She’s seen the photos Jamie is referencing, and how the women in the comments go just as wild for an earring or a peacoat as for lingerie. It’s the idea that Jamie might actually care for someone, she thinks, that they find so scandalous. The idea that anyone might have tricked Jamie out of her easy-come, easy-go philosophy of impermanence. 

Imagine.

“And we...?” She shouldn’t be pushing. Push much harder, and Jamie going to see in her eyes what she’s really asking. “Do we...stop hanging out?”

“Naked,” Jamie says. “Yeah. The rest of it?”

Dani nods. Jamie shrugs.

“Think we’re both mature enough to handle a perfectly platonic transition, don’t you?”

***

Jamie is not nearly mature enough for this. 

She doesn’t know how Dani is doing it. Doesn’t quite understand how Dani has taken six months of physical habit and just...switched it off. It’s for the best, certainly--if Dani were struggling as she is, they’d have broken the all-important new rule hours into the agreement--but, for Jamie, it’s misery.

She’s never felt this before. Not in a long, long time, anyway--and though she’d thought it would be hard, making this decision for the both of them a week ago, she hadn’t expected it to weigh quite this heavy. Hadn’t expected every night to be littered with dreams of Dani pushing her into a chair--Dani dancing with her in the rain--Dani’s smile the cleanest, brightest kind of light. It was meant to be difficult; it wasn’t meant to feel like someone slicing down to the bone every time she looks at her bed and finds it empty.

The right thing, she reminds herself coldly. The right thing for her. Dani deserves more than to view herself as fun for Jamie. Dani deserves someone who can open up and give her everything. 

Dani deserves to let herself look for it, at least, and she won’t do that with Jamie holding her attention hostage. This was always going to be temporary. 

Another time, she tells herself, each time she wakes with the urge to reach for Dani. Another night. She leaves the maybe unspoken, the no promises unformed. Some things just hurt too much to look at directly.

Anyway, at least Dani is still here. Dani is still coming round the shop after work, leaning on Jamie’s counter, chatting her ear off about the cute, maddening things kids do. She’s still texting Jamie on her lunch break--Plans tonight?--and coming up to help prepare dinner. 

She’s just...doing it all with her clothes on.

For the best, Jamie thinks, though the flat is consistently over-warm these days, her skin overly tight. Dani, who could never be accused of coming to a situation with only half of her determination, has promised she will try to date, and she seems intent on following through.

Which does not mean she lacks questions.

“Okay,” she’s saying, leaning forward on the couch. “But pretend I’m not you. Just for argument’s sake.”

“Don’t have to try hard there,” Jamie says wryly, sipping her beer. It’s been good, lately, to have a drink in hand. Ensures her fingers won’t go edging across into Dani’s space. 

Dani, for her part, keeps inching into Jamie’s as though totally unaware she’s doing it. Her knee is pressed lightly to Jamie’s leg, her hands folded in her lap. “Okay, smartass. I’m serious. How do you choose who to call?”

“Choose?” Jamie repeats, and grins when Dani prods her hard in the kneecap. “Okay, okay. I don’t know, how do you choose who to make conversation with in a crowded room?”

“I don’t,” Dani says. “And neither do you, I’ve watched you in enough crowded rooms. Don’t you always say they’re exhausting?”

Jamie makes a face. “You know what I mean. How’d you choose me, even? And don’t,” she adds when Dani opens her mouth, “say it’s ‘cause I was the only gay woman available. We both know you wouldn’t have done it if that were all there was to the thing.”

She watches Dani mull it over, elbow propped against the back of the couch, head resting on her fist. “You have kind eyes,” she says at last. “Don’t laugh--you do. And I liked the way you looked at me.”

“And how’d I look at you?”

Dani smiles. “Like you were really listening when I spoke. Like whatever I said, even if it was crazy--especially if it was crazy--you wouldn’t shut me out.”

“Right.” Jamie clears her throat. Dani’s hand is just there, just within reach. She closes her fingers more tightly around her beer bottle. “So, just do that. Call the one with the, ah, kindest eyes.”

Dani is gazing at her, lips parted, and Jamie thinks, Maybe this was all easier said than done. Maybe this was all very, very stupid. Dani’s hand is still there, Dani’s knee pressing a little harder into her, and all she’d have to do is--

"So, what do I need to change?”

“Change?” Jamie repeats blankly. “I don’t follow.”

“You know.” Dani gestures, a broad up-down of her hand to take in the whole of Jamie. “You’re my dating guru, what do I need to change to...”

“To get women to notice you?” Jamie coughs out a small laugh, aware that it sounds almost bitter. “Dunno if you’ve noticed, but you...don’t seem to have much trouble with that.”

“Right,” Dani says impatiently. “Because I’m with you. Because you look...” Again with the gesture. Jamie wonders dimly if this is what going mad feels like. 

“Are you really suggesting women have only been giving you their phone numbers because I supply some kind of...lesbian street cred?”

“Of course not.” The flush along her cheeks suggests otherwise. Jamie fights down a grin. “No, it’s just--I mean, I don’t look like you. Or walk like you. My nails aren’t...as...short.”

Still fighting down a laugh, Jamie says, “Well, sure, you’re not constantly striving to keep dirt out from under ‘em, are you?”

“Seriously.” Dani is starting to laugh too, and thank god, they can still do this. Thank god, they can still talk like normal human beings, like everything is fine, like Jamie’s heart isn’t crashing out of her chest at the idea of Dani going off in search of other women without her sitting across the table. “Seriously, should I--I don’t know, walk slower?”

“You walk fine,” Jamie says, the words jouncing along with unfiltered amusement. “And you dress fine, and you’re beautiful on your worst day, Dani, it’s fine.”

Fine. Sure. And she isn’t staring at Dani’s fingers, curled into a light fist, remembering the pleasant sting of those nails raking down her back. 

“Look,” she says hastily, trying not to remember a time not long ago on this very floor, how Dani had looked covered in sweat and Jamie and nothing more. "You’re overthinking it. Don’t change a fuckin’ thing, okay?”

Dani opens her mouth. Seems to think better of it. Nods. 

“You just need to be open-minded,” Jamie says, like she’s remotely equipped to be giving this kind of advice. “They’ll come flocking in, I guarantee it. And, hey, what about that friend of yours--the one who wants to set you up?”

“Are you going to take your friend up on that blind date?” Dani asks dryly. Jamie raises her hands, leaning back in surrender.

“Fair enough. Let’s just...let’s just stick to the open-minded thing, then.”

“Open,” Dani repeats. “Right. This is going to be...great.”

***

This is going to be a nightmare.

“What about that one?” Jamie is beginning to drive her crazy, pointing out every woman in the room. She’s trying, Dani understands--trying surprisingly hard, all things considered, carefully assessing strangers from across the room in an endless bid to find one who is Right For Dani. And she’s not doing a terrible job. The women she is drawing Dani’s attention to look just fine--pretty without being intimidatingly so, with soft features and warm smiles.

It’s Dani who can’t seem to get her head in the game.

“She’s...tall,” Dani says dumbly, eyeing the most recent target of Jamie’s observation. Jamie raises an eyebrow.

“Tall. That’s all you’re getting.”

“I don’t know!” Her voice is too loud, pitching over the steady murmur of bar conversation. “I don’t know, Jamie, this seems...”

“Look, you can’t always wait for them to come to you. Best way to make sure you’re engaging with someone you really like is to jump right in.”

She has so much advice, Jamie, and all Dani wants to say is, Okay, but why would I look for anyone else when you’re right here? All Dani wants to do is grab Jamie by the shoulders, stare into her eyes, blurt, I know it’s against the rules, but I don’t want any of them, I already found what I want, and it’s--

Not something Jamie wants to hear. 

Something that might, in fact, alienate Jamie altogether.

“I don’t think she’s the one,” she says instead. Jamie frowns.

“Why not?”

Dani points. The woman in question--tall, curvy, admittedly very much someone Dani would have been too nervous to look at directly in college--is bending to kiss a young man in a beanie. Jamie shrugs.

“Right, no harm done. What about--”

“Jamie,” Dani interrupts, “can we just...give it a rest, for tonight?”

It isn’t fair--Jamie really is doing her best, all high-energy smiles and conspiratorial tones--but she’s tired. The idea of sitting at this bar, nursing a drink she doesn’t really want, while Jamie tries to help her right into some stranger’s bed is exhausting. All she wants--all she really wants--is to go back to Jamie’s, let easy conversation become easier kisses, let herself fall back in time a week to Jamie being the most reliable force in her life.

You did say you’d try. But there’s trying, she thinks, and then there’s sitting next to Jamie like this place isn’t theirs. Like she can look around this bar and see a single woman through the ghosts of Jamie ordering drinks, Jamie spinning her on the dance floor, Jamie slipping out the back door with her to make out against the alley wall. 

I can’t do this with you sitting here, she thinks, but what is the alternative? To tell Jamie to go? To push away the last of what Jamie is willing to give her--this friendship without the benefits, this insight to who Jamie really is? She can’t make herself do that, no matter how hard this all is. It’s just a step too far.

“I’m pushing too hard,” Jamie says, sipping her drink. “Aren’t I?”

“No, it’s not that.” What is it, then--what is it that Jamie can understand? “It’s just...it feels weird. I haven’t dated in...ever, really, and going out to pick women up in bars? It just doesn’t feel like...me.”

Jamie, politely, does not point out how Dani has conveniently lost every number she’s been given, has gently said, “No thank you” to the few women who have tried their hand over the past few months. Jamie, politely, only sips her drink and lays a hand gently over Dani’s on the bar. 

“Nothing to be ashamed of, you know.”

“You’re right, though,” Dani says, watching Jamie’s fingers play across her knuckles. Her breath seems to be tightening, her leg angling instinctively toward Jamie’s stool. “You’re right, I need to...get out there. Probably.”

Because, if she doesn’t, it’s never going to feel right. Because, if she doesn’t, she’s just going to spend her entire life thinking about Jamie’s hand, Jamie’s laugh, Jamie’s easy conversation. The way Jamie doesn’t even seem to realize she’s doing this now, her touch so certain, it utterly slips her attention. The way Dani herself almost doesn’t think anything of it, it’s so--

“Ah,” Jamie says, her voice twisting tight, her eyes fixed on the enormous pane of glass behind the bar. “Bad news.”

Dani looks up sharply, following her gaze, and ice settles in her stomach. No, come on, not tonight. “What is he doing here?”

It shouldn’t surprise her, really, to find Eddie in the mirror. It shouldn’t surprise her at all, because Eddie has finally, finally stopped calling. Her phone has gone blessedly silent, save for texts from Hannah--The children miss you, dear, you really should come by for dinner--and her mother--Danielle, when are you going to invite me to see the new place?--and Jamie herself. Her world is smaller than it’s ever been, warmer and sweeter, and of course, that would give Eddie license to stomp right back into it at a moment’s notice.

“How’s the exit look?” she mumbles into her drink. Jamie cranes around her to check, brow furrowed.

“Bridal party, looks like. Gonna be here a minute.”

Dani swears. Jamie’s hand is still over hers, and this could be so simple if Jamie were anyone else. This could be so simple, so easy, if she thought Jamie would--

“Comin’ over,” Jamie intones, eyes on the mirror. Dani resists the impulse to drop her head against the bar.

“Danielle.”

“Edmund,” she replies, and wonders if she could get away with an entire conversation held with his reflection. Probably not. She sighs, turns, looks him in the eye for the first time in over six months. “How are you?”

We were friends once, she wants to say. Can’t we just erase all the bad and remember that? She can feel Jamie tensing slightly beside her, reading the crackle of energy on the air, preparing for whatever blow Eddie might release, and thinks, Will this be us, too? Someday down the line, will I be looking at you, thinking the same thing?

Eddie is squinting at Jamie, clearly trying to place her. “You’re familiar. We’ve met.”

“Florist,” Jamie says. His expression hardens. 

“Right. From when we...” Back to Dani, back to the task at hand. “You made friends with the woman who was going to do our wedding, Danielle?”

You have no idea, she thinks, pricked by the sudden wild urge to laugh. "I needed a friend.”

“A friend,” he repeats. “You needed a friend. You, who dumped me.”

“If you came over to pick a fight, you can just--”

“I’m not picking a fight,” he says coldly. “I’m trying to have a conversation. Which you keep avoiding, like a child, Danielle.”

“Hey,” Jamie says, very quietly. Dani squeezes her hand. 

“It’s all right.”

“I just want to talk to you,” Eddie says, and it’s like they’re teenagers again--like he’s just been shoved in the school hall, worrying over how to explain to his mother how he broke his glasses again. There isn’t even any anger in his voice. Anger, she thinks, would be easier.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” she says, struggling to keep her tone level. Had she really thought the break-up would be it? Would be enough to wash away years of him? Would be simple and clean, a pick-up-and-run to bring her far from his reach? 

She had. She really had, though she can’t imagine why, staring up at him now. 

“There’s nothing to talk about? What do you mean, there’s--you just disappeared, Danielle, like it was nothing, and you’re telling me now I don’t have a right to--”

“Hey,” Jamie says, a little louder. “Reckon that’s enough.”

“Oh?” Eddie says in a voice just this side of a sneer. “Do you? Because you’re such good friends, now, huh?”

There is something to be said, Dani thinks, for Jamie’s posture in this moment. For how she doesn’t push to her feet, doesn’t straighten up, doesn’t even smile. She’s just looking at Eddie like he barely counts for anything at all.

“Give it up, mate,” she says calmly. “It’s over.”

Eddie is not, by nature, a fighter. It doesn’t live in his blood, the impulse to puff out his chest and search for a target. Maybe he’s changed over the past few months, or maybe he’s reading something in Jamie’s expression he understands better than he’d like. Either way, the anger sweeping into his face now is almost alarming. “I don’t know where you get off--”

Step in. Step in, make a choice now, or keep running from this forever.

“She’s right,” Dani says. Her heart is thunder in her ears, but she feels strangely calm, despite that fact. It might be the wine. It might just be the weight of Jamie’s hand, the distance of her shoulder inches away. “We’re not doing this, Eddie. I can’t stop you coming into places where I...but that doesn’t mean we need this.”

“Maybe I do,” he says, almost helplessly. “Maybe I need it, Danielle. You just left.”

“I did.” And I’d do it again, every time, because anything less would be unfair to both of us. Someday, I think you’ll see that. “I loved you, Eddie. I did. Maybe always will, in a certain way, but you know it wasn’t right. Didn’t you? All along, deep down?”

His mouth opens. Closes. That strange anger, fitting so badly around his mouth and eyes, seems to flare again. He wants this. He craves this, if only to keep her talking a little longer.

She can’t. Not anymore. She thinks she’d be doing this even without Jamie beside her, willing to sort it out if need be. Jamie, who has only ever preached today, who has only ever tried to impart the fact of Dani’s own agency, would fight for her all the same.

It is invigorating, this mad discovery that Dani doesn’t need her to.

“It’s done, Eddie,” she says in the calmest voice she can muster. “It’s been done.”

“Because of,” he begins, acid dripping from every syllable, and she shakes her head to cut him off. Raises her glass to her lips. Takes a slow sip.

“It’s just me and you, Eddie. Only ever was, and you know it. I left for me. In a way, I left for you, too. This? Dragging it out? It isn’t healthy, for either of us. It’s time to admit that. Go.”

He looks, for a moment, too willing to fight back. He looks, for a moment, more willing than ever to argue her down to nothing. He’d been so close to it, so many times, over the years.

And then, abruptly, it all washes away. He looks, for just a single moment, like her friend again when his shoulders slump and his head bows, and she thinks, Shouldn’t have taken this. Shouldn’t have been this hard. 

“I’m sorry about that,” she tells Jamie when he has slouched off to a table far from the bar. “I really...hoped he’d just...”

“Get over it?” Jamie suggests. Dani sighs. 

“Was never going to happen, was it?”

“Not bloody likely,” Jamie says, grinning a little. She carefully takes back the hand that has been mindlessly holding Dani’s and wraps it around her drink again, adding, “You did great, though. Really great.”

"Not like last time, right?” Dani regrets the words instantly when Jamie’s eyes glaze over, the memory folding around them both. Last time, in Owen’s cafe. Last time, when the only thing standing between her and a full meltdown had been Jamie on her knees. 

Last time, which is suddenly feeling far too long ago, with Jamie’s boot pressing lightly to her ankle, Jamie’s breath visibly catching in her throat. 

“Bad idea,” she says in a low voice. “Isn’t it?”

Dani nods desperately, signaling for another wine.

***

The thing is, it’s not so bad, easing off of the sex. Not so bad as Jamie had feared when she’d suggested it, anyway, wondering if perhaps this would be the thing to break Dani’s attention at last. After all, what else did Dani even want of her, at the start?

Very little. Very little, and rightly so--hadn’t Jamie herself told her to keep her distance, to allow Jamie her boring little life of strange women and upheld walls?

She’d thought cutting off the physical aspect of the relationship would send Dani running, but so far, Dani seems intent on remaining a fixed point in her life. The first person Jamie’s ever known to put down roots without asking much in return, now that she thinks of it. The first person Jamie’s ever known to ask what Jamie needs. 

“At the moment?” She shrugs, feeling moderately trapped by the question. It seems too expansive, with too many possibilities, and--put on the spot--she finds herself unable to land on a single thing. Dani, leaning on the counter, looks amused. 

“Really? Nothing?”

“I’m not--” Jamie grimaces. “I’m not good at that.”

“You’re not good at what? Telling someone what you need?” Dani laughs. “Okay, we both know that isn’t true.”

“That’s different. That is--” Not something she needs to be thinking about just now, with Dani looking at her with such gentle affection. Not a memory she needs--Dani asking breathlessly where Jamie wants her, Dani following with eager delight when Jamie directs her with hands, with voice, with low instruction to touch here, lower, keep it slow, make it last--

She swallows hard. Dani had gotten good fast at following directions, and better still at predicting them in advance. Better still at reading Jamie without needing the words, without needing anything except Jamie’s hand wrapped around her wrist, Jamie’s body urging her on, Jamie sinking into the pleasure as easily as she might a favorite book.

Not something to think about now. Not something she should be thinking about at all, with Dani actively looking outside of this flat for someone who actually suits her. Not the point. “Just not used to anyone asking, is all.”

Dani’s amusement fades, her eyes searching Jamie’s too-neutral expression. “Well. I’m asking. And you should get used to that, ‘cause I’m not planning on going anywhere.”

Planning, Jamie wants to say, means very little to an unkind universe. It’s a bit maudlin, probably, for a pleasant evening. Isn’t Dani’s fault she’s had this sort of day--the kind where she remembers too well what planning once got her. The kind where she can’t stop thinking about the past.

“Talk to me,” Dani suggests, in the tone of voice she uses when she’s about five minutes away from putting her foot down. Jamie grunts. 

“’Bout what?”

“Anything. Your day, which--I’m guessing wasn’t great. Or what you'd like to do tonight. Or...I don’t know, your next tattoo idea. Just talk, Jamie.” She’s reaching out, wiggling her fingers, searching for Jamie’s grip. 

Hands, Jamie thinks ruefully. Still allowed, I suppose. Still safe enough. As if Dani, just by virtue of looking at her with those too-blue eyes could ever be safe. As if Dani, whose sense of safety is maybe the most dangerous goddamn thing about her, hasn’t completely fucked up this whole situation just by being

She takes Dani’s outstretched hand, allowing her to lead the way to the couch, and she thinks, This is how it happens. This is how her resolve finally breaks open. First, Dani’s hand in her own, Dani’s thumb traveling in that familiar arc along her skin. Then, Dani pulling her onto a piece of furniture. Finally, Jamie looking at her--looking at her, and finding herself quite unable to put common sense ahead of the emotional cart. 

Dani has her by the shoulders, is pressing gently down, and Jamie wants to close her eyes. Wants to fall forward into every memory of Dani pushing her down. Wants to run as far as she can from every memory of Dani watching her sink with an expression no other woman has ever worn in her presence. 

She lands on the couch, back against the cushions, elbow resting on the arm. Dani, still standing, smiles. 

“Close. Not quite.”

“Not quite what?” Jamie asks, but Dani is striding out of the room, heading back toward the bedroom like she owns the place. Jamie groans. “Oi--no falling back on bad habits--”

Dani emerges once more, stumbling under the weight of what appears to be Jamie’s entire bedspread. “Stop complaining.”

“What are you doing?” She can’t help the smile. Can’t help the little flutter in her chest that has been cropping inconveniently up whenever Dani starts behaving unpredictably. 

Can’t help the swoop of her stomach, either, when Dani plants herself squarely between her spread knees and leans in. 

“Dani--” Except Dani isn’t moving to kiss her, or coax the shirt over her head, or straddle her lap. Dani, moving with deliberate certainty, is wrapping her in the heavy blanket like she’s expecting Jamie to stay in this exact position until winter has come and gone safely away again. 

“This seems extreme,” Jamie tells her, arms pinned to her body, blanket drifting to brush the floor. Dani frowns. 

“One more thing.”

“Think I’m gonna pass out, you put anything else on me--” Not that Dani is listening. Dani is rummaging in her bag, extracting a laptop, striding back to the couch with her usual on-a-mission power walk. “You’ve gone out of your head, haven’t you? Telling you, the time to find a woman is now, before the lack of proper physical intimacy can drive you--”

Dani flops down beside her, curling her legs under herself, balancing the computer on Jamie’s immobilized lap. “Movie or music?”

“Is the answer going to change you cocooning me like the fuckin’ fly caught in the spider’s--”

“Movie,” Dani decides, popping open the lid and punching in her password. “Explosion or comfort?”

“Dani...”

“I’ll choose again,” Dani warns. “You know I will. And it’ll be in black and white, so don’t test me.” 

Jamie is grinning. “You’re going to do this to your date?”

Dani shakes her head. “Nah. This is reserved for friends only. Great friends who clearly had a terrible day, and aren’t talking, and need a different kind of cheering up. Now, we’re gonna sit back, and we’re gonna watch this, and you’re gonna--”

The web browser, Jamie notes, is already in use, jumping to life at full volume with the waking of the computer. The web browser, which is displaying a video she suspects Dani didn’t actually intend to share with the proverbial class. 

“Think this brand of cinema is off-limits,” she says as lightly as she knows how, like the idea of Dani watching this isn’t doing something untenable to her psyche. Dani slams a hand down on the keyboard, forcing the browser to exit out before the less-than-clothed, less-than-meek women onscreen can complete their goal.

The silence could kill a man, Jamie thinks. The silence could kill her.

“Well,” she says at last. “I’m certainly not one to judge, but if that’s your film of choice, I suspect we’re going to break a couple of rules.”

Dani makes a noise so like strangulation, Jamie has to actually check to make sure she’s all right. She’s sitting with head bowed, hair falling over her face in a curtain, staring blankly at the now-porn-free screen. 

“You’re embarrassed,” Jamie guesses. Dani makes that noise again, more quietly. “You really think there’s any point being embarrassed with me?”

“Friends,” Dani says, like it’s killing her to force the word out. “Didn’t. Mean for that to--”

The difference two weeks make, Jamie thinks almost idly. Two weeks ago, Dani might still have made this entirely-simple error--but she wouldn’t be hiding behind her hair as a result. Pink-cheeked, laughing, she’d have allowed Jamie to restart the video from the beginning, the pair of them making fun of all the stupid bits until the sexy parts grew too focal to ignore. They’d have disappeared into the search for new elements Dani might like, things Jamie hasn’t thought to share yet, exploring yet another new branch of a wonderfully-familiar path.

Two weeks ago, she’d have Dani in her lap, the computer dropped to the side, and neither of them would be contemplating just how confusing it is to put barriers into place after they’ve already mapped an open floor plan.

“Did it help?” she asks, when it becomes abundantly clear Dani isn’t going to say another word without provocation. From the corner of her eye, she sees Dani slowly shake her head. “So, uh...how’re you feeling?”

“I couldn’t watch it,” Dani says. She sounds like she’s speaking through a dream, as though the humiliation of the moment has ejected her from her body and she is now operating on absolute autopilot. “Too...”

“Loud?” Jamie suggests. “Wet? Silly?”

“Fake.” Dani closes her eyes, lets her head fall back against the couch with a sigh. “Reminded me of...before. When I thought--when I thought I couldn’t--”

Jamie understands. Thinks she’s understood for a while why Dani is the way she is--why she doesn’t like to take care of herself, why she’s always been so eager to engage with Jamie when she’s brimming over with feelings she needs to process. 

You need to feel connected, she thinks, knowing she is two weeks past being the right person to say it. You need to look into someone’s eyes, feel them breathe, feel them understanding you while you’re listening to them. You need it to be real, or it’s nothing at all. 

She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, lets her own head drop back beside Dani’s. Two lonely souls, she thinks, with imminently-strained necks. So be it. 

“My mum,” she says, before she can think better of it, “was eighteen when she met my dad. Eighteen. He was twenty-four.”

She can feel Dani shifting, turning her head until her eyes can take Jamie in. Jamie keeps her own firmly shut. 

“Louise and Dennis. Quite the pair, as it turned out. Not that they realized it in time. Not that it stopped ‘em having my brother, Denny--and me--and the baby, after that. Though the baby was…well. The wrong kind of surprise, for Dennis.”

Dani is breathing slowly, at a most gentle remove between Jamie’s closed eyes and her blanket wrapping. Even so, she is sure Dani is trying to make herself as invisible as possible, as though afraid she’ll startle Jamie out of the story.

Little does she seem to realize, Jamie thinks, her mouth off at a sprint now that she’s opened the gate. Little does she seem to realize some stories, once begun, need to be told completely. 

She speaks of coal mines and adultery, of lonely children and bitter choices. She tells Dani about the baby, the accident, the scar. The foster homes. The running. The wrong kind of love, wrapping her up tight in an endless embrace, dumping her behind prison walls when it was finished having its way with her. 

That part, especially. That part, the reason above all reasons she keeps her head down and her heart locked away. A nice girl, who hadn’t been so nice, even while she asked Jamie for her secrets, for her care and attention, for her life. A nice girl, who had been too nice to go down for a mistake, Jamie, it was only ever a mistake. A nice girl, for whom Jamie had lost years of her freedom.

A nice girl, leaving witness marks of her own on Jamie’s life, long after her face had faded to smooth memory. Long after her name stopped mattering, her words and voice and way of walking having grown cobwebs in Jamie’s mind. Long gone, never brought up even as an anecdote again--but she’d lurked, all the same. Haunted, all the same. In every nice girl’s smile. In every pretty set of eyes. In everyone who had tried so hard to dig a crowbar into Jamie’s ribs and pry up the misery.

Dani has never heard so much as a breath of this nice girl, and maybe Dani doesn’t want to hear it now--the authenticity behind Jamie’s boundaries. The fact behind the fiction she’s so carefully crafted to keep safe. Maybe she doesn’t want to know the why, or the who, or the girl who had once run so far, so fast, into a prison cell if it meant keeping the heart of a woman who never really wanted it. Maybe she wants to imagine Jamie was smarter than that. Smarter than streets, and drugs, and a fall that hadn’t been hers to take. Maybe. But what Dani wants of her--what any of them want of her--has no choice but to come up hard against the truth. It’s the danger of staying put.

She tells it all, more than she’s spoken in a single go with Dani in nearly seven months, and she keeps her eyes shut for every word of it. These are things, she senses, she should have told Dani a long time ago. Little fires she should have set, lighting the path Dani was walking, to show exactly where she was doomed to end up. A braver woman would have. A less shattered woman. Dani would have, in her place.

“So, anyway,” she says at last, unaware of whether she’s been speaking for fifteen minutes or five hours. “That’s the long of it, I guess. How I got to be...well. Got lucky, comin’ over here. Fresh slate. Few business classes, a dream. Here I am.”

Here I am with Dani Clayton, who must be thinking it all over by now. Who must be ready to make a different choice by now. Who must be--

The hand cupping her cheek is so familiar, she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to bear the touch of another. She squeezes her eyes shut as hard as she can, dimly aware she has started to cry. 

Over half a year--Dani hasn’t seen this yet.

“Did you tell me all of that,” Dani says softly, leaning her forehead against Jamie’s, “to keep me from having a panic attack about the stupid porn?”

Jamie blusters out a laugh, sounding somewhat crazed to her own ears. Dani nuzzles gently against her nose, her breath warm on Jamie’s parted lips. 

It’s the moment, she thinks. If they’d started differently. If they’d planned this all out to walk in this direction from the start, instead of sprinting backwards over the wrong kind of story. This would be the moment she’d choose Dani, as she’s chosen no one else in years. 

Wrong story, she thinks again, as Dani leans slowly back. Wrong story, and she deserves such a good one. 

“Movie,” she says croakily, opening her eyes, meeting Dani’s too-blue gaze with a small smile. “Something...nice.”

Dani nods. “Nice. You got it.”

***

“Danielle?”

She is never, Dani thinks, going to stop flinching from those letters arranged in such a particular order. Never going to be over how the mere sound of her name drags her spine into alignment, jerks her chin up, curls her lips into a plasticine expression of yes, what can I do for you?

The voice, at least, is unfamiliar. Not her mother, thank Christ, or Eddie, or anyone she recognizes. She searches the produce aisle, wondering if she’s just responded to some mother calling for her wayward child.

“Danielle,” the woman says again, stepping around a bin of watermelon with a curious smile. “Isn’t it? Did I get that wrong?”

“No, it’s, um.” She knows this woman, she’s sure. Black hair, dark eyes, a knowing little grin. Beautiful. Familiar, like running into someone from high school ten years later. “Dani, actually. Usually. I’m sorry, I know we’ve...met.”

“Anita.” The woman extends a hand, her grip smooth and pleasant around Dani’s. “I, uh, did your dress. For the...well.”

She gives Dani an awkward little smile, tapping the finger where a ring hasn’t wrapped in half a year. 

“Oh! Yes. That didn’t...take.”

“I’m sorry,” the woman says, and sounds it--but there’s something about her smile. Something that reminds Dani forcibly of being tied to Eddie’s side, trying not to notice how some women--the brave ones--did smile at one another. 

“Don’t be,” she hears herself say. “It was a long time ago. And, anyway, we wouldn’t have been happy.”

The woman--Anita, the seamstress who had once given Dani an agonizing afternoon of clenched teeth and shaking knees--looks sympathetic. “You did seem...like you didn’t really want to be there. Unless--is that forward? That feels forward.”

Dani laughs. “No, you’re...absolutely right.”

“You look happier now,” Anita adds, and Dani almost says, It’s a wonder what six months in your own skin can do. Too much information, for a stranger--pretty or not. Too much. 

Too much, like thinking about the other night at Jamie’s. She’d swung from mortified--the porn, she hadn’t been able to explain then, had been a terrible mistake, an embarrassing effort to master her body’s impulses without resorting to the minute betrayal of using Jamie’s Instagram feed to do it--to touched by Jamie’s story, to feeling entirely too much all at once. She hasn’t been able to stop thinking about it since, how Jamie leaned hopefully into her hand, how she’d exhaled shaky nerves across Dani’s skin, how Dani had thought for a moment that this would be the time to put it all out there. 

She could have. If she was going to, it should have been then, with Jamie’s nose soft against her own, Jamie’s eyes closed, Jamie’s tears brushed away by the tips of her fingers. It should have been then, if she’d been brave. If she’d been able to surprise herself one more time. 

She hadn’t. Jamie had leaned back, and it had all gone back to the new normal: a movie, her head tucked against Jamie’s bundled-up shoulder, conversation gradually fading into silence. She had woken some hours later on her side, head pillowed in Jamie’s lap, with the blanket having been coaxed open to let her join Jamie inside. 

It had been hard, looking up into Jamie’s sleeping face, her chin resting on her chest, not to just admit it. Hard, not to shake Jamie gently awake and tell her that the other women were never going to count for anything. Not with Jamie here. That she was sorry, but some things just can’t be bottled up forever. 

It had been hard--but she’d kept quiet, somehow. Let herself out of Jamie’s apartment, leaving a note--Sorry for your neck--text me if you want to grab lunch tomorrow--in her wake. 

Jamie hasn’t said much since. A few texts. no time, sorry. shop’s crazy. Dani, fully aware that late September is prime wedding time, can’t fault her for it. 

Can’t help feeling, though, as if part of Jamie’s packed schedule has to do with avoiding her

Paranoid. Maybe. Or maybe this is Jamie’s way of pushing her out of the nest. Keeping her distance so Dani has no choice but to actually try to find a date with someone else. Keeping her distance so that--should Dani fail to find the courage--she’ll have no one to blame but herself. 

You just need to be open-minded, Jamie said, and she’d smiled, and Dani had thought she was capable of it. She really had. Except the month is running rapidly down, and she hasn’t asked a single woman out. Hasn’t been able to make herself dial a single number--though several more have been offered, sometimes with Jamie sitting right there, as though a challenge strange women hadn’t been able to ignore. None of those had seemed like a good reason to jump. Not if they were only doing it because she looked like some kind of prize to be won off of Jamie. 

The month is running out. What happens when it ends, and she can’t say she even tried?

“Would you like to get dinner?” she asks, so suddenly, she hears her words collide like a runaway train with whatever Anita has been saying. 

“Sorry?” Anita says. Dani frowns.

“Not if--I mean, if I read that wrong, let me...know. But if I didn’t...” Oh, what does it matter? Embarrassing herself in front of a woman she’s met exactly once before means nothing. “Would you like to get dinner. With me. Saturday night?”

The woman is blinking at her with obvious confusion, and Dani thinks, Oh, so this is what it feels like, to jump with no wings. 

“I would love to.”

“Sorry, what?” Her mind has already leapt ahead to how she’s going to phrase this to Jamie--Look, I tried, and she wasn’t into it, so can I get my merit badge and go back to normal now?--unprepared for Anita’s actual answer. She doubles back, head shaking. “Wait, that’s a yes?”

“Yes,” Anita says, smiling. “You sound surprised.”

“I’ve--never gotten a yes before. Well. Never asked before, I...guess. Huh.” It’s like watching a science experiment unfold, she thinks--like the kids’ faces when she tells them exactly how the volcano will erupt, watching it sink in only when baking soda meets vinegar at last. “Wow.”

“Wow,” the woman agrees, still smiling. “You know, I didn’t think you were...playing for this team.”

And you flirted anyway, Dani thinks with marginal awe. Jamie would be proud. 

Jamie is going to be proud.

She’s going to have to tell Jamie.

***

“Saturday? This Saturday?” Jamie is grateful her back is to Dani, half buried in her wardrobe. Her voice, miraculously, does not tremble, though her teeth are clenched. “That’s--that’s amazing, Dani.”

Dani, perched on her bed, sounds absolutely terrified. She’s sounded like this for ten minutes, ever since bursting into Jamie’s flat like someone had wound her up and let her go. 

Watching her push past, marching toward the bedroom on a mission, Jamie had thought this evening was going to go rather differently. Back to normal, maybe--Dani, fed up with trying to walk this path Jamie has lined up for her, fed up with Jamie telling her what she should and shouldn’t do. It would be fair, probably. Jamie wouldn’t be able to resist, probably.

Now, with Dani swaying on the edge of the mattress, hugging herself around the chest, she feels guilty for even considering it. Guilty for even thinking, for a moment, that Dani was coming back. 

You did this, she reminds herself, threading a hanger through a shirt and putting it neatly in its place. You told her to do this. Only thing for it is to be happy for her.

“What are you wearin’?”

She winces--that phrase in particular grazes old territory, too much like how she used to send teasing texts of exactly that sort and wait for Dani to discover them on her lunch break. If it bothers Dani now, she makes no mention of it.

“I don’t...know. Oh god. Oh god, what do I wear?”

A skirt, Jamie thinks automatically, furious with her body for responding with a swell of instant heat. No, not a skirt. A fucking pantsuit. Pajamas. Overalls. Fuck. Not a single helpful idea among them, though each calls to mind pleasant memories--that last, especially, which Dani had stolen one of the mornings she’d accidentally slept over. Jamie remembers all too well how she’d strolled out of the bedroom, hands in the denim pockets, one snap undone and nothing useful at all beneath. 

How do I look? Do I have the right vibe? Thinking of dressing up as you for Halloween.

“Jamie?” Dani is looking well and truly panicked now. “You have to help me.”

She does. She will. There’s no way she can talk herself out of it, not when it’s her fault Dani even asked this woman out in the first place. Dani, who would have been all too happy to waste away in Jamie’s bed, deserves this.

“What’s she like?” She pokes her head out of the closet, her face arranged in a carefully neutral expression. “The girl. Woman. Her name is...Anita?”

“Her name is Anita,” Dani recites, as though preparing for a big test. “She works as a seamstress, and is taking night classes in the hopes of owning her own business someday.”

How novel. “Anything else? Where are you taking her?”

“Dinner. Uh. Italian.” Dani draws a deep breath, staring at Jamie with wide eyes. “This was a mistake, right? I made a mistake. I mean, she fitted me for my wedding dress.”

“So? I fitted you for your flowers.” Jamie winces. “You...know what I mean. Look, she said yes, yeah? Usually a good sign.”

Dani doesn’t look convinced. Jamie, reminding herself to breathe the entire time, crosses the room and kneels at her feet. 

“You,” she says in her clearest, calmest voice, “are a wonder. She’ll see it, if she hasn’t already, but that’s for later. For now, you pick a dress that brings out your eyes, and you do--whatever a woman like you does with hair that good. And you show her a nice time. Right?”

“Right,” says Dani in the smallest voice Jamie’s ever heard. It would be inappropriate to kiss her, even as an impulse toward reassurance. It would be incredibly, impossibly inappropriate, even with the way Dani is gazing at her now. With the way Dani is breathing shallowly, her hand creeping away from its death grip on her own ribcage, moving naturally toward Jamie’s own. Incredibly. Impossibly.

Inappropriate. She pushes to her feet, abruptly breaking the spell. Dani’s hand wedges between her knees as if placed in time-out. 

“As for the date--talk. Figure out if you like her. Go from there.” Easy. Simple. Dani could do it blindfolded, just so long as she isn’t wasting time worrying what Jamie thinks about the whole thing. “You’re going to do great. You’re going to...have a really great time.”

She’s grinning. That idiot grin, the one she feels take over when she’s just run into a former fling in the grocery store, and there’s no way out but to talk. Like that time, over the summer, she and Dani had crashed into--Gretchen? Gerry? Whoever she’d been, she’d looked at Jamie like a lost pup, and at Dani’s hand set around Jamie’s ribs like Enemy Number One. 

And Dani, bless her, had only stuck out that hand and introduced herself like none of it mattered. Dani, somehow, had gotten the woman laughing in minutes, while Jamie had just stood there with this exact stupid grin hoisted onto her lips. 

Dani comes to it naturally. Dani will be just fine, and Jamie? Jamie will be...Jamie will be...

Alone. Again. But you do it to your own goddamned self, so what’s there to cry over, really?

***

Anita is, as it turns out, an extremely pleasant conversationalist. Maybe exactly the sort of woman Dani should have started with, she thinks--down to earth, sweet, a good sense of humor. Almost painfully likable. And, above all, mildly sheepish about her behavior when first they’d met.

“I didn’t think you’d actually do anything,” she’s saying over wine and appetizers. “It’s sort of my own private joke, when mothers are getting insufferable.”

“To flirt,” Dani says, grinning. Anita bobs her head from side to side in consideration.

“To distract. Most women, they laugh. It gives them a nice break from the stress, and we all get to pretend it was in jest all along.”

“But it wasn’t,” Dani presses, deeply amused when her date gives a comically huge shrug in response.

They don’t know that, do they?”

Jamie would like her, Dani is sure. Jamie would like her very much, this woman who owns her sexuality without using it to hammer at her surroundings. She doesn’t walk like Jamie, exactly, but she carries herself with precisely the same sense of dignified confidence. Like she’s already proven herself to herself, and no one else matters half as much.

Wonder if she follows the Instagram, she thinks, and nearly laughs out loud. 

***

Jamie has cleaned every inch of her apartment. All laundry has been folded--most articles twice--and put away. The kitchen is spotless. Every lampshade has been dusted within an inch of its life. 

She has also done the daily crossword--very badly--watered every plant in the flat--and popped briefly down to double-check the ones in the shop--and rearranged the books to code by color, instead of author. 

And all the bits of Dani that have snuck in over six months--the shirt Dani sleeps in when she crashes here, the toothbrush in the bathroom, the remnants of grading tools on the coffee table--are exactly where last Dani left them. Jamie has in no way been walking slowly around each in turn, carefully not looking at red pens and Dani’s preferred brand of soda in the fridge and that note scrawled in Dani’s quick hand (Sorry for your neck--text me if you want to grab lunch tomorrow). It’s fine. It’s a fine Saturday night. 

She is doing absolutely fine.

Dani’s probably on the main course by now.

Not your fuckin’ business. And what she does with her evening is no one else’s. There are perks to being a loner, she reminds herself--like getting a Saturday night to herself. Like having no one around to point out how opening her second bottle of wine is maybe not strictly necessary. Like being able to open all the windows, let the cooling autumn night flow in, breathe deep. Remember that, despite everything else, she is still free. 

Free. And proud, in her own way, of Dani for taking this leap. Proud of Dani, and safely left to her own devices, and if she misses Dani’s presence on her couch--if she’s still thinking of how she’d woken the other night to find Dani shivering, pressed close to her, muscles relaxing only when Jamie had carefully unfolded the blanket from around her own shoulders and wrapped Dani close...

She’s on a date. And bloody good for her, isn’t it? On a date--with a woman she might actually be able to connect with--and is it her fault Jamie allowed her to haunt every inch of this place? Is it her fault Jamie took her by the hand and led her straight in, welcomed her permeation of the entire flat?

The truest irony, she thinks--aware that the thought has more to do with the wine in her system than anything else, but is no less true for it--is that Dani doesn’t have an inch of Jamie marking up her world. Dani never let her in--not to her real life. But Jamie, who has gone out of her way all this time to keep the door barred for anyone who has ever knocked, opened it up for her before she could think of a reason not to. Jamie did that. It’s not Dani’s fault. 

Dani, when she’s ready, will be shot of all of this, and Jamie?

She takes another pull from the bottle, slouching over to the couch. There’s little point moping, she knows. Little point in letting herself linger in all the tiny scraps of Dani she hasn’t been able to purge from her home. Little point, most of all, in wondering where Dani is at in her date. 

Probably will tell me all about it tomorrow, she thinks glumly, and raises the bottle again to her lips.

***

“So,” Anita says. “Tell me about you. You must have one hell of a story.”

Dani laughs. “I wouldn’t call it a story. Just...decided I was done playing by other people’s rules, I guess. You know how it feels, to look back on your life and realize you’ve never made choices for yourself?”

Anita, to her surprise, nods. There’s an easy lack of weight to the gesture, like she doesn’t mind opening up. “My father is still hoping I’ll bring home a nice boy to make up for the last fifteen years.”

“Well,” says Dani, “I did bring home a nice boy. And he turned into a nice man, and it didn’t make me happy. So, when I hit thirty, I thought--”

“Fuck it?” Anita suggests. Dani laughs again. 

“Exactly. Yeah. So, I...blew up my entire life, basically. Started over in almost every way.”

“But you’re happier now?” Anita’s smile is very pretty. Very pretty, and very kind. She’s exactly the sort of woman Dani would have become friends with in college, if she’d been less terrified, if she’d had less of Eddie to concern herself with. 

“Much,” she says. “Much happier.”

It’s not a line. Not something pleasant to say to a new acquaintance, just to look shiny on the outside. She genuinely can’t remember being this happy--the kind of happy she’s been since meeting Jamie, since learning exactly how comfortable in her own skin she could be and still match up with another person--since being a kid. How, she wonders, does that all slip away? How do we let joy stop being a priority?

This is joyful. This, being out with a woman who smiles at her without shame, a woman who gingerly touches her wrist like it’s the bravest thing she’s done all week. This, being out, being free, being open to new circumstances. This is what joy feels like.

She wishes Jamie were here. She wishes, more than anything, that she could share it with Jamie. 

Tells you something, doesn’t it? a sly voice murmurs. She turns from it, ignoring it as she’s tried to ignore it for months. A perfectly nice date, with a perfectly nice woman, deserves better than her attention sliding inexorably back to Jamie’s flat. 

It isn’t fair of her to compare them. Isn’t fair in the least to know, even as she’s laughing at tales of Anita’s family, her job, the wild things brides say and do, every curve of her smile is being held up to Jamie’s. The way her eyelashes frame her cheek when she shuts her eyes in mock-embarrassment only reminds her of how Jamie’s eyes had closed tight while she unloaded the story of her past. The delighted sparkle of laughter reminds her all too clearly of how Jamie’s rings out, full and unexpectedly giddy, in the safety of her bedroom. 

It isn’t fair, and she tries not to see Jamie in this woman’s slender hands, in the soft column of her neck, in the way her eyes linger on Dani’s just a little too long as dinner slides into dessert. Tries not to see her in the way Anita chats with the server, in the looping signature she leaves on the bill, in how she insists--just as Jamie does--Dani can just get it next time. 

“You all right?” Anita is standing, slipping into her coat. Dani is sharply aware that the date is now hanging in that liminal space between decisions, where it might end now--or go on indefinitely. 

“Perfect,” she says, doing her very best to mean it. “Just--perfect.”

***

Ice cream makes a poor--and clichéd--dinner, but Jamie suspects this is not the night for a heavy dose of judgment. Some things just need to be embraced. 

Like the realization that the woman you’re in love with is probably putting all of those hours of practice to good use with someone else. 

Not that it’s her business. It is decidedly not her business. The fact that it has been feeling more and more like her business--simply by virtue of the tiny pulsing hurt in the center of her chest when she thinks of it--has much less to do with feelings and much more to do with the wine. 

Probably. 

Because Jamie is above feelings like this. Jamie is above attachment, and jealousy, and all the tiny little razors embedded in a situation as stupid as this one. Jamie is above expectations, and loneliness, and the silver-sharp memory of Dani’s smile cuttting holes in her good sense.

Jamie is not above pairing ice cream with her second bottle of wine, easing back on the couch, and pulling up Instagram. Simple solutions for a silly problem, she instructs herself. Any woman can be washed away, given enough time and dedication.

Any woman at all.

She has been idly liking photos for an indistinct number of minutes when she realizes each and every one could, if she squints and tilts her head, be mistaken for a specific blonde teacher. This one almost has the right color eyes. That one almost has the right taste in clothing. Each too close for comfort, each nowhere near the real thing.

She could invite one over, couldn’t she? Could put all this restless energy, all this reckless desire, into someone just looking for a good time. Dani’s having a good time. Couldn’t she do the same?

She shakes her head, hating the dip in her stomach at even the thought. Sets the phone down. Picks it right back up again with a sigh. 

“Don’t do it,” she mutters, even as she’s clicking on Dani’s profile. Dani, who she wants to see happy. Dani, who deserves all the sun the world has to offer. Dani, who was never going to find that kind of peace and joy under the rules of their ill-conceived engagement. 

Dani’s feed is soft where Jamie’s own is intentional. She doesn’t post pictures of recent tattoos, of carefully-lit muscle, of cocky smiles. She doesn’t post pictures for anyone else’s enjoyment. Dani’s feed is entirely curated for her own memory, a deliberately-maintained photo album tucked in her pocket. 

One she has locked down to all but a few names--Jamie included.

Dani was not the sort of person, prior to six months ago, who posted often. When she did, it was usually a spark of good humor in an otherwise-bleak world--an animal, a beautiful post-storm sky, a mural. Only in recent memory has her feed ramped up to include things Jamie truly identifies as being Dani. Not selfies--barring very few exceptions, there is almost no sign at all of Dani’s face on her page--but the important things. A pair of flea market earrings, cupped in her hand. A spider, proudly displaying its early-morning web. The ticket stub to a movie she and Jamie had seen strictly to avoid the flat at the height of a heatwave.

Jamie closes her eyes, remembering that day--how Dani had grinned, reached over, slid a hand up her shorts. She gives her head a shake to clear it, thumbing to the next photo in line: a menu at their favorite restaurant, where neither of them ever seems capable of ordering something new. Why bother? Dani had said the last time, shrugging. I’m here because I crave this. 

Her eyes had been fixed firmly on Jamie when she’d said it, and Jamie had looked away, tried not to remember how convenient the table in the back could be. Tried not to remember how often they’d chosen that spot for it being tucked behind a pillar, for how Jamie could lose endless time with her hand tracing up Dani’s thigh, Dani trying to breathe quietly through the teasing pressure of fingertips as they waited. Tried not to think about how this, like so many places, is so entirely Dani now, she couldn’t erase it if she tried. 

Another photo: Jamie herself, standing with her back to the camera, her head tilted to the side, her hands gently probing the wilting leaves of a plant someone had discarded outside the shop. What, she remembers grumbling, do they think, that this is a goddamned shelter for unwanted ferns?

She’d taken it inside anyway, Dani trailing at her heels, and what had been intended as an evening upstairs had morphed slowly into her talking Dani through every step of examining roots, testing soil hydration, selecting a new pot. She hadn’t even noticed Dani taking this photo; like most of Dani’s actions, it had been a quiet decision made in the moment, Dani wanting only to memorialize something small and lovely. 

Me, she thinks, noticing for the first time how many images of herself have crept into Dani’s feed. Never tagged, not since that first great attempted invasion of Dani’s privacy, but present--yes, many times over. Jamie laughing, backlit by a setting sun. Jamie with her chin resting on her knees, a book held open across the toes of her sneakers. Jamie’s hand wrapped carefully around a kitchen knife; Jamie’s fingers splayed across guitar strings; Jamie twirling a pen with idle concentration. 

Nothing invasive, nothing sexual, nothing at all to show the world how much of Jamie Dani has seen--but still, there is no denying the intimacy. These are not photos taken by a woman for her own personal use, or to show off for a faceless crowd. These are only Jamie as Dani sees her: quiet, focused, reliable. 

Happy.

She draws in a breath, closes her eyes, tries her absolute damnedest not to think of how close she’d been, to letting that kind of happiness in for good.

***

Dani can’t in good conscience let it end like this. Not so early, not without giving it the proper shot. A whole month, and she’s only been able to get this close once. Has only found something to reach for one time. It seems unworthy, giving up so soon.

But the idea of inviting Anita back to her apartment sort of makes her want to cry.

She settles instead for a walk too meandering to be called intentional, Anita’s hand swinging at her side as though she’d be perfectly all right with Dani taking it. Dani can’t quite make herself do that, either. 

She’s great, she thinks with true despair. She’s great, and she’s beautiful, and she made me feel things before I even knew her name, so why...why can’t I...

Because: Jamie.

Because: no matter how kind, no matter how funny, no matter how pretty her eyes, this woman is not Jamie.

It isn’t fair. It truly isn’t. And, if she believed fair was the real engine behind the universe, that might bother her more. If she believed fair motivated anything of the chaos that is living, she might genuinely be upset. 

As it is, she’s mostly just a little bit sad. 

“You’re not having a good time,” Anita says. Dani jumps, feeling caught, feeling much as she had the night she’d tried to explain to Eddie why feelings just can’t work sometimes.

“It’s not that. It’s been--you’ve been very--”

“Nice,” Anita says. She’s smiling, the expression slightly more restrained than it had been over dinner. She knows, Dani thinks, her heart sinking. It’s obvious. I’m obvious.. “But you aren’t biting.”

Dani opens her mouth to argue and finds there are no words honest enough. “I’m sorry. I don’t--I don’t know what to say--”

“Don’t,” Anita suggests. “Don’t say anything. You don’t owe me an explanation.”

“I wasted your time.”

“You gave me a perfectly pleasant several hours of conversation,” Anita points out. “And a memory of quite a lovely dress, which I will cherish for months, perhaps years, to come.”

Dani coughs out a tiny laugh, the guilt unwilling to go quietly even with Anita looking at her with abject sincerity. “I promised a...friend. That I would try dating.”

“Mm. But you’re not ready.”

“Something like that.” She doesn’t owe this woman quite that much, she senses--and maybe Anita wouldn’t want to hear it anyway, what Dani’s private catch on the matter really is. Probably, it’s too much information for a first date, either way. She can’t imagine being in Anita’s shoes, trying to parse out the kind of history she’s built with Jamie from that side of the road. “I really am sorry.”

Anita takes her hand, raises it to her lips, and Dani wonders if she should take it back. If she should try just a little harder, just for one night, for the sake of this kind woman who had made her laugh. 

Living for others again, are we? 

“Well, Dani Clayton.” Pretty eyes, sparkling in the dimming light. Pretty eyes, pretty smile, and Dani feels nothing at all. “Thank you, for a lovely evening. I hope, when you’re ready, you find someone who makes you feel...sure.”

She does not, Dani is relieved to note, try to kiss her. 

There are just some things you know, even without trying, can’t measure up.

***

She’s half-asleep on the couch, her phone resting on her chest, when someone begins slamming on her door. It is, barring an actual nuclear raid, the last thing she wants to deal with tonight. 

“Piss off!” Not her finest, perhaps, but Jamie is drunk, exhausted, and has only recently processed how badly she’s fallen for a woman just in time to watch her leave. Now is not the time for eloquence. 

A pause, too brief, and then the fist resumes its violent assault upon her door. Jamie grunts. 

“I said--”

“Jamie,” an unmistakably familiar voice calls. “Jamie, let me in.”

“Can’t be right,” Jamie mutters. She’s clearly gone past drunk and straight to the hallucination portion of the evening, because it’s barely ten, and there is simply no way Dani’s date has already--

She yanks open the door, gripping to the knob for balance. Dani--in a dress that matches her eyes, her makeup immaculately applied, her face impossible for Jamie to read--smiles. 

“Hi.”

“You,” Jamie says, swaying in place. “You. Here.”

“Is that all right?” Dani isn’t coming inside. Dani isn't pushing in with the casual ease of a woman who has basically been living at Jamie’s flat for months. She’s just standing there, hands folded in front of her, waiting. 

Jamie looks down at herself, at the ratty t-shirt gone half-transparent from overuse, the jeans with holes in both knees, her feet bare. Dani looks incredible, and she looks--

Like someone who has spent an evening nursing two bottles of wine, a pint of ice cream, and a pity party.

“Bit underdressed,” she says. Dani looks amused. 

“Can I, um...” She makes a little gesture with her head, and Jamie stands abruptly back to let her pass. 

“Date didn’t go well?” Not that she wants to know. Not that she can handle knowing right now. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, when the alcohol has purged from her system, and her worst concern is a headache. Tomorrow, when she can go back to pretending Dani isn’t too etched into every heartbeat to go on without.

“It was fine.” Dani is still obeying these hated new rules, standing a polite distance away. Probably for the best. She looks perfect, and Jamie feels as though she hasn’t been quite this much a mess since high school. 

Well, naturally, you twat. Went and fell in love, didn’t you?

“If it was fine--” Words are not coming quite as naturally as usual. Blame the wine. Blame the wine, and not Dani’s eyes being so impossibly blue, so impossibly fixed on Jamie like she hasn’t wanted to look anywhere else in weeks. “If it was fine, what’re you...”

“I tried,” Dani says. Jamie resists a cringe, struggling to remember what a person’s face ought to look like when the possible love of their life is talking about a date with someone else. 

“You...Dani, sorry, had kind of a...strange night, I’m not follow--”

“I tried,” Dani says again, and takes a step toward her. Then another. “That was the deal, right? I had to try. I had to ask someone out, and go to dinner, and try.”

Deal. That was the deal. That was the-- “Yeah,” Jamie says, swallowing hard. Dani is still far enough away to back off from, if she so desired. If she was so inclined to put any distance at all between herself and Dani Clayton. “Yeah, that was...what d’you mean, you tried?”

“I went out.” Dani is still looking at her, something beautifully imploring about her eyes. “I went out, and I had dinner, and we talked. And she was wonderful.”

“Oh.” She’s dimly aware Dani deserves more than that, more than a single syllable, but Jamie can’t quite convince her mouth to do better. 

“She was funny,” Dani says, almost breathlessly. “And smart, and really charming. I think she could have been important, if I’d been ready to let her. Before.”

“Oh,” Jamie repeats, feeling very drunk and more than slightly uncertain. “Before...?”

“But now,” Dani goes on, ignoring this last entirely. “Now, she was just...nice. Which is fine. But not...not quite...Jamie, are you drunk?”

“Yes,” Jamie says, quite sensibly, gripping the back of the couch hard enough to hurt. Dani looks like she wants to laugh. 

“Can...I ask why?”

“Tends to be the consequence,” Jamie says, “of two bottles of red wine.”

***

Jamie is drunk. Jamie is not supposed to be drunk, not for this. 

The whole way over, Dani has been planning out the way to say it. The way to come at it properly, to do something right, for once. Even if it’s not what Jamie wants to hear, even if it ruins everything, there are things Dani just can’t suppress forever. 

She’d expected Jamie to be solemn. She’d expected Jamie to be surprised.

Drunk, not so much. 

“Anyway,” Jamie says, her voice sliding a little to the left of its usual steady cadence. “What’d you--I mean, you didn’t come all the way ‘round just ‘cause you had a bad date. Right?”

No, of course not--but she can’t say it now. Not with Jamie looking at her with wobbly confusion. Not with Jamie’s eyes glassy, her entire demeanor the opposite of her immaculate apartment. 

“I missed you,” Dani says, the closest to brushing honesty she can bear tonight. Jamie closes her eyes, sways almost hard enough to tip over. 

“That’s...there’s something...Dani, we should talk--”

“Tomorrow,” Dani says. Whatever Jamie needs to impart, whatever Jamie needs to hear from her, it can all wait. Tomorrow. “It’s been a long day. You look tired.”

“Am,” Jamie says in a small voice. Dani takes her gently by the hand. 

“Let’s just...go to bed. All right?”

Jamie looks at her with something like hope, something like hurt, something caught in between that yanks at Dani’s heart. “Not supposed to. Rules.”

“Just to sleep,” Dani says. “I don’t have to stay, if you don’t want, but you should sleep.”

Jamie is staring at their joined hands, following at a stumble down the hall, and Dani is reminded forcefully of that first night, half a year ago. Of following Jamie to the bedroom for the first time, in awe of her confidence, certain Dani herself could never match up. 

“Can’t,” Jamie says, brow furrowed, “drive you home like this.”

“I’ll take the bus,” Dani tells her. Jamie has stopped beside the bed, looking at her with an expression Dani can only characterize as absolute longing. “Or, if you’d prefer, I can--”

“Stay,” Jamie says. Her hand flexes around Dani’s. “Please.”

It isn’t the first time Dani has stayed the night--not even the tenth, by now. She’s slept on the floor, the couch, this bed. She’s done so by accident, and with the grumbling awareness that the time has gotten away from them to a degree where it would just be silly, to leave now. She’s slept with Jamie, and she’s slept on Jamie, and she’s let herself relax completely in Jamie’s company.

This. This is the first time Jamie has ever looked her in the eye and asked her to stay.

Jamie undresses without aid, though the jeans almost kill her before she’s free of them, and collapses on the bed in that old ratty t-shirt Dani has on more than one occasion borrowed. Did she choose it on purpose, Dani wonders, for tonight, knowing the last person in it had been Dani? 

Unlikely. Unlikely, but with Jamie gazing at her with half-lidded eyes, her head nestled on the pillow, she can’t help the question coming to mind. 

“I’m just gonna...” She scoops up the oversized sleep shirt Jamie leaves folded neatly on the dresser for her, hugging it to her chest. “Bathroom. I’ll be back. Don’t wait up.”

“We can talk,” Jamie mumbles. “Not too sleepy.”

Dani laughs. “You’re half-gone already.”

“Not,” Jamie says, rolling onto her back. “Very alert.”

She is, when Dani returns ten minutes later with face scrubbed, teeth brushed, and her dress hung carefully on the bathroom door, dead asleep. Dani slides quietly in beside her, heart clenching when Jamie--already snoring--shifts backward along the mattress into her arms. 

“Tomorrow,” she murmurs into the back of Jamie’s neck, letting a hand curl lightly against the plane of her stomach. “We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”

Chapter Text

Sleep is the great refresh button on the world--once pushed, it sometimes wipes a little too much away--and Jamie finds herself somewhat unclear on last night’s events upon waking. She remembers wine. She remembers quite a lot of wine, in fact; maybe too much for one person left to her own devices. She remembers cleaning, keeping in constant motion to stay out of trouble--idle hands, she’d thought more than once, are no one’s friend. She remembers scrolling through photos, her heart too full to carry. 

She remembers a knock.

She remembers blue eyes, perilously bright. 

The keeper of those eyes had been in this bed, she’s sure--she can still smell Dani on the pillowcase, can still feel the weight of her against Jamie’s back--but Dani is here no longer. Dani has, once again, slipped out unnoticed. 

She’s getting too good at that for Jamie’s comfort. If Jamie had things her way, Dani would never leave without a see you soon again. 

Because she’s--because she’s in love with--

“Right,” she groans, her voice just a little too loud for the drumming in her head. “Right.”

The urge to stay in bed all day--to yank the covers up over her face until she suffocates under the weight of her own hangover--is enormously powerful. She might even lean into it, if not for the dim awareness that there is a...smell. A smell coming from the kitchen.

A smell that is decidedly too close to burning for Jamie’s liking, and all right, fuck, I’m up. 

“Dani?” She sure as fuck hopes so. If she’s stumbling out in underwear and last night’s shirt to a kitchen on fire, and it’s not Dani at the helm, this day is going to get a whole lot worse. “What are you...”

“Coffee?” Dani says brightly. A little too chipper, maybe, though Jamie suspects that’s the vague nausea talking. She sinks down at the table, watching Dani pour steaming liquid into two mugs. 

“S’that what you’re calling it?”

Dani makes a face, pushing a mug toward her until Jamie is forced to either wrap her fingers around the handle or allow Dani to ease it straight into her lap. “Try it. You might like it.”

“It’s coffee,” Jamie deadpans, taking a reluctant sip. Under Dani’s watchful eye, she furtively spits it back into the mug. “It’s...trying to be coffee.”

Dani shrugs. “I have my strong suits.”

“Is one of them burning right now in my oven?”

Dani winces. “I...may have over-crisped the bacon. And, um. The toast.”

She’s trying, Jamie recognizes. Trying much harder than on any of the many other days she’d woken up here, usually striving to keep Jamie in bed for as long as possible. Even without the sex, she’d nearly always woken first to find Dani still curled on the couch, blankets pulled up to her chin, feigning sleep. 

She’s trying today. And Jamie, whose memory of last night is still just a bit foggier than she’d like, can’t quite put her finger on why. 

You said things. She must have. She must have said something incredibly stupid, to explain the way Dani is looking at her right now. 

“You, uh. Skipped out on your date,” she says, groping along the fuzzy edges of memory for something helpful. “Didn’t you? Only, I hadn’t planned to see you last night. I think.”

Dani is wearing a faint smile, one which could be affectionate or awkward--Jamie genuinely can’t decide, at the moment. She lowers her eyes, sipping that god-awful coffee again, and grimaces. 

“Truly, you have a talent.”

“How much of last night do you remember?” Dani asks. To the point today, then. Jamie had been hoping this morning would grant a glimpse of early-days Dani, the one who sometimes went too pink and rigid to form complete sentences. 

This one--watching her with keen eyes, that faint smile around her lips, still wearing one of Jamie’s shirts--she finds herself quite unable to be anything less than truthful around. 

“Not much.” She watches Dani for signs--a twitch of brow, a pull of cheek, a bite of lip--that there is something to remember. Something huge, maybe. Something impossible to step back from, once released, maybe. “You, coming in unexpected. Me, being very...”

“Drunk,” Dani supplies. Jamie smiles thinly.

“Was gonna say, exuberant.”

“You weren’t, though. You seemed...” Dani seems almost embarrassed for her. How promising. “Sad.”

The urge to jump up from the table, move around the room, put a little distance between herself and Dani is almost undeniable. Jamie squeezes the mug as hard as she can, forcing a smile. 

“Sad? What’ve I got to be sad about?”

“I don’t know.” Dani leans in a little, her eyes magnetic. “You tell me.”

Tell me. Tell me, and stop pretending like you don’t know what I’m talking about. Talk to me, Jamie. She might as well come out and say it; the way she’s gazing at Jamie now, the sentiment is impossible to miss. Dani, hair a tangle, face clear of any trace of sleep, is not here to play games today.

“I,” Jamie says, and clears her throat. “I maybe underestimated a few things, when we made our deal.”

“When you pushed me to go out on dates,” Dani says. Jamie licks her lips.

“When I agreed to be, ah, your...friend. With unattached, feelings-irrelevant benefits.”

“Sex,” Dani says flatly. “When you agreed to just have sex, and not think about the consequences.”

The woman Jamie first met, the one who once awkwardly stammered that she’d like “the flowers with the soft petals, please”, is missing entirely from this table. Dani is no longer meek, a reduction of someone else’s desires. Dani is looking at her like she can wait all day for Jamie to get her shit together.

“Like I said,” Jamie says, tilting her head back to stare directly at the ceiling. “May have underestimated some things.”

***

It’s clear from the minute Jamie stumbles out, one hand in her hair, her eyes wide, she has absolutely no memory of last night. No idea what Dani almost told her. No idea what she’d looked like, asking Dani to stay. 

Which isn’t funny. It’s very much not funny. There’s a thin panic in the way Jamie is looking around the kitchen, as though hoping the fog of alcohol will lift if she just stares her kettle down hard enough, and it really, really isn’t funny

Sweet, though. Definitely sweet. Like the expression on her face when she says, “May have underestimated some things” and stares blankly into the overhead light. Dani honestly hadn’t known she was capable of looking so nervous. 

If only your fans knew. “Would it be easier,” she says, her heart in her throat, “if I went first?”

“Please.” Jamie expels a shaky breath, pushing up from the chair and walking a jagged lap to the living room and back. Dani watches her, unable to repress a smile. She’s always thought of Jamie as the centered of the two of them, the one who has defeated all of her demons and is not subject to fear the same way Dani is. Seeing her like this now, half-dressed and bewildered, is...

“I didn’t do anything last night,” she says. “With Anita. I mean--I thought about it, I guess. Thought about inviting her upstairs, even.”

Jamie looks sharply up. “But?”

“But I realized it wouldn’t have been fair. To her. To me, either, really. Because you can’t spend an entire date with a woman...thinking about somebody else. Can you?”

Jamie doesn’t look as though she’s breathing. Doesn't look like she’s going to interrupt, either, for which Dani is grateful. If she stops talking, she’s never going to get this all out.

“I mean, that just reduces her to an idea, doesn’t it? Someone pretty and...and not quite there. Because your head is so full of the person you actually want to be spending your night with. And that isn’t fair, is it? It’s not fair to want someone else so much that you just...spend your time comparing every other woman in the world to...”

Jamie is almost certainly not breathing. Her posture is rigid, her shoulders back, and she is looking at Dani like she’s never quite seen her before.

“It isn’t,” Dani says firmly. “Fair. To put someone else through that again. Is it?”

“No,” Jamie replies. “No, suppose it isn’t.” 

Dani closes her eyes briefly. Smiles. “Broke the rules, haven’t I?”

“Yes,” Jamie breathes. “Yes, and I think we--I think we have a problem now.”

Now. Dani almost laughs. “We do?”

“Yeah.” She’s never seen Jamie look this nervous. Not once in seven months have Jamie’s eyes been this wide, Jamie’s mouth twitched this way, Jamie’s throat bobbed with such a hard swallow, Dani wants only to kiss her calm again. “Yeah, because I, uh--”

She’s going to tell Dani to get out. She’s going to beg Dani to stay forever. Dani honestly isn’t sure which is more terrifying. 

“Rules,” Jamie says. “Broken. Very much so, I think.”

“For you, too?”

Jamie nods once. “Didn’t mean to. Know you deserve more than--”

“Deserve?” Dani repeats. “What do I deserve?”

***

What don’t you deserve? Jamie thinks desperately. Her head is a powder keg, her stomach roiling--the combination of anxiety, hangover, and Dani’s attempt at coffee is doing this moment no favors at all. 

And Dani, still, is just looking at her with eyes that challenge Jamie to explain herself.

“You didn’t come here looking for me,” she says, her voice pitching too high. “Right? You came looking for fun. For...for someone to have fun with. That’s why you picked me.”

You picked me like they all picked me, back when I still thought it was worth trying for, she can’t say. So many women, all of them looking for their own courage, their own peace of mind, and finding it in the ease of Jamie. Because Jamie looks the part. Because Jamie doesn’t make things more difficult than they need to be. Because Jamie is willing to just let things be easy.

And then walk away.

Why can’t she walk away?

"What do I deserve?” Dani repeats. Jamie closes her eyes to stop the world from swimming.

“Someone steady,” she says at last. “Someone stable. Someone who doesn’t look at a world full of people and see a million reasons to hide from them all.”

A scrape of chair, pushing back across tile. A pad of steps, too quick. Heading for the door?

Hands, taking hers. Fingers, looping around her own, until it’s hard to tell with eyes closed which belong to Dani and which to herself. 

“Do you want to hide from me?”

Jamie shakes her head, regretting it when pain pulses down her neck. Dani’s hands are sliding up her wrists, cupping around her forearms, blunt nails tracing the petals of the flower inked into her skin. She shivers. 

“Do you want me to tell you what I think I deserve?”

Jamie nods. If she just doesn’t look, she thinks. If she just doesn’t look at Dani’s face, she can pretend there is no pity in those pretty blue eyes.

“I deserve great sex.”

Jamie can’t help it--her eyes fly open of their own accord, her brows raising. Dani has never looked quite so determined, quite so certain that what she is saying is right. 

“Sorry?”

“I do. I deserve great sex. And someone who listens when I talk. Someone who makes me laugh.” Her hands are shaking a little, wrapped around Jamie’s arms. Jamie shuffles an unintentional step forward, even as Dani presses on. “Someone who shows me what they like, and teaches me to look for what makes me happy in turn. Someone who drives me home at night, and waits for me to go inside before they’ll pull away. Someone who doesn’t mind if we don’t touch, or don’t talk, or don’t do anything except be each other’s company after a long day. I deserve that. Don’t I?”

Jamie nods. “You do, but--”

“And,” Dani says, in a tone of voice Jamie has long learned not to interrupt, “I deserve to decide for myself what I want. I deserve to choose my future. As much as anyone ever can. Don’t I?”

Helpless, heart slamming in erratic, painful beats, Jamie nods yet again. Dani looks almost satisfied. 

“Good. Now. What do you choose?”

Jamie looks at her for a long moment, taking in the messy hair, the sober expression, the utter lack of fear in her face despite all limbs trembling. She looks at Dani, and the only thing to do is smile.

“I want,” she says, terrified of the truth even as she’s forming the words, “to start doing something right.”

***

“Are you ever,” Hannah says, sounding exasperated, “going to let me set you up?”

“Probably not.” Dani glances up, trying not to look amused. “I’ll do the next best thing, though.”

“Which is?” Hannah frowns. “Miles Dominic Wingrave, if I see you flick that lighter one more time--”

“He likes it,” Flora pipes up from the floor at Dani’s feet, a doll in each hand. “He likes the splendid little snap when he closes it.”

“He’s going to like it much less when it’s living in my pocket,” Hannah says. Flora shrugs, her attention fluttering back to the task at hand, and Hannah’s eyes slide once again to Dani. “What is the next best thing, dear?”

“Letting you dress me for the date I’ve got tomorrow night?”

“A date,” Hannah repeats, delight blooming across her face. “You have a date?”

Second one in as many weeks, Dani thinks with dazed excitement. Who am I?

It had seemed silly, when Jamie proposed it. Dates, Dani thought, are for people who don’t yet know one another, who are testing to see if this new thing might be a worthwhile venture. She knows Jamie better than anyone in the world, and there is no contest in how well Jamie knows her in return.

She is, she is all but certain, actually in love with Jamie, as it happens. Do two people already in love really need to go on a first date?

I want to do it right, Jamie had repeated, when Dani laughed. From the start, this time. If that’s all right with you. 

She’d looked...different, saying it. Not afraid, like waiting for Dani to agree that she was wrong, somehow, that she was not enough, somehow--but not quite the usual Jamie, either. There is a middle ground between the Jamie of abject confidence and the one who told her entire life story with eyes firmly shut. A middle ground Dani is only just now starting to understand. 

Love someone with everything in you, she thinks, and there’s still more beneath the surface. Every time. It’s beautiful. 

“Excuse me,” Hannah says in her most polite voice. “But if you don’t explain yourself this instant, I’m afraid I’ll have to allow the children to tie you to a chair.”

“I...met someone.” Two someones, actually, but let’s not confuse her. “A while ago. I didn’t think it would work out, but she’s...”

Hannah’s eyebrows have hoisted themselves as high as possible. On the floor, Flora is pretending very badly not to be listening in. Dani rolls her eyes heavenward, choosing her words very carefully.

“She’s wonderful. She--we’re going to try, I think.”

“She’s nice?” Flora asks, sitting up on her knees and gazing at Dani like this is the best fairytale she’s ever been read. “And pretty?”

“Both,” Dani agrees. “Very.”

“And how long,” Hannah asks, “before we get to meet this young woman? Who is, I would hope, at least as charming as the young woman I had meant to introduce you to.”

She’s got that teasing glint in her eye, the one that makes Dani wish she’d had a big sister growing up. Flora, abandoning her dolls entirely, leaps up on the couch and bounces in place. 

“Yes! I want to meet your new girlfriend, Miss Clayton. Miles! Miles, did you know Miss Clayton has a girlfriend?”

“She isn’t--yet. Exactly.” A flush is working its way up her back, her tongue trying in vain to wrap itself around an explanation both truthful and palatable for an eight-year-old. “She’s...a friend. A really good friend, who I care for very much.”

“But she’s going to be your girlfriend!” Flora looks triumphant even as she upends the papers Dani has been failing to grade all over the rug. “Oops.”

“If she’s already a good friend,” Hannah says astutely, “why do you need my help in dressing for the occasion?”

Dani smiles, hoping the expression doesn’t look as terrified as it feels. “Because. I want to be...I want her to think--I want her to see--”

“Understood,” Hannah says, and Dani loves her so much, she can barely breathe.

***

“Oh, so it isn’t the date you had a problem with,” Owen says with mock-annoyance, arms crossed over his chest. “It’s my pick.”

“Are you going to continue being a complete prat about this, or are you going to help me?” Jamie demands. “’Bout crawling out of my skin just now, I do not need your sass on top of it.”

My--” He looks affronted--as affronted as a man can while grinning gleefully, anyway--stepping out of the way of her dedicated pace across the flat. “This one had better be incredible, is all I’m saying, or you’re missing out.”

“She’s...” How to explain Dani Clayton? “She’s a bit of a weirdo, if I’m honest.”

“What a glimmering evaluation.”

“No, I mean--she’s a bit of a weirdo, but she’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. And kind, and ridiculous, and stronger than I think even she realizes. She’s...” Owen is gaping at her. Jamie frowns. “What? Why’re you looking at me like that?”

“Six years,” he says. She makes a get on with it face, and he repeats, “Six years, I’ve known you. You know how many women I’ve heard you speak of this highly?”

“Oh, don’t--”

“None. Not a single bastard one. I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were in--”

“Owen, I invited you over so someone could keep me from going absolutely spare on my own. Not to nitpick my love life.”

“True,” he concedes, “but as your very best friend--”

“You are not my best friend.”

“--your longest-running friend, I am embracing my rights to call them as I see them while I help you into your...” He hesitates, lifting the garment bag from the couch. “Really? This is what you’re wearing?”

Jamie drops in a heap onto a kitchen chair, head in her hands. “This is a bad idea. Right? Me, on a date. Me. With her.”

“Hang on, I didn’t say--” He pauses, tipping his head, his smile faltering into soft astonishment. “You really want this to go well. Who is this girl?”

"She’s--” Everything. “She makes me feel like it’s worth it.”

“What is?”

Jamie looks at him hopelessly, wishing it didn’t all sound so insane in her head. “Trying. Looking like a fuckin’ lunatic, if I have to. Putting in the...”

“Effort,” he finishes, looking as though Christmas has just come early. “Christ, someone’s finally turned you into somebody who can’t help giving a damn.”

“Doomed, aren’t I?” she says, and is strangely reassured when he bursts into laughter. 

***

Doing this properly, Jamie had said, and stuck out her hand. Starting over. 

Which meant, quite simply: pretend, for one week, not to have an intimate awareness of one another. Pretend Jamie doesn’t have Dani’s order at any given restaurant memorized. Pretend Dani doesn’t know how to read the tension in Jamie’s smile, how to treat it with movies, or silence, or a long embrace on any given night. Pretend not to know how each moves around an apartment with the lights off, how Jamie sometimes utters pained little moans in her sleep, how Dani sometimes can’t fall asleep at all unless distracted from her own racing brain. 

Start fresh. Start over. For one date, pretend they did it right from the very start.

It sounded easy, when Jamie first made the proposition. One week. We meet on Saturday, 8 in the evening. We treat this like...

Like you haven’t already seen me naked a hundred times? Dani laughed then, and laughs again now, the sound sharp and wild in the silence of her apartment. Hannah has come and gone, right on schedule, a magician with a makeup kit and a dress Dani had nearly flinched from. 

“That? Really? You don’t think it’s too...I don’t know. Royal?”

“I think it’s time you embraced a little royalty, don’t you?” Hannah said, holding up the plum velvet, a neckline dipping low enough to show off clavicle and the barest hint of cleavage. A voice seemed to rise, a memory unbidden, to Dani: You have great shoulders. Should show them off. 

It certainly isn’t any more reckless than the insane dress she’d reluctantly donned for the faculty party, what already feels like a thousand years ago. It’s just that, for a first date, for a start fresh, this feels too magnificent to be allowed.

And, maybe, that’s the point. Maybe that was the whole idea of Hannah looking her over with appraising eyes, selecting a pair of gold earrings from her own collection and holding them out. 

“I don’t think,” Dani began, and Hannah shook her head. 

“For luck,” she said simply. Dani’s mouth crooked in a half-smile, her every muscle strung taut. 

“I didn’t think you believed in luck.”

“I believe,” Hannah said, patting her gently on the shoulder, “in anything that results in a brighter world.”

Dani checks her watch now, finds the time has come, and has to physically ward off a wave of absolute terror. She hadn’t felt like this, when it was Anita. Had felt nervous, yes--but the kind of nervous that precedes a new year of school. The distant butterflies of it’ll work out, either way. This? 

This feels like walking headlong into a hurricane.

She’s going to be early, if she keeps up this speed--a whirlwind of heel and dress and blackout fear--but every ounce of calm appears to have been left back at the apartment. She’s toying with the idea of walking herself in a huge loop--maybe swinging by Owen at the cafe for a quick chat, or over to the Wingrave house, or heading straight up to Jamie’s flat and saying, “Listen, this was stupid, let’s just do things our way like always”--when she rounds the corner and finds Jamie already waiting at the garden entrance. 

“Oh,” she hears herself say. “You’re here.”

“Thought you’d be early,” Jamie says easily. 

“So you decided to show up even earlier. Touché.” Early--and looking like... “You look...”

“Different,” Jamie supplies with a grin just this side of self-conscious. “Tryin’ something new, you might say. To go along with the whole...starting over thing.”

Something different, in this case, means a dress. She’s never seen Jamie in a dress before--this one tight enough to impress without restricting Jamie’s movements, all done in shades of burgundy--or stockings, or earrings beyond small silver pieces designed to stay out of her way. She’s never seen Jamie with lipstick, with her hair wound atop her head, with effort of this caliber put in, and suddenly, Dani is glad they’re starting from scratch. There’s something perfectly glorious about getting to give Jamie this kind of do-over. 

“Too much?” Jamie is hunching a little, hands behind her back, looking as though she isn’t entirely sure she’s called this game correctly. Dani swallows. 

“Perfect, I think. So, um. What’re we doin’?”

“I,” Jamie says, perking up, “am going to show you a secret.”

***

It seems like the worst idea in the world, all of it, right until the moment Dani appears from around the corner. Right until Dani--looking somewhat unreal, like someone plucked the version she’d felt uneasy being from the faculty party and the version she’d felt uneasy leaning into from her date the other night, and located a perfect middle ground somewhere in between--turned up with that unbelievably bright smile on her face. 

Everything’s the greatest choice she’s ever made, with Dani looking at her that way. Never has Jamie made a better decision. Never has she felt more at home in her entire life. 

Out of your fuckin’ mind, she reminds herself--and so what? Dani’s looking at her like some kind of gorgeous dream set here in the fresh shadow of evening, and so what if it makes Jamie feel more than a little crazy, to be standing here with barriers torn down?  

“A secret,” Dani says now, looking a little perplexed. “What kind of secret is in a public garden?”

“You’ll see.” She’s done a lot over the years, led a lot of women into a lot of spaces, but no one has ever come here. This is Jamie’s--public or not, it’s the first place she ever felt completely safe--and to bring anyone else past these walls had simply never occurred to her. 

“See,” she says, gesturing Dani through the gate, “the thing about a place like this is, everybody’s got their expectation. They come for the roses, or for the sunflowers, or for the fuckin’ daisies. But even a place like this has little hidden spots. Places nobody but the gardeners think to explore.”

The urge to take Dani by the hand is strong; not seeing her all week, not having touched her since that awkward Sunday morning with Dani asking what she wanted to choose, has been driving her up the wall. Still, she resists. You do the thing properly, she insists, which means not falling back on old habits just yet. It means giving Dani space to decide if this version of Jamie--as much as, or more than, the one who laughed in the face of feelings and truly believed a body was all that needed to be shared--is worth her time. 

She does not take Dani by the hand, but she can’t resist darting little glances at her as they walk. She half-expects to find Dani just gazing at her with open curiosity, but Dani’s eyes are roving over every plant they pass. 

“I like these,” she says unexpectedly. “Orchids. Did you know, when they’re at home in a tropical environment, they actually grow on trees?”

Jamie pauses mid-step, her mouth falling open. “Sorry--how did you know that?”

There is something equal parts sheepish and sly about Dani’s little half-smile. “Girl I like is into plants. Thought I’d do some research.”

This is it, thinks Jamie mildly, this is the thing that kills me. “You know, you’re already on the date,” she points out through a sharp increase in heart rate. “Don’t need to suck up.”

“But how else will I get you upstairs when it’s over?” Dani asks with such dripping innocence, it’s all Jamie can do not to pin her to the nearest tree. 

Dani does not spend the rest of the meandering walk illustrating her newfound knowledge of plants, for which Jamie is immensely grateful; she’s not sure she could survive Dani proving she’s spent god-only-knows how much time studying botany to impress her. Not while also vibrating with the awareness that they are rapidly closing in on her favorite spot in maybe the entire goddamned city.

“Here.” She stops, hands loose at her sides, waiting for Dani to stop gazing around in wonder. Dani, after a moment, does, her elbow rubbing lightly against Jamie’s. 

“Those...are on your phone,” she says, sounding a little breathless. 

“Ever seen them before? Maybe in your research?” Dani shakes her head. “They’re called moonflowers. Rare as fuck, near-impossible to grow with any kind of ease. Each bud blooms only once, then dies. Whole thing will need to be replanted in the spring. Real pain, if I’m honest.”

“But,” Dani prompts when she goes quiet, gazing at the soft white petals. She smiles. 

“But. I love ‘em. Can’t help it. There’s just something about how much effort they take. Something about knowing you’ve really done the thing properly, and that it isn’t going to last forever--but that it’s the most beautiful goddamned thing, while it’s here. Y’know?”

She waits for Dani to say, No, actually, that makes absolutely no sense. She’d be right to say it. Jamie thought so herself, working in this garden years ago--adrift in a brave new country, still smarting from her lost years behind bars, from the woman who had put her there and never looked back. She’d thought there was little point in working so fucking hard for something so fucking fleeting.

Life, though, isn’t it? the old man who paid her wages had said when she’d complained. Short, and stupid, and the most beautiful goddamned thing, while it’s here. 

“Sounds like a lot of work,” Dani says quietly, stepping nearer to the plant and brushing one flower lightly with the tip of her finger. “For a plant that only blooms once. Worth it, though.”

“It’s the only thing that’s ever made sense.” Too honest, maybe, but over half a year of hiding has warranted a little honesty. For Dani’s sake. For her own, too. “People are...”

“Draining,” Dani says. 

“They are,” Jamie agrees, “but it’s more than that. They’re unpredictable. They’re...there and gone, sometimes, before you’re ready. Enough people walk away, enough...seasons change and leave only dead plants in their wake, you sometimes start to wonder what’s worth bothering with. Be lying if I said I was ready for whatever this is. But I like you. More’n like. Reckon it’s like this moonflower. Some things, every once in a while, you just gotta jump for.”

Dani isn’t looking at the flowers anymore. There’s not much Jamie can do except square her jaw and swallow hard. 

“Wanted to show you this place,” she says in a voice considerably more brittle than planned, “because it’s the first time I think I ever understood that. The value of fragility. When I left...when I left England, came here, it was in the name of a fresh start. Thought I’d have to build a better wall, to survive it. And it worked. Sort of worked. For a while. But now...”

Dani’s hand cups lightly around her elbow, just enough for Jamie to sway into. 

“Never told anyone the stories I’ve told you. Not all of ‘em, not this way. If we’re doing this, I want you to know what you’re getting into. All of it.”

That’s enough, she thinks. Enough talking, and enough for Dani. First date. Starting over. This is all Dani needs to know. 

Dani, who doesn’t say a thing. Dani, whose other hand is gliding up, gripping Jamie a little harder. 

She’s smiling, Jamie registers, as she’s kissing her. Smiling so hard, she almost can’t do it properly at all. She’s all lipstick and soft sigh and the biggest grin she’s ever pressed into Jamie’s skin.

It isn’t the first, then. Can’t ever be the first again. The first time could never feel quite this much like coming home.

***

Dani imagines, even as she’s kissing Jamie in the garden, that the date is technically over already. That this is as far as Jamie planned for it to go: a beautiful flower, just blooming in the dark, and Jamie’s step off the ledge. This is it. They’ve done it.

“You didn’t really think that was it?” Jamie says, eyebrow arched. Dani nearly chokes on her laughter. 

“No, of course not. How silly.”

She lets Jamie take her hand, and while the idea of this evening is good in theory--fresh start, no expectations--it’s impossible to ignore just how right Jamie’s skin feels against her own. There is such a thing, she thinks, as overhyping a situation. This is better. This is sweeter. 

“Are we really supposed to be in here?” she asks, as Jamie leads her deeper into the garden. “Thought they closed at nine.”

“Former employee privilege.” Jamie winks. “Also, no, we’re absolutely not. Are you gonna tell?”

Dani shakes her head, grinning. The shadows are deepening with every step, but Jamie’s hand in her own is implacable. Jamie’s boots crunch comfortably over wood-chip and bits of stone, the path beaten into form by an endless stream of visitors over the years, and Dani falls into step almost without thinking about it. It’s easier, moving through the dark with Jamie. Easier, and somehow more exhilarating than any walk has ever been. 

“Nervous?” Jamie asks, and Dani doesn’t even have to think about it. 

“No. Not anymore.”

“You were, though? Wasn’t just me?”

Dani considers. “I...wondered if starting over was going to mean going back. To the beginning, to the part where it’s all...you know how, when you meet someone, you put on a mask? Put your best foot forward, even if it’s not real?”

Jamie looks for a second like she’s going to argue, to scoff, No, I don’t do that. “Of course. Got a whole fuckin’ Instagram account for that, don’t I?”

“I was afraid that was going to be...what this was. That we were going to pretend we didn’t know each other, that we were going to lose time faking it until it felt right.” Dani shrugs. “I don’t want to lose more time. Life is short. Life isn’t fair. I don’t want to waste anything I’m given, not anymore.”

Jamie smiles, gesturing her through a break in the trees. There, ahead of them, a silvery pond--maybe a lake; Dani has never really been able to tell the difference on sight--and a soft stretch of manicured grass. A blanket is held down with heavy stones, a basket waiting at its center. 

“You,” Dani says, grinning, “are the biggest romantic I’ve ever met.”

“Untrue.”

“Um. So true. Moonlit picnic? Flowers? Jamie. You’re wearing a dress.”

“Maybe this is how I want to start making promises,” Jamie says, almost absently enough for Dani to miss the quaver in her voice. Almost. “All cards on the table, right?”

“If we’re putting all the cards on the table...” Dani takes a seat, folding herself carefully down. “Hannah picked out this dress.”

“Hannah?” Jamie raises her eyebrows. “Hang on. Not--beautiful woman, eyes that’ll pierce the soul, stellar biceps?”

“Never really looked at her biceps,” Dani says, frowning. “Wait. You know Hannah?”

Jamie is starting to laugh. “We’ve met, yeah. Gym. And she was there the day I tried to get your phone back to you, at the school--”

“You never told me you went all the way to school for that.” 

“Did, yeah. Well, I didn’t have any other goddamn way of reaching you, did I? Kept your address under lock and bloody key.” Jamie isn’t quite looking at her, hands busy with an emerging spread of sandwich fixings, a bottle of wine, a tin of cookies. Dani stretches across to help. 

“It wasn’t because I didn’t want you to know,” she says quietly. “I just...thought it would be better. That you’d want to keep things...contained.”

“Contained,” Jamie snorts. “Sure. That lasted a whole goddamn month, didn’t it?”

“You made it a month?” Dani teases. “Impressive. Think I was gone by week two.”

Things should take time. Things would make sense, if only they could be parceled out chronologically--if a relationship of two decades was automatically designed to be stronger than one of two weeks. Dani knows better than anyone, how time doesn’t much care about logic, about common sense. 

“Hannah, huh?” Jamie is brushing against the hem of the dress, her fingers as steady as her voice is shaky. “I like it.”

Her eyes say quite clearly she isn’t simply talking about the dress. Dani tightens her grip around the bottle of wine, trying to steady her breath. All cards on the table. 

“We could just...go back to mine. After.”

“Don’t have to. If you’re more comfortable at my place--”

“We could,” Dani repeats. “Back to mine. I’d like...to show it to you. You’d be my first visitor, apart from Hannah.”

Jamie reaches for the bottle. “I’d be honored. After. Put a lot of work into dinner, as you can see, and I’ll not have you rushing me on to the sex.”

***

Dani has never been difficult to talk to. From the very start, it had seemed to Jamie as though they’d been here before--not sleeping together, maybe, but breathing the same air. Volleying conversation. Those eyes, from the first, had felt entirely too familiar. 

Even so, the conversation spilling over the night air is the easiest yet. She’s never thought of Dani as holding much back; certainly, with the complication of physical intimacy broached right off the bat, Dani had been anything but fearful. Still, now, Jamie recognizes just how much Dani has gone seven months without saying. 

It’s in the posture, in how her jaw seems softer, rounder, less firmly-held than ever before. It’s in the way her hands--not grabbing Jamie’s clothes, not winding into fists, not moving reflexively to her mouth--lay at rest in her lap. It’s in, most of all, the way she laughs. Dani has always had a great laugh, but this--head thrown back, voice recklessly loud--is unrepentant. 

“I think you’re my best friend,” she says, and though Jamie has heard the words before, she’s never quite processed them like this. Dani, a biscuit halfway to her mouth, saying it like she’d say, I think it’s going to rain tomorrow. Just the simplicity of fact. 

“Think you’re mine, too. Don’t tell Owen, though, he’ll be furious.” She pauses. “You don’t think that’ll complicate things? Us being...”

“I don’t know that we can make it any more complicated than it already was,” Dani says with a laugh. Jamie hums. 

“Fair enough. But what I mean is...he was your friend, wasn’t he? Before you got engaged, before any of that. And you...” Flinch at his name. Can’t imagine that being me. Can’t imagine you ever turning from me like that. 

Dani’s hand lifts hers from the blanket, turning it over, her nail tracing the lines of Jamie’s palm. “Do you remember what you said to me? At the very beginning?”

“Christ. Something smug and entirely too sexy, I imagine.”

“Two kinds of couples,” Dani says, clearly struggling to ignore this last. “The kind that coasts on a pretty fantasy, and the kind that prioritize one another in the story. That’s what you said.”

“Did I?” Jamie leans back, considering. “Clever of me.”

Dani swats at her, not quite willing to drop Jamie’s hand to do so. “You’re not a fantasy. You’re...rough. And sometimes snappy. And I truly don’t understand that thing you do, where you try to pretend you’re not upset for days until I corner you.”

“I don’t--”

“You do. And don’t think we’re not going to talk about it when you’re not wearing a dress that...makes me feel things about dresses that are very new.” Dani smiles. “But you’re also one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. The best listener, by far. No one has ever made me laugh like you do, even when I’m having my worst kind of day. Eddie wasn’t...any of that.”

Jamie waits for her to seize up, for that old familiar tension to seep back into her shoulders, but Dani just shakes her head. Almost rueful. Almost as though embarrassed she’d wasted so much of her life on someone who didn’t fit. 

“Eddie wanted me to quit my job, did I ever tell you that?” When Jamie shakes once for no, she presses on. “He did. Talked me out of my second job, taking care of the Wingrave kids. Made me feel like I had to choose, constantly, between what he thought was right and what I wanted. You’ve never done that. Not once.”

“Not my place,” Jamie says uncertainly. “No one knows what you need like you do.”

“See, but that.” Dani’s face is brightening, an excited energy threading beneath the curve of her smile. “That is special. That is...my story is my own, with you. I get to share it, with you. I’ve never felt that before.”

Her hand is tightening around Jamie’s, her body inching closer along the blanket. They are, Jamie registers with a thrill of warmth, approaching a dangerous degree of contact. Any closer, and she’s not going to be able to begrudge Dani a thing. 

“What I’m trying to say,” she adds in a voice Jamie is hardwired to find evocative, “is there’s a difference between someone becoming your friend to get somewhere else, and someone becoming your friend out of love. I think we both know we didn’t plan this. I think...some kinds of gravity are just inescapable.”

“Gravity,” Jamie repeats, mouth going dry as Dani leans in. “Bigger than I planned, letting a nice girl into my bed.”

“How,” Dani asks against her lips, “do you think I feel?”

There’s a particular kind of gravity to this, too, Jamie thinks, letting her hands slide around Dani at last. A particular kind of inevitable to the way Dani is kissing her--with less desperation than expected, more that sweet easy conviction they’d been busy developing when Jamie had cut them off a month ago. Dani, before, had kissed like a woman drowning. Dani, before, had kissed like she’d only just learned she was allowed, and was trying madly to make up for decades of looking away from the impulse. Dani’s kiss had been a heady, wonderful thing, filling Jamie’s attention with hands and tongue and small, almost apologetic moans. 

Now, Dani kisses her like she’s been doing it all her life, and it is better than anything Jamie could have planned for. Better, because for the first time, Dani is holding nothing back--and it is making her not more frenzied, not more fevered, not more wild in Jamie’s arms, but more certain. Dani, urging her onto her back, curling against her as if toward a magnificent roaring fire, is moving like tonight--this moment--this one kiss--is the only thing that has ever mattered.

There are things, Jamie thinks, that only ever get better with time. Things that, once embraced, can only burn hotter, dig roots deeper, make a person stronger than they’d ever meant to be. 

Lost a lot of chances to understand that, over the years. Lost more than you’ll ever know, probably. But it brought her here. It brought her to Dani’s mouth, Dani’s soft sigh in her ear, Dani’s hand teasing her dress higher. 

Worth it

“We should go,” Jamie murmurs, even as she’s gripping Dani’s hip for balance. “We should go to yours.”

“Soon,” Dani promises, fingers applying gentle pressure until Jamie can’t resist a sharp gasp. “I want to enjoy this a little longer.”

***

Jamie holds her hand all the way home. It’s such a small, silly thing to fixate on, after everything else. After the way Jamie had groaned into her neck, her voice pitched just above the soft swell of waves, the brush of breeze through the grass. After the way Jamie had kissed her, hands firm at Dani’s back, pulling her close. After how Jamie had moved beneath her, all twisting hip and breathless laughter. Dani has missed it all more than she can say. 

She’s missed it, but somehow, she’s missed this most of all. Jamie’s hand. Jamie’s callouses, the lines of Jamie’s palms, the little scar on her thumb Dani can’t resist pressing into. 

“I like this,” she says quietly. Jamie glances up to her face, down to their hands, smiles. 

“Holding hands?”

“Not questioning it. Not worrying about who’s looking. Or what you’re thinking.” She squints. “What are you thinking?”

“Mostly about how I’m never going to be able to look at that garden quite the same way again.” 

“Oh, because you’ve never taken a girl to--”

“Nope,” Jamie interrupts, looking just a little too proud of herself for Dani not to love her. “Never.”

Never. Never did she take women up to her flat, and never did she drive them home at the end of the night, and never has she reeled back seven months for a first date to do it all right. So many never’s, with Jamie--and now Dani wonders if maybe she’s been compiling a list of never again, instead. Never again do I have to learn how to do this. Never again will I bring a strange woman into my bed. Never again, because Dani is already here.

Too early to ask. Too early, and she’s not sure she will, anyway. There are things that just aren’t important, when all stacked up beside the things that matter most. 

Like Jamie’s face, when she unlocks the door for the first time and flicks on the light. 

Like Jamie’s smile, unexpectedly radiant, her boots clicking over the floorboards. 

Like Jamie, hand still warm in her own, saying, “This is...”

“Not much,” Dani finishes. “Still kind of working on decorating. But it feels like me, you know?”

She’s been careful to make sure of it. Every book on the shelves holds a place of prominence in her heart. Every old movie--Hepburn, Grant, Gable, Bacall--brings her joy. Every photo was taken by her hand, most of them printed on the old shuddering HP LaserJet in the teacher’s lounge. The couch, she found at a flea market; the chairs, mismatched from a yard sale. 

The bed, entirely her own, and never shared. Not once. Not until tonight. 

She’d sort of expected Jamie to grab for her the minute the door was shut, to pull her close and return them at last to a state of familiarity, but Jamie is bending to remove her boots. Her hand rests comfortably on the little table beside the door, like she is not merely visiting for the first time, but coming home. When she straightens, her eyes are already roving, sliding over frame and lamp and the pile of magazines on the lopsided coffee table with interest. 

“Can I...?” She points to the entertainment stand, a little thing Dani had taken about five hours--with much swearing and a few wine breaks--to put together. Dani nods, arms wrapped around herself, thrilling on a level she can’t explain to watch Jamie trail her fingers lightly over an assortment of odd knick-knacks, a stack of DVDs, a tiny potted succulent. 

“Figured even I could keep that alive,” Dani says, when Jamie gives her a look that would be better suited to finding out Dani has been rescuing orphans from wells. “Harder than it looks, though. If you have tips.”

“You want those now?” Jamie wonders, sidling over. “Or after?”

“You did not just get turned on by the mere fact of me owning a plant.”

“I did not,” Jamie confirms. “Didn’t hurt, though.”

The wave of desire crashing over her when Jamie’s hands slide up her ribs is perfect and familiar. The wave of relief, so broad and fierce, it nearly bowls her over, is something else entirely. 

Didn’t think you’d be back, she thinks dimly, even as she’s losing herself in Jamie’s kiss. Didn’t think it’d be the same. She’d thought, in some distant corner of her mind, that Jamie would change it all. That Jamie would do it on purpose, as some kind of well-intentioned gift Dani never asked for. 

Jamie, though, this Jamie--dress and earrings and smoky eyeshadow--is still her Jamie. Still laughs the same way, when Dani drags a hand through her hair. Still groans exactly the same, when Dani pushes her gently against the back of an armchair, fingers tracing the line of her jaw. Still pushes back into her kiss like it’s all a bit of a dare, a bit of a promise, a bit of fun she has no desire to ever go without again.

“It’s all right,” she’s saying around kisses, her eyes rolling back when Dani’s hand works its way around the back of her dress and squeezes. “If you--if you just wanna--”

“You’re going to say talk, aren't you?” Dani leans back, surveying the flush of Jamie’s cheeks, the smudged quality of makeup that still feels new and lovely and sort of unacceptably not Jamie. It’s all her, and it’s all someone she’s crafted for Dani tonight, and Dani wants to strip it all away until the only thing left is the woman she couldn’t help falling in love with. 

“No,” Jamie says, quite calmly. “No, don’t have to talk. Just want you to know the option is open.”

“Trying to prove you’ve grown as a person?” 

“That I want you,” Jamie says without missing a beat. “For more than just how you look in that dress. Though, and I cannot stress this enough: well done.”

***

It feels like the first time, in ways she can’t explain--in ways she wouldn’t want to explain, even to Dani. Even to herself. It feels like the first time, like she’s washed away years of quick-and-get-lost, years of seeing a first love reflected in the eyes of strangers, years of teaching herself to feel nothing even as she allows the women in her bed everything at once.

It feels like the first time, when Dani almost shyly turns down her sheets, looking around the small bedroom like she’s not sure what to do first.

It feels like the first time, Jamie letting herself forget for a moment that it can all--too easily--become habit. Her hands reach for Dani’s, her breath coming slow as she pulls Dani into an embrace and just…rests here. Just for a little while, her fingers tracing the skin of Dani’s back before velvet takes over, her face turned against Dani’s neck. Start over, she thinks, inhaling a deep breath, closing her eyes. Learn her again.

“You’re all right?” Dani asks against her hair. “You seem…”

“Slow,” Jamie murmurs, kissing once, waiting for Dani to breathe out against her chest. Dani, who is holding herself surprisingly taut. Dani, who feels like she had that first night, as if the excitement and the fear were twins she could not extricate from one another.

Slow had been good, then--slow had been perfect, then. Dani, relaxing by small measures, as she is doing now. And Jamie, at the time, had felt so in control of the situation. So sturdy, so confident. It had felt like a pleasant game, a winding-down of a long day, back then.

Now, as she’s kissing Dani’s shoulder, as her hands are sliding down Dani’s back without a hint of rush, it feels almost like swimming out. Almost like drifting into ever-deepening water, every kick drawing her a little further away from shore. Sooner or later, she knows, the ground will cast out from beneath her feet. Sooner or later, she knows, she will have no choice but to give it all she has. 

Dani’s hands are exploring in their own right, moving down over her shoulders, sliding down her arms, slipping around her waist. Dani, who has come to her so many times in a heady rush, all push and pull and want, feels content now. Content, at peace, even with her face flushed and her breath sweeping in hot little darts against Jamie’s skin.

“I’m glad,” she says quietly. “That you came up tonight.”

There aren’t enough words in the world, not for this kind of agreement, and Jamie finds she can only kiss her. Kiss her, and let a hand linger at the zipper at the back of this lovely dress, waiting for Dani to nod. It takes a while, Dani so pleasantly kissing her back, and again she thinks, Slow. Slow, the way it’s never been, not even when she’d thought they’d been relaxed and easy together.

That, still, had always looked a little like holding back.

This, here, feels like the start of something honest.

***

There is no desperation. No gripping at Jamie to keep the thoughts at bay. No losing herself in the slide of skin, the trace of fingertip, the ever-intensifying kiss to maintain some kind of hold on her own recklessness. There is no fear, no hungry uncertainty, no absolution sought out in the arc of Jamie’s smile.

There is only a dress, gently removed. A second, left to pool on the floor. A hand at her cheek, a thumb tracing her lips until she kisses it with eyes closed. There is only Jamie’s familiar frame following her down onto the mattress. Jamie’s familiar soft laugh when her nails trace instinctively up an ink-stained back. Jamie’s familiar low groan, when her hand catches confident fingers and presses them between her legs.

Jamie, who touches her like she’s been waiting for this moment for weeks. She grips at Jamie’s hips, her back, her hair, and thinks, Was always supposed to be here. Not because Jamie is teaching her anything, but because Jamie is sharing things with her she’s never wanted from anyone else. Because Jamie is willing, with every eager curl of her fingers, with every seemingly-endless kiss, to write with her a story no one else belongs in. Even if they maybe didn’t get it right the first time. Even if there are maybe too many pages of mistake before this one. It doesn’t matter--it doesn’t lessen the impact of Jamie now, kissing her and whispering things Dani almost can’t process around the exultant shatter of every nerve.

There is a sheet pulled up over rolling hips, lost again in the shuffle when she shifts Jamie onto her back. There is a pillow, tossed off the bed, and another, tucked comfortably under Jamie’s head. There is leaning back, looking down at her, remembering all the times Jamie had just sat back on her haunches to regard Dani splayed across a space that had once been Jamie, and only Jamie, and by now had grown to encompass them both.

This is what it feels like, she realizes, to have someone imprinted on your world. This is what it feels like, to invite someone inside, to close the door behind them, to wave a hand and say, Here. You’re welcome, here. You belong, here.

Jamie, her hair unpinned, her skin slick with sweat, invited in for real this time. Jamie, her breath catching when Dani leans over her, kisses lips and throat and shoulder like they have endless hours to spare, invited to stay.

Jamie, whose hand slides into her hair as she travels lower, tasting wildflower and curling vine and vibrant rose petal. Jamie, who has only ever moved beneath her mouth this way on a single occasion--in a way that had felt good at the time, and unfamiliar, a thrill she’d planned on carrying like a dark little secret for the rest of her life. She was never going to get it again, she’d realized a week later. She was never going to feel Jamie wind tight the same way, her hips lifting, her voice caught between clenched teeth. Jamie, at the time, doomed to memory and nothing more.

And now: Jamie, pushing back her hair to better see her face, sitting up just enough to watch Dani move. Jamie, a hand pressed lightly to the crown of her head, even as she’s beginning to rock gently beneath the flick of Dani’s tongue, the trace of Dani’s kiss. She could, Dani suspects, last forever this way, with Dani giving just this much. A private hourglass frozen between them, the world a perfect cycle of breath and pounding heart and Jamie beginning to utter little cries of frustration.

The last time--the last time, she’d thought for too long--she’d been a rampage of arousal and fear and delirious distraction from her own heart. The last time, she’d tried her best to mirror Jamie’s actions, her memory of Jamie a hundred times over on her own body, and it had worked--it had done the trick. But it hadn’t been Jamie’s way, not really. She’d forgotten the most important part, the bit Jamie has always valued most.

Pay attention. Read her body. Listen to her. There’s no rush this time, no apprehensive excitement of Jamie forcing herself to stay quiet, Dani half-lost in the new of Jamie trembling beneath her lips, half-listening for approaching footsteps. There had been a heat to that so like riding Jamie in half a dozen dangerously-public locations--but this, the locked door and smooth sheets of her own bed, brings a different kind of intensity. Here, she’s allowed not simply to disappear into Jamie, but to coax her leisurely along. Here, she can learn Jamie in this bright new way, piecing together all the searing memories of before with the endless stretch of now.

Jamie, watching her with absolute focus as she kisses hipbone and joint of thigh, the pressure of her hand almost nonchalant as she urges Dani along her skin. Jamie, breathing in deeply, waiting in suspension when Dani pauses just out of reach, meeting her eyes. Jamie, saying her name once, like permission, like pleading, when she offers the most tentative contact just to see Jamie’s eyes roll back.

There is so much to this, she marvels, pressing herself down and uttering a fractured sound of her own. So much to the slow, steady rock of Jamie against her mouth, Jamie holding herself in check as though giving Dani time to explore. So much to the tension of Jamie’s stomach muscles under her hand, the way they flutter when she strokes with the tip of her tongue. So much to the tang of Jamie in her mouth, the almost strained sound of Jamie’s voice above her saying, “That’s--that’s--fuck, keep doing that--“

So much to love, so much to memorize. Like how Jamie breathes faster when Dani’s nails trace the ink of her thigh in time with the roll of her tongue. Like how Jamie seems to be trying desperately hard to hold still under slow, long licks, one hand fisted around sheets. Like how Jamie can’t keep her eyes open, not with Dani applying this pressure, this gentle suction, this sudden thrust of fingers.

She could stay here forever, she thinks, as Jamie rocks forward on the sheets, her back arching. She could stay here forever, waiting for Jamie to come down just enough to breathe--and then, unable to resist, starting all over again with tiny kisses, testing pressure that causes Jamie to growl out her name in surprise. Starting all over again, picking up speed, her head bobbing without self-consciousness as she buries herself in slick heat until Jamie is curling off the mattress to meet her. She’s barely able to make a sound, her lips parted, both hands digging into Dani’s hair to pull her close as she shudders, and Dani thinks, All day. All day tomorrow, if she’ll let me.  

“Again?” she asks softly against Jamie’s thigh, and hears a rough laugh from the pillows.

“Need a minute,” Jamie says, her voice raw. “Month without. Out of practice.”

“A month?” Dani crawls back to join her, resting her head on Jamie’s trembling shoulder. Jamie makes a soft sound of assent.

“Didn’t feel right, calling anyone else. Haven’t, for a long time.”

“How long?”

Jamie says nothing for a moment, her fingers trailing absently along Dani’s arm. Dani raises her head.

“Jamie.”

“Almost seven months?” There’s embarrassment, she thinks, in Jamie’s grin. Embarrassment, and little bit of pride, too. “Got a little distracted. Hung up, might say. On a woman who came charging in to ask if I could teach her things.”

“Your phone--“

“Yeah,” Jamie says, “turned off the notifications, finally. Think it’s time I stopped entertaining the masses.”

Dani looks at her, a rumpled, happy, familiar form so newly planted in this bed. She looks right, with the warm light of Dani’s lamp spilling over her skin, the blankets thrown to the floor. She looks fitting, one arm behind her head, looking up at Dani this way.

“That all right?” she asks, when Dani doesn’t say anything. “If I just…let all of that go?”

Dani curls back into her. “That wasn’t the deal, you know. I still don’t want to…make you into someone you’re not.”

“Can’t change the past,” Jamie murmurs, stroking her hair. “We just choose what comes next, right?”

***

Waking early at Dani’s is different--there is no guitar to play, no plants to tend to, no gym down the street to sneak off to for a quick workout. Waking early at Dani’s means simply stretching in bed, her hand working across the pillows to land on the steady rise-fall of Dani’s bare back as she sleeps.

It is, Jamie thinks, something she could get used to. The idea that she doesn’t have to launch out of bed at the first caress of daylight. The idea that she doesn’t have to be moving to call the morning valid. That she can simply lay here with her thoughts, and find there are no monsters of note lurking among them.

Dani wakes slowly in her own bed, as she always does at Jamie’s place, and it’s glorious to watch. The gentle turn of her face against the pillows, the way her expression scrunches in distaste at the thin brush of sunlight dancing across closed eyes--and, pleasantly, the way she relaxes into a smile when Jamie leans over and kisses her cheek. She’s still only half in the world, Jamie can tell, not quite to the place where actually dipping below the sheets would be appropriate, but she’s getting there. Could be an endless sort of morning, her body rubbing lightly against Dani’s side, her hands tracing smooth skin with unhurried grace, and if they don’t leave here for hours--if they in fact spend the rest of the day right here--she doubts anyone would complain.

She’s kissing Dani’s shoulder, exploring the freckles of her back, the ridges of her shoulder blades, and thinking, This is as good as it gets, when a knock on the door startles them both. Dani, jumping so badly she nearly tumbles out onto the floor, gazes at her with a confusion that is at once half-asleep and half-aroused.

“Who?”

“Fuck if I know.” A check in the Jamie’s flat column, then. No one ever knocks on her door, except for Dani. “Want me to get it?”

“Could you?” Dani flops back. “Just. If it’s a delivery person, just do a squiggle.”

Jamie retrieves her underwear from the floor, an unreasonably fluffy pink robe from the back of a chair, wraps herself neatly up. Still a sight, she recognizes, in all likelihood--last night’s makeup having taken existential damage, her hair an absolute travesty--but what does she care? Only person whose opinion matters did this to her in the first place, and will likely only improve matters the sooner she gets back into that bed.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m comin’,” she tells the next rap of knuckles, prying open the door with safety chain still engaged. “Look, bit early for any kind of--Hannah?”

“Jamie,” Hannah replies, her eyes enormous. “Fancy seeing you in, erm. Such a new outfit.”

Worlds better than the alternative, love. “What are you, ah…what’re you doing here?”

Hannah seems for a moment to have genuinely forgotten, her gaze jumping from Jamie’s hair to her face to the hands pulling the robe nervously tighter around her body. “I--was looking for Dani. Don’t suppose she’s…well, I wanted to see how her date went.”

“Fine,” Jamie says dumbly. “Good. I mean. Still here, so. As signs go…”

“I suppose,” Hannah says, “this says excellent things about my taste in women.”

“Pardon?” The morning probably could get stranger, she thinks, though only if a herd of buffalo were to rampage through Dani’s kitchen without notice.

“That you’re her date. You. I’d been hoping to introduce you, if ever she finally took me up on that venture to the gym, but…I see I’m a little late.”

Jamie, despite herself, grins. “Want me to get her?”

“No,” Hannah says hurriedly. “No, no, that’s all right. Tell her I rang. Perhaps she’d like to visit a bit later, when she’s less…occupied. You’re welcome, too, of course. For supper. If you’d like.”

Dani is still drowsy when she returns to bed, tossing herself in among the blankets without care. She watches Dani bounce in place, her arms wound tight around a pillow in Jamie’s absence, her face scrunching grumpily up.

“Package?”

“Hannah,” Jamie corrects. “Nice woman, though a bit punctual with her check-ins. Me, I’d wait to ask how a date went until after noon next day, at least.”

Dani’s eyes fly open. “Hannah? Hannah was--well--you didn’t invite her in?”

“Tried,” says Jamie comfortably. “She seemed to think she wasn’t needed just now. Invited us both to supper, though. Really kind of her, haven’t had a home-cooked meal prepared by someone with actual skill since I was--“

Dani rolls over, plucking at the stolen robe with a raise of her eyebow. Jamie shrugs.

“What, didn’t think I was going to put the fuckin’ dress back on, did you?” When Dani laughs, she reaches out, pulls her close. “Oh, by the way, you really should have said yes to Hannah’s blind date thing ages ago.”

Dani, who has just started getting comfortable in the crook of Jamie’s neck, drifting distractingly light kisses as she sees fit, leans back. “What? Why?”

Jamie only grins. Her eyebrows shoot nearly to her hairline.

“No. You?”

“Of course,” Jamie says happily. “We have had many a fine conversation over the water cooler, I’ll have you know. Well, I say many. More like two. Regardless, Hannah thinks I am a star.”

“Hannah,” Dani replies, rolling her over and sitting companionably on her thighs, “can be forgiven for overlooking the smug factor.”

If smug is what gets her this view each morning--Dani with hair a wreck, eyes a bit bleary, smile as gorgeous as ever--Jamie will take it. She is just smoothing her hands lightly up Dani’s body, smiling at the idea of Dani riding her while she’s wearing this patently-ridiculous bathrobe, when Dani says, “Hey. Idea.”

“Sexy idea?”

“Where’s your phone?”

Jamie frowns. “Thought we’d agreed to leave phones out of it, on account of how easy it is to spend an entire day acting like idiots should we mix them up.”

She points Dani toward her bag anyway, only slightly uneasy when Dani walks quickly back and presses it into Jamie’s hand.

“Text Owen.”

“This,” Jamie says, sitting up, “is getting less sexy by the minute.”

“Seriously,” Dani laughs. “Text Owen. Ask him about that blind date.”

Halfway through complying, Jamie raises her eyes. “You don’t really think--“

That girl! Owen uses far too many exclamation marks, grandmother that he is. The one!! With the blonde hair, you always go all googly when she smiles at you! Think her name is Dani?

you were gonna set me up on a ‘think her name is’? Jamie taps back, already laughing. A beat, then:

YOU NEED A NICE GIRL!!!!

“He seems very wise,” Dani, reading over her shoulder, says. Her arms slide gently around Jamie’s middle, her lips coasting along Jamie’s neck once more. The press of her skin is more than a little distracting, particularly when she unties the robe and eases it down Jamie’s back.

“Very nice,” Jamie agrees, tossing her phone toward the nightstand, not much caring when it hits the floor and skids away. She’s already turning toward Dani, leaning into a gloriously long kiss that leaves them both breathless. “Mind if we go back to pretending no one else exists now?”

It comes as little surprise that Dani, curling both hands around her face, pushing her gently into the mattress, doesn’t seem to mind in the least.  

Chapter Text

A dinner party is not the weirdest thing she’s done with Dani, it’s true. A dinner party is, in fact, worlds less weird than--say--attending a work event in formalwear before the relationship has solidified past its strictly-no-feelings bounds. 

And, as Dani has pointed out, it’s less a dinner party and more an eventuality that was always coming, Jamie. Something simple. Something entirely manageable, after all they’ve been through.

Still. 

“Are you actually nervous?” Dani, kind heart that she is, is grinning. It’s the very same grin she wore the first time Jamie uttered the word girlfriend out loud, feeling a little as though the ceiling might crash down on her head as punishment. 

“Not nervous. Just...anticipatory.” 

“A word used only when someone is trying not to freak out,” Dani points out. “Come on, it’s only Hannah.”

“It is not,” Jamie says, a bit sullenly, “only Hannah. Only Hannah would mean a pleasant three-person meal in this very flat. This is--this involves--”

Dani’s grin widens. "It’s the kids, isn’t it?”

“There are kids,” Jamie groans, tilting backwards over the arm of the couch in a theatrical sprawl. She doesn’t move, hips hiked up, legs dangling perilously off the floor, until Dani pushes her knees apart to lean between them. 

“Don’t tell me you’re scared of kids. You’re dating a teacher.”

“And you are very good at what you do,” Jamie points out. “Very fuckin’ good. And what do I do?”

“You know you’re an excellent florist--”

“Exactly,” Jamie says pointedly. “I do not work with gremlins. ‘Cause, see, if I was any good at it, I’d be in that fuckin’ line of work, wouldn’t I?”

Dani makes an amused sound under her breath, her hands warm on either side of Jamie’s hips. The relationship, as it stands--properly, Jamie thinks often, not to be mixed up with how they'd begun things--is over two months old now. The relationship, as it stands in totality is--

"Closer to a year than not,” Dani says, her hands idly working the hem of Jamie’s shirt higher with every word, “and you still haven’t met them. They’re important, Jamie.”

“I know--” It is, Jamie thinks, propping herself up on her elbows as Dani eases the shirt up her ribs, utterly distracting trying to hold a conversation this way. “Exactly the goddamn problem. What if I say something wrong? Can’t remember the last time I talked to anyone under the age of twenty-four, Dani.”

“It’s easy.” Dani is bent nearly double over her, kissing along the waistband of her jeans. “All you have to do is be yourself.”

“Myself,” Jamie repeats dryly. "Which part of myself is appropriate for a nine-year-old, exactly?”

Dani laughs, the sound muffled into Jamie’s stomach. “We should’ve accepted Hannah’s invitation weeks ago. You’ve got it all built up in your head now.”

“Well, can you fuckin’ blame me? Couple of rich kids, no parents, and you practically raised ‘em? It’s like meeting family, Dani.”

“You’ve met my family,” Dani says patiently. “You weren’t half this nervous.”

Jamie groans. “Well, you didn’t care what dear Karen had to say on the subject, did you? What if they hate me? What if they--”

Dani’s hands are firm on her hips, pushing sharply until she’s sprawled crookedly on the couch from the waist up. Her feet land on the floor, Dani shoving her knees apart to kneel between them. 

“Sit up.”

Grudgingly, Jamie does. Dani is wearing the look, the one she gets in her eye when her tolerance for foolishness slips. It is not entirely without its attractive properties, though it generally means conversation now, fun some other time.

 Now, she grasps the front of Jamie’s t-shirt in both hands, her expression serious. 

“Do you know,” she says in the calmest voice imaginable, “I love you?”

A pleasant warmth kneads into her stomach. It isn’t the first time Dani has said it--Dani’s been saying it for months, each time as though these three simple words are the language she’s been hoping for a reason to use her whole life--but the potency never seems to diminish. Dani loves her. Dani loves her, even when she’s behaving like something of an anxious twat. 

Dani’s eyebrow is raised, waiting for an answer. Jamie nods once. 

“Then,” she goes on, her hands loosening, sliding up Jamie’s chest to grip her shoulders, “can you believe me when I say if I love you, and Hannah loves you--”

“Love seems a strong word. Impressed by my workout routine, maybe--”

“--then those kids are going to feel exactly the same?” Dani smiles. “Especially Flora. She is going to think you’re the coolest.”

***

Jamie really doesn’t have anything to worry about in that department, Dani privately believes. Flora convinced herself of Jamie’s cool factor long ago, and with nearly zero input from anyone else.

As evidenced by the text she finds waiting, toweling off after a shower, in Flora’s distinctive careful style.

Miss Clayton, this is Flora Wingrave. Mrs. Grose says you will be coming for dinner tonight. Are you bringing Miss Taylor?

She thumbs back an affirmative, trying not to imagine Jamie’s face if she knew this small child was mentally referring to her as Miss Taylor. A delicious image best saved for another time, probably, when Jamie isn’t busy having a nervous breakdown over what a fourth-grader will think of her in a matter of hours. 

You can just call her Jamie. 

Mrs. Grose says it isn’t polite. 

Mrs. Grose, Dani suspects, is also looking forward to the shade of maroon Jamie is likely to turn the first time a child calls her Miss. 

Another text from Flora: What’s her favorite color?

“Jamie?” Dani calls. “What’s your favorite color?”

Jamie pokes her head into the bathroom, suspicion creasing her features. “Green, I think. Why?”

“Your birthday’s coming up, I thought I’d drop it on your Instagram and see what all seventy thousand of our closest friends do in response.”

It’s worth it, for the look on Jamie’s face. 

***

“I should have changed,” Jamie mumbles. She’s pulling at the front of her shirt, a crisp navy button-down patterned with bright blue flowers. With the sleeves rolled at her biceps and the collar open, she looks to Dani’s mind like someone who should never wear anything but this again. 

Still, it’s kind to humor a woman in distress. “Why’s that?”

“Is it not too...matchy?” She’s brushing her fingers across the hydrangea spilling purple petals down her forearm. “Do I lean too hard into the flower thing? I do, don’t I?”

“Is this what I sounded like, asking how to be gay enough to date?” Okay, maybe we’re doing only so much humoring. She grins, sliding a hand around Jamie’s arm. “If I promise we will have the most earth-shattering sex when we get home, will you stop panicking?”

“Am fully capable of panic and libido at the same time, I’ll have you know.” Jamie sucks in a breath. “Right. Do it, ‘fore I change my mind.”

She genuinely sounds as though Dani has her by the hand, ready to leap off the side of a building, instead of poised to knock on the door of Bly Manor. Dani hesitates, her fist inches from the wood--

The door swings open, a bundle of blue dress and brilliant smile launching from the foyer like a cannonball. “Miss Clayton, Miss Clayton, is this her?”

“It is.” Dani bends at the waist, catching Flora’s somewhat aggressive hug before it can knock her flat. “Flora, this is--”

“Mrs. Grose says it’s only polite to call you Miss Taylor,” Flora announces, swiveling on her heel to look Jamie in the eye. “But Miss Clayton says I can just call you Jamie. Does that mean I should call you Miss Jamie?”

Jamie looks as though she might turn and sprint back out into the night. Dani grabs for her hand without glancing away from Flora’s exuberant smile.

“Just Jamie, I think,” she says. Out of the corner of her eye, Jamie seems almost to deflate with relief. 

“Yeah, I’m, ah--basically a big kid, anyway. Never held much with the miss.”

Flora tips her head curiously. “Even though it’s not polite?”

“Even though,” Jamie agrees, her voice oddly strangled. She’s looking at Flora like she’s not entirely sure what to expect, as though Flora might at any moment burst into flame or stab her in the thigh. Certainly, when Flora reaches into her pocket and withdraws something small, Jamie very nearly flinches back. 

“Here,” Flora says, grabbing Jamie’s wrist and placing the item into her upturned palm. “Miss Clayton says green is your favorite color. I had to rush, but I’ll do you a better one for next time.”

“Next time,” Jamie repeats, raising the small item--a vaguely humanoid shape done in forest-green yarn--for inspection. It looks significantly more like one of Charlotte Wingraves old talismans, Dani thinks, intended to keep her family safe from perceived harm, than Flora’s usual creations, but Jamie is staring at it as though she’s never been handed something more precious in her life. 

“Yes. It’s important that everyone gets one.” Flora clasps her hands behind her back, beaming. “Do you like it?”

“Love it,” Jamie says hoarsely. Her eyes flick to Dani, her cheeks pink. “I--do I keep this, or...?”

“It stays here,” Flora says, reaching to take it back. “So you can be part of the family. Come on, you must see the house. And meet Miles. Although--” She lowers her voice dramatically, her free hand searching out Jamie’s fingers. “He didn’t make you anything. I checked. Very inconsiderate.”

Jamie, being dragged along in her wake, doesn’t seem to know what to say to this. Dani swallows a grin. 

***

Flora is genuinely sweet in ways Jamie didn’t think kids could be--particularly the privileged children of people rich enough to afford a place like this as though it’s nothing.

“Christ, what a house,” she mutters under her breath. Flora, rushing ahead to show off the all-original paintings and intricate wallpaper, doesn’t hear. Dani, holding her hand, makes a small noise of amusement. 

“The house is wild,” she admits, “but you get used to it pretty fast. They just don’t know anything else. More importantly, I think she’s really taking a shine to you.”

“Didn’t do anything,” Jamie says, unable to fend off a rush of pleasure. The idea of a kid like Flora being so instantly affectionate should be overwhelming--she truly doesn’t have the first idea how to hold a conversation with someone that small and excitable, hasn’t been around kids at all since she was one--but it feels more like walking into a party and finding the family retriever won’t leave your side. There’s a sense of peace, a sense of surprising pride, and when Flora comes pelting back to show off a particularly ugly granite bust she calls Boris, Jamie can’t help leaning down and asking for its life story. 

Dani’s eyes are on her the whole time, her expression warm. These kids--this little girl and her solemn brother, who looks Jamie over with curious uncertainty--are a part of her life Jamie can’t quite fathom. Still, there’s no denying how much they matter, how there is nothing owed to the way Dani speaks of them. It’s almost the same way she speaks of her own childhood, in haltingly-casual words that try always to skirt the depths of pain an eight-year-old girl can feel when her whole family disappears out from under her.

Jamie understands, to a point, but there are different flavors of pain. Some kids raise themselves because their parents run. Some, because they die. Still others, because there is an unplugging to grief impossible to anticipate. What these kids have been through--the burden Dani carries for them--is familiar, and singular, and awful.

Their parents, she remembers Dani saying when it had first come up in conversation, were busy, even back when Wingrave hired me--Dominic was always traveling with Henry, and Charlotte ran her own business. But they were good people, loved their kids, wanted what was best for them, even when they couldn’t be around. And when they died...

She’d gone stiff around the mouth then, her eyes far-away. They’d died, these kids orphaned in a single shot, but Eddie’s push for Dani’s resignation had already taken hold. She hadn’t been there. It doesn’t take much to see she hasn’t ever entirely forgiven herself for that, might not ever be able to accept how little blame she can take for such an unpredictable event.

The kids, though, don’t seem to hold it against her. Flora is between them, one hand in Jamie’s, one in Dani’s, talking a mile a minute about imaginary friends and real ones at school and Miles. The way she keeps looking at Dani, her tiny face shining with unbridled joy, feels like the most honest thing in the world. This is not, Jamie can tell, a kid who understands what it is to hold a grudge.

Miles is a little bit different. Where Flora won’t stop touching her hands, talking all the while (”What’s your favorite game, Jamie? Where do you work, Jamie? Do you like shepherd’s pie, Jamie, Mrs. Grose makes the best shepherd’s pie--”), Miles seems not quite sure what to make of her from the minute they stroll into the expansive kitchen. 

Dani, who has been steadily working to improve her culinary skills to keep us from going bankrupt on takeout, come on, we can do this, leaps straight into assistant mode. Jamie, feeling decidedly out of place, is relieved when Hannah revolves around and presses a glass of wine into her hand. 

“Make yourself at home, dear, supper will be ready soon.”

“Jamie says she loves shepherd’s pie,” Flora announces. And, when Hannah’s eyes narrow, she adds hastily, “And that I should call her Jamie. Just Jamie.”

“Pity.” Hannah’s eyes twinkle. “I was really hoping we’d squeeze a solid hour out of Miss Taylor.”

Dani makes a thin noise that might get away with sounding like a cough, if not for all the hours Jamie’s spent memorizing her laughter. Jamie discreetly raises one finger behind her glass. 

“Jamie?” Flora is bouncing beside her, a girl-shaped ping-pong ball. Jamie sips her wine to buy a few seconds, arranging her face back into what she hopes is question-answering-mode. 

“Flora.”

“How much did that hurt?” She’s pointing at the inked hydrangea, a hungry interest in her eyes. “They use needles, you know.”

“Not nearly as much as you’d think.” Jamie holds out her arm to offer a better look. Flora grabs hold with unanticipated strength; a small amount of wine sloshes over the glass, Jamie wincing as it strikes the floor. “Careful.”

Flora seems not to notice. “Do you have more?”

Jamie sends a helpless glance toward Dani, who is busily doing something at the stove which prevents immediate rescue. “I--yeah, a few.”

“Can I see?”

Just strip, she thinks dazedly, right here in the kitchen. Fantastic first impression. “I, uh--”

“Flora, set the table, please,” Hannah says, and though this is the woman who attempted to make Miss Taylor happen, Jamie’s not sure she’s ever been more indebted to another human being in her life. “Miles, take this over, and mind the heat--”

“Not expecting Henry, then?” Dani shifts behind Jamie, sliding an arm around her middle and resting her chin on her shoulder. Jamie leans back, resisting the instinctive urge to close her eyes. “I thought, maybe...”

“He’s in Toronto this week,” Hannah sighs. “Or possibly Dublin, honestly, I’m losing track. How that man keeps his schedule, I will never understand.”

“When’d you last see him?” Dani’s fingers curl lightly around the glass in Jamie’s hand, relieving her of its burden long enough to take a long sip before handing it back. Hannah frowns thoughtfully at the ceiling. 

“Must’ve been--”

“Almost a month,” Miles mumbles. “Doesn’t even call.” 

Jamie feels Dani draw in a breath behind her, clearly scrounging for something to make the kid feel better. Before she can speak, he’s shaking his head. 

“Dunno why he even comes back. He doesn’t like it here.”

“Of course he does,” Dani says. “Miles--”

“He doesn’t,” he repeats. “He can’t get away fast enough.”

Hannah’s brows are drawing together, Dani’s expression tilting toward the look she gets when she can’t quite puzzle out a problem child at school. Either one of them is the best person for the situation, Jamie knows; either one would be perfectly suited to talk Miles out of a mood. They know him. They get him. They--

“Y’know, my parents didn’t much like being home, either.” The words are spilling out of her in a too-casual voice, like she’s got any right to speak an honest truth to a kid she’s known for all of ten minutes. Dani leans sideways, quietly studying the side of her head; Miles looks up in surprise.

“They didn’t?”

“Nope.” Extricating herself gently from Dani’s embrace, she shifts her grip on the glass, takes another sip, strolls over to lean against the table. “Dad never seemed to scrounge enough hours at work, and Mum was, ah--best left unmentioned in mixed company, probably.”

His solemn expression is cracking open, curiosity bleeding through. “What’d you do?”

Nothing you should emulate. “Had two brothers. Leaned into them where I could.” He doesn’t need to know how little that was, how Mikey was too small and Denny too angry, how the foster system scooped her up before she was much older than Miles himself. None of that matters right now. “Learned a secret pretty young.”

“What secret?” He’s trying not to look invested, she recognizes. Trying not to look like he needs to know. She remembers seeing that own look in the mirror, how desperate she’d been in all those early homes to find something that might stick. 

She glances at Dani now, who gives a very small nod. Hannah, making a fairly obvious show of finishing meal preparations, is clearly listening as well. Jamie rubs her neck, tries not to think about how this is the first time she’s ever set foot in this dreamlike house. How she has no real place, telling Miles anything just now. How she’s already opened her mouth all the same, yet another instance of too late to turn back now.

What did we learn from Dani? Might as well jump. 

“Secret is, not everyone is good at people,” she says. “Or at family. But that the people who are--the ones worth sticking around for--are more important than you’d think. Like, ah...” She lowers her voice to a stage whisper, gesturing with her glass at Flora, who is not even pretending not to eavesdrop. “That wee thing over there. She’s important, yeah?”

Miles nods, no hesitation at all. She’d guessed as much; though he looks embarrassed when Flora gets going, there’s a very faint smile on his lips every time, the sort of look a kid doesn’t even realize he’s wearing. 

“And Mrs. Grose,” Jamie adds, when Hannah floats across the room with a stack of cloth napkins. “Been here every day, I’d wager. For how long?”

“My whole life,” he says, like he’s never thought of it quite that way. 

“Right. Part of the family. That’s the other bit, y’know, of the secret.” She glances up, meets Dani’s eyes. So little time. So little time has gone by, and still, it’s so true, it makes her chest ache. “Don’t have to be blood to be the most important goddamn people in the world.”

“Language,” Hannah says in a low, teasing voice, bumping Jamie with her hip like they’ve been doing meals this way for years. Jamie, laughing, shakes her head.

“Only just got in touch with my softer side, Hannah. Let’s save the profanity scrub for another day.”

“That was,” Dani murmurs, as Miles and Flora finish setting the table and Hannah motions for them to sit, “really, really good, you know.”

Jamie shrugs, but Dani slips a hand beneath the table to rest on her knee, and Miles takes the seat on her other side with a shy grin, and she thinks this all could be going much worse, actually.

***

The longer they eat, drink, chat with the companionable enjoyment of people who really do suit one another, the less Jamie looks like she’s going to bolt out the nearest window without warning. She has, little by little, begun reclining in her seat, legs sprawling under the table; when Miles grunts in surprise at the kick of her boot against his foot, she grins and kicks again until he laughs and kicks back. 

She fits, Dani thinks with no surprise at all--just as she’d fit with Dani with so little effort, as she fits with Hannah’s dry sense of humor, as she fits everywhere in Dani’s life. That she ever thought she couldn’t--that she thought for even a moment that she wasn’t good enough for Dani--is unfathomable. 

She’s even managing to handle Flora’s no-breath-needed stream of questions with minimal choking. 

Mostly. 

“What’s your favorite band?” Flora asks. Jamie, swirling her wine, considers.

“Blondie.”

“What’s that?” Flora’s nose wrinkles. 

“Old-person music,” Miles says with a grin. Jamie kicks him again.

“Come on. Heart of GlassCall Me?” She shoots Dani a disbelieving scowl. “What heathens have you tricked me into dining with?”

It’s good to see her this way after two days of bemoaning her nonexistent skills with children. Better yet how clear it is Jamie is actually trying--leaning over to engage Miles in conversation about the most vile vegetable, or patiently walking Flora through the finer elements of 80′s rock bands. 

Or:

“Are you going to ask Miss Clayton to marry you?”

Jamie, blessedly, has just swallowed a mouthful of food. The noise she makes is entirely her own, and--while slightly higher in pitch than her usual voice--not the most embarrassing thing in the world. 

The hacking fit Dani is having, on the other hand, spraying wine onto the tablecloth--

“I,” Jamie says, trying to help Dani breathe again with one hand thumping her on the back, “um. That’s a bit--”

Personal, Flora,” Dani wheezes. And early. And why is she assuming Jamie would be the one to ask? “Hannah, I’m sorry--”

“Oh, it’s not a family meal if no one’s stained the linens,” Hannah says breezily, pushing back her chair and recovering the empty plates from her own place and Dani’s. “Flora, sweetheart, could you pour Miss Clayton a bit more water?”

“Very smooth,” Jamie murmurs into her ear, sounding far more amused than she has any right. Dani fixes her with a deeply impotent glare; it lasts maybe five seconds before the soft arc of Jamie’s smile melts her irritation away. “You all right?”

“Lungs,” Dani rasps, “will probably recover. Pride...”

“You still have pride, after a decade working with kids?” Jamie shakes her head. “Been around ‘em a single evening, and I’m considering pitching what’s left of mine in the bin.”

“But are you?” Flora, hefting a pitcher of water so heavy, her tiny arms tremble, has reappeared between them. Jamie relieves her of her burden before her strength can give out, shaking her head with a grin. 

“Think that’s between me and Miss Clayton, don’t you?”

Flora heaves a sigh. “But you’ve been together forever.”

Dani opens her mouth to correct Flora’s somewhat flawed conception of time and what constitutes forever--and stops. Jamie is still looking at her, one hand braced gently against her spine, her gaze warm and no longer the least bit amused. 

Not even a year, Dani thinks with a familiar helpless wonder. Not even a year, and no one in their right mind would be planning for forever. No one in their right mind. 

And still, Jamie is looking at her like she’s never seen anyone who makes as much sense. Flora is looking from one to the other like a tennis spectator, and Miles is trying to tug Jamie’s plate away, and Jamie is just...watching her with an expression so soft, it makes Dani’s heart race just to look at her. 

“Probably should stick it out a bit longer,” Jamie says quietly--ostensibly to Flora, though her eyes never leave Dani’s. “Just to be sure.”

“Probably,” Dani agrees, sliding a hand to cover Jamie’s. Flora heaves a deep sigh.

“Will you at least come for supper again next week?”

“I think we can do that,” Dani says. Flora straightens, pleased.

“Splendid. We’ll talk about it again then!”

***

There are no more near-asphyxiations, though Flora continues her barrage of chatter even as the evening moves from kitchen to den. Jamie honestly doesn’t seem to mind the fast-track questions (”Favorite animal?” “Dog.” “Favorite season?” “Spring.” “Favorite person in the world?” “Well, it was Miss Clayton--but, don’t tell, I think you’re giving her a run for her money.”). Her mood is bright and cheerful, not a shred of her earlier anxiety to be found.

“I think,” Hannah murmurs from beside Dani on the couch, “she passes inspection.”

Dani grins into her mug, sipping hot tea and watching as Jamie--who has abandoned her own drink in favor of showing Miles the correct form for a decent push-up--begins a rapid-fire up-down with Flora seated on her back. Miles, giggling hysterically and barely able to lever himself back up, looks happier than she’s seen him in months.

“She’s a good influence.”

“Or a terrible one,” Hannah teases as Miles abandons his push-up attempts in favor of joining Flora. Jamie collapses to the rug with a dramatic oof, rolling to tickle the first kid she can reach. “Remains to be seen.”

It is funny, Dani thinks, that Jamie considered herself awful with kids; watching her now--allowing a near-hysterical Flora to grasp her hands and stand on the soles of her sock-clad feet, pushing her into the air until Flora shrieks with glee--there is no evidence of a woman who considers herself inappropriate for nine-year-olds. No evidence at all, as her eyes meet Dani’s, her grin broadening, that she hasn’t been here all along. 

Even more true an hour later, which finds Jamie leaning against the couch with Flora dozing against her shoulder. She rolls her head back to look at Dani, slightly abashed.

“Think I broke her.”

“You’re getting off easy,” Hannah informs her. “It’s looking like you’ll be able to hoist her straight into bed without her demanding a story.”

Dani laughs. “Oh, next time. Maybe you can bring your guitar.”

Jamie fires her a look that would draw blood, were it not tempered with such affection. “You have had entirely too much fun poking holes tonight.”

“The both of you ought to thank your stars,” Hannah points out with a sly expression. “She’s been talking for two days straight about getting your story. Which, correct me if I’m mistaken--is a bit lacking in child-friendly details?”

Jamie clears her throat. Miles, cross-legged beside her, frowns. 

“Why’s that?”

“Bit too much...violence,” Jamie says quickly, wincing. “And, erm. Strong language.”

“Yes,” Dani adds when Miles is clearly unconvinced. “There were...ghosts.”

“Very scary.”

Miles snorts. “There’s no such thing.”

“Well, sure,” Jamie says, warming to the bit. “We have to say that, as certified adults. S’the only way we’d ever get wee gremlins to bed and find time for ourselves.”

“The best influence,” Hannah drawls as the color drains from Miles’ face, suspicion creeping in. Dani laughs. 

***

“Oh, don’t go,” Flora mumbles as Jamie--fully aware she is going to feel this tomorrow after all those push-ups, and still unable to talk herself out of carrying the kid up a flight of stairs--deposits her into an exceedingly pink bed.  “We didn’t even play any board games.”

“Next time,” Jamie assures her, ruffling her hair. Flora yawns. 

“Promise?”

“Only,” Jamie says, dropping her voice to a stage whisper, “if you promise to show me the gardens. Feel a bit cheated, missing out.”

“Ooh--” It’s sort of hilarious, watching this tiny half-asleep creature try to sit up without fully opening her eyes. “I didn’t show you the statue gardens! Mrs. Grose, can we--”

“Next time,” Hannah repeats firmly from the doorway. Dani, striding in from Miles’ room to perch on the edge of Flora’s mattress, leans down to kiss her forehead. 

“We'll be back before you know it.”

Flora hums contentedly, already on her way into dreams before the door is shut behind them. Jamie leans against the wall, scrubbing at her hair with a sigh.

“Did all right, didn’t I?”

“She’s going to request your attendance personally for her next Story-Time,” Hannah says, more ominously than Jamie would like.

“The bloody hell is a Story-Time?”

“You’ve been great,” Dani says a bit too hastily. Jamie makes a mental note to ask again later, when Dani is perhaps more naked, pleasantly boneless, and less capable of skirting the question. 

Hannah tries valiantly to shoo them out of the house without accepting Dani’s offer to help tidy the kitchen, but two-on-one proves effective--and it’s nice, Jamie thinks, to get a little adult time. The kids are wonderful, if a bit exhausting, but Hannah has been rapidly climbing her list of favorite people for weeks. There is, she thinks, a lot to be said for the woman’s tenacity, sense of humor, big heart. Not to mention how easily she’s let Jamie into her world on barely a word from Dani.

It’s beautifully mindless, moving around this overwhelmingly-large kitchen: Jamie washing dishes, Dani drying, Hannah sipping tea and settling things in their accustomed places. The kind of pleasant that doesn’t need much, apart from the easy flow of conversation--Dani talking about work, Jamie laughing over an overly-excitable bride, Hannah regaling them both with a near-miss last week involving Miles, the lake out back, and a wayward frog. 

It’s easier than anything like it used to be. It’s been too long, Jamie thinks, since she’s had friends; she’d almost forgotten she was capable of it, of talk and laughter and the easy roll of affection without sex.

As if reading her mind, Hannah says, “I really am glad you came out tonight. This house is just too big some evenings. I swear, I don’t make a habit of bemoaning good fortune, but being alone every night sometimes has me seeing things.”

“Could always go out,” Jamie says, sliding Dani a meaningful glance, pleased when Dani perks up immediately. How many times have they debated this very thing, delighted with themselves for the notion? “There’s a lovely little coffee shop we’ve been meaning to show you...”

Hannah raises an eyebrow. Dani, slinging her dishtowel over one shoulder, grins. 

“Oh, yeah, you’ll love it. Best espresso in town.”

“Why,” Hannah says calmly, “do I suddenly feel a rush of utter dread.”

“Dread?” Jamie is pretty sure, judging by Hannah’s grimace, her innocent tone could use work. “Two perfectly lovely people offer you a day to yourself at a charming little cafe, and you leap straight to dread? Hannah, I’m shocked.”

“You can’t seek retribution for a blind date you never accepted,” Hannah points out, prodding her in the shoulder with one finger. “Particularly as you ended up on it anyway.”

Dani, finished with the dishes, dries her hands and tucks herself neatly against Jamie’s side. “We only want what’s best for you, Hannah.”

“And what's best for you,” Jamie adds happily, “is an espresso.”

“And absolutely nothing else.”

“Certainly nothing mustache-shaped.”

“You two,” Hannah laughs, “are never watching the children alone. I shudder to think what you’d do to degrade their ability to lie over a single evening.”

"Excuse the fuck out of me.” Jamie puts on her best affronted scowl, an impression she suspects is not as effective as it could be; Dani’s hand is surreptitiously untucking her shirt, her fingers cool against the skin of her back. “We would make excellent babysitters.”

“You’d...want to babysit?” Dani pauses in her ever-attentive mission to distract from the conversation at hand, her eyes wide. “For real?”

“Well.” This is going a bit further than intended. Scratching at her cheek, Jamie shrugs. “Not on my own, I wouldn’t. But--yeah. Why not? If you were, y’know, along to play chaperone. Make sure I don’t throttle anybody by mistake.”

Dani doesn’t seem to know how to handle this revelation with words, choosing instead to push her hard against the counter with little regard for their audience. Her hands slide up Jamie’s back, her grin huge even as Jamie makes a muffled sound into her mouth; over her shoulder, Hannah turns her eyes abruptly heavenward, her expression amused and long-suffering.

“If you’re going to do that, I’ll be in the other room with a book. Be sure to retrieve your leftovers from the fridge when you’ve finished.”

***

“Were you serious?” 

Jamie glances up from unbuckling her belt, eyebrows raised. The evening, as all must, had wound down eventually--not due to an impromptu make-out session so much as Hannah’s increasingly-huge yawns an hour later--and their triumphant return to Dani’s apartment was punctuated by much reassurance that she had, indeed, done well. Dani suspects she didn’t need to sound quite so impressed, though Jamie’s embarrassment was offset nicely by the proud little smile dancing around her mouth. 

“Serious ‘bout what?” she asks now. Dani, seated on the edge of the bed, smiles. 

“The kids. Babysitting. You really liked them that much?”

“’Course.” Jamie looks slightly sheepish. “They’re good kids. I’m not saying I’d like to adopt the beasts, but...yeah. What’s a night or two?”

More than I thought you’d want, Dani thinks--an old thought much repurposed. Jamie, as it turns out, is still full of surprises, including the sort that seem even to startle Jamie herself. 

“And thank you,” Jamie adds, as Dani moves from the bed to offer unwarranted help unbuttoning her shirt. She grins, glancing from the cloth coming slowly undone under eager hands to Dani’s questioning expression. “Sure, for that--but also for not. Y’know. Saying I told you so.”

Dani pauses, slipping a hand around to cup the nape of her neck. “Why would I say that?”

“Because I was being--what was the word--”

“Panicky?” Dani offers, her free hand popping another button. Jamie laughs.

Anticipatory, think it was.”

“Right,” Dani agrees, leaning into the hands moving around her waist. “Panicky.”

“Anyway. Thank you for only making the bare minimum amount of fun.” She exhales, and Dani is surprised to find her smile still touched with nerves. “I just. I know they’re important to you. And, after tonight, I can see why. I wanted...to make sure I didn’t fuck it up.”

“You fucked nothing,” Dani assures her. “You’re Flora’s new hero, probably, and if Miles doesn’t demand guitar lessons by summer, I’ll owe you twenty bucks. They were smitten.”

Jamie sighs again, bowing her head against Dani’s shoulder in relief. “Good. Good. And Hannah--”

“Is never going to let us get her into that coffee shop.” Dani laughs. “We probably should have been more subtle. I really do think she and Owen would get along.”

“Get along?” Jamie shifts to kiss her neck, grinning. “They’ll be looking up flower arrangements by fucking Christmas, we ever get them into the same room. Maybe I’ll, ah, drop a hint on Flora next time we come ‘round. Ought to do the trick, don’t you think?”

“Can you imagine Flora meeting Owen?”

“Never a moment’s peace again, probably.” Jamie, relieved the dinner has successfully resolved into home again, is rapidly turning her focus from the conversation to what she plainly feels is Dani’s state of overdress. “We can talk about it later?”

“As opposed to--”

“As opposed to someone promising what I seem to remember as earth-shattering sex, should I survive the engagement.” She raises her head, eyes shining. “Thought you might get us started right there in the kitchen, for a minute. Are we that fond of Hannah, would you say?”

Dani has, over the past nine months, truly lost a handle on her own shame. She’s honestly never been happier. “Couldn’t help it. Sometimes, you still surprise me.”

The smile softens, Jamie leaning back with an appraising eye. “Good way?”

“Every time.” She sometimes thinks these are the best moments with Jamie--the soft ones, with Jamie kissing her slowly, taking her time. The gentle ones, with Jamie uttering a small sigh, accepting the hands Dani slides into her open shirt. Sometimes, this is as beautiful as the world ever gets. 

And sometimes, just for a minute, she still can’t help herself.

“Wonder what the fanbase will think,” Dani murmurs into the kiss, “of that picture I took tonight--the one of you mid-push-up with Flora on your back.”

Jamie reels back, mock horror shattered by the spread of her amusement. “Oh, you wouldn’t. I’d never hear the fuckin’ end of that. Christ, Dani, if I hear hashtag-goals one more fucking time--”

“Depends.” Dani grins, pulling her by the belt loops toward the bed. “You’ve got, mm, let’s say until bedtime to convince me not to. Or else what’s left of your prickly persona goes up in adorable flames.”

Jamie is laughing almost too hard to kiss her, pressing her back onto the mattress. “When’s bedtime?”

“When I pass out?” Dani suggests. Jamie, still laughing, pins her hands to the pillow. 

“Think that can be arranged.”

Chapter Text

“Dani?” 

She raises her head, fingers sliding between the pages of her book to mark her place. “Yeah?”

“Got a weird question for you.” Jamie is leaning against the kitchen counter, frowning at her phone. Dani would best categorize her expression as gently perplexed--not the first time something on the internet has sparked such a look, though the inciting incident could be anything from an odd social media message to a truly bizarre animal photo. 

“Shoot,” Dani says, when it becomes apparent Jamie is lost in whatever has plucked up her puzzlement. “Though if it’s about the mating rituals of ducks again, I really don’t think I’m the person--”

“What color are my eyes?”

Not what I expected. “Um. Do you...not know?”

Jamie gesticulates with the phone as though it’s just insulted her family name, shaking her head. “No, look--stop laughing, there’s a goddamn debate raging over on my most recent photo. Which, honestly, how bored do you have to be? Eye color doesn’t spark debate.”

“Evidently, it does.” Dani grins. "Your fan club never ceases finding new ways to stay busy, huh?”

Jamie squints at her. “Are you stalling?”

“No!” Why stall? This is an easy question. Barely a question at all, really. A nice-straightforward-- “Your eyes are definitely--I mean, they’re--”

“You have to look?” Jamie sounds scandalized, squeezing her eyes shut and clapping her free hand over her face for good measure. “Jesus, Dani. You’ve only been starin’ into ‘em for a year.”

“No, it’s not--” Dani flops back in her chair, closing her own eyes and casting back. The memories spill over, neat as Saturday morning: Jamie, grinning from across the table; Jamie, glancing up in the supermarket; Jamie, gazing down at her in bed. 

Jamie, whose eyes are definitely, absolutely--

“Blue?” Dani asks hesitantly. Jamie makes an undignified noise. 

“That was a question. You just answered a question with a question.”

“Brown,” Dani says, with as much certainty as she can muster. “They’re definitely--”

"Brown?” Jamie sounds vaguely outraged. “You think they’re brown?”

“Well,” Dani says, a bit peevishly, “what color do you think my--”

“Blue.” Jamie doesn’t even wait for her to finish. Her mouth is working, the way it does when she’s trying desperately to hang on to a grumpy mood even as it’s slipping away. “Blue as a fuckin’ summer sky. Blue as the songs say. Blue as--”

“All right! Point made.” Dani leans over the kitchen table, book forgotten, hands reaching hopefully toward Jamie’s hunched frame. “C’mere, let me look. We’ll settle this.”

“Oh, settle it, will we?” Jamie grumbles. “Sure, right, you’re doin’ me a favor.”

Now she’s just being childish. Dani raises an eyebrow. 

“Would you say keeping the upper hand in this conversation is more important than sleeping in my bed tonight, or...?”

“Valid.” Tossing herself moodily into the next chair, Jamie shakes the hair from her face, leans in, opens her eyes comically wide. “Right. Settle it, then.”

Dani leans close.

Dani looks.

Dani keeps looking.

“Seriously?” Jamie blinks rapidly, scrubbing a hand across her face. “Practically half a goddamn hour, you still don’t have an answer?”

“They’re--” Dani makes a helpless gesture. “They’re--very pretty.”

“That is not,” Jamie says, clearly fighting a grin now, “what I asked.”

So pretty,” Dani repeats. “Gorgeous, really. Best eyes I’ve ever--”

“Dani Clayton, do you legitimately not know what color my eyes are?”

“Well, they’re like a--I don’t know, a sunbeam.”

“A sunbeam,” Jamie repeats, like Dani has started speaking French mid-conversation. Dani winces.

“Sure. Beautiful. And, um. Unknowable.”

“This is ridiculous.” Jamie flips her phone in her hand, taps the screen several times. “We’re getting a professional opinion.”

I’m not a professional opinion?”

“You just told me my eyes are sunbeams. All rights to a career as number one Jamie enthusiast have gone out the door for the foreseeable.” Jamie punches something on the screen and folds her arms on the table as the phone begins to ring. 

“So, who are you,” Dani begins, cutting herself off when a voice on the other end of the phone says pleasantly, “Wingrave residence, Mrs. Grose speaking.”

“Hannah,” Jamie sighs. “Dire question for you. What color would you say my eyes are?”

There is, Dani is amused to note, an extremely long beat of silence, after which Hannah’s voice--hesitant, and not the least bit formal now--pipes back up.

“Um...blue?”

“This is ridiculous,” Jamie repeats, sounding as though she has no idea how she’s ended up surrounded by such lunacy. “Ask Flora. Flora will know.”

“You’re outsourcing to the children now?” Dani is mildly insulted. 

A scuffling sound, as Hannah covers the phone and calls for the kids. Another, as tiny feet skitter over tile. Breathless, and no less excited for it, Flora’s voice filters through the speaker. 

“Jamie!”

“Flora,” Jamie says, narrowing her eyes at Dani with a grim little smile. “Important question for you. What color are my eyes?”

“Well,” Flora’s tiny voice comes back without missing a beat. “They’re definitely not blue--” Jamie makes a vindicated little motion in Dani’s direction at this. “--because Miles has blue eyes. And they’re definitely not brown, because mine are brown.” A pause, as Jamie leans back in her chair and smirks. “I think they’re...green.”

“Green,” Jamie repeats. Dani takes her by the chin, twisting her jaw left and right in an effort to coax the poor kitchen lighting to reveal hidden secrets. “You think so?”

“They’re not,” Dani mouths. Green, she feels, is a very straightforward color. Jamie’s are anything but straightforward.

“Yes,” Flora says with all the certainty of a child who rarely believes herself to be wrong. “Definitely. Except for the days when they’re not.”

“Oh,” says Jamie in a rather distant tone. “Well, clears it right up then, doesn’t it?”

“You’re welcome!” 

“Well.” Dani taps the table once. “That’s--who are you calling now?”

Jamie mutters something that sounds just a little too much like last hope for Dani to take seriously. She shakes her head. 

“I’m really starting to think--”

“Owen,” Jamie says, hefting the phone to her ear. “Oi. Quick question--no, everything’s fine. Yeah. Yeah, I’ll tell her. Okay. Look, question: you’ve been looking at my face for a while, yeah?” A pause, as Owen ostensibly agrees. “Great. What color are my eyes?”

Dani watches, amused, as the determination slowly drains from Jamie’s face. It is replaced by something very much like defeat, her head slumping onto her arms; by the time she’s saying, “Right. Uh huh. You really think so?”, her face is almost completely barricaded in the sleeve of her flannel. 

“He said blue, didn’t he?” Dani asks, when Jamie hangs up and slides her phone so forcefully across the table, it nearly spills onto the floor. “You know, there are many shades of--”

“Gray,” Jamie says into the hollow of her arm. “He seemed very sure they’re gray.”

“Gray is,” Dani says helpfully, “sort of like blue.”

Jamie makes a noise a little like a growl. Dani swallows the impulse to laugh.

“Jamie.”

“Mm.”

“You don’t actually know the answer, do you?”

Jamie raises her head, hilariously morose. “I honestly write a different fuckin’ answer on every form.”

The giggles are going to make it out of her, Dani recognizes; it’s just a matter of fending them off long enough to get Jamie grinning, too. “What, um. What does the fan club have to say about it?”

Without looking, Jamie fumbles for her phone. Takes a deep breath. Flicks it open.

“There is,” she says dryly, “a dead tie between gray, green, and fuck all knows, she’s hot.”

“That settles it, then.” Dani slips out of her chair, resting her chin gently on Jamie’s shoulder. “Next time you have to fill out a form, just write in fuck all, she’s hot, and you’re golden.”

Jamie snorts, dropping the phone and leaning back into the embrace. “Really think they’re pretty, at least?”

“None prettier.”

"Maybe I’ll just start putting that.” Jamie shakes her head. “Prettier than yours. Think that’d go over all right?”

“Think they’d stop arguing the minute they saw your face,” Dani says, and finds herself meaning it with no shame at all. Jamie turns, nuzzling into her hair. 

“You’re just saying that to distract from how you defaulted to brown.”

“Okay, literally everyone said a different color, you’re still going to tease me for brown?”

“Dani.” To punctuate the imminent point, Jamie widens her eyes again--as far as she can manage, at least, while dissolving into laughter. “Of all the fuckin’ colors. You picked the one I have never once seen in the mirror.”

“Well, someone wouldn’t let me look.” 

Still laughing, Jamie shifts in her seat, catches her around the waist, pulls her down into her lap. “You,” she says fondly, “are the smartest person I know. And, if I’m being honest, the love of my life.”

“And?” Her hands are warm, slipping under Dani’s shirt, her mouth soft on Dani’s neck. It’s almost pleasant enough to forget Jamie is about to say--

“And your observation skills are, and I mean this with boundless affection: non-existent. I mean. Brown?”

“Oh, I’m sorry.” Dani takes her face between gentle hands, gazing at her with all the seriousness she can muster. “Let me get this right. Your eyes are...a perfect green-gray-gold-hazel. In this light. Tomorrow, I’ll provide an update out in the sun.”

Jamie’s entire body is shuddering with laughter, her head falling forward until Dani releases and allows her to lean into her collar. “Best stick to pretty, I think.”

“I thought you’d say that. But if you want me to drop a comment tomorrow, resolving the issue once and for--” She cuts herself off with a shriek as Jamie stands abruptly, hoisting her with a sharp motion onto the table. “You’re about to pretend we never had this conversation, aren’t you?”

“Yep,” Jamie says pleasantly, brushing a kiss against her lips. Her hands are sliding up Dani’s thighs, squeezing just hard enough to distract from the issue. “Unless you’d say keeping the upper hand is more important...”

Dani sees no reason to dignify this with a response. 

Chapter Text

It starts slowly. Jamie would say--does say, when Dani raises an eyebrow--it starts unintentionally, too. Not an accident, exactly; more like a habit, built gradually up while Jamie isn’t looking. After years of presenting to the world through a fabricated lens for safety’s sake, of painting herself as others might most like to see her to keep anyone from finding the reality beneath the image, she’s trying something new. Trying something honest. 

Dani isn’t bothered. There’s something about Jamie wanting this--Jamie wanting to preserve this in such an explicitly-Jamie way--she finds endearing. An honor, even. Another instance in a long line of little things where Jamie is, once again, opening a door and ushering her inside.

Jamie’s presence online is curated and intentional and for Jamie’s sake, particularly these days. Always healthy, it maybe didn’t use to be--a person can only put on a show for so long before something threatens to crumble behind the scenes. Still,  Dani thinks the account has always, on some level, existed for no one else. Jamie, winning a bet. Jamie, enjoying the rewards of other people’s interest. Jamie, choosing what to post, and when, how to plot out the entire experience. Others might reap visual benefits, but in the end, it’s Jamie’s wall to build and dismantle at her own whim.

Not that the general public seems to realize how little Jamie, especially now, cares to suit them. Dani’s seen the messages that still pour through from unwary suitors: 

less clothes next time

oh, come on, she thinks we care about the flowers??

take. it. OFF. 

Each time, Dani cringes. Each time, Jamie shrugs. “That’s the internet,” she says. “Exhaustive. Only worth it like...five percent of the time.”

“Five?” Dani asks, pointing to a series of emojis--bugged-out eyes, water droplets, an array of vegetables she can only partially decipher. Jamie grins.

“Maybe three.”

And still, Jamie shrugs it off. “They never mattered,” she says. “Not really. Now, even less. I could delete the whole thing tomorrow, and never think of it again.”

She means that, Dani knows--and not in a way that is the least bit malicious toward even the weirdest of commenters. Jamie likes it simple, when all is boiled down to its barest components. Jamie likes waking early, jogging to the gym, returning for a shower, breakfast, a return to any bed with Dani in it. She likes being in her shop well before opening, combing through her notes on each job in turn. She likes working patiently, efficiently, her attention fixed on the task entrusted to her. Each step is methodical. Each step is thoroughly enjoyed for its simplicity. Each step is routine.

The internet is, in its own way, her only wild card. There is no schedule for posts, no carefully-maintained expectation with which to align. Jamie posts when Jamie feels like it. And Jamie posts what she feels like.

Which is, more and more, what she’ll most like looking back on later.

***

“You’re all right with it?” Jamie asks. “I could keep ‘em to myself. Or print ‘em off and make a little book.”

“A book of me,” Dani muses. “Think I’ll have to pass.”

“You don’t want me to wallpaper the flat?” Jamie grins. “I could frame them up all pretty. A theme for every room.”

“You,” Dani tells her, “are only half as funny as you think you are.”

“All right by me,” Jamie says comfortably, kissing her hand. “I think I’m hilarious enough for the both of us.”

***

The first time Dani graces the illustrious (”You’re joking,” Jamie snorts, but Dani likes how her cheeks grow pink and pointedly refuses to call it anything else again) account, she isn’t alone. Jamie posts the photo like a challenge to her ridiculously large following--without tagging Dani, without putting it into clear words, she leaves a heart. It’s enough, she explains, to give them this: the two of them sitting on a curb outside the movie theater, Jamie’s arm around Dani’s shoulders, Dani’s head nestled in close. Both of them are grinning, squinting into the late-autumn sun, neither trying to be anything other than what they are.

Which is, quite decidedly: happy. 

The comments come pouring in without pause for days. Jamie! Jamie, HER AGAIN? IS SHE YOUR GIRLFRIEND, JAMiE?!!

“Insatiable,” Jamie mutters, but she can’t hide her grin. Dani leans over, inspecting the variety of names volleying theories back and forth.

the girl! it’s the same girl! isn’t it? 

who could tell?

I followed her once. until she blocked me

maybe it’s a stunt

“Stunt,” Jamie snorts. “What kind of fuckin’ stunt would this be?”

“You’ve hired someone,” Dani suggests. Jamie blanches.

“In what fucking universe would I need--”

“To keep the mystery,” Dani says brightly. “You’ve hired someone to pretend to be your girlfriend, see, and then you can stage a messy breakup and scoop up all the sympathy sex you want.”

Jamie is staring at her, mouth hanging open. “You,” she says slowly, “came up with that so quickly.”

“Not me.” Dani points to the screen. “That was ‘gardenergurl69′. Sounds clever and sweet, really, I think you should go for it.”

***

A few weeks go by, a few photos--arrangements at the shop, a proudly-carved pumpkin, the first meal Jamie’s thrown together in weeks that actually went completely right--and Dani thinks the fan club might have forgotten her at last. Just in time for a date night memorialized.

“You,” Dani is giggling, “are going to drop your phone.”

“Am not.” Bold words, she thinks, for a woman only remaining upright because Dani is holding her around the waist. The skates skid out from under Jamie on every other breath, her body pitching dangerously forward and back in a desperate bid for equilibrium. 

“Anyway,” Jamie adds, one gloved hand squeezing Dani’s so hard, her knuckles are grinding. “Someone told me I was doing brilliantly, thanks very much.”

Someone thinks you’re incredibly sweet when you’re trying not to face-plant,” Dani agrees. “And given that all your teeth are still in your mouth, I’d say the evening has been a rousing success.”

The ice rink had been her idea. She’d expected Jamie's array of hidden talents to extend here, too--had been visualizing, with no small amount of delirious attraction, Jamie being part of a hockey league, sweaty and stripping pads in the locker room after a game. A truly terrific visual--

--with absolutely no standing in the real world. For the first time, Dani has hit upon an athletic activity Jamie cannot figure out.

“Mental,” Jamie is muttering, trying to hold her phone steady while juggling an obvious fear of landing in a bone-jarring heap on the ice. “This isn’t a hobby, it’s a fuckin’ flirtation with death.”

“Death seems a bit of a stretch,” Dani teases. “Maybe just a sling for the rest of winter.”

“Next time, pick date night. And it’s gonna involve miles of solid ground and a mass of warm blankets.” Grimacing, Jamie leans into Dani’s grip, finding a tenuous balance. “Right, this’ll last twelve seconds at best. Best make good use.”

She snaps the photo, both of them wearing their cheesiest grins, and even as she nearly goes over a second later, she’s laughing. 

“Okay,” Dani says, “okay, you got your selfie. Put the phone away and get your learning face on. I won’t rest until you can make a lap without taking someone out.”

“Yes, teacher,” Jamie teases. A comfortable flush rises under Dani’s scarf, her head shaking as Jamie risks life and limb to duck forward and kiss her cheek. 

“Fuck’s sake,” she’s saying under her breath an hour later, sipping hot cocoa with a grimace. “Look at ‘em go.”

“The kids?” Dani has been watching a dogpile of ten-year-olds for several minutes, three of whom she recognizes from last year’s class. One has hit the ice so hard, she fully expects tears, but he seems to be picking himself up with no trouble at all. Kids, she’s always thought, possess such grace in situations that would decimate a grown adult.

“The Sherlocks,” Jamie says with that particular brand of amused disgust she reserves for the act of being perceived. Dani, resisting the urge to point out the entire point of Instagram as a service, leans over her shoulder. 

okay THAT is a date

Or she ran into a fan?

AND TOOK A SNUGGLE SELFIE? fat fucking chance

“Well,” Dani points out. “They aren’t wrong.”

“About the date?”

“About the fact that you would never take a snuggle selfie with anyone.” Dani grins. “Pretty sure the only reason you did it there is because I was keeping you from spending the next ten minutes re-enacting that scene from Parks and Rec.”

“The next ten dates,” Jamie says, “are my call. And half of them are going to be at the gym.”

“The gym where I once rode you first thing in the morning in a locker room?” Dani says innocently. “That gym?”

It’s really terrific fun, watching Jamie blue screen in real time.

***

Dani’s presence on the account only grows from there, as though Jamie is pointedly raising a middle finger to her attentive audience with every uncaptioned post. 

The images begin appearing at all hours of the day--and night; sometimes, Jamie posts several back to back, as though she has nothing better to do than wallpaper her feed with Dani’s face.

Dani watches them roll in with great amusement: a side profile of her chin resting on her hand at the kitchen table, gazing down at her lesson plan; a candid of her head in Jamie’s lap at the park, face dappled with the sunlight filtering through the leaves above; a triptych of Dani holding up items at the grocery store, her expression growing more perturbed with every photo as Jamie refused to state a Dorito preference. 

“This is ridiculous,” she says, tapping a photo that is technically of her again--but really more a pile of blankets with a tuft of blonde poking out from the top. She’d come shivering in from a snowstorm an hour ago, grumbling for warmth. Jamie, without a word, had complied by bringing every single blanket in her flat to the bed--then stripping Dani naked, tucking her in, and, after a moment Dani had been too chilly to wonder about, joining her for a fairly enthusiastic defrosting session.

“Can’t believe you stopped to take a picture,” Dani says now with mock affront. Jamie looks only marginally sheepish.

“Didn’t stop, did I? Just. Wanted to remember how sweet you were, all bundled.”

“Bundled,” Dani repeats, prodding her in the shoulder until Jamie curls into herself in protest. “You’re telling me you hit the pause button on sex because I was too adorable?”

Jamie’s mouth opens to argue--then, evidently finding no ground to stand on, she shakes her head. “Honest to fuckin’ god, you broke me.”

“Oh no,” Dani says with minimal sincerity, one hand already slinking down beneath the covers. “Hang on, let me fix it--”

Later--much later, the pair of them sweaty and lethargic, with most of the blankets long-since kicked to the floor to make room for more body heat--she says, “Okay, let’s do it.”

“Again?” Jamie mumbles. “Are you not warm enough yet?”

“Let’s look,” Dani says. “At the havoc you’ve wrecked today.”

“Must we?” Jamie burrows into her, half-asleep and plainly not the least bit curious about her followers’ hot takes on the latest photo. “I posted it for me, you know.”

“I know that,” Dani says, the idea dragging warmth down her back having nothing at all to do with the way Jamie had pinned her to the bed, “and you know that, but they--”

“Are probably speculating you’re some stalker I found in my bloody bed,” Jamie mutters. “Fuckin’ loons, every last one of ‘em.”

Dani snorts. Scrolls. Snorts again. Jamie sighs.

“Okay, you can’t do that. Out with it. What say the masses.”

Dani clears her throat. “Ready?”

“Never more so.”

I ship it.”

“Ship it where?” Jamie demands, raising her head from Dani’s shoulder and blinking. Dani shifts the screen toward her face.

One blonde. One brunette. It’s meant to be.

I’M Blonde. all the goddamn luck in the world…

they’re ADORABLE

“Wait,” Jamie says, sitting up. “Wait, what is happening.”

“I think,” Dani says calmly, “they’ve put two and two together.”

The comments are streaming down the page, a seemingly endless supply of variants on they’re so pretty together and I’m happy for her! She figured it out! And god, I wish that were ME.

Jamie looks floored. “I--they’re not spinning conspiracy theories?”

“Some of them, sure. But the rest have…” Dani gestures to the wealth of oh my god, she’s got her all tucked IN, can you IMAGINE unspooling beneath this image of thirteen blankets and a tangle of hair. Jamie rubs her eyes.

“Of all the fuckin’ photos. Why--I mean, you can’t even see anything in this one.”

“I think that’s the point.” Dani taps a particularly well-liked comment. “Listen: This PROVES what I’ve been saying. Look, no face, nothing pretty or posed--this is INTIMACY. This is LOVE.

“This is,” Jamie says flatly, “a pile of blankets.”

“You posted it before sex,” Dani laughs. “You legitimately stopped in the act of undressing to memorialize this moment.”

“Yeah, but they don’t know that!”

Tossing the phone aside, Dani presses her shoulders until she falls obediently back against the mattress, her expression grumpy. “I don’t know how to tell you this,” she says, “but I think it might be time to give up the game.”

Jamie is plainly trying her best to hang on to her scowl, even as Dani settles into a comfortably-familiar position atop her hips. “I don’t owe ‘em a goddamn thing.”

“You don’t,” Dani agrees. “And neither do I. But don’t you think it’d be nice? To tell them how far you’ve come?”

Jamie makes a repressed little sound, the one that usually means Dani is right, but she’s in no mood to admit it. “Not my style,” she says at last, her palms smoothing up Dani’s thighs. “Bein’ all. Wordy and such. I have a way of doin’ things, y’know, and I’m not partial to throwing a wrench in the middle of it.”

Dani waits. This isn’t an argument, she senses (though, if it were, she wonders who would win; she’s got the high ground, but Jamie is already doing something with her hands that tends to drain all the air from the room in the best way possible), more a puzzling-out. This is Jamie working through a small problem with multiple solutions, sorting through the options for the one that would make the most sense.

“I have a way of doin’ things,” she repeats. “But you don’t.”

She’s grinning. Dani shakes her head.

“Oh no. Oh no, you don’t.”

“It’s a perfect solution.” Jamie is grinning, and one hand is moving with truly unjust grace, and Dani’s brain is simply not behaving as it is meant to. Nothing about this is fair. Nothing about this is--

“--a good idea,” Dani manages, though the words that meant to precede that phrase never quite find her tongue. Not remotely, she thinks she meant to say. No chance in hell it could be, maybe. Either way, Jamie’s still wearing that absolutely maddening smile, her eyes bright, and if she keeps dragging her thumb that way, curling her fingers in time, Dani is going to absolutely lose her mind.

“C’mon,” Jamie adds, her voice softening dangerously. This is not winning a debate Jamie now. This is urging Dani toward a most pleasant collision, all rolling vowels and gentle confidence. This is Jamie at her absolute best, and it isn’t fair, isn’t fair at all, that she’s still able to do this all these months later.

Back arched, breath coming fast, Dani has given up on arguing. She’s trying not to laugh, even as she presses down, rolling her hips into the hand Jamie is currently using to make her point.

“You,” she pants, head fuzzy, body tilting toward the brink, “are going to lose an argument someday. And it--is going to--”

She runs out of words before she can hammer home exactly what Jamie’s going to find waiting for her on that day, which is definitely coming, definitely going to happen eventually.

When we’re both wearing clothes, Dani thinks as she slumps forward, hands braced on Jamie’s shoulders, body trembling pleasantly. Clothes, and full parkas, and maybe on opposite sides of the county.

“Does that mean you’ll do it?” There is triumph in Jamie’s voice. Dani smacks her shoulder.

“Oh, I’ll do it. But I’m doing it my way.”

“Your way,” Jamie says with the ease of a woman who has already closed all conversational loopholes, “involves charming filters and Dutch angles. I think I can manage.”

***

She posts the first picture before they’re even out of bed. Jamie, for all her shamelessness, does have a particular way of doing things, and that way tends to involve being awake.

Welcome, Dani captions the image, to twenty-four hours of Jamie giving up her account. She’s not the most comfortable using her words—everyone here could probably guess that without my saying so—so she’s surrendered her password to me for a day in the life of Jamie Taylor’s Girlfriend.

It’s saccharine, silly, probably will make her look like she’s made of spun sugar—and she doesn’t care. She’s careful to adhere to the rules set the night before: no nudity, no overly personal commentary, no humiliation.

(“Do you really think you have to put that in writing? I trust you, Dani. Wouldn’t be doing this if I didn’t.”

“It’s still your account. I’m not out to embarrass you.”

“No, you’re just set to make me look squishy.”

“Can’t help the truth, can I?”)

She’d been laughing last night, but there was something powerful about Jamie tapping her login information and handing the phone back with an air of hands-off. Something that felt as much like true trust as Jamie stripping off her shirt or handing Dani a copy of her key.

Jamie hasn’t just gifted her the proverbial keys to the kingdom to make the outing of their relationship status easy on herself. Jamie’s done it because she genuinely believes Dani will be better at telling the world than she is.

“Should’ve guessed,” Jamie says, looking over the photo with a half-smile. “How often d’you watch me sleep, would you say? On average.”

“I think the last time I woke up before you, it was to tell you I wanted a relationship.” She inspects the image carefully—Jamie with one arm tucked under the pillow, her lips slightly parted, her brow relaxed. Her shoulder is bare, ink-dipped, but there are no other signs she is—quite pleasantly—naked. “This okay?”

“I trust you,” Jamie repeats, yawning. She lets the phone drop back into Dani’s hand, stretching languorously; the sheet slips out of alignment, and Dani mimes lifting the camera again. Jamie arches an eyebrow and her back. “Do it, and there will be consequences.”

Her voice is rough with sleep, bright with a teasing edge. Dani wonders if most relationships as comparatively young as theirs come with such built-in trust, such an awareness of boundaries that neither will cross. Sometimes, they talk about it—Dani making clear that her internet presence must stay squeaky-clean for the sake of any students who might come poking, for example—but most of the time, they have a shared common sense.

She catches herself thinking of Eddie, for whom common sense had been absent in all the strangest ways, and shakes her head.

“I’m doing it,” she says, finger hesitating over the button. “No turning back.”

“Fire away.” Jamie shifts toward her, hand closing almost politely around her hip. “Then put it down and kiss me.”

***

Breakfast is always something of an adventure when neither of you can really cook.

“I can cook!” Jamie protests, swinging a spatula like a melee weapon. “I can make tea, toast, occasionally eggs—”

“I don’t think eggs are meant to bake onto the pan like that.”

“Never raw, though, are they?” She frowns down at the plate, plainly regretting her choices. “Maybe we should pop out for bagels…”

The food is questionable, but the photo, Dani thinks, sums their mornings up nicely. Her arm is draped around Jamie’s waist, her chin resting on Jamie’s shoulder; Jamie, in an oversized hoodie and too-long flannel pajama pants, wears a sleepily-cheerful expression that quite happily misses the mark on her usual determination.

“I like that one,” Jamie adds, head cast to the side. “Though I’m just now realizing how badly I need to replace that pan. And…not eat these fuckin’ things. Here, scrape ‘em into the bin, we’ll hit up Owen for something nontoxic.”

***

People don’t walk enough, just taking their time. Could make the drive in five minutes, but where’s the fun in that?

“Whimsical,” Jamie comments from beneath the blue beanie Owen knitted her last Christmas. “Sort of leaves out the bit about it being bloody frigid, doesn’t it?”

“My way,” Dani reminds her, “involves looking on the bright side.”

“It does,” Jamie agrees, obviously pleased with Dani’s arm hooked through her elbow, the snow crunching beneath their boots. She isn’t wrong about the weather—the wind drags talons across their faces, Dani’s barely visible between the fluff of her hood and an excessive scarf Judy found while she was still in college, and when Jamie tilts back her head, a cascade of snowflakes settle across her cheeks. It isn’t what most people would consider walking weather, as they stride haphazardly into early December.

And still, the photo—Dani’s arm outstretched to capture as much of them as she can, liking the juxtaposition of white flakes on the purple of her coat, the bulky green of Jamie’s—shows no sign of the cold winning. Faces shocked pink by the whipping wind, eyes scrunched nearly shut, they’re both grinning like absolute fools.

There is no need, Dani thinks, leaning her head briefly on Jamie’s shoulder as they wait for a light to change, for playing it safe. No need to bundle into the car just because the weather isn’t cooperating. The car will still be waiting tomorrow. There will be blankets and hot chocolate to warm them back up at home. The trying—even when it’s silly, or freezing, when they’re the only people on the street for blocks—is what matters.

All of that would fit into the too personal category. Better to leave the caption—whimsical though it may be—as it is.

Better to kiss Jamie’s cold cheek, knowing all the while Jamie doesn’t mind her looking on the bright side. Jamie is, in fact, a little more prone to optimism herself than she’d like anyone to realize.

***

What you know about Jamie already: stellar abs, gorgeous smile, very little shame. What you might have missed out on: her preternatural ability to put away baked goods.

“Now you’re just telling all my secrets.” Jamie leans across the table, half a raspberry scone hanging out of her mouth. “Before you post, make sure there’s no--”

“Evidence of the bakery name,” Dani finishes for her, eyes already scanning to double-check her own work. The last thing they need is for Jamie’s eagle-eyed flock to crash breakfast next week, much as Owen would probably appreciate the patronage. “Way ahead of you.”

The image is warmly-lit, Jamie’s eyebrows raised as her hand reaches for a scone. She isn’t quite grinning; her expression is very much the one Dani thinks of as you gonna eat that last piece of garlic bread? There is laughter in her eyes, her usual sprawl offset by an eagerness to finish her meal.

 “Also,” Jamie adds lightly, “you say it like you haven’t already devoured six donuts.”

“Donut holes,” Dani corrects, popping a seventh into her mouth. “So not the same thing.”

“Come from the same place. Here, ask the expert.” She raises a hand, flagging Owen down--which, given the very small blizzard raging outside, isn’t hard; he looks relieved to have something to do apart from Windex the windows a third time since their arrival. “Donut holes: donuts, or not?”

“Well--” He plops down at their table, brow furrowed. “I mean. Philosophical question, isn’t it? Is the hole still a hole while in the donut?”

Jamie stares at him blankly. “I…am already regretting my question.”

“No,” Dani says cheerfully, “go on. This is getting good.”

***

I’m not going to show you her actual gift, but I’m just saying: one of these, right?

“You are not,” Jamie laughs, “going to outsource my Christmas gift via poll.”

“Only because you’d cheat and look the second you logged back in.”

“Is it cheating?” Jamie wonders, leaning against a shelf laden with scratchy-looking old-man sweaters with arms folded. “Or is it using my resources?”

Dani jabs a finger at her, more amused than she’d like to admit. “It can be both, which is why I’m absolutely not doing it. ‘Cuz I couldn’t even be mad at you for ruining the surprise.” She pauses, frowning. “Wait, I’ve never thought to ask--were you the kind of kid to go looking for your gifts? Shake them up and stuff, to see if you could guess what they were?”

Jamie shakes her head. “Didn’t do a lot of Christmas-y things, growin’ up. Parents weren’t…really the festive type, and most of my foster homes didn’t credit gifts as part of the local-trash tax.”

Her voice is light, her expression carefully neutral. It isn’t hard to guess what’s lurking beneath the faint smile toying at her lips.

“I’m sorry. I didn’t mean to bring up--”

Jamie slides an arm around her, pulling her in despite the cavalcade of shoppers milling around them. Target is, perhaps, not the ideal place for an in-depth conversation about childhood traumas, but it doesn’t seem to bother her.

“I don’t mind the holidays. Be nice, finally having someone to spend them with--for real, not just swanning in to check the stocking Owen always hangs off the edge of the counter with my name.”

Dani winds both arms around her neck, content to just sway back and forth between rows of sweaters and neatly-folded trousers. “Owen puts up a stocking for you? That’s adorable.”

“Doesn’t like to see me alone.” Jamie shrugs. “Used to go over sometimes, do dinner with him at Margaret’s, but…well, now she’s gone, think it’ll be on me to return the favor.”

“Might mean we eat something other than take-out,” Dani points out. Owen had smiled so much, debating the finer points of bread-related philosophy, she almost hadn’t seen the cold shock of a man who had lost his mother not so many months ago. It’ll be nice, she decides, to invite him over.

“Could invite Hannah, too,” Jamie says, her voice tinged with amusement. “Put up some mistletoe, shove ‘em under, see what comes of it.”

The idea of making plans--genuine, gonna be here before we know it holiday plans--with Jamie sends a warm ripple through her stomach. It feels almost too good to be allowed, like she ought to turn her head away from an over-bright light.

It’s not until they’re back on the street, bundled against the lazily drifting snow, that she thinks to check the comments on the most recent photo--two truly heinous Christmas-themed sweaters, one with a light-up reindeer, the other a series of sewn-on baubles that really jingle.

“Overwhelmingly,” she says, “the internet believes you should ring like a bell when you walk.”

“Humbug,” Jamie replies, kissing the side of her head.

***

All right, all right, the weather outside is frightful--but what we lack in a fireplace, we make up for in pillow forts.

“I can’t believe,” Dani says, “you’ve never done this before.”

“I can’t believe it took you documenting our day for Instagram before you made me.” Jamie leans back against the couch, legs outstretched on the rug, her smile just this side of awestruck. “This is brilliant.”

There are stacks of pillows every which way, blankets stretched over the back of the couch, held aloft by shrewdly-placed kitchen chairs. The world outside has vanished entirely, replaced by lanterns set in strategic locations, a laptop open on the floor between them. With the lights off--and the winter sun setting fast--the atmosphere is glorious.

The photo Dani has posted to commemorate is nearly ethereal. Jamie, in a hoodie and sweats, looks as much like a big kid as she ever has, a mug of hot tea clasped between her hands. The nearest lantern casts a long shadow, brightening one half of her face, drawing the colors of her eyes into sharp relief.

“Thought you’d be in more of these,” she says, somewhat accusingly, but she’s grinning too hard to be taken seriously. Dani shrugs, dropping a throw pillow into her lap and cozying her head down against the soft rise of her hoodie pocket.

“I used to do this for the kids,” she says, “when it would storm. Miles was afraid of the dark when he was little--don’t bring it up now, he’ll go blue in the face denying it, but it’s true. And Flora--”

“Took a leaf outta his book?” Jamie drapes a hand along the crown of her head, fingers playing gently through loose blonde hair. Dani laughs.

“Made it worse, telling him helpful things like ‘don’t worry, the little boy without a face says there’s nothing to be frightened of in the dark.’”

“Sorry, the little boy without a what?” Jamie shakes her head. “The imagination on that kid, Jesus.”

“I know. She never seemed scared of any of her imaginary friends, but Miles hated them. And you know Flora--once she gets goin’, there’s no buttoning her up. So, I’d build these giant forts. Hannah would help sometimes--with both of us, we could get the whole sitting room covered in blankets--and we told Miles we’d cast a spell over the fort so nothing that wasn’t invited could get in.”

“Didja tell that to Flora?” Jamie grins. “Or did she offer a scripted invite to her faceless friend?”

“No, Flora decided it was family only. Then we had to have a whole conversation about chosen family, about whether Hannah and I were allowed in--it was a lot more extreme than I planned for, hauling all those blankets down the stairs.”

Jamie smiles down at her. “Maybe we can have ‘em over sometime. Do a sleepover or something.”

“You,” Dani says in a teasing deadpan, “want to do a sleepover. In your flat. With children?”

Jamie scratches her head. She doesn’t look nearly as embarrassed as Dani would have imagined, had this whole conversation been floated over the summer. “Like I said. You broke me.”

“You broke me first,” Dani points out. Extending her phone above her head, she tries to snap a photo of them both; the lights cast along Jamie’s smile are too lovely not to capture. “Damn. Missed half your face.”

“Gimme.” Jamie has much more experience navigating lighting, and a better reach from this position. The picture comes out looking a little sleepy, a little like a pair of campers hiding out from a vast world.

Behold, Dani captions, the face of a woman who just suggested inviting actual Youths into her home.

“Don’t tell them that!” Jamie widens her eyes in parody of affront. “They’ll be planning our fucking baby shower in the comment section!”

“Let ‘em,” Dani says in her best sexy-aloof tone of voice. Something flickers in Jamie’s smile, her hand sliding to cup beneath Dani’s chin.

“Dani Clayton, are we learning not to give a fuck what the internet thinks of us?”

“Of us,” Dani says, pushing up toward her, tossing the phone onto the couch, “I absolutely do not.”

***

Right. Last one for the evening, I think--hope today has answered a few questions about A Day in the Life of Jamie (and Girlfriend). Namely, that she does have one--and we are the stupid kind of happy. When you find someone who just…fits without either of you planning for it? That kind of happy.

“You realize you didn’t tell them anything.” There are two blankets in the entire flat not currently serving as makeshift walls or ceiling, and Jamie has tucked them in beneath both. From her current position on the floor, Dani can just make out the tumble of snowflakes through the far window.

“I never intended to tell them anything.”

“Except…” Jamie shifts the arm around her, pulling her closer. “For the part where we’re happy?”

“Except for that. What more do they need to know?” They’re strangers, is the thing. They’re strangers, and owed nothing at all--and yet, Dani finds herself wondering. How many will stick around, now that their thirst is no longer likely to catch Jamie’s attention. How many will stick around solely to use the safety of a borderline-anonymous comment as a battering ram. She wonders if anyone really cares that much about a stranger’s relationship status, about the joy of two people they’ll never met.

“They’re gonna have questions. Lots of them.” Jamie doesn’t sound particularly bothered by this idea. She’s gazing up at the sheet-ceiling, looking a little drunk--they’ve made it through a bottle of wine to go with the Italian takeout of the evening, a tableau which makes up the final Instagram post of Dani’s reign--and more than a little sleepy. “Have you even bothered checking the comments?”

Dani shakes her head, ear rubbing against the soft cotton of Jamie’s hoodie. “I thought it’d be a nice adventure tomorrow. When you have the controls back and can decide who to answer.”

“People answer those?” There’s just a little too much innocence in Jamie’s smile. Dani snorts. “Do you think you got it across? How far I’ve come?”

“Doesn’t really matter.” Jamie’s breath is comfortably shallow, her hand making gentle passes up and down Dani’s back. They will both, soon enough, doze off under here, like a couple of kids camping for the first time. The idea strikes Dani as unreasonably funny--and more than a little bit lovely.

“What d’you mean, doesn’t matter?” Jamie cranes her neck, peering down with a slight frown. “Thought that was the whole idea. Prove I’ve been properly wooed and won, or whatever.”

Dani frowns, pushing up just enough to gaze down at her. “I haven’t won anybody. This was never about that. Or showing I owned you, or…” She trails off. Jamie, she realizes, is grinning. “You’re a bit of a smartass, did you know that?”

“Never seem to let me forget,” says Jamie easily. “Right. I’ll bite. If it wasn’t to show the world my progress in the art of human relationships, what was it for?”

Dani shrugs. “Fun. Getting to fill your feed with how I see you. You smile differently in photos I take, did you know that?”

She’s delighted to find Jamie--shameless, cool to a fault, unflappable Jamie--is entirely capable of blushing.

Chapter Text

 “You can still back out,” Dani says. Dani has been saying the same for several weeks, so often and with such a casual tone, the words are beginning to blend together with all the times she adds want Thai for dinner? or think I’m going to be late Tuesday night, another pointless meeting. Simple assertions, allowing Jamie to plan her week around Dani’s schedule, mood, feelings. 

“You can still back out.” Like it’s no different than saying you can say you’d prefer Indian instead, or need me to pick you up when it’s over? Like Jamie will just glance over from the other side of the couch and nod.

“We move tomorrow,” she says now. The usual answer, the final word changing each day--we move in a week, we move Monday, we move tomorrow. She’s starting to wonder if they’ll be sitting in front of the complex, carefully selected at the perfect midpoint between Jamie’s shop and Dani’s school, with Dani still trying to offer her an out.

Two years, and Dani is still so careful about boundaries. As though Jamie didn’t drop every single one the minute--hungover and terrified--she’d said, I want to start doing things right.

“Seems a bit silly,” Jamie adds, nodding toward the tower of boxes lining the wall. “Going through all the effort of...that again. I mean, we’re here, aren’t we?”

She doesn’t add the obvious: that they’re sitting for a final night in Dani’s lovely little flat because Jamie’s has already been packed up. Because Jamie’s has, in fact, been packed and scrubbed and no longer Jamie’s for a week. As the party with fewer belongings, she’d volunteered, not quite realizing until she was standing in an empty living room just how much of an ache leaving it all behind would open in her chest.

A good ache, in a way. A welcome moving forward ache. She’s always respected that feeling as a sign she’s following an unseen map into adventure. Still, standing with one hand on the knob, gazing at all the invisible markers of a life before Dani had fully solidified into it, she’d felt a surprising rush of grief. 

“Gonna miss it,” she’d said as Dani hefted the last box under her arm. “Weird to think of working downstairs and having to...drive home after.”

“You’ll probably forget,” Dani pointed out with a small grin. “At least once.”

Jamie had laughed, but in all honesty, didn’t think she would. It wasn’t something she knew how to explain with words, not just yet, but she had the feeling that this door shutting, locking for the last time behind her, would take on a life all its own. Standing in the doorway, remembering all the times she’d dozed off with her head in Dani’s lap on that couch, all the times Dani had pushed her up against that wall, all the times they’d quietly moved around one another in that kitchen preparing meals--it was a finality. A goodbye.

And now, sitting on Dani’s couch in an apartment nearly packed to completion, Dani is offering that question one more time. As she had when the topic had come up. As she had when they’d decided. As she had, even, sitting in the lease office with that clipboard in Jamie’s hands.

“I just.” Dani isn’t quite making eye contact, her hands fidgeting with the blanket pulled across her lap. “It’s not too soon?”

“We slept together about fifteen minutes after you told me your name,” Jamie points out as patiently as she can, biting down on a grin. “But, seriously, if you’re not ready, we don’t have to--”

“How,” Dani interrupts, “are you so calm about this? When was the last time you lived with someone?”

Privately, Jamie thinks there’s a big difference between the name on a lease and the time spent in another person’s company. Dani’s had a key to her flat for what feels like ages, often arriving before Jamie even closed up the shop on long nights. Jamie, in turn, has spent more than her share of weeks unable to convince herself to leave Dani’s bed for the solitude of her own. Nice as it’s been to keep their own spaces, there are just some kinds of reassurance a person finds herself gravitating to over time.

Dani has been that kind of gravity, she thinks, from the very start. Far longer than Jamie was ever prepared to admit. 

“If you’re not ready,” she repeats, neatly sidestepping what feels like an enormous question, “we don’t have to do it. I mean. We’ve already signed the little paper, so I suppose one of us has to do it. But I could make use of all that space. Could set up a home gym. Or...I dunno, stand in the middle of the living room and twirl.”

“I didn’t say I’m not ready.” Dani sighs. “I just...you’ve always had somewhere to go, if you get sick of me. And now you’re not going to have an escape hatch.”

Escape hatch. Two years, and Dani still can’t quite convince herself that this has changed. That it changed before they even put a name to it. That it changed almost before Jamie could take stock of the situation. Two years, each of them finding it harder and harder to climb out of the other’s bed, each night spent alone feeling less and less like home, and still--still, Dani worries.

Dani might always worry. It might just be part of her fabric, Jamie understands, for reasons that go beyond even Jamie herself and those old, long-broken rules. 

She takes Dani’s hand now. “Not judging. Not asking to start anything. Just--is there anything, at any point, I can do to make clear I’m not gettin’ sick of you? That it’s...really gone the other way ‘round, more than I could ever explain?”

Dani smiles. “That helps. Saying that. Meaning it.”

“I do,” Jamie assures her. “Really do. Not sick of you, at all. Pretty in love with you, as it turns out, to truly unforeseen degrees.” She hesitates, her thumb working gently over Dani’s knuckles. “So...we move at dawn?”

“Dawn?” Dani wrinkles her nose, curling in close and kissing her cheek. “Noon, at least.”

***

They do not move at dawn, largely because Jamie’s fairly certain she’d be strangled for attempting to roll Dani out of bed with the sun. Neither do they move at noon, because--as Jamie points out, standing beside the bed frame with a mug of coffee outstretched like a peace offering: “It’s fuckin’ July, we won’t be able to move a couch in ninety-degree-heat, Dani.”

“We could,” Dani grumbles into the mug, closing her eyes and taking a sip. “I’m very functional in heat.”

Jamie opens her mouth. Dani raises a single finger without opening her eyes.

“Still waking up. Strike that from the record. Did you already shower?”

Jamie has. Jamie has showered, packed up the remnants of the flat--everything but the coffee maker, the essential toiletries, and the change of clothes waiting for Dani in an otherwise-barren dresser--and is now bobbing on the balls of her feet, itching to strip the bed. 

Dani blinks up at her, amused. “How long have you been resisting the urge to flip the mattress, exactly?”

“Since six,” Jamie says. Dani raises her eyebrows. She shrugs. “Okay, five.”

“It is a marker of your unending devotion,” Dani yawns, “that you let me sleep, then.”

"Devotion. Yes. Has nothing whatsoever to do with my stark awareness that you’d salt the whole goddamn day if I woke you before eight.”

“Well. I’m awake now.” Dani widens her eyes to prove it, taking another draft of coffee. “What time do we expect our helpers to show up?”

Jamie grimaces. “Ten.”

"Right. Well. I’d like a shower, and then I’ve got a list of all the boxes I want to get moved before Flora insists on helping with them. Unless we want to take this opportunity to replace every scrap of dishware in the collection?”

Jamie grins. “You just tell me what needs to go where. Took it upon myself to do a little--didn’t want to wake you, and risk that classic Clayton wrath, but--”

“What wrath? I have no wrath. If anything, my sin of choice is--”

Anyway,” Jamie says quickly; discussing Dani’s sin of choice while Dani is still half-naked amid mussed sheets is a fast-track to getting nothing done before the arrival of the so-called helpers. “Did what I could quietly. Guitar, plants, and--um--the box are already stashed in the car, ready to go.”

“The box,” Dani sighs, relief and mild embarrassment on her face. “Good call, I didn’t even think about that.”

“Figured it’d waylay the moving process a bit, if Flora took a peek and came back up with...” Jamie grimaces. “Questions. But everything else is still a leaning tower of terror.”

“It can lean for a little longer.” Dani leans her head back against the pillows, resting the mug on her chest, staring at the ceiling. “I can’t believe it’s time. Seems like just yesterday I was signing for this place.”

Though every atom is begging for her to keep moving, adrenaline already at the wheel, Jamie nudges for her to scoot over and slides between the sheets. Dani shifts toward her without a word, pressing her face against Jamie’s t-shirt. 

“It seems silly, to miss it. Most of the things I loved most about it are going to be coming with us.”

“Not the bit where it was yours, though,” Jamie says. “First place that ever was. I know the feeling.”

Dani sighs, nuzzling in against her side. Jamie gently removes the mug from her hand before stripping the bed becomes an issue of stain removal. 

“I know,” Dani says, “it’ll all feel like home in a week or two. And I’m glad we’re doing it. Really. But it still feels...sad. Is that okay?”

“’Course.” Jamie shifts awkwardly, leaning to press a kiss to her hair. “What’s not gonna be okay is explaining to Hannah why we’re still not ready to load up Wingrave’s car when she shows in--” She takes Dani’s wrist in hand, flips it over to peer at her watch. “Forty-five minutes.”

“You said they’d be here at ten!” 

“I said they’re meant to be here at ten. You chose a friend who associates on time with unacceptably rude lateness, mind.”

Dani groans. “What if you just moved everything except the bed?”

“No can do.” Slipping carefully out of Dani’s grasp, Jamie watches her flop grumpily onto her back. It’s too hard, resisting the urge to lean over her, cup her cheek, kiss her lips. No point even trying. “Thing is, this is the better bed. I’m attached.”

“Also,” Dani mumbles against her kiss, “we donated yours.”

“Also that. Foolish of us, really. Imagine the shenanigans, if we’d just put ‘em together.”

“We wouldn’t have had space to get back to the door.”

“You say that like it’s a problem.”

Dani laughs, looping an arm around her neck, sliding her hand gently down the back of her collar. The scrape of her nails set against the ticking clock of the morning and the thumping need to be moving is doing Jamie no favors.

Fuck it. Lean in, why don’t you.

“We could, ah...” She raises her eyebrows. “Real quick. For old time’s sake. To say goodbye properly.”

Dani kisses her, a long breathless endeavor that speaks of patience, of all the time in the world, of things that simply aren’t true--and Jamie leans down, letting herself settle between splayed legs with a sigh. There’s a sense of mediated grief, she thinks, in saying farewell to one world with another lined up in the wings. A sense of gentle pain, medicated by the knowledge that it will not last forever, like working through the bleakest bits of a story from the comfort of your own couch. 

She will miss this apartment--as she’ll miss her own--not for the freedom of living alone so much as the memories stained into wood and carpet and wall. She’ll miss knowing this is where she first allowed herself to open for good and all. This is where she learned to brew coffee properly, because Dani just isn’t quite Dani without it. This is where Dani opened that door after a bruising week at school, where winter blues and imminent book reports turned her kids from charm to misery, and found Jamie waiting with flowers arranged, candles lit, a wine glass outstretched. 

The good, the future, the love will follow them from this building to the next--and, in their own way, the memories will, too. Preserved. As permanent as anything ever is, once it’s over. She knows that each moment will be found in Dani’s kiss, in the slide of Dani’s hands, in Dani’s voice repeating her name with boundless affection, annoyance, arousal. A chapter closes. The book carries on. 

And still, she gives herself over for a while to the goodbye of it all. Dani is twisting beneath her, underwear pushed aside for the familiar stroke of fingers, and it is the last in a way that deserves its own memorial. The last time Dani’s hands will clutch at her wrist, struggling to urge her deep. The last time Dani’s voice will ring out as palm drags friction, as fingers curl. The last time she’ll pant breath against Dani’s shoulder, kissing and groaning as she feels Dani clench, whine, tumble. 

Last time. For now. For here. 

Some things, she thinks, wiping her hand discreetly on the sheet, are unfairly muddled. Some things are unfairly glorious and terrible at the same time. 

Dani’s hand presses her cheek, Dani’s eyes knowing. Jamie sighs. 

“Go on, then.”

“Can’t treat everything like a band-aid, Jamie.” There’s no judgment in her voice, no amusement at all. Just Dani stating a simple fact, as she had all those months ago saying, I deserve to choose my future. As much as anyone can. “Sometimes, it’s good to feel the ache.”

Jamie nods, leaning into her hand, into her kiss. And, though there is no time for it, she finds her hand drifting to slick skin again, her fingers playing out the same melody a second time. Once for goodbye, she thinks, as Dani gamely arches into her hand. Once to start fresh all over again. 

***

There’s no point tempting fate, as Dani collects her change of clothes and sets off to shower, though a significant part of Jamie--the part which has kept her moving for hours, as though the constant motion will put to bed the nerves and stilted sorrow of leaving--wants nothing more than to follow her. She could; Dani, who burned another ten precious minutes kissing her slowly, legs tangled with Jamie’s own, would be only too happy if Jamie were to join her beneath the spray. 

Dani would be only too happy to stay with her a little longer here, in this place that started off as Dani’s alone, and grew into an invitation to share with the opening of a door. If Jamie’s mood today is manic bordering on melancholy, Dani’s seems to be a firm, steady want. 

Be fun, Jamie thinks, listening to the familiar pound of water on tile from the next room, navigating that combination with friends. 

Not that she isn’t grateful. The part of her which still leans toward solitude wanted to balk when Dani suggested asking for help, but it hadn’t taken long for her to admit it was a good idea. Owen has a real knack for giving orders without sounding like he’s giving orders, Hannah is deceptively strong, and the kids...

The kids are probably mostly going to be a distraction, frankly, but Jamie wonders if that’s such a bad thing.

“Hear anything?” Dani, in a sundress and high-tops, is drying her hair in the bathroom doorway. Jamie flips her phone over, shakes her head. 

“No, but it’s gotta be--”

A quick rap of knuckles against the door rings out, Hannah’s voice following suit. “Everyone decent in there?”

“Rarely,” Jamie calls back. To Dani, she adds in an undertone, “Best I didn’t join you after all, isn’t it?”

“They could have gone for breakfast or something,” Dani teases. 

“I do have the children,” Hannah adds through the door. “In case anyone was thinking of appearing in a bathrobe...”

Jamie swings the door open, leaning against the frame with a mock-somber expression. “You’re saying you don’t like me in pink, Hannah?”

Flora leaps at her, caught and lifted almost before Jamie knows she’s doing it. How quickly, she thinks as Flora squeezes her neck, habits form. 

“Jamie, Miles says we won’t be able to help decorate.”

“Does he?” She reaches with the hand not supporting Flora’s weight, prods Miles in the shoulder. He grimaces, slapping at her with good-natured gentleness. “What is it you’d like to decorate?”

Flora screws up her face in thought. “The bathroom,” she says at last. “Because that’s the room everyone sees, sooner or later.”

“Can’t argue with that.” Jamie glances over her shoulder in time to see Dani--hair pulled back into a damp ponytail--reappearing once more. “Minions are on deck. Where are we pointing ‘em first?”

“Are we waiting for Owen?”

“Meeting us there.” 

“Oh,” Hannah says in a voice so light, it might as well be air, “Owen’s coming?”

Jamie is deeply glad she’s already tilted her face away; this is not the kind of day where she’s capable of hiding her feelings well, and Hannah’s tone splits an instant grin. Dani, blessedly, has arranged her face into the picture of polite calm.

“Yes--he took the day off. We told him not to, but...”

“Stubborn prat,” Jamie says helpfully, still grinning at Dani. She gives Flora a gentle bounce. “Five bucks in it for you, if you call him that to his face.”

“Don’t you dare,” Hannah says before Flora can respond. “He’s a fine young man, Owen.”

“Fine,” Jamie repeats, swinging Flora from side to side until she erupts in giggles. “The very word I was about to use, Hannah, you’ve beat me to it.”

***

The morning dissolves rapidly into a steady back-and-forth routine Jamie finds as comforting as any job requiring her hands. Carry boxes down the stairs. Load boxes into car. Drive car across town. Unload boxes into Owen’s care (Flora joins him after the second trip, after promising Hannah she won’t use any language Jamie has suggested without supervision). Drive back once more. Start over.

It’s mindless in the best way, particularly the drive; with the windows down and the sun beating pleasantly on her left arm, Jamie feels utterly alive. 

“You look better,” Dani observes when they break for lunch at noon, the pair of them sitting on the hood of the car. “Less...”

“Sad,” Jamie fills in for her, uncapping a plastic bottle of water and taking a swig. Ninety, the day has indeed reached, and there’s a satisfactory air of ideal summer in combining cold water with the sweat running down her back. “S’just something strange about it, right? Leaving it all behind.”

We’re not going far, she thinks, expects Dani to say. Not like we’re leaving the country. 

Instead, Dani rests a hand on her knee, fingers spread across sunbaked skin. “It’s the price of an adventure, I think. You leave the parts you know behind for the surprise of it all. And even if you know it’s the right move--even if staying wasn’t good for anyone...”

She trails off, her eyes distant. She is not, Jamie recognizes, speaking of apartments at all. 

“This is how you felt,” she guesses, “when you broke it off with him.”

Dani nods. “It feels silly, now. Felt silly then, even, but sometimes, you just have to--”

“Feel it.” She tips her head, searching Dani’s face. “Is this why you kept trying to give me the out? Saw it coming?”

Dani laughs. “Kept trying to give you the out because I want you to be happy. I changed your whole life, blowing into your shop that day. I like to check in from time to time, make sure you’re still...okay with that.”

“Okay? You changed it for the better.” She hesitates. “You...do know that, right?”

“Made it a lot less boring,” Dani points out. “Lot less simple.”

“A lot less guarded,” Jamie corrects. “A lot less lonely. Dani—”

“I know.” Dani sounds embarrassed. She always sounds embarrassed, falling back on old habits, as though she can’t correlate the woman who learned to ask for what she wants without flinching with the one who once had a nervous breakdown in a café restroom. That woman, the latter version, turns up less frequently now, but Dani still carries her. Dani will probably always carry her, little though she likes it, and no matter what Jamie does, she can’t stop her from apologizing for as much. “You don’t have to say it.”

Jamie shifts, one knee bent, a hand sliding around to cradle the back of Dani’s head. Her hair is pleasantly warm beneath splayed fingers, her forehead soft when Jamie leans into it.

“You,” she says quietly, “are the best goddamn thing that’s ever happened to me. Good, bad, weird—all of it. Letting you into my flat, my bed, my…” She winces. This is getting mushy fast.

Dani nods, sweat-dampened forehead sliding stickily against Jamie’s. “Instagram,” she says gravely. Jamie huffs surprised laughter, holding on a little tighter.

“My everything. Didn’t see you coming, it’s true, but goddamn, I haven’t regretted a second.”

“Not a second,” Dani repeats. Jamie nods decisively.

“Not a one.”

“What about the time—” Dani’s lips brush hers with the words, not quite applying pressure. “I knocked over that tray of seedlings?”

“Fixed it,” Jamie says. Her heart is picking up speed, the familiar press of Dani’s kiss nearly within reach.

“The time we broke a window?”

“Got the security deposit back anyway.”

“The time,” Dani adds, grinning; her hand has moved higher on Jamie’s knee, the tips of her fingers studying the petals of an inked rose. “The time I accidentally invited that girl from the gym over for dinner.”

Jamie leans back, laughing. “Okay, yeah, that one was a problem. Thank fuck we’re moving, she won’t know where to turn up with brownies next time the mood strikes her.”

“Shame,” Dani says idly. Her fingers are breaching the hem of Jamie’s cut-offs now, stroking the muscle of her thigh with languid interest. Jamie shifts her hips with unintentional force, the urge to move winding tight in her belly again. “She knew how to bake.”

“So do you,” Jamie points out. That Dani isn’t quite kissing her, isn’t quite closing the distance, even as she digs her nails into Jamie’s skin is, frankly, driving her to distraction. “C’ept you’re kind enough to do it naked.”

“Bet she would, too, if you asked nicely enough—”

“Have we given up for the day?” Owen’s shadow is long, falling over them both. Dani turns a sunny smile on him; Jamie grimaces.

“When I put you in the supervisor position, I didn’t actually mean for you to supervise us.”

“All’s fair in moving house,” Owen says cheerfully. His eyes flick down to Dani’s hand resting high on Jamie’s thigh and away again. “We can probably set Mrs. Grose free soon. One more trip, maybe, to break down the bed?”

“Excellent idea,” Jamie says. “The bed. Let’s go handle the bed, Dani.”

“I’ll come along,” Owen says, eyebrows narrowing behind his glasses. “Just to help get it down the stairs. They’re heavier than they look, even broken down.”

“Sure.” It’s taking everything in her not to pin him with a glower. Trust the very man who wanted so badly to set her up with Dani in the first place to interrupt a pleasant afternoon tumble. “Sounds very…helpful of you.”

***

It’s hard to be grumpy about it, all things considered—the removal of the last of their furniture goes so much more smoothly with Owen’s help, and by the time they’ve huffed and puffed the pieces of the bedframe (and the not-quite-bendy-enough mattress, to boot) up the stairs, they’re pleased to find Hannah has already unpacked most of the kitchen.

“I know you’ll have your own way of doing things,” she informs Jamie in an undertone, “but Flora was adamant about helping. I’ve put her and Miles to work in the bathroom, hope that’s all right.”

Jamie’s half-sure the kids will have “decorated” in ways that’ll leave her and Dani perplexed come evening, but when she pokes her head in, she finds Miles painstakingly stringing up a fresh shower curtain. Flora is arranging unfamiliar flowers in a small vase on the counter, using an overturned milk crate as a makeshift stepladder.

“I picked them myself,” she tells Jamie cheerfully. “Mrs. Grose showed me how to do it without hurting the rosebushes. She said you’d approve only if we did it respectfully.”

“She’s right.” Roses are, perhaps, a bit overzealous for a tiny bathroom, but she can appreciate the gesture. “You’ve got a future in flowers?”

Flora tips her head, correcting a red rose when it tries to dip out of place. “Maybe. If I’m not too busy traveling, or with my doll line, or—”

Jamie leaves her to it, amused to see Miles nodding along. She finds Dani in the living room, trying in vain to move the couch from the middle of the floor to the wall on her own. Owen, arms crossed over his chest, says, “You sure you don’t need help?” in a tone of voice that suggests it’s the seventh or eighth time he’s asked.

“Got it,” Dani grunts, giving a mighty shove. The couch rocks back two inches. She heaves a sigh. “Fine, okay, get over here.”

And so the afternoon goes on: Flora and Miles picking items up and setting them back down seemingly at random, Hannah trailing behind them to repair the damage, Owen gamely shifting bookshelves and chairs with Jamie’s help as Dani sips water on the sidelines. By early evening, the bed is whole once more, the kitchen is more or less functional, and they’ve only shattered two picture frames.

“It’s good luck,” Dani says, “to break something when you move.” Jamie’s sure this newfound philosophy has nothing whatsoever to do with Dani having broken the things in the first place. She’s even more certain there is absolutely no point in arguing.

The others offer to stick around longer--Hannah suggests a grocery run to “stock you up right”, which sounds entirely exhausting to Jamie. They shake their heads, push their over-enthusiastic assistants toward the door instead.

“We love you,” Dani says, “and we’d never have gotten everything done so quickly without you.”

“Now get out and let us collapse in peace,” Jamie adds, tickling Flora until she melts into a squirming mass of limbs and light-up shoes.

“You’ll have us over soon!” Flora squeals, dodging behind Owen. “You’ll have us for dinner!”

“You’d make a fine stew,” Jamie agrees. Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Dani’s smile broaden, the weariness vanishing from her face as if by magic; the mere fact of Jamie taking to these kids so well always seems to brighten Dani’s day.

It’d be a terrific reason to do it all on its own, even if she didn’t love them more than she could possibly have planned for.

When they’re finally gone, the apartment feels twice as big, twice as unnecessary. She slides an arm around Dani’s middle, resting her chin on her shoulder.

“Looks good, doesn’t it?”

Not like home, she doesn’t add, knowing Dani will feel the same. Not yet. It will, soon enough. Give it a week or two, and that couch will look like it always rested against that wall, the kitchen will make sense again, the carefully-pressed flowers framed in the bedroom will feel as though they’ve never hung anywhere else. It’ll get better. It’ll be theirs.

And, in the meantime, there’s an electricity to the strange of it all. The doors to the old apartments are locked for good now; for Jamie, they’ve already been moved gently into the untouchable category, where she sorts through painful memories she is no longer allowed to indulge. It’s not like a woman who was once home and now only hurts to think of--not exactly--but close. A photograph, maybe, unedited. A stationary point in the past.

“What are you thinking?” Dani asks, leaning back in her arms. “I know it’s something deep, you’ve got that crease between your eyes.”

“Dunno what you’re talking about.” She makes an effort to smooth out her expression. “Known me two years, should know I haven’t had a deep thought since 199--”

Dani shakes her head. “Too much vulnerability for one day, you’re backsliding on me?”

Fair point. “Sorry. We just already talked about the…sad of it all, y’know? Purged it. Should have been enough.” Dani’s better at this part, the talking out her feelings thing. Always has been. When Jamie does it, it feels too much like therapy, like she needs to put all the darkness in her head in a little box and tuck it away under the bed.

“Habit,” she adds, when Dani only leans back, pressing her lips clumsily to a sun-freckled cheek. “Sorry.”

“Maybe we don’t kick off our first night at the new place with sorry,” Dani suggests. “Seems like bad luck.”

“Now.” Jamie mimes a thoughtful expression, one hand cupped around her chin. “Would that negate the good luck of the broken frames, do we think? Or does it place a tick in each column, like a best-of game situation?”

Dani reaches up, thumping her gently on the head with lightly-curled fingers. “Has anyone ever told you’re your—”

“Deeply attractive?” Jamie suggests. “Wildly good in bed? Boundless in my generosity?”

“Smug,” Dani says dryly. “Smug and the biggest smartass I’ve ever met.”

“That, strangely, is only ever pointed out by you.” She’s grinning, unable to help herself. It’s strange, standing in this half-unpacked living room, knowing she’ll have to get used to the creak of new floorboards, the thickness of new walls, the way sunlight filters in through new windows—but holding Dani, feeling the laughter roll up through her back against Jamie’s chest, is never strange. They always fit, she thinks, no matter where they are.

“At the risk,” she says, an idea blooming beneath the easy melancholy, “of being called smug again…did have one thought. About, ah…calling down a little luck on the new place.”

Dani raises an eyebrow. “Why do I get the feeling you don’t mean lighting candles?”

There’s a teasing note in her tone, like she hasn’t been sliding Jamie knowing looks all afternoon. Like they don’t both remember all too well what Owen had interrupted at lunch—what they’d kicked off first thing in the morning.

It will never not be funny, she thinks even as Dani twists in her arms and slides a hand up to cradle her cheek, that Dani manages to look like the more put-together of them these days. Dani, who had spent so much of those early months shocking her with the consistency of her need, vibrant and excited and unfailing.

Well, yeah, Dani had said when she brought it up, several months into a comfortable status of together. She’d been grinning, a pink flush high on her cheeks, the look of a woman not nearly embarrassed enough by her choices to regret them. As long as I could get you naked, I could pretend I wasn’t in love with you.

That is, Jamie pointed out, a truly mad approach. You do realize that.

Madder than you pretending you weren’t in love with me by actively pushing me to date strange women? Dani had asked with faux-innocence, and Jamie found herself initiating a rigorous makeout session just to keep from admitting defeat.

No one is pretending anything now, Dani laying small, soft kisses against her mouth like a series of reiterated promises. The world is unmapped, the pair of them backing awkwardly into the coffee table (the corner digs into the back of Jamie’s calf) and snagging on the curled corner of the rug (Dani almost loses her balance, catching herself roughly on Jamie’s shoulder)—but the familiarity of two well-explored bodies eases the tension. Sure, the bedroom here lives where the bathroom had in Jamie’s flat; yes, there’s a bonus room, as yet unplanned for, that hadn’t been present at Dani’s. These are, Jamie recognizes, features, not bugs. Every room will be theirs, every blank canvas welcoming a new image of a life built entirely together. No one pretending skin doesn’t mean the same as the bright spark of watching someone wake in your bed; no one feigning calm while the other tries on other people’s phone numbers for size.

Every step in this apartment belongs to the pair of them, to the specific growth of changing and shifting and making choices with someone standing at your side.

Every step belongs to someone Jamie—if asked two years ago—never thought she’d have the space to be.

“I am,” she murmurs to the newness of the apartment, to the shift of Dani’s skin against her own when she tilts her head, “pretty in love with you, it turns out.”

“Is that all right?” Dani is smiling—asking not as she’d said last night, You can still back out, but with the easy understanding of the answer. Is that all right—are you sure—do you promise?

Of course. Yes. Promise.

Dani has been, until now, kissing her slowly—almost gently—fingers curled behind her neck. Her thumb presses behind Jamie’s ear, finding as if by magic that soft spot which, when lightly bitten, rolls her eyes back in her head. There’s a languid energy to the way they propel backward across the flat—that all the time in the world sensation again, the one Jamie rarely allows into her head. They don’thave all the time—didn’t this morning, with Dani arching under her hands as a goodbye to that bedroom, and don’t now, and won’t ever—but Dani is so good at making her forget. Dani is so good, pressing her gently back, shoulders colliding with the hallway wall, at making her forget everything that isn’t this.

Now Dani is kissing harder, letting her mouth slant across lips and jaw and throat as though there is no part of Jamie she’s not aching to devour. Dani is kissing with a slow-build frenetic energy that reminds her of early days, of Dani learning for the first time what songs her body could sing and how to wantall of it, without shame or apology, in Jamie’s presence. Her kiss is a hot, hungry thing, her hands flexing around Jamie’s shoulders, her pelvis knocking almost questioningly against Jamie’s own: please, her body seems to say, please tell me if you’re feeling it, too. That same old question, familiar and wonderful and answered in kind with Jamie burying both hands in her hair, sliding a rough grip down her back, clutching at her hips with hands that still, sometimes, shake.

She is warm in Jamie’s grasp, her dress wrinkled after a full day of taking stairs, shifting furniture, shuffling boxes; when her lips part, her tongue curving past Jamie’s teeth, the breathy sound that accompanies the act is one Jamie doubts she’ll ever be immune to. Of all the women she’s slept with, of all the people allowed past the meager defense of her clothing, Dani is the only one who has ever sounded at once urgent and at home.

“You okay?” Breathing hard, Dani leans back to look at her, brows knitted; Jamie realizes she’s grinning.

“Perfect.” She is. Or, to put a finer point on it: Dani is. For her. Because, after two years, she still can’t fathom the idea of Dani ever not surprising her—ever not being the most beautiful person in the room—ever not looking at her with the most genuine adoration Jamie’s ever been acquainted with.

She’s looking at her that way now, all goofy grin and bright blue eyes, and her kiss is sweet—is hot—is exactly the thing Jamie’s been missing most of the day. It always is, somehow. She thinks they could be together for twenty years—fifty—the rest of their days, and Dani’s would still be the face and hands and kiss she can’t get enough of.

“You were saying,” Dani reminds her, as she dips her head to trail kisses down her neck. Dani’s pulse is quick beneath the flick of her tongue, her breath catching when Jamie makes a go on noise against her skin. “You were saying something about—about good luck—”

“On the right path already.” They’re nearly to the bedroom now, and there’s a jackrabbit giddiness under her skin at the idea. How Dani can still make her feel this wild excitement two years in, like nothing has changed, like she’s still leaning against the shop counter with busy tonight? texts burning through her self-restraint, she doesn’t know.

How it can still feel so much like starting fresh, though she knows this bed is the same one they’d woken in just this morning, she can’t say.

And yet: the walls bend toward them with unfamiliar urgency, the light coming through the window shade filtered as though even the sun is brand new. The bed is the same, but its placement is strange--the window is on the far wall, the dresser beside the door instead of the closet. Jamie, dipping backward onto the neatly-arranged quilt, feels as though even her body is just a little bit different than it was this morning--last night--last week. Like everything about this is just a little bit unknown.

“We can--” Dani’s voice is muffled against her lips, her hips working a feverish rolling pace; stretched out this way atop Jamie’s frame, she fits all too well. Jamie remembers thinking it early on, how Dani landed almost unfairly-perfectly against her, how it had made saying yes to her wild notion of friends-with-benefits entirely too easy.

“We can what?” The exhilaration of Dani breathing this hard, her hands urging Jamie’s shirt up with no grace whatsoever, is making it surprisingly hard to think. That, she assures herself, is the exhaustion. Moved an awful lot of shit today. Sun was fuckin’ hot.

True, all of the above--and still, she’d be lying if she said it wasn’t Dani. Dani, with the same effect on Day Eight Hundred as Day One. Dani, looking down at her with sweat beading around her temples, hair a wild tangle around her face. Dani, grinning with the tiniest amount of self-effacing humor, even as she rucks a sleeveless band tee nearly to Jamie’s shoulders.

“You are,” Jamie adds, “a highly impatient person.”

“Someone has to be.” Dani gestures for her to push up into a crunch long enough to allow the shirt over her head. She tosses it aside, and Jamie idly thinks, First article down. It feels more than a little like champagne bursting across the hull of a fine new ship.

“Why’s that?”

Dani shakes back her hair, leans into Jamie’s hand as it glides up to cup her cheek. “Because you’re all aloof and cool, and if I was the same, we’d still be circling each other in your living room.”

“Not likely.” Jamie grins. “You couldn’t possibly have lasted this long without kissing me.”

Dani tips her head. “Is that so?”

“It is.”

“Because--” Is it her imagination, or is a particular note of danger creeping into Dani’s voice? “I wasgoing to suggest we embrace the new of the place. Spend the rest of the evening getting to know the…acoustics. Maybe break open the box? But if you’d rather go issuing challenges in the name of your ego…”

“No,” Jamie says quickly. There’s something excellent about challenge-Dani, who meets witticisms with incredible strength of will--but everything has its time, its place, and a Dani slowly revolving her hips this way, one arm draped around Jamie’s bare shoulders, using words like acoustics and the box, is not a woman Jamie sees fit to cross.

Later, maybe. Tomorrow, maybe, she’ll test Dani’s resolve. Could be fun. Tonight, she shifts her weight, pleased when Dani shifts with her, putting up no resistance at all to being rolled onto her back.

“No,” Jamie repeats. “Your way is better. No argument here.”

 “None?” Dani beams up at her, no trace of that sharp-edged challenge in her smile. They are, then, in agreement; time and a place, and tonight is neither. Tonight is a restart button, as surely as spring battering back the final frost, as certain as the sunrise kicking out the last of the shadows.

Tonight is a study in starting fresh, a chance some couples never get--or, Jamie thinks, never take. She and Dani seem luckier than most that way, willing--eager--to reinvent the pieces of themselves that shift with the passing months, always making certain things still fit into place. Strange, to imagine people who think stagnant is how a thing has to be, to work. Strange, to think there are some out there who believe stagnant and stable are synonyms.

There is nothing stagnant about the way she kisses Dani, measured breaths mingling as they shift back to slow, to gentle, to teasing. Nothing at all rehearsed about how Dani’s hands slide around her neck, fingers knitting beneath the base of her skull. Nothing practiced about the flutter of her own pulse as Dani shifts beneath her, one smooth leg bending between her own.

For some, sex might become a habit--even a chore. For some, sex might be no different than small talk, bantered back and forth at the end of a weekday: the physical equivalent of how was your commute, what did you have for lunch, anything funny happen with a customer? Might be that way, and might be okay, being that way. Life is complicated and exhausting; the energy required for good sex ramps ever higher as the years progress. She thinks that’s okay. Christ knows they don’t go at it now the way they did those first six months, like sex was tantamount to breathing.

Still, it’s a kind of language--as much as communicating with words, as much as offering little gifts or hey, I did the laundry already. It’s a kind of language, and no matter how many times they come together, she’s surprised to find Dani always has more to say. A different way of saying it. A soft slide of fingertips, a rough kiss, a desperate whimper of her name--each means something different, depending on the day, and no matter how many times she’s alone with Dani, she finds herself eager to translate.

The way Dani is kissing her now--her tongue softly tracing Jamie’s lower lip, waiting for initiation--says, Your turn to lead. It’s so different from Dani kissing her this morning, even, from the hot curl of that tongue into an open mouth. So different from the times Dani needs to be in control for the sake of her anxiety, or for the simple joy of watching Jamie land on her back.

The way Dani is undressing her, too--hands soft against the sweat-soaked cotton of her sports bra, thigh rubbing almost inquisitively against the seam of her shorts--is asking for permission, not demanding. You can say no, the fingers brushing the button of her shorts seem to say. You can slow down. Make it last forever. I won’t mind.

She shivers, kissing Dani’s shoulder, tasting the salt on her skin. Even the way Dani is smiling at her when she looks up is so gentle, it feels almost like falling asleep in the sun. Paving a new road, that smile says. Paving with familiar stones in a brand-new pattern, and we’ll do it again in three months, in five years, a decade from now.

Change, Jamie recognizes, is the lifeblood of any relationship. Change and choice. She’d once told Dani that much, pressed against a restroom door, hadn’t she? You choose what you want--the rest is history.

Dani chose her, faced with a hangover and a skidding terror.

She chose Dani back, opening all the little corners of her world.

Dani chooses her every day after school, like she chooses Dani upon waking each morning, like they choose each other each time they turn down the covers, turn out the lights, turn toward one another in the dark. They change--the apartment, the color of the walls, the style of a jacket, the preference in wine. And, as time goes on, other things will change, too. Hair will go gray, eyesight will fade. Tempers might grow shorter; panic might win the day more often than not. No way to say. No way to predict in advance.

But there’s a language to it, if you know how to listen. A language to the imprecise sound Dani makes--half-laugh, half-groan--when her neck is kissed just so. A language to the familiarity of her hand sliding between denim and skin. A language to her hair in Jamie’s mouth, her dress slipping off her shoulder, her almost furtive nod when Jamie slides from the mattress to her knees, reaching beneath the bedframe for the little box kept for so-called special occasions.

They aren’t always traditionally-special, it’s true. Sometimes, it’s just because the snow has been falling for days and days, and they’re both going stir-crazy staring out at all that white. Sometimes, it’s because the shop isn’t doing as well as it should this season--or because Dani’s patience with herself when eighteen kids somehow fail the same test is fraying--or because they just haven’t felt quite close enough to one another lately. And sometimes, it’s a matter of anniversary, of holidays scrounged from Google, of moving house for the first time.

Dani’s willingness to try new things has always been a feature of the relationship--equally present in and out of the bedroom. And, Jamie thinks wryly, in bringing the bedroom pretty much anywhere they can feasibly close a door. Or find a dark corner. Or a pillar.

Dani’s willingness has always been the most forward-presented part of her; braver than people think, she teases, be it a new sushi place, a pair of handcuffs, or an unmapped road trip laid out before her. She looks embarrassed, sometimes, or nervous, but so long as Jamie is there--so long as Jamie is holding her hand--

“Remember the first time?” Jamie murmurs now. Dani, who has quite patiently assisted with losing the remainder of their clothes, inhales sharply as a thumb presses between her legs. She’s all tan line and blue eyes, stretched out on the sheets, her breast rising and falling with increasing speed as Jamie draws gentle friction with one hand.

“What about it?” she manages, sucking in a breath when Jamie bends to lick at the stutter of pulse, biting the soft skin of her neck. It’s the light and gentle that gets Dani, nights like these--with Jamie resting between her thighs in only a black brief-style harness, building her up slowly. The light and gentle sometimes makes her crazy, reminding Jamie of the earliest weeks, when education felt like the most important part of their time together. When it was all slow--easy--pay attention to what your body wants.

What Dani’s body wants, she’s quite sure, is for her to pick up the pace. To guide the black silicone shaft between her legs and set a steady rhythm. What Dani’s body wants is her--

But Dani’s already been clear: Your turn to lead. Your turn to say what’s what. She’s not always inclined to let Jamie steer--has actually gotten pretty damn good at flipping the script even when Jamie expects to be in charge of an activity--and opportunities to fit back into her old role rarely slip by without relish.

Especially with Dani pushing up toward her this way, lip caught between her teeth, looking like the wait is quite literally driving her out of her mind.

“The first time,” Jamie goes on. “When you thought you wouldn’t like it--”

“I didn’t say I wouldn’t like it.” Dani has this peculiar way of laughing and making the most obscene little sighs at the same time. It’s entirely distracting. “Just that I didn’t need anything that wasn’t you.”

“It is me.” She’d said it then, too, she remembers with the clarity of last week--though they’d bought the toy around Christmas of their first year together, Dani giggling almost too hard to help pick one out. Old shame, she’d explained, sneaking up on her when she wasn’t looking. To think she’d need anything else--anything that wasn’t Jamie--had felt to her like an insult.

And Jamie, who had understood despite never quite dealing with the same stones Dani finds herself overturning from time to time, had smiled. Taken her face between steady hands. Kissed her once.

“It is me. It’ll only ever be me. And you. Promise.”

Dani spreads her legs, hopeful, and Jamie nearly laughs. Her fingers are drawing slow circles, and Dani clearly isn’t minding--her head rolls back against the pillow, a flush spreading down her chest. Dani isn’t minding at all, even as she’s saying in a near growl, “You’re really going to make the most of it, huh?”

“You said,” Jamie reminds her, “it was my turn.”

“Did I?” She’s grinning even as she gasps, her hand sliding between her own legs. Jamie catches her by the wrist, shaking her head.

“You implied it. Heavily. Or did you want me to take this off--”

Dani shakes her head, sitting hastily upright. “No, Jamie, come on.”

“Then indulge me.” She lowers her voice, curls her tongue around the syllables the way Dani--three glasses of wine in, hands straying to Jamie’s thigh under the bar table--once told her ought to be illegal. “First night. I want to remember.”

“Remind me,” Dani says--almost pleads. It’s nearly enough to undo the self-restraint keeping her up on her knees, one hand stringing Dani along like they’re having a perfectly innocent conversation. Like Dani’s hand is not straying to the addition between her legs, fingertips brushing with light interest.

She releases Dani’s wrist, unsurprised to watch her dip between her own thighs again. Her fingers slide in, her hips rising to meet her hand, and emerge glistening. Jamie licks her lips.

“You weren’t this bold, for one.”

“I’ve been bold since you met me,” Dani breathes. She wraps a loose grip around silicone, fingers curled, pumping her hand gently up and down. Jamie gazes at her, lost for a moment in the bravado of that hand repeating the gesture--brushing between Dani’s legs, coming up slick, sliding around the shaft between her own. She closes her eyes, draws a steadying breath.

The first time, Dani hadn’t been that bold. Had been nervous, giggly, kissing Jamie harder than normal as if trying to put all that anxiety somewhere tangible. The first time, Jamie had felt very much as she had with Dani standing before her that day in her shop, eyes wide, mouth shaping words she sometimes still can’t fathom, even now.

Now, with Dani gazing up at her with such faux-innocence, she genuinely wonders how she was ever surprised.

“You were,” she breathes, “nervous. Thought I was done making you nervous, but you looked at me like it was the first time ever.”

Something in Dani’s expression softens, though she’s still smiling, her hand still sliding up and down with smooth strokes. If she dips her head, Jamie thinks, if she sits up and takes the toy into her mouth, the whole game is going straight out the window.

“I was,” she says, coating the toy in her own arousal, reaching with her other hand to brush Jamie’s cheek. The two acts are so incongruous, so utterly wild in juxtaposition, that Jamie’s stomach tightens with sudden warmth. “I was nervous that it wouldn’t feel like…that it wouldn’t…”

Connection, Jamie thinks, not for the first time. They talked about it at the time, her stretched out on her back, Dani curled against her side. It had felt strange, dressed up and just talking--but a good strange. A comfortable, sweet kind of strange, knowing every word was putting Dani at ease.

For all of it--for all the sex, all the new and the familiar and the unexpected--Jamie has only ever wanted this much. To put Dani at ease. To make her feel safe. To make her feel as wanted and as wonderful as she deserves.

“But?” she presses, wanting to hear Dani say it again. Wanting to remember that moment--in her own flat--in entirety, to stitch it together with this new one here, now, in their home.

Dani’s mouth quirks to the side, a crooked little half-smile that says she knows exactly what Jamie is looking for. Naked, still stroking the toy almost leisurely, she says, “But you were right.”

“Does happen from time to time,” Jamie says lightly. Dani shakes her head.

“You--”

“Me.” She leans in, kisses Dani softly. “Us. Right?”

Dani sighs against her lips, her hand rising to press against her jaw. Her fingers are slightly sticky, her voice a surprised rasp when Jamie turns her head, draws them into her mouth without warning.

“Don’t make you nervous now, do I?”

“No,” Dani assures her, eyes dark, lips parted. “No, you’re…like coming home. Every time.”

It’s that connection, the one that taught Dani just how much she liked sex to begin with. That connection with another person who wants not just her body, not just to make her cry out in pleasure, but to understand her. Jamie’s never known anyone she’s wanted to understand half as much, half as completely, as the woman who is now wrapping both arms around her shoulders, guiding her down.

She remembers that first time, how Dani had gripped her almost desperately. How she’d held on for dear life, Jamie moving slowly, like at any moment both of them might break. There had been a sensuality she hadn’t expected, gazing into Dani’s face, watching her relax, watching the pleasure gradually overtake the anxiety. Dani, who hadn’t wanted for even a second to give in to her own fears, realizing with every thrust, every kiss brushed against her lips, what Jamie had meant in making this purchase to begin with.

There is no fear at all in Dani’s face now, as she slides in. Her eyes close in rapture, her chin tipping up; one hand reaches up and back, closing over the headboard. The other grips at Jamie’s back, nails digging into her skin just hard enough to bite.

She’s already rolling her hips, impatience and desire crashing together, and Jamie wants to laugh. Even when it’s my turn, she thinks ruefully, she can’t help it. Dani, who spent so much of her life playing by other people’s rules, has never quite figured out how to switch that feature back on with her--and she’s glad of it. There’s nothing quite so attractive as Dani dragging her down into a bruising kiss, all warm tongue and needy groan, her knees pressing tight around Jamie’s hips.

“Slower,” she coaxes, grazing kisses along Dani’s cheek, the corner of her mouth. Dani makes a noise in her throat, sharpening when Jamie’s hand slips between them to press against swollen nerves. “Slower.”

Dani makes a helpless noise. The want in it is maddening in intensity, as though Dani is barely keeping it together already--as though the sensation of Jamie rocking between her spread thighs, the toy buried deep as her fingers match pace, is already doing the job.

I want to see you, she remembers thinking all those months ago, rubbing herself between Dani’s legs just like this. I want to watch you come apart with--

“--me inside you,” she realizes she’s saying aloud. Dani makes a weak mewling sound at the back of her throat, her back arching, her hips quickening. Jamie, too, is increasing her pace. Doesn’t mean to, exactly; it’s a matter of the sweat running down her back, the dig of Dani’s nails down her tattoo burning. It’s Dani rucking against her, drawing her deep, one hand clutching the headboard so hard, it looks like it hurts.

She reaches up, closes a hand around Dani’s fingers, holding with firm pressure. Dani is uttering those wild sounds between clenched teeth, and it’s nearly impossible not to match the pace she’s setting. Nearly impossible to take it slow, with Dani soaking the hand between them, Dani gazing up at her with eyes gone nearly black, reduced to a wild bucking that makes Jamie feel as though she might well tip from combined friction and Dani before Dani does.

She leans back, closing both hands over Dani’s thighs, hips rolling to match Dani’s merciless rhythm, and it’s the best possible way to set the tone for home. The best possible way to edge out all the anxiety, all the strange grief of leaving memories behind. The best thing in the world, her own voice coiling and releasing as Dani jerks--arches--moans with no regard whatsoever for new neighbors.

“Don’t know the meaning of slow, it would seem.” She’s still inside, panting, her heart a thunderclap behind her ribs. Dani does not look the least bit ashamed of herself. Too fuckin’ right.

“I’ve wanted you all day.”

“You had me,” Jamie points out, as Dani reaches down to ease the toy free, “this morning. Twice.”

“That was like…a million years ago, in moving time.” Dani sighs. “Long day.”

“Good, though.” She makes to roll off the bed, intending to remove the harness; Dani catches her arm, shakes her head.

“Don’t yet.”

“Can’t be serious.” As if she’s surprised. As if Dani has ever been satisfied with a single round. “Between that little endeavor and carrying furniture up the stairs, you’re not gonna be able to walktomorrow.”

“Who needs to walk?” Dani grins. “We’ve got a fancy new apartment and no work to worry about. I plan on leaving this bed for very few reasons.”

“Well, what if I had plans? Trip to the gym, maybe.” Dani is pulling at her, greedy hands pressing her back against the headboard. She finds herself unable to resist, particularly when Dani straddles her without the least bit embarrassment, raking her hair back from her face with a hand still trembling. “Might have gone for a nice run--”

“I think,” Dani says, that old Midwestern politeness undercutting the way she reaches down, presses the head of the toy against her own heat, “you’re going to be too tired.”

I’m in great shape,” Jamie points out. “Stamina for days.”

“Mmm.” The sound pours from her lips, long and low and painfully appealing, her hips angling to take the slick addition deep. Her face is perfect, Jamie thinks, resting her hands at the base of Dani’s spine. Utterly perfect, as she acclimates once more with a filthy sigh. “Stamina, huh?”

“Days,” Jamie repeats. This new angle, with Dani pressing down into her, is doing remarkable things, turning her stomach to liquid heat. This new angle, with Dani curling a hand at the nape of her neck, rocking up and down with measured force, is doing all kinds of things.

“Prove it,” she says, and if Jamie’s voice pitched low ought to be illegal, listening to Dani’s curve this way as she sinks down and releases a moan might as well send her straight to jail. Do not pass go. Do not, under any circumstances, take for granted this gorgeous good fortune.

Slow hadn’t been in Dani’s wheelhouse ten minutes ago, but now--a hand braced against Jamie’s shoulder, breasts bouncing gently with every grind of her hips--she seems to have remembered the art. Her head rolls back, her eyes closed, and Jamie is suddenly thinking they should move to a new apartment every week. Every day, maybe.

“You are,” she murmurs, “never boring. You know that?”

How Dani manages to look almost bashful while riding her this way, pressing her back against the headboard, she’ll never understand. How Dani manages to smile with such innocence while guiding Jamie’s hand to her breast, groaning her satisfaction when Jamie obediently pinches, strokes, dips her head to take the stiff peak of nipple into her mouth, she will never know.

Slow hadn’t been in Dani’s wheelhouse with Jamie pressing her into the mattress, each thrust a little less restrained than the last, gazing into her eyes. With Jamie’s mouth stroking feverish kisses up her neck, Jamie murmuring against her ear, she seems to have found all the time in the world. All the time to let Jamie bask in this image, in the rake of nails across her scalp, in the pump of her hips.

There is such bravado in Dani riding her this way, and such trust--Dani, who once had not believed herself capable of an orgasm, giving herself over to this without an ounce of shame. Dani, doing all the work, sweat shining above her lip, running down her neck, trailing between her breasts, is gorgeous, is uninhibited, is looking at her with such love, it makes her shiver.

“Having fun?” As if her own body isn’t veering toward a climax, her legs dragging against the sheets with helpless abandon as her hips jerk. As if her breath isn’t tightening in her chest, a grunt of pleasure snatched from her lips when Dani grasps her by the hair and pulls her head gently back.

“Aren’t you?”

She closes her eyes, shuddering as Dani kisses her, as Dani’s hips begin to twitch out of rhythm, as Dani sinks a cry into her mouth. Her hands close around restless hips, slide up the snap-curve of her spine, hold Dani to her as she nestles into the crook of Jamie’s neck and rests.

“Third time’s the charm?” she asks after some number of minutes--she thinks Dani might actually be dozing against her shoulder, still clenched around the toy. Dani makes a muffled sound of amusement into her skin.

“Depends. How’s that stamina?”

“For you, endless. Though we might have to change it up. Maybe against the wall? Only, can’t really feel my legs just now--”

Dani climbs off, wincing, letting herself fold onto the mattress in a heap of sprawled limbs, glistening skin, wild hair. “Give it a day or seven, maybe. You--”

“Were right?” Jamie grins. “Don’t tell me you have regrets.”

“Think I came twice that time. No one in their right mind regrets that.” She slides a glance at the window, frowning. “What time is it?”

“Time for a shower,” Jamie suggests. “And, uh. Takeout? Some place that’ll deliver. I’m not looking to put clothes on again until Monday.”

“Mm. Food.” Dani sighs. “Forgot about food.”

“Weird, how often you manage that when I get naked.” She grins, swinging her legs over the edge of the mattress, and hesitates. “Wait--were you serious about round three, because…”

Dani presses her face into the pillow, muffling a yawn. “Do I want round three? Yes. Will I survive round three? Debatable.”

“What a way to go,” Jamie teases. “You stay there, do your best impression of a very beautiful, very naked woman who has had the best sex of her week. I’ll get dinner sorted.”

“You are my favorite,” Dani mumbles. “After a quick nap, make no mistake, I’m paying you back.”

“In gloriously unrepentant snores, I’m sure.” She shimmies out of the harness, fumbles for her underwear and t-shirt, drops a kiss on Dani’s head. “Hey--thoughts on the new place?”

Dani raises a hand, thumb upturned, without opening her eyes. Jamie grins.

“Still want to give me an escape hatch?”

“Only,” Dani says into the pillow, “if it leads you back with pizza.”