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You tilt your head (there's a city inside)

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Dani Clayton spends a lot of time carefully curating her list of what she thinks love is. Maybe it comes from being a writer, from sitting at a street corner and watching stories pass her by all day. This is love, she thinks, watching Owen kiss Hannah on the forehead as he goes to work. Or when Hannah laughs at a truly dreadful pun he’s just made. And yet, she has no practical knowledge of it, until Jamie walks into her life. 

This story is about a lot of things, but mostly, it’s about all the strange, stupid things our hearts make us do when they pick one and go “Ah, yes, I’ve known you before, I’d like to know you going forward”. It’s about Flora and Miles, and Owen and Hannah, and Mr. Wingrave. But most of all, the story is about Dani and Jamie. 

***** 

This story starts with a letter. That’s not strange, if you think about it. Most stories start off with a letter. That letter is usually O, if you want to go the traditional route and begin with saying Once Upon a Time. Or it could also start off with T, if you want to talk about a specific incident, person or place and say The in the beginning. This one starts when Rebecca Jessel politely approaches Dani Clayton to make a rather unusual request of her. 

“Um,” someone says from above her, and Dani’s grip on the papers she’s clutching with her right hand tightens while her left adjusts the pillow her typewriter is resting on. This is crazy.  

“Give me five—” 

A hand appears in front of her, and Dani hates its owner on principle. Why could people not wait one minute? It was a poem, for God’s sake. Nobody was dying. It wasn’t like there was an armed person holding someone hostage unless their friend turned up with a poem about — she casts her mind back, trying to remember what she had been writing about and yes — cherry blossoms. 

Another hand appears and starts tapping on the surface of the typewriter. There are people mumbling above her, disgruntled clients grumbling about delays and bus trips and money, and she closes her eyes for a bit, a little overwhelmed by both the sunlight and the amount of people waiting for her.  

“Um.” 

The person is drowned out by two more voices, now sounding significantly less patient than they had been thirty seconds ago, and now she wants to keep the typewriter aside and start running, leaving behind a bunch of flying papers in her wake. Thinking about the scene amuses her, even amid this panic; her, flinging papers into the air and running through the footpath, typewriter clutched under an arm. It would be funny. It would also be very unprofessional.  

As would telling everyone to shut up and fuck off. 

She takes a deep breath, looks up and smiles in the general direction of five people, all of them sporting varying degrees of annoyed expressions on their faces. Some more shuffling, but she finally manages to hand over the right poems to the right people. Five minutes and an increase in the money in her bank account later, she turns her attention to the lady who has been waiting very patiently since she first opened her mouth. 

“Don’t you think this setup is a little bit unprofessional of you?” 

Dani looks at her pillow carrying her typewriter and her, at the water bottle resting precariously on the arm of her chair, and the stack of papers resting on top of her backpack on the ground. “Really?” she says. The I hadn’t noticed  is mumbled. 

She cannot make out the features of the woman standing against the light, but this is what she sees: an arm hoisting up a handbag more securely as though aspiring robbers were brave enough to snatch it in broad daylight; a head turning side to side, presumably to ensure that no acquaintance was witness to this transgression, the horror of requesting free form literature at a street corner; and the best posture she had ever seen on a human being. Ever. Seriously, the woman’s back was so straight Dani half-expected a stick to have been taped up the length of her back. 

Unbidden, a line sprang, fully formed, to the front of her mind: Lady, bones made of steel, does the world ever get to see you unfurl?  

Needed work. She picks up a pen, writes it down on her notepad. 

“There isn’t even a place to sit for your customers.” 

“There usually....is,” she explains half-heartedly. It’s true. She’s missing her trusty table, her wooden, cold-coffee spill-proof table. She got up late and missed Owen before he went off to work. He was usually the one she would cajole into helping her carry it downstairs. Although that still doesn’t answer the woman’s actual question. Dani looks at the stairs leading up the building behind her and contemplates whether the look on the woman’s face when she informs her of the perfectly good sitting spot is worth the inevitable criticism, she will receive in return. 

“If you want, you could sit on my chair,” she finds herself saying instead, on a whim.  

“On....on the chair?” 

“Yes.” 

“But then where would you sit?” 

Dani climbs off and plants herself on the sidewalk. Proceeds to shoot the brightest smile at the woman. And for the first time, she gets a hesitant smile back. 

“I’m Dani Clayton.” 

“Becca,” the woman says. “Rebecca Jessel.” 

***** 

Rebecca Jessel, it turns out, needs help writing a letter to her ex-boyfriend. 

(The word brings a familiar picture to mind; of sticky summers, treehouses and kisses that tried, but never could make her heart race; of a sweet boy whose only mistake was growing into love with someone whose heart wasn’t built to care for him as anything more than a friend; of a proposal, a rushed engagement and panic crawling over every inch of her skin; and finally, of glasses set on fire by oncoming headlights) 

Dani counts to ten in her mind, slowly deliberately. The doctor in her head recites affirmations that she has heard many, many times before. Things that weren’t your fault. Things you had no control over. Things you couldn’t change. People you couldn’t save.  

There’s nothing wrong with you.   

There’s nothing wrong with me .  

I’m okay.  

It passes, and she can breathe a little easier. 

“Oh?” she asks, trying to look cheeky. “Should I start off with Dear Son of a Bitch then?” 

“Dani, language!” and there’s Hannah. She turns to see her savior, her angel, the absolute love of her life walking down the stairs, Flora and Miles hopping along in her wake. 

“Shush,” Hannah chides her. “The drama.” 

“But oh, you brought me lasagna! How could I not fall onto your feet and worship you, dear Goddess? You simply must run away with me tomorrow. We can always tell Owen when we’re out of state.” 

“I am not leaving my husband for a woman who cannot work up the courage to say more than five sentences at a time to the woman of her dreams.” 

Rebecca who seemed to be getting more and more confused with each passing moment, looks amused at that, and there’s a tiny knot that Dani carries somewhere in her chest that loosens a little bit. You wouldn’t think, in this day and age, that the thought of someone knowing her interests lie not with men, but with women who make the sun shine a little brighter in her world, mattered, but Dani who is used to hearing vitriol from everyone in her family, still holds her breath when she’s talking about it. It isn’t really a secret anymore, but she still hands it out carefully to people, like it’s a vase they might drop and shatter into pieces. 

“What’s this, then?” Rebecca asks. 

“You see,” Flora sits down beside Dani, and grins, “Miss Clayton here likes Jamie from the flower shop, across the street. Isn’t that nice?” 

Rebecca melts at that, completely, and Dani would laugh if she wasn’t already afflicted by the same helplessness that the children’s adorable faces brought out in her. That girl’s voice was dangerous. 

“It is more than nice,” Rebecca tells her gently, glancing at Dani for a moment. Easy acceptance. “It’s perfectly splendid!” 

Dani sees Flora a mumbling it to herself under her breath, sees her mouth wrapping itself around the words, and knows with the resignation of a long-suffering babysitter, that it’s all she’s going to hear from now on. 

Hannah rolls her eyes fondly, and Dani knows they’re both thinking the same thing. 

“That’s quite enough teasing from you lot.” 

“You’ll see if you wait a couple of hours more,” Flora whispers, loudly. “Miss Clayton goes all red and blushy when Jamie walks over here. One time she nearly dropped her typewriter when Jamie laughed.” 

“I — Flora — Hannah!” she sputters. “Control this child.” 

Everyone laughs, instead, and Dani knows she’s doomed. 

***** 

A while ago, so long that it almost seems like another time and place, Dani takes one look at Jamie and knows, with the kind of certainty you can only feel when it comes to matters of the heart, that she’s completely, utterly doomed. 

Or maybe that realization would come a minute later, when Jamie smiles in her direction and asks her if writing poems for random passers-by makes any money. 

Or maybe it would come that same evening, when Jamie would step out of her shop to close it down, and find a tiny Haiku written, and folded into a lily, propped up on the window, with the following message scribbled below, in Dani’s scrunched up handwriting: I hope you have  a good evening; she would see Jamie read it through, fold it gently and place it in a pocket inside her coat and then turn to just stand there, staring for the longest time. Dani would look at her over her typewriter, a lone figure standing with her hands in her pockets, looking fiercely independent, acutely lonely, imagine that her lips were almost turned up in an approximation of a smile, think that there existed some poems that wrote themselves. 

Come to think of it, it could also be the next morning, when she and Owen carry the table to her usual spot in front of their building, and Owen wonders who the daffodils placed carefully on the sidewalk are for. The daffodils would be bright yellow, and even Miles, who is going through his sulky teenager phase, would smile at the sight. That evening, she would write a longer poem, fold it into a terribly made crane and dangle it from the doorknob of the flower shop. The next morning, Dani would wake up early and sit at the window with a cup of coffee in her hand, smiling when she sees Jamie deposit a bunch of orange roses in front of their building, and walk away to her shop quietly. 

Dani keeps a list around, of all the things she believes is or isn’t love, and this is what some of those notes say: Love isn’t a crack of thunder, or a giant heart-shaped smack to your face. Love is a door nudging open slowly to someone you feel like you’ve known forever. 

Dani truly doesn’t know what it is, or how it happened, but it seems like her heart doesn’t want any explanations. Hearts are strange and stupid creatures, anyways. They twist over and over again for every person they love, mould themselves into the initials of names, beat to the cadence of someone’s voice and find ways to survive even after cracking wide open. Hers didn’t need to know Jamie to decide it cared about her.  

Two months later, it doesn’t need to ask for Dani’s permission to decide it’s already falling in love. 

***** 

Peter Quint, they all decide collectively, sounds like a fucking prick. 

Hannah doesn’t tell Jamie off for her language, which Dani would think is patently unfair if her brain doesn’t blank every time the woman throws her head back to laugh. There’s sunlight in Jamie’s hair, and warmth in her eyes, and Dani has never known longing this ardent that it’s almost tangible.  

She finishes the letter late evening, a long time after the children have gone upstairs with Hannah to wait for their uncle to get back from office. Finally types a Please don’t contact me again  in the end, and Rebecca collects it with tentative fingers. 

“How much should I—” she trails off, and Dani waves a hand. 

“No charge.” 

“But surely—” 

“Really,” she looks right at Rebecca. “Really. You don’t have to pay me anything. It was my pleasure, writing that for your bastard of an ex-boyfriend.” 

Rebecca looks so grateful that Dani’s worried she’s going to cry. “Can I come back here again? Just to meet you and your friends?” 

“Well, now that you’re one of them, I would be sad if you didn’t.” 

Their story starts with a letter. Ends with them becoming friends. 

***** 

“I told you the first time we met you weren’t going to end up earning much from this, did I not?” 

Dani looks up from her typewriter to see Jamie smiling at her, and her heart does something funny in her chest, just like it has the other fifty times the woman has come over at night to have dinner with her. Most of the shops seem to be closing down. Everyone’s going back home. And here she sits, till ridiculous hours of the evening so she can share a meal with a pretty woman. 

(Oh, the strange, stupid things hearts make you do) 

“It was worth it,” she replies, after it settles. Seeing Jamie is driving a car over a bridge. Always takes you a little while to get used to it. “She was nice.” 

“Well, you’re extra nice, then,” Jamie tells her. 

I’m really not, she thinks, and only realizes that she’s shaking her head when Jamie frowns. 

“You are.” 

Another headshake. 

“No, I,” Jamie starts, pauses, runs a hand through her hair. “You are nice. Every day I see you write poems for the old people you see waiting at the bus stop, and talking to those children patiently, and doing favors for people you don’t even know. You’re, You’re — good, okay? You don’t have to be, but you are. You’re just—” 

She trails off into nothing, and Dani can hardly breathe, her stomach twisting and face flaming hot. It is the self-consciousness of realizing you’ve being observed, seen; the wonder that another human sees you as someone worthy of being known. Dani cannot say the things she wants to, that she’s tired of having done so much wrong and of having caused so much harm that now she goes overboard to the other extreme. That she doesn’t want to be bad anymore, whatever that word means. And so, every day is a practice in caring and loving and trying, desperately, not to hurt. 

Jamie looks like she understands. 

“Anyways,” Dani says, after the moment has passed and she feels a little more composed. “Here! Dinner’s on me tonight.” 

Jamie looks down at the container that is full of rice and chicken, then back at Dani, then back at the container again. “Is this — did you make it?” 

“I mean,” Dani rubs the back of her neck, looks away. “Hannah helped.” 

“Is this why you were gone for about an hour after that woman left?” 

Dani shrugs. There is silence for a while, before Jamie speaks again. Before she asks her why. 

“You’re always cooking? I mean, for yourself and sometimes for your brother. And I figured it would be nice if you didn’t have to cook for one day, you know? If someone else could cook for you, and you could just.... relax?” 

They’re looking at each other, so she sees the exact moment her words register, sees Jamie drop her gaze, look away, hands in her pockets. She does that a lot, Dani thinks. Like she cannot control her hands, like it gives her something to do while she processes. And maybe, a part of it also has to do with the fact that when she does that, it makes her look separate from the world. Almost ethereal in her fierceness.  

(Whatever it is, it makes her want to reach out and bridge the gap between them) 

“Thank you,” Jamie tells her, finally. 

“Oh, don’t thank me until you’ve tasted it.” 

“It tastes good,” comes the easy reply, with Jamie’s hand only halfway to her mouth. 

“You haven’t even touched it yet!” 

“It tastes good,” Jamie repeats, after she’s done with her first bite. “You made it. It tastes good.” 

“You’re sweet,” she says, because she can’t think of anything else. 

“Just honest. You could make me tea and — I mean, don’t, please, Poppins, but, yes — I’d like it. I’d love whatever it is you’ve made me simply because you’ve made it.” 

Dani has been working on her list of things that make up love. Here’s another one for her list: Love is, simply, taking it in turns to look at each other .  

They eat, sitting on the sidewalk, arms brushing against each other, and look at the world passing by. Owen smirks at her as he bounds upstairs; Henry Wingrave doffs his hat in their direction, and walks on slowly to his apartment, back to the children he’s in charge of. She’s talked about it often to Jamie, about how the man always looks so immeasurably sad that despite the standoffish aura he gives off, she just feels sorry for him. He’s just a man trying his best to be a father figure. 

They’re all trying their very best. 

“Those children,” Jamie muses out loud, and how does she always know what Dani’s thinking about? “Those poor kids. Left without a family.” 

“They do have a family,” she answers. “Hannah and Owen, who babysit them during summers. They’ve got me, their resident Get out of Jail free card. You, with your I hate kids but I shall make an exception for two gremlins attitude. And their uncle, who’s trying so hard with baby steps. We’re here to cook for them, and help them out and take care of them, because that’s what families do.” 

“If that’s what families do, does that make you mine?”  

I’d like to be, she thinks. Yours. Your person. Your girl. Your family .  

“Would you like me to be?” 

Jamie nudges at her arm gently. That’s answer enough for her. 

***** 

The man sets off all sorts of alarms when he taps on her table, two days after she’s met Rebecca. She’s in the middle of a tiny story for a tourist, and registers the insistent tapping about fifteen seconds after it’s started. 

“I’m sorry?” she asks, looking up at the (very tall, very imposing) man standing in front of her, again, framed against the light. He’s got a hand in his pocket as well, but it does not make him look nearly as striking as Jamie. He looks like he’d rather be doing literally anything else, instead of standing here in front of her. She knows it isn’t fair on her part to make snap judgements about people but this man is definitely a little alarming. 

“Hi there,” he smiles at her. The accent is very Scottish, and very strong. “I was just here to inquire about a friend of mine I haven’t seen in a long, long time.” 

“Um,” she says. “I am not aware of any friends we might have in common, Mister...?” 

He carries on as if he hasn’t heard her. “I just haven’t seen her in a long time, and a friend told me he had seen her here, so I rushed over in an attempt to catch her, I suppose.” 

This is all very confusing. “Who is your friend?” 

“Her name is Rebecca. Rebecca Jessel,” he says, and there’s something inhuman in his overeager smile. 

The alarms have reached a crescendo inside her head. 

“Sir, is your name—” 

“Is there a problem?”  

Dani and the man both turn to see Jamie standing beside her. She’s standing up real straight, shoulders tense, hands balled up into fists, and Dani thinks she looks intimidating. She also thinks: I’m  okay, now,  and doesn’t know which of the two thoughts she finds more surprising. 

“We’re just talking,” the man tells her, but he no longer looks perfectly pleasant, the way he was a minute ago. 

Jamie just tilts her head and stares. Stares until he takes a step back and recovering a little, raises his hat at them. Stares until he starts walking away and is a tiny, constantly turning figure in the distance. 

“Everything okay, Poppins?” Jamie asks her, hand on her shoulder, and the pressure of it is enough. Everything is okay. 

***** 

She finds the letter in the morning, tucked in between a couple of lilacs tied together with a bright red ribbon. She can see Jamie talking to a customer inside, and keeps her eyes there as she unfolds it. Then she sees the words, Dearest Dani , and doesn’t look away. 

As far as love letters go, it’s not the most romantic? Dani thinks this, as she brushes a tear off her face, as she breathes out a shaky sob, as she inhales and exhales every word on the page. The words are circling in her head, random phrases repeating like she needs to process them better.  

Exhaustive effort. That’s what people are. Even me. Even you.  

Too much work.  

But every once in a while, someone comes along, and  

(It’s you  echoes in her head long after she’s read it; her eyes, unbidden, drawn to it again and again. It’s you. It’s you. It’s you

It’s not romantic. It’s brutally honest, it makes her flinch and cry. Makes her smile and press a shaking fist to her heart. 

It’s all Jamie. 

“I didn’t know you wrote,” she broaches the topic, cautiously, later that night, as they’re walking to Jamie’s apartment. 

“I don’t,” comes the reply, sounding painfully awkward. “I tried.” 

“I’m glad you did,” she says. “Nobody’s ever written me anything before.” 

“I know,” Jamie says, earnestly. “That’s why I — I wanted to make you feel the way, the way I do when I read a poem you’ve written for me. And I didn’t wanna —” 

“Yes?” Dani prompts after there’s a rather long break. 

“I didn’t wanna wait. I. I have no idea what’s going to happen tomorrow. I don’t even know what will happen to me an hour from now. You might hate me tomorrow, and I — yeah, I just didn’t wanna delay it anymore.” 

“Why would I hate you, Jamie?” 

Jamie shrugs, looking smaller than Dani has ever seen her, shoulders hunched, face bowed. “There are things you don’t know about me.” 

“There isn’t anything—” 

“—no don’t—” 

“Wait, wait, look at me” she pulls at Jamie’s jacket clad arm, forces her to face her. “Listen to me. There is nothing that you could do that would make me hate you. Nothing, okay?” 

Jamie searches her face for something. Then she nods. 

***** 

This is not what love is: Love isn’t possession

And clearly Peter Quint hasn’t gotten that memo yet. 

Owen is standing beside Hannah, a solid force in case Peter makes one false move. The man in question himself isn’t looking at any of them, his attention focused instead on Jamie, who looks more shaken than Dani has ever seen her. 

(“You think you’re doing alright,  Becs ? Hanging around with these shitholes and criminals you’ve gotten real cozy with?”  

Rebecca who had been having a rather pleasant conversation with the rest of them before the man had turned up, drunk and screaming incoherently about betrayal and unfaithful women,  was trying her very best to stay standing. Dani could feel her trembling  as she stood  beside her, both with fury and fear.  

“Peter, please,” she begged .  

“A criminal, that one is!” he spat out, pointing at Jamie  triumphantly. "Oh, yes, that’s why you don’t fuck with people who have connections. Whore for a mother, and  a prison bitch to boot.”  

Jamie lunged and was held back by Owen. If everyone looked shocked and angry, the look on Owen’s face was downright murderous.  

“You’re drunk,” he told Peter quietly. “Leave.”  

“Oh, what are you  gonna  do? You  gonna  hit me, big man? Come on, do it. Do it. Hit me. Come on you motherfucking—”  

Well. The rules of a fight did say that if one asked their opponent if they were  gonna hit them, there was most certainly a hit incoming

“I’ll see you around, Becs,” he says, when he realizes he’s outnumbered there. 

Rebecca collapses against Dani once he’s gone, and Owen rushes inside to get water. Hannah’s gently running her hand over her head, trying to quieten her sobs, murmuring reassurances. 

“What am I going to do?” Rebecca asks, and Dani casts her mind back to the first day they had met. So this is what it takes to make steel fold, she thinks. Love . To see someone that strong be brought to her knees by a wisp of a man feels like a personal affront. 

(Love makes one do strange, stupid things) 

“We have a lawyer!” she says, excited. “I mean, we know a lawyer. You know those things called restraining orders? Those! Hannah, tell me I’m right.” 

“Oh, yes,” Hannah nods. “Mr. Wingrave can help.” 

“He will help,” Owen blinks, still looking angry. 

And then, in the tiniest voice, Rebecca asks “Are — are you guys, by any chance, talking about Mr. Henry Wingrave, founder of Wingrave and brothers?” 

And it is in the middle of a thrilling tale involving a famous lawyer, his missing secretary and thousands of embezzled pounds, that Dani realizes that Jamie has, in this ruckus, disappeared. 

She doesn’t see Jamie for the next three days. 

***** 

Sixty poems.  

Dani has written a poem for every day that she sees Jamie. Sometimes the poems are about the mundane, about things like mud-encrusted socks, cracks on the walls, hide and seek games played at night. Other times they’re about pretty things like lakes, and laughter at sleepovers and family picnics. And all of them, are about Jamie. 

They are about how Jamie fiddles with her hands when she’s feeling out of place, and she feels out of place a lot, so they’re mostly in her pockets. They’re about the different jackets she owns, half of which are lying in Dani’s closet because Jamie insists on giving them to her on cold nights. About her tender hands that could help bloom flowers from concrete, her eyes that are twenty shades of stormy, protective and loving, always loving when she turns her gaze on Dani. About when she told her about Edmund and Jamie had held her so tightly it felt like she was piecing together every single shattered bone in her soul. 

This is what she was taught in college: When you create art inspired by someone, you elevate them to muses . This is what she’s learned since she met Jamie: Sometimes art exists because someone comes along and compels you to create  beauty . She writes about and for Jamie, because she absolutely must. There are no two ways about it. 

Dani is a poet partly because Jamie happens to be poetry brought to life. 

***** 

Dani finally loses her patience when she doesn’t see nor hear from Jamie for three days.  

She stands in front of her apartment door, and knocks three very polite and professional knocks. There is the sound of someone walking up to the door, some quiet shuffling, and she realizes the exact moment Jamie sees her through the peephole because there’s a murmured “Oh shit”, then a truly terrible attempt on Jamie’s part to walk back quietly. 

“Jamie?” she asks, quietly. 

A pause.  

“Could you open the door please?” 

Another long, long silence.  

Then she hears someone take a step back. Are you kidding me?  

Jamie, open the door,” she says, a little louder. 

Still no reply. 

She knocks once, twice. Then delivers a series of knocks that sound suspiciously like a terrible rendition of the American National Anthem. It amuses her, so she knocks in the tune of a few other classics.  

Five minutes of this, and while Jamie doesn’t say anything, she hears a door opening upstairs, some heavy footsteps, and a grumpy old man voice saying “For God’s sake, kid, open the door!”. 

Another one follows from the apartment beside Jamie’s, a statement that increases in decibel with every word. “Some of us are trying to sleep!” 

“Oh my God.” 

A door opens a smidge on the other side of Jamie’s apartment, like someone is trying to be sneaky about eavesdropping, and a quivery voice comes lilting out. “Is that Baby, it’s cold outside?” 

Oh well. “Yes,” Dani informs the old lady, primly. 

“Oh my God, can everyone get out of my business, please?” Jamie speaks finally, and aha. There she is. 

“You’re avoiding me,” Dani tells her, flatly, through the door. There’s a sound of a loud thump, and a subsequent sigh. 

“I’m just taking a break,” Jamie answers. 

“Look, is this about the,” Dani lowers her voice, “prison thing? Because none of us care, okay? Honestly. Truly.” 

“Yeah well you should.” 

Dani sighs. “Do you think I hate you?” 

There’s a long gap again before Jamie speaks, in the tiniest voice possible. “I wouldn’t blame you if you did.” 

(People come and they go. Everyone leaves in the end. They’re all exhaustive effort .) 

It’s strange, the things you realize when you look back to retrospect. 

“I don’t hate you, Jamie. I told you that once before. I still mean it now. In fact — in fact I—” 

She takes a deep breath, gathers up her strength for this last piece of the truth. She supposes it has been a long time coming, ever since three months ago when she saw Jamie and decided she was going to do some very strange, stupid things for her. Ninety-three poems, ninety-two flower arrangements, and an infinite amount of unexpressed feelings later, here she stands. 

“Here’s the thing,” she says. “I’m kind of hopelessly in love with you, if it wasn’t completely obvious earlier. Like, stupidly, crazily in love with you. I’m so totally gone for you Jamie, you have no fucking idea I just — I love you. And that kind of means unconditional acceptance and affection, so yes, you know what? I don’t hate you because you went to prison. I don’t even hate you for making me cry every time you make me a flower arrangement, or wait in the rain for me, or walk back and forth the street a million times because you want to make sure I’ve eaten. The only thing I remotely hate you for, is forcing me to say this to you while we’re within earshot of three very grumpy people who are most certainly listening to us right now.” 

Both the ladies on either side of Jamie’s apartment call out an indignant denial. 

“Kid,” the man calls from upstairs. “If you don’t grow a pair and kiss her, I will.” 

That’s what love is: when Jamie finally steps out and asks her, again, if she’s sure. When she finally takes Dani in her arms and kisses her so hard that she can feel the kiss run its way down her stomach and to the very ends of her toes. When they part, and just stand there, foreheads pressed together, and Dani imagines there must be an indelible mark left on her body, a constant proof that the prettiest girl in the world loves her back.  

“I love you,” Jamie whispers, and the words settle somewhere inside her ribcage like they were always meant to belong there. 

***** 

“You’re telling me that Peter Fucking Quint was the fancy lawyer’s ex assistant who had run away after stealing a load of his money?” 

“Yeah!” 

“And that because Rebecca came here, she could tell him where exactly his hideout was and get him arrested?” 

“Yeah!” 

“And you’re telling me all of this was a massive coincidence?” 

“Yea — oh. Oh.” 

“Yeah.” 

“Oh. Maybe Rebecca is smarter than any of us realize.” 

***** 

Another point to add to her ever-expanding list of things people do when they’re in love: Ask the object of your affection to marry you. 

(“Oh, so now you’re my girlfriend, you’ll steal all my food?”  

“You did say what was yours was mine, Poppins.”  

“You know what? If you married me, what’s mine can  legally  be yours.”  

“Shut up.”)  

(“Hey, babe, remember when you told me you didn’t like your last name because you didn’t want to be attached to it?”  

“— yes?”  

“Would you like to be attached to mine instead?”)  

(Marry me, she says, through a mouthful of toothpaste when she sees Jamie’s face squashed up next to her to fit into the tiny mirror they have hung up in the bathroom. Marry me, she says when they’re lying on the couch with their kitten  trying to butt her head in between their lips. When they’re cooking. When they’re lying in bed with Jamie’s too cold feet planted squarely on her skin. Marry me, marry  me, marry me .

One day, about four years later, she will bury a ring underneath the roots of a plant, and blurt out a very confused, very in-love spiel about how she wants to spend the rest of her life with Jamie. And then Jamie will finally, finally say yes. 

***** 

She’s been working on her list, and thinks it’s finally done. Love dictates that Flora will keep chasing Miles when he sets off with his friends, and Miles will keep grumbling about it, but he will still walk slow enough so she can keep up with him. Mr. Wingrave will look down in surprise when Flora reaches for his hand, and every time it will make him smile. Owen will continue to make terrible puns, but he will also continue to invent new pastries and name them all after Hannah. Hannah will still insist on making lunch for all of them, Rebecca now included. 

The rules of love also say that when Jamie looks at her from across the street and waves, she will stammer and fumble, two days, two months, two years down the line. That whenever Dani drops into the flower shop to kiss Jamie, her girlfriend will go so red that even the customers will tease her. 

That’s what love is, she thinks. The inevitability of it all. 

 

  

 

 

 

   

Chapter Text

Moving in is a process. 

A process in italics. A process, underlined. A process emphasized heavily, with quotation marks around it, because Dani isn’t sure of how to describe the two months that have somehow resulted in her apparently having opened her home to a middle-aged couple, a sulky teenager, a child who bursts into the phrase “Perfectly splendid” in intervals, and a lawyer trying her very best to also have a dating life. 

“Did you forget your whole entire girlfriend?” Jamie asks her, arms weighed down by a box full of crockery and Flora who’s hanging on her back. 

Oh. 

Dani raises a finger like she’s making a point. “I did not,” she says, very slowly, hoping to somehow generate words as she speaks. “I did not mention you, because I didn’t need to. Because you, baby, have always been home for me.” 

Hah. Take that, Hannah . To think she was of the opinion Dani couldn’t romance very well. 

Jamie stares at her. “You’re so full of shit, Poppins.” 

Miles opens his eyes from where he’s been listening to music on the couch for the past half-hour and leans forward, only to say — “Busted”, and Dani is officially done with everything. 

***** 

Strangely enough, it starts with cream. 

Dani remembers it well, because it’s one of the very few argument-esque discussions they’ve had in their year and a half relationship. It’s one of the nights Dani is over at Jamie’s as opposed to it being one of the nights Jamie is over at Dani. They don’t keep track anymore. Most of the evenings, it just comes down to how much in a hurry they are to get to some place and eat and stretch out on the couch in peace.  

(Amongst other activities of course, so most of the time it’s Dani’s place) 

So they’re at Jamie’s apartment, on a chilly evening about five months into dating when she jumps into bed after her shower and asks Jamie for her hand cream. 

“Oh, that,” Jamie says. She opens her nightstand drawer, takes out a bottle and chucks it in her direction so it lands roughly an inch away from her hand. It also lands with its label upwards, so Dani is reading the words correctly when she says — 

“This is a body lotion.” 

“Yeah, that’s what you needed, right?” 

“No, babe,” she answers Jamie patiently. “I asked for hand cream.” 

Jamie frowns. Stares at the bottle. Then back at her. Does that for about two more times before she opens her mouth. 

“Um,” she says, picking it up and pointing it to her other hand in an exaggerated motion. “Yes. You do put this on your hands.” 

Why would you do that,  Dani thinks, with exclamation marks punctuating every word of that. “I use hand cream. You know, it’s like foot cream but for your hands.” 

“What’s that?” 

(She’s not going to bore everyone with what the whole discussion that occurs then. The words keep coming, the exclamation marks keep increasing, and somehow, they conclude in this absolute gem of an ending that nobody knows how to process.) 

“How could you not—” 

“—wait, I’m sorry, we didn’t exactly have fancy shit up in prison, you know.” 

There is silence. Dani sees her girlfriend’s lips twitching, her eyes betraying the mirth hanging behind her words. She picks up her pillow and throws it in Jamie’s face. 

“You cannot keep pulling the prison card every argument we have, you ass.” 

“But it works so well!” 

“That wasn’t even the point. The point was that hand creams are best for hands and foot creams are best for, you know, feet and—” 

“—and somehow,” Jamie tells her, “my hands and my feet are made of skin like the rest of my body. Look at that! What a surprise!” 

“That’s a valid point,” Dani says, fingers pinching the bridge of her nose, trying her very best to be a nice and supportive girlfriend. “But that’s like saying that you can wear your underwear on your face since every part of your body has skin on it.” 

“Who says I’m even wearing underwear?” Jamie’s right eyebrow is raised, lips pressed flat with the effort to keep from laughing and well— 

(In her defense, she does have the sexiest girlfriend in the world and it’s totally understandable that she got distracted) 

The next evening, she orders an entire set of creams, with Jamie grumbling in the background somewhere. I’m here most of the time anyways , she says. It’s for the both of us, if that makes you feel any better

From Jamie’s smile, she thinks it does, and that’s how the idea starts taking root in her mind. 

***** 

This is how love works. Or so she’s heard. The honeymoon period is but a couple of months, and then real-life hits. After three months is when that bright illusion shatters, of your partner possibly being the most beautiful angel to ever grace this planet, and you start seeing them as who they really are — clueless and flawed individuals who do not know the difference between moisturizer and hand cream. 

So she waits, holding her heart carefully in her hands. Waits a month. Two. Four. Five. And it is a couple of days after Owen and Hannah baked them a cake to wish them a ‘Happy 6 months together, y’all’, that Jamie pokes her head out of the bathroom, toothbrush in her mouth. 

“Oi nah flick offa,” she says, and Dani blinks. 

“I didn’t get that, sweetheart.” 

Jamie disappears (to get rid of the foam in her mouth, Dani guesses) then reappears a minute later, face glowing. “I said I’m not sick of you yet.” 

Dani smiles at her. “I’m not sick of you either.” 

And it is such a strange thought, once articulated out loud. She still wakes up every morning, and stays for a while admiring the way the sunlight hits Jamie’s face, the way it dances with her skin and makes her look like an old Goddess; still wants to cling to Jamie like a panda whenever she sees her after a long time. Her heart still hasn’t gotten used to the most wonderful woman in the world loving her, touching her, kissing her, and she still has to give it a little time to restart every time she makes Jamie smile.  

Six months she’s kept thinking This will go away . Six months and it hasn’t.  

Dani kind of thinks (hopes, dreams) it’s forever.  

Dani kind of knows it’s forever. 

Jamie plops onto the bed, arms stretching out across her back and legs finding their place over hers, interrupting her train of thought. It’s when she’s nuzzling into Dani’s shirt that the color of the shirt registers. 

“Is that,” Dani says. “Is that my shirt?” 

Jamie’s hands are already clutching at the fabric of the oversized lavender shirt as she finishes, as if Dani’s going to take it away from her. As if it doesn’t make Dani’s heart do funny things inside her chest to see her in it. As if she doesn’t want Jamie to only wear her clothes, because she looks so at home in them. Like she is Dani’s, forever.  

Like Dani is hers, forever. 

“It’s your place,” Jamie argues. “There’s only a certain number of things I can keep wearing, you know?” 

Dani kisses her cheek. Hums. 

“I’m keeping it,” Jamie continues. 

“Okay,” Dani says, simply, her smile saying the things she’s too embarrassed to say out loud. It’s yours. Whatever I have is yours. My home, my clothes. My heart.  

(The next night when she’s over at Jamie’s, she makes Jamie pack an entire drawer full of her clothes into her bag so she can carry it over to her own place for the nights to come. There’s an empty space cleared up in the closet that sings Jamie’s name every time Dani opens the door. It will never be empty again.) 

***** 

“But Jamie, please,” Flora pleads. 

“Yes, Jamie, please,” Dani parrots, highly amused at the vein twitching at the corner of Jamie’s forehead. 

Jamie takes one look at them, at Owen and Hannah cozied up on their couch, at Miles who’s reclining against the wall trying to appear supremely disinterested and then finally to the kitten who is sleeping in Rebecca’s arms. 

“Absolutely not,” she declares. 

“But look at him!” Dani says, pouting. It is unfair, she supposes, for both her and Flora to pout together in the face of Jamie’s reticence but desperate times call for desperate measures. 

(And she wants to pet that kitten, desperately) 

“He’ll be happy with you, really,” Owen jumps in, just for the satisfaction that Jamie’s annoyance gives him, and immediately gets hit with a deadly look. 

“Why don’t you guys keep him, then?” 

Hannah tsks. “Oh,” she says, sounding not very sad. “I have that allergy, you know.” 

“You haven’t sneezed once in all this time!” 

“It’s.... a seasonal thing. A seasonal plus feline thing. I don’t know how to explain it to you, dear.” 

“Baby,” Dani says, hands reaching out to hold Jamie’s. “He needs a home. We can give it to him.” 

Jamie’s slowly developing a half-crazed look in her eyes, which Dani finds hilarious. “And who is this we you’re referring to? Because I’m pretty sure I’m gonna be the one taking care of the.... the thing.” 

“He is a kitten,” Flora emphasizes, indignantly. 

“A one-eyed kitten,” Rebecca adds, and after a round of Aw s and coos that’s how Cyclops ends up living with them. 

(“We are not calling the poor thing Cyclops,” Dani protests. 

Miles simply grins.) 

“I’m not taking care of it,” Jamie announces, right away, and Dani reminds her of it every day for a month after the day she finds them on the couch with the kitten conked out on a sleeping Jamie’s chest.  

***** 

It’s time. 

She’s said this to herself every morning when she wakes up in Jamie’s arms, her four pillows strewn around them and with most of the blanket hanging off Jamie’s side. Every evening as they walk back to Dani’s place arguing whether it was Chinese or Indian they were in the mood for, and when they’ve inevitably ended up at Owen’s restaurant, sharing a meal with the rest of their family. Every time they bicker over Jamie’s clothes now taking up more space in her closet than her own dresses. Let’s move in, she thinks, more and more with each passing in. Let’s live together, she almost says when Jamie decides to pop into her own apartment inevitably. 

Surprisingly enough, Jamie says it first. They’re watching some reality show that involves a very accomplished woman and twelve idiots trying to win her hand, when Jamie turns to her and asks her if Dani would consider moving in with her. 

“Sure,” Dani says, off-handedly, before she chokes on the large gulp of water she’d taken a moment ago. “Wait, what?” 

Jamie is very determinedly not looking in her direction, her eyes hyper focused on one spot of the screen. Dani plays with her hair and waits. 

“I was.... wondering, if you’d like to move in with me.” 

Wondering, as though Dani wouldn’t lay down her life if Jamie asked,  Dani thinks. She raises her hand, and nudges at Jamie’s chin until they’re facing each other. 

“Have you thought about it?” she asks, carefully. 

“I can’t stop thinking about it, which is the problem,” Jamie grumbles, and Dani is endlessly endeared by the adorable frown on her face. “Thinking about how nice it would be to go to sleep and wake up next to you every morning, and how my brother could use my apartment when he’s home from college during the holidays, and me not having to move more and more of my clothes here—” 

“—and the stupid cat,” Dani adds. 

“—and the stupid cat,” Jamie concludes, glancing once at Cyclops who’s finding great pleasure in chasing the Roomba around. 

“Sure you’re not sick of me yet?” Dani asks her, casually, hoping she picks up on what she really means to say.  

Jamie kisses her once, twice. “Never, my love.” 

And that’s that. 

***** 

“Catch,” Owen shouts, before a vase comes sailing through the air and lands perfectly in Miles’ hand, followed by the sound of their combined laughter. 

Dani, who’s just gone through the five stages of grief, collapses onto the couch next to Rebecca. 

“How did we accidentally adopt a whole bunch of children?” 

“Hey!” Rebecca protests. “I am a mature adult who has her whole life in order.” 

“You’re just got sent a Wazzup  on Tinder by a 40-year-old man who enjoys fishing on the weekends, kid,” Jamie passes by, hand reaching out to mess up Rebecca’s perfectly done hair. “Nobody here has their life in order.” 

Rebecca sticks out her tongue. “This is not nice.” 

Dani disagrees. This, impromptu lasagna dinners at least thrice every week filled with laughter and ribbing, days full of sunshine and kittens and the prettiest woman at home in her arms, she thinks, is very nice, actually. Love takes effort and work, but somehow it is also easy and beautiful, and so worth it that it’s found a permanent place behind her ribcage, in her lungs, in her limbs, and in her eyes. 

“Do you think this is straight?” Hannah asks her, pointing at the photos on the wall. 

“Nothing about this is straight,” Miles mumbles. 

“That’s very funny, Miles,” Dani snipes at him, but she gets up and stands next to Jamie. Looks up at the photos. 

There’s one of her on the street corner, sitting with her typewriter, surrounded by a bunch of clamoring people. One of Jamie and her brother. One of Cyclops perched on top of Miles’ head. One, of the time when Jamie and Dani had been trying to take a romantic photo all day, only to get interrupted by Owen finger-gunning in the background. The photo had ended up including all of them, squashed together on the tiny couch, with Flora half on Jamie’s lap, and half on Hannah’s. 

(There’s a last one that Rebecca had snapped in the middle of dinner one night, of Dani and Jamie staring at each other, speaking a language only they knew. Dani’s hand, carrying a spoonful of mashed potatoes, is half-raised, with the spoon almost touching Jamie’s lips. It’s Dani’s favorite. She knows Jamie loves it too.) 

This is how love works, she thinks. You build a relationship. Family just sort of forms around you

“It’s perfect,” she says, head leaning on Jamie’s shoulder. 

And it really is.