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there's an art (to life's distractions)

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"You can’t honestly need the company. How many do you have now?”

Jamie rolls her eyes. Friendship, she thinks sometimes, is less about enjoying someone’s company, and more an extended test of how long you can stand a person without straight-up murdering them. 

In Owen’s case, they’re going on a surprising number of years, all things considered.

“I don’t need the company,” she says coolly. They’re standing outside the studio, gazing up at a surprisingly-elegant sign. The Lady is easily the finest tattoo place Jamie’s ever seen, much less patronized; from this spot on the sidewalk, she feels too scruffy to even be allowed. 

There will be no telling Owen this, of course, but the main reason she’s invited him along is simply that Owen brings an easy dignity to any situation. She thinks it’s partially to do with him growing up here in town, with being a Favored Son around just about everyone they’re likely to meet--and partially to do with his bright smile, the gentle delight he finds in everyday activities.

Jamie can’t say the same. Jamie walked into Bly three years ago with a chip on her shoulder she tries to pretend she isn’t carrying, a record she can’t scrub entirely clean, and a distinct lack of friends. Running into Owen before she could piss anyone off or sprint straight back out of town again was a peculiar good fortune. 

He’s an obtuse pile of hair, Owen, but a good man. Even when he’s busting her chops for no good reason.

“If you don’t need the company,” he says, “I could be at work.”

“Look, if you’re not interested--”

He raises his hands, seeking peace, grinning beneath a mustache she’s certain went out of fashion so long ago, it’s probably since come back around. “I said I’d be your plus-one for this truly-unnecessary event, and I am a man of my word. So, uh...are we going in?”

Jamie pushes her hands deep into the pockets of her jacket, sizing the place up. They will, she thinks warily, be going in--if only because there’s an appointment set, and this is the sort of establishment that fills up its books faster than one would expect in such a small village. There are stories woven about this place; people say the artists have a magician’s skill, that the proprietor--a woman called Mrs. Grose--hires only the best hands in the business. A tattoo from The Lady is more than ink; it practically moves with a grace all its own. 

“You’re overthinking this,” Owen observes, and only because it is Owen--brotherly, affectionate, and going through rather a lot these days--does Jamie let this slide. Anyway, he’s right. A fancy tattoo shop is still a goddamn tattoo shop.

Besides, she’s a minute shy of actually being late.

The place is clean, she notes with approval, as all tattoo studios ought to be, and many decidedly are not. It is well-lit, the walls lined with ornate images of customers past. Owen gives a low, impressed whistle. 

“Even I know those are good.”

“Kind of you to say,” the woman behind the counter says in a voice so warm, Jamie wants to wrap it around her shoulders. The woman is tall, gorgeous, with a shaved head and dark lipstick. She looks as though she should be in charge of a museum or a Fortune 500 company, and yet, when she extends a hand to Jamie and says, “Hannah Grose. Welcome,” Jamie isn’t entirely surprised. 

“Jamie,” she says, giving the woman’s manicured hand a genial shake. “Got an appointment for, erm, now. That with you, then?”

“Ah.” Mrs. Grose shakes her head. “No, I’m afraid I don’t take new customers these days. Old hands, you understand.”

Jamie raises her eyebrows. Nothing about this woman feels old, nor tired, nor out of practice. She gets the sense if Hannah Grose felt like it, she’d pick the trade right back up again with not a beat missed.

“No,” Mrs. Grose goes on, stepping lightly around the counter on what look to Jamie’s unpracticed eye like impressively pricey heels, “you’ll be sitting with my newest recruit, in fact. But have no fear, you are in excellent hands. Miss Clayton? Your one o’clock.”

Jamie opens her mouth to ask if the new girl on the block truly has the credentials for a job as big as the one she has in mind--and her jaw just sort of keeps falling. The woman Mrs. Grose is beckoning over is probably in her late twenties, with blonde hair Jamie could lose a day burying her hands in, blue eyes Jamie could lose a lifetime burying her soul in, a smile--

A smile that looks just a little bit perplexed. Jamie shuts her mouth with a decisive click.

“Jamie,” she says, punching a hand forward with such eagerness, she almost trips herself. The woman, this Miss Clayton, accepts it in a firm, smooth grip. 

“Call me Dani.”

Anything you like, Jamie thinks dazedly. She’s dimly aware Owen is grinning at her like he’s got something to say, and that she’ll be in big trouble if he’s given the opportunity. “Right,” she says hurriedly. “Well. Shall we?”

Dani has a desk near the back, neatly kept. More of a booth, really, three brief walls erected to fabricate a semblance of privacy. She gestures for Jamie to sit, her expression enthusiastic and just a little bit overwhelmed.

“So--wait, can I get you anything, before we start? Water? Tea?”

Jamie shakes her head. Dani breathes out with what looks suspiciously like relief.

“That’s good. I haven’t figured out tea yet, and I’m pretty sure I actually scared a customer off last week with a cup...”

She sounds almost nervous, Jamie thinks, not that she can see a reason for it. A woman like this shouldn’t be nervous about anything, particularly if--

“Are these yours?” She touches the open portfolio, its images crisp behind thin sheets of plastic. There’s talent, Jamie can see right away, an immense amount of it; unsurprising, given the standards of this studio. For a young American to sweep into Bly and pick up a job under Mrs. Grose implies not only talent, but a heaping dose of good fortune. 

Dani leans across the table, hands clasped tightly in front of her. Nervous, Jamie thinks again, yes--whether or not it’s warranted, she can see the edges of anxiety in the way Dani’s fingers wind together, in the twitchy pick of her index nail against her thumb. She raises her eyebrows, flipping the pages of the portfolio, inspecting blooming color illustrations of small animals, large blossoms, flowing script wrapped around the trunks of sprawling trees. 

“Do you have an idea of what you want?” Dani asks, and Jamie realizes she’s been silently staring at the artwork for almost two minutes. She raises her head, meets Dani’s bright eyes. “We like to have an idea about size, placement...is this your first?”

For one deranged moment, Jamie wants to say, First time falling in love after half a conversation? Yes. Absolutely. She pinches herself hard under the table, nails digging through the denim of the jeans riding low on her hips. 

“No,” she says, in a very passable imitation of a woman who is not losing her mind in front of a too-pretty face. “No, I’ve got...mm...four?”

Dani’s smile relaxes slightly. “Ah, so you know the deal. Any from Hannah?”

Jamie laughs. Can’t help it. Dani’s smile wavers slightly, puzzlement pulling at the corners of her mouth. 

“Nah,” Jamie says hurriedly, lest this poor woman think she’s laughing at her instead of the idea of being welcome in an establishment this nice before very recently. “I--am not from around here.”

“Neither am I.” Dani leans forward, mock-conspiratorial. “In fact, you might not guess, but I’m not even English.”

Heaven help me, she’s funny. Her stomach is going absolutely bananas, butterflies climbing the walls like she's back in high school. What is it about this woman that makes her so foolish?

“Sorry,” Dani says, and Jamie blinks. Why is she apologizing? “Sorry, this is gonna sound really weird--we haven’t met. Have we? Only, I feel...”

Jamie smiles. “Think I’d remember.” 

It’s like watching a woman wake up, she thinks, the slow way Dani shakes her head, smiles almost sheepishly. Like watching someone pull free of a dream they know doesn’t make sense, one that nonetheless felt so real with the dreamer in its grip. 

“Anyway,” Jamie says, to smooth it over before the moment can extend into discomfort. She likes the way this woman smiles at her, the almost unintentional lean of her toward Jamie over the desk. “The plan. I do have one, believe it or not.”

Dani’s hand moves toward a pad and pen, as though she is relieved to have groped her way back to the task at hand. “Shoot.”

Jamie launches into the idea, the flowers and leaves and gate, the detail of linework, the sharp contrast of color. She shifts in her seat, gesturing up and around the right side of her body, aware that the cropped line of her white shirt is dragging up and Dani’s eyes are...

Professional, she reminds herself, as Dani’s pen scratches away. She’s being perfectly professional, and you are being a fucking teenager. Just because she’s pretty--little too pretty, sure, but--

“Okay,” Dani says, excitement jumping behind her voice. There’s something about her tone that reminds Jamie of the garden, of that moment where seeds planted weeks ago finally begin to show signs of real life. It’s a muse moment, if ever there was one, the kind that reminds Jamie why she loves the art of cultivation so much, and she can see its like reflected in big blue eyes now. 

“Okay?”

“I have some ideas,” Dani says. “If you think I’m a good fit, I mean. If not, we can run you by one of the other girls--”

Jamie is already nodding. A good fit--she’d book a year in advance if it meant coming back to this studio, this woman, this smile. 

“I trust you,” she says, and Dani’s whole body lights up.

***

“You really don’t have to come back with me.” Jamie frowns at her reflection, plucking at her tank top. “This look okay?”

Owen frowns. “I know I don’t have to. But what’s friendship for, right, if not a little solidarity?”

“Right,” Jamie drawls. “And it has nothing at all with the way you’ve been talking about Hannah Grose for days.”

It’s impossibly funny, watching the English language vacate Owen Sharma’s tongue. Owen, who has spent the entire time Jamie has known him failing to notice when women look his way--or slide him phone numbers--or run just shy of actively undressing in his restaurant. Owen, who should have his pick of the village, and who, instead, has been mysteriously silent on the subject for three years. 

Right up until the moment he set foot in Hannah Grose’s tattoo studio, anyway. 

But who am I to talk? I’m the one who fell head-over-good-sense the second I saw a woman smile. Jamie gives the tank another yank, checking herself over one last time. The June heat is already oppressive, and the temptation to throw on her shortest shorts is strong--but the name of the game is professional artist-client relationship, and the last thing she needs is to run the risk of upsetting Dani before they even get started.

Owen, she realizes, has been blustering in her general direction for the better part of a minute. 

“--anyway, she’s married, or hadn’t you noticed the Mrs. part of her introduction?”

“Wasn’t really paying attention,” Jamie says lightly. “Seeing as how she isn’t really my type.”

“And what is your type?” Owen demands. He looks lankier than usual, bunched up on her tiny sofa with a pillow clutched to his chest. “Because I haven’t seen you so much as look at anyone since you moved here.”

Only because they were already all eyeing you, she thinks with very little bitterness. There isn’t much of a point, she learned long ago, to bitterness where Owen is concerned. Or where women are concerned. Or...at all, really. Bitterness makes a person do ugly, stupid things, just as easily as the wrong kind of smile. Bitterness makes you hang on too tight, accept too little, hate yourself for it later. 

Fine to look at a pretty smile. Fine to want. But to let that want become a disease? Jamie doesn’t have the time.

“If we’re going,” she says, hurrying him off the couch and stealing one last look at herself in the glass. Jeans, light blue tank, sneakers. It’ll have to do. Hell, half of it’s coming off soon enough, anyway. 

She wishes her stomach would have the dignity not to perform a little backflip at the notion.

The shop, today, is busier. Hannah Grose welcomes them with a smile and a wave, polite, but clearly in the middle of a conversation. Jamie tries not to find amusement in the way Owen deflates slightly. 

“Chin up,” she mutters. “Be here all damn day, won’t we?”

The piece, as she and Dani have contrived it, will require a number of sessions to complete. Each session, from what she can determine, will last a handful of hours--or, Dani had said on the phone, Jamie certain she could actually hear the grin in the other woman’s tone, “As long as you can stand it.” 

She’s fairly certain Dani didn’t intend it as a challenge. 

“Hey!” Dani winds her body around a small collection of twenty-somethings clustered over a portfolio, reaching Jamie with an out of breath smile. “I’m all set for you in the back, if you’re ready. You ate and everything? Had water?”

“Not my first rodeo,” Jamie reminds her, pleased when a light shade of pink climbs Dani’s pretty face. Owen makes a noise behind her; she waits until Dani turns before shooting him the finger without looking. 

“Rude,” he mutters. “I can always uninvite myself to this shindig.”

“Didn’t need you along,” she hisses back, but she’s grinning. Fact is, this is probably good for her. Owen being present for day one will, if nothing else, keep her in check. 

“You can sit over here,” Dani tells him now, gesturing to a chair in the corner of the small room. Jamie looks around, impressed--she’s spent more time on the studio website since her last visit, and it’s apparent just how many of the pieces lining the walls are Dani’s work. 

“How long have you been here, anyway?” she asks, gazing at a particularly intricate rosebush. And how haven’t we met before now?

Dani glances up from her workstation, shrugging. She looks almost too casual, Jamie thinks; a sure sign she’s about to duck and weave away from the truth. Not that she owes Jamie a damn thing. It’s just...interesting.

“Been in England about six months. Working for Mrs. Grose about three. I did this at home, though, back--”

“Stateside,” Jamie fills in on a guess, sitting gingerly on the edge of the padded table. Dani nods. 

“My mom hated it. Thought I should be a painter, if I was going to--” She grimaces. “Throw my life away on art.”

“S’that why you came over?” Jamie kicks her heels lightly back and forth, breathing through her nose in slow, easy waves to quell the beginning signs of nerves. Nothing to be nervous about, she chides herself. Just a goddamn tattoo from a goddamn beautiful American. Happens every day. 

She watches Dani’s face. searching for clues as to who this woman really is behind the light smile and the pink blouse. How does a woman who looks like a fourth-grade teacher wind up working in one of the best tattoo studios in the country? How, moreover, does the woman do so with the saddest eyes Jamie’s ever seen?

“Something like that,” Dani says, and Jamie senses a door clicking shut on that conversation. Dani’s eyes keep flicking to Owen, studiously scrolling on his phone in the corner, and back to Jamie. “So, how long have you two...?”

“Oh, god, no,” Jamie blurts. Owen doesn’t so much as look up.

“She’d be lucky to have me. I am an endless reserve of charm and wit.”

“He’s a prat, is what he is,” Jamie says, with perhaps a shade too much feeling. “And I’d kill him day two over the puns.”

“You think I’d last two days?” He sounds delighted. “Darling, let’s get rings.”

Dani looks a bit perplexed. “So, he’s just here for...”

“Moral support,” Owen says, just as Jamie is muttering, “To grind my last nerve.” Dani nods like this explains everything.

“Anyway. Here’s what I’ve got for you. Take a minute, look it over. Let me know if anything doesn’t look like we discussed.”

She’s sliding a stencil along for Jamie’s assessment, and while most of the pieces are recognizable from the emails they’ve been exchanging, this is the first time she’s seen them woven together. Jamie finds herself beaming, trailing her gaze across the complex array of blossoms and leaves, the wrought iron gate holding them up. The linework alone is going to take hours, every deft sweep of Dani’s design seeming to blend with the next in an unbroken pattern.

“Jesus,” Owen breathes, leaning over Jamie’s shoulder. “That whole thing?”

“Unless you think it’d look better on you,” Jamie says dryly. Dani holds the stencil up, one eye closed, as if picturing the design climbing Owen’s chest. He winces. 

“Couldn’t pay me enough. No offense. Not a needle man.”

“Owen,” Jamie says loyally, “is built of bread and bad choices, and we do not shame him for the bread.” She taps a finger on the design, replacing her attention where it belongs. “This, though. This is a wonder.”

“Any changes? Flowers look all right?” Dani, to Jamie’s relief, doesn't sound remotely anxious now. It’s as though the woman, for all she might be carrying, is most at home right here, staring at the product of hard work and inspiration. 

“Perfect.” Jamie gives the center blossom a longer once-over, pleased with Dani’s ability even on a flat stencil to achieve realistic depth. “Love it. Couldn’t get closer to my brain if you’d climbed up and cracked my skull open.”

Dani laughs, and even with the razor’s edge of nervous energy playing over Jamie’s system, she thinks it’s the best sound in the world. 

“All righty. If you want to just--” Taking the stencil back, Dani mimes lifting a shirt over her head. Jamie complies instantly, realizing only when the tank top is in her hands and Owen is making a snuffling sound of amusement behind her that perhaps she could have been slightly less eager to obey. Not that Dani seems to notice; she’s washing her hands with her back to Jamie. 

“Very smooth,” Owen says in a voice intended solely for Jamie’s ears. She drags a thumb across her throat, crossing her eyes at him until he leans back in his chair. 

Dani is polished, methodical, cleaning Jamie’s skin with gentle gloved hands and applying the stencil in a single try. She steps back, gesturing toward the mirror at the back of the room. She does not, Jamie notes with some curiosity, look toward the glass herself as she says, “How’s that? High enough?”

Jamie cranes to look, twisting her body, pleased with the way the artwork climbs the right side of her ribcage from hip to just below her armpit. She’s never gone for something quite this big before, and right up to this moment, she’d thought maybe it was a bit much. Maybe she ought to stick with the rest of her body’s motif: small, innocuous, carefully hidden. 

This, though, the image of Dani’s talent wrapping like loving hands around her body, shuts out any further doubt. It looks right. It’ll be perfect, when all is said and done. 

“That,” Owen says, “is going to take all damn summer.”

“Only,” Dani says, matching his grave tone, “if she wriggles.”

***

Jamie doesn’t think of herself as someone with a particularly low pain tolerance. Rough childhood, rougher adult life--she’s been on the receiving end of more physical blows, surprise knives, and drunken bar brawls than she’d like to recall. Tattoos, in comparison, aren’t much of a bother; the sensation has always ranged anywhere from a light itch to a manageable burn. Nothing like the actual scars she wears with the comfortable regret one befriends thirty years into a hard life. 

The others--four flowers, hidden around her body in a variety of places no one but she really cares to explore--were dream-pain, the idea of pain, forgotten just as soon as they were finished. 

This one?

This one fucking hurts.

“Tough guy, huh?” Owen teases. Jamie, laying back on the table with her right arm over her head, throws him a dirty look.

“If I could hit you without moving--”

“Please don’t.” Dani’s voice is calm. Dani’s voice has been calm this whole time, all ten or twenty or three thousand minutes since this process began. It’s reassuring, how calm Dani sounds, no trace of twitchy fingers or darting eyes now that the pen is in her hand. Jamie wants to watch her work, wants very much to see the image Dani crafted just for her bleed into her skin--but she, perhaps, did not account for the surface area. Or, more specifically, how little of her there is between needle and bone. 

“Fuck,” she hisses, trying her best to turn the word into a syllable mouthed into silence. Dani glances up, pausing her progress over the first large leaf. 

“Need a break?”

“No shame in it,” Owen says idly. Jamie very slowly, very carefully, flips him the bird. “You know, you should be nicer to me. I’m the one meant to be your lunch-ink buddy.”

“Terrible,” Jamie groans. “Just terrible.”

Dani is still holding still, her eyes searching Jamie’s face. “If it’s too much--”

“Not you.” Jamie sucks in a breath. Smiles in a way she’s aware is too much teeth, too little pleasantness. Probably looks like a goddamn threat. “You’re wonderful. Doin’ great. Carry on.”

Another beat, in which the needle does not touch down. She shifts her gaze to find blue eyes watching her steadily. 

“I promise,” she adds, making a concentrated effort to turn her feral expression of pain into a genuine smile. “I’m not gonna throw up on your nice clean workspace.”

She’s gratified when Dani laughs and Owen says, “Hang on, is that a concern?”

“Not for me,” Jamie grumbles. This is beyond embarrassing. This is the most pathetic she’s ever been under the pen, and it’s happening in front of this woman. This woman who will need a number of hours to achieve what she and Jamie have decided upon, no less. 

“You shouldn’t be embarrassed,” Dani says quietly, without looking up from her work. Jamie frowns down at her.

“I’m not--”

“It’s wild, how many people don’t realize just how close to the surface the ribcage is,” Dani goes on, pleasantly disregarding Jamie’s petulant expression. “Honestly, I’ve had guys four times your size black out on me before I even got halfway through. You’re doing really well, actually.”

She’s placating me, Jamie thinks with a wince, but something about it--something about Dani’s easy manner, the way her work seems to cut everything but the truth out of her mood--is still reassuring. She gets the sense Dani isn’t actually lying to her--that Dani wouldn’t. 

“See,” she tells Owen, to keep herself from saying something incredibly stupid to the top of Dani’s head. “I’m doing really--ahh--well.”

He’s giving her a grin she knows all too well. It can’t possibly lead anywhere good, but murdering him in Hannah Grose’s studio seems a poor way to repay the woman for having hired Dani Clayton. 

“What this needs,” Owen says, turning his phone on Jamie, “is a bit of posterity, I think. For the kids at home, right? Just to show what a registered badass you are, undergoing such agony at will.”

“I can have him thrown out, you know,” Dani says levelly. She’s smiling, but there’s a particular light in her eyes Jamie recognizes as sincerity. 

“Nah, he’s right. Relying on him for lunch.” To Owen, she adds, “Upload anything that makes me look like a twat, I’m shaving your fucking mustache.”

“Scout’s honor.” He leans back, squinting, trying to get the best angle. “Anyway, can you imagine what Henry would say?”

“Henry,” Jamie says warningly, “can just--”

“And recording!”

Dani makes a small noise of amusement. “Wish I’d had siblings growing up. You two make it look fun.”

***

It’s not the sort of thing she’s itching to admit, but having Owen live-streaming the process actually does help. Something about the idea that someone--anyone, even just a random soul who happens across Owen’s Instagram feed--might be watching serves as a bit of a lightning rod for the pain. Jamie finds herself gradually relaxing into the sensation, letting her breath match the ebb and flow of the needle’s bite. 

“Much better,” Dani tells her encouragingly, sparing a quick smile even as her hands slide along Jamie’s ribs. Dani smiles often, Jamie is learning, and with very little reservation for a woman who seems wired for anxiety. Maybe it’s the quiet of the room, or the certainty of her art; whatever the factor, she likes seeing Dani like this, perfectly in control. 

Likes seeing Dani in general, if she’s honest with herself. There is nothing made-up or for-display about this woman, with her hair tied back and her black disposable gloves. Jamie gets the powerful sense this is as true-to-form as Dani Clayton gets, and it both puts her at ease and makes her skin uncomfortably hot to be in her presence. 

“See,” Jamie tells Owen with just the tiniest hint of a smug smile. “Told you I was used to this.”

“Sure. That’s why you were all bunched up like a pillbug when she start--”

Jamie opens her mouth to unleash hell--or, at the very least, to warn him to turn off the camera if he’s going to trash-talk her pain tolerance--and at the very same moment, the pen skids over the arc of a rib. The sentiment on her lips turns into a sharp hiss, her torso instinctively tensing in effort to recoil from the pain. 

Worst thing you can do, she thinks, irritated with herself. Her eyes close, her breath stumbling. She holds for a second, her body a single taut muscle, and forces herself to exhale through the sharp burn. 

“Good girl,” Dani murmurs absently, fingers flexing lightly against Jamie’s skin. “Just like that.”

Jamie, midway to a human cycle of breath, feels her entire body freeze all over again. Her eyes flick from Dani’s face--the picture of concentration, barely aware of anything except the skin under her needle--to Owen’s--which can only be described as Christmas come early to deliver everything he’s ever wanted

“You,” she says in a very low voice, “can turn that fucker off anytime.”

“Oh no,” he says happily. “I think this is the best footage I’ve gotten in years.”

Jamie resists the urge to curl into herself in mortification. Her only good fortune is in Dani’s attention being fixed solely on the outline of the open blossom, taking great pains to keep her lines sharp and elegant. She has, to all appearances, noticed exactly nothing about Jamie’s less-than-natural response to her turn of phrase. 

Owen, on the other hand, is grinning so hard at the side of Jamie’s head, she might actually have to slap him to put his face back to normal.

“You,” she says when Dani has stepped away in search of water, “are not coming back next time. And if anyone I know sees that--”

“No one was watching,” he interrupts, flapping a hand. The phone is, mercifully, back in his pocket, though all conceivable harm has already been done.

Untrue, Jamie thinks darkly. I could always fucking moan at her next time. 

“Really? No one at all?” Owen’s feed is generally a hotbed of culinary enthusiasts looking for the next great recipe to muck up. Jamie’s not sure how many of them cross over with “intricate tattoo process” enthusiasts, but she has to imagine there were at least--

“Well, no,” he says, eyes gleaming with delight, “there were sixty-four viewers around that point. But what are the odds you’ll run into any of them?”

“Owen. You run a goddamn restaurant. In fucking Bly.”

“What are the odds,” he amends, “you’ll run into anybody who, ah, is aware of what a praise kink is?”

“I do not have a fucking praise--”

“Water?” Dani has reappeared, juggling three bottles in her arms, her face blissfully unaware of this conversation Jamie so desperately wants to escape. Jamie downs half her bottle in a single aggressive action, cold water splashing into her lap in her hurry. Dani’s eyes widen. “Ah--maybe--a little slower next time?”

“I’m good,” Jamie gasps. “Just...thirsty...”

“Obviously,” Owen mutters. She’s going to kill him.

***

“You are not coming with me this time.”

“I think you’ll find the studio is a public forum,” Owen says, almost primly. “And you will not be able to bar me from the establishment.”

She pins him with a scowl. "Is that...a cupcake?”

Owen, who turned up at her door five minutes ago as if he’d “forgotten” she was due for round two under Dani’s capable hands, tucks the small plastic container behind his back. Jamie slaps at his shoulder. 

“You brought one of your red velvet cupcakes and it isn’t for me?”

“If I say no, will you still try to stop me coming along?”

A horrible idea rises, her skin going a little cold with the concept of it. “Hang on, that’s not--you’re not giving it to Dani?”

I can’t, she thinks dumbly, watch another one fall for him. I just can’t. God love Owen, but there’s only so much a person can take, and Dani...Dani is... Just your fucking tattoo artist, will you get a grip?

“It’s not for anyone in particular,” Owen says in that same stiff voice, though his eyes are getting twitchy behind his glasses. “Or, if it were, it would possibly be...you know, as a thank you...for a pleasant conversation held...while you were finishing up last time.”

"Conversation with...” She brightens, relief flooding her body. “Oh, it’s for the married woman.”

“It’s not illegal,” he protests, “to gift a woman a cupcake. Married or not!”

“No, no. Perfectly normal thing to do, isn’t it? Man strides into a woman’s place of employment armed with baked goods. Doesn’t say anything strange in the least--”

He groans. “I shouldn’t, should I? It’s impertinent. It’s unprofessional. It’s--”

“The best damn cupcake she’s ever likely to get,” Jamie cuts in, scrounging her keys off the counter and stuffing them into her pocket. “C’mon. If we don’t shake a leg, that fucker’s going to melt, and then where will you be?”

“Making better decisions, probably,” he mumbles. She elbows him in the ribs, shunting him toward the door. 

Batter decisions, I think you mean. Eh? Eh?”

“The student,” he says, smiling a little, “is finally outshining the master.”

“You fucking wish.”

He moons after her the whole walk over, dragging his feet, and Jamie wants to point out that she, in fact, is the one who should be dragging in like the world’s biggest fool. Owen, after all, was not the one discovering awkward things about himself under the hands of a beautiful woman. Owen is not, in a similar vein, one big pulled muscle today from holding his entire body like iron for the back half of the session. 

Owen’s only crushing on the shop owner, and it’s honestly probably good for him. Jamie’s the one in serious trouble here. 

Just a few more days, she thinks with mingled trepidation and misery. A few more days, a few more sessions, and you’ll never have to see her again. Save, perhaps, for in her dreams--in the nights since setting foot in the studio, Jamie’s had all sorts of dreams. Mostly involving the bite of a needle and the slow smile of a woman hovering just over her body. 

Slow smile. Slower kiss. 

Jamie really can’t fault herself, if she’s honest, for such unparalleled attraction. Dani is beautiful. Dani is clever. Dani is, above all else, capable, and Jamie is useless when it comes to a capable woman. Of course she’d be falling on her head for the best tattoo artist to stumble into this stupid little town. 

She just ought to be better about hiding it, is all. And dragging a sharp breath through her teeth whenever Dani’s hand grazes her skin--particularly as Dani’s entire job right now involves more than grazing--does not qualify as hiding anything.

Hannah is reading behind the counter, her expression pleasant when she catches sight of them. “Ah, you’re early.”

“We are?” Owen frowns. Jamie prods him hard in the back. 

“Just happened to be in the neighborhood.” And not at all so desperate to get here that I spent an hour pacing my flat until the earliest acceptable leaving time. 

Owen looks as though he’s about to contradict this when Jamie jabs him again. “Mrs. Grose,” she adds cheerfully. The woman gives her an indulgent smile.

“Hannah, please.”

“Hannah,” Jamie corrects amiably. “Owen’s got something for you.”

This is, she notes with glee, the first time he’s ever looked at her with murder in his eyes. It’s maybe the funniest thing that’s happened to her all week.

“What’s that now?” Setting the book aside, Hannah leans against the counter, trying to peer around Owen. “A gift? You shouldn’t have.”

“Who’s getting gifts?” Dani has materialized from the back, hair tied off her forehead with a blue bandana. Jamie allows herself one long look while Dani is tilted toward the counter, letting herself take in tight jeans and a comfortable-looking peasant blouse before Dani glances up and catches her eye. She’s grinning, and for one delirious moment, Jamie thinks she’s as happy to see Jamie as the other way around. 

Don’t, she warns herself. Too early to be making a mess of things today. 

“I,” Hannah tells Dani, “have evidently earned a favor from the young man.” 

Owen’s ears are practically aflame. Jamie feels as though she is split in two--one half brimming over with sisterly pleasure at his embarrassment, the other too occupied with the knowledge that she is five minutes away from having her shirt off and a gorgeous woman’s hands all over her skin. 

“It’s nothing,” he mumbles, withdrawing the plastic carton from behind his back. He looks very much like a schoolboy who thought this was a much better idea in the middle of last night, before the sun could bring into stark relief the lack of details in the plan. “Just...had an extra...”

Hannah steps around the counter, her teasing expression opening up into genuine delight. “Owen, this is beautiful. Where did you...?”

“He makes ‘em,” Jamie says helpfully, when it becomes apparent Owen’s tongue has once again fled the scene. “Owen’s a master baker.”

He shoots her a look, thank you and don’t oversell in a single glance, and she shoves her hands into her pockets with a shrug. Man’s getting in over his head maybe faster than even she is, but Jamie does love the big idiot. Least she can do is hold the door open for him. 

She realizes Dani is standing beside her, shoulder a bare two inches from knocking into Jamie’s own. Heat climbs fast, aiming to turn her face a neon shade of too interested, and she clears her throat. 

“What about you?” Dani asks. Jamie’s eyes snap to her face, to the beacon that is her grin. “Didn’t bring me anything?”

Balls. Jamie’s mouth opens, searching for an excuse, for any reason she can find for why Owen’s well-mannered enough to bring a woman a present, and she--scruffy, reckless, not-quite-good-enough Jamie--is too fool to even think of it. Dani’s expression fades, brows raising, lips parting. 

“Oh god, Jamie, I was kidding.”

“Right,” Jamie says weakly. “’Course you were.” This is going fucking swimmingly. 

“Miss Clayton’s sense of humor is a bit like her tea,” Hannah says soothingly, popping a piece of cupcake into her mouth. “An acquired taste, for most. Owen, this is divine.”

He brightens. Jamie, face absolutely on fire, is pleased one of them is getting along like a functional adult this afternoon. 

“Anyway,” Dani says, a bit too quickly. “Shall we, uh...I mean, if you’re ready?”

Honestly, how much worse could it get? At least Owen seems inclined to stay behind this time, she thinks as she follows Dani toward the back. She hears him say something faux-modest about hobbies becoming livelihood, hears Hannah reply something about paying him back. Good for them, she thinks. Maybe he’ll get lucky and life will work out in his favor, after all.

Me, on the other hand...

“It really was a bad joke,” Dani is saying, ushering her into the little room and pulling the door shut behind her. “I didn’t mean anything by it. I--sometimes I’m not so good with, uh--people, I guess.”

She sounds more than embarrassed. She sounds like she has no idea what she was thinking. Jamie, all too familiar with that feeling, finds herself reaching out and touching Dani’s elbow lightly in reassurance. 

“Can we agree we’re both pretty bad at it and just go back to pretending to be smooth?”

She’s gratified to see Dani’s smile relax, her hand coming up to squeeze Jamie’s once. “Done. You wanna climb up and we can get back to it?”

Jamie slips her shirt over her head, tossing it on the extra chair, and allows herself a series of small stretches. There isn’t much limbering up that can hold a candle to the clenched-muscle from the last time around, but she figures any little bit helps. 

Dani, she realizes, is watching her closely. Jamie gives her a smile, a self-conscious little shrug. 

“Bit tight, is all.”

“You were tense,” Dani agrees. “If it’s too much, we can go slower. Take it in smaller doses.”

“I don’t want to take up your time,” Jamie protests, hopping up on the table and laying back. Dani shakes her head.

“Hey, it’s your body. Listen to it, tell me what it needs. That’s what I’m here for.”

Oh, thinks Jamie, there’s a phrase that will haunt my dreams in all the best ways. She fixes her eyes on the ceiling, breathing slowly in and out as Dani finishes up her preparations. Without Owen here, the room feels smaller--as if a strange serenity threads the brick walls, the tile floor, the framed artwork. Without Owen here, without a camera or a teasing comment at the ready, Jamie finds the quiet soothing. 

She almost doesn’t realize Dani has started until Dani says, “Okay?” The needle is poised halfway up her ribcage, the steady arc of the iron gate beginning to rise from underneath the sprawling plant. Jamie closes her eyes, takes another slow breath, nods. 

They’re quiet for a while; Jamie’s never sat through a tattoo in silence before. Her artists have always been chatty, accustomed to walking clients through potential bouts of panic by means of small talk. Dani had been the same at the last session, chatting merrily away to Owen, explaining her actions as she drew over the lines of the stencil. It had been nice, listening to her talk--though her voice combined with the smooth progress of her hands up Jamie’s torso, the unapologetic way her fingers had slipped under the band of Jamie’s sports bra to complete the height of the piece, had grown rapidly less a matter of comfort and more a source of heat. 

This, somehow, is better. The hum of the machine, the slow push-pull of Jamie’s breath, the soft sounds Dani makes in the back of her throat Jamie recognizes as an artist’s consideration of where to move next--it all blends into a lovely sort of white noise after a while. The burn of the needle is still far more than any previous tattoo, but Jamie finds her expectations were much higher than today’s reality. It’s manageable this time. 

Manageable--even nice. There’s something about the press of Dani’s palm, cradling around her side, pulling the skin gently to ensure a clean line, that Jamie likes more than she’d like to admit. Dani’s hands are as confident as her laughter is tentative, her eyes fixed with such intensity on Jamie’s body, it’s impossible not to feel as though she’s never been more important to anyone. 

The job, she reminds herself, rolling her eyes. Just doing her job. 

And yet...she’s never quite felt like this in any other shop, in any other artist’s hands. Something about Dani is different. Something about Dani is irresistibly different.

“Doing all right?” Dani asks. She’s leaning back, searching Jamie’s face for signs of discomfort. “You feel better today.”

Jamie tries not to think about Dani feeling her, tries hard not to think about Dani’s hands holding the memory of her skin from days ago. The idea of Dani memorizing her one hour at a time, fingertips learning the pull of breath, the push of flexing muscle, the specific way Jamie’s ribs contract and expand against her palms is...entirely too much just now. 

“Remind me never to bring a friend again,” she says. “Think there was...”

“Pressure to perform?” Dani suggests, almost slyly. Jamie’s eyes snap to her face, searching for the joke, for anything to say this wasn’t flirtation. Dani is watching her, one hand rooted comfortably high on Jamie’s stomach, lips curved upward. 

“Sure,” Jamie says, heart fluttering. “If only because the man was live-broadcasting to the culinary world.”

“We can revoke his phone privileges,” Dani tells her, leaning back in. Jamie watches her head turn, her brow furrowing as she runs a gloved finger down the arch of the gate. “I think this is a good first pass, but I want to get a little more definition around this way.” Her hand cups Jamie’s ribs toward her back, fingers splaying just beneath the band of her bra. “You know? It’ll be a little more realistic if it’s not as streamlined.”

Jamie cranes, trying to get a better look, and Dani offers her a hand. 

“Here, look.” She positions Jamie in front of the full-length mirror, one hand gently pressing until Jamie turns at the waist. She traces the edge of the plant, its rounded leaves tucking through the bars of the gate. “See how it looks flat now, just set against your skin? If we pull this way--” Her fingers draw lightly up and around, under Jamie’s arm, on a path toward her shoulder blade. “It’ll give it more body. Maybe add another flower, up here?”

Jamie watches her in the glass, the way Dani’s eyes never leave Jamie’s skin, never flick toward their combined reflection. She can see what Dani means, she thinks--it would go off-book, but Dani’s explanation makes sense. As it stands, the tattoo is gorgeous, but somewhat without depth. A painting placed against her skin. If Dani can pull off what she’s describing, once the color is filled in, the shadows placed just so...

“It’ll look like it’s coming from you,” Dani says. “Instead of something stuck on. You know what I mean?”

Jamie swallows hard. Dani has no way of knowing what this particular tattoo means, no way of knowing how the idea has sat in Jamie’s head for years, or what it represents--but with this small turn of phrase, coming from you, she’s summed it all up, anyway. 

“I think that would be...yes. Good.”

Dani beams. “I’ll have to free-hand it a bit, but if you trust--”

“I do,” Jamie says, perhaps too quickly. She tilts her body further, trying to visualize the additional sweep up her back, trying not to notice the way her heart pounds just a little bit harder with Dani watching her. “Think it’ll be worth it.”

She feels as though she’s falling into the mirror, the longer she stares--not simply at the artwork, but at Dani standing just behind her. Dani, who never once looks into the glass herself, as though there is something else waiting in the reflection she can’t bring herself to accept. Jamie wonders what makes a woman like Dani--a woman with enormous talent, with kind eyes, with a smile that turns the whole room into summer--so reticent. She’s never known a woman like Dani, true, but she thinks she should be able to read her all the same. Thinks Dani should be a clearer image in the glass. 

“What’s this?” Dani asks, and Jamie’s body tenses. She’s found it, she thinks, realizing this is the first time she’s stood with her back to Dani this way. Of course Dani would look; Dani is inspecting her canvas, carefully plotting out the next sweep of her pen. Of course she would spot that raised mark high on Jamie’s shoulder, the one with such pain and such a story behind it, and she’d ask--who wouldn’t?

Except...Dani’s reflection isn’t gazing at her shoulder at all. Her hand, so light it’s barely applying pressure, grazes a spot just along Jamie’s waistband. She winces. 

Ah. Fuck. That might actually be worse. 

“It was a dare,” she says. Has there ever been a more cliched reason to get a tattoo? She looks back over her shoulder in time to see Dani trace a finger along the small of her back, where a series of thorns protrude from her jeans. “A very dumb dare a very dumb eighteen-year-old couldn’t resist.”

Dani raises her eyes, amused. “Someone dared you to get a--”

Jamie lifts a hand to stop her, unable to keep from laughing. “Was my first, if you must know. Didn’t yet have the standards I hold today.”

“Obviously.” Dani plucks lightly at her belt. It takes everything in Jamie not to shiver. “So? You’re just gonna make me guess at what the rest of it looks like? You know my imagination’s running wild over here.”

Do not, Jamie thinks, even as she’s undoing her belt with a roll of her eyes, take your pants off for this woman. “You’re telling me you never did stupid shit in the name of teenage love?”

Dani’s mirth flickers, her mouth tensing just enough to make Jamie wonder what she’s said. Her hands are still moving, unzipping her jeans and pulling down just enough to give Dani a proper view of the base of her spine and the rose stamped into her skin. Dani gives a low whistle.

“That is...”

“Some art,” Jamie fills in. “Don’t I know it. Friend who did it wasn’t...ah...of your caliber.”

She doesn’t like to remember that time--how reckless she’d been in every way, running from foster homes that wanted nothing to do with her, running straight into the arms of anyone who would have her, so long as their smile was pretty and their dress was short. It’d be easy to say she was someone else, then, someone she doesn’t recognize in the mirror now, but that would be a lie. Jamie knows that girl is still in her, somewhere, buried under good discipline and better sense. 

“Tattoo’s a reminder,” she finds herself saying, as Dani swipes a finger lightly against the flat, sad rendering of what ought to be a beautiful flower. “Of someone I’d prefer never to be again. Dunno if that makes sense.”

“It does,” Dani says softly. She’s taking her hand back, and Jamie thinks that’s probably for the best, even as her skin cries out with the loss. They’re treading dangerous ground here, she thinks, with her jeans loose and her shirt off, with that pink flush finding its way back into Dani’s cheeks. 

“Anyway,” she says, too quickly, averting her gaze from Dani’s. She’s pulling her jeans back up, notching the belt back into place, grinning a moving along sort of grin. “Back to it, then?”

***

She doesn’t push herself as hard as she could, though the temptation to prove she can handle it is strong. Laying on her left side, allowing Dani access to her back, she keeps her eyes closed and her breath as even as she can manage. It’s not comfortable, exactly, but she’s growing accustomed to Dani’s hands, to the little pauses where Dani reads her--the tension of her muscles, the catch of a breath on a particularly sharp pass--and waits it out. She’s quiet, easing Jamie through these moments with reassuring little touches, rather than words, and Jamie can’t remember the last time pain felt so much like comfort. 

When Dani suggests they call it, she agrees less because she doesn’t think she can take any more today--could probably go another hour, if she’s honest with herself--and more because any ink not laid now will put her back on Dani’s table in the future. More time with Dani. More time letting Dani learn secrets about her she hadn’t realized she was even giving up. 

Dani knows now, for example, the ticklish spot just beneath her shoulder blade. She knows the scar high on Jamie’s side, the divot where a bar fight had taken an especially gruesome toll years ago. She knows that Jamie is most likely to sharply inhale with the pen notched between ribs, that Jamie will relax again if Dani gives her the tiniest “breathe, there, good job” and a smile. 

She’s learning Jamie like a worn map, marked with X’s and circles and here be monsters, and Jamie knows almost nothing of her in return. It feels too familiar, somehow, the idea of a woman holding just apart from her. The idea of a woman she wants so badly to understand insisting on being a stranger.

Not her job, she reminds herself yet again, tugging the shirt back over her head with a wince. She’s starting to veer toward cropped tank tops, ones that drift high on her frame to keep from pressing against the red skin where the new art gleams. She glances toward Dani, hoping to find her eyes lingering on Jamie’s firm stomach, on any part of Jamie that might qualify as temptation--but Dani is politely clearing up with her back to Jamie once more. Like always. Professional as can be.

“Meet you up front,” Dani says over her shoulder, stripping off her gloves and moving to wash up. “We can get you settled for tomorrow or Thursday, whichever you prefer.”

Jamie obediently heads up to the counter, her mind so fixed on Dani’s eyes, Dani’s smile, the too-natural way Dani handles her like she’s been doing it for years, she almost misses Owen entirely. It’s only when Owen calls her name that her head snaps around, her eyes going wide.

“And what do we call this?”

Owen, to his credit, looks almost embarrassed. Almost. His face is a shade paler than usual, his eyes half-closed, as though if he looks at what he’s allowed to happen on his inner forearm, he might actually throw up. 

Hannah Grose, gloved and clearly at home with the tattoo machine in her hand, glances up with a serene expression. “Done already, dear?”

“Not for a while, yet.” Jamie isn’t sure she’s ever let a grin this big sit on her face. “Owen Sharma, are you getting a tattoo?”

“It would appear so.” His teeth are gritted. Hannah gives him a gentle pat with her free hand. “But only because--it sounded like a good idea--at the time.”

“It’s a marvelous idea,” Hannah informs him. “And we’re nearly done.”

Jamie leans against the wall, arms folded over her chest, feeling as though this kind of delight might come spilling out through her pores to light the whole room. “And how did this come to pass? Thought you weren’t a needle man.”

His eyelashes are fluttering. "Hannah--offered--on the house.”

“Did she, now?” This is getting better and better. “And why was that, Mrs. Grose?”

Hannah does not so much as blink. “It seemed only fair, in return of his gift.”

“Hannah,” Owen says in a thin voice, “does not like the idea of debts. I tried to point out a gift is traditionally not owed repayment, but...”

He is not saying, Jamie notes, what is most true: that he would not have accepted a free tattoo from anyone other than this woman. He is not saying anything of the kind, and Jamie finds this funnier than just about anything else in the world.

“What’s going on?” Dani asks. 

“Owen is getting his first dose of ink.” Does she look as entertained as she feels? From the slow way Dani is starting to smile, Jamie suspects her own glee is infectious. 

“Hannah! You said you were out of the game.”

“The young man was curious.” If she’s even the slightest bit mocking, Hannah hides it well. She gives the pen another slow, perfect pull against Owen’s arm and leans back. “There. You can look.”

For just a second, Jamie thinks Owen’s going to keep his eyes carefully pointed away from his own arm for the rest of his life. Then, slowly, he bows his chin. Jamie leans around Hannah to get a better look herself and nearly claps her hands together. 

“Owen, you mad idiot, it’s perfect.”

The loaf of bread is built of sharp, pleasing-to-the-eye geometry, thin black lines somehow stacking and twisting to form something small and soft and Owen. He stares at it, a tender expression replacing the nervous angle of his mouth. Hannah knocks gently against his leg with her own.

“See? I promised I would do right by you.”

“And,” Jamie says, “you didn’t even throw up. Should’ve told me, though. I could have broadcast it on your world-famous Instagram so the whole town could see how tough you are.”

He makes a face. “Can you imagine what my mum would say?”

“Forget your mum. Imagine what Wingrave’s gonna say when he finds out his best culinary investment has a tattoo.”

“Ah,” Hannah says when Owen makes to push out of the chair. “Stay put a minute, we have some aftercare to go over. Miss Clayton, you can arrange your client’s next session up at the counter.”

Dani gives an awkward little salute, left hand twitching near her forehead, and something bright and gleaming catches Jamie’s eye. Her stomach plummets, her breath catching. 

I would have noticed, she thinks desperately. I would definitely have noticed a goddamn ring

Dani catches sight of her bloodless expression, grabs her by the elbow. “Are you okay? You look like you’re going to pass out. Here, come, sit--”

Jamie shrugs her off. Tries not to see the hurt in Dani’s eyes, even as she shoves her hands into her pockets and rearranges her own face into something less shell-shocked. 

“I’m good. I’m--tired, maybe. S’good, though, let’s just...” She nods toward the counter. Dani frowns, her thumb raising to her lips in a gesture of habit. 

A ring, Jamie thinks with a terrible numbness. She’s wearing a fucking wedding ring. But Hannah had called her Miss, hadn’t she? And Dani had certainly never mentioned... Anything, really. She’s been professional all the way down. And you, you idiot, have been letting yourself imagine...

“Tomorrow?” Jamie has blinked, and Dani is at the computer, scrolling through the calendar. “Or Thursday, I’ve got an early slot--”

“Thursday,” Jamie says, too quickly. Need a break to think this over. To step back from it. Dani frowns, tapping her into the system. 

“We’ll...probably work on color,” she says, a bit hesitantly, and Jamie can’t blame her. From Dani’s point of view, Jamie just swung on a dime from sunlight to utter stormcloud. From Dani’s point of view, Jamie probably looks nuts. She draws a deep breath, searching for steady ground.

Still the same woman, ring or no ring. Don’t be a dick. 

“Looking forward to it,” she says, as breezily as she can. “Only, want to let it heal a couple of days before, y’know, a...big...’cuz, you know, you said to let you know what my body...”

She can’t finish that sentence, not with Dani looking at her that way, not with Dani’s ring finger laden with a stone. She closes her eyes, sways a little, gripping the counter. When she opens them, Dani’s hand is gentle on her own, fingers around her wrist, holding her up. She smiles, that nervous, twitchy smile from their first meeting, and Jamie can’t help returning it. 

“Thursday,” she says, hating how it feels like a promise even before it falls from her lips. Dani squeezes her wrist once, releases, letting her hands fall to her sides and out of sight. 

If she tries, Jamie finds she can still picture that left hand without this new piece of information. 

If she tries, Jamie finds she is quite dangerously capable of forgetting that ring existed at all.

***

“Did she tell you she’s married?” Owen asks. He’s admiring his forearm again, barely glancing up, but his voice is kind enough. Jamie leans back in her side of the booth, hands over her face. 

“No, of course not, she hasn’t told me a bloody thing about herself.”

“Well, sure,” he says reasonably. “Wouldn’t be professional.”

She fixes him with a glower that has, in the past, provoked men to run from her table. Owen remains stubbornly present, sliding a hand over to steal a piece of her sandwich. 

“Hey! That was to make me feel better, I thought.”

“It was,” he agrees. “And then you went an hour without touching it, so I’m revoking ownership. It has Owen-ership, if you will. Chef’s rights.”

She really is going to kill him someday. After she’s done having a small breakdown over having been stupid enough to fall in love with her probably-married tattoo artist.

“If she didn’t say she’s married,” Owen goes on, infuriatingly placid in his logic, “then I think you’re jumping to conclusions. Maybe she’s just a fan of shiny baubles.”

Jamie groans, letting her head plonk onto the table. “She’s married, Owen. She’s married, and I am--”

“Jamie?”

A spot of luck, Jamie pleads to anything that might be listening. Just a tiny spot of luck. “Dani. Hi. What’re you--”

“Picking up lunch for Hannah,” Dani says, leaning against Jamie’s side of the booth. She must have walked over; her face is flushed, a light sheen of sweat painting her brow. She looks, for all that, perfectly lovely, and Jamie tries not to remember the very specific dream from last night, also involving pink flush and sweat and Dani’s voice in her ear. 

“Hannah ordered?” Owen sounds dreamlike himself. “From here? My here?”

“Well,” Dani says, “I don’t think she knew it was your...this is your place? You own this?”

“He owes his life to Henry Wingrave for it,” Jamie explains. “But if he’s ever able to pay that loan back--”

Her eyes are, against her will, seeking out Dani’s left hand--and sure enough, there it is again. Not a rock, by any stretch; it’s small, tasteful, though a bit more traditional than anything she’d expect from looking at Dani’s work. 

Someone gave you that ring. Someone asked, and you said yes, and now you wear that agreement, and I...didn’t notice. That’s on her, isn’t it? That’s all Jamie’s doing. She’d been too busy gaping at the woman’s face, at her hair and her smile and her easy manner with the pen in her hand. Isn’t Dani’s fault, that Jamie missed this. Isn’t Dani’s fault at all.

Dani, who is hefting a brown paper bag like a trophy. She looks perfectly natural, standing here in a blouse and jeans, like she hasn’t been running laps through Jamie’s mind for days. Jamie shakes her head, rubbing her thumb against her forehead in disgust. 

Better than this. You’re meant to be better than this. 

“Looking forward to Thursday,” Dani says, and Jamie realizes she’s smiling right at her. That soft not-quite-sure smile that says Jamie’s been acting strange since their last meeting, and Dani isn’t sure how to field it. Isn’t sure if maybe she did something wrong. 

“Me too,” Jamie manages, her voice nearly a croak. Too close. Too close to sounding honest. Veer left. “Ah, does--does Hannah often send you on lunch errands?”

“I do it out of love,” Dani laughs. “She doesn’t usually let me take care of her, it’s nice to return the favor from time to time.”

“Right. Well. Next time, maybe she’d like to come along--see what her free tattoo gets up to when he’s not bribing women with baked goods.” Jamie shoots Owen a grin, surprised to find him burning a hole into the table with his eyes. 

Dani gives her a little wave, disappearing through the door and around the corner before Jamie’s really ready for her to be gone. Jamie turns her attention back to Owen. 

“Gonna explain what that was about, you fuckin’ weirdo?”

Owen leans forward, hands on the table, his face serious. “Jamie.”

She wrinkles her nose. “Owen. Honestly, you’re being weird. What the fuck--”

“Jamie, do you think they’re married? To each other?”

Jamie can only stare at him. “Are you out of your--”

“No, no, look. They work together. They both wear rings. Neither of them has ever mentioned a husband, have they?” Owen has the slightly deranged smile of a man who is finally piecing a puzzle together, though he’s miserable about the image revealed. “It makes sense.”

“It doesn’t,” Jamie replies lightly. “It really doesn’t.”

***

It doesn’t, she reminds herself, strolling into the shop Thursday morning. Owen is out of his goddamned mind, hopped up on a conspiracy train to nowhere. It really isn’t like him. Owen tends to be almost as level-headed as Jamie--although, she recognizes, she’s never seen him with a crush this bad before. Maybe it’s rattling his brain.

She’s more than a little relieved he didn’t opt to come along today, evidently deciding he hasn’t put enough hours into his own kitchen of late. Good for the restaurant, and good for Jamie, who can’t think of anything she needs less right now than Owen spouting genuine crazy in her ear. 

She’s early--more than a little--and the studio is just opening when she makes her way inside. Neither Hannah, nor Dani are within eyeshot, so Jamie plunks down in a chair to wait. This is good, she assures herself. This is better than good. A nice, normal session, where she’ll talk to Dani like a human person, and not someone who maybe thought Dani’s gaze was saying things it absolutely wasn’t, who maybe let her own attraction color their interactions more than is healthy. She needs this. The space of it all. 

“Good morning, Jamie,” Hannah says, materializing from the back with a bright smile. Jamie gives a little wave, pleased at how much Hannah genuinely seems to enjoy seeing her. She’d be overselling, at absolute best, if she said she had many friends in Bly; it would be nice to add this woman to the list, all steady elegance and motherly charm. 

“Mornin’. Is my, uh--I mean, is--”

“Dani will be out shortly.” Hannah frowns a little, peering toward the back again. “I thought she was right behind me, but apparently...ah, there.”

Dani, in her usual jeans and pastels, looks a little frazzled this morning. A little, Jamie thinks, as though she hasn’t slept particularly well for a day or two. 

“You all right, dear?” Hannah asks, moving around the counter to wake the computer. “You look, um...”

“Bad?” Dani looks down at herself like a woman who has not entirely been conscious of getting dressed this morning. “What doesn’t match? Where--”

“No, you’re fine,” Hannah interrupts smoothly, lacing an arm around Dani’s shoulders and giving her an affectionate little shake. Jamie tries not to look as though she’s watching, tries not to notice the ring still on Dani’s finger. 

Maybe it’s new, she thinks miserably, all too aware this line of thinking has nothing to do with tattoos or behaving like a consummate adult. Maybe she just proposed, and they’re getting married in the fall, and--

“You sure you don’t want me to make coffee?” Dani is asking Hannah, oblivious to Jamie still sprawled in her chair. “I’m getting better, I think.”

“I’ve got it.” Hannah makes a shooing motion. “You have a client.”

“Right. Right.” Shaking her head, Dani gives Hannah’s arm a squeeze, her face earnest in a way Jamie hasn’t seen before. There’s genuine love in her expression, pointed right at Hannah, and maybe Owen is crazy, but-- “Thank you, again. For last night. It really meant a lot.”

Jamie watches, ears burning with the sense of witnessing something not meant for her, as Dani brushes a quick kiss along Hannah’s cheek. She turns her head away, awkward and more than a little sure that this was a very bad idea. 

“You ready?” Dani adds, and it just isn’t fair that she can smile like that. How a woman with the saddest eyes in the world can turn to Jamie with the most radiant smile, like everything is just perfect the minute Jamie walks into the room, she can’t say. It seems wrong, somehow. It seems...too right. 

“Yeah,” she hears herself mumble, pushing up from the chair and trailing Dani. “Yeah, all good.”

They’re quiet the whole time Dani is preparing to start, Jamie feeling impossibly awkward as she strips off and lays in her usual position. What was last night? she wonders. What is any of this? And how could she misread a situation so badly, when she prides herself on understanding how people tick, on seeing from a mile away when someone is going to be taxing, or complicated, or--

“Are you all right?”

She jumps, relieved to find Dani’s hands still empty of needles. Dani has one glove on, her left hand bare of both protection and ring. She’s looking at Jamie with such concern, it actually sort of hurts to see it splashed across her pretty face. 

“Fine,” Jamie says, too mildly. “Why?”

“Because you haven’t said a word since you got here,” Dani says, her tone surprisingly no-nonsense. She’s looking Jamie up and down, hunting for a sign. “And you were...strange when we ended last time. Are you in a lot of pain?”

“No pain.” If she can just keep it short, if she can just get in and out of here with brief sentences and no more information exchanged, this could still be salvaged. Dani need never know Jamie’s heart goes absolutely wild the minute she steps into the room. She doesn’t need to know anything else about Jamie--not her other tattoos, not the girl who got them, not the meaning behind the one Dani herself designed. Dani didn’t ask for any of this, and it’s clear she’s got more on her plate than Jamie could possibly guess, so Jamie should just--

“I wish you’d talk to me,” Dani blurts. Her eyes are wide, rolling heavenward as though wishing she could shove the words back in the moment they’re out. Jamie sits up, frowning. 

“About what?”

“I don’t know. Whatever’s got you acting like...” Dani shakes her head, clearly agitated. “I thought we were getting to be, you know.” When Jamie doesn’t answer, she heaves a sigh. “Friends. I thought maybe we were--you make me feel like--”

“What?” Jamie hates that she’s leaning forward, hates the thread of eagerness in her own voice. Dani makes a frustrated sound. 

“It--doesn’t matter, I just...don’t like feeling like I did something wrong.”

You didn’t. “You didn’t.” Jamie rubs a hand across her face. “It’s been a weird week.”

“You’re telling me,” Dani mutters. When Jamie raises her eyebrows, she shrugs, drops down on her stool, looks as though she is briefly wrestling with something. Finally, she adds, “I wasn’t going to bring it up.”

Shit. She noticed. She noticed me being weird, and she noticed the way I look at her, and she’s searching for a way to let me down easy so we can finish this damn tattoo in peace. 

“I didn’t come here to do tattoos,” Dani says. Jamie, whose entire body has gone white-hot with that inexpressible terror of imminent humiliation, almost doesn’t hear her. She blinks. 

“You didn’t come to...a tattoo studio to do tattoos?”

“I didn’t come here,” Dani repeats, gesticulating with very little grace in a way that seems to encompass everything. “To Bly. To England. I was...kind of running away.”

Jamie pulls her knees to her chest, feeling slightly more naked than usual. “From what?”

“I...” Dani’s mouth opens, closes, her jaw tensing so hard, Jamie imagines she can hear her teeth scrape together. “I was engaged.”

Was. “Oh?” Calm, that’s the trick of it. Calm and easy, and not like she’s sitting shirtless across from a woman she hasn’t been able to banish from her thoughts in days and days. “What happened?”

“He died,” Dani says, almost calmly. Jamie, whose hand was halfway to scrub at her hair just for something to do, lets her arm drop into her lap. 

“I’m--I’m sorry.” What else is there to say? “I...I noticed the ring...”

Dani looks briefly surprised, almost smiles. There is so much almost to her just now, Jamie thinks--like she’s starting to drop a performance she’s kept up too long to entirely remember how to let go. “Yeah. I put it on around the shop sometimes, or when I run out to grab food. Some of the men in town are...persistent without it.”

Owen, thinks Jamie, I am going to murder you. “I’m sorry,” she says again. “I thought...well. Didn’t know what to think, I guess.”

“We broke up,” Dani says, as if not hearing her. “I broke--I broke up--if it matters, which I guess it doesn’t, since he’s...but it does, since I couldn’t...”

Jamie leans back, listening. There’s something raw about the way Dani is speaking now, a first-time attempt at opening up that feels too fragile to intersect with something so small as words. 

“I broke up with him,” Dani says, as firmly as she’s said anything, “and then he died. And I couldn’t be there anymore. Not at my old studio, not around his mom, not...so I came here. Had a friend who knew a friend who knew Hannah. She hired me on, gave me a room upstairs. She’s been...” 

“A friend,” Jamie supplies quietly. Dani smiles. 

“The best kind. Since her husband left, I think she’s had trouble with that, too. Making friends. She’s wonderful, I’m sure you’ve noticed, but she doesn’t...let a lot of people in. And since Rebecca--”

“Who?”

“Her old apprentice. Talented and ambitious, the way Hannah tells it, but there was a guy who got in the way. There was a falling out, between her and Hannah, over it. I took the spot in the roster when she left.” Dani grimaces. “Probably shouldn’t have said all of that, it isn’t my place. But she seems to like you--and Owen--and I thought maybe we all just...”

“Click,” Jamie says. Dani looks for a second like she wants to reach for Jamie’s hand, thinking better of it--either for sterilization or for a reason Jamie can’t quite read--before she can make it all the way there. 

“Yes. Exactly. I haven’t met anyone like you--like any of you--in a long time. Maybe my whole life. It’s been...nice.”

“What about...” It’s uncomfortable, prying, but Jamie gets the sense this is a now or never sort of conversation. Dani seems to understand what she means, shakes her head with a wry expression so close to sorrow, it wrenches at Jamie. 

“No. He was...it was complicated. I should have told him years ago that it wasn’t right. I’d hoped--hoped that he’d understand on his own, after a little while, but then he...” Another head shake. There are tears in her eyes, Jamie sees. “I’m sorry.”

“Don’t be--”

“It was the anniversary,” Dani says abruptly. “Last night. One whole year. I thought I was getting better about it...haven’t felt quite as awful, looking at myself in mirrors these last couple of weeks...but sometimes it just sneaks up, you know?”

“Mirrors?” Jamie slides a glance to the full-length glass in the corner, the one Dani never seems to look at directly. 

Dani smiles. “It’s silly. I know it’s silly. But ever since he--I have trouble, seeing myself. Myself, you know? I look into mirrors, and I see him. Or, who he thought I was. Needed me to be. I don’t know. It’s not...I don’t like it. I like this.” She makes a gesture between her own chest and Jamie’s, an exchange. “Who I am with you. Or Hannah. Or just when I’m working. Dani Clayton. That’s...that’s better.”

“I like her, too,” Jamie says, unable to stop herself. It seems only fair to give a little honesty in return for how much Dani is putting on the table just now. And, judging by the strength of Dani’s smile, it’s the right thing to say. 

“I’m sorry,” Dani says yet again. She seems to have realized Jamie has been sitting half-naked on her table for much longer than usual. “I’m sorry, I’m not going to charge you for all this. I just...”

“I’m glad you told me.” Jamie doesn’t touch her, badly though she wants to. She only looks at her, at Dani’s face, which has always been so pretty, but now seems entirely present, too. “I’m...I feel it, too. That we could be...”

She trails off, uncomfortable. Dani, readying her tools, looks very pleased. 

“I would like that.”

***

Friends, then. Jamie can do friends. Isn’t so good at it, historically speaking, and maybe some things are better with practice, but all the same: if it’s a matter of getting to keep Dani’s smile in her life? Friends will certainly do. 

She finds she’s able to watch Dani work now, after several sessions of trying desperately not to tense up. The pain is ever-present, but something about the way Dani speaks to her now--like she’s unleashed all the ghosts she was carrying, and all that’s left now is purely Dani--sets Jamie immediately at ease. She finds their conversations are much less stilted, much less professional; they talk about Dani losing her dad young, losing her mom in such a different way, how Jamie’s parents pulled a similar set of magic tricks off before she was ten. Dani doesn’t go into greater detail about her broken engagement, but she does ask Jamie if she’s ever been married, at which point Jamie starts laughing hard enough that they have to stop for a few minutes. 

“I didn’t think it was that funny,” Dani says, amused. Jamie shakes her head.

“I’m a felon living in Bly, and my best friend is Owen Sharma. What about that is appealing to women?”

Dani is quiet for a moment, such a long time that Jamie thinks, Oh, no. Here it is. Here’s the shoe I’ve been waiting for. She’s a homopho-- 

“How long have you known?” Dani asks, her voice trembling. Jamie leans in a little, frowning. 

“That Owen is a nightmare for the dating circuit, since every woman in town wants to bear his children?”

“That you were...that you liked...” Dani grimaces. “Women.”

It’d be so easy to give a knee-jerk response: always or since I met one or never thought about it much. Finally, she says, “Think I was eight. Maybe nine. A girl in my class was giving out kisses on the playground. The boys told her to skip me, y’know--the town trash, and a girl, besides--and she said, ‘Girls need kisses, too.’ My first kiss. If I didn’t know before that...”

Dani’s face is lit with an expression too complicated to be joy, or amusement, or curiosity. There’s something fierce about it. Something utterly honest. 

“I’ve never--had that,” she says. She sounds a little embarrassed, a little desperate. “But I don’t think I needed it to...to know. Does that sound right?”

“Don’t think there’s a wrong,” Jamie tells her. Dani inhales sharply, turning her head away to hide a sudden rush of tears. Jamie doesn’t mind. 

“Sorry,” Dani says finally, blinking rapidly until she has herself under control again. “Sorry, I--we should get back to...”

It isn’t everything. She doesn’t feel as though she has the full map of Dani Clayton, but any means. But there is a person sitting here with her now, a person who snorts laughter when Jamie makes a particularly dumb joke, a person who touches her carefully and works with precision, and when Jamie tightens up, strokes her skin lightly until she calms again. More than a person, Jamie thinks. A friend. It’s nice, calling Dani her friend. 

And if her heart clamors when Dani leans over her to get a better look at her work, and if her mouth goes dry when the collar of Dani’s shirt slips and she gets a glimpse of a splash of ink over the back of Dani's shoulder, and if Dani meets her gaze and holds just a little longer than is entirely necessary...

Friends. Sure. Friends are wonderful. 

***

“One more,” Dani says, inspecting the day’s progress several hours later. “One more, to finish up the shading, and I think we’re perfect.”

Jamie is overcome with an insane urge to invent new details, to come up with more reasons to come back. She’s aware this has already taken an overwhelming amount of Dani’s time, that this has grown more expensive and detailed than she could have dreamed at their first meeting, and still. Still, the idea of not coming back to put herself under Dani’s pen, the idea of no longer being Dani’s personal canvas, is...

“I’ve been meaning to ask,” Dani says, brushing a fingertip lightly against one of the half-open blossoms. “Why this plant? I mean, if you don’t want to tell me, totally cool, but--I’ve been so curious. I’ve never seen it before you.”

Jamie could tell her it’s just pretty. Could say she just likes the white-on-green contrast. Could say any number of things that would get her out of this situation without handing another piece of her past to Dani Clayton. 

But Dani is looking at her with genuine interest. Dani’s hand, flat against her ribs, rises and falls with her next breath. 

“It’s a moonflower,” Jamie says. “Bloody hard to grow--in England, or anywhere, really. Damn things only bloom for so long, and each bud only once. After a couple of months, the whole plant dies and has to be replanted the next spring.”

Dani waits, clearly sensing a piece this big and this time-consuming means more than just a complex planting time. Jamie blows out a breath, licks her lips. 

“It feels...like people do, to me. The effort that goes in is monumental. Draining. But sometimes, even with all the work, even with all the pain and sweat and blood that goes in, you get something like a moonflower out of it. Something beautiful, and brief, and perfect in its mortality.”

Dani nods. She does that when she’s really listening, Jamie has noticed--nods like she doesn’t even realize she’s doing it. It makes Jamie want to--

“Had a hard life,” she says, a bit gruffly, to distract from how badly her hands want to stray to Dani’s face. “Don’t say that to be dramatic, but what I’ve told you today barely scrapes the sum of it. Gardening--plants--the work that goes in, even to the ones that seem the least likely to give anything back--makes me feel like it’s all worth it. And it makes me hope...”

Dani leans in a little, her face suddenly very near Jamie’s. Jamie swallows.

“Makes me hope there’s someone out there who’d be worth it, too, I guess.”

Too much, she thinks, even as she’s breathing Dani in. Too much, even as Dani is right there, her hand steady on Jamie’s bare skin, her eyes so blue and so close, and so--

“One more,” Dani breathes. “Should do it.” 

She’s leaning back, giving her head a tiny shake as if to clear it. Jamie nods, forcing her gaze away, forcing herself to hop off the table and grab for her shirt. 

“Sure. Yeah. One more.”

***

“So, they’re not married?” Owen gives the sauce on the stove a stir, leaning over to inspect the mess Jamie is making of vegetables. “Could you chop those more like a four-year-old with a grudge?”

“Give me a reason,” Jamie threatens, waving her knife vaguely in his direction. He snorts. “And, no, you giant twat. They’re not married. Hannah’s divorced, and Dani’s--” Into women. “--coming off the tail end of something traumatic. You’ll have to ask her about it sometime, s’not my place to share.”

“Huh.” Owen is like fine clockwork, moving between pasta, sauce, sautéing mushrooms with perfect grace. Trying her best to dice carrots and radishes without removing bits of her fingers, Jamie feels incredibly clumsy in comparison.

“Yeah, huh. So, you know what that means, don’t you?”

“That you can ask the nice artist out on a nice date?” he says brightly. She pitches an unchopped radish at his head, pleased when it bounces off and rolls away. 

“That you owe me for emotional damages, in thinking the nice artist was married to her boss.” She thinks for a moment. “And that you can ask her boss out on a proper date yourself.”

“Oh, I don’t think she’s--”

“You let her tattoo you with permanent ink,” Jamie drawls, “but you won’t even consider asking her on a date?”

“The tattoo,” Owen says, “took less courage.”

“Twat,” Jamie repeats. 

“Oh, are you going to march in there tomorrow and ask out your lovely lady?” He shakes his head, as if he already knows the answer. Jamie tosses a bit of carrot into his hair, absolutely delighted when it stays put. 

“She’s not interested.”

“Says you,” he snorts. She readies another chunk of carrot. “If you throw that, I swear--”

“She’s not,” Jamie says, popping the carrot into her mouth with exaggerated innocence. “Trust me, there was a--a vibe.”

“A vibe.” He arches his eyebrows over his glasses, looking quite suddenly like he’s trying to play the father card. “What, pray tell, sort of vibe?”

“The sort where she’s two inches from my face, and jerks away like she’s just been stung by a fuckin’ bee,” Jamie says, a bit snappishly. “The sort where trust me, I know what a woman who doesn’t want to kiss me looks like.”

Owen makes a mumbling noise under his mustache she can’t make out, but is fairly certain will make her want to throw more vegetables into his hair. She points the tip of the knife at him in warning.

“Trust me,” she repeats. “Friends. That’s what she said, and that’s what she’ll get. Anyway, I’m only due one more session under her terribly capable hands, and then it’s over.”

“At risk of being impaled,” Owen says, “sure. Over. Why do I let you invite me to dinner?”

“Because you like me,” Jamie tells him pleasantly. “And because you’d be terribly vexed if I died of malnutrition on your watch.”

***

She almost doesn’t do it. Almost chickens out--of the idea, and of the appointment altogether. The tattoo is nearly perfect as-is, after all; if she were to slip in, pay Hannah, slip back out again without ever catching Dani’s eye, it would be perfectly doable. 

She’d never be able to sleep again from guilt, maybe, but doable. 

Of course she doesn’t. Of course she’s at the appointment ten minutes early, sitting in the chair with a tiny vase in her lap, feeling like an absolute idiot. Her skin is charged with the adrenaline of a restless night, bouncing between talking herself into this, out of it again, the dreams woven between those moments like so much pent-up desperation. She woke with Dani’s name on her lips and almost couldn’t bring herself to get out of bed. 

And yet--out of bed. Into clothes that felt more like safety than anything else--a good flannel shirt, a cropped tank, a pair of shorts to repel the aggression of the summer heat. And off to Bly Manor. 

Henry Wingrave, quite apart from being Owen’s benefactor, is also Jamie’s employer. It is his stately country home that keeps Jamie in rent money, his rose gardens and endless stretch of land that keeps her afloat and happy and functional. 

It is also his grounds upon which she has hidden a secret even from Wingrave himself, who rarely bothers to visit his own property. 

A part of that secret is between her hands now, resting against the muscle of her thigh as she tries desperately not to hammer her leg against the floor. When Dani appears, looking much happier to see Jamie than Jamie’s prepared to handle, she holds the secret out like an olive branch. 

“For you.”

Stupid, she thinks, but there’s hardly any venom to the thought at all, with how vividly Dani’s expression opens up. “Is that a--”

“Thought I ought to bring a gift,” Jamie says, a bit too hurriedly. She forces herself to take a breath. “Only polite, this being our last round and all.”

“You grew this?” Dani takes the single flower in its tiny vase with more reverence than Jamie’s shown anything in her whole life. “This is beautiful.”

Jamie shrugs. She can’t help the smile creeping across her face, huge and goofy and not the least bit subtle. “I thought, you know. A memento. Brief though it’ll be, given the, uh...whole thing about moonflowers.”

For a moment, Dani looks like she can’t see anything else, anything except Jamie standing with hands behind her back, eyes hopeful. One shining, insane moment--and then she’s looking away, looking back at the little flower, a perfect replica of the not-quite-ready blossoms etched into Jamie’s skin. 

“It’s amazing. Thank you. Come on, I’m ready for you back here.”

It might be Jamie’s imagination--she genuinely can’t tell lately what’s imagination, the desperate hope of a too-strong crush, and what’s real with Dani--but she thinks Dani is moving...faster than usual. She seems to be washing up at double the usual speed, fumbling her gloves, distracted as she sets up pen and ink. Jamie, shrugging out of her flannel and draping it over the chair, frowns. 

“Are you all right?”

“No--yes.” Dani huffs out a little laugh. “Yes. I’m sorry. You can sit. This won’t take long.”

She’s hurrying me out, Jamie thinks. Not sure what I did or how I did it, but she’s...trying to get rid of me. “If it’s a bad time,” she says awkwardly, “I could...come back later?”

“No!” Dani all but cries. She closes her eyes, takes a steadying breath. Smiles. “No. Sorry, you’re--you’re fine. It’s fine. Here, come, lay down...”

Jamie, as always, finds herself obeying with more eagerness than intended. Her blood seems to be singing, racing hot and fast and sharp, even as she reclines and watches Dani take her seat. 

“Only,” she says carefully, when Dani touches the needle to her skin, “if it was something I did--we’re friends, right?”

Dani nods once, eyes on her work. The pen drags slowly along the petal of a half-open bud, leaving behind a silver tracing of what appears almost magically to be real moonlight. Jamie sucks in a breath, struggling for the words. 

“You’d tell me? If I did something? Said something, to make you--”

“You didn’t,” Dani says, too quickly. Her eyes flick once to the little flower, set beside the sink. Jamie’s heart sinks. 

“Hey, if that was too much--I didn’t--”

“Jamie,” Dani says, and Jamie’s breath stills in her lungs. She’s not sure Dani’s ever said her name before, not with quite that intensity. “Believe me. You’re--you’re wonderful. Just. Let me get through this, all right?”

Jamie isn’t sure what else there is to do, except exactly what she’s asked. There is no pain beneath the needle now; she’s used to the sting, and anyway, Dani is gentle. For all her impatience to get Jamie out of this room, out of the studio, out of her life, maybe--she does not rush the work itself. The art matters, even if Jamie’s just a canvas. The art is everything. 

Jamie can accept that. If all she’s left with when Dani’s gone is this, the ink bled into her skin under Dani’s patient hands, maybe that’s enough. Maybe it’s enough to simply know you have been marked, stained, cared for by someone for a handful of precious hours. Maybe, in the end, that’s more than some people can say. 

Jamie can accept it, and she can catch sight of this piece, designed for her and for no one else, and know Dani at least cared enough for that much. Cared to make it perfect: line weight variation, and rich color, and tricks of light and shadow that make the whole thing look like it was waiting under Jamie’s skin all along. Proof that Jamie is here, now, with Dani’s hands on her, with Dani’s attention absolutely nowhere else. 

Jamie can accept it. She stays quiet, breathes with Dani’s movements like they’ve been doing this for years, doesn’t push Dani for explanations or argue with Dani’s insistence that she just be allowed to work. If they are friends--if that much is salvageable later, when whatever Dani’s feeling has faded--Jamie owes her the respect of this silence. 

Finally, Dani leans back. Smooths away the last of the ink, the last of bead of blood. Tilts her head. 

“Perfect,” she says. “Come see.”

Jamie stands, moves to the mirror, takes note of the way Dani stands just behind her. Dani’s eyes, she observes, are on the glass for the first time--watching Jamie’s face as she takes it in. 

She hadn’t thought it could change much, with just an hour or two of Dani’s time today. She’d thought Dani was being something of a perfectionist, in asking Jamie to come back at all; the piece had looked fairly finished to Jamie’s eyes after the last trip in. 

“Incredible,” she says softly, gazing at her reflection. “You are...absolutely incredible. How did you do this?”

There is, unbelievably, moonlight on the open blossom, and drops of rain trickling off the leaves, and rust on the gate. If Jamie unfocuses her eyes just a little, the whole image seems to rustle in a gentle breeze. 

“Good?” Dani asks in such a quiet, hopeful way, Jamie has no choice but to turn her head, searching for Dani’s gaze not in the reflected glass, but in this brief reality strung between them. 

“Perfect,” she agrees, and smiles. If this is the last of it, if Dani never looks at her again after this, she wants to remember her this way. Kind. Invested. Proud of a job well done. “You’re magic, you know that?”

“Good,” Dani says, her voice trembling just a little. “Good.”

Then, without another beat of warning, her hands are on either side of Jamie’s face. Her mouth, sweet and soft and testing, is on Jamie’s, breathing out a sharp little gasp against Jamie’s lips. 

Kissing me, Jamie thinks wildly, even as she delves a hand into Dani’s ponytail and holds on for dear life. She’s kissing me. 

“Is this--” Dani has broken from her, breathing hard. She looks like she might pass out, her hands shaking slightly against Jamie’s skin. “I mean, I thought--you seemed like you’d want--”

Jamie presses in, not caring that she’s half-naked, that Dani is still wearing gloves, that there’s probably more than a few protocols in violation just now. She cares about absolutely nothing except the way Dani kisses her--the way Dani kisses her back--like she can’t get enough. 

“What,” Jamie gasps, stealing a little air. The room is gently revolving around them, the one-two punch of tattoo and Dani’s lips making her dizzy. “What was that about? The--the thing where you were trying to get rid of me?”

“Get rid of?” Dani repeats blankly. “Jamie, I wasn’t--I don’t date clients.”

Don’t date-- “Oh.” Well, now she feels stupid. “Oh, you--”

“It’s unprofessional,” Dani says--a perfectly logical thing to come out of her mouth even as her hand is playing against the back of Jamie’s neck. “And I don’t usually--I mean, I’ve never met someone who--but I thought I’d ask you out when I was done, you know? Except it just kept needing more work. I wanted it...to be perfect. And I kept going a little crazier, and...”

“Ask,” Jamie says, gently stilling the runaway train Dani’s thoughts seem to have boarded. Dani angles her head, confused. 

“What?”

“Ask,” Jamie says again. She likes the weight of Dani’s hair around her fingers, the way Dani is breathing so closely to her own mouth, it almost makes her lose focus. “You said you wanted to ask me out. Haven’t heard a question yet.”

“Do you want to get dinner?” Dani says, all in a rush, her lips an inch from Jamie’s. Her voice is pitched a little higher than usual, a little faster, the words a run of piano notes skittering wild. Jamie cups the back of her head, pulls her in for another kiss.

“Very much,” she says finally, laughing against the side of Dani’s face. “Yes, please.”

***

She thinks briefly about trying to cook for Dani--briefly being the operative word--before settling on an option much less likely to send the poor woman screaming for the exit.

“You owe me,” she points out, leaning over the counter and jabbing Owen in the shoulder. “For the time you made me think the woman was dating her fucking boss.”

“Hey,” he says, “you believed it, too.”

“For five minutes.”

“Five minutes longer than nothing.”

“Um,” Dani says, sounding just a little bit more entertained than Jamie’s comfortable with, “what’re we talking about?”

She wheels around, breath tightening in surprise in her chest. “You,” she points out weakly, “are early.”

Early--and indeed dressed for a date, Jamie notes. There’s something endlessly attractive about Dani Clayton at home in the workplace, with her hair back and her sharp-eyed focus, and Jamie thinks she could watch her forever with a tattoo machine within reach. Dani Clayton now, on the other hand, must be a low-dose event, administered with great care, lest she flat-out kill Jamie first night out. 

“Too much?” The old anxiety, just edging Dani’s smile, but Jamie suspects she knows it isn’t. Suspects she knows quite well, in fact, what a dress like that, paired with high boots and a surprising number of ear piercings, is doing to Jamie’s ability to string a thought together. 

“You don’t wear those to the shop,” Jamie observes when they’ve been ushered to a private table near the back, Owen having finished puttering around with candles and a wine menu Jamie’s never seen before. She’s gesturing to Dani’s ears, to the sharp darts of silver paired with the usual hoops in her lobes. 

Dani shrugs. “I don’t feel like I need to advertise. If my work isn’t enough to book clients, they shouldn’t be working with me at all.”

“Is that your policy, or Hannah’s?” Come to think of it, Jamie’s not sure she’s ever seen a studio owner as evidently-polished as Hannah Grose, whose piercings are minimal and tattoos are rarely on display. 

Dani reaches across the table, catching Jamie’s hand. “Mine, mostly. Though Hannah agrees. It hasn’t been a problem.”

It’s hard to imagine problems existing, sitting across from Dani in the quiet of this restaurant. Hard to imagine how difficult sleep had been to come by, even a day ago, worrying over how to properly be friends with a woman like this. 

“How’re the ribs?” Dani asks, when Jamie gives a very small wince, her shirt pulling across her body as she sits back. 

“They’re beautiful. And also itch a little.” Jamie grins. “No regrets, though.”

There is wine--red--and appetizers--something fancier than Jamie usually likes, breaded and fried to disguise itself--and entrées, and all the while, Jamie couldn’t care less. She’s barely aware of the food, though she’s certain Owen is offering up his best work; the only thing she cares about is Dani’s smile pointed in her direction. 

“How many do you have?” she’s asking when Owen slides a monstrous brownie topped with vanilla ice cream between them. Dani raises her eyebrows, and she adds, “Tattoos, I mean.”

“You’ll have to wait and see,” Dani teases, and Jamie wonders just how fast she could get them out of this restaurant and into her flat. She can think of nothing she’d like more than to spend the evening seeking out all the little secrets tucked under Dani’s clothes--and all the other secrets, besides, the ones Dani might feel more and more comfortable letting her in on over time. 

“Did you really think Hannah and I were together?” Dani asks around a small bite of brownie. Jamie hunches her shoulders, cringing away from the question. 

“I know, I know. But you should have heard him. Owen can be irritatingly convincing, when he’s strained.”

“He does realize she doesn’t offer free art to just anyone,” Dani points out, grinning. “Even for the best cupcake in the world.”

“He does not,” Jamie confirms. “He’s had a rough go of the year, Owen. His mum’s...not all she once was, and he puts most of his time into this place, when he’s not taking care of her. Can’t remember the last time he put himself first, particularly where a woman’s concerned.”

Dani mulls this over, spoon tucked between her lips, and it takes everything in Jamie to remember she is a good friend. A good friend who does care about Owen’s life, and this conversation, and similar things that have nothing to do with Dani’s mouth. 

“I don’t suppose we could just...tell them both to show up somewhere, and then leave them to their own devices?” Dani wonders. Jamie laughs.

“Are you proposing we Parent Trap our friends into getting their shit together?”

“Bit weird, calling my wife my parent,” Dani teases, licking the spoon clean in a fashion Jamie recognizes as entirely intentional, and entirely unfair. She groans. 

“Will I ever live it down?”

“Make it up to me,” Dani suggests. “I have faith you’ll think of something.”

***

They do, for convenience, wind up at Jamie’s flat. Jamie had sort of assumed this would happen, had spent the day leading up to this moment cleaning every surface she could think of, but even so...

“It isn’t much,” she says. Set above the village’s only pub, it’s little more than a bathroom, a sad kitchen, a partition between living space and bedroom. Three years, and Jamie still doesn’t feel like it’s entirely hers--like it, as well as the job at Wingrave’s and just about every step she’s taken in Bly, is little more than a gracious lease. 

It suits her fine enough. She’s never felt particularly tied to Bly, or to anywhere. Jamie owns her choices, her mistakes, her hopes, her ink. Everything else is free to come and go as needed. 

She does hope Dani will stay a while, though. There’s something about Dani that makes her want to understand the word home for the first time in her life. 

“Here,” she says, rolling the cuff of her jeans up her shin and unlacing her right boot. “Second one I got.”

She displays the inner stretch of her ankle, the tiny bright bluebells wrapped around like a chain. Dani traces them slowly with the edge of her fingernail, nodding with approval. 

“These are much better.”

“Went to a real-live artist for that one,” Jamie laughs. She leans off the couch to remove the other boot, tossing both aside, and falls back against the cushions. “It was my present to myself, when I got out of prison, picked up a decent-paying gig with a landscaping firm.”

“So, all flowers?” Dani asks. Jamie nods.

“Gardening’s the only thing that ever made much sense. Plants don’t up and leave when they get bored, or tell you it’s been fun, but they were just experimenting. And they rarely get you picked up by the cops.”

“Most kinds, anyway.” Dani’s smiling. There’s nothing lurking in that smile, Jamie thinks--no sign that Dani is looking for the exit, or bothered by what Jamie has let slip of her past, or anything. Dani looks relaxed, positioned on Jamie’s couch with her shoes by the door and her legs tucked under her. 

Looks like she’s been here all along, almost. 

“What else?” Dani raises a hand, ticking off on her fingers. “The moonflowers. The bluebells. The rose.”

Jamie winces. “Dunno if the rose really counts. Looks like a goddamn stick-on, doesn’t it?”

“I could help with that,” Dani says. “If you wanted a touch-up. I wouldn’t mind.”

Something about the way she says it--the way she offers so casually to repair a piece of Jamie’s past she’d long since decided to just accept--pulls at Jamie’s breath. Something about the easy offer, the way she doesn’t say it’s awful, or how could you live with that, or stupid to have gotten in the first place. Something about the gentle caress of her hand around Jamie’s ankle, still tracing the little blue flowers tucked away from the world. 

Jamie realizes she’s staring right around the time she realizes Dani is staring right back. Not in that way, either, where you get caught and flinch away--she meets Dani’s eyes and smiles, feels as though they could do this for hours and not get bored. 

“Never met anyone like you,” she says softly. Dani ducks her head, but doesn’t break eye contact. She doesn’t argue, doesn’t say I’m nothing special or silly of you to say. She only leans slowly across until Jamie can smell the faint tinge of perfume, can feel her breath ghosting across Jamie’s lips. 

“What else,” Dani asks, lips brushing Jamie’s, “do you have?”

Jamie laughs, even as gooseflesh rises up her arms. She shakes her head, sliding off the couch. 

“Come on.”

There’s something delirious, about how comfortably Dani follows her to the bedroom. No hesitation, no question, no coy small talk--just Dani trusting her to lead the way. She sets down on the bed, watching Jamie, waiting for Jamie to answer the question--and Jamie gets the sense she could beg off, if she wanted to. Even with how Dani is looking at her, with such interest, such curiosity, she could still say no. Say there are some secrets meant for another night. 

Instead, she’s unbuttoning her black shirt, aware that this is nothing Dani hasn’t seen--hasn’t slid her hands all over, professionally--and equally aware that Dani has never watched her undress before. That there is something very different about standing at the foot of her own bed, with Dani sitting amid neat blankets, watching each button pop open. 

“You don’t have anything else there,” Dani observes, smiling. “I checked.”

Jamie laughs. “Not everywhere.”

She’s undressed for women more times than she can count--has spent plenty of time in cars, in alleys, in hotel rooms and under bleachers and tucked into basements with women who merited undressing for. It’s easy enough, most times, to switch off and just let instinct take over. Now, though, with Dani’s eyes on her, Dani leaning forward to catch every moment of this, her hands are shaking. Like a goddamn teenager, she thinks, not for the first time where Dani is concerned, and laughs again. 

“I could...” Dani is sliding off the bed, covering Jamie’s hands with her own, gaze never leaving Jamie’s face. “I don’t mind.”

She’s kissing her slowly, her fingers deft as Jamie guides her to the clasp of her bra. She’s kissing her, even as the material falls away and Jamie is leaning into her hands, sighing into her mouth. 

“Here,” Jamie murmurs, pulling Dani’s hand between her breasts, to a purple orchid hidden on her sternum. Dani makes a low sound of regret as Jamie leans away from her kiss, turning her eyes obediently to the tiny flower beneath her hand. 

“The detail on this is incredible.”

Jamie closes her eyes, enjoying the way Dani seems to need to trace each image, exploring the linework with the tip of her finger. “Wanted something no one was ever going to see, unless I wanted them to. That artist wanted to go bigger--said sternum work usually looks better if it’s three or four times this size--but I liked...”

“The secret of it,” Dani guesses, pressing the pad of her thumb to the flower. Jamie swallows, letting her head fall back as Dani’s other hand eases up her neck, cups under her hair. Dani’s mouth moves slowly down her throat, her chest, her lips pressing almost reverently against the tattoo. 

“Haven’t been with anyone since I got it,” Jamie hears herself say, an admission she didn’t intend. True, though. “Well-kept secret, until now.”

“I won’t tell,” Dani promises, smiling against her, and Jamie slides a hand into her hair. Her heart is pounding now, harder even than while trying to undress, while trying to look even a little bit cool. Dani is exploring her skin with small kisses, nails scratching lightly up her scalp as Jamie leans back to offer as much of herself as she can. 

This isn’t how it usually goes. Most times--if she’s honest with herself, almost all times--it’s Jamie taking the lead. Jamie, taking a woman where she wants to go. Jamie, giving, and being taken from, and not minding in the least because she’s good at it. 

Now, with Dani backing her gently against her dresser, with Dani’s mouth tracing ever-lower, Jamie is wildly aware of the reversal. Of Dani, still fully clothed, and of the cool air on Jamie’s skin. Of Dani, testing with the tip of her tongue, not seeming to mind in the least the way Jamie’s breath hitches, the way Jamie’s hand tightens in her hair. 

“One more,” Dani murmurs against her breast. Jamie’s nearly dizzy, unable to process it all at once. She sways back, hears the light clink of the detritus scattered across the dresser top, feels Dani’s hand anchor at the small of her back to hold her upright. “Okay?”

“Perfect,” Jamie says hoarsely. Dani is straightening, wearing a smile that says she is enjoying this brand-new activity more than she maybe expected, walking through that door tonight. 

“Last one?”

Jamie draws a deep breath, and Dani pauses, her hands still acting as anchors at the base of Jamie’s skull, the base of her spine. 

“If it’s too much,” she says, “I don’t want to--”

Jamie leans into her, trying to put it all into this kiss: how badly she wants Dani to see her, how terrifying that want is, how hysterical it is that Dani, who has never done this before, is trying to calm her down in the process. It’s backwards, and it’s wonderful, and she thinks it was always going to be this way--from the minute she felt her whole body go warm at the sight of Dani, it was going to be this way--and she’s kissing Dani hard enough to shut the lights off on everything else. 

They’re moving toward the bed, and she recognizes the subtle shift in power, in Dani handing the lead back even as she lets Jamie tip her back onto the mattress. The give and take of it is heady, the idea that at any moment, she can gift control back into Dani’s hands--that the two of them are engaged in a dance now in which neither party truly needs to lead. She’s trembling, and Dani is making a helpless little sound under her kiss, and it’s nothing like the others. Nothing like anyone or anywhere Jamie’s been before. 

She rests her weight on her left side, pleased when Dani’s hand skirts around the still-fresh tattoo on her right, pleased when Dani doesn't seem to mind there being a whole section of Jamie’s torso off-limits to her exploration. 

“Next time,” Dani breathes, like she’s reading Jamie’s mind, and the idea of there even being a next time--even before the first time is complete--is thrilling. She slides a hand up Dani’s thigh, pushing the dress up, grinning when Dani mutters, “Damn thing was a better idea in the restaurant.”

“No one’s making you keep it on,” Jamie points out, though there’s a dizzy excitement to the idea of Dani in this dress with the skirt rucked to her hips, Dani in this dress with Jamie between her thighs. “Although...”

Dani groans. “Too much talking. Too many clothes.”

It’s a fumble, trying to get her jeans off and Dani’s dress unzipped all without breaking the kiss. It’s a fumble, and she almost forgets how her belt works, almost forgets how anything works, with Dani’s tongue hot in her mouth, with Dani’s body pushing hard against her own. Once, they almost roll to the floor. Once, they find themselves laughing too hard even to kiss. 

And then it’s all cool air and underwear and Dani looking at her like she’s never seen something she understands this well. Jamie lets her look, allows her gaze to drag slowly down Jamie’s frame, searching for the elusive final tattoo. 

“Here,” she says at last, drawing Dani’s hand to the waistband of her underwear, to the small lily tucked into the crest of her hip. “Last one I got, before you.”

“You really don’t like to show off,” Dani observes, dragging her nails across the white blossom. Jamie pushes against her hand, enjoying the bite as Dani digs gently in, scratching along the open petals. 

“Never cared what anyone thought. Never saw a point in dressing for anybody. Ink’s the same idea.”

“Just you,” Dani says, with the confident approval of someone who hasn’t always been able to say the same. Jamie nods. 

“All I ever had, really. Just me.”

Dani looks at her for a long time, eyes sliding from Jamie’s face to the orchid designed to hide beneath a bra to the expansive art on her ribs. Five tattoos. Five kinds of flower, buried in all the places no one has earned rights to. Until now.

“Thank you,” Dani says, and Jamie can tell she means it. “Now...it’s only fair...”

She’s rolling away from Jamie, rolling onto her back so the dim light from Jamie’s bedroom lamp can spill across her skin. There is ink, Jamie sees now--bright, beautiful splashes of abstract color tracing places Dani usually keeps covered. The top half of her left thigh up around the jut of her hip is painted with rainbow geometry; her right ankle traced with tiny text; an open book rests just inside her ribs, smaller than Jamie’s piece, but no less detailed--Jamie can see an entire passage is etched in painstaking script. When she rolls over, the back of her right shoulder is a lush jungle, a pair of cold yellow eyes hidden in the trees.

Jamie traces those eyes with a kiss now, impressed. “What’s this for?”

“All my life,” Dani says, facing away, her voice low and just a bit more nervous than it was a minute ago, “I’ve felt like someone was watching. Waiting for me to mess up. Waiting for me to embarrass my mother, or prove I was someone nobody wanted to see. When I got here--when I got to The Lady--I had Hannah do that for me. To remind me it doesn’t matter who’s watching, or waiting, or hoping to drag me down. They can watch my back all they want. I don’t have to look at them.”

Jamie pulls her shoulder, easing her back until she can see Dani’s eyes again. “And the rest?”

Dani shrugs. Smiles. “Some, I did myself during my apprenticeship. This one, mostly.” She smooths a palm along the rainbow wrapped up her leg, around her hip. “Pieces of me, trying to fit together. Wanted to show I could make it work.”

She doesn’t have nearly as many as Jamie would have expected, and when Jamie says so, Dani laughs. 

“I prefer putting them on other people. Like how it feels, to know I’ve made a difference. I don’t need it as much, for me.”

“What do you need?” Jamie wonders, curling her fingers around the rainbow-stained arc of her hip. Dani draws in a breath, as Jamie shifts until they’re skin to skin once more. 

“Don’t know,” Dani says. “Never knew. Always hoped I’d find out, someday.”

Jamie bends to kiss her, easing Dani’s lip between her teeth, liking Dani’s breathless little moan as her hands move down Dani’s thigh, across Dani’s stomach, up toward her breasts. 

“Now?” she asks, kissing below Dani’s ear, amused by the brush of silver hoop against her nose. Dani sighs. 

“Good start. Keep going.”

Jamie stops thinking, then--stops thinking about the good fortune that brought her here, the wild luck of meeting Dani Clayton, of catching her eye, of coaxing her into this bed. She stops thinking about everything that isn’t Dani’s skin under her hands, Dani pushing up into her kiss, Dani rolling her onto her back and shifting her hips in a slow rhythm that makes Jamie suddenly useless. With Dani astride her, Dani’s hand pressed to the hidden flower between her breasts, Dani’s head back and lips parted, Jamie finds she’s not thinking about anything at all. 

“Please,” she hears Dani murmur, even as her fingers are tracing the webwork and rich colors along Dani’s thigh, the mark of Dani’s true self hidden from the world under her clothes. “Jamie.”

She could do this forever, she decides, fingers grazing soft skin. She could do this for the rest of her life, she decides, stroking small circles into wet heat. She could do this, and anything else Dani asks of her, and never once get sick of it, as Dani presses herself down, as Dani’s rhythm loses its smooth ease, as Dani scrambles to kiss her hard. 

“Good?” she asks against Dani’s mouth. “Here?”

“Perfect. Perfect. Right--yes--exactly--” Dani is silver and color and high, reckless cry, pressing down as Jamie’s fingers curl up, and she can feel the exact moment it all comes together. The exact, perfect moment where Dani stops being one thing, and Jamie stops being another, and they are simply us

She wants to do this forever, she thinks, as Dani collapses bonelessly against her, all slick and sigh and spent. She wants to do this forever--Dani in her bed, or her in Dani’s, or the two of them building a new bed anywhere that will have them. There is so much of Dani to memorize, lines of text etched into her skin, stories from across an ocean for Jamie to uncover. 

“You,” Dani says, one hand curling around Jamie’s neck, fingers digging into her nape, “are wonderful.” She sounds tired, happily so, but her hips are already rocking against Jamie’s thigh again. Jamie laughs. 

“Why do I get the feeling there’s going to be a lot to learn, on this little adventure?”

“I don’t know,” Dani says, almost too innocently. She raises her eyes under fluttering lashes. “Why do I get the feeling you’ve got things you haven’t told me? Like, ah, I don’t know...an appreciation for being told how good you are?”

Jamie sags back against the pillows, the heat pounding between her legs coming up fast against her laughter. “No. No way. That is not fair.”

“Mm.” Dani gives her collarbone a light nip, a soft kiss. “Seem to remember a willingness to obey, too...you always did get out of your shirt and onto that table fast...”

“Artist-client confidentiality,” Jamie insists. “What’s noticed in the tattoo studio--”

“--can be extremely interesting in the bedroom,” Dani finishes. She’s got a hand between Jamie’s legs, her head raised to watch closely as Jamie’s expression grows less embarrassed, more desperate. “So, say, if I told you this was good...that you’re being very...”

Jamie makes a strangled little noise, reaches up, drags her into a giggly kiss. She’d like this to last, would like to give Dani the benefit of exploration, of knowing everything Jamie feels is entirely her doing. If Dani keeps talking this way, keeps teasing her, she can’t predict how it will go. 

Can’t predict much, when it comes to Dani, in fact. Dani is a neat little package absolutely brimming over with surprises--and if Jamie had a lifetime, she’s not sure she’d unpack them all. She doesn’t mind.

She’ll take all the time Dani has to offer. 

***

“What am I doing here?” Owen frowns up at the elegant sign, gleaming bright in the summer sun. “You can’t possibly need another one already?”

“Maybe I do,” Jamie says idly. “Maybe I’ve got the bug. Or maybe I’m thinking of getting something pierced this time. How d’you feel about bellybutton rings?”

Owen rolls his eyes. “Think if you’re looking for a ringing endorsement, you ought to ask your girlfriend. She working today?”

“Yeah. ‘Til seven. C’mon, we’re going to be late.”

Owen shakes his head, dragging his feet. He’s been more hung up than usual, between a rush at the restaurant--a surprisingly large mass of tourists have been wandering in off the street, making Owen baskets of money even as he struggles to keep up--and a downturn in his mother’s health. It’s been a rough summer, for Owen Sharma, and all he’s got to show for it so far is a best friend falling in love and a sweet little tattoo. 

Time to improve things, Jamie thinks. 

“Hello again!” Hannah Grose looks up from where she is assisting a pair of dark-haired young women--sisters, by the look of them--picking out ear piercings from a booklet. “Didn’t expect to see either of you today. Miss Clayton’s with a client, Jamie.”

“Not here for her, believe it or not.” Jamie smiles, giving one of the sisters a nod; she’s pretty in a way that reminds her very dimly of Dani, if Dani had a little more sadness in her smile. “We are here to discuss something with you.”

“We are?” Owen mutters. Hannah smiles. 

“Give me a moment to finish up here, and I’ll be right with you.”

“What,” Owen mutters into Jamie’s ear, “are you up to?”

“Shocked that you’d ever sound so suspicious of my intentions. I am your friend. Have I ever let you down? Have I ever, perhaps, convinced you your crush was married to her--”

He makes a shushing gesture, his eyes crinkling behind his glasses. “All right, all right. Easy does it. She’s practically moved into your flat, hasn’t she? All worked out for the best.”

“Yes. And now it’s your turn.” 

“What on earth does that mean--”

Jamie ignores him, wheeling around to face Hannah as she steps clear of the sisters and into earshot. “Hannah, love, what are you doing this evening? Say, eight-thirty?”

“I--well, I suppose I’ll be heading home,” Hannah says, clearly taken aback. “Maybe pick up some takeaway, have a glass of wine--”

“I think,” Jamie says, trying very hard not to find Owen’s bug-eyed expression enormously funny, “you should try something new. A movie, perhaps?”

Hannah looks utterly befuddled now. “I’m not much for seeing movies on my own, I’m afraid.”

“Right.” Jamie’s hand flashes out, catching Owen by the sleeve and yanking him a step closer. “Which is why you’ll be going with young Mr. Sharma. And Dani and myself, if you’ll have us. There’s an old Swayze double-feature going--Ghost and that damn dancing one--and we’d hate to spend the next week quoting them alone.”

“I can’t--” Owen looks near panicked now. “Jamie, my mum--”

“Has already been spoken for by your neighbor,” Jamie informs him. “Mr. McQueeny, was it? Said he’s been meaning to take in a game of cards with her for ages. Anyway, we’ve already got your ticket, and if you bail now, it’s on your head to explain to Dani why.”

Hannah has a hand to her mouth, looking quite as though she isn’t sure if she ought to laugh or be mortified. Owen seems almost ready to pass out.

“Come on!” Jamie cajoles, enjoying this even more than she’d expected--and she’d expected to be singing from the rooftops when she and Dani had come up with this plan two nights ago. “Swayze! Pottery! Putting Baby in the alley, or the kitchen, or whatever the fuck it is--”

“Corner,” Owen mouths. Jamie snaps her fingers.

“Yes! See? We need you along, or else Dani and I will find ourselves without a clue.”

“Yes,” he says thinly. “And I’m sure you’d have nowhere to go, if the films lost your interest.”

For a brief moment, Jamie entertains the idea of retracting the invitation. Spending four hours in the dark with her hands roaming beneath Dani’s sweater is far from the worst idea in the world. 

“I think,” Hannah says, her voice calm--though Jamie notes she has eyes only for Owen and his bewildered expression, “I think this would...be very nice. I’ve been meaning to get out more. Owen, would you...perhaps like to pick up dinner on the way? Around seven?”

Jamie could sing. Jamie could leap up on the counter and perform a truly middling tap-dance. Most of all, Jamie could rush to the back and find Dani, if only there wasn’t the inconvenience of Dani very much enjoying her job and wanting to keep it. 

“That’s perfect. Owen. Come on. You love Swayze.” And you need a little joy in your life. Getting so we only see that smile when a patron tips particularly well, and what kind of life is that? “I promise, if you say yes now, I’ll never ask you to accompany me to a tattoo shop again.”

His eyes slide furtively to Hannah, his lips twitching, and Jamie sees his hand brush briefly against the tiny bread loaf on his arm. “I don’t know. Wasn’t the worst thing you’ve ever asked of me, was it?”

I am, Jamie decides, leaning back against the counter and pretending not to notice when Hannah moves just a little closer to Owen under guise of selecting a food option for the evening, the best friend in the whole goddamn world. Or, at least, in all of Bly. 

Owen is lucky to have her, really.