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(how lovely i feel) not to have to pretend

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Jamie has never met anyone quite like Dani Clayton--a matter that goes without saying on nearly every level. She’s never met someone quite so selfless, quite so brave, quite so prone to acting on behalf of others without even seeming to realize she’s doing it. More than that, she’s never known anyone else to be quite so self-possessed as Dani Clayton. No one but Dani has quite the same capacity for keeping a firm grasp on how they look to the outside world. 

Jamie finds it remarkable even before they become a they at all--watching Dani stride around the manor grounds with her head held high, her shoulders thrown back, her fists clutched tight at her sides as though she is at all times in full control of her physicality. It is most remarkable because it simply isn’t true; almost before she knows the woman’s name, Jamie becomes familiar with the demons she’s holding at bay, the short breath and sharp sob she tries so hard to keep shelved. Dani to the naked eye is a woman clean and pressed and presented. Dani beneath the surface is roiling. 

And still, even once Jamie knows there is something else lurking behind blue eyes and pretty smile, it can be hard to forget. Dani is so good at fabricating a version of herself for the world, a version fit for consumption, that she almost doesn’t seem to realize she’s doing it. Her clothes, though meager in number, are always clean and well-matched; her hair, be it tied up or tied back or teased high, is perfect. Dani is every inch the person Wingrave hired her to be: a young woman in control of her own body, a young teacher poised to guide her charges into the light of self-restraint. 

And, if she should shudder at shadows--

If she should flinch from mirrors--

If she should, from time to time, catch herself staring at Jamie as though uncertain how they both got here--

Things happen. Things outside of Dani’s agency happen, and they seem to keep happening--death, and darkness, and decisions made by everyone around her--and still, Dani doesn’t bow. Dani’s head is up, Dani’s clothes are clean, Dani’s eyes are clear. 

Even after the lake. Even after things go the most wrong anything ever has. Dani’s head is up. Dani’s clothes are clean. Dani’s eyes are...

Jamie sort of expects it all to change, after that. Expects Dani to change, after that. To lower her guard, or to build a wall to the sky, or something to show on a tangible level what she is carrying on her back. But Dani is still, despite it all--though her gaze is distant and her smile is brittle and she forgets from time to time what she’s doing or where she is--Dani. No one is the wiser. No one has the first idea she might not be in total control. 

No one except for Jamie. Dani lets Jamie see it all. Dani gives her the darkness, the shuddering terror, the long nights kept awake and the long days made giddy from lack of sleep. Dani gives her laughter, and blank stares, and everything in between. It is, Jamie recognizes, the greatest gift one person could give another: to offer up on the altar of trust the self, the whole self, for good and for ill. Jamie gets to see it all, though no one else has a clue. 

Jamie doesn’t take it for granted. 

***

This art of Dani, this secret language of reading between the lines, comes in handy on bad days, it’s true. There are times Jamie thinks it is fortunate she is so equipped with comprehension, so well-honed to Dani’s every mood. Early on, especially, it comes in handy more often than she could possibly have predicted. 

Still. It isn’t always a matter of doom, with Dani. More often than not, this self-possessed air has nothing whatsoever to do with her beast in the jungle, her rising panic, her terror of looking too far ahead. 

More often than not, her self-control reveals itself in a completely different sense. 

It begins at the house, on a lovely day that starts with Jamie waking alone, Dani on her skin and all around her in every sense except now. It begins with Jamie pulling her clothes on in a rush, feeling slow and muddled and a little bit drunk with the memory of Dani’s hands trailing like phantoms along her body. 

“You’re going?” Dani, in the doorway, a pink jumper and cascading hair and nervous little smile. Jamie, one boot in hand, her jeans still unzipped, feels herself grin too broadly to restrain.

“Thought you’d already gotten to business.”

Dani shakes her head. “I found Flora outside again. She says she’s all right, so I left her with Owen and Hannah in the kitchen. Wanted to make sure--”

She trails off, looking embarrassed. Jamie tips her head and waits.

“Wanted to make sure you didn’t wake up alone,” Dani says at last in a rush, her eyes wide and blue and so happy, Jamie can’t imagine her any other way. “I was afraid if I took too long, you’d--well, you’d leave, and I wouldn’t get a chance to--”

“Wouldn’t go far,” Jamie promises. It’s not a thing she’s ever been able to offer a woman before, not wearing yesterday’s clothes and feeling the gentle ache of last night’s pleasures winding through every muscle. She’s never in her life been able to look a woman in the eye the next morning and say as much, but she says it now. “I...I’d like to stay.”

It’s sunlight, the way Dani smiles, stepping all the way into the room. Her hand lingers on the doorknob, her fingers tapping an idle melody as she looks Jamie over as if searching for some kind of permission. When Jamie lets her boot drop to the floor, it seems to be all Dani is looking for.

They should go downstairs, some distant part of Jamie’s responsible nature grumbles--but the rest of her can’t be bothered. Not with the eager stride of Dani crossing the room, the click of the door coming to rest in its latch as thrilling as the day’s first kiss. 

“They’re gonna know,” Jamie says, plucking at the front of her shirt. “That I--that we--”

“Yes,” Dani agrees. She’s standing within reach, rocking on her heels. Jamie, seated on the mattress, feels as though they are on opposite sides of glass, as though Dani in her clean clothes and nervous smile is today while Jamie in her rumpled t-shirt and mussed hair is last night. Dani could still walk away from last night, walk off into today, if she so chooses, and Jamie would be here. Stranded in the memory of Dani’s touch, ghost-light on her skin. 

“Do...you wanna...” She extends one hand slowly, as though approaching a skittish animal, and Dani grabs for it like a lifeline. The space between shatters, Dani coming to her with all the graceless glee of taking a breath after too much time underwater. 

She expects slow, gradual, even fearful--expects the shine of last night’s fire to have faded to something that might yet burn them both--but Dani’s knees are dimpling the mattress, Dani’s weight firm and steady in Jamie’s lap. Dani’s hands are on her face, as though she might have forgotten overnight what Jamie feels like and can’t stand a minute more without learning each arc and line all over again. Her thumbs sweep across cheekbone, along bridge of nose and arch of brow, her lips barely a breath away. 

It’s tempting to close the gap, but Jamie forces herself to wait. Forces herself to mirror Dani’s hands, cradling, testing, exploring with the pads of her fingers in gentle motions. There’s something about this--about posing at the door of something grand, about standing here with toes just over the edge of the entryway, waiting to be invited in--that forms its own kind of gravity. Last night had been waiting for Dani to come to her, in every sense of the word. This moment, this morning, is a suspension. 

Control, she thinks for the very first time. Control over time in this one perfect, near-impossible way. Control over space, as they hold just apart from one another, as Dani’s knees dig into the bedspread and Jamie’s thighs flex beneath her. Control in the most self-imposed sense of the word, lips an inch apart. 

Dani kisses the corner of her mouth once, lightly. It is, Jamie thinks, a challenge--and one Jamie accepts without pause. The curve of Dani’s cheek is soft against her lips, a temptation all its own. Dani sighs, one hand sliding up the back of Jamie’s neck to rest at the base of her skull. 

Another kiss, then, Jamie thinks with shivering anticipation. Just a small brush against the tip of Dani’s nose. Dani, in kind, presses one to her forehead, cradling the back of Jamie’s head, her lips lingering for a full beat. Jamie closes her eyes. 

There is seduction in slow and easy, she thinks, and all the more so because it is not intentional. Dani is not trying to be anything at all except a woman who wants Jamie in this moment--a woman who holds to the back of her head, fingers trailing through messy curls, mouth drawing a slow path across forehead and temple, down one cheek and up the other. Each kiss is deliberate, gentle, Dani’s lips parting and sliding as though she could quite happily spend the entire morning doing nothing else. 

“Is this...are you...” Dani seems unwilling to stop long enough to let her own thoughts unravel. Her nails scratch softly down Jamie’s neck, one hand coming to lay at the base of Jamie’s throat. “Do you want...”

Jamie is nodding, not much caring where that sentence might end. Want to stay here forever? Want to let Dani burn an entire day exploring her at this leisurely pace, her lips tracing the shell of Jamie’s ear, her breath dragging shivers down Jamie’s spine? Want to keep her hands right here on Dani’s waist, pushing pink cloth aside to rest on the soft skin beneath?

“We should be quick,” Dani breathes, though her kisses do not increase in velocity or pressure. Her hands are trailing down the backs of Jamie’s shoulders, palms sliding over shirt, fingers dragging back up again. Jamie is dimly aware of her own hands flexing, pushing Dani back, pulling Dani forward. Dani, smiling, does not fight her. 

“This feels,” Jamie says, her voice still raw from lack of use, “like the opposite of quick.”

It feels, instead, like a promise. As Dani pushes beneath her jaw, easing her head back, laying an open kiss to the top of her throat, she wonders if this isn’t some sacred space they’ve built. A perfect, singular spot where nothing can touch them, no one can intercede, time itself is forced to stand still. 

Dani, still kissing her way down even as she’s easing Jamie’s shirt up, hums against her skin. “Want me to speed up?”

“No,” Jamie says before she can stop herself, before she can even begin to interrogate the notion that Dani with this kind of control over herself--this kind of control over both of them--might be the thing she’s been needing for a long time. She feels Dani smile against her, feels the tip of Dani’s tongue flick lightly against her rushing pulse.  

“Want me to...” She rises up, brushing her nose against Jamie’s, letting her lips linger in the softest kiss Jamie’s ever been gifted. Jamie is nodding, wild with the memory of how Dani had kissed her last night compared with how carefully Dani is kissing her now. On purpose, she realizes. On purpose, Dani is doing this. Testing every bound available to her. Testing Jamie’s resolve, and her desire, and her control

Abruptly, Jamie closes a hand around the back of Dani’s head, urging her close, and all the seduction in the world can’t compare with how Dani breathes her in. With how Dani presses her down into the mattress, sitting tall astride her with hands buried in Jamie’s hair. Jamie lets them both fall backward, lets Dani sink into her with a soft moan, and thinks it is good to know Dani has this in her--the desire for slow and easy and calculated--just as it is good to know how quickly that dam can break open. How Dani can swing in a moment from teasing to throwing her whole self into a kiss like this, her hands sweeping down Jamie’s body, searching for the place where her zipper gapes open. 

Dani, kissing like Jamie’s the only sustenance a world can offer, slides a hand down her jeans and presses her own hips behind the action. The shift from slow to sudden is immaculate, dizzying, and Jamie feels herself building almost before she can stop herself. She has never in her life been this awake, this present in her own body, as Dani rolls her fingers in tight circles, her quick-study smile hot against Jamie’s lips. 

Control, gathered and broken in moments, and Jamie is making desperately muted sounds, turning her face against Dani’s shoulder in an effort to quiet herself, even as Dani is fighting tight denim, letting her fingers quicken their pace, letting her own body chase Jamie’s--

A knock sounds once, a quick rap of knuckles followed by a rather amused, “The children are beginning to worry, and I’m running out of excuses for you both.”

Jamie flinches from the sound, even as her body tries recklessly to follow the melody of Dani’s fingers. Dani freezes, her mouth gone rigid against Jamie’s skin. 

“Miss Clayton,” Hannah says in that same too-entertained voice. “Flora in particular is being very persistent.”

“Out in just a sec,” Dani calls back, her voice stunningly level. Jamie raises her eyebrows, opening her mouth to add something, and Dani gives her a smile, gives her a series of hard strokes with confident fingers. Jamie chokes, jerks under her, the unexpected combination of that gesture with Dani’s grin pushing her over the edge. 

“I suppose Jamie will be needing a plate,” Hannah goes on, oblivious. Jamie’s hand is over her own mouth, clapped into place just in time for her lips to part around a silent groan. Dani, hand sliding free as though it had never been busy at all, laughs. 

“No getting anything past you.”

“Well, it’s hard to deny the reality of the truck out front,” Hannah says wryly. Dani is out of bed, wiping her hand discreetly on the bedspread, straightening her clothes and brushing back her hair in a flurry of distinct motions. 

Jamie, shirtless and panting into her own hand as she comes back to earth, gapes at her. Dani reaches down, catches her by the wrist. 

“Come on,” she says, cheerful as anything. “Breakfast.”

***

It’s an art form, Dani’s ability to keep together regardless of the situation. A truly mesmerizing art form which Jamie, try as she might, cannot for her life replicate. 

“How,” she asks one day, Bly Manor two years behind them. “How are you doing that?”

“Doing what?” Dani asks innocently. 

Innocently--as though she hadn’t just been pressed against the table, her skirt a mess, her blouse gaping open. As though Jamie hadn’t been holding her there, hands firm on Dani’s thighs, pressing her open. As though it hadn’t been a brief eternity of Dani rocking into her fingers, both arms wrapped tight around Jamie’s shoulders, her voice a low echo against Jamie’s ear as she’d begged Jamie to move faster, to give her more, to bring her to the edge before lunch break could end. 

And now, not a minute after Jamie had curled deep and felt her shudder, not a minute after she’d bitten down on Jamie’s shoulder to keep quiet, Dani is buttoned, pressed into place, utterly presentable in every way. 

That,” Jamie says, gesticulating wildly to cover the whole of Dani in a single motion. “How does your hair do that?”

“It’s just hair,” Dani says mildly, smoothing it carefully down with her palms. It stays in place as though never been mussed at all, as if Jamie hadn’t just grabbed a handful and used it to yank Dani into a kiss. 

Jamie’s hair, on the other hand, feels like it’s sticking up in twelve places. Her clothes, which hadn’t even been unbuttoned, unzipped, removed in the least, feel in dire need of an ironing. Her mouth feels swollen, her skin flushed, and Dani is still sticky on her fingers. 

“You look,” she says dumbly, “like you didn’t just--I mean, you did come, yeah? I didn’t hallucinate that?”

“Hell of a nice hallucination, if so,” Dani says with a laugh, and kisses her one more time--a long, glorious kiss, one of those stop-time kisses Dani seems to come to so naturally. When she steps back, Jamie fumbles for the table, blinking away stars. “Shame there wasn’t enough time to return the favor.”

“I look like you ravaged me six ways to Sunday,” Jamie points out in a faint voice. Dani looks pleased. 

“Six ways, huh? Sounds like fun. We should discuss that later.”

Jamie opens her mouth, but Dani is already ducking out of the back room, striding to flip the sign back to open and greet the customers who have gathered on the sidewalk to wait. 

“You look ill, dear,” one of the old women tells Jamie, who has staggered to the counter with considerable effort. “Flushed. Not running a fever, I hope.”

“Warm day,” Jamie says, fully aware that it is late November. Dani tips her a grin, a thumbs up, her entire demeanor perfectly arranged. Jamie shakes her head. “Warm. In the back, I mean. Humid. For. Plants.”

The woman gives her a puzzled frown. “Best take care of this one,” she calls to Dani. “She needs someone to look after her, I can tell.”

“Hey--”

“I always do,” Dani assures her, never breaking her smile. 

***

Honestly, it’s almost eerie. Dani’s capacity for control seems to have no bounds, no push too far to reel back from. Jamie has actually started to try, curious if there’s a way to turn Dani from neat-and-orderly to flustered in public settings. It becomes something of a personal challenge. 

She finds herself pressing up against Dani in the shop after-hours, letting her hands roam around Dani’s ribs, up her breasts, down the front of her blouse. Dani gamely lets her head fall back onto Jamie’s shoulder as deft fingers work open her buttons, allowing herself to rock back as Jamie’s hands knead at the front of her bra, as Jamie’s fingers pinch and stroke. 

“You’re playing a dangerous game, if you think we’re ever going to finish inventory.”

“Danger can be good,” Jamie points out, pushing aside Dani’s collar and sucking sharply. The skin is glistening, reddening, her tongue stroking away the tease of her bite, and Dani tips her head to allow better access. 

“It’s like you don’t even want to go home.”

“You keep counting,” Jamie suggests. “I’ll keep doing this. Everybody wins.”

“And if someone--” Dani groans as Jamie slides her fingers beneath the cup of her bra. “If someone calls?”

“Well,” Jamie says politely, pressing herself harder against Dani, pinning her to the table. “They’ll just have to wait, won’t they?”

It’s a fine plan, she thinks with self-congratulatory pleasure. A fine plan, letting her free hand wander down to pull at Dani’s belt, feeling Dani slowly unwind the day’s tension into her hands as she leans back, breathes deeply, gasps. 

A fine plan, and if the phone should--

It rings, right on cue, and Jamie waits for Dani to push her away. Is certain that this--Dani rolling her hips into Jamie’s waiting fingers, Dani abandoning inventory altogether for Jamie’s considerably more interesting plan--will take precedence over any self-imposed need to look presentable Dani might have. 

“Let it go,” she suggests, even as Dani’s hand is drifting. “Let it go and let me--”

“Keep going,” Dani says in a low voice, and then the phone is to her ear, and she is saying, “Good evening, Leafling, Dani Clayton speaking” as though nothing is happening. As though she isn’t leaning her head on Jamie’s shoulder, Jamie kissing her neck as quietly as possible. As though Jamie’s hand is not working magic between her legs, Jamie grinding herself against her back in that way she knows makes Dani’s breath quicken. 

Dani’s voice is never anything less than polite as she walks some faceless stranger through the finer elements of a birthday arrangement, though her hips are matching Jamie’s increasing rhythm, her skin flushed pink beneath Jamie’s lips. She turns her head, watching Jamie with dark eyes, tongue pulling her own lip between her teeth as she says, “Yes, yes, that sounds--that sounds beautiful.  Would you--”

Jamie grins, pulling her hand free. Dani makes a thin noise of disapproval, easily passed off as a cough over the phone--and then, a startled sound as Jamie grasps her hips and presses her over the table, leaning across her back. 

“You could still hang up,” she points out in a bare whisper against Dani’s unoccupied ear, even as she’s pulling Dani’s jeans down. Easing Dani’s legs apart. Pushing her harder down against the table, kissing the back of her neck, slipping a hand between her spread legs from behind. 

“Yes,” Dani says, perfectly calmly into the phone, “yes, we do--we do two-for-one deals through the weekend, would you like--”

Jamie laughs. She’s fighting a losing battle, it’s clear; though Dani’s skin hums beneath her hands, Dani slick across her fingers as she tugs down underwear and returns to her efforts, Dani never shows a sign of it in her voice. If she is rocking harder against Jamie’s hand, if she’s gripping the table with white-knuckled desperation right until the end of the call, it does nothing to diminish the easy charm of her additional, “All right! Sounds wonderful, we’ll get that squared away for you by Monday. Have a lovely evening. Yeah. Yes. Bye now.”

She slams the receiver down, bows her head, cries out as Jamie gives a particularly hard thrust in celebration. Jamie is laughing into the back of her shoulder, her wrist aching as she slides free and shakes her head. 

“You are unbelievable.”

“I am a professional,” Dani gasps. “And you were doing a really, really good job.”

***

Dani doesn’t give up control in public, not for anything. It isn’t even intentional, Jamie has come to realize. The product of her upbringing, probably; the expectation of too many years, too many people telling her to stand up straight, keep her clothes neat and her smile orderly. Dani is presentation and poise, even in her darkest moments. 

Except for this. 

Except for being here

Dani at home is truly at home. In pajamas, in wrinkled t-shirts, her hair a mess, her face devoid of makeup, she is perfectly at ease. Perfectly imperfect. At home, with Jamie, she allows herself to fall apart in every way a woman can. 

She laughs more at the apartment, and with greater reckless zeal. Rarely does Jamie hear this breathless tint to her laughter outside; rarely does Jamie see her collapse into herself with giggles, cackling so hard, she nearly knocks herself off the couch. 

She cries harder at the apartment, and with no interest in doing so prettily. Rarely does Jamie see her face blotchy and miserable outside; rarely does Jamie hear her gasp and choke and whine as sobs wrack her body. 

She dances at home. Dani isn’t much of a dancer, it turns out, but there’s something magnificent about watching her move to the radio as she cleans the kitchen, as she smokes a cigarette and puts dishes away to the tune of Top 40 hits. 

She sings, too. Never in public, never where she thinks she can be judged, but at home, Dani is always singing. Her voice is pretty and unrestrained, no training at all as she scrambles for notes Jamie would put her own eye out trying to reach. There is something simple and marvelous about days when Jamie comes home late, a pizza in hand, to hear Dani belting in the shower. 

She is at her best when she is free, Jamie thinks. When the control is set aside because she no longer needs it, no matter how good she is at keeping a hand on the wheel. 

She is at her best at home, with Jamie, here. With candles lit and dinner ordered in, with Jamie in her finest clothes for the express purpose of offering cheap wine in discount glasses. 

“It’s just a day, Jamie,” Dani says, but she’s grinning. Just a day for most people, maybe, but this marks three years of time in America. Three years with Dani’s beast silent and Dani’s love loud. A day, sure, but it means the world when you put it that way.

“It’s silly,” Dani says, though she’s wearing a dress that makes Jamie wonder how she even got into it without help, and her lips are painted as though she isn’t fully aware Jamie will be ruining them as soon as dinner is over. 

“It’s nice,” Jamie counters. Dani raises her wine to her lips, nodding. 

“It is. Thank you.”

“For what?” Italian food ordered in from the best local place is not, exactly, high-class. Jamie with a dishtowel over one arm, playing at fancy as she tops off Dani’s glass, is not exactly high-class, either. 

Jamie in general is not exactly high-class--and she has not for even a second thought that mattered. Not to Dani. Not ever. 

“Thank you for...all of it.” Dani gestures to encompass Jamie, the apartment, the world. “For not getting sick of it.”

“Never,” Jamie promises, and pretends she doesn't see the tears in Dani’s eyes as she bends her head to kiss her. 

It’s true that Dani thinks she could get tired of it all, that Dani thinks she could at any point be ready to walk away. It will get worse with time, but for now, it’s easy to convince her to step back from the weight of that line of thinking. Easy to take her hands, bring them to Jamie’s lips, walk with her backwards away from the fear of not being good enough. Of not being whole enough. Of letting the polish slip so much that Jamie might one day flinch from what’s waiting beneath. 

Jamie doesn’t know how to make it clear how little she cares for the polish and the poise, how little she needs the artifice Dani is so good at putting on for everyone else. Dani, who has made a life out of professional, responsible, put-together. Dani, who needs people to see the woman who does not step back from shadows, who is stronger than she knows. 

And still, the best moments are these: Dani with her dress pooling at her feet, stepping out with an almost shy giddiness as she moves into Jamie’s arms. Dani, her cheeks flushed, the pink trailing down her neck, splashed across her chest as she leans back onto the bed. Dani, her makeup smudged, her lipstick stained into Jamie’s skin, her hair utterly unkempt as Jamie slides her hands in and pulls her close. 

Dani on her back on the rumpled sheets, her breath coming in quick jabs as Jamie moves between bent knees. Dani, soaked through and crying out, her hips twisting as Jamie coaxes her along, each roll and swipe of her tongue a promise that this is what she’s been looking for. Dani in control is exquisite in a certain way--Dani bent over the table at work, Dani keeping composure even as Jamie buries herself deep, makes the world hot and heady and surprising. But Dani like this--Dani as no one else is allowed to see her, Dani shifting beneath her and pushing hard against her mouth with her hands winding in the sheets--is something else entirely. 

She wants to feel Dani lose control, wants to feel Dani surrender to this allowance she gives herself only when alone with Jamie. Three years now, and it’s still such a special occasion, Dani letting herself unbind all those ties holding her steady. 

“You don’t have to be anyone with me,” Jamie has whispered on more than one occasion. “You don’t have to pretend.”

“Not,” Dani has said every time, a distance in her eyes Jamie wishes she could banish. “Not with you. Never with you.”

For everyone else goes unsaid. For everyone else, I have to. Jamie understands. Jamie can’t imagine what she’s been through, what she still goes through on days when the demons have sharpened their claws and come to call. 

She pulls at Dani now, easing her up on her knees, guiding her back down onto Jamie’s lap. Hands at Dani’s hips, she urges her to rock, to slide a hand around Jamie’s neck and press her forehead into slick skin and give herself up to Jamie’s hand between them. It’s satisfying, how Dani sighs and arches, how Dani hisses when Jamie sucks a fresh mark into her neck. It’s satisfying, Dani’s hair plastered with sweat, her mouth a red smear as she kisses Jamie hard, her hips bucking as she rides plunging fingers. 

Undone, thinks Jamie with an unbidden sense of pride. It’s the one thing Dani refuses to be most of the time, the one thing Dani seems to fear anyone thinking of her as. Undone. Untethered. Incapable of holding firm. 

Here, in this bed, Jamie’s name on her lips, Jamie’s mouth on her skin, Jamie coaxing her toward a break, is the only time she allows it. The only time her discipline slips. Here, pushing Jamie down, holding her with a hand firm against her sternum, gazing down at her with lidded eyes as she bucks, writhes, comes with a long cry, is the only time she truly lets go. 

It’s an art, the way Dani holds herself in front of others. An art, making sure no one can ever see what lurks behind her smile--be it demon or defense against a cruel world. It is, as art is meant to be, gorgeous to behold, fascinating in its clarity. 

But this: Dani allowing herself to slide up the bed, to lower herself down over Jamie’s mouth, gripping the headboard with one hand and Jamie’s hair with the other, is something else entirely. Dani, allowing herself the slow climb, the roll of hips as her knees press into the pillow, as Jamie spreads her with tongue and hot want, is truly herself in these moments. Not haunted. Not poised. She is only taut muscle, trembling limb, breathy exuberance. She is only Jamie’s, the only way Jamie would ever ask her to be. 

Three years down, who knows how many more to come, and there will be shadows. There will be things they cannot carry into the dark, and days neither feels strong enough to walk the road ahead. There will be times Dani’s control will feel like the only thing keeping her hand in Jamie’s, the only thing keeping her from abandoning this life they’ve built for the ease of terror. And there will be times like these--times in bedrooms and hotel rooms, times with Dani nodding off against her as a movie plays, times where Dani leans back and lets Jamie look beneath the bed for monsters. Times where she will walk with eyes closed into whatever garden Jamie leads her.

And on those days, she will look exactly as she does the morning after: Jamie’s shirt buttoned badly over bare skin, a mark peeking out from beneath the collar, her eyes tired and her hair wrecked. She will stumble out of the bedroom in search of coffee, find herself distracted by Jamie on the couch with slow kisses that feel like a challenge. There will be no rap at the door, no intrusion on the space built so carefully between them, and Jamie will feel as though there is nothing so close to equilibrium as Dani folded with her in the quiet of their living room, her fingers in Jamie’s hair, her lips tracing Jamie’s cheeks. 

There is no version of Dani Clayton Jamie does not adore. No version of her--brave, frightened, miserable, thrilled--Jamie cannot love. She learned it early, and she learned it well: there is nothing Dani can be she isn’t uniquely designed to crave. 

Still. This version, the one who sits astride her on the couch with hands cupping the back of her head, tilting Jamie backward until she meets laughing eyes. This version, bare-legged and moving in with slow deliberation as she bends and teases Jamie’s lips apart with soft curl of tongue. This version, sleepy and happy and warm as she molds her body to fit every curve of Jamie’s. 

This one, this version of Dani shared with no one else, is a triumph. The truest art. Worthy only of Jamie’s unending gratitude. 

She kisses, and allows herself to be kissed, and thinks there is no place Dani is better suited than right here.