you’re barely awake when the delicate press of lips against the curl of your shoulder registers as dani. you wake up in stages to the familiar, comforting weight of her arm across your stomach, the gentle wash of her breath along your neck. you’re wrapped in warmth with dani holding you close, letting the full length of her body slot into the space behind yours like she was always meant to be there. there’s a second kiss, this time to the curve of your neck, and dani’s light, delighted hum as you shift, as you reach blindly for the hand settled at your hip, is still your favourite sound. or, your favourite sound amongst a collection of favourite sounds. sounds only you get to hear. she kisses you a third time, lacing her fingers with yours and letting her lips press against the line of your jaw “morning.” she murmurs, her lips brushing against the shell of your ear and sending a cascade of shivers down your spine.
you haven’t even opened your eyes yet.
you wouldn’t even say you’re fully awake either. sleep still tugs at your edges, dreams fade along the backline of your mind and you drift along this in between space for a while. to be, to simply exist like this, in dani’s arms, has taken practice, has taken getting more used to than you’d care to admit. years and years alone left you unpracticed in the art of the slow morning. understanding that the press of chores and tasks can withstand some delay, especially on a sunday, especially with dani holding you, has come with time.
“’m awake.” you promise at last, and a rumbling laugh settles in dani’s chest as she presses a kiss to the nape of your neck.
“sure you are.” she teases.
“i am.” you protest weakly “’m talking and everything.”
“you sure are.” dani says, and her hand comes to your hip with a pressure that relents when you roll onto your back.
you barely manage to stifle a groan as dani shifts her weight across you.she settles herself low on your hips and leans forward, one hand still tangled with yours and the other coming to your jaw. she kisses you again, deeply, her teeth tugging at your lower lip and pulling a needy moan from your throat “christ,” you nearly croak, eyes fluttering open so the first thing you see today,
“hey,” she smiles, “how you doing?” she asks the question so innocently, so plainly, as if she hasn’t just kissed you senseless, as if she isn’t straddling you.
“i’m good,” you start, decidedly not figuring out how to describe being three quarters awake and wildly turned on “how about you? sleep well?” your voice pitches and it’s a struggle to keep yourself even keel, to pretend that this is a totally normal and not at all arousing way to wake up.
dani shrugs “slept okay.” she answers, before leaning down and kissing you languidly.
you swipe your tongue along her bottom lip, pressing inside as she parts them. this, you know, you could happily do forever. you could spend all morning, all day, always, with dani’s weight settled comfortably on top of you, her hair falling like a curtain to one side, tickling your neck and shoulder. when she pulls back, you’re breathing hard and dani matches. her forehead comes to rest against yours, “i love you.” she says, her voice lust-filled, sure, but there’s something deeper, something raw in the way she speaks that you savour.
“i’ve noticed.” you reply, heart skipping a beat when that pulls a laugh from dani, a genuine laugh that fills the room and warms your soul. she leans back for a moment, running a hand through her hair and smiling, content and happy and the furthest from haunted you’ve seen her in a long time, before she leans down and kisses you again.
four years, you think, four years and kissing dani still reminds you of that first time. the same army of butterflies more familiar now, more welcome, still swoop into life as you kiss her.
when you part, seconds, minutes, hours later, you add “i love you too.” because dani knows, you know that dani knows that you love her – but telling her? oh you’ll never get sick of that, of the smile that it draws to her face and the soft way she leans forward, her nose brushing against yours and says softly,
you say it too, for this reason. for the unspoken weight of emotion in dani’s voice, the way her eyes flutter shut for half a moment, maybe less, as if she’s memorizing your voice, your words.
you let a hand, your free hand, come to her side, skating down the length of her torso until your fingers play against soft bare skin “we can keep this going?” you offer, hand slipping up, slipping under the hem of her shirt. there’s the shudder of her inhalation as you trace inconsequential patterns along the ladder of her ribs. down again your hand slides, this time coming to her waistband, an offer, a question.
“we were going to try that new cafe.” dani mumbles, kissing your jaw at the same time that her hips roll against your hand “the really popular one that always has a line.”
“oh, well if you’d rather do that-” you start to pull your hand back, unable to bite back a grin as dani’s hand grabs your wrist, stilling you.
“i didn’t say that.” she says, guiding your hand beneath the waistband of her shorts “didn’t say that at all. it’d be pretty mean of me to start something and not finish it.” dani says, one thigh slipping between yours, pressing hard and fast against you and drawing a sharp intake of breath from your chest.
she’s done it before.
she’s gotten you all wound up before dragging you out, dragging you for a walk, or to the farmers market or some other errand that was exponentially more boring given how turned on you were.
“it would be-” you start to say, but you’re touching dani now, feeling just how wet she is, hearing the sharp hiss as you oh so slowly push a finger inside her “fuck,” you murmur “you’re soaked.”
all this time and you can still do this to her.
dani rolls her hips and leans down to kiss you again “i bet you are too.” she replies, voice rough with arousal.
“why don’t you find out?” you challenge, and dani’s eyebrow quirks, her eyes alight.
“patience.” she teases, rocking her knee forward against you, but her voice wavers as you start to move your hand, a thumb brushing along the sensitive bundle of nerves.
her eyes flutter, almost shut and you bite your lip, barely trying to hide the smile,
oh you can show her patience.
by the time you’re locking the apartment door and walking down the too steep steps, fingers tangled with dani’s, it is what one could generously call lunch time. the sun is high in the sky as you emerge onto the pavement and a distant pang swells in your chest as dani’s hand fall away from yours. it’s just not safe for that kind of affection. not when one opinion, one judgemental look from the wrong person could ruin everything. but, just as quickly, dani is next to you, bumping her shoulder into yours and tugging her sunglasses down over her eyes saying “i’m starving.”
you can’t help but laugh, passing the dressed windows of the store,
and watching your reflections. dani, the closer to closer to the window, is radiant. you can see it in her reflection, you see it in her now. there’s a lightness to her step that isn’t always there and “who’s fault is that?” you ask, as glass becomes brick and you glance over at dani with a raised eyebrow.
“who followed me into the shower?” dani retorts, her voice dropping to a whisper as you pass a couple walking their fleet of small dogs. and she has a point, you’d followed her into the shower and dani had pressed you up against the tiles and, well,
things had carried on, delightfully, from there.
“oh please,” you snort, because yes you had followed dani into the shower but “who was the won who woke me up all,” you gesture towards her “you know.” you would call her out on being horny quite literally before you were awake, but not as you approach a group of people loitering outside the diner
“oh i remember.” dani says, smirking.
“are you complaining?”
“oh yeah.” you nod “i’m definitely complaining. can’t you see how upset i am about our morning.” you knock your elbow against dani’s and glance in her direction just in time catch the rolling of her eyes behind the sunglasses.
“next time,” dani says with a shrug and a teasing “i’ll just help myself.”
“don’t you dare.” you reply, coming to a stop in front of the cafe and eyeing the packed interior.
bean and bread, new in town as of a month ago, has quickly become a local favourite. or, that’s what literally everyone who’s come into the flower shop has told you, or dani, or both. even the local paper had done a write up on the artisan breads and responsibly sourced coffee. one look at the review had made you roll your eyes and reach for the scissors; owen would love the sound of this place.
and he had, calling as soon as he got your letter, demanding to know if you’d been there yet. when dani had told him no, he sounded practically despondent and demanded that you do.
so here you are.
“i’ll wait out here.” dani says, eyeing the inside of the bean and bread.
“you sure?” you ask “if you want to go in,” you offer “i don’t mind waiting.”
“go,” dani says, nudging you towards the door “go find out if they make tea properly.”
“this is america,” you reply “no one makes tea properly.” you remind her, remembering the first time dani had bought you an iced tea. she’d watched you take a sip with such delight in her eyes that you didn’t bother to hide your reactions.
“christ,” you’d spluttered “how much bloody sugar’s in this?”
dani had laughed and laughed and that, that was one of the first times you knew you were in love.
all the same, you wander inside the cafe. what hits you first is the smell, coffee and baked goods and for half a second you’re taken back to bly, to those rare early mornings when owen – restless from a poor nights sleep – would arrive at bly and make coffee, muffins, pancakes, anything and everything.
a display case near the till has an assortment of baked goods, some you can name, some you recognise and a few you’ve never seen before. there’s the whirring of coffee machines, a dull roar of chatter and the clanking of silverware against plates and cups against tabletops. you’re not sure there’s ever been so many people in one place in this town. you notice though, a healthy mix of tourists in the fray. obvious in their varied accents and the way they seem to shout to be heard. one woman, overdressed in a thick purple jacket, pushes past you towards the door, a croissant in one hand.
“rude.” you mumble, but the word is lost the crowd.
you’re standing in the queue, have been for the past couple of minutes, and are in the middle of deciding how many pan au chocolate is too many when you chance a glance outside. there are cars rumbling down the streets, people walking along the pavement, but what catches your attention. what you see,
she’s standing almost exactly where you left her, but the relaxed posture from the walk over here is gone. her back has gone ram-rod straight, her hands are shoved deep into the pockets of her, or is that your, denim jacket. she seems to be speaking to someone but there’s a poster in the way and you catch a glimpse of a purple jacket, but -
you stand there, oblivious to the shift forward of people in line, watching as dani clenches her jaw before she speaks. you see her shoulders are back, her tension palpable from here. you want to go, you want to go outside and see what’s going on but, but you stop yourself. dani is more than capable of handling herself.
you inch forward in line.
you think two pan au chocolate is enough.
you glance back out the window.
dani is taking a step back as whoever she’s speaking too takes a step forward. but what gets you,
what sends your stomach to your boots and a white hot anger alighting through your veins, is the way the stranger seems to slap at dani’s chest. one hand coming down, making contact,
you’re not having it.
you edge out of line, weaving quickly through the crowd with your heart pounding in your chest. you step outside into the sun and look left just in time to -
you watch it happen almost in slow motion. a woman, the purple jacket, croissant holding woman who had pushed past you inside, is standing in front of dani. the expression on her face is nothing short of fury and you watch, just too far away to help as the woman raises her hand and slaps dani. you hear it, hear skin on skin and watches dani’s head snap to the left. you watch her take a surprised step backwards and bring a hand to her cheek.
“oi!” you shout, and you don’t care how thick your accent has become, you don’t care that people are staring “who the hell do you think you are?” you ask, stepping in between this woman and dani. you bring one hand to dani’s arm, turning to look at her. you see the heave and fall of her chest, a redness already blooming across her cheek. when you look in her eyes dani’s gaze is locked forward. more alarmingly you see a look you’ve never seen before, and would like to never see again.
you glance back at the woman, preparing to ask your question again, but it’s dani who speaks.
it’s dani’s whose trembling hand comes to your shoulder, half trying to pull you back. you don’t budge, but when dani speaks, you’re left speechless.
“jamie,” dani says carefully, her voice softer than you’ve ever heard it “jamie, this is my mom.”
you blink quickly, pieces coming together.
the fact that the woman you just saw slap dani, is, apparently, her mother. it doesn't make sense, not in your head. what is dani’s mum doing here? how? why? you have a thousand questions but,
but you push them aside. you take a steadying breath and turn so you’re standing in front of dani, so your back is to her mother. you itch to take her hand, to provide some sort of physical comfort but,
but you can’t.
not in public.
“do you want to go?” you ask her, speaking only to her.
“danielle,” and that’s dani’s mum, her voice sharp, acrid “danielle, who is this woman?”
you almost turn to face dani’s mum. you almost turn around but you know that if you do, if you face her, you’ll start saying things you shouldn’t, and right now, right now your only priority is dani. so you keep your back to this angry woman and you wait for dani to tear her gaze away from her mothers and meet yours.
“you don’t owe anyone, anything.” you tell her, promise her.
“excuse me,” and dani’s mum’s voice is getting more high pitched “just who do you think you are? speaking to me like this.”
anger boils over and for all your self control, you whip around “i’m not talking to you.” you say, fighting against every instinct you have that says shout, that says be loud. instead you keep your voice firm, you keep your voice steady. you meet dani’s mums gaze and say “i’m talking to dani.”
and then you turn around.
you half expect to get hit, really, you do. you’re prepared for it. this certainly wouldn’t be the first time someone hit you while your back was turned.
but it doesn’t happen.
instead it’s sharp “danielle tell this woman to leave, right now.” that makes dani jump and you burn with anger.
you know she won’t.
you know she won’t but a part of your heart still braces for it anyway.
dani shakes her head once, it’s a movement stopped before it’s even started but her gaze flickers to her mum, then back to you “can,” she starts, taking a trembling breath “can we go?”
your heart breaks and you nod once “course we can.” you say, hearing but not listening as dani’s mum splutters behind you.
dani takes a wavering breath, and starts to turn. you don’t look back, you ignore the woman and everything she’s spewing. you focus instead on the unsteady rise and fall of dani’s chest, on the way her fingers are curled into fists. you bring a hand to the small of her back, the touch lingering for a moment, maybe less, but you let your hand press there, let dani feel the reassurance of your touch. you need it, but more importantly, dani needs it. reassurance for her has always been tactile. it’s been your forehead against hers, it’s hands tangled together, it’s fingers splayed across her chest, guiding her breathing.
you can’t do any of that now.
you walk, half a step behind dani, waiting for her to stop, to turn around, to look over her shoulder.
it doesn’t happen.
you’re listening for angry footfall, for shouting getting closer, getting louder, for that woman to try and lay a hand on dani again.
it doesn’t happen.
instead, instead dani almost marches home.
anyone else might peg her for angry with the resolute set of her jaw, but you know better. you know dani better than anyone. where others see anger, you see the trembling in her chin, the shine in her eyes as she fights back tears. you track the way her breathing becomes more and more erratic and her hands curl and unfurl quicker and quicker. by the time you’re once again passing the windows of the shop,
your shop, the shop you share with dani,
her radiance is gone. you see tension, you see hurt and heartbreak and hear fingers fumbling with the key as she tries to get it into the lock. her breath hiccups and you cover her hand with yours, taking the key from her “let me.” you say gently, as gently as you dare.
dani nods once, the motion short and sharp. she drops her hand, but you follow. you let your fingers ghost over hers, lingering there by her side as you push the door open. the comfort of home is close enough, the privacy of the too step stairwell sanctuary enough for dani as the door closes behind you both. when she exhales, dani chokes on your name and sags backwards against the wall.
“hey,” you say “hey, i've got you.” you promise, surging forward.
“she,” dani exhales and her breathing has all but dissolved “she-i-,” dani shakes her head.
you’re reminded of bly all over again.
you let your hand slide to dani’s hip and cup her cheek with the other “look at me.” you say, “dani, look at me.” you use her name, say dani’s name in the half darkness of this stairwell to catch her attention.
dani’s wild gaze centres on you “jamie.” she gasps “jamie, jamie.” she says your name each time getting more and more desperate.
“you’re safe.” you promise, finding dani’s hands with your own, not letting her dig clipped nails into palms any longer “dani,” you say her name again “you’re safe.” you watch her nod, and you try not to let your seething anger boil over as you look at the hand-print mark on her cheek “but you’ve got to slow your breathing down.” your words are steady and calm, reassuring in all the ways you have learnt to be for dani.
dani nods, but the movement is disjointed, unsteady. you watch as she tries, as she fights against herself.
her own mother did this to her.
you burn at the thought.
“jamie,” dani says, in between slower breaths “jamie, i-i can’t.”
you step closer still, so your hips are nearly flush against dani’s “you can.” you counter gently “i know you can.” you bring a hand to her chest, pressing the flat of your palm there “breathe into my hand.” you tell her, watching as she forces an exhalation “there you go. keep doing that.”
normally, when panic sets in, you find a joke, you find a way to make dani laugh, to make her smile.
this feels different.
this isn’t, a customer accidentally knocked the supply cupboard shut when she was inside so you make jokes about dani coming out. this is, this is dani’s mum. who slapped her.
who turned up out of the blue, here, of all places and bought a croissant and ran into her daughter and,
you’re not unfamiliar with violence where there should be love, affection. but this, your mind tries to piece together the morning, one of the best mornings, with dani curling into you now, burying her head in your neck.
“do you want to go upstairs?” you ask gently.
dani nods once, twice, and you wrap an arm around her waist again. you pull her into your side and you take the stairs together, one step at a time. you want dani inside, you want her sat down. you want her in the comfort and safety of home,
the home you share with her. a safe space away from the world, away from everything.
[or, nearly everything. you know the lady lurks in the shadows.]
“let’s get this off.” you say into the soft silence of the apartment, hands coming to the collar of dani’s jacket, guiding it off her shoulders, off her completely.
dani lets out a wavering breath, shaking her head and biting her lip. she looks lost, swimming in a torrent of emotions you can’t even begin to try and understand. what you can do, what you find yourself able to do for dani now, is take her hand, guide her into the living room and onto the couch. you know that you how to be sturdy, and strong, and that you can keep dani from getting too deep into her own darkness. you slot yourself into the space next to her, one hand tangling with one of danis. you grip her hand and say,
“what she did wasn’t right.”
dani’s breath catches in her chest, and for a moment you’re not sure if you’ve said the right thing. an old and familiar uncertainty, or the echo of it, shifts in the back of your mind but,
“i didn’t expect her to slap me.” dani says, her gaze fixed on the coffee table, still shining and bright with tears she’s fighting “i-, she was walking past and i recognised her. i saw her and i didn’t think she recognised me but then,”
you can picture it happening, the woman stopping, spinning around, saying dani’s name with an air of disbelief.
“and then she was just mad. asking me how i could leave, how could i not tell her i had come back.” she shakes her head “like i, like i owe her anything.” dani’s voice is trembling, her grip tightening around your hand and,
and she’s angry, you realise.
amongst all the other emotions she must be feeling, you realise that dani is angry.
“i told her that,” dani admits, after a moment “i told her i didn’t have anything to tell her. that she’d never cared before and that, she didn’t like that.” you hear the sardonic laugh in dani’s voice, hollow and heavy “she tried to tell me that she’s my mother. that i owed her because she raised me.” dani swallows hard “i told her she didn’t do that. that judy did that more than she ever did.” dani exhales “and then she slapped me.” you remember the slap. you remember hearing it, watching it. you remember the anger that flooded your system when it happened “and then you were in front of me. shouting at her. i thought-” dani grips your hand “i thought she would try to hit you. or, i didn’t know if she would and i didn’t know for certain that she wouldn’t. that’s why i was pulling you back. i didn’t want-.”
“i wasn’t going to let her hit you again.” you interrupt, voice steady, calm amongst dani’s turmoil “that’s why i stayed put. i couldn’t, wasn’t going to let her do that to you again.”
“thank you.” dani says “for, for that. for getting me home.”
you bring dani’s hand to your lips, pressing a gentle kiss along the ridges of her knuckles “you don’t have to thank me.” you tell her “what was i gonna do, leave you out there?” you exhale and then “course i had to get you home, you’re the one with the keys.” that gets a wet laugh from dani and a smile flickers across her face “there we are.” you say gently, reaching with a free hand for dani’s chin.
she tilts her head obligingly and you study the redness, running a finger along its edge “does it hurt?” you ask softly, eyes flickering up to dani’s as the question escapes.
dani half shakes her head but you quirk an eyebrow and, “a little.” she admits “it aches more than hurts. she, she really-” dani shakes her head again and you fill in the rest of that sentence in her silence.
she really hit me.
you guide dani toward you, kissing her as tenderly as you know how. her unsteady exhalation washes over you, her hand curls along your forearm to your elbow and you sink into this moment. you lose yourself in reassuring dani with a series of drawn out kisses, one thumb running along her cheek as gently as you can.
seconds, minutes, whatever,
you say “i think we’ve got some frozen peas. if you want?”
“you think it’ll help?”
“it’s helped me.” you say “helps with all kinds of bruises.” and you say it without thinking, without fully realising the implications of what you’ve said but -
but where anyone else would let pity flash in their eyes, dani just turns her head into your palm, pressing a kiss there and nodding once “if you think they’ll help.” she says “why not?”
you nod “i’ll get them,” you tell her “and then i will go get us breakfast.”
“you don’t have to.” dani counters “we can just eat here.”
you laugh “need i remind you poppins, we have nothing but bread and jam in the house. and that’s breakfast if you’re fifteen and running late for school.” that pulls another smile from dani and it’s enough to get you off the couch and moving towards the kitchen “you stay here and i will go back to that cafe and get us breakfast.”
dani, turning to watch you move into the kitchen asks “are you sure? i can come with.”
you wouldn’t make her do that, not with the looming and unexpected threat of her mother lurking at any given street corner.
pulling the peas out, you wrap them carefully in the tea towel “i’ll be okay.” you promise, walking across the space and leaning over the back of the sofa to hand the peas to dani “i’ll be quick.”
“not with that line you won’t.” dani replies, and you roll your eyes, happy to hear some of your dani back in her voice.
“i’ll be as quick as i can then.” you amend, kissing her forehead.
you stand, but dani’s hand curls around your arm and she’s pulling you back down, slipping the peas away from her face to kiss you again, fiercer now.
“i love you.” she says.
your stomach summersaults the way it did that first time she told you those three words, and you kiss her back. you’re smiling against her and replying only when you need to breathe “i love you too you know.” you mumble, lips brushing against her non-injured cheek.
dani nods, one hand bringing the tea towel clad peas back across her cheek and kissing your jaw “i know.” she says “i don’t think i’ll ever forget it.”
“good.” you smile, standing fully again “and you’ll love me even more after i come back with that, what was it?”
“raspberry cheese danish.” dani supplies “and according to the paper the cinnamon rolls are to die for. or, that’s what owen said the article said. i never actually read it.”
“who needs to when we’ve got him?” you say, catching sight of dani swallowing hard as you’re halfway to the front door “poppins?” you ask, pausing.
“i was just thinking,” dani says, voice inching back toward that hollow, sad place “what if you see her?”
no question who that is.
“so i see her.” you exhale “and i tell her not to lay a hand on you again. and i tell her that you’re an amazing, kind, incredible person despite her, not because of her.”
“jamie,” dani exhales, “you can’t-”
“i know.” you nod, it’s too dangerous. your life, happy and homey, hinges on a secret “i’ll just scare her off with my accent instead. how does that sound?” dani nods, and she knows you’re kidding, she knows you’re saying it just to make her smile, but you have a question of your own “what,” you say the carefully “if i do see her, and she sees me, what would you want me to say?”
to this, dani pauses, biting her lip and genuinely considering “tell her i’m happy.”
your heart swells and you smile softly in dani’s direction, nodding once “anything else?”
dani shakes her head “she doesn’t need anything else.”
you move back across the room, two hands cupping dani’s face and kissing her again, forehead pressing against hers you try to tell her all the things you can not voice. you linger there long enough to make her relax back into the couch, and you’re half reassured that she won’t spend the entire time you’re gone wondering if you’ve run into her mother.
the purple jacket is nowhere to be seen and you return home laden with two lattes, two pan au chocolate, the raspberry cheese danish as requested by dani, the cinnamon rolls as insisted on by owen from an ocean away and, to your delight, a sausage roll. of the haul, that is the one you are most excited for, and you announce this to dani as you walk through the door.
“i take it back,” you say “every skeptical word i’ve ever said about the place, i take it back.” dani, sans peas, looks at you from the couch with an eyebrow raised.
“okay,” she starts “i’ll bite. why?”
“two words.” you grin at her, placing the paper bag down on the kitchen counter “sausage rolls. and they smell amazing. and don’t worry,” you add “i got your danish and the cinnamon rolls, but this,” you hold out the flakey pastry “they better not mess this up.”
that brings a laugh, a genuine laugh from dani that warms your heart and shakes the last of the unexpected events from your bones “i’m almost scared for them if they get it wrong.”
you take a bite and it’s delicious and perfect and you wrap an arm around dani’s waist, pulling her close so she can take a bite as well. you know she’s not quite as enthusiastic about it as you are, but she smiles all the same. she leans forward and kisses pastry crumbs from your lips before turning her attention to the bag of baked goods, hunting for her danish. you watch her, with your free hand curling around your coffee, feeling its heat seep into your fingers, and reaffirm, as you have time and time before, that one day at a time with dani clayton, no matter how they come or whatever happens, is all you need.