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(you may be) my final match

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Sleep is the great refresh button on the world--once pushed, it sometimes wipes a little too much away--and Jamie finds herself somewhat unclear on last night’s events upon waking. She remembers wine. She remembers quite a lot of wine, in fact; maybe too much for one person left to her own devices. She remembers cleaning, keeping in constant motion to stay out of trouble--idle hands, she’d thought more than once, are no one’s friend. She remembers scrolling through photos, her heart too full to carry. 

She remembers a knock.

She remembers blue eyes, perilously bright. 

The keeper of those eyes had been in this bed, she’s sure--she can still smell Dani on the pillowcase, can still feel the weight of her against Jamie’s back--but Dani is here no longer. Dani has, once again, slipped out unnoticed. 

She’s getting too good at that for Jamie’s comfort. If Jamie had things her way, Dani would never leave without a see you soon again. 

Because she’s--because she’s in love with--

“Right,” she groans, her voice just a little too loud for the drumming in her head. “Right.”

The urge to stay in bed all day--to yank the covers up over her face until she suffocates under the weight of her own hangover--is enormously powerful. She might even lean into it, if not for the dim awareness that there is a...smell. A smell coming from the kitchen.

A smell that is decidedly too close to burning for Jamie’s liking, and all right, fuck, I’m up. 

“Dani?” She sure as fuck hopes so. If she’s stumbling out in underwear and last night’s shirt to a kitchen on fire, and it’s not Dani at the helm, this day is going to get a whole lot worse. “What are you...”

“Coffee?” Dani says brightly. A little too chipper, maybe, though Jamie suspects that’s the vague nausea talking. She sinks down at the table, watching Dani pour steaming liquid into two mugs. 

“S’that what you’re calling it?”

Dani makes a face, pushing a mug toward her until Jamie is forced to either wrap her fingers around the handle or allow Dani to ease it straight into her lap. “Try it. You might like it.”

“It’s coffee,” Jamie deadpans, taking a reluctant sip. Under Dani’s watchful eye, she furtively spits it back into the mug. “It’s...trying to be coffee.”

Dani shrugs. “I have my strong suits.”

“Is one of them burning right now in my oven?”

Dani winces. “I...may have over-crisped the bacon. And, um. The toast.”

She’s trying, Jamie recognizes. Trying much harder than on any of the many other days she’d woken up here, usually striving to keep Jamie in bed for as long as possible. Even without the sex, she’d nearly always woken first to find Dani still curled on the couch, blankets pulled up to her chin, feigning sleep. 

She’s trying today. And Jamie, whose memory of last night is still just a bit foggier than she’d like, can’t quite put her finger on why. 

You said things. She must have. She must have said something incredibly stupid, to explain the way Dani is looking at her right now. 

“You, uh. Skipped out on your date,” she says, groping along the fuzzy edges of memory for something helpful. “Didn’t you? Only, I hadn’t planned to see you last night. I think.”

Dani is wearing a faint smile, one which could be affectionate or awkward--Jamie genuinely can’t decide, at the moment. She lowers her eyes, sipping that god-awful coffee again, and grimaces. 

“Truly, you have a talent.”

“How much of last night do you remember?” Dani asks. To the point today, then. Jamie had been hoping this morning would grant a glimpse of early-days Dani, the one who sometimes went too pink and rigid to form complete sentences. 

This one--watching her with keen eyes, that faint smile around her lips, still wearing one of Jamie’s shirts--she finds herself quite unable to be anything less than truthful around. 

“Not much.” She watches Dani for signs--a twitch of brow, a pull of cheek, a bite of lip--that there is something to remember. Something huge, maybe. Something impossible to step back from, once released, maybe. “You, coming in unexpected. Me, being very...”

“Drunk,” Dani supplies. Jamie smiles thinly.

“Was gonna say, exuberant.”

“You weren’t, though. You seemed...” Dani seems almost embarrassed for her. How promising. “Sad.”

The urge to jump up from the table, move around the room, put a little distance between herself and Dani is almost undeniable. Jamie squeezes the mug as hard as she can, forcing a smile. 

“Sad? What’ve I got to be sad about?”

“I don’t know.” Dani leans in a little, her eyes magnetic. “You tell me.”

Tell me. Tell me, and stop pretending like you don’t know what I’m talking about. Talk to me, Jamie. She might as well come out and say it; the way she’s gazing at Jamie now, the sentiment is impossible to miss. Dani, hair a tangle, face clear of any trace of sleep, is not here to play games today.

“I,” Jamie says, and clears her throat. “I maybe underestimated a few things, when we made our deal.”

“When you pushed me to go out on dates,” Dani says. Jamie licks her lips.

“When I agreed to be, ah, your...friend. With unattached, feelings-irrelevant benefits.”

“Sex,” Dani says flatly. “When you agreed to just have sex, and not think about the consequences.”

The woman Jamie first met, the one who once awkwardly stammered that she’d like “the flowers with the soft petals, please”, is missing entirely from this table. Dani is no longer meek, a reduction of someone else’s desires. Dani is looking at her like she can wait all day for Jamie to get her shit together.

“Like I said,” Jamie says, tilting her head back to stare directly at the ceiling. “May have underestimated some things.”

***

It’s clear from the minute Jamie stumbles out, one hand in her hair, her eyes wide, she has absolutely no memory of last night. No idea what Dani almost told her. No idea what she’d looked like, asking Dani to stay. 

Which isn’t funny. It’s very much not funny. There’s a thin panic in the way Jamie is looking around the kitchen, as though hoping the fog of alcohol will lift if she just stares her kettle down hard enough, and it really, really isn’t funny

Sweet, though. Definitely sweet. Like the expression on her face when she says, “May have underestimated some things” and stares blankly into the overhead light. Dani honestly hadn’t known she was capable of looking so nervous. 

If only your fans knew. “Would it be easier,” she says, her heart in her throat, “if I went first?”

“Please.” Jamie expels a shaky breath, pushing up from the chair and walking a jagged lap to the living room and back. Dani watches her, unable to repress a smile. She’s always thought of Jamie as the centered of the two of them, the one who has defeated all of her demons and is not subject to fear the same way Dani is. Seeing her like this now, half-dressed and bewildered, is...

“I didn’t do anything last night,” she says. “With Anita. I mean--I thought about it, I guess. Thought about inviting her upstairs, even.”

Jamie looks sharply up. “But?”

“But I realized it wouldn’t have been fair. To her. To me, either, really. Because you can’t spend an entire date with a woman...thinking about somebody else. Can you?”

Jamie doesn’t look as though she’s breathing. Doesn't look like she’s going to interrupt, either, for which Dani is grateful. If she stops talking, she’s never going to get this all out.

“I mean, that just reduces her to an idea, doesn’t it? Someone pretty and...and not quite there. Because your head is so full of the person you actually want to be spending your night with. And that isn’t fair, is it? It’s not fair to want someone else so much that you just...spend your time comparing every other woman in the world to...”

Jamie is almost certainly not breathing. Her posture is rigid, her shoulders back, and she is looking at Dani like she’s never quite seen her before.

“It isn’t,” Dani says firmly. “Fair. To put someone else through that again. Is it?”

“No,” Jamie replies. “No, suppose it isn’t.” 

Dani closes her eyes briefly. Smiles. “Broke the rules, haven’t I?”

“Yes,” Jamie breathes. “Yes, and I think we--I think we have a problem now.”

Now. Dani almost laughs. “We do?”

“Yeah.” She’s never seen Jamie look this nervous. Not once in seven months have Jamie’s eyes been this wide, Jamie’s mouth twitched this way, Jamie’s throat bobbed with such a hard swallow, Dani wants only to kiss her calm again. “Yeah, because I, uh--”

She’s going to tell Dani to get out. She’s going to beg Dani to stay forever. Dani honestly isn’t sure which is more terrifying. 

“Rules,” Jamie says. “Broken. Very much so, I think.”

“For you, too?”

Jamie nods once. “Didn’t mean to. Know you deserve more than--”

“Deserve?” Dani repeats. “What do I deserve?”

***

What don’t you deserve? Jamie thinks desperately. Her head is a powder keg, her stomach roiling--the combination of anxiety, hangover, and Dani’s attempt at coffee is doing this moment no favors at all. 

And Dani, still, is just looking at her with eyes that challenge Jamie to explain herself.

“You didn’t come here looking for me,” she says, her voice pitching too high. “Right? You came looking for fun. For...for someone to have fun with. That’s why you picked me.”

You picked me like they all picked me, back when I still thought it was worth trying for, she can’t say. So many women, all of them looking for their own courage, their own peace of mind, and finding it in the ease of Jamie. Because Jamie looks the part. Because Jamie doesn’t make things more difficult than they need to be. Because Jamie is willing to just let things be easy.

And then walk away.

Why can’t she walk away?

"What do I deserve?” Dani repeats. Jamie closes her eyes to stop the world from swimming.

“Someone steady,” she says at last. “Someone stable. Someone who doesn’t look at a world full of people and see a million reasons to hide from them all.”

A scrape of chair, pushing back across tile. A pad of steps, too quick. Heading for the door?

Hands, taking hers. Fingers, looping around her own, until it’s hard to tell with eyes closed which belong to Dani and which to herself. 

“Do you want to hide from me?”

Jamie shakes her head, regretting it when pain pulses down her neck. Dani’s hands are sliding up her wrists, cupping around her forearms, blunt nails tracing the petals of the flower inked into her skin. She shivers. 

“Do you want me to tell you what I think I deserve?”

Jamie nods. If she just doesn’t look, she thinks. If she just doesn’t look at Dani’s face, she can pretend there is no pity in those pretty blue eyes.

“I deserve great sex.”

Jamie can’t help it--her eyes fly open of their own accord, her brows raising. Dani has never looked quite so determined, quite so certain that what she is saying is right. 

“Sorry?”

“I do. I deserve great sex. And someone who listens when I talk. Someone who makes me laugh.” Her hands are shaking a little, wrapped around Jamie’s arms. Jamie shuffles an unintentional step forward, even as Dani presses on. “Someone who shows me what they like, and teaches me to look for what makes me happy in turn. Someone who drives me home at night, and waits for me to go inside before they’ll pull away. Someone who doesn’t mind if we don’t touch, or don’t talk, or don’t do anything except be each other’s company after a long day. I deserve that. Don’t I?”

Jamie nods. “You do, but--”

“And,” Dani says, in a tone of voice Jamie has long learned not to interrupt, “I deserve to decide for myself what I want. I deserve to choose my future. As much as anyone ever can. Don’t I?”

Helpless, heart slamming in erratic, painful beats, Jamie nods yet again. Dani looks almost satisfied. 

“Good. Now. What do you choose?”

Jamie looks at her for a long moment, taking in the messy hair, the sober expression, the utter lack of fear in her face despite all limbs trembling. She looks at Dani, and the only thing to do is smile.

“I want,” she says, terrified of the truth even as she’s forming the words, “to start doing something right.”

***

“Are you ever,” Hannah says, sounding exasperated, “going to let me set you up?”

“Probably not.” Dani glances up, trying not to look amused. “I’ll do the next best thing, though.”

“Which is?” Hannah frowns. “Miles Dominic Wingrave, if I see you flick that lighter one more time--”

“He likes it,” Flora pipes up from the floor at Dani’s feet, a doll in each hand. “He likes the splendid little snap when he closes it.”

“He’s going to like it much less when it’s living in my pocket,” Hannah says. Flora shrugs, her attention fluttering back to the task at hand, and Hannah’s eyes slide once again to Dani. “What is the next best thing, dear?”

“Letting you dress me for the date I’ve got tomorrow night?”

“A date,” Hannah repeats, delight blooming across her face. “You have a date?”

Second one in as many weeks, Dani thinks with dazed excitement. Who am I?

It had seemed silly, when Jamie proposed it. Dates, Dani thought, are for people who don’t yet know one another, who are testing to see if this new thing might be a worthwhile venture. She knows Jamie better than anyone in the world, and there is no contest in how well Jamie knows her in return.

She is, she is all but certain, actually in love with Jamie, as it happens. Do two people already in love really need to go on a first date?

I want to do it right, Jamie had repeated, when Dani laughed. From the start, this time. If that’s all right with you. 

She’d looked...different, saying it. Not afraid, like waiting for Dani to agree that she was wrong, somehow, that she was not enough, somehow--but not quite the usual Jamie, either. There is a middle ground between the Jamie of abject confidence and the one who told her entire life story with eyes firmly shut. A middle ground Dani is only just now starting to understand. 

Love someone with everything in you, she thinks, and there’s still more beneath the surface. Every time. It’s beautiful. 

“Excuse me,” Hannah says in her most polite voice. “But if you don’t explain yourself this instant, I’m afraid I’ll have to allow the children to tie you to a chair.”

“I...met someone.” Two someones, actually, but let’s not confuse her. “A while ago. I didn’t think it would work out, but she’s...”

Hannah’s eyebrows have hoisted themselves as high as possible. On the floor, Flora is pretending very badly not to be listening in. Dani rolls her eyes heavenward, choosing her words very carefully.

“She’s wonderful. She--we’re going to try, I think.”

“She’s nice?” Flora asks, sitting up on her knees and gazing at Dani like this is the best fairytale she’s ever been read. “And pretty?”

“Both,” Dani agrees. “Very.”

“And how long,” Hannah asks, “before we get to meet this young woman? Who is, I would hope, at least as charming as the young woman I had meant to introduce you to.”

She’s got that teasing glint in her eye, the one that makes Dani wish she’d had a big sister growing up. Flora, abandoning her dolls entirely, leaps up on the couch and bounces in place. 

“Yes! I want to meet your new girlfriend, Miss Clayton. Miles! Miles, did you know Miss Clayton has a girlfriend?”

“She isn’t--yet. Exactly.” A flush is working its way up her back, her tongue trying in vain to wrap itself around an explanation both truthful and palatable for an eight-year-old. “She’s...a friend. A really good friend, who I care for very much.”

“But she’s going to be your girlfriend!” Flora looks triumphant even as she upends the papers Dani has been failing to grade all over the rug. “Oops.”

“If she’s already a good friend,” Hannah says astutely, “why do you need my help in dressing for the occasion?”

Dani smiles, hoping the expression doesn’t look as terrified as it feels. “Because. I want to be...I want her to think--I want her to see--”

“Understood,” Hannah says, and Dani loves her so much, she can barely breathe.

***

“Oh, so it isn’t the date you had a problem with,” Owen says with mock-annoyance, arms crossed over his chest. “It’s my pick.”

“Are you going to continue being a complete prat about this, or are you going to help me?” Jamie demands. “’Bout crawling out of my skin just now, I do not need your sass on top of it.”

My--” He looks affronted--as affronted as a man can while grinning gleefully, anyway--stepping out of the way of her dedicated pace across the flat. “This one had better be incredible, is all I’m saying, or you’re missing out.”

“She’s...” How to explain Dani Clayton? “She’s a bit of a weirdo, if I’m honest.”

“What a glimmering evaluation.”

“No, I mean--she’s a bit of a weirdo, but she’s brilliant. Absolutely brilliant. And kind, and ridiculous, and stronger than I think even she realizes. She’s...” Owen is gaping at her. Jamie frowns. “What? Why’re you looking at me like that?”

“Six years,” he says. She makes a get on with it face, and he repeats, “Six years, I’ve known you. You know how many women I’ve heard you speak of this highly?”

“Oh, don’t--”

“None. Not a single bastard one. I didn’t know any better, I’d think you were in--”

“Owen, I invited you over so someone could keep me from going absolutely spare on my own. Not to nitpick my love life.”

“True,” he concedes, “but as your very best friend--”

“You are not my best friend.”

“--your longest-running friend, I am embracing my rights to call them as I see them while I help you into your...” He hesitates, lifting the garment bag from the couch. “Really? This is what you’re wearing?”

Jamie drops in a heap onto a kitchen chair, head in her hands. “This is a bad idea. Right? Me, on a date. Me. With her.”

“Hang on, I didn’t say--” He pauses, tipping his head, his smile faltering into soft astonishment. “You really want this to go well. Who is this girl?”

"She’s--” Everything. “She makes me feel like it’s worth it.”

“What is?”

Jamie looks at him hopelessly, wishing it didn’t all sound so insane in her head. “Trying. Looking like a fuckin’ lunatic, if I have to. Putting in the...”

“Effort,” he finishes, looking as though Christmas has just come early. “Christ, someone’s finally turned you into somebody who can’t help giving a damn.”

“Doomed, aren’t I?” she says, and is strangely reassured when he bursts into laughter. 

***

Doing this properly, Jamie had said, and stuck out her hand. Starting over. 

Which meant, quite simply: pretend, for one week, not to have an intimate awareness of one another. Pretend Jamie doesn’t have Dani’s order at any given restaurant memorized. Pretend Dani doesn’t know how to read the tension in Jamie’s smile, how to treat it with movies, or silence, or a long embrace on any given night. Pretend not to know how each moves around an apartment with the lights off, how Jamie sometimes utters pained little moans in her sleep, how Dani sometimes can’t fall asleep at all unless distracted from her own racing brain. 

Start fresh. Start over. For one date, pretend they did it right from the very start.

It sounded easy, when Jamie first made the proposition. One week. We meet on Saturday, 8 in the evening. We treat this like...

Like you haven’t already seen me naked a hundred times? Dani laughed then, and laughs again now, the sound sharp and wild in the silence of her apartment. Hannah has come and gone, right on schedule, a magician with a makeup kit and a dress Dani had nearly flinched from. 

“That? Really? You don’t think it’s too...I don’t know. Royal?”

“I think it’s time you embraced a little royalty, don’t you?” Hannah said, holding up the plum velvet, a neckline dipping low enough to show off clavicle and the barest hint of cleavage. A voice seemed to rise, a memory unbidden, to Dani: You have great shoulders. Should show them off. 

It certainly isn’t any more reckless than the insane dress she’d reluctantly donned for the faculty party, what already feels like a thousand years ago. It’s just that, for a first date, for a start fresh, this feels too magnificent to be allowed.

And, maybe, that’s the point. Maybe that was the whole idea of Hannah looking her over with appraising eyes, selecting a pair of gold earrings from her own collection and holding them out. 

“I don’t think,” Dani began, and Hannah shook her head. 

“For luck,” she said simply. Dani’s mouth crooked in a half-smile, her every muscle strung taut. 

“I didn’t think you believed in luck.”

“I believe,” Hannah said, patting her gently on the shoulder, “in anything that results in a brighter world.”

Dani checks her watch now, finds the time has come, and has to physically ward off a wave of absolute terror. She hadn’t felt like this, when it was Anita. Had felt nervous, yes--but the kind of nervous that precedes a new year of school. The distant butterflies of it’ll work out, either way. This? 

This feels like walking headlong into a hurricane.

She’s going to be early, if she keeps up this speed--a whirlwind of heel and dress and blackout fear--but every ounce of calm appears to have been left back at the apartment. She’s toying with the idea of walking herself in a huge loop--maybe swinging by Owen at the cafe for a quick chat, or over to the Wingrave house, or heading straight up to Jamie’s flat and saying, “Listen, this was stupid, let’s just do things our way like always”--when she rounds the corner and finds Jamie already waiting at the garden entrance. 

“Oh,” she hears herself say. “You’re here.”

“Thought you’d be early,” Jamie says easily. 

“So you decided to show up even earlier. Touché.” Early--and looking like... “You look...”

“Different,” Jamie supplies with a grin just this side of self-conscious. “Tryin’ something new, you might say. To go along with the whole...starting over thing.”

Something different, in this case, means a dress. She’s never seen Jamie in a dress before--this one tight enough to impress without restricting Jamie’s movements, all done in shades of burgundy--or stockings, or earrings beyond small silver pieces designed to stay out of her way. She’s never seen Jamie with lipstick, with her hair wound atop her head, with effort of this caliber put in, and suddenly, Dani is glad they’re starting from scratch. There’s something perfectly glorious about getting to give Jamie this kind of do-over. 

“Too much?” Jamie is hunching a little, hands behind her back, looking as though she isn’t entirely sure she’s called this game correctly. Dani swallows. 

“Perfect, I think. So, um. What’re we doin’?”

“I,” Jamie says, perking up, “am going to show you a secret.”

***

It seems like the worst idea in the world, all of it, right until the moment Dani appears from around the corner. Right until Dani--looking somewhat unreal, like someone plucked the version she’d felt uneasy being from the faculty party and the version she’d felt uneasy leaning into from her date the other night, and located a perfect middle ground somewhere in between--turned up with that unbelievably bright smile on her face. 

Everything’s the greatest choice she’s ever made, with Dani looking at her that way. Never has Jamie made a better decision. Never has she felt more at home in her entire life. 

Out of your fuckin’ mind, she reminds herself--and so what? Dani’s looking at her like some kind of gorgeous dream set here in the fresh shadow of evening, and so what if it makes Jamie feel more than a little crazy, to be standing here with barriers torn down?  

“A secret,” Dani says now, looking a little perplexed. “What kind of secret is in a public garden?”

“You’ll see.” She’s done a lot over the years, led a lot of women into a lot of spaces, but no one has ever come here. This is Jamie’s--public or not, it’s the first place she ever felt completely safe--and to bring anyone else past these walls had simply never occurred to her. 

“See,” she says, gesturing Dani through the gate, “the thing about a place like this is, everybody’s got their expectation. They come for the roses, or for the sunflowers, or for the fuckin’ daisies. But even a place like this has little hidden spots. Places nobody but the gardeners think to explore.”

The urge to take Dani by the hand is strong; not seeing her all week, not having touched her since that awkward Sunday morning with Dani asking what she wanted to choose, has been driving her up the wall. Still, she resists. You do the thing properly, she insists, which means not falling back on old habits just yet. It means giving Dani space to decide if this version of Jamie--as much as, or more than, the one who laughed in the face of feelings and truly believed a body was all that needed to be shared--is worth her time. 

She does not take Dani by the hand, but she can’t resist darting little glances at her as they walk. She half-expects to find Dani just gazing at her with open curiosity, but Dani’s eyes are roving over every plant they pass. 

“I like these,” she says unexpectedly. “Orchids. Did you know, when they’re at home in a tropical environment, they actually grow on trees?”

Jamie pauses mid-step, her mouth falling open. “Sorry--how did you know that?”

There is something equal parts sheepish and sly about Dani’s little half-smile. “Girl I like is into plants. Thought I’d do some research.”

This is it, thinks Jamie mildly, this is the thing that kills me. “You know, you’re already on the date,” she points out through a sharp increase in heart rate. “Don’t need to suck up.”

“But how else will I get you upstairs when it’s over?” Dani asks with such dripping innocence, it’s all Jamie can do not to pin her to the nearest tree. 

Dani does not spend the rest of the meandering walk illustrating her newfound knowledge of plants, for which Jamie is immensely grateful; she’s not sure she could survive Dani proving she’s spent god-only-knows how much time studying botany to impress her. Not while also vibrating with the awareness that they are rapidly closing in on her favorite spot in maybe the entire goddamned city.

“Here.” She stops, hands loose at her sides, waiting for Dani to stop gazing around in wonder. Dani, after a moment, does, her elbow rubbing lightly against Jamie’s. 

“Those...are on your phone,” she says, sounding a little breathless. 

“Ever seen them before? Maybe in your research?” Dani shakes her head. “They’re called moonflowers. Rare as fuck, near-impossible to grow with any kind of ease. Each bud blooms only once, then dies. Whole thing will need to be replanted in the spring. Real pain, if I’m honest.”

“But,” Dani prompts when she goes quiet, gazing at the soft white petals. She smiles. 

“But. I love ‘em. Can’t help it. There’s just something about how much effort they take. Something about knowing you’ve really done the thing properly, and that it isn’t going to last forever--but that it’s the most beautiful goddamned thing, while it’s here. Y’know?”

She waits for Dani to say, No, actually, that makes absolutely no sense. She’d be right to say it. Jamie thought so herself, working in this garden years ago--adrift in a brave new country, still smarting from her lost years behind bars, from the woman who had put her there and never looked back. She’d thought there was little point in working so fucking hard for something so fucking fleeting.

Life, though, isn’t it? the old man who paid her wages had said when she’d complained. Short, and stupid, and the most beautiful goddamned thing, while it’s here. 

“Sounds like a lot of work,” Dani says quietly, stepping nearer to the plant and brushing one flower lightly with the tip of her finger. “For a plant that only blooms once. Worth it, though.”

“It’s the only thing that’s ever made sense.” Too honest, maybe, but over half a year of hiding has warranted a little honesty. For Dani’s sake. For her own, too. “People are...”

“Draining,” Dani says. 

“They are,” Jamie agrees, “but it’s more than that. They’re unpredictable. They’re...there and gone, sometimes, before you’re ready. Enough people walk away, enough...seasons change and leave only dead plants in their wake, you sometimes start to wonder what’s worth bothering with. Be lying if I said I was ready for whatever this is. But I like you. More’n like. Reckon it’s like this moonflower. Some things, every once in a while, you just gotta jump for.”

Dani isn’t looking at the flowers anymore. There’s not much Jamie can do except square her jaw and swallow hard. 

“Wanted to show you this place,” she says in a voice considerably more brittle than planned, “because it’s the first time I think I ever understood that. The value of fragility. When I left...when I left England, came here, it was in the name of a fresh start. Thought I’d have to build a better wall, to survive it. And it worked. Sort of worked. For a while. But now...”

Dani’s hand cups lightly around her elbow, just enough for Jamie to sway into. 

“Never told anyone the stories I’ve told you. Not all of ‘em, not this way. If we’re doing this, I want you to know what you’re getting into. All of it.”

That’s enough, she thinks. Enough talking, and enough for Dani. First date. Starting over. This is all Dani needs to know. 

Dani, who doesn’t say a thing. Dani, whose other hand is gliding up, gripping Jamie a little harder. 

She’s smiling, Jamie registers, as she’s kissing her. Smiling so hard, she almost can’t do it properly at all. She’s all lipstick and soft sigh and the biggest grin she’s ever pressed into Jamie’s skin.

It isn’t the first, then. Can’t ever be the first again. The first time could never feel quite this much like coming home.

***

Dani imagines, even as she’s kissing Jamie in the garden, that the date is technically over already. That this is as far as Jamie planned for it to go: a beautiful flower, just blooming in the dark, and Jamie’s step off the ledge. This is it. They’ve done it.

“You didn’t really think that was it?” Jamie says, eyebrow arched. Dani nearly chokes on her laughter. 

“No, of course not. How silly.”

She lets Jamie take her hand, and while the idea of this evening is good in theory--fresh start, no expectations--it’s impossible to ignore just how right Jamie’s skin feels against her own. There is such a thing, she thinks, as overhyping a situation. This is better. This is sweeter. 

“Are we really supposed to be in here?” she asks, as Jamie leads her deeper into the garden. “Thought they closed at nine.”

“Former employee privilege.” Jamie winks. “Also, no, we’re absolutely not. Are you gonna tell?”

Dani shakes her head, grinning. The shadows are deepening with every step, but Jamie’s hand in her own is implacable. Jamie’s boots crunch comfortably over wood-chip and bits of stone, the path beaten into form by an endless stream of visitors over the years, and Dani falls into step almost without thinking about it. It’s easier, moving through the dark with Jamie. Easier, and somehow more exhilarating than any walk has ever been. 

“Nervous?” Jamie asks, and Dani doesn’t even have to think about it. 

“No. Not anymore.”

“You were, though? Wasn’t just me?”

Dani considers. “I...wondered if starting over was going to mean going back. To the beginning, to the part where it’s all...you know how, when you meet someone, you put on a mask? Put your best foot forward, even if it’s not real?”

Jamie looks for a second like she’s going to argue, to scoff, No, I don’t do that. “Of course. Got a whole fuckin’ Instagram account for that, don’t I?”

“I was afraid that was going to be...what this was. That we were going to pretend we didn’t know each other, that we were going to lose time faking it until it felt right.” Dani shrugs. “I don’t want to lose more time. Life is short. Life isn’t fair. I don’t want to waste anything I’m given, not anymore.”

Jamie smiles, gesturing her through a break in the trees. There, ahead of them, a silvery pond--maybe a lake; Dani has never really been able to tell the difference on sight--and a soft stretch of manicured grass. A blanket is held down with heavy stones, a basket waiting at its center. 

“You,” Dani says, grinning, “are the biggest romantic I’ve ever met.”

“Untrue.”

“Um. So true. Moonlit picnic? Flowers? Jamie. You’re wearing a dress.”

“Maybe this is how I want to start making promises,” Jamie says, almost absently enough for Dani to miss the quaver in her voice. Almost. “All cards on the table, right?”

“If we’re putting all the cards on the table...” Dani takes a seat, folding herself carefully down. “Hannah picked out this dress.”

“Hannah?” Jamie raises her eyebrows. “Hang on. Not--beautiful woman, eyes that’ll pierce the soul, stellar biceps?”

“Never really looked at her biceps,” Dani says, frowning. “Wait. You know Hannah?”

Jamie is starting to laugh. “We’ve met, yeah. Gym. And she was there the day I tried to get your phone back to you, at the school--”

“You never told me you went all the way to school for that.” 

“Did, yeah. Well, I didn’t have any other goddamn way of reaching you, did I? Kept your address under lock and bloody key.” Jamie isn’t quite looking at her, hands busy with an emerging spread of sandwich fixings, a bottle of wine, a tin of cookies. Dani stretches across to help. 

“It wasn’t because I didn’t want you to know,” she says quietly. “I just...thought it would be better. That you’d want to keep things...contained.”

“Contained,” Jamie snorts. “Sure. That lasted a whole goddamn month, didn’t it?”

“You made it a month?” Dani teases. “Impressive. Think I was gone by week two.”

Things should take time. Things would make sense, if only they could be parceled out chronologically--if a relationship of two decades was automatically designed to be stronger than one of two weeks. Dani knows better than anyone, how time doesn’t much care about logic, about common sense. 

“Hannah, huh?” Jamie is brushing against the hem of the dress, her fingers as steady as her voice is shaky. “I like it.”

Her eyes say quite clearly she isn’t simply talking about the dress. Dani tightens her grip around the bottle of wine, trying to steady her breath. All cards on the table. 

“We could just...go back to mine. After.”

“Don’t have to. If you’re more comfortable at my place--”

“We could,” Dani repeats. “Back to mine. I’d like...to show it to you. You’d be my first visitor, apart from Hannah.”

Jamie reaches for the bottle. “I’d be honored. After. Put a lot of work into dinner, as you can see, and I’ll not have you rushing me on to the sex.”

***

Dani has never been difficult to talk to. From the very start, it had seemed to Jamie as though they’d been here before--not sleeping together, maybe, but breathing the same air. Volleying conversation. Those eyes, from the first, had felt entirely too familiar. 

Even so, the conversation spilling over the night air is the easiest yet. She’s never thought of Dani as holding much back; certainly, with the complication of physical intimacy broached right off the bat, Dani had been anything but fearful. Still, now, Jamie recognizes just how much Dani has gone seven months without saying. 

It’s in the posture, in how her jaw seems softer, rounder, less firmly-held than ever before. It’s in the way her hands--not grabbing Jamie’s clothes, not winding into fists, not moving reflexively to her mouth--lay at rest in her lap. It’s in, most of all, the way she laughs. Dani has always had a great laugh, but this--head thrown back, voice recklessly loud--is unrepentant. 

“I think you’re my best friend,” she says, and though Jamie has heard the words before, she’s never quite processed them like this. Dani, a biscuit halfway to her mouth, saying it like she’d say, I think it’s going to rain tomorrow. Just the simplicity of fact. 

“Think you’re mine, too. Don’t tell Owen, though, he’ll be furious.” She pauses. “You don’t think that’ll complicate things? Us being...”

“I don’t know that we can make it any more complicated than it already was,” Dani says with a laugh. Jamie hums. 

“Fair enough. But what I mean is...he was your friend, wasn’t he? Before you got engaged, before any of that. And you...” Flinch at his name. Can’t imagine that being me. Can’t imagine you ever turning from me like that. 

Dani’s hand lifts hers from the blanket, turning it over, her nail tracing the lines of Jamie’s palm. “Do you remember what you said to me? At the very beginning?”

“Christ. Something smug and entirely too sexy, I imagine.”

“Two kinds of couples,” Dani says, clearly struggling to ignore this last. “The kind that coasts on a pretty fantasy, and the kind that prioritize one another in the story. That’s what you said.”

“Did I?” Jamie leans back, considering. “Clever of me.”

Dani swats at her, not quite willing to drop Jamie’s hand to do so. “You’re not a fantasy. You’re...rough. And sometimes snappy. And I truly don’t understand that thing you do, where you try to pretend you’re not upset for days until I corner you.”

“I don’t--”

“You do. And don’t think we’re not going to talk about it when you’re not wearing a dress that...makes me feel things about dresses that are very new.” Dani smiles. “But you’re also one of the sweetest people I’ve ever met. The best listener, by far. No one has ever made me laugh like you do, even when I’m having my worst kind of day. Eddie wasn’t...any of that.”

Jamie waits for her to seize up, for that old familiar tension to seep back into her shoulders, but Dani just shakes her head. Almost rueful. Almost as though embarrassed she’d wasted so much of her life on someone who didn’t fit. 

“Eddie wanted me to quit my job, did I ever tell you that?” When Jamie shakes once for no, she presses on. “He did. Talked me out of my second job, taking care of the Wingrave kids. Made me feel like I had to choose, constantly, between what he thought was right and what I wanted. You’ve never done that. Not once.”

“Not my place,” Jamie says uncertainly. “No one knows what you need like you do.”

“See, but that.” Dani’s face is brightening, an excited energy threading beneath the curve of her smile. “That is special. That is...my story is my own, with you. I get to share it, with you. I’ve never felt that before.”

Her hand is tightening around Jamie’s, her body inching closer along the blanket. They are, Jamie registers with a thrill of warmth, approaching a dangerous degree of contact. Any closer, and she’s not going to be able to begrudge Dani a thing. 

“What I’m trying to say,” she adds in a voice Jamie is hardwired to find evocative, “is there’s a difference between someone becoming your friend to get somewhere else, and someone becoming your friend out of love. I think we both know we didn’t plan this. I think...some kinds of gravity are just inescapable.”

“Gravity,” Jamie repeats, mouth going dry as Dani leans in. “Bigger than I planned, letting a nice girl into my bed.”

“How,” Dani asks against her lips, “do you think I feel?”

There’s a particular kind of gravity to this, too, Jamie thinks, letting her hands slide around Dani at last. A particular kind of inevitable to the way Dani is kissing her--with less desperation than expected, more that sweet easy conviction they’d been busy developing when Jamie had cut them off a month ago. Dani, before, had kissed like a woman drowning. Dani, before, had kissed like she’d only just learned she was allowed, and was trying madly to make up for decades of looking away from the impulse. Dani’s kiss had been a heady, wonderful thing, filling Jamie’s attention with hands and tongue and small, almost apologetic moans. 

Now, Dani kisses her like she’s been doing it all her life, and it is better than anything Jamie could have planned for. Better, because for the first time, Dani is holding nothing back--and it is making her not more frenzied, not more fevered, not more wild in Jamie’s arms, but more certain. Dani, urging her onto her back, curling against her as if toward a magnificent roaring fire, is moving like tonight--this moment--this one kiss--is the only thing that has ever mattered.

There are things, Jamie thinks, that only ever get better with time. Things that, once embraced, can only burn hotter, dig roots deeper, make a person stronger than they’d ever meant to be. 

Lost a lot of chances to understand that, over the years. Lost more than you’ll ever know, probably. But it brought her here. It brought her to Dani’s mouth, Dani’s soft sigh in her ear, Dani’s hand teasing her dress higher. 

Worth it

“We should go,” Jamie murmurs, even as she’s gripping Dani’s hip for balance. “We should go to yours.”

“Soon,” Dani promises, fingers applying gentle pressure until Jamie can’t resist a sharp gasp. “I want to enjoy this a little longer.”

***

Jamie holds her hand all the way home. It’s such a small, silly thing to fixate on, after everything else. After the way Jamie had groaned into her neck, her voice pitched just above the soft swell of waves, the brush of breeze through the grass. After the way Jamie had kissed her, hands firm at Dani’s back, pulling her close. After how Jamie had moved beneath her, all twisting hip and breathless laughter. Dani has missed it all more than she can say. 

She’s missed it, but somehow, she’s missed this most of all. Jamie’s hand. Jamie’s callouses, the lines of Jamie’s palms, the little scar on her thumb Dani can’t resist pressing into. 

“I like this,” she says quietly. Jamie glances up to her face, down to their hands, smiles. 

“Holding hands?”

“Not questioning it. Not worrying about who’s looking. Or what you’re thinking.” She squints. “What are you thinking?”

“Mostly about how I’m never going to be able to look at that garden quite the same way again.” 

“Oh, because you’ve never taken a girl to--”

“Nope,” Jamie interrupts, looking just a little too proud of herself for Dani not to love her. “Never.”

Never. Never did she take women up to her flat, and never did she drive them home at the end of the night, and never has she reeled back seven months for a first date to do it all right. So many never’s, with Jamie--and now Dani wonders if maybe she’s been compiling a list of never again, instead. Never again do I have to learn how to do this. Never again will I bring a strange woman into my bed. Never again, because Dani is already here.

Too early to ask. Too early, and she’s not sure she will, anyway. There are things that just aren’t important, when all stacked up beside the things that matter most. 

Like Jamie’s face, when she unlocks the door for the first time and flicks on the light. 

Like Jamie’s smile, unexpectedly radiant, her boots clicking over the floorboards. 

Like Jamie, hand still warm in her own, saying, “This is...”

“Not much,” Dani finishes. “Still kind of working on decorating. But it feels like me, you know?”

She’s been careful to make sure of it. Every book on the shelves holds a place of prominence in her heart. Every old movie--Hepburn, Grant, Gable, Bacall--brings her joy. Every photo was taken by her hand, most of them printed on the old shuddering HP LaserJet in the teacher’s lounge. The couch, she found at a flea market; the chairs, mismatched from a yard sale. 

The bed, entirely her own, and never shared. Not once. Not until tonight. 

She’d sort of expected Jamie to grab for her the minute the door was shut, to pull her close and return them at last to a state of familiarity, but Jamie is bending to remove her boots. Her hand rests comfortably on the little table beside the door, like she is not merely visiting for the first time, but coming home. When she straightens, her eyes are already roving, sliding over frame and lamp and the pile of magazines on the lopsided coffee table with interest. 

“Can I...?” She points to the entertainment stand, a little thing Dani had taken about five hours--with much swearing and a few wine breaks--to put together. Dani nods, arms wrapped around herself, thrilling on a level she can’t explain to watch Jamie trail her fingers lightly over an assortment of odd knick-knacks, a stack of DVDs, a tiny potted succulent. 

“Figured even I could keep that alive,” Dani says, when Jamie gives her a look that would be better suited to finding out Dani has been rescuing orphans from wells. “Harder than it looks, though. If you have tips.”

“You want those now?” Jamie wonders, sidling over. “Or after?”

“You did not just get turned on by the mere fact of me owning a plant.”

“I did not,” Jamie confirms. “Didn’t hurt, though.”

The wave of desire crashing over her when Jamie’s hands slide up her ribs is perfect and familiar. The wave of relief, so broad and fierce, it nearly bowls her over, is something else entirely. 

Didn’t think you’d be back, she thinks dimly, even as she’s losing herself in Jamie’s kiss. Didn’t think it’d be the same. She’d thought, in some distant corner of her mind, that Jamie would change it all. That Jamie would do it on purpose, as some kind of well-intentioned gift Dani never asked for. 

Jamie, though, this Jamie--dress and earrings and smoky eyeshadow--is still her Jamie. Still laughs the same way, when Dani drags a hand through her hair. Still groans exactly the same, when Dani pushes her gently against the back of an armchair, fingers tracing the line of her jaw. Still pushes back into her kiss like it’s all a bit of a dare, a bit of a promise, a bit of fun she has no desire to ever go without again.

“It’s all right,” she’s saying around kisses, her eyes rolling back when Dani’s hand works its way around the back of her dress and squeezes. “If you--if you just wanna--”

“You’re going to say talk, aren't you?” Dani leans back, surveying the flush of Jamie’s cheeks, the smudged quality of makeup that still feels new and lovely and sort of unacceptably not Jamie. It’s all her, and it’s all someone she’s crafted for Dani tonight, and Dani wants to strip it all away until the only thing left is the woman she couldn’t help falling in love with. 

“No,” Jamie says, quite calmly. “No, don’t have to talk. Just want you to know the option is open.”

“Trying to prove you’ve grown as a person?” 

“That I want you,” Jamie says without missing a beat. “For more than just how you look in that dress. Though, and I cannot stress this enough: well done.”

***

It feels like the first time, in ways she can’t explain--in ways she wouldn’t want to explain, even to Dani. Even to herself. It feels like the first time, like she’s washed away years of quick-and-get-lost, years of seeing a first love reflected in the eyes of strangers, years of teaching herself to feel nothing even as she allows the women in her bed everything at once.

It feels like the first time, when Dani almost shyly turns down her sheets, looking around the small bedroom like she’s not sure what to do first.

It feels like the first time, Jamie letting herself forget for a moment that it can all--too easily--become habit. Her hands reach for Dani’s, her breath coming slow as she pulls Dani into an embrace and just…rests here. Just for a little while, her fingers tracing the skin of Dani’s back before velvet takes over, her face turned against Dani’s neck. Start over, she thinks, inhaling a deep breath, closing her eyes. Learn her again.

“You’re all right?” Dani asks against her hair. “You seem…”

“Slow,” Jamie murmurs, kissing once, waiting for Dani to breathe out against her chest. Dani, who is holding herself surprisingly taut. Dani, who feels like she had that first night, as if the excitement and the fear were twins she could not extricate from one another.

Slow had been good, then--slow had been perfect, then. Dani, relaxing by small measures, as she is doing now. And Jamie, at the time, had felt so in control of the situation. So sturdy, so confident. It had felt like a pleasant game, a winding-down of a long day, back then.

Now, as she’s kissing Dani’s shoulder, as her hands are sliding down Dani’s back without a hint of rush, it feels almost like swimming out. Almost like drifting into ever-deepening water, every kick drawing her a little further away from shore. Sooner or later, she knows, the ground will cast out from beneath her feet. Sooner or later, she knows, she will have no choice but to give it all she has. 

Dani’s hands are exploring in their own right, moving down over her shoulders, sliding down her arms, slipping around her waist. Dani, who has come to her so many times in a heady rush, all push and pull and want, feels content now. Content, at peace, even with her face flushed and her breath sweeping in hot little darts against Jamie’s skin.

“I’m glad,” she says quietly. “That you came up tonight.”

There aren’t enough words in the world, not for this kind of agreement, and Jamie finds she can only kiss her. Kiss her, and let a hand linger at the zipper at the back of this lovely dress, waiting for Dani to nod. It takes a while, Dani so pleasantly kissing her back, and again she thinks, Slow. Slow, the way it’s never been, not even when she’d thought they’d been relaxed and easy together.

That, still, had always looked a little like holding back.

This, here, feels like the start of something honest.

***

There is no desperation. No gripping at Jamie to keep the thoughts at bay. No losing herself in the slide of skin, the trace of fingertip, the ever-intensifying kiss to maintain some kind of hold on her own recklessness. There is no fear, no hungry uncertainty, no absolution sought out in the arc of Jamie’s smile.

There is only a dress, gently removed. A second, left to pool on the floor. A hand at her cheek, a thumb tracing her lips until she kisses it with eyes closed. There is only Jamie’s familiar frame following her down onto the mattress. Jamie’s familiar soft laugh when her nails trace instinctively up an ink-stained back. Jamie’s familiar low groan, when her hand catches confident fingers and presses them between her legs.

Jamie, who touches her like she’s been waiting for this moment for weeks. She grips at Jamie’s hips, her back, her hair, and thinks, Was always supposed to be here. Not because Jamie is teaching her anything, but because Jamie is sharing things with her she’s never wanted from anyone else. Because Jamie is willing, with every eager curl of her fingers, with every seemingly-endless kiss, to write with her a story no one else belongs in. Even if they maybe didn’t get it right the first time. Even if there are maybe too many pages of mistake before this one. It doesn’t matter--it doesn’t lessen the impact of Jamie now, kissing her and whispering things Dani almost can’t process around the exultant shatter of every nerve.

There is a sheet pulled up over rolling hips, lost again in the shuffle when she shifts Jamie onto her back. There is a pillow, tossed off the bed, and another, tucked comfortably under Jamie’s head. There is leaning back, looking down at her, remembering all the times Jamie had just sat back on her haunches to regard Dani splayed across a space that had once been Jamie, and only Jamie, and by now had grown to encompass them both.

This is what it feels like, she realizes, to have someone imprinted on your world. This is what it feels like, to invite someone inside, to close the door behind them, to wave a hand and say, Here. You’re welcome, here. You belong, here.

Jamie, her hair unpinned, her skin slick with sweat, invited in for real this time. Jamie, her breath catching when Dani leans over her, kisses lips and throat and shoulder like they have endless hours to spare, invited to stay.

Jamie, whose hand slides into her hair as she travels lower, tasting wildflower and curling vine and vibrant rose petal. Jamie, who has only ever moved beneath her mouth this way on a single occasion--in a way that had felt good at the time, and unfamiliar, a thrill she’d planned on carrying like a dark little secret for the rest of her life. She was never going to get it again, she’d realized a week later. She was never going to feel Jamie wind tight the same way, her hips lifting, her voice caught between clenched teeth. Jamie, at the time, doomed to memory and nothing more.

And now: Jamie, pushing back her hair to better see her face, sitting up just enough to watch Dani move. Jamie, a hand pressed lightly to the crown of her head, even as she’s beginning to rock gently beneath the flick of Dani’s tongue, the trace of Dani’s kiss. She could, Dani suspects, last forever this way, with Dani giving just this much. A private hourglass frozen between them, the world a perfect cycle of breath and pounding heart and Jamie beginning to utter little cries of frustration.

The last time--the last time, she’d thought for too long--she’d been a rampage of arousal and fear and delirious distraction from her own heart. The last time, she’d tried her best to mirror Jamie’s actions, her memory of Jamie a hundred times over on her own body, and it had worked--it had done the trick. But it hadn’t been Jamie’s way, not really. She’d forgotten the most important part, the bit Jamie has always valued most.

Pay attention. Read her body. Listen to her. There’s no rush this time, no apprehensive excitement of Jamie forcing herself to stay quiet, Dani half-lost in the new of Jamie trembling beneath her lips, half-listening for approaching footsteps. There had been a heat to that so like riding Jamie in half a dozen dangerously-public locations--but this, the locked door and smooth sheets of her own bed, brings a different kind of intensity. Here, she’s allowed not simply to disappear into Jamie, but to coax her leisurely along. Here, she can learnJamie in this bright new way, piecing together all the searing memories of before with the endless stretch of now.

Jamie, watching her with absolute focus as she kisses hipbone and joint of thigh, the pressure of her hand almost nonchalant as she urges Dani along her skin. Jamie, breathing in deeply, waiting in suspension when Dani pauses just out of reach, meeting her eyes. Jamie, saying her name once, like permission, like pleading, when she offers the most tentative contact just to see Jamie’s eyes roll back.

There is so much to this, she marvels, pressing herself down and uttering a fractured sound of her own. So much to the slow, steady rock of Jamie against her mouth, Jamie holding herself in check as though giving Dani time to explore. So much to the tension of Jamie’s stomach muscles under her hand, the way they flutter when she strokes with the tip of her tongue. So much to the tang of Jamie in her mouth, the almost strained sound of Jamie’s voice above her saying, “That’s--that’s--fuck, keep doing that--“

So much to love, so much to memorize. Like how Jamie breathes faster when Dani’s nails trace the ink of her thigh in time with the roll of her tongue. Like how Jamie seems to be trying desperately hard to hold still under slow, long licks, one hand fisted around sheets. Like how Jamie can’t keep her eyes open, not with Dani applying this pressure, this gentle suction, this sudden thrust of fingers.

She could stay here forever, she thinks, as Jamie rocks forward on the sheets, her back arching. She could stay here forever, waiting for Jamie to come down just enough to breathe--and then, unable to resist, starting all over again with tiny kisses, testing pressure that causes Jamie to growl out her name in surprise. Starting all over again, picking up speed, her head bobbing without self-consciousness as she buries herself in slick heat until Jamie is curling off the mattress to meet her. She’s barely able to make a sound, her lips parted, both hands digging into Dani’s hair to pull her close as she shudders, and Dani thinks, All day. All day tomorrow, if she’ll let me.  

“Again?” she asks softly against Jamie’s thigh, and hears a rough laugh from the pillows.

“Need a minute,” Jamie says, her voice raw. “Month without. Out of practice.”

“A month?” Dani crawls back to join her, resting her head on Jamie’s trembling shoulder. Jamie makes a soft sound of assent.

“Didn’t feel right, calling anyone else. Haven’t, for a long time.”

“How long?”

Jamie says nothing for a moment, her fingers trailing absently along Dani’s arm. Dani raises her head.

“Jamie.”

“Almost seven months?” There’s embarrassment, she thinks, in Jamie’s grin. Embarrassment, and little bit of pride, too. “Got a little distracted. Hung up, might say. On a woman who came charging in to ask if I could teach her things.”

“Your phone--“

“Yeah,” Jamie says, “turned off the notifications, finally. Think it’s time I stopped entertaining the masses.”

Dani looks at her, a rumpled, happy, familiar form so newly planted in this bed. She looks right, with the warm light of Dani’s lamp spilling over her skin, the blankets thrown to the floor. She looks fitting, one arm behind her head, looking up at Dani this way.

“That all right?” she asks, when Dani doesn’t say anything. “If I just…let all of that go?”

Dani curls back into her. “That wasn’t the deal, you know. I still don’t want to…make you into someone you’re not.”

“Can’t change the past,” Jamie murmurs, stroking her hair. “We just choose what comes next, right?”

***

Waking early at Dani’s is different--there is no guitar to play, no plants to tend to, no gym down the street to sneak off to for a quick workout. Waking early at Dani’s means simply stretching in bed, her hand working across the pillows to land on the steady rise-fall of Dani’s bare back as she sleeps.

It is, Jamie thinks, something she could get used to. The idea that she doesn’t have to launch out of bed at the first caress of daylight. The idea that she doesn’t have to be moving to call the morning valid. That she can simply lay here with her thoughts, and find there are no monsters of note lurking among them.

Dani wakes slowly in her own bed, as she always does at Jamie’s place, and it’s glorious to watch. The gentle turn of her face against the pillows, the way her expression scrunches in distaste at the thin brush of sunlight dancing across closed eyes--and, pleasantly, the way she relaxes into a smile when Jamie leans over and kisses her cheek. She’s still only half in the world, Jamie can tell, not quite to the place where actually dipping below the sheets would be appropriate, but she’s getting there. Could be an endless sort of morning, her body rubbing lightly against Dani’s side, her hands tracing smooth skin with unhurried grace, and if they don’t leave here for hours--if they in fact spend the rest of the day right here--she doubts anyone would complain.

She’s kissing Dani’s shoulder, exploring the freckles of her back, the ridges of her shoulder blades, and thinking, This is as good as it gets, when a knock on the door startles them both. Dani, jumping so badly she nearly tumbles out onto the floor, gazes at her with a confusion that is at once half-asleep and half-aroused.

“Who?”

“Fuck if I know.” A check in the Jamie’s flat column, then. No one ever knocks on her door, except for Dani. “Want me to get it?”

“Could you?” Dani flops back. “Just. If it’s a delivery person, just do a squiggle.”

Jamie retrieves her underwear from the floor, an unreasonably fluffy pink robe from the back of a chair, wraps herself neatly up. Still a sight, she recognizes, in all likelihood--last night’s makeup having taken existential damage, her hair an absolute travesty--but what does she care? Only person whose opinion matters did this to her in the first place, and will likely only improve matters the sooner she gets back into that bed.

“Yeah, yeah, I’m comin’,” she tells the next rap of knuckles, prying open the door with safety chain still engaged. “Look, bit early for any kind of--Hannah?”

“Jamie,” Hannah replies, her eyes enormous. “Fancy seeing you in, erm. Such a new outfit.”

Worlds better than the alternative, love. “What are you, ah…what’re you doing here?”

Hannah seems for a moment to have genuinely forgotten, her gaze jumping from Jamie’s hair to her face to the hands pulling the robe nervously tighter around her body. “I--was looking for Dani. Don’t suppose she’s…well, I wanted to see how her date went.”

“Fine,” Jamie says dumbly. “Good. I mean. Still here, so. As signs go…”

“I suppose,” Hannah says, “this says excellent things about my taste in women.”

“Pardon?” The morning probably could get stranger, she thinks, though only if a herd of buffalo were to rampage through Dani’s kitchen without notice.

“That you’re her date. You. I’d been hoping to introduce you, if ever she finally took me up on that venture to the gym, but…I see I’m a little late.”

Jamie, despite herself, grins. “Want me to get her?”

“No,” Hannah says hurriedly. “No, no, that’s all right. Tell her I rang. Perhaps she’d like to visit a bit later, when she’s less…occupied. You’re welcome, too, of course. For supper. If you’d like.”

Dani is still drowsy when she returns to bed, tossing herself in among the blankets without care. She watches Dani bounce in place, her arms wound tight around a pillow in Jamie’s absence, her face scrunching grumpily up.

“Package?”

“Hannah,” Jamie corrects. “Nice woman, though a bit punctual with her check-ins. Me, I’d wait to ask how a date went until after noon next day, at least.”

Dani’s eyes fly open. “Hannah? Hannah was--well--you didn’t invite her in?”

“Tried,” says Jamie comfortably. “She seemed to think she wasn’t needed just now. Invited us both to supper, though. Really kind of her, haven’t had a home-cooked meal prepared by someone with actual skill since I was--“

Dani rolls over, plucking at the stolen robe with a raise of her eyebow. Jamie shrugs.

“What, didn’t think I was going to put the fuckin’ dress back on, did you?” When Dani laughs, she reaches out, pulls her close. “Oh, by the way, you really should have said yes to Hannah’s blind date thing ages ago.”

Dani, who has just started getting comfortable in the crook of Jamie’s neck, drifting distractingly light kisses as she sees fit, leans back. “What? Why?”

Jamie only grins. Her eyebrows shoot nearly to her hairline.

“No. You?”

“Of course,” Jamie says happily. “We have had many a fine conversation over the water cooler, I’ll have you know. Well, I say many. More like two. Regardless, Hannah thinks I am a star.”

“Hannah,” Dani replies, rolling her over and sitting companionably on her thighs, “can be forgiven for overlooking the smug factor.”

If smug is what gets her this view each morning--Dani with hair a wreck, eyes a bit bleary, smile as gorgeous as ever--Jamie will take it. She is just smoothing her hands lightly up Dani’s body, smiling at the idea of Dani riding her while she’s wearing this patently-ridiculous bathrobe, when Dani says, “Hey. Idea.”

“Sexy idea?”

“Where’s your phone?”

Jamie frowns. “Thought we’d agreed to leave phones out of it, on account of how easy it is to spend an entire day acting like idiots should we mix them up.”

She points Dani toward her bag anyway, only slightly uneasy when Dani walks quickly back and presses it into Jamie’s hand.

“Text Owen.”

“This,” Jamie says, sitting up, “is getting less sexy by the minute.”

“Seriously,” Dani laughs. “Text Owen. Ask him about that blind date.”

Halfway through complying, Jamie raises her eyes. “You don’t really think--“

That girl! Owen uses far too many exclamation marks, grandmother that he is. The one!! With the blonde hair, you always go all googly when she smiles at you! Think her name is Dani?

you were gonna set me up on a ‘think her name is’? Jamie taps back, already laughing. A beat, then:

YOU NEED A NICE GIRL!!!!

“He seems very wise,” Dani, reading over her shoulder, says. Her arms slide gently around Jamie’s middle, her lips coasting along Jamie’s neck once more. The press of her skin is more than a little distracting, particularly when she unties the robe and eases it down Jamie’s back.

“Very nice,” Jamie agrees, tossing her phone toward the nightstand, not much caring when it hits the floor and skids away. She’s already turning toward Dani, leaning into a gloriously long kiss that leaves them both breathless. “Mind if we go back to pretending no one else exists now?”

It comes as little surprise that Dani, curling both hands around her face, pushing her gently into the mattress, doesn’t seem to mind in the least.