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It comes as little surprise to Dani Clayton, who has spent most of her life trying not to pay attention to the things her body craves, that time with Jamie has been unlocking some unexpected doors. It’s embarrassing, sometimes, but not in a way that feels too heavy to bear; the more time she spends with Jamie, the more time she spends feeling progressively better in her own skin, the more she’s bound to understand about what makes her tick. It’s kind of nice, actually. Kind of refreshing, finding situations where she doesn’t feel inclined to hold herself rigid, where she can let her guard down and just exhale. 

Still, there are some experiences which--until they sneak up on her--she absolutely does not see coming.

1

There is a rule in their house about cleanliness. Not because Jamie is a terrible mess, by any stretch of the imagination, but because a small space gets out of control fast. Especially given how much time Jamie spends with both hands buried in potting soil, Dani feels it’s important to set some ground rules. Things like “shoes stay on the plastic tray if you’ve been out gardening.” Things like “clothes caked in dirt go straight into the special hamper to get washed first.”

Things like “if you’re going to initiate anything requiring hands on bare skin, you scrub up first.”

Jamie takes it in stride, agrees wholeheartedly that this is the only safe and hygienic approach to life. She kicks off her boots, drops any mud-encrusted flannel in the proper receptacle, and works the grime out from under short nails without pressure. 

“I’d do this without the rule,” she tells Dani the first time after this conversation, eyebrows arched. “How filthy d’you think I am, anyway?”

Dani chooses not to dignify this with a response. It’s still early-days, all things considered, and Jamie poking her tongue through her teeth on a word like filthy sends her brain places that aren’t conducive to getting anything done.

Still, there are things that test her carefully-imposed boundaries. Not so much the gardening; gardening and Jamie are a singular entity, a packaged deal Dani was wholly aware of long before falling into the woman’s bed. She sees flowers and root webs and clods of dirt packed into pots and thinks, Yes. That’s Jamie. 

It’s the fixing she wasn’t prepared for.

There are things she is better at than Jamie around the house: remembering to pick up groceries, basic human chores like laundry and vacuuming and taking out the trash. And there are the things Jamie has an edge on: hot drinks, building furniture, and repairing just about anything that slips sideways. 

“Grew up without a lot to lean on,” she explains while Dani, feeling a little light-headed in a way she can’t fully explain, watches her replace a questionable light fixture. Her hands are nimble and steady, her eyes on the job at hand, but she’s smiling. “You pick up a lot of convenient tricks along the way, life like that.”

Dani, who grew up in a household marked by her mother having “a guy”--usually neighborhood men with bad facial hair who scrubbed her around the head and called her “little lady”--for just about every little hiccup, can only watch with fascination. Jamie, it seems, has a sixth sense for problems. By the end of their first year together, she’s fixed the bathroom sink, the AC unit, innumerable lightbulbs, and the vacuum cleaner. Never once batting an eye. Just a simple smile and a “give it here, then.”

Dani, for her part, tells herself she’s watching closely to learn. To pick up these convenient tricks Jamie mentions like they’re nothing. To be able to one day make similar repairs while Jamie is busy or out of the house.

She tells herself this, even as her skin grows warm and her mouth goes dry, because there is just something about watching Jamie work. Something she can’t put her finger on about the way Jamie tips her head musingly, inspecting every inch of the problem area like her attention belongs nowhere else. She moves methodically, deliberately, never frustrated, never slamming or swearing. Her hands squeeze and slide, her brow furrowed, and Dani...

Likes this. 

She keeps it to herself, careful not to distract Jamie from the task at hand, even as her own face flushes at the sight of Jamie working a screwdriver or sifting through a set of drill bits. It’s stupid, she thinks with a hot thread of embarrassment, that her legs are weakening at the mere image of Jamie on her back on the bathroom tile, knees bent, arms working to seal some hidden leak in the piping. 

“You want to try?” Jamie asks, head and shoulders in the cabinet below the sink. Dani clears her throat. 

“No, thank you.”

“Suit yourself,” Jamie says absently, the muscles of her stomach flexing as she arches for that little extra strength to finish up. Dani leans her forehead against the wall, struggling to find some measure of calm before Jamie can extricate herself and catch sight of the look on her face. 

She manages to keep it quiet for months, this strange heat that springs up whenever Jamie’s hands are greasy and her face has that serious cast of inspecting a complicated problem. She might have kept it quiet for months longer--indefinitely, perhaps--if not for Colorado. 

Colorado is, like so many of their trips, a spur-of-the-moment decision. They rent a battered Jeep from a questionable agency, intent on seeing the Rockies as man was always intended: hopped up on a decent amount of bad gas station coffee, a pack of cigarettes, and each other. It’s a good day, cheery sun beaming down from a sky scattered with soft clouds. Dani has been having more and more of these kinds of days, and is starting to think maybe this is the new normal. Less fear. Less tension. Just her hand in Jamie’s as they bump over an endless road in the middle of--

“No,” Jamie says in a low, frustrated tone. Dani, who has been gazing distantly out the passenger window, snaps back to reality. 

“What’s going on?”

The Jeep is slowing. Jamie steers it toward the side of the road, which is to Dani’s eyes the most abandoned place on earth. 

“Something’s off,” Jamie groans. “Engine light came on.”

Engine light came on is one of those phrases Dani intellectually understands is in English, but it might as well not be. She’s grateful for how much Jamie enjoys driving; cars are something of a mystery to her, loud, rattling machines she’d prefer not to ever deal with on her own. 

She steps out onto the road now, arms hugged tight around her body, and watches Jamie pop the hood. The day is as warm as it is beautiful, and it isn’t long before sweat is trickling down the back of her neck. Jamie, in jeans and a flannel shirt, rolls the sleeves up past her elbows and grimaces. 

“Gonna be a minute, I think. But maybe...”

She’s muttering words Dani wouldn’t understand even if she thought Jamie was speaking to her and not a busted set of gears and pistons. Jamie, thankfully, seems to know what she’s talking about as she pushes the hair out of her eyes, ties a bandana around her head, and sets to work. 

She’ll fix it, Dani assures herself, rocking back and forth on her heels in the sunshine. Jamie fixes everything. 

And, in the meantime, it’s not like there’s anything wrong with the view. The horizon is endless, the land green and gorgeous and sprawling out as far as she can process. Dani could stand here for hours, head tilted back to take it all in, letting the clean air bathe her face. 

She could also, she notes, eyes sliding back to Jamie, watch this for hours. Jamie, up on her toes, an emergency set of tools open on the ground. Jamie, sweat beading on her upper lip and trickling down her temples. Jamie, pink-cheeked, the muscles of her forearms from years of groundswork standing out in sharp relief as she jams a wrench beneath the hood and twists.

It is...very hot out here, Dani thinks dazedly. She snaps her eyes away, searching the sky for birds, searching the world for anything that could be more interesting than the sight of Jamie with grease halfway up to her elbows, a dip of skin tantalizing between her shirt riding up and the waistband of her jeans. 

Dani swallows hard. Tries to remember that they are, in fact, currently stranded on the side of a road in Colorado. Tries to remember that they are, in fact, not in a situation that should be excruciatingly appealing. 

Jamie makes a low noise in her chest, pulling hard on the wrench. Something in Dani, already strung tight enough to make her pulse race, seems to snap. 

“Hey,” Jamie protests as the tool drops from her hand and clatters against the pavement. Dani has her around the wrist, dragging her with firm intent away from the open hood. “Hey, Poppins, I don’t think--”

Dani, unable to stop herself, catches her around the back of the neck and kisses her hard. Jamie’s protests go slack against her lips, her hands windmilling uselessly as she tries and fails to locate somewhere safe to place them. 

“I--Dani, what--”

“Can’t explain,” Dani says, muffled, mouth a bit occupied with trying to kiss Jamie stupid. “Just. Need this.”

“Right now?” Jamie asks, plainly bewildered--though, Dani notes, not exactly arguing. Her hands rest gently on Dani’s hips, as though the desire to hang on and the desire not to ruin Dani’s skirt are locked in fervent battle. 

“Right,” Dani groans, licking at the sweat running down the side of Jamie’s neck, “now.”

She fumbles them toward the backseat, pausing every couple of steps to push Jamie hard against the car. There’s something about it--something about the sun beating down, and her hand caught between the hard shell of the Jeep and the soft skin at Jamie’s back, and the way Jamie is making surprised breathy sounds against her ear. Something, most of all, about Jamie trying so hard not to get her dirty while being utterly unable to keep her hands to herself. 

“There’s a rule,” Jamie says, like she’s reciting a play she couldn’t possibly care less about. “Your rule.”

Dani, pulling the back door open and sliding along the gray leather, shakes her head. “House rule. Don't care.”

Jamie’s laughing, but there's something nervous about it, something like she sort of expects to get into trouble for this. “Poppins, you are...something else today.”

Dani pauses, leaning back on her elbows, watching with dark desire as Jamie climbs in after her. The door latches with a soft click, Jamie hovering on her knees over her in the small space. 

“Something okay?” Dani asks, her voice smaller than intended. Jamie grins. 

“I’m okay if you’re okay.”

Dani grabs for her again, unable to pin down the roaring pleasure in her chest as Jamie’s smile lands against her skin. Her hands are wild, roaming creatures with their own agenda, sliding under Jamie’s collar, fisting around Jamie’s shirt. When Jamie kisses the hollow of her throat, she sighs, arches, liking the weight of Jamie between her bent knees. 

There is a rule about dirty hands, it’s true, and they both know it’s for a reason--which is why, eyes on Dani’s face the whole time, Jamie grasps her by the hips and lifts, shifts, eases Dani until her back is pressed against the window. Jamie hooks her fingers into the waistband of underwear already too ruined to be of use, sliding them down Dani’s thighs, shoving them restlessly into the back pocket of her own jeans. 

“Jesus,” she breathes against Dani’s skin, already soaked through with sweat and want. “This much from--”

“Watching,” Dani groans confirmation. One hand is gripping the back of the seat, her knuckles stark against the dark leather. Jamie makes a noise she thinks might be amusement, or utter helpless desire--maybe some mad combination of the two. 

“Didn’t know you had a thing for--”

“Jamie,” Dani interrupts, a sharp plea that snaps Jamie’s attention back where it belongs. They can talk about this later, Jamie teasing her for an unexpected mechanic kink, Dani hiding her face and laughing. Right now, she can focus on nothing but Jamie’s hands, creased with engine oil, gripping her thighs. Sliding smooth down to bracket her kneecaps, up to hold her hips steady. Jamie, mouthing at her slowly, trying to make it last, teasing her with soft flicks of her tongue and warm, soft kisses. 

Jamie,” Dani repeats, her voice cracking, her free hand winding in Jamie’s hair and pulling. Jamie concedes, head bobbing gently between her legs, body coiled in a position that will probably feel fantastic tomorrow--but, if she cares, she certainly doesn’t show it. Her fingers dig into Dani’s skin, leaving dark stains behind, her mouth drawing Dani tighter by the second. 

Sex with Jamie has never been what Dani would call boring, but something about the sight of her here--eyes closed, breathing hard, fingers pushing Dani’s skirt up as she strains to keep from putting those hands directly between Dani’s legs--has an effect they’ve never quite managed before. Dani, biting hard into the back of her own hand as her hips jerk out of control. Jamie, making the most of the moment, kissing her clean with long, sweet strokes. 

“Jesus,” Jamie says again, sitting up and staring at her. “If I’d known--”

“You’d never have finished a repair around the house,” Dani points out, breathing hard, head lolling back against the glass with a light thump. 

“You’ve been feeling this at the house?” Jamie looks stunned. “Poppins, you’ve been wanting this for months, and you’ve just been letting me fix things instead of taking you to bed? Where the hell are your priorities?”

“Didn’t want to distract you,” Dani mumbles, the drowsy delight of a good orgasm wrapping comforting hands around her good sense. Jamie’s jaw hangs open.

“Poppins.”

“Mm?”

“Distract me. For the love of god. Distract me.”

2

Dani doesn’t go back to teaching. It’s not that she doesn’t love it, not that she doesn’t know she’d still be good at it; it’s more that the world is too unpredictable now. That she is too unpredictable now, unable to tell what tomorrow will look like inside her own head. She’s been feeling better, admittedly--Jamie has a way of making the ground stand still under their feet, of leading her by the hand into warmly-lit places where she feels less like there’s something following at her heels--but it’s not the same. Even before the Lady, before Bly, before fleeing to Europe in the first place, teaching had been heavier than school had prepared her for. So many kids, with so many expectations, so many needs one person couldn’t possibly fulfill. 

So, no--she doesn’t go back to teaching. Teaching feels like the old Dani in some terribly sad way she can’t define. The new Dani turns her attention toward a different kind of cultivation, toward learning how to make people happy with the art of living things. It’s a creative outlet she hadn’t realized she needs. It brings her closer to Jamie, gives her a better understanding of Jamie’s way of seeing the world. It’s different, but she does love it. 

It does not, for all of that, erase old habits. 

She doesn’t really realize she’s doing it, at first. Some things are just so naturally ingrained, so much a part of her daily experience, that she doesn’t think about what she’s saying. 

Until Jamie just stops and...looks at her. 

“What?” Self-consciousness, not a particularly new song, hums under the word. Jamie is gazing at her with head slightly cocked, lip between her teeth. 

“Nothing. Nothing, just...”

Dani reels back the last five minutes, searching for whatever might have put this truly unfamiliar look on Jamie’s face. It’s not teasing, exactly; not bothered, either. It’s...pleased?

Jamie had just passed her with a basket under her arm, laundry rescued from the dryer and folded before Dani had even realized they were ready. She had turned, watched Jamie amble by with a spring in her step that said I have done the thing, and the thing is good, and she had said...

“Oh.” She can actually feel the color draining from her face. “I just, uh. I mean. Habit.”

Jamie grins, still looking a little surprised, but not exactly upset. “No, no, it’s fine, Poppins. Got no argument with being a good girl now and then.”

She winks, throwing an exaggerated little swing into her walk as she makes off toward the bedroom, and Dani sags against the couch. Has she done this before? Has she been absently calling Jamie a good girl upon the completion of  little tasks this whole time, and only just realized?

It is a very particular kind of embarrassing, and Dani does not have the first idea what to do with it. 

“Have I been doing that?” she asks over dinner, picking awkwardly at her pasta and studiously not looking Jamie in the eye. Jamie, midway through pouring a glass of wine, pauses. 

“Doing what?”

“Calling--uh--I mean--”

“Praising me for my efforts about the house?” Jamie is too pleased about this, Dani has decided. Entirely too pleased for her own good. 

“Hey, I can take it back,” she mutters. Jamie snorts, setting a full glass beside Dani’s place and kissing the top of her head. 

“Uh uh. I’ve earned my gold stars, Poppins. Pry ‘em from my cold dead hands.”

Dani downs half the glass in a single swallow, eyes rolling toward the ceiling. Jamie is really laughing now, the full-body laugh she reserves for poking fun at Dani with absolute affection. 

“Oh, don't be like that. It’s sweet. Can’t say anyone’s had nice words of the like for me much before you.”

Dani looks up to find Jamie leaning across the table, her expression heartbreakingly earnest. The tension melts slowly out of her body; she realizes she’s made a fist under the table, her thumb tucked into her fingers. Old habits, indeed. 

“You don’t have to be embarrassed about things like that,” Jamie says, her voice softening. Her hand slides under the table to close over Dani’s flexing fingers, like she knows what Dani was just doing, that Dani was just sliding back to anxieties she’s long tried to bury. “I take no offense at being called good at anything where you’re concerned, Dani. Trust me.”

She does, very much, but even so, she tries to keep a handle on it. Isn’t it condescending, she wonders, speaking to Jamie that way? Why on earth would Jamie appreciate a pat on the head, a gentle assertion of good work?

She gets it under control. Reminds herself she is not a teacher anymore, and Jamie is very appropriately an adult who doesn’t need to be confirmed in her choices at every turn. 

She gets it under control--until one night. One night, spent celebrating an exceptional year at the shop, with too much wine in her system and too many hours spent in a too-public setting to be allowed to touch Jamie properly. They’d sat at a table with a few well-meaning shopkeepers from down the street, and they’d laughed, and drank to hard work and good fortune, and all the while, she’d been watching Jamie out of the corner of her eye. Jamie, shirt unbuttoned at the collar, hair mussed from hands Dani understood as wanting to be on her body, sifting through her hair. Jamie, chain-smoking cigarettes Dani ached to take from her and place between her own lips, if only to taste Jamie. 

By the time they make it home, her hands are tingling, her body desperate. Jamie, watching her with the smug smile of a woman who knows Dani’s hand has been flexing between her own knees for two hours, makes a show of stretching. Her shirt pulls up from her belt, flashing a glimpse of stomach. 

“Bit tired,” she says. “What do you think, time for bed?”

Dani makes a powerfully undignified noise, and Jamie’s laughter rings bright in the otherwise-silent apartment. She catches Dani by the hand, eyes shining. 

“Honestly, Poppins, you are too damn easy.”

They fall into bed--into couch, really, the bed being far too many steps away--and the world shrinks to the polished buttons of Jamie’s shirt popping open under her tripping fingers, the material of Jamie’s slacks shoved awkwardly down her legs, the trace of Jamie’s tongue around her earlobe as she tries desperately to focus on intricate details like zippers. Jamie, bless and damn her, never seems this clumsy, even with all the wine in the world in her blood. 

“I like it,” Jamie breathes, grinning. “You only get clumsy when you’re desperate.”

She climbs over Dani, curling behind her to better get at the zip on her dress. Dani leans back, dizzy with the rush of Jamie pressed against her back, grinding her hips slowly as if to intentionally drive Dani up the wall. The dress peels away, and Dani hears herself swear. 

“Could you go any slower.”

“Could if I tried,” Jamie murmurs, nipping at her neck. “Why? Don’t like it?”

She splays a hand beneath Dani’s breasts, pressing in tight against her back, rocking against her with little sign of picking up the pace and putting those hands where they’re most wanted. Dani groans, lets her head fall back against Jamie’s shoulder. 

“You,” she says without thinking, “are being a bad girl tonight.”

Jamie freezes. Dani, head buzzing with the aggravation of Jamie playing her little game, Jamie’s fingers toying across her belly, doesn’t hear herself. Not at first. Not until Jamie says in a voice almost like a growl, “That so?”

Oh, Dani thinks. Oh no. I did it again. 

“Tell me, please,” Jamie goes on, hand slinking lower, “how I can get back into your good graces.”

It should be weird. It should be so uncomfortable, slamming the brakes on this whole evening--but Jamie’s hand is on a mission, Jamie’s hips rocking against her faster, and Dani finds she doesn’t care nearly as much as she should. 

“You--know--”

“Tell me anyway.” Jamie’s hand is circling, refusing to continue its descent, and Dani almost wants to laugh. This is insane. This is insane, and stupid, and if she doesn’t get Jamie to keep going, she might just kill her. 

She turns her head, finds Jamie looking at her with pupils blown and lips parted. She reaches back, grabs Jamie by the jaw. 

“Touch me,” she says, her voice firmer than it’s been in a long time. “Now.”

Jamie’s eyes roll back in her head, her fingers dipping between Dani’s legs with obedient speed. Dani sighs, moving to meet her strokes. 

“More,” she hears herself say in that same commanding voice, and Jamie shudders. “Harder.”

She’s never done this before; it’s never crossed her mind to tell Jamie what to do, how to touch her, what she needs. Jamie is intuitive, naturally taking the lead on nights like these, and she’s damn good at it--but this feels incredible in an entirely new way. Her hand slides down to join Jamie’s, curling around Jamie’s fingers as they slide in and out in a series of increasingly rough thrusts. She finds herself arching back, Jamie’s hips bucking as she strains for friction of her own, and when Jamie curls her fingers deep, she curls with her. 

“Fuck,” Jamie groans, shifting her hand out from between Dani’s legs and replacing it instantly between her own. Dani rolls, pushing her flat against the cushions, grabbing hold of Jamie’s wrist and stilling her fingers. 

“That,” she breathes, lips brushing Jamie’s softly enough to burn, “was very good work. Gold star.”

Jamie whimpers, letting her hand drop away so Dani can return the favor. It doesn’t take long at all; Jamie’s pretty far gone even before Dani brushes against her with a hand that no longer feels clumsy. 

“That,” Jamie says when they’ve collapsed in a sweat-slick mess of limbs, “was new. Teacher voice always just sort of on tap, huh?”

Dani resists the suddenly-overwhelming urge to hide her face. “I don’t know where that came from.”

“Don’t much care,” Jamie says, rather happily. “It works for me, as it turns out. I am gonna line these gold stars up on the fridge.”

3

There is something engrossing about being wanted, something Dani never really understood before Jamie. Being wanted before wasn’t exactly a positive sensation; men looking her up and down in malls and bars, eyes like brands on her skin, made her feel like crawling under a table. Women, on the rare occasion she crossed one who met her eyes, were somehow even worse--their smiles were thin, brittle reminders that Dani wasn’t Normal. That, if she ever were to jump from that ledge, these women wouldn’t be there to catch her. Their want was an ice bath, a horrible reminder that there was something wrong with her ability to be wanted. 

And, with Edmund, it was worst of all, because she wanted to want it. Wanted to want the way his eyes started following her out of rooms before they were even in their teens. Wanted to want the way his hands would reach for her as they grew older, as his body began sending signals that she was right, and hers developed an alarm bell that only ever screamed stop, please, go away. 

She should have listened to that alarm bell sooner, probably, but Edmund--for all the horrible suffocating sense of him draped over her life--was also a shield against the rest. With Edmund’s arm around her, she felt caged, but strange men let their eyes slide off her like rain. With Edmund kissing her cheek, she felt wrong, but strange men stopped trying to brush up against her skin. 

The line, however, she had to draw somewhere, and she drew it at marks. Eddie accepted her unwillingness to climb into his bed as classic “good girl” behavior; Danielle, he thought with ease of understanding, wanted to wait until they were married. Sure, fine, good. His mother would approve, and hers would leave them both un-defenestrated by their wedding day. Perfect for everyone.

Still, he wanted to touch her. Wanted to press his lips to her skin. Wanted to make sure she--and anyone else who chanced a look--knew he was always there, etched into her. 

She hated it. Hated the way he’d lean back after leaving a hickey hot on her neck, looking faux-apologetic and more than a little smug. Hated the way, no matter how many times she told him it wasn’t professional for an elementary school teacher to stroll in with love bites, he always seemed to “forget.”

She hated being marked. 

With Edmund.

With Jamie, it’s an entirely different story. 

“Shit,” Jamie sighs. “Shit, I’m so sorry.”

Dani, shirt slung over the back of a kitchen chair, shifts in Jamie’s lap. There’s something about being able to do this at their own leisure, about Sunday brunch fading into charred bacon and lost-chance waffles as she and Jamie sink into long slow kisses on the other side of the kitchen, that she thinks she’ll never be over. 

Jamie, looking more than a little irritated with herself, is now brushing soft fingertips across Dani’s collarbone. Even that much sends sharp little thrills up her spine. She tips her chin down, tries to see the spot Jamie is pressing against. 

“Left a mark?”

“Yeah.” Jamie sighs again. “Sorry, Poppins, I don’t know my own goddamn--”

Dani laughs. She really doesn’t, is the thing. Jamie, who couldn’t be more unlike Eddie if she tried, genuinely doesn’t ever mean to mark her skin. And it’s not like it happens often. She’s normally pretty good about self-control in ways Dani suspects have to do with a history of punishment and consequence following every action. 

Jamie is grounded. Jamie is restrained. 

Except when Jamie isn’t. And, lately, Jamie has been restrained with her less and less. 

It started the day she told Dani she was in love with her. A thing Jamie had been saying without words for a long time, Dani knew, but it was so good to hear the phrase fall from her lips anyway. So reassuring, to see the nerves in Jamie’s face, the way Jamie’s eyes shone with a desperate need to make Dani understand. 

That day, in the back room of the shop, Jamie had marked her for the first time. Heat still pools in her belly when she thinks of it, even now: how Jamie had shoved her up against the door, hands fevered, mouth a hot wet slide against her throat. Jamie’s touch had felt good; Jamie’s devotion, even better. And something about the sum of it--of being in the shop, where precautions had been taken, but they were still rather public, of Jamie’s nerves still holding the reins, of Jamie’s words still fluttering between them: pretty in love with you, it turns out--had both of them nearly high. By the time they broke apart, giggling and heaving for air, the deed was done. A single red mark, low on Dani’s neck, burning bright for anyone to see.

Jamie had touched it lightly, kissed it gently, face flushed with embarrassment. “I didn’t mean--”

And, somehow, that had been the thing to do it. The thing that sent Dani’s arousal over the edge. Not just Jamie leaving the mark on her skin, but the apology in Jamie’s eyes as she realized. Jamie, never intending to force ownership. Jamie, never striving to show the world she owned Dani’s body. 

Every time since, she’s tried to explain it to Jamie, tried to bring clarity of word to the hot pulse of pleasure she feels. How there’s a wild delight to watching Jamie want her. How Jamie is, as the time passes, getting worse at pretending to be cool about it. 

It isn’t kind, exactly. Isn’t the nice, sweet, orderly thing to do about it. But all the same, Dani finds she’s having trouble not coaxing Jamie along when it’s clear she’s starting to lose control.

She’s taken to loitering in the bathroom while Jamie showers, for example. Most days, it’s innocent; Dani will post up on the counter with a book, or a cup of tea, and they’ll just make small talk through the thin curtain. Jamie will wash quickly, with no sign of needing assistance, and Dani will hand her a towel when the water shuts off. Perfectly fine. Perfectly civil. 

But there are days--usually when the shop has been particularly stressful, when customers have been needy and shipments have been delayed--when Jamie will gesture for her to follow under the spray. Days where Jamie’s nerves are so frazzled, her control over all the tiny little details of owning a business so slim, that she’ll invite Dani to join her. These days, with Jamie loving her under hot water, with Jamie whispering her name into the steam, Dani thinks it is good to be wanted. So good, to be the small bright spot of control in the world for Jamie, who likes understanding how things work, who likes being able to set things right. With her back against the shower wall, Jamie’s mouth sucking sharp hot bites into her shoulder as her fingers stroke and rub between her legs, Dani thinks there’s nothing better than giving Jamie that measure of control. 

She notices it other times, too--usually when the world is bigger than the two of them can stand. When a snowstorm blocks off the whole street, stranding them inside, and the power goes, and it’s just the two of them moving together under a stack of blankets to make their own warmth. When it’s Jamie, fearful of how long it will take to dig them out again, leaving sharp, nervous marks on her breasts only to be dragged back up by the hair to kiss her as her fingers work Dani to orgasm. 

Or when they make the mistake of turning on the news, signs of war and violence and politicians making unacceptable calls about the bodies of their constituents, and the only way to bring Jamie back from the brink of hopelessness is to coax her into shutting it all out. Pinned against the counter with her hands braced, with Jamie biting hard and kissing soft, Dani forgets for a long stretch of matching heartbeats that anyone else exists outside their walls. 

Sometimes, the mark is gone by morning. Sometimes, Jamie ruefully kisses the spot on her throat, the underside of her jaw, her breast, and says, “You really should yank on my hair or something to stop me.” 

Dani can't quite find the words to tell her how much she likes it. How the brief flare of delicious pain, soothed so soon after by Jamie’s tongue, the pad of Jamie’s thumb, Jamie’s soft embarrassment, grounds her in the strangest way. Not because it shows the world anything--she’s good at wearing sweaters that hide the spots nicely, to keep anyone from questioning her “roommate” in the aftermath--but because it shows that Jamie doesn’t need to keep her head when Dani’s around. That, sometimes, the act of giving Jamie full control over their bed and the way their bodies come together, feels as good as the first nervous time Jamie had said she loved her. 

Jamie shows her with every act, every day, that this is love. Jamie in these moments of unrestrained passion is showing her something else. That she’s safe with Dani. That she doesn’t need to hold anything apart from Dani anymore. 

And there is something else to it, as well. Something entirely different. Something about the rare occasion she rolls Jamie onto her back, holds her wrists to the mattress, gazes into Jamie’s eyes in search of permission. Jamie likes to give, in all ways that matter, but sometimes, Dani likes this, too: to give back more than she takes. To grant Jamie not just control, but release. 

On this kind of night, left hand pinning Jamie in place, right hand setting a brisk, rough pace between damp thighs, Dani lowers her mouth to Jamie’s throat. She kisses slow, tasting sweat and that undefined thing that is Jamie alone, and waits for Jamie to chase her hand. Waits for Jamie to writhe beneath her. Waits for the moment where the right twist, the right pressure, sends Jamie over the edge. Then, only then, does she bite down. 

Because Jamie is embarrassed by marking her, but she’s seen the way Jamie looks at the rare mark she receives in the mirror. The way the collar of her t-shirt will slip, revealing a maroon blemish on pale skin. The way Jamie’s eyes grow dark, her body leaning against the counter like she’s suddenly lost all the strength in her knees. 

She really does prefer giving Jamie control, giving Jamie the gift of building a safe space for them both to land. But every so often, it is beyond worth it, to see the look of surprised delight in Jamie’s face when she flips the script. 

4

There are things, though. Things she didn’t know, before Jamie. Things she’d never thought to glance at, before Jamie. 

“I don’t know about this,” she says. Jamie doesn’t look the least bit perturbed. 

“It’s only an idea, Poppins. Can absolutely veto it at any time.”

Dani frowns. “I don’t--I mean, what made you think--”

She’s going about this all wrong. Jamie shakes her head, some of that old shuttered guard dropping into her expression in a way Dani decidedly does not like. 

“I’ve embarrassed you,” Jamie says. “I’m sorry, Dani, I wasn’t trying to--”

“No, It’s just...won’t somebody notice?”

Two women walking into a shop like that. Two women looking around a shop like that, having conversations about what they’d like or like nothing to do with. Somebody is bound to overhear, Dani thinks. Bound to report it down the line, and what then?

They’re in San Francisco, and Dani knows that’s the main reason Jamie’s even talking about this. They’re in San Francisco, have just bought a brownie that, yes, makes her feel more inclined than usual to drop her guard. She’d thought maybe they’d partake of that brownie in the comfort of their hotel room, that she’d follow the buzzing of her body right into the bed with Jamie, and that would be their afternoon spoken for. It had seemed a good idea at the time. 

Jamie, evidently, has other ideas. 

Which is how Dani, with a bit of a body high and the grip of anxiety tight around her throat, finds herself gazing at a Californian sex shop. 

“We do not,” Jamie says, watching her carefully, “and I cannot stress this enough, Poppins, we do not have to go in.”

“There’s...stuff in there.” The brownie is certainly doing its work. Dani swallows hard, searching for words more befitting of the situation. “Toys and things.”

Jamie looks as though she's suddenly trying very hard not to laugh. She seems considerably less high thus far, less inclined to disappear into this sidewalk if only someone were to let go of her arm and allow her to lie down. 

“It’s the brave new frontier,” Jamie says, managing to keep her amusement tamped down in the face of Dani’s wide eyes. “We’re in the 90s now, Dani Clayton. The world is changing.”

“It is,” Dani repeats in a stage whisper that sounds very loud to her own ears, “a sex shop. In California.”

“Bit better stocked than one in England, I’d wager,” Jamie says through a smile that might yet dissolve into giggles. Dani squints at her, trying to stop the street from performing a gentle rotation around her. 

“Whose idea was this again?”

“The brownie,” Jamie says, “was yours, actually. Haven’t tried this, Jamie, that’s what you said. We’re on an adventure, Jamie. I thought a nice spot of grass would do the trick fine enough, but...”

Dani slaps at her shoulder, misses somehow, almost tips over. Jamie catches her around the middle, and there’s a flash--the briefest, there-and-gone flash--of that night. Of Jamie holding her up. Of watching the world spin for a very different reason. 

Life, she thinks with a stab of unease, is very short. 

“Okay.”

“Okay?” Jamie repeats, a bit bewildered. She adjusts her grip, helping Dani find her feet again so she can let go. California is better than most anywhere else--at least this part of California--but it still isn’t good to give the universe an open shot. 

“We can...” She can’t say it. Isn’t quite that high. “We can--”

“Explore,” Jamie supplies. “See the sights. It’s an adventure, after all.”

And it does feel adventurous. There is a bravery in Dani Clayton she never seems able to predict--the things she’s capable of, the things she even finds she enjoys, tend to come out of left field and catch her unawares. Some of these things have a tendency to work out better than others. 

(Example: kissing Jamie. Truly the best snap decision she’s ever made. Inviting a ghost into her body? Maybe not so high on the list.)

But the sun is bright, and the buzz beneath her skin feels good, and there is no sign of ghosts in California. Just a surprisingly well-lit shop with a clerk who gives them a bored nod and a tiny hand gesture that says, Go on, couldn’t care less what you do, long as you’ve got cash. Dani smiles at him, too wide, and wonders if he’s like them. If he, too, has spent a lifetime unable to show off in the world. 

There isn’t much time to think about it, not with Jamie taking her by the sleeve and guiding her through neatly arranged aisles. There are costumes here that make Dani’s skin go white-hot to imagine trying to be serious wearing. There are items designed to vibrate, items designed to bind wrists, items designed for things she really feels better off not thinking about at all. 

“What d’you think?” Jamie asks at one shelf, eyebrows raised, and Dani thinks she’s joking. Probably joking. Must be joking. 

“Have you--I mean, I’d have no idea how to--”

“You could,” Jamie says in a low voice that sends a shiver down her spine. How Jamie can do this to her without even trying, even after years together, she can’t explain. Jamie isn’t even working at it now; her hands are tucked into her pockets, her head tilted pensively as she considers the array of options laid out before them. She’s barely even looking at Dani. 

“I could,” Dani repeats weakly, “what?”

“Try it out,” Jamie explains. “If you wanted. If you were interested. But that’s not really what I’m suggesting. See...I know how they work. I’ve, uh...I mean, if you’re interested in...that.”

Her voice trails off, her eyes darting to steal a brief glance at Dani’s face, and Dani’s not entirely sure what her face is even doing. Judging by the way Jamie licks her lips, she suspects it isn’t subtle. 

“Interested,” she says in a very small voice, gripping Jamie’s hand with convulsive force. “Yeah. Little bit.”

They don’t try it out in the hotel room; that is, Dani says once the brownie has worn off some, entirely too bold, even for an adventure. They make absolutely certain the package is tucked away in the bottom of the suitcase, as far as possible from prying eyes that never come to call. They don’t even talk about it again until they’re safely home. 

Dani’s suddenly so nervous, it’s like the first time. Like stumbling up to her room with Jamie pressed close behind, every touch the kind of electric she’d thought might take her out before she had a chance to get Jamie’s clothes off. She walks into their apartment, this place they’ve called home for almost four years, and she thinks, I have never been terrified here before. 

Jamie, seeming to sense her mood, sets the bag by the door and pulls her into an embrace. She kisses the side of her head. “Hey. We don’t have to. Can just put it in the closet for a rainy day.”

Dani senses the truth of this statement, that Jamie is perfectly fine pretending they never bought the thing at all. That Jamie would be perfectly fine sliding into bed with her like always, relying on skilled hands and searching tongue, loving Dani with everything she’s got as she has for years. Jamie would be okay with this. Jamie would never push. 

But life is short, and sometimes, a person can surprise herself. 

Jamie switches the lights off. Jamie almost never switches the lights off, not since the first time she ever told Dani she was the most beautiful person she’d ever seen. Still, Dani is relieved. There is something reassuring about Jamie’s willingness to take her hands in the dark, about Jamie’s eagerness to please her binding tight to Jamie’s devotion to keeping her safe. 

“Slow,” she promises Dani, sliding into bed and cradling her face. She is still just Jamie, Dani recognizes, though anxiety is playing tricks on her heart rate. Just Jamie’s hands, soft on her cheeks, brushing her hair back. Just Jamie’s mouth, raining small, light kisses across her face. Waiting for her to decide how far this goes. 

And Dani would be lying if she said she wasn’t nervous--if she said the brush of cloth harness around Jamie’s hips and the silicon between her legs wasn’t a surprise, even knowing what to expect. She would be lying, too, if she said it wasn’t a thrill. That Jamie is just laying alongside her in familiar sheets, thumb drawing soft arcs across her cheekbone, down the line of her jaw, tipping her head back so Jamie can kiss her neck. That Jamie is touching her like always, not pushing, not rushing, fingers playing along her skin like she’s the world’s most well-loved instrument. 

Jamie, breathing soft words into every kiss. Jamie, exhaling, “Lead the way, okay? Tell me. Anything you want.”

Dani finds her own hand sliding down, exploring the familiar curve of Jamie’s neck, fingering the chain that rests against her collarbones, drawing down, down, until she’s taking a handful of something not Jamie in the least. Testing its weight against her palm. Curling her fingers loosely. Jamie, though this object is not possessed of skin or nerve endings, sucks a breath in through her teeth anyway. Like Dani taking the time to explore is doing something maybe Jamie herself can’t even explain.

“Okay?” she says, breath warm on Dani’s skin, and Dani nods. She finds her body is searching Jamie’s out, pressing in close, and Jamie’s hand is covering hers. Even as she moves Dani gently to her back, even as her hips are coming to rest against Dani’s, her hand is there. A grounding force, as ever. Guiding in. 

Dani draws a hot breath, knees bent, and Jamie pauses. Moves only when Dani’s eyes open and she nods, one arm around Jamie’s neck, pulling her down to kiss her parted lips. 

“Slow,” she agrees, and Jamie makes a noise she likes more than anything else in the world as she shifts her hips, slides all the way in. The world is dark around them, made up of little more than the careful rock of Jamie’s body against hers, the instinctive way her own legs come up to pull Jamie deeper, the wonderfully small, uncontrolled noise she can hear herself making against Jamie’s shoulder. The method is foreign, but it’s still Jamie’s body behind each thrust, still Jamie’s rhythm making her whimper and clutch at Jamie’s neck. 

They move together, and it’s been four years, four years of learning every inch of how Jamie is capable of moving with her, but Dani finds this is something other. Something perfectly matched. Not better, not a completion she’s never found before--Jamie has never been lacking--but new, anyway. 

She hears her own hitching breaths, hears the fevered, reverent way Jamie says her name over and over, the bed knocking against the wall again and again. Jamie, true to her word, goes slow the whole way, until Dani is biting her own lip against a cry, until Dani is clenching and shuddering under her. 

“Good kind of adventure?” Jamie asks, having carefully extricated herself, stripped off the addition, curled up against Dani’s chest. Dani hums. 

“Thank you.”

Jamie raises her head. “For what?”

Dani mulls it over, her body spent, her mind already on its way to sleep. 

“For,” she says at last, nuzzling closer, “not getting sick of me. Not getting sick of walking with me through the parts I’m not...prepared for.”

She doesn’t say what she means--that, someday, the parts she isn’t prepared for won’t be trying a new toy in bed--and knows she doesn’t have to. Jamie signed on for the whole adventure the day she took Dani’s hand, kissed her knuckles, promised her company for good or for ill. 

There’s a promise like that, Dani thinks blearily as she sinks into sleep. For better or worse. People say that to the person they’re going to...

5

Living in America when you can’t share the love of your life with the world is, sometimes, a lot more frustrating than Dani would have given it credit for before finding Jamie. Back in her old life, walking around with Edmund’s hand possessively wrapped around her waist, she’d felt like no one should want to lean into PDA. It was embarrassing, she felt. Horribly awkward, having someone else’s arm around your shoulders as you tried to fall into step with their much longer legs, or trying to find the right produce at the grocery store with someone insisting you hold their hand. She’d thought it would be a relief, in its own horrible way, not to have that opportunity. 

And then Eddie was gone, and Jamie’s was the hand in the grocery store, the arm hesitating before reaching her shoulders. Now? Dani gets it. Dani gets it, and can’t have it, and it makes her crazy.

She thinks Jamie knows this. Knows Jamie, too, longs for a world where no one would look twice if they curled close together in a movie theater, or lay with Dani’s head pillowed in Jamie’s lap at the park. Jamie wants the constant contact at least as much as Dani does, because tactile environments are where Jamie shines. 

It is, before Jamie ever said the words aloud, how Dani knew for a fact Jamie loves her. 

It is, before Jamie ever admitted as much, how she knew for a fact Jamie has chosen this for good and for all. 

And it is, as time marches on and strangers remain staunchly bigoted, making her crazy not to be able to embrace. 

Jamie feels it, too, she knows, but Jamie has a very particular way of coping with her inability to just behave normally with Dani in social situations. A way that is, in its own way, also driving Dani crazy.

She just keeps getting more and more handsy. 

The thing is, she’s doing it in the most absent-minded way possible, like Dani has watched girls--straight girls, girls who are allowed to cuddle close to other women and touch their hair and play with their jewelry without anyone caring to judge--do her whole life. In ways Dani herself can’t imagine. Jamie will just sidle up behind her, hand brushing her shoulder and falling away again before anyone can question it. She’ll touch two fingers lightly to the soft inner stretch of Dani’s wrist to get her attention at dinner, and by the time Dani’s fully registered it, her hand is gone, flagging down a waiter.

At first, Dani thought she was doing it on purpose. A kind of game to keep them entertained in boring public situations. She’d thought it was another brand of adventure, of Jamie being comfortable in her skin so long, she feels capable of sneaking past strangers. 

Now, after weeks of increasing torment, she thinks Jamie is just doing this. Somehow toeing the line between what is dangerous and what is fraying at Dani’s sanity. 

“How are you doing that?” she asks when Jamie brushes the tips of her fingers just under Dani’s blouse, catching the strip of skin before her jeans begin, though they’ve got seven customers milling around the shop. Jamie looks confused.

“How am I doing what?”

“You’re--” Dani bites down on the words as old Mrs. Morgan, who comes in twice a month for arrangements to present to her daughter-in-law, shuffles up to the counter. Jamie smiles her best customer-service smile, as polished and somehow genuine as anything, and sets to work ringing her up. Dani, free for the moment, leans back with thumbs folded tight into her fists.  

“Sorry,” Jamie says a few minutes later, once more wearing that lightly-perplexed look she gets when Dani points out something of which she has not been conscious. “What’ve I been doing, now?”

“You’ve been...” Dani makes a concerted effort to lower her voice, which seems like a wise idea right until Jamie takes another step and bends her head to hear the next words. She’s right there, barely three inches away, and Dani’s never clenched her fists so hard to keep from grabbing at thin black suspenders. “Touching me. In public.”

“Have I?” Jamie looks genuinely startled. “More than is normal, you mean?”

Dani shakes her head, unable to stomach the difference between what is normal for them and what is normal for women who are not sleeping together. Not in love. Not sharing every inch of a life that deserves to have songs written about it. 

“I’m sorry,” Jamie says. “Honestly, Dani, I didn’t mean--am I making you uncomfortable?”

You’re making me want you, Dani thinks helplessly, in places I absolutely cannot have you. Which is, in its own way, worse. 

“I’ll be more careful,” Jamie assures her, completely missing the point. She reaches as if to touch Dani’s elbow, catches herself, smiles wryly. “A lot more careful.”

Dani wants to tell her that isn't what she wants, isn’t what she’s ever wanted, that there’s only so much time in the world for careful--but that’s the fire talking, the one running through her blood each time Jamie looks up from repotting flowers and gives her a little once-over, a wink. The real world requires careful. The real world requires walking lightly, hands swinging a little apart. 

The real world requires, when Jamie leans over her to recover paper towel from a higher shelf, breasts pressing into Dani’s back, her to keep her goddamned head. 

It requires, when Jamie reaches around her for a drinking fountain in the park, bare skin of her arm pressed flush to Dani’s, her to keep her goddamned self-control in check. 

It requires, when Jamie laughs and bumps close in line at the airport, her fingers brushing the hair behind Dani’s ear to keep it out of her eyes, for Dani to keep her goddamned pulse from skittering into adrenaline overdrive. 

It’s been years, she reminds herself furiously as they settle in on the plane. They’re off to see Owen for the first time in ages, and it’ll be good to get away--there have been feelings she can’t collate inside her head, dreams in black and white she wakes from gasping. A little time away should help bring her back down. 

Back down from worrying over ghosts, anyway. 

Jamie’s wandering hands, on the other hand...

“Jamie,” she hisses, because airplane seats are really not spacious, and though they don’t have a seatmate on the aisle, there’s an elderly couple across the way with a perfect view of Jamie’s hand resting on her knee. Jamie looks down, jumps a little, tucks the offending hand under her own leg. 

“Shit. Don’t know what’s wrong with me...”

Nothing, Dani wants to say, is wrong with you. It’s them. They’re wrong for asking us to hide. They’re wrong for asking me to ever pretend, even for a second, that you’re not the most important person in my life. 

“It’s all right,” she whispers instead, like the pressure of Jamie’s palm sliding off her kneecap hasn’t left scorch marks. She closes her eyes, leans her head back. There’s a long flight ahead for someone already on fire. A long flight, and she thinks with truly feral madness, There’s a bathroom. Small. Cramped. But we could fit, maybe. I could get her in there, maybe. 

She lets the image unspool for a moment: Jamie propped against a tiny airplane sink, muffling filthy sounds against her arm, Dani on her knees before her. No. No, best put that away for now. Even if they weren’t caught, by some insane miracle, they’d just have a bigger problem afterward. A problem labeled we’ve proven we’re willing to test this

Dani isn’t, not really. Not if there’s a chance of blowing up their whole life. 

Still, it’s hard to scrub the idea away. Jamie is looking at her with some concern, and it’s fair: Dani’s aware her cheeks are pink, her breath coming in sharp hitches. She forces a smile.

“You all right?” Jamie asks quietly. “Don’t feel sick, do you?”

“Not sick,” Dani says. She presses her lips into a thin line, gaze flicking unintentionally from Jamie’s eyes to her mouth, and understanding breaks slowly across Jamie’s face. 

“Ah.” She looks so smug. Dani wishes that made her want Jamie any less. 

“Don’t tease,” she mutters. “Can’t help it.” She really can’t, either. Jamie’s been there, right there, touching her everywhere for such short bursts, but the shop has been crazy. They’ve been tired. There hasn’t been any real time together in far too long. 

Jamie looks at her, a long look that Dani thinks for a heart-stopping second will end in her simply saying, “Fuck it” and leaning in to kiss Dani on this plane. Can’t, she warns her silently. Can’t do that, Jamie, because if you start, I won’t be able to stop--

“Bit chilly,” Jamie says conversationally to someone over Dani’s head. She turns, catching sight of an airline stewardess just as Jamie adds, “Wouldn’t say no to a blanket, if there’s one handy.”

Oh, she’s made a joke, Dani thinks, staring fixedly at the ceiling. Heaven help me, she’s made a goddamn Owen pun, and they don’t even know. 

The blanket, when it arrives, is thick, made of a somewhat scratchy dark gray material. Jamie spreads it laboriously across her own lap first, then makes a show of looking at Dani. 

“You cold? Only, this is huge, and I’d feel terribly selfish hogging it the whole trip.”

Across the aisle, one of their elderly neighbors nods as though Jamie is the wisest, kindest person she’s ever seen in the wild. Jamie gives a returning nod, says blithely, “Ask for a blanket, flight’s always frigid once we get going.”

She’s pulling the blanket across Dani’s lap now, somehow making it look as though her hands are not sliding up Dani’s thigh in the process. Dani nearly bites her tongue trying not to respond. 

She does believe, with her whole heart, that Jamie did not mean to start this. That Jamie’s wandering hands in public are entirely a thing of habit built at home. Jamie is always touching her at the apartment, always squeezing her arm or stroking her cheek or kissing whatever part of her is within reach. It’s the most natural thing in the world. She certainly hasn’t been putting them at risk on purpose. 

But right now? Right now, on this plane, tucking the blanket carefully around Dani so there’s no way prying eyes can catch a glimpse of what’s going on beneath it?

Jamie is absolutely doing this on purpose. 

“Are you crazy?” she hisses, trying to look as though she isn’t seconds from flying out of her own skin. Jamie is smiling so calmly, so rationally, tucking her hands under the blanket.

“Nope. Just chilly, as I said. Aren't you?”

Dani thinks she’s never been warmer in her entire life, not with Jamie’s rebellious left hand dragging the skirt up over her knees. From an outside perspective, it’s impossible to see; Jamie looks perfectly calm. Even friendly, should anyone catch her eye. She smiles like she doesn’t have Dani’s skirt rucked nearly to her waist.

She smiles like her hand isn’t sliding down the curve of Dani’s thigh now, cresting against the front of cotton underwear. 

“Jamie,” Dani breathes. Jamie leans over on the pretense of trying to glance into the aisle for persons unknown. Her lips graze Dani’s ear. 

“Keep quiet. Just pretend you’re looking out the window.”

Looking out the window, Dani thinks wildly, right. Like nothing’s going on under the noses of their fellow passengers. Like nothing whatsoever is happening under this blessedly-thick blanket, Jamie’s left hand tracing shapes into the apex of her groin. Jamie, with the calmest goddamn smile she’s ever seen, saying, “This is going to be good for us, y’know. Haven’t been out to see the sights in ages. America’s really gotten under my skin...”

How, thinks Dani, fists clenched against her own thighs under the blanket, is she talking? How can she possibly be holding a perfectly sane, perfectly serene conversation with her fingers sliding up, pulling aside the elastic of Dani’s underwear, moving the material aside just enough to press against slick skin. Dani swallows hard enough to hurt. Her own fingers are leaving impressions against her legs, bruises she’d rather be digging into Jamie’s skin. 

“You’ll like it,” Jamie says in a placid, low voice, like her fingers aren’t currently tracing a spot particularly wet and warm. Like Dani’s hips aren’t twitching as she fights the urge to press into Jamie’s hand. Like she doesn’t know Dani’s nails are biting into her own thighs, dragging grooves that will burn later. 

“Jamie.”

“Mm?” Like she doesn’t know. She’s grinning a crooked, cheerful little grin that makes Dani want to kiss her blind. If only they weren’t on a plane, if only there weren’t so many damn people around, she’d be out of this seat and riding Jamie’s lap, paying her back for this, making her squirm--

“You,” Dani says through clenched teeth as Jamie teases with one finger, slowly sliding in and easing right back out again. “You are in so much trouble when we land.”

“Yeah,” Jamie agrees, eyes shining. If anyone bothered to look at her properly, they’d see the hunger etched all over her face, even under the easy smile. “Yeah, reckon I am. But that’s hours off, yet, Poppins. Might as well enjoy the ride.”

Dani moves a hand to grip Jamie’s knee as hard as she can, exhaling through her nose to keep from whimpering as Jamie sets a slow, dangerous pace. 

This, she decides, will certainly be the thing to drive her insane. 

6

She's learned a lot about Dani over the years. A lot of wonderful, invigorating, sexy things about Dani--and a lot of simple ones, too. How much garlic Dani prefers in just about any dish. How good she is at decorating a house so it looks safer than anywhere in the world. How bad she is at pretending not to stare when Jamie walks out of the bathroom in nothing but a mis-buttoned flannel shirt. 

A good relationship, Jamie has determined--all too aware that this is the first and last truly good relationship of her life--is constant education. Learning what your person likes, and doesn’t like, and didn’t think they could ever tell you they liked until the moment arrived. Learning when to keep the lights on, when to hold them in the dark. Learning what moods beg a kiss, which ones require hands wiping away tears, and which ask only for silence. 

She’s been with Dani a long time. Hopes to be with her a lot longer. Decades, if she can trick the universe into granting them that long a reprieve. Years, if she can only steal that much. Any time with Dani is cherished. Any time with Dani is more than either of them expected. 

She’s been with Dani a long time, and there’s a lot she knows now. Where Dani’s ticklish in ways that will derail sex entirely by way of hysterical laughter; where she’s ticklish in less aggressive ways that will, in fact, enhance the experience when Jamie kisses those spots. She knows that Dani likes to relinquish control, because it makes her feel safe in Jamie’s hands, and that she sometimes likes to sneak control back when Jamie isn’t looking, because she likes the way Jamie forgets how to speak when she’s surprised. She knows the way Dani likes her neck kissed, the way Dani likes to be held through a particularly intense orgasm, the way Dani gets the right kind of embarrassed when something unexpectedly obscene comes out of her mouth at just the right moment. 

She knows a lot about Dani, every last detail precious, but she doesn’t know everything. Sometimes, Dani still surprises her.

Like the day she comes home with a sad little plant. 

She doesn’t recognize the look on Dani’s face, and a part of her--the part that’s been waking more and more as Dani jerks restlessly in her sleep, as she carefully averts her eyes from the bathroom mirror, as she gives that old tired not-quite-present smile Jamie remembers so well from their last week at Bly--worries. Dani is still full of surprises, but some of those surprises have teeth. Some, Jamie fears she’s not strong enough to lift from Dani’s shoulders. 

This time, though, the look is less hunted and more...quietly nervous. Jamie is distracted, failing miserably to secure dinner for what feels like the thousandth time in this kitchen, but something about the way Dani is hefting this plant cuts through her focus. 

Dani, rescuing plants off the side of the road. Be still her heart. 

Something about the way Dani glances at her as she takes over at the stove, something about the way Dani brushes past like she’s running on something electric, nearly ruins the surprise. Nearly. Except Jamie is distracted, and there's something green and not entirely lifeless to repair, and Jamie has always been up for getting to the heart of a problem. The roots, she sees without really needing to dig. The roots are...

“Dani,” she hears herself say. “Why’s there a...”

And then Dani is using words like best friend, love of my life, words so big and so wonderful Jamie wonders if she’s really awake right now. And there are other words, scary ones--don’t know how much time we have left--but Dani chases them quickly with the best words Jamie’s ever heard. Words like spend them with you. Words like we’ll know. Words like it’s enough for me, if it’s enough for you. 

Jamie can’t imagine this not being enough. 

She’s half-crying, kissing Dani, half-laughing, wholly effervescent. Dani’s hair is soft under hands that suddenly feel too small, too clumsy, holding on to something so fragile. Dani’s whispering I love you against her lips, and Jamie recognizes some fear in the way she’s pulling Jamie closer. Some fear, and a huge amount of relief, too. 

“Did you think I’d say no?” she teases when the tears dry up enough to let her speak again. Dani, forehead pressed against hers, shakes her head minutely. 

“I don’t think anyone knows what the answer will be. But...no. No, I didn’t.”

“Good,” Jamie says, trying to look like she’s not sniffling. “Think you know me better than that.”

“I know you better than anyone,” Dani says, so honestly, Jamie feels something crack from deep inside. She slides the ring onto her finger to distract from this feeling of being dunked under by some enormous wave, by feelings she truly once thought she’d never have the space for in her body. 

Dinner is decidedly not salvageable by this point, and Jamie finds she isn’t hungry, anyway. She leads Dani to the the couch, curls up close to her, eyes straying back to that sad little potted plant. 

“Tried to grow it, didn’t you?”

“No,” Dani says, with exactly the same inflection she once used at six in the morning in a greenhouse. Jamie laughs. 

There’s an energy between them tonight unlike anything Jamie’s ever felt before. It’s been hinted at over the years--in a bedroom at Bly, in a diner in the Midwest, in the middle of their shop--but never quite so clearly as in this moment. Dani, who has seemed less and less content lately, has an arm around her shoulders, her breath coming easier than it has in weeks. Jamie doesn’t like thinking about that, doesn’t like looking too closely at what might be pulling Dani back down that particular road.

This, she decides. Just this. Just today. The rest can wait. 

Dani has her hand in her lap, is fiddling with the ring like she can't quite believe she had the guts to actually give it to Jamie. Dani is always so much more surprised by her own courage than Jamie has ever been. It was always, she thinks, watching Dani idly twist the gold band back and forth, going to be Dani doing the proposing. Dani, whose relationship with marriage is so complicated. Dani, whose relationship with time is so complicated. 

There’s a lot in the relationship Dani leaves in Jamie’s hands. Repairs around the house, ideas of how the shop could run more smoothly, most nights in the bedroom. There’s a lot Dani doesn’t feel like she needs to grip in tense fists, a lot Dani has never felt the need to control. Jamie’s not sure control is the word she’d choose for herself, either, but there’s a certain natural leadership to her posture in the world. Maybe because, for a time, there was no one but Jamie herself calling the shots. Maybe because she’s used to making hard choices, unable to drop them on anyone else’s shoulders. 

It makes her feel an unexpected kind of strong, that Dani trusts her with so much. 

But this always felt important to leave to Dani. Jamie would have been all right if they never had this conversation; the way she sees it, not much would have changed. Dani is still her most important person, ring or no. She’ll be here as long as Dani will have her, even without vows or witnesses.

But for Dani to have done this--for Dani to have planned it out, kept it a secret when she is absolutely terrible at keeping secrets from Jamie (”I never know,” she says, making a horror into the sweetest thing in the world by virtue of pout alone, “how much time we have, why would I keep anything from you?”), dropped it smoothly on a sunny evening like this--is perfect. It’s small, and it’s private, and it’s the bravest thing in the world. 

“I love you,” Jamie says, because there is no amount of saying it that would feel like enough. Dani smiles until the corners of her eyes crinkle. 

There are things that have surprised her about Dani over the years, and things that may have surprised Dani even more--but the thing Jamie finds most surprising of all comes from this. From the way her whole body relaxes in Dani’s hands. From the way her eyes close and her breath shallows out when Dani’s nearby. She’s never been good at vulnerability, not with anyone, but the minute Dani entered her life, it’s like vulnerability became her life’s mission.

Never consciously. Never with intent. Just...organically, the way cells know to age, the way plants know to seek sunlight. Dani walked into her life with shoulders tight and more love in her heart than she seemed to know what to do with, and suddenly, Jamie wanted only to give. Her time, her affection, anything Dani needed. Anything Dani could ever want. 

It should be exhausting. It should take everything out of her. It should wring her out and leave nothing in its wake. 

Instead, it seems to make her stronger every day. It seems to make her more with everything she gives to Dani: her love, her hope, her reassurances. She gives, and Dani, who could so easily take, gives back, and Jamie thinks, It’s this. It’s the exchange. Not just the caring, but the being taken care of. 

“What’re you thinking?” Dani asks. Jamie winds their fingers together, brings their joined hands to her lips. 

“That I’m lucky. Incredibly, illogically lucky.”

“Should I have--” Dani hesitates. “I don’t know, done it sooner?”

Sand in an hourglass, Jamie thinks. In the end, it’s all sand in an hourglass, and no amount of rushing can change it. 

“It was perfect,” she says, leaning across Dani to kiss her lips. “Truly. Couldn’t ask for better.”

Dani looks like she may be considering pressing--there’s a particular crease she gets between the eyes when self-consciousness is at the wheel, and it breaks Jamie’s heart every time she sees it. Jamie pushes her back against the arm of the couch, dropping with her until they’re laying flush, cupping one hand under Dani’s jaw to kiss her properly. 

“Perfect,” she repeats, brushing her nose against Dani’s, sighing when Dani’s hands move reflexively to slide the strap of her overalls off her shoulder. 

There’s less verbal reassurance from there, considerably more work done via hands and sighs and lips. They’re laughing even as Jamie shifts too far to the left and rolls them both onto the very-solid floor in a half-dressed heap. Dani’s still laughing--half-wild with what Jamie reads as untempered relief--even as Jamie helps her wrestle out of her jacket, even as Jamie is sliding down her body, kissing her way back up again through the impossibly-deep slit in her dress. 

There are times with Dani that feel like the pair of them will burst into flame if they aren’t touching, if they aren’t setting a rhythm together in that very moment. There are times where it’s all hunger, all heat, where Jamie thinks the very act of loving Dani might set her ablaze. And then there are times like this: times where Dani watches her with half-lidded eyes, smiling even as Jamie is undressing her, even as Jamie is coaxing cloth aside and pulling Dani to her mouth. Smiling, sighing, shifting under Jamie like there’s nowhere else in the world she’d rather be. 

Times like this, tasting Dani, grasping blindly for her hand with eyes closed, are secretly Jamie’s favorite. Times like this, feeling Dani move beneath her, tracing Dani’s knuckles with the pad of her thumb, Dani’s voice the only song in the room, are the absolute ideal. It’s only here, in their home, knowing Dani would give anything to keep this safe, that Jamie thinks she’s her absolute best self. 

It’s here--curled on the floor with her back against Dani’s chest, Dani’s hand tossed lightly over her hip, both of them covered with a very badly crocheted blanket Dani picked out at a flea market--that she feels most real. 

“I want this,” Dani says sleepily, words muffled with her mouth pressed against Jamie’s shoulder. “For as long as possible.”

“Sleeping naked on a hardwood floor?” Jamie shifts her face against her bent elbow, grinning. Dani’s arm slides tighter around her middle.

“Holding you. Anywhere.”

“Think that can be arranged,” Jamie says, voice unexpectedly thick with emotion. Dani nuzzles against her shoulder again.

“Promise?”

Something releases in her chest, the duality of Dani now--a Dani who is starting to get scared again, but still brave enough to ask Jamie to marry her--and Dani then--a Dani terrified already, but so brave in asking Jamie to stay--coalescing into one. She inhales, shuddering, pressing back into Dani’s arms as hard as she can. Dani squeezes like she understands, like she knows Jamie needs nothing like she needs to know Dani is the most solid thing in the room. 

This is the thing, Jamie thinks, that surprises her most. Not just being taken care of, but needing it from Dani. Needing to be held, needing to feel the weight of Dani’s body against her own. Needing to be reminded that for all her good humor, all her confidence, all the times Jamie can’t help putting Dani first--Dani’s doing the exact same thing. 

“I’m gonna marry you,” she hears herself say, turning in Dani’s grasp and pressing her face against Dani’s neck. “Someday. Minute it’s even remotely legal.”

Dani makes the most content noise she’s ever heard in her life. “One day at a time,” she says. To Jamie’s ears, it's the purest kind of vow.