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on the hunt (for who i've not yet become)

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Dani Clayton is six years old when the O’Mara family moves in across the street. The world, for the most part, makes perfect sense in ways that will unravel in two short years. She understands the suburban block on which she’s lived her entire life, the breadth of her father’s hands, the shine of her mother’s eyes. She understands everything.

The O’Mara family makes sense, too. The father is quiet, but kind; the mother is all bright smiles, the kind of hug Dani could get lost in. There are three boys, and one is even her own age: a small-boned, curly-haired boy introduced as Edmund, who scuffs a hand under his nose and corrects, “Eddie” when his mother isn’t looking.

“Dani,” Dani tells him in the same furtive whisper, though her mother thinks nicknames ought to be reserved for pets and special occasions. It’s like a secret handshake between them, a moment of perfect clarity, and she is confident in her own assertion to Eddie’s mother that she will be his new best friend. It’s important, she believes, to say these things out loud. To tell the universe what’s what. 

She is six, and the world makes perfect sense. Eddie is her new best friend. Judy will befriend her mother the same way. Her father will watch football with the boys, they’ll all pile into the Clayton backyard for weekend barbecues, and the world will make sense forever.

***

Dani Clayton is seven years old, and the world skews a little to the left. Not too badly, not so much that she can’t orient herself, but enough. Enough to tell her some things, you can’t see coming.

Like her dad getting sick.

Like her mom getting tired.

Like Judy picking her up after school more and more often.

“He’ll be okay,” Eddie says, and she believes him, because Eddie is good at sounding older than his seven years. Eddie is good at head up, shoulders back, steady eyes. She believes him, because he sounds like his dad, like his brothers, like he’s seen enough to know.

“It’s just a bad day,” Eddie says, and she believes him, because Eddie makes more sense than most anyone. She believes him because Eddie has met her dad, has seen him strong and healthy, has watched him fade into a paper-cut variation of the man who passed on his smile, his love of slow music, his fear of heights. She believes him, because if Eddie can watch that slow-motion shift in real time and still smile, he must know something she doesn't.

“Maybe he just needs more rest,” Eddie says, with dwindling certainty, and she believes him--because there’s nothing else for it. She believes him because she is seven, and her dad doesn’t really leave his bed anymore, and she’s been sleeping over at Eddie’s almost every weekend. 

Which has, in its own way, been odd. Eddie’s mother has been kind and warm as ever, but distracted, constantly on phone calls and filling out paperwork. When Dani asks, Eddie says there’s a program his mom is trying to get them into, a program to help kids in need. He doesn’t really get it, and it strains Judy’s smile some nights with thin exhaustion, and Dani doesn’t really care to push. There are bigger things. Dad-shaped things. Sick-shaped things.

“He’ll be okay,” Eddie says, a pretty lie that, even at seven, Dani is scrambling to believe. 

***

Dani Clayton is eight years old, and the world dumps over sideways without warning. In a single week, two things happen, a too-quick double-punch to her equilibrium. 

Her father, who has been hanging on for what Dani finally understands as dear life, is gone. He’d made it through her eighth birthday, but not quite all the way to Christmas. She thinks it was the cold that did it, maybe. Or the snappy quality of her mother’s voice telling him to push on. Or the quiet Dani hadn’t been able to break open, the kind that folds around a person and pushes until they’re just too tired to walk another step. 

Her father is gone. The funeral was a stilted affair--Dani’s second, after a grandfather she barely remembers--and she’d felt too big for her dress, too small for the pew, too numb to be angry or sad or anything, really. She’d only been a blonde bow and a hand that clutched Eddie’s for something to do. For days afterward, she thought maybe she’d dreamed the whole thing. 

Her father is gone. Christmas follows in due time, and then January, and one Friday, she walks to Eddie’s house after school to find too many people. She pauses in the doorway, feeling unmoored, counting carefully. Two adults. Two teenagers. Two children.

Two children.

For a moment, the world seems to blur around her, and she thinks, I forgot something. I forgot something important. It feels as though the universe is playing a hugely unfunny trick, like it plucked her dad out of the fabric of her little life and dropped this surprise in to take his place. 

“Danielle, honey,” Judy says with surprise, though she’s smiling that enormous smile she seems to reserve for Dani alone. “I didn’t hear you come in. Here, come meet our new houseguest.”

Two children, sitting on the couch. Two heads of dark curly hair: one familiar, one brand-new. 

“This,” Judy says, hands on Dani’s shoulders, “is Jamie. She’s going to be staying with us.”

“For how long?” Dani asks, because there’s already one extra body pinned to this house, one extra mouth to feed, one extra life stamped with the graceless weight of grief. She’s not sure she’ll fit here anymore, not if someone who looks like she was made for this family could take her place. 

“Well,” Judy says, but Dani isn’t really listening. The girl is smaller than Eddie, a hunched tangle of gangly limbs and tense mouth. Her eyes are fixed on Dani’s face like she’s been looking all afternoon for something that makes sense, and Dani’s the closest she can get. 

“You have a sister now?” Dani asks later, when she and Eddie have scampered off to his room. The girl remained behind, hugging her knees on the couch, as though if she just didn’t move, they’d all forget she was here eventually and she’d be free. 

“No,” Eddie scoffs. “Not a sister. My mom says her mom ran away. Ran away from England.”

“Wow,” Dani says, impressed. She has the roughest approximation of what England even is--James Bond and The Beatles and a queen--and can’t imagine why someone would run away to here

“Her mom ran away,” Eddie goes on, “and her dad followed, but he had, like, problems. So she wound up in The System.”

Dani has absolutely no idea what The System is, but it sounds like something out of her dad’s old sci-fi novel collection. She tries to imagine that little girl, all hunted eyes and squirrely hands, jammed into a jumpsuit and made to work for her every meal. Something in her stomach tightens.

“But your mom will take care of her, right?”

Eddie nods. “She says it’s called fostering. Where you help kids with nowhere to go. Says a lot of people are really bad at it, so it’s up to moms like her to be extra good to make up for them.”

Words, thinks Dani. Too many words, but all boiled down, they mean one thing. Jamie is here in Eddie’s house because she had nowhere else to go. Jamie is here in Eddie’s house, which means she’s Dani’s, too, in some way too big and too weird to be defined. 

She tries to sneak out before Judy can call for dinner, aware that her plate will be going to someone who needs it more, but Judy catches her before her coat is all the way on. “Don’t be silly,” she says, looking happier than Dani has ever seen her. “We always plan for you, Danielle.”

***

Jamie doesn’t say much, at first. She seems to be trying to make herself small, as if thinking the less space she takes up, the easier it will be on everyone. Dani waits all through dinner, all through the jumble of brothers talking over one another, parents interjecting with questions about school, homework, weird marks found on the living room wall, but Jamie doesn’t utter a single word. 

“Danielle, sweetie, are you staying over tonight?” Judy is plucking plates from the table with practiced hands, her eyes bumping right over Dani like she already knows the answer. Dani, who has made a habit of sleeping in this house every weekend for six months, tightens her fists in her lap. 

“I don’t have to.”

She’s trying not to stare at the new girl, at the funny little jump in Jamie’s jaw that says she’s holding her teeth all together in a hard clench. She’s trying not to stare at the new girl, all-too aware that there’s only one guest room in the O’Mara house, and that best friends are well and good, but it wouldn’t be appropriate for you to sleep with Edmund, sweetheart. 

“I’ll make up the couch,” Judy says cheerfully, blazing right past Dani’s discomfort. “Unless you’d prefer a sleeping bag?”

Dani shakes her head. The girl is watching her furtively, clearly trying to look as though her full attention is on her plate. She has, Dani can tell from experience, been pushing the food around in random patterns to conceal just how little she’s eaten. 

“Sorry,” Eddie says when Judy is out of earshot. “I don’t know why she doesn’t just let you sleep in my room. It’s the biggest one in the house.”

“She says it’s not something boys and girls should do,” Dani reminds him, not quite able to add the truth: that she likes having space to herself, even in Eddie’s family. That it feels like a proper home, having a room where she can close the door and stop smiling for a little while. 

Felt, she supposes. That room belongs to Jamie, now.

“Do you kids want to play cards?” Judy calls from the sink. “Or dominos? I could get out the board games, and maybe Jamie could pick one.”

Jamie jumps a little, her knees socking into the underside of the table. She rubs at her mouth. Shakes her head once.

“S’okay.”

Dani’s head whips toward her voice, which is small and rough and heavily accented even on the single word. Jamie meets her gaze like she’s daring Dani to say something. Dani only smiles. 

“I don’t really like board games, either,” she confides in a voice too low for Judy to pick up. “Eddie always wins.”

“That’s not my fault,” he protests. “I just have more chances to practice! Anyway, maybe she’s good at games. Are you?”

This last, he adds with earnest interest, his eyes on Jamie’s hunched shoulders, her furrowed brow. Jamie shakes her head slowly. 

“Not really.”

“Well,” he says with a sigh. “that’s probably ‘cuz you haven’t played enough. You only get good at the strategies and stuff when you play a whole bunch.”

“That means,” Dani adds, feeling buoyed by Eddie’s involvement, by this joint effort to coax the new girl into a smile, “you’ll probably get really good really fast. You’ll both gang up on me, probably, with how good you’ll be at...at Yahtzee.”

Jamie looks puzzled. “That’s not a real word.”

“Right,” Dani agrees. “But it is a real game. With dice. If you want, we can teach you.”

She waits for the girl to say no, to shove back from the table and scowl. Instead, Jamie’s jaw tenses again, her eyes blinking rapidly like she’s trying to get rid of an eyelash.

Or trying not to cry. 

Dani, emboldened by some childish force of need--to be the brave one in the room, to not think about her dad in his cheap casket, about her mom staring blankly out the window with a cigarette burning down between her fingers--reaches for her hand. “C’mon. It’ll be fun, I promise.”

***

Jamie doesn’t talk much, but Jamie has one of the best smiles Dani has ever seen. It’s real, that smile. Even with Jamie nervous and sad and not quite sure how she fits in, her smile is honest. Dani, who has been looking up into the rigid grins of teachers and parents and classmates for months, knows what faking it looks like. 

Jamie doesn’t fake it. Not when Eddie wins three games in a row and Dani tosses pretzels into his hair. Not when Eddie flops out of his chair and plays dead on the carpet until the family cat bustles over to inspect his corpse. Not when Dani says, “You can’t get out of this by dying, you loser” and throws herself down to tickle him until he squeals. 

Jamie, gripping a pencil in one hand, her eyes shining, smiles for real, and Dani finds herself stealing little glances at that smile. Breaking off little pieces, one glance at a time, for later. 

Even Eddie doesn’t smile like that most days. Not lately, not while he's waiting for her to have another meltdown in class, to shatter into unexpected sobs when her dad’s favorite song comes on in the car. 

They play for hours, Eddie and Dani bantering back and forth while Jamie’s head swings like she’s at a tennis match. When Judy sweeps in to coax them all off to bed, Jamie rubs at the back of her neck, watching Dani help drape blankets onto the couch. 

“You’ll like your room,” Dani tells her, fluffing the pillow Judy long ago decided belonged to Dani alone. “It faces the part of the street where you can see the moon best. And Apollo likes to sleep in there, ‘cuz of all the heat vents. You like cats?”

Jamie shrugs. Dani reaches down, scoops up the ginger monstrosity, drops him into Jamie’s arms. 

“There. See? Already purring.”

Jamie’s brow doesn’t loosen, and she doesn’t smile, but she does look from Dani to the couch and back again. Dani, reading the hesitation in her expression, flaps a hand. 

“Oh, don’t worry about that. It’s a really comfy couch.”

She pretends to be asleep when Jamie pads back out midway through the night, looking for the bathroom, or a glass of water, or maybe just having forgotten where she is. She pretends to be asleep as Jamie pauses in the doorway, looking at the couch. The front door. Weighing her options. 

She pretends to be asleep, like she can’t hear Jamie sniffle, drag in a gulping breath, pad back to the little guest room with a prisoner’s reluctance.

***

Dani Clayton is nine years old, and her mom has sort of forgotten she lives in that house, too. The walls have grown cold and sterile, smelling of smoke, and the light seems never to fill in all the cracks where monsters might lurk. She tries telling her mother her room, especially, feels too full of shadows, but Karen doesn’t seem to hear her. Karen doesn’t seem to remember how to listen to anything these days, except the sound of her own grievances. 

“She just needs some time, honey,” Judy says, rubbing her shoulders. Dani doesn’t say it’s been a year, doesn’t say she misses her mom, doesn’t say she’s too small to hold up all those walls herself. Dani only makes herself comfortable at the O’Mara kitchen table with assignment sheets and a glass of juice, tucked between Jamie and Eddie like always.

“Do you think a person can have two best friends?” she asks. She’s thinking of last weekend, of how Jamie had crept out of her room and stood by the couch until Dani looked up. How Jamie had pressed a finger to her lips, tugged the blankets under her arm, gestured with a twitch of her head for Dani to follow to her room.

“Bit stupid,” she’d said when they were safely behind the closed door with Apollo rumbling between Dani’s feet. “It’s cold out there, and this was your room first, anyway.”

“Two best friends?” Eddie replies now, his brow creasing. Jamie keeps scratching away at her math worksheet as if not even listening. Dani chews the end of her eraser. 

“I mean, no one ever said it had to be one, right? Who makes the rules, anyway?”

“I guess we do,” Eddie says, his voice growing more certain with every word. “Yeah. Yeah, you can have two best friends.”

Dani watches Jamie’s face, searching for a sign that she understands what Dani is trying to say. There’s a little twitch, she thinks, right around Jamie’s mouth--a tiny pull of her lips to the left, like she’s trying not to smile. Warmth kneads her stomach like Apollo on a cold day. 

If Eddie says it, it must be true, and it’s nice to feel the guilt slither away. She’s been wondering for months about friends and best friends, about why she’s allowed to call Eddie her best, but it’s Jamie she finds herself talking to late at night. How it’s always Jamie curled beside her on the couch--or, more recently, in Jamie’s room--talking about dads and the different ways they can disappear without warning.

How, even when there is warning, it never quite feels like enough.

She doesn’t tell Eddie any of that. Eddie isn’t good with hard topics, with guilt or grief. Eddie is good at games, at helping with complicated science problems, at making her laugh. 

A purpose for everyone, her mother would have said, back when her mother would talk about anything real. Dani looks from one to the other, Eddie with his good humored smiles and his round glasses, Jamie with her quiet wit and talent for hearing every word Dani says. 

She isn’t entirely sure what her purpose is, between them. Maybe, she thinks, she’s the brave one. The adventurous one. The one to step out onto ledges she isn’t ready to climb.

She thinks back to recess, to how she’d taken Eddie’s hand in one of her own, Jamie’s in the other, and pulled them both off the wall they’d been huddled against. Eddie had argued that his glasses already got broken once this week, that he was happy with his comic books; Jamie, looking down at Dani’s hand with wide eyes, hadn’t argued at all. Not even when she led them both to the highest point on the jungle gym, despite her stomach pitching when she glanced down, and held both hands over her head with a cry of sheer delight. 

The brave one, she thinks, circling a true/false answer she only half trusts on the page. That could be pretty okay.

***

Jamie makes her a friendship bracelet. She doesn’t call it that--Jamie isn’t much for fluttery words, for acting like the other girls at school. She doesn’t seem to care who Dani talks to, so long as Dani doesn’t forget to say hi every so often. She doesn’t seem to care that Dani sits at the front of the class, while Jamie slumps in the back near the coat closet.

Jamie doesn’t seem to care about much of anything, compared to the fits of drama Dani sees in her classmates. 

So, when she draws a woven bracelet from her pocket one afternoon and presents it to Dani, Dani knows it matters. 

“Eddie said,” Jamie tells her in a gruff voice, “your birthday was tomorrow.”

Dani, who is not quite ready to be ten, not quite ready for whatever might wait around the curve of double-digits, nods. Jamie presses the bracelet, done all in shades of green and spots of white, into her hand.

“Birthdays deserve presents,” she says, and leaves it at that. 

Dani waits for her to disappear into her room--Jamie disappears into her room often, emerging an hour or three later as though the idea of being around too many people is draining--before asking Eddie, “When is her birthday, do you know?”

He shakes his head slowly. “She doesn’t really talk to me much when you’re not here.”

Weird, thinks Dani. She’s here all the time, practically, but Jamie lives here. Jamie has been in their lives almost two years, with no sign of going anywhere, and Dani has started to think of her as a fixture of the house. Like Eddie. Like Judy’s embrace. Like Apollo sleeping on her knees at night. Jamie has simply become part of the structure of Dani’s life, another warm light tucked into this warm almost-family. 

To think that Jamie doesn’t feel the same way, that Jamie goes to school and comes home and talks to no one except for Dani, is weird. It makes Dani sad, to imagine it. To imagine Jamie looking at her room, the kitchen, the card table where Eddie’s dad tries to teach them poker to little avail, and sees only a place to land at the end of the day. 

She touches the bracelet, tries to imagine Jamie--who only ever wears pants, who often has dirt under her nails and rarely remembers to tie her hair back--sitting for hours with carefully chosen threads, braiding together something small and lovely with only Dani in mind. 

She pulls the knot tight, asks Judy to coat it with a thin layer of clear nail polish to ensure it won't come loose. Eddie frowns. 

“Should I have made you something?”

It’s the first time he’s ever sounded uncertain about their friendship, about how to interact with Dani in close quarters. She grins, patting his hand. 

“You stabbed yourself in the thumb that time you tried to sew a button onto your shirt, remember? Maybe stick to store-bought.”

Jamie doesn’t say anything when she emerges for dinner an hour later, but her eyes linger on the bracelet looped around Dani’s wrist, and her smile doesn’t so much as flicker the whole time they’re at the table.

***

Jamie is ten years old, and already aware there is something about her that doesn’t quite fit. Something that has nothing to do with the parents who abandoned her, or the brothers she’ll likely never see again, or the accent rounding out her syllables in ways that just don’t pair up with the O’Mara residence. 

Ten years old, and already she knows she is wrong for this place. Wrong, though the walls stand upright and the ceiling doesn’t scrape her head and the floors don’t tilt out from under her feet. Wrong, though Judy O’Mara has more warmth in one hand than Jamie’s own mother possessed in her whole body. Wrong, though Eddie and his brothers have accepted her--if not as a sister, at least as a soul which will not be budged from this house under any circumstances. 

She thinks about running, sometimes. Even now, two years in, she catches herself looking out the window, wondering how much it would take to scramble up and over and bolt into the night. Would they miss her? Would they look?

She thinks Dani would.

She thinks Dani would be mad

Dani, whose hair is always shiny, whose clothes are worn, but clean. Dani, whose eyes are the kind of blue Jamie can see when she closes her own. Dani, who is Eddie’s best friend in the world, but who sometimes says things like, “People can have two best friends, can’t they?” And she’s always, always looking at Jamie when she does it. Always letting her fingers brush Jamie’s in silent reassurance.

At eight, Jamie spent long nights huddled on a couch, listening to Dani talk about fathers who waste away before your eyes and mothers who switch off like a faulty lamp when he’s gone. 

At nine, Jamie spent long hours huddled on her bed, door shut, painstakingly braiding together shades of green and white that made her think of life, of free, of Dani’s laugh on a summer wind. 

At ten, Jamie is huddled on the grass, not really paying attention to the conversation Eddie and Dani have been having--an argument, she thinks. A dare, maybe, from the sneer in Eddie’s voice when he says, “You won’t. Bet you ten dollars. Bet you twenty.”

Dani holds out her hand, eyebrows raised. He slaps a pen-knife into it, grinning. 

“You won’t. What if Mom got mad?”

As Jamie watches, Dani marches straight to the big old oak in the back of the O’Mara lot, tucked just out of sight of the house. It’s the one place, Jamie has learned, no one can see her from any of the windows. Sometimes, when it’s late and everyone has gone to bed, when the impulse to run is hot in her veins, she sneaks out and sits right where Dani is standing now. Head bent against her knees, she remembers home, remembers Mikey, remembers being too small and too miserable to make the best of a bad situation, and she cries.

Dani is standing there now, tongue between her teeth, her small hand working the knife in clumsy determination against the trunk at eye level. It’s the sort of thing, Jamie thinks, Jamie ought to be caught doing. If only Jamie didn’t worry. If only Jamie didn't think back to those other houses, those other so-called foster parents, and how much worse it could be if Judy O’Mara ever realizes what kind of gutter rat she took in.

Jamie is careful in ways she feels might draw her bones tight enough to crack, sometimes. Jamie is careful in ways that feel like a ticking bomb, sometimes. Dani doesn’t seem to feel any of that, not in the safety of Eddie’s yard, not working away at the gray bark with the tip of her knife. 

“There,” she says, standing back from her handiwork. Eddie, who has been staring with fascination, his eyes as big as Jamie is sure her own have grown, pushes to his feet and comes to look. 

“Oh, come on,” he says disgustedly. Dani raises her chin, folds the knife, holds it out for him to take back. 

You owe me twenty bucks,” she says, and flounces back to the grass without another word of explanation. Eddie sulks along behind her, and Jamie lets herself fade into the background of their conversation as it gradually lightens again, as they begin debating the best character in the new Star Wars movie. 

She waits until Judy calls for them, until Eddie scampers off with Dani hot on his heels, before slipping around to examine the tree. Her heart knocks against her ribs, a sharp one-two beat that makes her a little dizzy; she plants a palm beside the etching of a heart, two initials inscribed within. 

D + J, they say. 

Dani, wearing her bracelet, is grinning when Jamie catches up. She’s grinning, and she doesn’t explain herself, and there is something different about Jamie she just can’t look at right now. 

***

Dani Clayton is eleven years old when she says, her voice tight with anxiety, “I think he wants me to ask him.”

Jamie, stretched out on her back on the bed, tosses a tennis ball toward the ceiling. Catches it. Tosses it. Catches it. She is, Dani notes with some aggravation, not listening.

Which is weird, because Jamie is always listening. To her, anyway.

“I mean, do you feel that?” she presses, bunched on the mattress with Jamie’s sock-clad feet pressed into her leg. “Do you think he wants me to?”

“Dunno,” says Jamie. Up goes the ball. Down comes the ball. 

Jamie,” Dani huffs. “I need your help.”

“For what?” Up. Down. Up. Jamie’s expression is placid. “You know him better’n I do.”

“You live here,” Dani says. Jamie snorts.

“So do you, practically. Anyway, he’s your best goddamn friend in the world, right? Ask him.”

Dani swats her bare leg, fingers meeting the soft skin of her knee just beneath a fresh-looking scuff, a badge of honor from a recent tumble off Eddie’s handlebars. Jamie raises her head off the pillow, grip shifting around the ball. 

“Don’t swear,” Dani says, because it’s easier than explaining the strange dip in her breath when Jamie meets her eyes with one brow raised. “Come on. What if he does?”

“Asks you, or wants you to ask him?” Jamie doesn’t sound much bothered either way. Dani groans. 

“I just--I’ve never--I mean, it always looks so messy, in the movies.”

“People are messy,” Jamie says. “So what? Do you want to do it?”

“I don’t know,” Dani says helplessly, letting her head fall back against the wall. It is, unlike Eddie’s, completely barren. Jamie has lived here over two years without putting up a single poster. 

“If you don’t know,” Jamie says with sensible calm, “why’re you even worrying? Look, if he wants to do it, he’ll bloody well tell you. And if he doesn’t, seems an awful lot of winding yourself up for nothing.”

Dani thinks this over, trying to patch together the past few weeks. Eddie’s eyes have been shifty, his body language impossible to parse. In five years of knowing him, he’s never been quite this strange. 

“Boys,” said Judy fondly when she’d mentioned it, telling her nothing at all.

Boys,” said her mother disgustedly when she’d mentioned it, telling her even less.

“Doesn’t matter what he wants if you don’t want it back,” Jamie says now, like that could be even remotely true.

“I want to know,” Dani says. “But I don’t want him to--I mean, what if he thinks it means something? Or what if it’s bad? What if I’m bad?”

“Think everyone’s bad, first time out.”

Suspicion creeps in along the raised edge of her panic, tamping it down. Dani pushes up onto her knees, scooting across the bedspread until she can lean down and look Jamie in the eye. 

“You’ve done it before. Haven’t you?”

“Maybe,” says Jamie, letting the ball drop at her side. It rolls off the bed, pounced upon in an instant by Apollo. Jamie watches the cat morosely. “Never gettin’ that back now.”

“Jamie.” Dani bounces lightly, demanding attention. “Jamie, you’ve done it before and you didn’t tell me.”

“Maybe I did it before I even met you,” Jamie challenges, pushing up on her elbows and looking fierce. Dani tips her head, waiting, and the intensity slides away like magic. She grins. “Nah. Two months ago, behind the swings.”

“With who?” Dani demands. Jamie shakes her head. 

“A lady doesn’t--”

We’re not ladies,” Dani says. The anxiety is really leaving her now, replaced with pure amusement at watching Jamie bounce like a marble dropped onto a waterbed, Dani’s hands shaking her shoulders. “Jamie! I’m your best friend! You’re supposed to tell best friends stuff like this!”

“Well, how’m I supposed to know? Never had a best friend before, did I?”

Dani pauses in her mock-vicious shaking, her hands curled around Jamie’s t-shirt. “You like somebody. You like somebody, don’t you? Jamie! Is it Andrew?”

“Why,” Jamie says with obvious bewilderment, “would it be Andrew?”

“Tim?” Dani guesses. “The other Eddie? Our Eddie?!”

“None,” Jamie says, “of the above. Will you stop jolting around like that, you’re making me seasick.”

“Well, what was it like?” Dani asks, easing back on her knees. “Was it easy? Was it bad? Were you bad?”

“Hey,” Jamie says, affronted. Dani sighs, flopping down beside her, squirming to fit between Jamie and the wall. 

“I think I’m gonna dare him to do it.”

“Why?” Jamie asks, sounding genuinely curious. Dani shrugs, her shoulder bumping Jamie’s scrawny one. 

“Easier than waiting, I guess.”

Jamie sits up, scratching her neck. “Look, it’s not a big deal.”

“Easy for you to say.”

Jamie heaves a sigh. “You want to know? Without being all--without worrying what it means?”

There’s a look on her face, a stilted expression even weirder than Eddie’s, lately. Dani sits up, too, excitement swooping in her stomach. 

“Yeah.”

“Fine,” says Jamie, and leans in. She pauses halfway, eyes searching Dani’s, plainly expecting Dani to shove her away--and then, when Dani only waits, trying to remember how the characters in her favorite shows shape their mouths for a moment like this, closes the gap. Her lips are soft, the pressure quick, and she’s leaning back against her pillow again almost before Dani realizes she’s gone. “There. First one, out of the way. Next one can count for something.”

Her face is bright red as she shifts off the mattress in search of the tennis ball. Dani watches the curve of her back in a hand-me-down flannel shirt, the cuffs pushed up skinny forearms, feeling very much as though something is a much heavier word than it was a few minutes ago.

***

She dares Eddie to kiss her, anyway. She does it on the way to school one day, while Jamie is out sick, and tries not to think too hard about how his lips are chapped where Jamie’s were smooth. How his kiss almost misses her mouth entirely, landing more on her cheek, where Jamie’s aim had been perfect. How his face goes red all the way to his ears, exactly the same way Jamie’s had.

This one counts, she thinks, and doesn’t meet his eyes again until lunch.

***

Dani Clayton is twelve years old the summer Eddie goes away to camp. He’s excited all through the last weeks of school, bragging to anyone who will listen about his good fortune, about how it’ll be him and his brothers and a bunch of other boys in the woods for a month.

A month, Dani thinks wearily, of summer at her own house. A month of watching her mother jingle through bottles and swear about politicians on TV and--worst of all--tell stories about her dad Dani can’t believe are remotely true. Her mom has been telling these stories for years, each more far-fetched than the last, about how her dad had burned them out of money, how he’d been a drunk and a scoundrel, how his getting sick had been his own fault. 

“She needs to believe it,” Judy told her once, when Dani had slammed through the front door in tears. “Sometimes, people just need to believe whatever’s easiest, honey.”

Well and good, thinks Dani, but it’s not what’s easiest for her. Her dad was a good man, a great father, and spending a month locked into her mother’s rants to the contrary sounds like the worst June of her life. 

Jamie finds her on the front porch the first morning, her face bunched in surprise. “What the hell are you doing here?”

“I live here,” Dani says, trying not to look too sorry for herself. Jamie tips her head in recognition.

“I mean. Technically.”

“Eddie’s at camp,” Dani says, trying to make her understand. Jamie looks unimpressed.

“And I’m going stark in that fuckin’ place without the both of you talking my ear off. C’mon.”

She sticks out a hand, wiggles her fingers under Dani’s nose until Dani accepts and allows herself to be pulled off the porch. 

“Where’re we going?”

“Somewhere green,” Jamie says idly. “And where Judy can’t put me to work. She’s trying to get me to help her make a fuckin’ blanket, can you believe?”

Dani, toying with her bracelet, doesn’t tell Jamie she’d be good at it. That she has good hands for making things, a good, patient way of taking steps one by one. Jamie wouldn’t want to hear any of that. Jamie doesn’t like anyone knowing she’s good at being quiet, at sitting still, at making things happen with slow deliberation. 

“You’re never going to call her Mom, are you?” she asks instead. Jamie, hands tucked into the back pockets of her shorts, cranes her neck to let the sun beat against her skin. 

“Not my mum, is she?”

“No, but you’ve--”

“A good woman,” Jamie goes on doggedly. “Kind woman. Really, I’m grateful. Don’t ever want it to come across like I’m not. But she’s not...mine. And maybe that’s for the best, really. Mine was...”

Dani feels as though she’s holding her breath. Jamie, who walked into her life at eight years old, has never once talked about her mother. Her father, yes, from time to time--mostly early-days, when Dani’s own dad-shaped wound had been fresh and festering. But never her mother. 

“She was a runner,” Jamie says at last. “Way I see it, some are just built to run.”

There’s more to it than the simple words, Dani senses, but Jamie is not quite twelve, and the sky is blue, and the day holds promise. Now is not the time for stories of abandonment, of mothers who run or fathers who die. 

Jamie leads the way to the park, talking all the while about school being out, about the house being too quiet without Eddie and his brothers, about wishing Dani would come over more. 

“Place makes sense, with you there,” she says, grasping hold of a low tree branch and hoisting herself up. Dani watches her go, the scramble of her sneakers against peeling bark, the tension of her arms as she drags herself higher. Jamie isn’t afraid of heights. Jamie has never met a tree high enough. 

“I shouldn’t,” Dani says, watching as Jamie settles herself over a branch like she was always meant to be up there. One hand reaches down, and she reminds herself, The brave one as she accepts it, makes her own awkward ascent. 

“Why not?”

“Judy’s been taking care of me--well, since I was really little,” Dani explains. The green of the grass below her seems to swim; she shifts subtly until her back is pressed to Jamie for balance, her grip on the branch white-knuckled. Jamie slips an arm around her waist. 

“Easy. Not gonna fall. And she loves you, you know. Like one of her own.”

Dani sighs. “I know, but I don’t like being a--”

“Burden?” Jamie knocks a fist lightly against her knee, evidently not caring that she is now holding to the branch with nothing more than her own balance. “I figure, if you love someone, s’nothing burdensome about it. Anyway, she’s used to cooking for three teenage boys, there is way too much food in that house just now.”

***

Dani doesn’t think her mother would much notice if she didn’t come home for days, but Judy insists she swing by to let her know where Dani will be. “I would hate to think of her worried sick,” is how she puts it. Dani waits until she’s out of earshot before leaning into Jamie. 

“I could probably join the circus, and she wouldn’t know for weeks.”

“Yeah,” says Jamie comfortably, “but think of how poorly you’d take to the trapeze.”

She offers to come along, the first time she’s ever stepped past the front door of Dani’s home, and Dani can’t help but feel overwhelmed by the idea. Eddie has, of course, seen the house, back when they were small and life made sense. Dani hadn’t thought of any reason to bar him from her room, from the kitchen with its outdated wallpaper, from the nicotine-stained curtains in the living room. 

“You can wait out here if you want,” she says, the toes of Jamie’s sneakers barely crossing the concrete steps. From the corner of her eye, she sees Jamie’s head tilt in question.

“Here to help, aren’t I?”

Can’t help with this, Dani thinks with an adult’s helpless certainty. Four years, her mother has been twisting herself into this new shape, melting away a little more every day into someone Dani doesn’t recognize. If anyone could have helped it, they’d have done so by now.

She’s overly aware of Jamie following her into the dark house, Jamie craning her neck to take it all in. Not that there’s anything here, Dani thinks, to compare with the O’Mara’s. There are burns on the couch cushions, dust on the lampshades, tiny signals all over of her mother’s disregard for a home that doesn’t contain Dani’s father. 

“This is...” Jamie’s voice trails away, her eyes darting to Dani’s face. Dani grimaces.

“She hasn’t...been the same. Since Dad.”

“S’not so bad,” Jamie says, in the rigid tone of one not particularly skilled at lying. Dani turns from her, unable to stand the kindness in her expression.

“Mom?”

Karen Clayton is, predictably, in the kitchen. Armed with her usual pack of cigarettes and a full glass, she eyes Dani with a critical smile. 

“Danielle, don’t you think you’re outgrowing those shorts?”

Dani flinches. “Mom, this is--”

“Judy’s foster,” her mother interrupts, waving a lazy hand in Jamie’s direction. “Right. Pleasure.”

“Mrs. Clayton,” Jamie replies, polite as Dani has ever seen her. She wishes she could be surprised, when her mother’s eyes slide right past Jamie—cropped sleeves and scuffed knees and smile--and land back on Dani again.

“You haven’t been bothering Judy.”

“No,” Dani says. “No, she--she says she likes it when I’m over. Likes having her girls around.”

Judy does say this, often, and with absolute sincerity. Jamie winces a little each time, as though the idea of being anyone’s girl rubs her the wrong way, but Dani tucks the words around herself tight. Nights here, nights where her mother falls asleep in front of the television with bourbon on her breath, where Dani has kept to her own room to avoid more stories of her father’s negligence, those words are the best kind of blanket. 

Her mother is squinting at her now, suspicious. “Where’s Edmund?”

“Summer camp.”

“House is empty without him,” Jamie says. Small for her age, she may be, and too young to be taken seriously, but something in Jamie already seems to understand the grander scale of a conversation like this better than Dani can. Her smile is relaxed, though the outline of her hands in her pockets form fists. “Judy--Mrs. O’Mara--she says Dani can stay the whole month, if she wants. Sent us over to pack a bag.”

Dani’s mom is nodding even before she’s done. Dani thinks she can see relief on her face--one less land mine to navigate, for a little while. 

Are you ever coming back? she thinks, throwing the silent question as hard as she can across the table. Are you ever going to come back to me?

“That might be good,” her mother says. “Yes. I’ll call and thank her--I’ve got a lot of work at the office, you know, summer is the busiest time for real estate, and I...”

Jamie doesn’t speak as they throw clothes into a bag, Dani barely registering the drift of pastel and denim beneath her hands. Jamie doesn’t even look around Dani’s room. Her eyes are fixed on Dani alone, on the tight knit of her fists, the sharp ridge of her posture.

Not until they’re back in the sunshine, the duffel tossed loosely over Jamie’s shoulder, does she say, “Your mum’s a runner too, then.”

Dani squares her jaw, blinks back tears, and, when Jamie wordlessly takes her hand, squeezes it as hard as she can.

***

There’s a precious energy to the summer that can’t be conserved or packaged--only burnt through like oil for a lamp to press back the darkness. Judy is glad to have her over, relieved in her own way not to see Karen making her way up the front walk, but she’s busy, too. There is work, and there are errands, and most of the time, the house is left to the devices of two girls with nowhere to be. 

Dani thinks she could quite happily spend the rest of the summer right here: sprawled in the grass of the O’Mara backyard, with Jamie a scatter of gangly limbs beside her. It just smells right, she thinks--sunscreen and grilled cheese and freshly mown lawns. Everything about it is right.

“You miss Eddie?” Jamie asks, her head bumping companionably against Dani’s hip. Her eyes are closed, the sunlight bathing her face, and Dani--who has been trying to find shapes in the clouds, searching for elephants and rocket ships and the faces of strangers--realizes she’s staring. She looks away before Jamie can feel her gaze, her heart pulling tight. 

The fact of the matter is, she doesn’t miss Eddie, most days. She’s supposed to miss him--he’s her best friend, and there are traces of him all over the O’Mara house, little reminders of how not-here he is--but there’s just something about being alone with Jamie she can’t help but love. Something about the relaxed sprawl of Jamie in the grass when no one is watching, the way she laughs when Dani tries to trace an upside-down turtle in the clouds for her and winds up collapsing in giggles instead. 

Two best friends, she reminds herself, and thinks for some reason of the heart engraved on the far side of the O’Mara oak. She’d been grumpy with Eddie the day she did it, grumpy with him for implying she wasn’t brave enough to do something reckless. She’d wanted to show him she could make things even if he didn’t like them, even if he wasn’t included. It had been a heated spur-of-the-moment decision, the kind she finds herself making less and less as the years pass, and it had been worth it--not when Eddie had scowled and pouted over not getting his initial in a heart, but when Jamie had gazed at her across the lunch table afterward. Jamie, eyes flicking from the bracelet Dani never takes off to the grin on Dani’s own lips. 

The first time, Dani thought then and thinks now. The first time Jamie ever really smiled like she thought she fit. The first time in two years Jamie had joined the lively conversation like she wasn’t trying to knock her way around a wall first. 

Two best friends. It’s good, having someone else to talk to--telling Jamie about Eddie kissing her every so often, saying he’s never liked a girl as much as he likes Dani. It’s good, having someone else to tell--how she still feels weird about it, too young about it, too much Eddie’s friend to contemplate the meaning of a kiss. 

A month unravels in slow motion around them, card games and ice cream sandwiches and Jamie talking more than Dani’s ever heard. Jamie is normally the near-silent third wheel to conversation, chiming in with brief witticisms and curse words Dani doesn’t dare repeat. To hear her like this--talking about the little village where she grew up, about teaching herself how to cook, about her favorite color and her favorite band--is like pulling on the lid of a treasure chest and finding it’s been unlocked all along.

They camp out in the yard the night before Eddie comes back, sleeping bags zipped together behind the oak tree. Jamie waits for the lights to go out in the house before drawing a crumpled pack of cigarettes from her back pocket and producing a lighter. 

“Mr. O’Mara chucked it with one left,” she says quietly, face alight with excitement. “Been curious a while now, you?”

If it were Eddie, Dani would be shaking her head, but something about the nervous delight in Jamie as she tries, fails, tries again to light up is invigorating. Something reckless, Dani thinks, watching Jamie take a hesitant drag, a cough spilling past her lips along with a torrent of smoke. 

“Fuck,” she gags, stretching toward Dani. “Grown-ups are mental.”

Dani lets her place the cigarette between her lips, holding it carefully while Dani breathes in. Her head swims, her eyes prickling with tears. She waves it away, choking, watches Jamie stub it out on the tree with a look of utter bewilderment.

“They like that?”

“Mental,” Jamie repeats, shoving the remnant back into the package and tossing it beside the single giant sleeping bag. She slides in, zips her side up, folds both arms behind her head. “You know what the worst thing is about America?”

“Pollution?” Dani shivers in the June wind, inches along until she’s pressed against Jamie’s warmth. Jamie laughs.

“Stars. Can’t see any, really. I miss stars.”

Her voice lilts warmly in Dani’s ears, listing off constellations, painting images of far-away skies across the backs of Dani’s eyelids, and Dani wishes the summer could go on forever.

***

Dani Clayton is thirteen years old, and Eddie has just dropped to one knee in the middle of the playground like an absolute lunatic.

“What,” she hisses, “are you doing?”

“Danielle!” His voice, which seems a little lower to her ears with every passing week, is too loud. Her name booms across the yard, echoing off of swings and basketball courts. She winces, pulling her shoulders tight around her ears. 

“Eddie, get up, you look--”

“Will you be my girlfriend?” he goes on, like she’s not yanking on his arm with both hands, like she’s not darting skittering glances this way and that to see who is watching. Everyone, as it turns out, is tuning in for the show. Everyone, with huge grins and giggles muffled into cupped hands. 

Everyone, and Jamie, who is standing back with hands in the pockets of her overalls and an unreadable expression. 

Dani wants the ground to open up. Dani thinks thirteen years is quite a long enough life, all things considered, a complete course of existence that ends with humiliation and Eddie’s eyes bright behind his glasses. 

“This is--I mean--I’m--” She seems to have lost track of language, of the finer points of stringing together a sentence. Eddie is swaying on his knee, losing his balance little by little. There’s a crestfallen air about his smile as it fades that pulls at her. 

“Is that a no?”

She looks up at Jamie, standing out of the way with that same look on her face. Unreadable. Like she’d been at eight, sitting on a couch in the O’Mara living room, trying to blend in with the cushions.

“It’s--Eddie, I--” Why isn’t Jamie moving? Why isn’t Jamie smiling, laughing like the rest of the kids, shaking her head? Why is she just looking at Dani this way, like the story has taken a left turn she’s been expecting for months?

“Okay,” Dani hears herself say, because Eddie is starting to look like himself again instead of the man-boy who had come home from camp with a suntan and a strange brazen quality to his laughter. Eddie, for months, has felt like a stranger in a familiar body--but now, looking at her like he might cry, all she can see is her friend. Her best friend. “Okay. Yes. Sure.”

She looks up, searching for Jamie’s reaction, but Jamie isn’t there. Jamie has vanished into the crowd of hooting kids, swallowed up by classmates shouting, “Danielle and Edmund, sitting in a tree. K-I-S-S--”

“What does a girlfriend even do?” she asks him later, when they finally get away from the school and the laughter. He frowns. 

“Hold my hand on the way to school. Sit with me at lunch. Hang out.”

“We do that anyway,” she points out, though she’s never been particularly choosy about grabbing Jamie’s hand on walks, either. 

He thinks it over, adds, “Let me carry your books?”

She can’t think of anything she needs less than someone to cart around a copy of Where The Red Fern Grows and a biology text, but he looks so excited. She shrugs.

“Sure. Okay. I can do that.”

***

She doesn’t see Jamie for two days. When she asks Eddie, he shrugs and says, “Told Mom she had a headache and couldn’t go to school.”

Dani stares up at the ceiling of her own bedroom, half-wishing for the comfort of the O’Mara house wrapped around her, half-glad for an excuse to be away from Eddie for the night. He’s being weird, his hand slippery in hers as they walk from one class to the next. He doesn’t meet her eyes quite the same way, and whenever he kisses her cheek, his ears go neon under the curls of his hair. 

This, she thinks wearily, is what she’d been afraid of, at eleven and telling Jamie she didn’t know what a kiss would do. Eddie has been there through it all, the most important fixture of her entire life, and the idea that all it takes to undo years of stability is to slap a new label on the relationship is...

Aggravating, really. He’s annoying, looking at her with big moon eyes in class, trying to hold her hand while she’s eating at lunch. Eddie has been a lot of things over the years, but he’s never been annoying like this. 

“You have to stop being weird,” she tells him that weekend, “or I’m not sleeping over.”

“You always sleep over,” he protests. “And what do you mean, weird? I’m not being weird!”

“You are,” she insists. “Just because I’m your--your girlfriend doesn’t mean anything has to change. You’re my best friend, Eddie. Be my best friend.”

He scowls, hunched forward over his knees. “I’m just trying to be a good boyfriend.”

It’s a dead-end conversation, Dani senses. The kind of conversation they have sometimes, where he gets so set into his side of an argument that he forgets to listen to hers. Boys, she thinks with another pulse of irritation, can be so hard-headed. 

Maybe not only boys.

She finds Jamie in the backyard, leaning against the oak in boots and a jacket Dani’s never seen before. It’s too big around her shoulders, a soft brown suede; Jamie, folded within it, looks thinner, more haggard, than Dani’s ever seen her. 

Haggard, and furtive, making as though to throw away her cigarette before she realizes it’s only Dani standing there. Her shoulders slump.

“Shit. Thought you were Judy.”

“New jacket?” Dani asks, plucking at the sleeve. Jamie only shrugs. “When’d you get that?”

“While ago,” Jamie says, and places the cigarette between her lips again. Dani wants to ask when she’d picked up smoking for real, when she’d decided grown-ups maybe weren’t so mental after all, but Jamie doesn’t have her conversation face on. Jamie looks tired, hunted, like she wants nothing more than to be left alone.

“Guess your headache’s better, then.”

Jamie looks at her sharply, and Dani smiles. She sighs. “How’d you know?”

“That you lied to get out of school?” It’s easy to read a lie in Jamie, even after the fact. Her face gets blank, her eyes distant, her fingers fidgeting with the silver chain necklace she once told Dani came from her mother. That Judy hasn’t worked any of this out is amazing, from where Dani is standing, because Jamie is easily a worse liar than all three O’Mara boys combined.

“Weird week,” Jamie says. “Failed another test. Didn’t feel like dealing with it.”

“And it’s got nothing to do with me and Eddie,” Dani presses. Jamie’s eyes dart away from hers, boring into the oak’s trunk. 

“Best wishes are in order, I guess.”

“Jamie, it’s not a big deal,” Dani says, annoyed with her own voice for ticking up into a pleading note. Jamie raises her eyebrows, inhales smoke, exhales it sloppily skyward.

“Sure seems like a big deal. Haven’t seen you ‘round here in days.”

I had homework, Dani thinks, like it’s any kind of genuine excuse when they’ve all been doing their homework together at the O’Mara table for years. “He’s been weird,” she says truthfully instead, not liking the tension on Jamie’s face, but liking the idea of spinning white lies for her even less. “I wanted a break.”

“From your new boyfriend,” Jamie says dully. “Already. Seems a fine sign of things to come.”

“Oh, don’t you be weird, too,” Dani groans. “I can’t stand it if you do that.”

“Do what?”

“Act all--wrong,” Dani says, and grabs for Jamie’s arm with a hand she doesn’t seem entirely able to command. “Look, it’s not going to change anything. You’re my best friend. He’s my best friend. I just want--I just want it to be normal, Jamie.”

Jamie opens her mouth, looking almost furious for a moment. Almost like she’s going to unload on Dani all the little darknesses she’s been holding close for years, the ones she wouldn’t give up even over the summer with Dani dozing off on the next pillow. 

Dani waits, tense, primed for a fight--but as quickly as the thunder comes into Jamie’s face, it washes back out again. She sags inside her too-big jacket, stubs out the cigarette on the tree, flicks it over the fence. 

“I just got used to it, s’all,” she says gloomily. “You ‘n me. And him, even. Twat though he can be.”

Dani snorts surprised laughter. “Twat?” she repeats in a giggly whisper. A slow smile brightens Jamie’s face, sheepish and proud. 

“Judy turns colors every time I say it. It’s fantastic.”

***

Dani Clayton is fourteen years old, and the world seems to be getting more complicated than she can manage. She thinks high school might be to blame. 

Everything up until now has felt level, in its own way. Elementary school, with Eddie and Jamie always in her class, where everyone knew them as a trio, had been clean. Three years of relative ease, of teachers assuming Eddie and Jamie were twins, of three-sided group projects and the complacency of always knowing who to hang out with at recess. Junior high, too, had made sense--most of the time. They’d gotten lucky, a trio in every class, lockers planted side by side. Clayton, O’Mara, Taylor. Nice and easy. 

But now, Dani is fourteen, and the high school is enormous. Eddie’s locker is on the second floor; Jamie’s, like hers, is on the first, but as far away as possible. They only have a handful of classes together, and Jamie’s in the wrong lunch altogether. 

And everyone is getting strange. 

For one thing, everyone seems to be pairing off. She wonders if it’s a protective coloring sort of impulse, a warding-off of predators by way of never being caught alone. Certainly, she suspects, that has a lot to do with even the older girls--who swish their hair and sneer at anyone who doesn’t quite fit--leaving her alone. Eddie is always there--always, even when she’d rather a bit of space--ready to take her hand and steer her out of danger. 

Everyone is pairing off, and everyone is getting mean. It’s like going from a safe little bubble where she knows everyone’s name, everyone’s clique, everyone’s slot in the machine by heart, to a jungle. There are new faces here, older kids and kids from the other junior high and kids who just seem to have appeared out of thin air. Everywhere she looks, her classmates seem to be one step ahead in armoring themselves, in picking up weapons, in lashing out at anyone who looks the least bit fragile.

Dani, by virtue of having a long-term boyfriend and a natural eye for fashion, seems to be safe. At least, so far. At least, so far as she can tell. 

Jamie, on the other hand, seems to fit every bill for abuse their peers can think of. Her clothes are baggy and unrefined. (She dresses like a guy, Dani hears a cheerleader scoff the first week, and has to restrain herself from snapping back.) Her hair is a mess, her face devoid of even the lightest makeup. (It’s like she doesn’t even care that she looks homeless, a girl in her art class stage-whispers, and Dani nearly throws a pencil.) She walks with her head up, her mouth shut, her focus anywhere but on the hall around her. (What a fuckin’ spaz, a boy three times Dani’s size sneers as Jamie passes, and Eddie has to physically tighten his grip to prevent Dani from leaping at him.)

“You have to calm down,” he mutters. Eddie is tall now, much taller than her, but his bones are brittle twigs compared to the other guys in their class. “You want them to come for you, too?”

Dani grits her teeth, pulls away from him, sprints to catch up with Jamie. “You all right?” she asks, and Jamie grins almost lazily. 

“Stuck in this fuckin’ place, aren’t I?”

Jamie’s brand of strange is maybe worse than everyone else’s, if only because she seems day by day to be locking Dani out. She slumps into every class they share late, dumping herself into the desk nearest to the door without so much as looking at Dani. She hasn’t walked to school with them once all year, though Dani is pretty sure she doesn’t have any other real friends. 

“Are you ever going to talk to me again?” she asks now. Her blood is up, the urge to tackle a football player mingling with the desperate misery of Jamie’s silence. Part of her wants to cry. Part of her wants to slap something. Most of her wishes she could reel back to the summer, to Jamie laughing as she unloaded a SuperSoaker over Eddie’s head. 

Jamie is frowning at her now, leaning back against the lockers. “I am talking to you. Right now.”

“No,” Dani says in a strangled whisper. “No, you’ve been avoiding me. Even at your house. You’ve been locking yourself in your room, and pretending you don’t see me in the halls, and--Jamie, we have to stick together.”

She expects Jamie to slump, to smile, to look at her like she did behind an oak tree last year with Dani clinging to her arm. Instead, something behind Jamie’s eyes seems to snap shut.

“I’m fine,” she says coolly. “Honestly, Dani, don’t worry about me.”

She shrugs off Dani’s grip, hands in her pockets, striding off down the hall without another word. 

Dani barely sees her again for a week. She tries to tell herself Jamie knows what she’s doing--that Jamie has always been self-possessed, careless of what anyone else thinks. Maybe that’s what makes Jamie strong, the thing Dani herself has been missing all these years. Jamie, who doesn’t care about a mother’s expectation. Jamie, who isn’t trying to match up to a boyfriend’s hopes. Jamie, who skips class and fails tests and doesn’t bother trying to talk to anyone, because Jamie doesn’t need the attention to get by.

Dani, who has been learning to apply makeup with a careful hand, who has been keeping one eye on magazines and the other on the popular girls, can’t imagine. 

Jamie doesn’t need any of this, she understands. Jamie walks with purpose, eats by herself, seems to think high school is nothing more than a series of races to be run as quickly as possible. Dani, whose mother awakens to her presence just enough to bark, “Honor roll?” can’t imagine. 

“She’s doing that weird girl thing, where she acts all moody and crazy at the house,” Eddie scoffs whenever Dani brings it up. “Mom says she’s going through a phase.”

“Yeah,” Dani says darkly, “a shitty one.”

He raises his eyebrows. “Careful. You’re picking up her habits.”

A phase, she thinks, watching Jamie skulk past out of the corner of her eye. Just a phase. Jamie will break out of it like she breaks out of every funk, and she’ll turn to Dani, and she’ll smile, and everything will be exactly as it--

A girl--tall and willowy and pretty--is leaning against Jamie’s locker. Jamie barely glances at her, digging around in her backpack, and Dani stops to listen just in time to hear the girl say, “You really don’t care, do you? You really don’t care that everyone knows you’re a freak.”

Dani’s fist clenches. Jamie doesn’t so much as blink.

“Bothers you, does it?”

“It’s sick,” the girl hisses. “Degenerate. You know what girls like you get?”

“Could show you,” Jamie bites back, grinning. “If you like.”

The girl storms off, tossing her hair. Dani shifts her weight from foot to foot, unable to resist the impulse to replace her at Jamie’s side. 

“What was that about?”

Jamie’s smile fades, her eyes hardening. There is something almost there, Dani thinks, something she can’t put her finger on. She presses her fingers to the worn threads of her bracelet, holding firm around her wrist all these years later, watching Jamie’s eyes follow the motion. 

“Told you to leave it,” Jamie says. Dani opens her mouth, and she shakes her head. “I need you to step in, I’ll ask.”

She won’t, Dani knows. She won’t, because she never has. Because any time anyone has picked a fight with Jamie over the years, testing the bounds of the new girl and her funny accent, Jamie has only stepped back, wiped her mouth, smiled. Jamie knows things, Dani has thought on more than one occasion. Jamie knows things small-town America simply isn’t equipped to understand. 

They don’t speak again for nearly a month, and try as she might, Dani still can’t forget the hard cast of her eyes as she’d said, “Honestly, Dani. Don’t worry about me.” 

***

Jamie is fourteen years old, and feels as though every part of this American High School game was built for her to lose. The sense of not fitting has only grown larger with time, spreading around her like an invisible shield no one else can see or push past. She is, she thinks, a plant rooted into the wrong kind of environment, at the wrong time of year for anything to properly take.

Fourteen, and things are too clean at the O’Mara residence. The older she gets, the more artificial it all reads--the picket fence dynamic of Judy and her family, the fall-into-line nature of Eddie’s personality growing steadily less child and steadily more man. Even Dani, who has always made the most sense out of any of them, seems to be changing. 

Dani, whose clothes are orderly, whose hair is brushed and fluffed to suit the style of the day. Dani, whose face was pretty--beautiful--even before she discovered eyeliner and powder and a bright red lipstick that makes Jamie’s stomach turn over when she smiles. 

Not that this is a new revelation, Dani’s smile making her stomach feel a little sick. It stacks on top of so many discoveries of the same nature, the kind that make her more certain than ever she doesn’t belong in this suburban landscape of two-point-five kids and polite society smiles. Girls in this kind of land are supposed to dress nicely, walk with a sway, giggle when boys call. 

Girls aren’t supposed to make the kinds of discoveries Jamie has been digging up for years.

At eleven, Jamie discovered she could kiss a girl behind the swings if she asked politely and promised not to tell after. 

At twelve, Jamie discovered she could steal a whole month of a girl’s attention if she got lucky and no boys were around to intrude.

At thirteen, Jamie discovered that same girl could be snatched away in an instant if she turned her head, if she looked away, if she forgot to wish hard enough at night.

At fourteen, Jamie makes a decision: no more. No more standing out behind the old oak, letting her fingers trail along the clumsily-engraved D + J as she taught herself how to smoke without throwing up. No more waiting for Dani to look past Eddie’s height, his big hands, the solid line of his jaw, to find Jamie sitting patiently just off-camera. No more listening to Dani laugh in the kitchen, her hand reaching for Jamie’s, that stupid bracelet wound around her left wrist like she’d been born with it. 

High school, she decides, is reason enough to change. Reason enough to become whoever she was supposed to be all along. 

And who is that? She doesn’t have an answer. Nothing so clean and orderly as Dani: straight A’s, pretty smile, boyfriend. Dani could be class president. Dani could be anyone she wants. 

Jamie? 

Jamie has no parents, no rights to this country her father dumped her into, no future. No one is watching for Jamie to come home on time; no one is waiting for Jamie to excel in school, to join a sports team, to pick up volunteering down at the local animal shelter. Jamie fades into the woodwork. Jamie is an extra in her own movie.

The pieces, then, are entirely her own to sock together. She finds an older kid who will buy her cigarettes without asking questions. Finds a secondhand shop where the cashier is too busy to see a raggedy teenager filching the first jacket that calls her name, out the door and running, running, running before anyone notices she was even there. Finds a place deep inside herself where she can’t hear her mother’s voice anymore, can’t remember her father’s hands, can’t be held down by the memory of a pot and boiling water and a squalling baby in her arms. 

Dani is still looking at her, but there’s no room for Dani in this new version Jamie is building. There can’t be. They aren’t a trio anymore--not since walking through those school doors and finding misaligned schedules and miswritten expectations waiting. Ninth grade, Jamie is learning fast, is the year people stop giggling behind their hands and start outright pointing. The year people stop tossing paper clips and start throwing hands. 

She’s put in her first detention--her first real detention, not the sad excuse from junior high where they dumped her into the library and told her to think about her actions until the bell rang--in September. Her first after-school hour spent twiddling her thumbs, staring at the graffiti on her desk, wondering if Dani would ever deign to etch a heart where someone might actually catch her.

She gets in her first fight--her first real fight, not a schoolyard tussle over a package of Oreos that lasted all of one flailing slap--in October. Her first black eye, worn with pride around the halls as the whispers begin changing from what a freak to careful--I hear she bites. She catches Dani’s eye in art class, sees Dani’s jaw tense in the way she has of just barely stopping herself from speaking, and looks away. 

She makes her first enemy--her first real enemy, not some kid who thinks it’s funny to mimic her accent until Dani or Eddie swings around and tells him to shut his mouth--in November. Her first true nemesis is a girl with black hair and a pretty knife of a smile, who leans in and calls her filthdegeneratedyke when no one else is bothering to listen. She grins, turns up the charm, flirts until the girl turns bright red and stomps away. When Dani comes over to see what the problem is, she hears herself snap, “I need you to step in, I’ll ask.”

She doesn’t. Doesn’t need anything, not from anyone--Eddie, who barely cares that she’s even here, now that he’s got a girlfriend; Judy, who is busy juggling a job and three kids of her own (not to mention Dani, who is more Judy’s than Jamie will ever be); Dani, who bites her lip and stares at her across the classroom, looking prettier every time Jamie dares look back. 

She doesn’t need any of this. Easier to skive off class, to smoke behind the art wing, to swing at anyone who tries to start shit. Easier to become the person they’ve all been waiting for since she sat, grubby and terrified, on a couch at eight years old.

And that’s how the story goes, she thinks with confidence. Poor little outcast, wasting away before their very eyes. Maybe she’ll hit the wrong person someday. Maybe she’ll steal something someone will actually miss. Maybe she’ll take a turn down the wrong alley, make the wrong friend, believe the wrong lie--and that’ll be that. Into a prison cell she’ll go, or find herself turfed out of Judy’s neat, orderly home, and that will be the end of that.

She’s ready for it all. 

Except for Dani fucking Clayton.

***

Dani is fifteen years old, and sick to death of losing time. Sick of the way teachers keep talking about making plans, of her mother intoning mindless questions about the local college, of Eddie growing into more of an adult every time she looks around and finds herself still so young

Most of all, she’s sick of Jamie--sick of the way Jamie has burnt a whole year of their life in the same house, in the same school, in the same world acting like Dani isn’t even here.

“We’re not doing this anymore,” she says over the slam of the door. Jamie, still very much asleep despite it being ten in the morning, jerks nearly hard enough to tumble out of bed.

“The fuck are you--”

“We’re not doing this,” Dani says again, pointing a finger at Jamie like she points at her charges during all those after-school babysitting jobs. “You got a year. A whole year of acting like a--”

“A what?” Jamie sneers, a voice she’s never used on Dani in seven years. Dani doesn’t blink.

“Like you think no one’s going to notice if you burn out.”

Jamie is silent, staring sullenly at her like she’s trying to figure out how to careen past Dani and out of the room. Dani presses her back against the door, arms folded over her purple sweater, arranging her face into an expression that says she can wait all day.

She can, in fact. School is out, summer finally here again, and Eddie’s off doing scrub work at his dad’s office for the experience of it all. It’s just her and Jamie now, and this huge unspoken thing which has been rising between them for the better part of a year.

“You missed my birthday,” she says, her voice flat. Jamie opens her mouth, and she pushes right past her. “You missed Christmas. You missed a year of weekends, and sleepovers, and helping keep me sane while my mother ranted about honor roll and cheerleading tryouts. And for what?”

Jamie says nothing. She’s sitting up against her headboard in a tank top and bed-head, looking very small and very young. Mulish, nonetheless. Like she’s just waiting for Dani to stop talking.

Dani doesn't actually intend to stop talking. Not this time.

“So you could play the rebel without a cause?” she goes on. “So you could tell everyone they’re right about you? That you’re just a dropout waiting to happen, a burnout smoking with the other losers--yeah, Jamie, I’ve seen you with them, and I know what they get up to. Are they the ones who keep talking you into fights?”

“No one talks me into--”

“So, you like getting hit in the face?” Dani shakes her head. “Jamie, I can’t watch you do this anymore.”

“So look away,” Jamie says. Dani can tell by her face she intends to spit the words, to win back some ground, but her voice comes out too soft. She sounds like she’s going to cry.

“You don’t understand. I can’t watch you do this anymore,” Dani repeats patiently. “Which means either you knock it off, or you take me with you.”

“...sorry?”

Dani moves to the bed, confident she can grab Jamie around the waist and tackle her to the floor before she can reach the exit. “I’m saying you don’t have a mom, and you don’t have a dad, and guess what? Neither do I. So, if you’re going to throw yourself at the mercy of a teenage stereotype, I want you to show me how it’s done.”

“You’re joking,” Jamie says weakly. Dani smiles. 

“Anyone can learn on the fly, Jamie. Or do you think you were born to shoplift?”

Jamie says nothing, and Dani can sense it’s not a matter of moodiness closing her mouth. Embarrassment is written all over her face, showing through the bruises of her most recent skirmish. 

Dani reaches out, cups her cheek, runs a gentle thumb along the welt on her jaw. Jamie winces, but doesn’t pull away.

“Enough of this,” Dani says again. “You’re my best friend, and I’m not going to stand here and watch you destroy yourself. Okay?”

Jamie nods once, closing her eyes, and Dani draws her thumb up to catch the first tear. She allows the silence to spin out between them for long minutes, watching Jamie crumble, draw shuddering breaths, press into her hand as though not even aware of herself doing it. This, she thinks. This is Jamie. The little girl who pretended not to cry herself to sleep with Dani sleeping on her floor. The one who looked at Dani as she packed a duffel. The one who pushed a green and white bracelet into her hand and muttered, “Birthdays deserve presents.”

“You’re my best friend,” she says again, quietly. “Can we be done pretending I wouldn’t notice if you were gone?”

Jamie nods again, letting out a long breath, and Dani hugs her. 

***

It doesn’t fix everything--Jamie’s smoking habit is ingrained, and her relationship with just about everyone in school appears damaged beyond repair--but it’s enough. The relief in Dani that night when she makes it as far as the O’Mara stoop before Jamie pokes her head out and says, “Well? Floor’s all made up” nearly bowls her over.

“Don’t understand why she can’t sleep in my room,” Eddie grumbles. Judy laughs.

“Edmund O’Mara, do you take me for a fool?”

“We’ve never done anything,” he says peevishly, which is not--strictly speaking--true. They haven’t done much. Dani is loosely hopeful the current base--whichever one allows for Eddie’s tongue in her mouth and his hand pressed hopefully to the front of her t-shirt--is as far as it’s ever going to get. 

“She’s sleeping with Jamie,” Judy says lightly, “or she’s sleeping across the street. Isn’t that right, Danielle?”

“Absolutely.” He shoots her a dark look, and she resists the urge to poke out her tongue. He doesn’t find it funny when she teases him that way, not for a year now. 

It has, truly, been the worst year of her life, between Jamie’s cold shoulder and Eddie’s insistence that they are too old to be childish, Danielle. 

Relief is the word for collapsing onto Jamie’s bed, wrapping her arms around the elderly Apollo and pressing her face into his fur. Jamie, stretched out in her desk chair with a cigarette hanging unlit from her lips, smirks. 

“Sure you don’t wanna sneak next door? Can cover for you.”

“Shut up,” Dani says into Apollo’s side. “He’s such a boy.”

“A truly unforeseen tragedy.” Jamie reaches over, shoves the window open, rummages in the desk drawer for a blue plastic lighter. “Mind?”

Dani shakes her head, watching with interest as Jamie lights up on the first try, takes a long drag, exhales out into the night air without missing a beat. 

“You got better,” she points out, not quite sure why it feels good to watch Jamie smoke in easy silence. Reminds her, she supposes, of that summer without Eddie, the one where she’d listened to Jamie retch even as she was passing the cigarette for Dani’s own inspection. 

Reminds her, too, of laying beside Jamie in a zipped-together sleeping bag under too-few stars. Of how Jamie’s breath had slowly evened out, passing across her cheek in shallow arcs as Dani had let herself drop off to sleep. 

Now, Jamie gives her a small smile, tapping ash out into an empty pencil tin. “Had a lot of practice. Bad habit, probably.”

“Probably,” Dani agrees, mesmerized by the coil of smoke skidding through Jamie’s teeth, released by such a small shift in her lips. “Can I try?”

“This part of your demand that I corrupt you with my hooligan influence?” Jamie teases even as she gamely hands the cigarette over. Dani is careful to inhale slowly, remembering the eager mistake of years past, and though her lungs burn, she forces herself to blow the smoke carefully back out the window.

“Nice,” says Jamie. “Corruption complete.”

Dani wants to ask what the last year was about, what Jamie learned without her, why Jamie pushed her away in the first place. She wants to fire each question without pause, one arrow after the next, until Jamie has explained herself fully. 

Mostly, though, she just wants Jamie to keep smiling at her that way. As though nothing ever went wrong at all. 

“I missed you,” she says quietly. Jamie, head halfway out the window, coughs. 

“I’m sorry,” she says when she’s recovered herself. “I--it was a rough year.”

“I could have made it easier--”

“No,” she says, with surprising gentleness. “Couldn’t’ve. Not you. Not like--not like that.”

“What does that mean?” Dani frowns. Jamie seems to be pulling at the air, searching for threads to weave into a suitable explanation. 

“Rough year,” she says again, her fingers tapping out more ash as she speaks. Dani finds herself watching the steady flow of her hand from mouth to tin, the grace of the motion almost beautiful in its simplicity. “I thought...I thought I had to be something. To go with the things I couldn’t help.”

“Like what?” But Dani thinks she already knows. Jamie laughs. 

“Like an urchin with no parents and no fuckin’ future, that’s what.”

“You have a future,” Dani says, leaning toward her. “You have so many choices, Jamie.”

“Yeah? Can’t stay awake in classes to save my sorry skin. Shite at sitting still long enough to take a test.” Jamie shakes her head. “Face it, I’m not much for school, and I’m not much for playing by their rules. People don’t--”

She stops, mouth twisting as though around an unpleasant taste. Dani waits. 

“People don’t make sense,” she finishes at last. “They’re all...needy, and they lie, and they take too much out of a person. Run you ragged, even with the best of intent. I don’t want to--I’m not right for it, is all. To be...”

She gestures helplessly at Dani, who snorts.

“Me? I’m going crazy just trying to keep all the balls in the air.”

“Yeah, but you got ‘em up there in the first place,” Jamie observes, leaning back in her chair until the front legs lift off the ground. “Me, I’m just...like my mum, probably. A runner.”

“No,” Dani says. 

“No,” Jamie repeats, puzzled. “What d’you mean, no--”

“No, I mean, you’re not like her. Jamie, you’re like...the most steady person I’ve ever met.” It shouldn’t be true, she thinks, even as she's saying it. It should be Eddie, a force which stands still and watches the world move around him. Eddie, who likes structure and expectation, who likes to set up dominos simply because he understands exactly how they will fall. 

But there’s a difference, she already knows, between stable and static. A difference between Jamie’s always being there, Jamie’s quiet reassurance and gentle hand, and Eddie’s refusal to budge. 

“I disappeared on you for a goddamned year,” Jamie says, stubbing out the cigarette in the tin and closing the lid. “Not such a steady thing to do.”

“Maybe. But are you going to do it again?”

Jamie considers it, rolling it over, watching Dani with stormy eyes. For a minute, Dani can only look back--can only see the world as it stands within this room, two girls minutes away from being forced into woman-shaped boxes, trying their damnedest not to slip off balance. 

“No,” Jamie says at last, and moves to shut the window. “No, I’m not.”

Dani stretches out on the floor, Jamie curled on her side on the bed, and it’s like no time has passed at all. Like they can just be kids again--eleven, Jamie refusing to tell her about a childhood kiss, Dani desperate not to be left out of something she doubted she was even ready for. 

“Jamie?”

“Mm?” Her voice has that comfortable rolling-ship quality of the nearly-asleep. Dani wants to press nearer to it, to pull it around herself like a soft blanket. 

“Who was your first kiss?”

Jamie mumbles something into her pillow, and says not another word. Jamie, already asleep, even as she’s answering. 

Dani is ninety percent sure she’d said, “Anna”, and suddenly feels not remotely tired at all.

***

Dani Clayton is sixteen years old, and trying to understand all the parts of Jamie that lurk just below the surface. It has become an interesting game of sorts, sifting through the puzzle that is Jamie, checking to see which pieces fit together and which only look like they should.

“You could just ask her,” Eddie says distractedly, one hand in his hair, a pencil between his teeth. They’re meant to be taking the SAT this year, seeking out colleges, and he hasn’t heard a word she’s said all week. 

“Jamie doesn’t like to talk about herself.”

“She talks to you,” he says with brotherly annoyance. “Always has. You’re, like, her favorite person.”

He’s always saying things like that, his voice level, and she wonders why he doesn’t mind the idea. Why he’s so fine with Dani being Jamie’s favorite person, when he gets so irritated with the guys at school asking Dani to help them with their English essays. 

She wonders, but it’s the kind of wondering where she doesn’t need to think on it too hard. Doesn’t want to, either. She knows the reason without him ever needing to say it. 

The fact is, Eddie doesn't see Jamie--not as a threat, and not as a complex equation. Eddie only sees Jamie as not-quite-family, a figure at the table for so long, she might as well be an extra chair. 

Dani, on the other hand, has been piecing things slowly together for almost a year. Like how Jamie, the morning after mumbling what Dani had become more and more certain was Anna into her pillow, had miraculously forgotten the entire conversation. Like how Jamie carefully, studiously, turns her head away from women on the street when their dresses blow around their legs. How Jamie smiles at certain girls at school--the ones with pierced noses and wild clothes, the ones who smoke pot and don’t try too hard to turn up to class. 

She has a type, Dani thinks, watching one of those girls smile back, and it’s like someone punched her in the chest. 

Of course. Of course this is Jamie, who has never once mentioned a crush on a boy, who has never once even stood near a boy who wasn’t Eddie. Of course, thinks Dani, wondering why it feels as though one of her lungs has recently been punctured. 

She has questions--more than ever before--and she knows Jamie won’t answer. She understands, even with the promise that Jamie won’t squirrel herself away again, that they are still one weird conversation away from Jamie sinking back into silence. Jamie is too good at building a world for one, at sitting back and fading into the wallpaper while the rest of the family chatters about their day. If Dani pushes her--if Dani embarrasses her--there’s no telling how distant she might become, even if it never again escalates to that uncomfortable aggression. 

“You good?” Jamie asks now, the two of them seated under the bleachers off the football field. It’s a good quiet place, they have discovered--one where Eddie never ventures to wheedle a post-lunch make-out session out of Dani, and she can do her homework in peace. Jamie, for her part, smokes and reads, glancing up every so often to smile. 

“Yeah,” Dani says, watching her for signs of a strange day. Jamie looks good--better than, if she’s honest with herself, in a jacket she’s finally grown into, a black t-shirt, a pair of jeans. Jamie is finally starting to look like someone assembled with intent, rather than an assortment of odds and ends scrounged from someone else’s junk drawer. 

Fewer hand-me-downs, now that she’s older, and considerably more confidence. It’s a magnificent combination.

She could have anyone, Dani thinks distractedly, as Jamie leans her head back against a metal bar and sighs. Has she dated someone? Is she dating her now?

It’s making her crazy, not asking. Making her crazy, to think Jamie doesn’t feel comfortable talking to her about stuff like this. And, Dani thinks, it isn’t like she doesn’t understand why--isn’t like she doesn’t hear the whispers and the horror stories: kids thrown out of their homes, beaten up, mocked so relentlessly they have to skip town. She knows what it might be like, in a town like this. 

But it’s Jamie. And it’s her

She’s still trying to figure out the best way to approach the subject--with a note? at a sleepover? in a car, so Jamie can’t run away mid-word?--Friday when the bell rings. Jamie always walks home with her on Fridays; it’s their day, Dani decided when the year began, which Eddie’s ravenous study schedule doesn’t mind. Still, it’s always something of a crapshoot, finding her. Sometimes, she’s leaning against Dani’s locker when class lets out. Sometimes, she’s sitting on the hood of Eddie’s car. Most days, she’s in their spot under the bleachers, as though rooted there since lunch with no interest of moving until Dani’s reappearance. 

Bleachers it is, Dani thinks today, when all the other haunts come up empty. She likes finding Jamie there most of all, in this little sanctuary no one else is welcome to. It feels like the old days, like following Jamie up into a tree with the understanding Jamie would never let her fall. 

Never, she thinks dimly, standing awkwardly just out of reach of the sun. Never let me--

Jamie is, in fact, beneath the bleachers. Jamie is not, in fact, waiting alone.

Jamie doesn’t really seem to be waiting at all, not with one hand fisted in black hair, her mouth slanted over the excited slide of a girl Dani is sure has been whispering hateful words into Jamie’s ear for over a year. 

She’s staring, she realizes, and can’t make herself look away--not with the girl’s hands pushing under Jamie’s jacket, making soft sounds into Jamie’s mouth. There’s something about the whole tableau that feels dimly like an inappropriate film--like something she was never meant to see. Jamie, kissing this girl with obvious glee. Jamie, one hand sliding to pull at the girl’s hip in a way that makes Dani’s stomach go warm. 

Out, she tells herself, backing slowly away, her eyes fixed on Jamie’s hands. Out, get out before she sees--

She waits at Eddie’s car until his prep course lets out, shaking her head when he mouths confused words in her direction. Jamie never appears. Jamie, it would seem, has remained busy without her. 

***

She doesn’t bring it up. Stops looking for reasons to press Jamie toward telling her secrets. If Jamie wanted her to know, she reasons, she’d say as much. Dani can be patient. Dani can just be her friend, as reliable and relaxed as Jamie herself. 

Jamie never mentions the fact that Dani didn’t come find her after school. Jamie doesn’t say a word about walking home alone, even when Dani greets her with a too-bubbly, “Hi. Hey. I’m sorry, I couldn’t find you before Eddie--well, his class got out early, and we needed to go to the grocery store for Judy, I’d forgotten, so--”

“S’all right,” Jamie says, and Dani pointedly does not mention the smudge of plum lipstick under Jamie’s collar. She watches Jamie slouch off into the house in search of a shower, and thinks, Doesn’t she hate you? Isn’t she awful to you? How could you kiss someone who can’t even see how wonderful you are?

“You wanna catch a movie?” Eddie asks. “We could invite--”

“Just us,” Dani says quickly, not sure she can stand two hours in a dark theater with Jamie sitting a reach away. “Let’s go. Now.”

***

Dani Clayton is seventeen years old, and sinking into her relationship like a stone. It’s easier, she has found, than asking questions. Easier than looking around her at all the tiny little signs that maybe there are other options. 

Easier than looking at Jamie, in particular.

Jamie is doing surprisingly well, as though something--a girl? age? pure dumb luck?--has wrenched loose that feeling of utter worthlessness she had seemed to drown in at fourteen. She talks more than she ever used to, laughing at Judy’s jokes, asking about Eddie’s plans for higher education, and Dani wonders what it would take to make her feel the way Jamie looks these days. As though she doesn’t need to walk around with her mother’s anchor around her neck. As though it might be okay, not to be made of spun glass. 

As though, if she were to shatter, someone would be there to pick up the pieces.

She looks at Jamie, and thinks, Best friend. She’s my best friend. She thinks it as hard as she can some nights, just staring fixedly at Jamie across the living room, wondering why the words suddenly seem too small to encompass the scope of Jamie’s smile. 

It’s so much easier, tumbling into Eddie and his certainty. Eddie has never stopped to question anything about his life, has never needed to waste the energy. He knows who he is, where’s he going, what he’s going to do after high school (law school, before coming back home to join his father’s firm). He knows who she ought to be, too--that she’ll go to a school near his, that she’ll be there every weekend to see movies and meet his friends and shape her life around his. He doesn’t have to say this in so many words; she can hear the underlying blueprints of a life lived together in every sentence he utters. 

Eddie knows where they’re going, the both of them, and it’s so much easier to just lean back and let him steer. 

“We,” Eddie announces one evening, “are going to a party.” 

“A party,” Dani repeats dumbly. “Eddie, I don’t know--”

“A party,” Jamie repeats not half a second later. “You.”

“I go to parties,” he protests. “I go to parties all the time!”

“Four years,” Jamie says, grinning. “How many parties have you attended?”

“None,” says Dani.

“Lots,” says Eddie. Jamie makes a noise in the back of her throat Dani suspects is throttled laughter. 

“Uh huh. And, ah, where is this shindig, exactly?”

“Andrew’s,” Eddie says, and Dani groans, falling back against the couch. 

“Eddie. Really?”

Andrew might have been all right once upon third grade, Dani thinks, but he’s an ass now. An ass with a letterman jacket, a penchant for pushing kids down stairs, and a rich enough father to make it all go away. 

“Look,” Eddie says, “it’s senior year. I want to say I did it. Just once, Danielle. Don’t you want to be able to tell people you did it all in high school?”

Her eyes slide to Jamie, taking in the smirk around her lips, the arch of her brows. Something solidifies in her chest, and she says, “Oh, all right. One time. One party.”

“This,” Jamie says cheerfully, “is going to be very entertaining.”

***

There is something almost painfully surreal about walking into a high school party with Eddie’s arm around her shoulders and Jamie’s elbow brushing hers. Dani stands in the doorway for a moment, the assault of music and voices crashing around her, and nearly forgets how to breathe. 

This has been happening more and more lately, this strange surge of anxiety wrapping like iron around her throat. One minute, she feels perfectly fine; the next, she’s drawing whistling breaths, clutching at counters, straining toward sanity. 

“Panic attack,” Jamie said, the first time she walked in on Dani having one in the girls’ bathroom. She’d been careful not to touch Dani, had stood a safe distance back and talked to her in a low, calm voice until the breath had crept back into Dani’s screaming lungs. Only then had she reached out, patting Dani almost awkwardly on the shoulder. 

Can’t have one now, she thinks, with Eddie’s arm crushing down on her. Jamie brushes against her again, this time with purpose, her eyes searching Dani’s face. 

“Okay,” Dani gasps, and Jamie nods once. She does not, Dani notes, vanish into the crowd. She only stands with both hands in her jacket pockets, looking around with a critical eye.

“This place is criminal.”

Dani is inclined to agree. No house, she thinks, needs to be this big, or crammed with so much fragility. 

Eddie, on the other hand, is awestruck. “This is amazing. Imagine growing up here.”

Dani tries. The idea of it, of walking through these winding halls as a child, is bewildering. She wonders what kinds of childhood monsters are drawn to a place this expansive, with so many doors to lurk behind. 

Someone calls Eddie’s name, and he beams, delighted to be part of something bigger than himself. Dani, too, hears her name among the crowd--voices tinged with surprise, with amusement, to think she’d waste her Friday night among them. 

Jamie nudges her lightly. “Don’t have to stay, you know. We could...”

Dani shakes her head. There is no we could about it. They’re all looking at her like she’s made of gold, like she has no business walking into this house, like they have any idea who she is. Like she even knows. And Eddie, still holding tight to her like a life raft, is grinning, and Jamie is frowning, and--

“I think I want a drink,” she hears herself say. 

The kitchen is crawling with bodies. Eddie pushes through them, his not-inconsiderable height an asset among the crush, returning a moment later with two plastic cups. Punch, Dani notes after a tentative sip--something fruity and sweet, with the mildest bite chasing the sugar. 

“Not so bad, right?” Eddie sounds positively alive, knocking back his own drink. Jamie, her hand wrapped loosely around a bottle of beer, utters a short bark of laughter. 

“Might wanna take it easy, Eddie-boy.”

“I know what I’m doing,” he replies, his voice surprisingly cold. Dani leans back, looking him over. 

“She’s only trying to help.”

“She’s not the only one who’s ever been to a party, Danielle.”

“Cheers,” Jamie says, and disappears into the hall. Dani watches her go, feeling as though every day leaves her stretched a little thinner between boyfriend and best friend, wondering when the world had swung so far as to pull them apart. 

Without Jamie, there is only Eddie’s arm around her, Eddie’s too-bold laughter ringing in her head. She drinks, and lets him maneuver her around the house, stopping off every so often to chat with kids she barely cares to speak to at school. They all like Eddie--he tutors some, plays chess with others, his unassuming smile a comfort to all. There is nothing threatening about Edmund O’Mara. It’s the very thing she’s always liked about him best. 

They like him, and they tolerate her: a soft girl in soft shades of pastel, with soft curves and soft goals. Nothing edged about her at all. Nothing barbed, like Jamie. Nothing dangerous or assertive or primed to say the word no.

She wonders sometimes how they can all look at her and miss the wire coiled along her musculature. How they can look and fail to see the cords pulling her arms and legs along, the struts and bars jammed into place to make certain she is held aloft at all times. Every glance in the mirror shows a girl a little further removed from the one who climbed trees despite her fear and carved initials into an old oak to prove she would. Every glance takes her a little further from the brave one

And still, they see her and smile, letting their eyes slide off. Smart and sociable in all the more palatable ways. Pretty and posed to fit a dream. They see her, and they smile, and every last one of them knows they will forget her name in five years. 

Not brave, after all, she thinks grimly. Not brave in the least. Just another plastic doll to be washed away in the tide of graduation.

Not like Jamie, who has found a group of kids in band t-shirts and torn jeans in the corner. Jamie, who tosses her head back with easy laughter, a lit cigarette between her lips. Jamie, who catches her eye, waves once, looking like she has never belonged somewhere more. 

Go over, Dani thinks. Go over, it’s just Jamie, and it’d be more interesting than whatever Eddie’s talking about--

But Jamie’s friends are watching her, too, their smiles spiked, their laughter primed. Dani turns back to the kitchen instead, in search of a refill and a reprieve from rich girls who know too well her skirt is secondhand and poor kids who know too well she’d never dare sneak out of class to smoke. 

Wrong, she thinks, ladling more punch into her cup. Four years into high school, and she has no idea who she’s supposed to be. No idea where she’s supposed to fit, if not on Eddie’s arm. If not under the bleachers with Jamie. There is no place built for Dani Clayton alone, no place where she can work out exactly who she’d be if she never had the O’Mara house at all.

Should. That’s all her life these past few years has been based on. Just one simple, stupid word: how Karen Clayton’s daughter should behave, how Eddie O’Mara’s girlfriend should view the world, how a pretty, polite high school senior should expect her future to unfold. What should she do, seventeen and standing alone at a Friday night party? 

Go home, probably. Leave Eddie to fulfill another should all on his own. Leave Jamie with the friends she’s chosen, instead of the ones she was tossed into at eight years old. 

Leave it all behind, and run. Probably, that would be the right answer. Probably, that would be enough.

She tips back her drink, closes her eyes, and thinks, Couldn’t I fit, too? Couldn’t I, if I just tried hard enough?

***

Jamie is seventeen years old, and trying incredibly hard not to find it amusing, how idiotic Eddie looks at this party. 

He thinks he belongs here, and he isn’t wrong, exactly--there’s something so natural about the way he moves in a crowd of this many people, unafraid to speak his mind. Why wouldn’t he be? Eddie O’Mara hasn’t had an interesting thought of his own in years. 

Unfair, she tells herself, aware of Dani’s voice coiling around the word. Dani has been dating Eddie for four years, and has loved him far longer than that. Jamie understands; there’s a bond between them even she hasn’t been able to breach. A bond that comes from growing up knowing this is the person who sees you, this is the person you can most be yourself with.

She gets it, because for her, that person is Dani. 

She hates it, because for her, that person is Dani.

And if Eddie doesn’t really seem to listen when Dani speaks, if Eddie doesn’t really seem to take into consideration the clench of Dani’s jaw or the curl of her fists under the table, if Eddie doesn’t really seem to see Dani at all some days--why is it Jamie’s business? It isn’t like she’s allowed Dani to see her. 

Rightfully so, probably. It’s impossible to forget that day, that Friday at sixteen, when she’d opened her eyes and pulled free of Kate’s kiss just in time to watch a blonde ponytail swing around. It’s impossible to forget the way Dani had walked, legs stiff, arms swinging, as fast as she could away from what she’d so clearly seen.

Months after the fact, Jamie can’t repress that sinking feeling, the one that swims up from the depths of memory as she’s falling asleep to remind her in a sudden, shameful burst: Dani saw. Dani saw. Saw Kate’s hands in Jamie’s hair, saw the way Jamie kissed her back. Dani saw it, and Dani went home with Eddie, and Dani never said a word about it. 

Still hasn’t. She looks at Jamie sometimes, when she thinks Jamie isn’t paying attention, and it’s like she wants to say it. Like she wants to open her mouth on a pleasant autumn morning and say, “Jamie, what were you doing making out under the bleachers, under our bleachers, with a girl?”

Dani, who asked about her first kiss, who asked about the shoplifting and the smoking and the fights, never does. There are some bounds, Jamie suspects, Dani can’t bring herself to cross.

Jamie doesn’t really want to know why that is. Doesn’t really have the space to accept the shift in Dani’s smile, the way it would transition from you’re my best friend to there’s something wrong with you. 

Dani would still be her friend, probably, and that’s maybe the worst idea of all. That Dani would reject this part of her, and still keep Jamie close. 

“You’re distracted,” Kate says, a hand puling at Jamie’s jacket. “You know, I don't have to be here.”

None of them do, Jamie thinks--not Kate, not Meredith, not Julia. Every last one of them chooses it, whether they want to admit as much or not. Every last one, when they furtively sneak Jamie in their bedroom, into the art room after school, under the bleachers to take of her whatever they can scrounge, chooses it. Chooses her. Even if just for an afternoon.

Kate chooses her most often, and there’s a whole host of shit to unpack there, Jamie knows--how Kate sneers at her in class, and kisses her breathless on weekends. How Kate hates her in public, and sighs her name in private. How Kate is looking at her now, a little too drunk to care, a little too sober to go too far where others can see. 

Kate looks at her like Dani never does: with scorn. It’s all right by Jamie. Kate can look at her that way all she likes. It isn’t as if she matters. 

“Hey. You’re not listening.”

“Nope,” Jamie confirms, looking past her into the crowded den where kids are laughing and cheering. Kate pulls at her again, leaning into her shoulder, breathing into her ear. 

“Come on. You’re not still mad about yesterday.”

She isn’t, in fact; Kate calling her trash in front of all her little friends would hurt, if Jamie thought it mattered. If Kate believed it, or if Jamie could let her in far enough to internalize this whole thing. Kate, she knows, loves her for all the wrong reasons, and Jamie? Jamie doesn’t need love for this. 

“There’s a bedroom,” Kate is saying, and the low tone of her voice drags a shiver up Jamie’s spine. There’s always a bedroom, with Kate. Always a desk, or a wall, or a couch in a basement. There’s always somewhere to go and never anywhere to be, with Kate. 

She catches sight of blonde hair stumbling past, even as Kate is kissing her neck, pulling her toward the open door. Blonde hair, a familiar laugh, no sign of Eddie. Jamie sighs. 

“Gotta go.”

“Go,” Kate repeats flatly, her hand firm on Jamie’s sleeve. “There’s a bed right here, and I’m telling you--”

“Gotta go,” Jamie repeats, pulling free, ignoring the huff of annoyance that follows her down the hall. Kate will find someone else, eventually--maybe one of the other girls, or maybe some boy she feels better suits her image. Jamie doesn’t care. Jamie doesn’t need her.

“Hey,” she says, catching up with Dani just in time to catch her around the waist when she stumbles. Her eyes are bleary, her breath tinged with alcohol; Jamie, who has been nursing the same beer for over an hour, frowns. “Told you that punch was nothing to joke about.”

“Tastes good, though,” Dani says. Jamie privately thinks there’s a lot to be said for steering clear of what tastes good, if it’ll only poison you in the end. 

She thinks again of Kate, hard-eyed, knife-smile, and adjusts her grip around Dani’s middle. 

“How much did you have?” 

“Three cups,” Dani says proudly. She pauses, forehead creasing with thought. “Four cups. Dunno. Cups.”

“Great,” says Jamie. “And your boyfriend is...?”

Still making a complete twat of himself, she notes, only this time, there is a game involved. A game with an empty beer bottle and the hoots of idiots who won’t remember what they do come morning. She sighs. 

“Fuckin’ hate Spin the Bottle.”

Dani leans against her shoulder, sighing, her breath warm on Jamie’s neck. It’s too much like Kate’s kiss, too little like Dani’s careful method of touching her only in the right ways--a hug, a hand on hers, a playful shove over a board game. She closes her eyes, wishing she’d found some way to convince Dani not to come out tonight. 

“He’s playing,” Dani says, sounding surprised. Eddie, seated cross-legged on the floor, is watching the bottle spin around and around with obvious concentration. “We should play.”

“Doubt that very much,” Jamie says, but there’s nothing to do but follow Dani into the circle. She eyes the others--a blend of her own acquaintances and the brightly-painted kids who have finally learned to give her a wide berth in the halls. Bad idea, this. 

Worse idea, to leave Dani alone here. Eddie looks no better off, in terms of restraint, and the last thing any of them need is for the pair of them to go stumbling off into a bedroom and--

Don’t, Jamie tells herself. She has spent four years making an active point of not thinking about that. Not thinking about how they don’t have anything to hide, how they have a guidebook to follow in terms of what is allowed--even expected--of their relationship. 

Not thinking about how Dani might look in the backseat of his car, her hair rumpled, her skin flushed. 

Not my business, she thinks for the hundredth time, even as Dani is pulling on her hand, urging her to sit. 

“I really don’t want to play,” she says, trying not to dwell on Dani’s knee bumping against hers, Dani still gripping her hand. 

“Come on. It’s fun!” 

Is it? thinks Jamie, watching the bottle land on a boy whose lip she split open with a right hook at fourteen. He makes a show of rolling his eyes, letting the pretty redhead who spun get her three seconds of fame. 

The bottle spins. Boy kisses girl. Again. Girl kisses boy. There are, Jamie notes, far more girls in the circle. The boys are few, crammed all next to one another as though to minimize the chance of fate forcing a dreaded male-on-male liplock. 

She watches Eddie grasp the bottle, his eyes flicking to Dani, his smile huge and sloppy. She can read the hope in his eyes: a chance to kiss Dani in front of all these people, to lure her into the kind of PDA she seems to hate in school halls. 

Don’t land on me, Jamie prays as centrifugal force takes over. Don’t fuckin’ land on me, you stupid shitty--

The bottle stops, facing a girl with short dark hair and a winsome look about her. Eddie’s face falls for a heartbeat, even as she’s leaning across to him. Out of the corner of her eye, Jamie watches Dani’s posture, anticipating that hard cast to her mouth that says she’s upset, but trying to hide it.

Dani is barely paying attention. Her eyes are on Jamie’s hand, still nestled in her own grip, her fingers tracing gently over the ridges of Jamie’s knuckles. Jamie swallows, tries not to look as though she isn't breathing. 

Spin goes the bottle--the dark-haired girl kisses a boy with braces, who kisses a girl Jamie has kissed herself under cover of darkness, who kisses a thin kid until it looks like he might pass out from shock. Around and around it goes, until, finally, the bottle lands on Dani. 

It’s almost funny, Jamie thinks, watching Eddie turn that particular shade of brick. Almost funny, how Eddie’s brow furrows as a skinny boy Jamie’s never heard speak--though he’s always willing to let her bum a smoke if she’d out--nervously presses his lips to Dani’s. It’s barely even a kiss at all, Jamie thinks with amusement--but Eddie looks like he might vibrate right out of his skin. 

Good news, Edmund, she thinks. Fair chance Teddy’s got a crush on you, anyway. 

She’s still grinning at this idea when Dani’s hand gives the bottle a particularly-hard twist. Still grinning, as Eddie glares down at brown glass, clearly trying to will it to land on him. Still grinning, as it slows--slows--

Stops.

Her grin shatters. 

“Oh,” says Dani, looking at her like she’s never seen Jamie before. 

“This game is stupid,” Eddie mutters. “Danielle, let’s go--”

“No,” she says. “No, it’s only fair.”

He makes a sound like a punctured balloon, but Jamie barely hears him. Jamie barely hears any of them, the low hum of their interest forming a barrier between the game and the rest of the world. Dani is staring at her, her eyes impossibly blue, her lips parted. 

“Don’t have to,” Jamie says quietly. “S’fine, I didn’t want to play--”

“Only fair,” Dani repeats in a voice like she, too, has forgotten how to breathe. She reaches out, steadies herself on Jamie’s shoulder with a trembling hand, and Jamie thinks, Bad idea, this was a bad idea, you don’t have to--

Dani’s lips are softer than she remembers. 

Dani is a far better kisser than she remembers. 

Dani is...still kissing her, in fact. Kissing her, a hand curled around Jamie’s collar, making a small sound against Jamie’s lips like she could do this all night. 

All right, thinks Jamie shakily, at once seventeen and eleven, her stomach a flutter of nerves with Dani’s mouth testing against her own. All right, enough. Her hands cup Dani’s cheeks, guiding her back, trying to make it look as much a matter of Dani’s agency as her own as the kiss breaks. 

“Lucky man,” she makes herself tell Eddie, like she can’t see the steam curling from his ears. The others laugh, and Jamie wants to get up, bolt out of here as fast as her legs can carry her. She wants to escape before Dani can open her eyes and realize what she’s done. 

But some trials can’t be fled. Not without making them worse. 

“My turn,” she says, too loud, and spins. When the bottle lands on a girl called Caroline, who kissed Jamie’s cheek in seventh grade and quite literally spent the next year avoiding her, she shrugs. “Sensing a trend...”

They’re laughing again, but it’s happy-drunk laughter now, the joy of a silly game gone fully sideways. Jamie blithely offers Caroline a smack of a kiss, a showboat slide of lips better suited to a stage. Caroline, for her part, goes pink and finds herself kissing the dark-haired girl, who finds herself kissing Teddy, and around and around it goes. 

Jamie chances a look at Dani, whose expression is dreamy. Eddie, she realizes, is gone. 

“Enough of this, you think?” she asks, and Dani lets herself be pulled upright, lets herself sag against Jamie’s shoulder. Enough, thinks Jamie, who expected a night of Eddie’s worst dance moves and Dani laughing at him with her. Enough, thinks Jamie, who guides Dani to an unoccupied sofa and sits with her as the alcohol turns from sparkle to nausea in Dani’s bloodstream, Dani groaning that the world is spinning too fast. 

Enough, thinks Jamie on the walk home, sneaking Dani through the quiet house to her room, watching Dani curl with a small frown into her usual spot on the floor. 

Eddie, the next morning, doesn’t speak to either of them. 

***

Dani Clayton is eighteen years old, and the world has once again reduced itself to bare-bones. There are tests, and there are college applications sent and letters returned, and there is Prom. 

Dani’s mother has never looked at her with this kind of pride, not the way she’s looking at Dani in a dress shop with pins sticking out of glossy pink fabric and heels on her feet. 

“God, Dani. Look at you.”

Dani, who can’t remember the last time anyone except Jamie called her by that name, goes white-hot with some terrible mix of pleasure and misery. It is the first time in almost ten years her mother is looking at her and actually seeing Dani--not a reminder of the husband she taught herself to loathe, but the daughter they’d both left behind. 

Took you long enough, she thinks with uncharacteristic savagery, and closes her eyes against a wave of guilt.

Eddie’s suit is crisp, a rental he is nonetheless extremely proud of. He greets her with a corsage and a smile, and she allows his admiration to swallow her up. Allows his eyes on her body to leave warmth in their wake, though the back of her neck itches when he takes her hand and tries to pull at the weathered threads tied around her wrist. 

“Leave it,” she says, looking past him just in time to catch Jamie’s eye on the couch. Jamie’s face, as ever, is utterly cool. “Are you not coming?”

"Was just about to get ready,” Jamie says, like she couldn’t care less. Dani frowns. 

“Do you need help? I can zip you up, or--”

“Think I’m good,” Jamie says, and Dani gets the sense she’s trying not to say something else. Trying explicitly to tamp something down before Dani can pry it up. 

I knowJamie, she thinks, watching Jamie get up and head off to her room. I know what you’re hiding. Everyone knows, and it doesn’t matter. Just...just talk to me. 

She settles on the couch, allowing Judy to fawn over them. “Oh, you two look fantastic. Danielle, dear, that dress is incredible. You know, I want to take some photos--we can use them on a board for the engagement party.”

“The what?” Dani asks, cold trickling down her back. Eddie’s ears are pink. 

Mom.”

“Oh, not yet, of course.” Judy flaps a hand, fumbling with her old camera. “There’s graduation, and college, and I’d think you’d want a house all ready to go for the kids--”

Waves seem to crash in Dani’s ears, blocking out Eddie’s protests. Engagement party. When. She shoves herself upright, swaying a little, and hears herself say, “I think I’m going to check on Jamie.”

“She’s fine,” Eddie says, a bit too sharply. He’s been like this more and more where Jamie is concerned, pushing Dani away from her, pulling Dani closer to himself. It’s as if ten years of Jamie living in his house have finally reached a boiling point, and he’s decided enough is enough. 

Which is, to Dani’s mind, ridiculous. And unacceptable. 

“I’ll be right back,” she assures him, sliding out from under Judy’s happy gaze. 

Jamie’s door is, predictably, shut tight. She raps on it with nerveless fingers, struggling to draw breath around the idea of engagement party, around Judy’s assertion that it is only a matter of time before Eddie slips a ring onto her finger. She imagines that life, unspooling like dropped thread: a ring, a question, a ceremony, an endless line of should rolling out to the horizon.

“Jamie?”

The door pops open, Jamie greeting her with raised eyebrows. “You were expecting, maybe, a trained pony?”

She catches sight of Dani’s face, ushering her in without another word. Dani walks straight to the bed, collapses onto it, trying to breathe and keep from wrinkling her dress at the same time.

“Hey.” Jamie is crouching beside the mattress, her expression as worried as Dani’s ever seen it. “Another one?”

Dani nods, eyes closed, listening to her breaths heighten into desperate sobs. Jamie’s hand closes around her wrist, pushing aside the corsage, taking the old braided bracelet between finger and thumb. Dani lets her eyes open, lets her gaze settle on the slide of thread in Jamie’s gentle grip, the brush of Jamie’s nail soft upon her inner wrist. 

“S’okay,” she hears Jamie say as if from a great distance, though all she can focus on is the motion of Jamie’s fingers. She reaches down, mirrors Jamie’s hand around green and white, letting her thumbnail drag across the braid until her lungs relax.

“Sorry. I’m sorry. I got--overwhelmed.”

Jamie leans back. Dani realizes she is, in fact, dressed for the dance--and in a dress, to boot. She’s never seen Jamie in a dress before.

“Oh. You look...”

Like sunlight, she doesn’t say. Like home, she doesn’t say. Like a dream, she doesn’t say. 

“Scrub up fine, when I need to,” Jamie says, like this happens every day. Like she didn’t spend four years dodging Dani’s invitation to every dance. Like she isn’t looking at Dani now with the softest smile Dani’s ever seen. 

She won’t, Dani knows, come out to dinner with them. She might not even see Jamie at the dance itself; Jamie has a way of slipping out the back door with a natural ease, leaving Dani with Eddie as often as possible. It’s a kindness, she suspects--at least in Jamie’s mind. 

She might not see Jamie at all for the rest of the night. She reaches out, takes Jamie’s hand, runs her thumb lightly across Jamie’s skin. 

“You really do look--”

“Sure,” Jamie says, too quickly, her eyes fixed on Dani’s with a warmth Dani is starting to feel borders on scalding. “And you’re--”

“Pink,” Dani says, and laughs. Jamie doesn’t. She seems to be moving closer somehow, without moving at all, her hand trembling under Dani’s loose grip. 

There’s something, Dani thinks with a surge of adrenaline, as Jamie--black dress, black stockings, red lips--shifts in place. Something here that I can’t-- 

“Listen, Dani--”

“Anything on fire in there?” Eddie calls through the door. Jamie takes a hearty step back, seeming to shrink on the spot. 

“Only my ears,” she calls back, and turns from Dani to rummage for her battered combat boots. “Meet you in a second, yeah?”

She gives Dani a final smile, digs around for a pair of silver earrings. The smile does not, Dani registers, reach her eyes.

***

Prom is embarrassingly boring, Dani thinks. The music is not good; the dancing leaves her feeling breathless and silly. Eddie keeps asking if she’s all right. 

“Fine,” she says every time, and smiles the way he’s always liked. The way she used to smile when they were kids, and she actually meant it. 

He isn’t doing anything wrong, even; as if remembering Andrew’s party, he stays close to her side, attentive, kind. He fetches punch and cookies, leads every slow dance, kisses her with gentle awareness that she doesn’t want anyone looking. He is, in every way, the perfect date.

And she feels tired

Tired of the knowing looks of their peers, who have long since stopped seeing Dani and Eddie and have instead dubbed them Danielle-and-Edmund. Of course they’re going to get married, Dani imagines them whispering. Of course she’ll have his kids. Of course, you could set a clock by them, childhood sweethearts from here to the end. 

She’s tired of should, and she’s tired of the hope in his eyes, and she’s tired of trying to box herself in as if she fits anywhere

Mostly, she just wishes for Jamie. Jamie, who only ever calls her Dani. Jamie, who only ever talks to her as a person, rather than a collection of pieces intended for a greater whole. Jamie, who looked at her in that bedroom hours ago with eyes gone surprisingly dark, with her mouth shaping, Listen, Dani--

She excuses herself off to freshen up, and is almost unsurprised to find Jamie backed between the last stall and the wall. Almost unsurprised, to find Jamie isn’t alone. 

The girl pushes off from Jamie hard and fast, letting her skirt fall back into place like there could be any doubt what Dani just walked in on. It’s the mean one again, she registers--the one from under the bleachers, the one who calls Jamie horrible things in history class. Kate, she thinks, even as black hair is whipping past, the girl all but sprinting out of the bathroom.

Jamie, wide-eyed and rumpled, the wrong shade of lipstick smeared across her mouth, is staring at her. 

“I--Dani.”

“It’s okay,” Dani says. She doesn’t quite know why. It doesn’t feel okay; her heart is crashing against her ribs, her skin too hot to stand, her head swimming with the image of Jamie’s hand falling out from under a girl’s dress. 

But Jamie is looking at her like she’s eight instead of eighteen, like she’s waiting for Dani to slap her across the face, or call her something vicious, or maybe just stomp out after her runaway date. She can’t stand the heat climbing her neck, but she’d bear it forever if it meant never seeing that look in Jamie’s eyes again.

“It’s okay,” she says again, and finds herself moving toward Jamie. Finds herself trying to walk normally, even as Jamie shrinks back against the cinderblock wall. “Is she--is she your girlfriend?”

Jamie shakes her head once, eyes fixed on Dani’s face. Dani reaches out, gently thumbs away a streak of pink from the corner of Jamie’s lips.

“You should have told me,” she says. Then, hating the shape of that word, corrects herself. “You could have, I mean. Is she--do you like her?”

Jamie shakes her head again. Her skin is vibrant under Dani’s fingertips, her breath hitched in her chest like she can’t remember how to exhale. 

“But you--”

“Something to do,” Jamie says hoarsely. “It’s--not easy--”

Dani looks at her, at the tremble of her mouth, the lack of challenge in her eyes. Jamie has never looked so scared, not in a whole decade of knowing her. 

“Can I hug you?” she asks, very quietly, and the sound Jamie makes almost undoes her. She wraps Jamie close, presses her face against Jamie’s hair, breathes in the mingle of unfamiliar perfume and the welcome scent of Jamie. 

She’ll have to go back to Eddie, she knows--will have to go back out and smile and pretend there’s nothing at all to the rattle of her heart. Nothing at all to the flush of her skin. Nothing at all to the distant sense-memory of Jamie’s lips on her own at a party, Jamie’s hands cupping her face and gently pulling away. 

She’ll have to go back to Eddie, because it’s the closest she’s ever gotten to belonging--but first, this. First, holding tight to Jamie in a bathroom, murmuring, “You could have told me.”

She tries not to wonder why Jamie says nothing in reply.

***

Just like that, high school is over. It was, she thinks, somewhat anticlimactic--like the morning after her first party, when her head had throbbed, and Eddie had been grumpy for reasons he wouldn’t clarify, and Jamie had looked at them both like she wished for anywhere else to go.

Graduation feels much the same: a dim memory of too much-too fast, an awareness that she was someone, if not exactly herself, and a clanging headache at the end of the road. She comes out the other side of four years with a piece of paper, a place in a college out of state, and a terrible sense of having wasted her time.

“You think college will be better?” Jamie asks from beside her at the end-of-year bonfire. “Really?”

Dani shrugs. “It won’t be here, at least.” She can’t stay here another year. Can’t stand watching the world go by, unchanged, as she grows less and less certain in her own skin. At least moving to Ohio will give her something fresh to think about, a new mold to fit into.

Jamie hums, holding her hands out to the flames as if in sacrifice. “And what does ol’ Edmund have to say about your choices?”

Eddie is...less than thrilled with her decision to eschew Boston, and Dani suspects Jamie knows it. Suspects there’s no way Jamie could live in that house and not hear his voice rattling the walls in a dozen arguments over the past few months. 

“We agreed, Danielle. We agreed it was best to stick close--”

You agreed. It’s not even that far, Eddie. Anyway, the teaching program is--”

“He doesn’t like the idea of long-distance,” she tells Jamie. “We haven’t been apart for more than a month since we were six.”

“Make him nervous, does it?” Jamie tosses a stick into the fire. She’s doing that thing Dani hates so much, where she engages fully in the conversation without ever actually looking at Dani. It feels like ninth grade all over again, Jamie being weird without ever letting Dani in enough to figure out why. 

Oh, because you’ve been so normal? It’s unfair of her to blame Jamie for it, like she hasn’t been along for the ride since Prom. Like they haven’t been circling each other like wary animals, unwilling to back away, unable to step close. 

It’s Eddie, she thinks sometimes, needing somewhere to put the blame. It’s Eddie making things difficult. Eddie, who can’t shut up about college, about how life will make so much more sense out there in the real world. As if life has ever not made sense to Edmund O’Mara. 

“It’ll just be new, is all,” she says at last, gazing into the flames, striving to untangle the mess in her head. There’s so much up there right now, it’s a wonder she can form sentences at all; it’s all Jamie in the bathroom at Prom, Jamie’s skin under her thumb, Jamie’s nervous smile when they’d walked out together and right into Eddie’s steady stream of conversation. It’s all Eddie holding her close on the dance floor, Eddie’s hand tilting her chin up, Eddie’s glasses reflecting the moonlight as they’d slid into his car, his hand on her knee, the question in his eyes. 

It’s all wondering why she’d let him touch her, and wondering why she’d closed her eyes and remembered Jamie’s skin, and wondering why she’s even bothering wondering at all. 

You know, some little part of her--the part she thinks of as the brave one, the part that has never quite been silenced, even after all these years--says. You know why. But she doesn’t have time for it. She doesn’t have time to sit and unpack all the pieces of her she’s spent so many years stringing together. Doesn’t have time to sit back and sort them into piles: Eddie here, Jamie there, Dani strung somewhere in between. 

Two best friends, she thinks wryly. Two heads of curly dark hair, two kids who had, for a time, been mistaken for twins. And even back then, with Jamie’s accent a novelty in her ears and Eddie’s glasses a comfort in the mirror, she’d known they weren’t the same. 

Didn’t know why. Didn’t know what to do with that information, maybe. But she’d known, even at eight, that the two couldn’t be confused. 

Maybe it’ll be good, she thinks, to go away. To go off to Ohio where no one knows Danielle Clayton, where no one can expect her to walk a certain way, think a certain way, surrender pieces of herself at request a certain way.

You’ve never been that, to her, the little part of her that still feels brave murmurs. She’s never asked you to be. 

“Still with me?” Jamie asks, and Dani almost loses her composure. Almost turns and--in front of classmates they’ll never see again and Eddie with his AP friends and the roar of the fire--says, Always. Always, with you, somehow. Come with me. Be with me. 

It’s insane. It would be an insane thing to do. She buckles it down, tosses it into the back of her mind like a locked trunk, turns back to the easy flow of Karen’s daughter, Eddie’s girlfriend, Jamie’s best friend.  

“Yeah,” she says, letting her fingers touch the frayed threads around her wrist, letting her mind brush the memory of Jamie’s terrified eyes in a school bathroom. “Yeah, I’m good.”

***

Jamie is nineteen years old, and no longer sure about the idea of disappearing forever. She’d be missed, she knows--by Judy, who thinks of her as a daughter enough to not say so; by Eddie, who thinks of her as a sister, for better or worse; by Dani, who thinks of her as...

As Jamie. Just Jamie. And maybe that’s for the best. Dani saw her--really saw her--and all she’d had to say was, “You could have told me.” Like there was anything Jamie was carrying she’d be willing to take on. 

She’d meant it, Jamie thinks. She’d meant it, and she’d been wrong to mean it. Dani doesn’t deserve any of the shadows that live in Jamie’s head. Doesn’t deserve the parents who didn’t want her enough, the girls who didn’t need her enough, the clawing sense that enough simply doesn’t exist for some people.

She’d meant it, looking at Jamie with a hand pressed to Jamie’s jaw, and Jamie has been looking for reasons not to let her mean it ever since.

It’s almost easier, when Dani leaves for college. Almost easier, when Jamie helps heft the bags into the car, the burn of her muscles as she shifts boxes and luggage around a reassurance that she is here, she is okay, she is going to be just fine moving through a world that doesn’t have Dani Clayton right across the street. 

“Come with me,” Dani whispers into her shoulder, hugging her hard enough to push all the breath from Jamie’s lungs. She grips at the back of Dani’s blouse and thinks, You wouldn’t want me, if I did. You have him. It’s enough. 

“I’ll be all right,” she says instead, leaning back and tossing a rogue curl out of her eyes. “Gonna see the world.”

“Without me?” Dani asks, and Jamie closes her eyes against a wave of need so great, it almost makes her forget Dani is worth too much to be tied down. 

“I’ll send postcards,” she says, smiling like Dani’s blue eyes on an August day won’t haunt her dreams. 

Dani goes off to school in Ohio, and Eddie sets out for Boston, and Jamie finds herself sitting in a quiet house on the first day of September feeling like she had the day a social worker had sat her down across from Judy O’Mara. 

“You might not know it yet,” the woman had said in a voice like velvet, “but family isn’t always about who you’re born to, Jamie. Sometimes, you get to pick the people you keep closest. Sometimes, that’s the lucky thing.”

It hadn’t felt lucky--not until the front door had swung open to reveal a blonde braid and surprised blue eyes. It hadn’t felt lucky--not until Dani Clayton had smiled and said, “You’ll like your room. It faces the part of the street where you can see the moon best.”

Jamie never told her how often she’d been kept from running, just remembering Dani saying that. Just thinking about how maybe none of this was good, maybe none of this was right, but she had a room where she could see the moon. No insurance she’d ever have as much again.

No insurance she’d ever find someone like Dani, either, who hadn’t minded giving that view up.

She packs light, t-shirts and jeans and a card Dani had made when she was thirteen and needed her wisdom teeth removed. Bright side, Dani had written, a word balloon springing up from the mouth of a badly-rendered dinosaur. You might not have teeth, but at least your arms can scratch your head. 

“Call me,” Judy says, hugging her at the door. “Whenever you can. Okay?”

Jamie nods, knowing she would never have kept that kind of promise at eight, ten, fourteen. Knowing, too, that Judy has given her more than she can possibly pay back. Ten years under a sturdy roof, with a family that included her in everything, with people who really love each other properly. Ten years, without waiting to see who was going to prove themselves a runner. 

“Oh!” Judy says, as she’s stepping off the porch. “One more thing!”

She scurries into the house, returning with a small wrapped package and a note. She presses both into Jamie’s hands, says, “Happy birthday, sweetheart.”

Jamie tightens her fist around the package, twists her mouth into a smile that feels more like a grimace. Judy’s looking at her like she expects Jamie to open it here, like she thinks Jamie could stand reading Dani’s jagged handwriting with someone watching. 

She opens it by the oak, instead, touching her fingers reflexively to the ancient engraving of initials. It feels like the most Dani place in the house, even still--the spot Jamie has spent years retreating to with cigarettes and novels and that wild desire to put her feelings somewhere they couldn’t hurt anyone. 

The note is short and sweet: Wanted to give this to you before I left, but it felt like it should be a real birthday present. Hope you like it.

She tears the wrapping paper, pries open a little box, touches her fingers to the cool silver links of a necklace. A single loop, unbroken, like the one Jamie’s mother had once hooked around Jamie’s neck. The last gift she’d ever given, before disappearing while Jamie had been at school.

Jamie had lost it when she was fourteen, and hadn’t had the space in her body to explain to anyone why she’d cried for two days. 

She hadn’t been speaking to Dani at the time, too fragile and too full of rage to cope with the flip of her stomach whenever Dani smiled. She doesn't even remember telling Dani she’d lost the necklace--maybe she never had. Maybe Dani had noticed during a sleepover, or out swimming in the public pool, or when Jamie had taken to tapping her knuckles against hard surfaces instead of toying with the chain around her neck. 

Hope you like it.

She sets off on the first bus she finds, determined to watch the world unfold.

***

Dani Clayton is twenty years old, living in a world that almost feels right around her shoulders. The dorms at school are small, old, but clean; her roommate is a sweet young woman she’d met in a child psychology class as a freshman, a girl called Tess who thinks Dani is funny, thinks school is the right kind of hard, and thinks they’re both going to be the kinds of teachers who change lives.

The only thing Tess doesn’t match Dani on is Eddie, in fact. 

“Clayton,” she says one Sunday, as Eddie’s car is pulling out of the visitor lot. “You really love that guy?”

She’s the first person to ask it out loud, though Dani has seen the question reflected in Jamie’s eyes over the years. “Yes.”

“You know he’s kind of--”

“My boyfriend since I was thirteen,” Dani says, amused. Tess snorts.

“Like that’s any fucking reason to keep someone that white-bread around.”

Dani laughs, like she hasn’t been thinking something dangerously similar for two years. Like she hasn’t decided four, five times a semester to call Eddie up and break things off--only to talk herself right back out of it again. It wouldn’t be kind, to do it over the phone. Wouldn’t be fair, to ask him to drive down for a weekend only to break his heart. Wouldn’t be right, to do it at Christmas, or on spring break. 

She wishes Jamie were here. Jamie makes the nonsense stand still, even if she can’t switch it all off for good. But Jamie is off traveling, backpacking her way through the country, catching flights to France, to Poland, to Brazil. Dani has been mapping her journey the whole while, postcards tacked to her walls, letters folded carefully into her journal. 

“That one,” Tess says approvingly, whenever Dani comes in from the mailbox with another card covered in Jamie’s careful script. “That one knows how to live.”

Jamie is learning all sorts of living, it seems, as Dani racks up credits in pursuit of a teaching degree. Her notes are full of details. She’s been working wherever she lands, a couple of weeks at a stretch--usually stocking for retail, or helping with landscaping businesses in the busy season. She’s discovered a knack for gardening almost as powerful as her love of plants, sending Dani pressed flower petals and fastidiously-sketched renders of whichever shade of green is her favorite this week. She’s terrible with Polish, passable with French, charming enough to get by even when a new language doesn’t roll neatly off her tongue. 

She hates California, loves Georgia, finds Michigan cozy, but “the kind that might kill you in your sleep.” She’s passed through Vermont four times, as if pulled by a magnetism she can’t define.

She has not, even once, been to Ohio.

***

Eddie tries, over winter break, to propose. 

He tries the exact same way he once asked her to be his girlfriend: drops down on one knee in the middle of a crowd--this time, his family’s annual Christmas party--and booms her name like a fallen grenade.

“Danielle, will you marry me?”

“No,” she says, before she can think better of it.

“No,” she says when he repeats himself like he’s unsure whether she heard him. “No, Eddie. I’m sorry.”

His face is turning brick red, his mouth hanging open. Beyond his horrified expression, she sees Judy press a hand to her mouth, sees the rest of the O’Mara clan shuffle awkwardly back to the business of drinks and fruitcake. 

“Why?” he asks outside, the two of them shivering under a drift of fresh snow. “It’s been--I mean, I thought you wanted--”

Dani closes her eyes. Does her very best not to see Jamie’s crooked smile, Jamie’s hand pressed to the inner slope of her wrist where a tattered bracelet is still hanging on for dear life. 

“I need to be someone else,” she says. Her voice is soft; under the muted quality of a December snow, it still seems to echo. “Someone I think I was supposed to find a long time ago.”

“Find her with me,” Eddie pleads. He’s still holding the ring, she sees, spinning the box between his fingers. “Danielle--”

“I need,” she says, “not to be Danielle. I need to be...” Brave. “Eddie, I just can’t.”

She could say more, could confuse him, could upset him--but what would be the point? This part is all that matters, for Eddie’s side of the story. 

“I love you,” he says to the toes of his shoes. 

“I know,” she says, and hugs him hard. Eddie has always been so solid, so easy to believe. Eddie has not always been right. 

***

She sends a letter to Jamie before she leaves for the spring semester, not entirely sure it will reach her before Jamie next moves on. She was, last Dani heard, in Maine. Dani doesn’t expect much, only knows she needs to tell the story of the break-up to someone who will actually understand.

Someone who won’t tell her she was stupid, or smile with Judy’s particular brand of grief, or ask what she could possibly have been thinking to let a lawyer go, Danielle, honestly. 

When the dorm phone rings two days into the new semester, Dani assumes it will be Judy on the other end--just checking up, honey, how are you--or Eddie--explain it to me one more time, please, Danielle--or even her own mother. She does not expect the drawl of Jamie’s voice, closer than it has been in two years. 

“If you’re not busy,” she says, “I’d like to see you.”

Dani walks through the rest of the week in a daze. Tess has taken to waving a hand in front of her eyes, prodding her in the shoulder with the tip of her pen.

“This break-up is really kicking your ass, huh?”

Dani, unsure of how to respond, shrugs. Tess blows out a breath. 

“You’re better off. I know it doesn't feel like it yet, but I promise. That guy? That guy wasn’t--”

“Right,” Dani says softly. “I know.”

“That,” Tess says, “puts you worlds ahead of some girls.”

I’d like to see you, Jamie had said, and gone on to explain how it would be a matter of bus schedules and navigating the weather, but that she’d be there as soon as she could. Know it can’t be easy, she’d added. Nothing more. No I’m proud of you, or why’d you do it, or is there someone else? Nothing but the simplest of phrasing over a tinny phone line. 

I’d like to see you--like it’s new. Like she hasn’t been wishing for Dani at her side for years, the way Dani has been trying so hard not to dream of her. 

Maybe she hasn’t. Maybe two years was enough time for Jamie to grow into herself in ways small-town America hadn’t allowed. Maybe she hasn’t thought of Dani once--

Postcards, Dani reminds the biting little voice that sounds too much like her mother. Postcards, and letters, from every single place she’s been. She remembers. She cares. 

And still, when she opens the door to find Jamie on the other side, it’s like staring at a stranger. Jamie in her old brown jacket, a button-down shirt, a pair of suspenders, shaking snow out of her hair. 

“Beautiful out there, but fuck, it’s cold.”

Dani can only stare. Jamie’s hair is a little shorter, her clothes neater and newer than anything Dani’s seen in her closet before. When she shrugs out of her jacket, hanging it carefully over a chair, Dani can make out definition in her forearms she’d never had as a lanky teenager in Iowa. 

“You look--”

“Chilly?” Jamie suggests, grinning, and Dani stumbles into her arms without another word. 

***

“I’m sorry,” Jamie says, when they’ve hugged hard enough and long enough for Tess to let out a low whistle behind them. “I would have come sooner, bus got boxed in by a storm. Had to wait it out.”

Dani shakes her head, gripping Jamie’s arms. “Don’t be sorry. I just--I didn’t think--you look amazing.”

“Travel agrees with me,” Jamie says, pushing the hair off her forehead. “Could say the same for you and higher education.”

“Helps to dump dead weight,” Tess mumbles over her textbooks. Jamie arches an eyebrow. 

“Who’s this, then?”

“Roommate,” Dani says, still unable to tear her eyes from Jamie’s face. She looks healthy, confident, her posture strong. The silver of a familiar chain peeks out from beneath her open collar, and Dani almost touches it before she’s able to stop herself. 

“Conscience, more like,” Tess adds, when it becomes clear Dani is too distracted to introduce her properly. “Tess. Big fan of Dani Clayton. Not so big of her now-defunct man-child.”

“Jamie grew up in his house,” Dani says idly. Tess makes a strangled sound.

“Oh, so you know.”

Jamie laughs, and there’s something free about the sound that wasn’t there before. Dani wants to lean into it, wants to say anything she can to make Jamie laugh again, to smile, to brush her fingers against the curve of Dani’s jaw--

“Right,” says Tess, gathering her books. “I’ll leave you to it. Dani, I’m gonna be over at Carlos’ place for the weekend, if you need me.”

“You don’t have to,” Dani starts to say, but Tess raises a hand to cut her off, smiling.  

“You crazy kids could use the quiet, I bet.”

There’s a look in her eye Dani isn’t sure she approves of, but before she can interrogate it further, Tess is grasping Jamie by the shoulder. 

“Take care of her. I mean it. Take care of her.” 

Jamie watches her sashay out with a bag tossed over one shoulder, a vaguely perplexed expression on her face. “Did--she just wink at me?”

Dani pulls at her arm, leads her to sit on the bed, stands in the middle of the room with hands that don’t quite know where to settle. “You must be hungry. We could order a pizza? I have snacks. Do you want a drink?”

“I want,” Jamie says patiently, “to talk to my best friend about the demise of her seven-year relationship. If you’re so inclined.”

The energy, wound tight around her every limb at the incongruity of Jamie in slacks and suspenders against the walls of her dorm room, seems to abandon her without warning. She sinks beside Jamie on the mattress, hands twisting in the bedspread. 

“I couldn’t marry him.”

“Because he’s a prat,” Jamie says without missing a beat. “But, see, he’s always sort of been your prat, so--”

“I couldn’t marry him,” Dani repeats, “because I don’t think I’m in love with him.”

“If you have to think about it, you’re probably right.” Jamie leans back on her hands, gazing at the wall upon which Dani has chronicled her entire journey across the world. “This is...”

“I wanted to keep track,” Dani says, embarrassed despite herself. “I haven’t--I mean, it’s been...hard. Not being able to just talk to you. So I’ve been...” She gestures awkwardly, her fingertips trailing the lowest-hung postcards with affection. “It felt like the only way to keep you close.”

I wanted to be with you, she can’t say, because Jamie has always needed a door to close, a room to hide away in, secrets she can’t share even when Dani wants so badly to be let in. I wanted to be there, but you needed the space, and this was the only thing of you I had.

Her fingers are picking at her bracelet, she realizes belatedly. Jamie’s eyes follow the pluck of old habit, her mouth curving in the smallest smile. 

“Can’t believe that’s held on. Thought for sure it’d fall off, like, before the summer ended.”

Dani only smiles. The fact is, the bracelet has fallen off a number of times over the years--in her sleep, or in Eddie’s room, or on the floor of her mother’s car. Each time, its absence had been like a spike of pure adrenaline to Dani’s system. Each time, she’d scrounged until she’d found it, tying it that much tighter, coating the knot with layers of polish until it felt secure again.

A piece of Jamie, she’d thought each time, like a talisman. A little marker of safety in a world that made less sense every year. 

“Enough about me,” she says, though Jamie is opening her mouth to press. “You’ve been everywhere. Tell me about it.”

Jamie scratches her cheek, looking at her for such a long time, Dani thinks she’s going to change her mind about the whole visit. That she’s going to say, “Nope, you know what? Too much has changed.” That she’s going to leave.

“It’s big out there,” she says. “Too big, I thought when I left. Thought I’d get into all kinds of trouble, left to my own devices.”

“But you went anyway.” Dani smiles.

“Had to, didn’t I? You were gone.” She seems to realize how this sounds, dials it back. “Eddie, too. Everybody. Couldn’t just sit around tiny-town USA waiting, could I?”

No. No, the idea of Jamie sitting and waiting for anyone or anything just doesn’t feel right. Jamie is too much life packed into a small frame, a wondering need to see the stars, a desire to plant seeds and watch them flourish. Jamie couldn’t have sat around and waited for Dani to get back, not even if Dani had wanted her to.

Jamie has become quite the storyteller over the last two years--or maybe it’s just that she’s always been able to talk to Dani. Always been more comfortable alone in a room with Dani sitting rapt, laughing at the funny parts, nodding solemnly along with all of Jamie’s fears. 

It feels good, letting the tension leak out of the room this way, as Jamie speaks of rural farms and big cities, of learning to brew coffee and pack shipping containers. Dani has slowly become a master of a small passion, nursing it into a flame; Jamie, in contrast, has become a jack of all trades. She likes the constant motion, but has found being outside is best, she says; there’s just something about working under the punishing sun or in a greenhouse that feels right

“Plants,” she says, with a sliver of self-deprecation. “Who knew? Could’ve made honor roll, too, if they’d skipped biology and sent me straight out to the gardens.”

She seems so much older than Dani feels, so much more worldly. When Dani says so, she laughs, falling back on the mattress like it’s the funniest thing she’s ever heard.

Worldly,” she repeats, hands folded on her chest. “Dani, I spent three weeks mucking out a stable for the price of a bus ticket to nowhere. It’s not worldly, it’s just...living.”

“I spent those three weeks in the library,” Dani says, stretching out beside her on the tiny twin, allowing herself the simple pleasure of one knee grazing the side of Jamie’s leg. “Fell asleep so often, they threatened to make an exhibit of me.”

She loves Jamie’s laugh, she decides, especially in the comfort of this room. It feels so much like home, she thinks she could close her eyes and slide straight back to eleven years old. 

“I missed you,” she says, before she can stop herself. Jamie raises her head off the pillow, her expression soft. 

“Yeah. Know what you mean.”

“So,” Dani says, resting her cheek on an open palm, watching Jamie stretch like she’s belonged on this bed all along. “How’s your love life? Since mine is a flaming wreck and all.”

Jamie’s smile fades. “It’s, uh. S’all right.”

There is a gate, Dani can see, slowly dropping down behind her eyes. She pushes herself upright, a hand seeking out Jamie’s arm. 

“Jamie. I don’t care. Seriously--I didn’t in high school, and I don’t now. Anyway, Tess is--well, whatever she is, it sometimes brings girls home in the middle of the night.”

Jamie squints, casting a glance toward Tess’ side of the room. Dani watches her inspect the magazine cutouts of models, all genders on equal display. 

“Right,” she says at last. “Well. Wouldn’t call it a love life, exactly. More like a...”

The life of one who is in no danger of standing still long enough to fall, Dani suspects, as Jamie talks. She tells of girls in New York, South Carolina, Idaho; girls in Greece and Scotland and France. Each story is short, to the point, sketched outlines of people with no shading: a farmer’s daughter, or my boss at the bar, or never got her name, and s’probably better that way. Dani gets no sense of attachment from most of them, no sense that Jamie missed them once they’d left her bed. 

She’s been everywhere, she thinks, and I’ve only ever dated Edmund O’Mara. And I’ve only ever loved...

There: the wall in her own mind, the one she runs up against every time she tries at night to force the feelings into sense. She lays on her back, stares at the ceiling, remembering Eddie’s hands on her body, remembering Jamie’s eyes on her face, knowing as she’d known since they were eight that the two are not the same. Have never been the same. Have never felt the same.

“Was one girl,” Jamie says, a soft affection with which she has painted no other story. Dani sits up a little, searches her face. Her lips are curved at the corners, her eyes crinkling. “In Paris. A model, who--”

“You dated a model?” Dani repeats dumbly. Jamie winces.

“Date is not...how it usually works. But saw her for a while, yeah. Wrote to her, even when I moved on, for a bit.”

There is something about that--the idea that Jamie was not simply kissing or sleeping with women, but actually writing to one or two, imparting little bits of herself onto the page like she wanted them to remember her when all was said and done. Something about it twists Dani’s stomach in ways imagining Jamie on top of faceless women can’t quite touch.

“Oh,” she says. “That’s--that’s good.”

Jamie is up on her elbows, looking back with an expression much more teenage than Dani has seen in years. “Is it?” she replies, almost like she’s daring Dani to push. Dani nods.

“Yeah, I’m--I’m glad you found--everyone deserves to--”

“’Cause,” Jamie says, sitting up all the way and letting her legs swing over the mattress edge, “you don’t sound glad, Dani. In fact, you never really sound glad, when it comes up.”

She doesn't sound angry, exactly. Hurt, maybe. Jarred, maybe. Dani watches her slide off the bed, scrubbing a hand through her hair.

“I’m not,” Dani says, her voice stretched thin around her own anxiety. “I didn’t--”

“It’s fine,” Jamie says, leaning both hands on the back of Tess’ chair. “It’s fine, it’s all right, I just--I know it’s not...we never really talked about it, because I didn’t want this.”

“What?”

This. This thing, where your mouth says it’s fine, and your eyes say it’s--not.” She closes her eyes, smiles without humor. “I know you don’t get it, Dani, and I’m not asking you to. But you did ask. Right? You asked.”

She’s moving, Dani registers, toward the door. Moving, with her head shaking, like she’s made a mistake. 

“I’m sorry,” she says. “I am. You’re not--you’ve been through a time lately, and I know that. I should give you some--”

If she says space, Dani is going to lose her mind. If she says anything except I’ll stay, right here, where you’ve needed me for years, Dani is going to absolutely lose it. 

“I’ll be back tomorrow,” Jamie is saying, reaching for her jacket. “We can--I dunno, you can show me around campus, or something. I’ll just--”

Dani springs from the bed, crossing the room in three steps, her hand flashing out to wrap around Jamie’s fist. Jamie freezes, looking at her with an expression so close to alarm, Dani wants to laugh.

Instead, she pulls. Pulls at Jamie’s hand until Jamie is standing only an inch away, her body creating some brand of energy field Dani can’t turn away from. She’s standing there, swaying a little, her eyes fixed clearly on Dani’s. 

“I don’t--”

You feel it, Dani thinks, gazing back at her. You must. This kind of electricity doesn’t come out of nowhere, and it doesn’t go away. Not even when you beg it to. Not when you plead to the night to make you into the person your mother, your boyfriend, your whole life expects. 

“Dani,” Jamie says, and Dani is pushing up and in, her hands skidding along Jamie’s collar as her mouth covers Jamie’s apology, her explanation, whatever was about to color the air between them in shades of not quite right. 

It is not a first kiss, she knows. Not the tentative, nervous brush of children playing pretend. Not the drunken exploration of teenagers playing a game, either, though Dani has not been able to forget the taste of Jamie from that night in years. 

It is, instead, a welcome kiss. A needy, hopeful, waited years for this kiss. It is the kind of kiss Dani has never dreamed she’d get, though Eddie tried his best, because the only person who could ever have kissed her quite this way--hands gentle on her face, body eagerly pressing toward the flex and slide of Dani’s grip along her clothes--is Jamie. 

Jamie, kissing her now with breathless hunger, like every girl before was just practice for this very moment. She is soft under Dani’s hands, her shirt sliding between Dani’s fingers, her hips pushing into Dani’s with a small groan. Dani is dimly aware of her own heartbeat in her ears, of Jamie’s beneath the flat of her hand when it lands against Jamie’s breastbone. 

No one has ever kissed like Jamie is kissing now, she’s sure. No one has ever tipped her head back, tongue brushing her bottom lip in question, thumb stroking an arc from cheekbone to the base of her ear. She pulls at Jamie with desperate hands, guiding her backward, guiding her to the bed--

“Wait,” Jamie says, her mouth sliding away from Dani’s with a slick regret. “Wait, wait. You--I--”

Dani is shivering, she realizes, and buries her face in Jamie’s neck. “We could,” she says in a small voice, registering the way Jamie’s body curls toward her when her lips brush Jamie’s throat. “We could, Jamie. I could.”

“You don’t have to--”

“I could, Jamie.” Jamie’s pulse is a storm beneath her lips, a temptation out of time with Jamie’s usual calm. “We could. Right now. If you--”

Jamie pushes her gently back, one hand in Dani’s hair like she wants nothing more than to drag her back into a kiss. Dani lets herself lean into the curve of her palm, into the fingers she’s grabbed a hundred times without thinking. 

It could be something, she thinks. It could be something here and now, with snow howling against the window, with Jamie easing her back onto that tiny bed. Jamie knows what she’s doing. Jamie has been everywhere, has an understanding of this Dani can’t begin to approach. 

She could take Jamie into her bed now, and let the dominos fall. 

“You just broke up with Eddie,” Jamie says in the most reasonable voice Dani has ever heard. Her tongue darts out to wet her lips, and Dani watches with fascination, heat curling in her stomach. “You just did. And you aren’t--we aren’t--”

“You don’t want to,” Dani says, and Jamie laughs. 

“Want to? Christ, Dani. You have no idea.”

“So, come--” 

But Jamie is shaking her head, pressing a kiss to Dani’s forehead with lips that tremble. “Do you want it because you want me?” she asks against Dani’s skin. “Or because you want to feel something new?”

An unfair question, Dani thinks with a stab of anger--and then, slowly, she shakes her head. Maybe not so unfair at all. Not nearly as unfair as her desire to drag Jamie’s mouth back down to hers, to urge Jamie to touch her as she’d touched cruel girls in high school bathrooms and French models in Paris. 

Jamie leans back, untangling her fingers from Dani’s hair. “You’re my best friend,” she says, smiling a little. “And if you wanted--if I thought you were up for it--but I think we both know that isn’t why you wanted me to visit.”

It is, Dani thinks helplessly. And: I can’t. Not yet. 

“Eddie would’ve just...leaned in for the ride,” she says regretfully. Jamie laughs, a bitter edge to the sound.

“Yeah, well. M’not him, am I?”

“Thank god,” Dani sighs, leaning her face against Jamie’s shoulder. 

Jamie doesn’t stay the night. Dani tries to offer her bed, or Tess’--anywhere Jamie might be comfortable--but there’s an uncomfortable heat between them now. An unbottled genie of sorts, she thinks, which can’t easily be stowed away once free. 

“I’ll call tomorrow,” Jamie says gently, and permits herself a single curl of fingers around Dani’s jaw, a single kiss laid at the edge of Dani’s lips. They hover for a moment, both of them breathing shallowly, Dani’s hand creeping up to grip the sleeve of her jacket. 

“Don’t run,” she hears herself say hopelessly. “Jamie. Please don’t--”

“I’ll call,” Jamie says again, forehead pressed firmly to Dani’s like a promise. 

Even so, Dani can’t sleep. Jamie hasn’t broken a promise to her in so long, not since they were fifteen and Dani was glaring at her groggy form on a summer day--but even so, Dani crosses her arms over her chest, listening to the room breathe around her, certain she’ll never again hear the freedom of Jamie’s rolling laughter. 

It was the right call, she knows. Even despite the throb between her legs, the cymbal-crash of her heart, she knows it was the right call. Jamie has been everywhere, and Dani has only ever been here. Has only just now stepped off the train bound for other people’s dreams and considered the map for herself. 

It wouldn’t be fair, she knows, for Jamie to take away from that. Even if Dani wants her to. 

Still, she doesn’t sleep. The bed is so much smaller without Jamie stretched out beside her, without Jamie’s lips curving against her own in a delirious little smile. 

Don’t run, she prays, and all but bursts into tears when--at nine on the dot the next morning--the phone rings.

“Right,” says Jamie’s voice over the line. “Show me around?”

***

Dani Clayton is twenty-one years old, and the best part of her week is Jamie’s laugh over a phone line. She wants to say this took time, a truth built slowly over the course of months, but the fact of the matter is only this: Jamie has been the best part of her week for years and years. Jamie has been the best part of her week since forever. 

“You’re just saying that,” Jamie says, her voice playful over the line. She sounds so alive most days--so close, despite the miles between them. If Dani closes her eyes tightly enough, if she presses the phone hard enough against her ear, she can imagine Jamie standing right in front of her. 

Jamie, instead, is in Vermont. Too far for Dani’s taste, but her phone number never changes, Dani’s letters never get redirected by a confused postal system, and her voice is solid in Dani’s ear. Vermont, she says, suits her. Think you’d like it, she said, after a month, in a tone just light enough to prick at Dani’s heart. 

She’d like it very much, in fact--going to Vermont with Jamie. On bad days, when exams stack up with no regard for her sanity, when Tess is snappy and Dani is on her sixth panic attack of the week, she imagines just...going. Just giving up on the degree, on the teaching thing, and running straight off the ledge into Jamie’s arms. 

Jamie would catch her. Even now, even from this huge distance, Jamie would catch her. Maybe more than ever before.

“I’m not,” she says, when Jamie makes a still there? noise. “Feel like I’m going crazy lately, and you’re the sanest thing in the room.”

“That doesn’t bode well for anyone,” Jamie laughs, and Dani closes her eyes, leans into the sound. Tries to imagine Jamie’s arms around her, Jamie’s breath drifting lazily across her skin. 

They’ve only seen each other a handful of times since that weekend. Brief-dose meetings, careful not to be left alone together, back at the O’Mara house. Eddie didn’t come home for the holidays this year, but Judy had welcomed them both into the house on Christmas Eve with happy noises about my girls, together again, God, I’ve missed you both. Dani, who hadn’t been sure she’d fit within Judy’s affection after the break-up, had been so relieved she nearly cried. 

The relief had bloomed into a different feeling altogether when Judy had said, “It’ll be so nice, won’t it, to have a sleepover like the old days? Jamie, you remember where we keep the sleeping bags?”

Jamie had glanced furtively from her plate to Dani’s eyes, her knuckles white around her fork. “Mmhmm.” 

Dani, for her part, had realized far too late her own gaze was resting directly on Jamie’s mouth. She’d said, “Actually, I, uh--can’t really do floors anymore. Really messed up my back hunching over all-nighters.”

Jamie’s eyes had crinkled at the corners, Jamie’s lip pulling between her teeth to cover a grin, and Dani had pointedly not allowed her brain to travel to the next logical stop on the journey--to imagining herself sharing that small bed, her hands rucking Jamie’s sleep shirt up her ribs, her lips seeking out Jamie’s sigh under the watchful eye of the moon outside. 

They’re careful not to be left alone together, because a genie freed stays free. A bottle uncorked cannot be capped again. Jamie has kissed her three times in her life--and only once in a way that counted for anything--and Dani feels sure three is the magic number. Three is the highest that count can tick before she can’t handle the distance anymore. 

If Jamie kisses her again--even once more, even to try--Dani’s never going to be able to think of anything else. 

So, there are phones. And there are letters. And there are photos, sometimes, taken by Tess, or by strangers in Vermont, tucked into envelopes like secrets. Jamie, holding a hat over her hair, gesturing at a thriving rosebush. Dani, a pencil between her teeth, laughing over a textbook. Two people living separate lives, roads running parallel, careful not to cross. 

“You going home for the summer?” Jamie asks, like home is still the word for their childhood block. Dani shakes her head, her eyes straying to the collection of postcards spanning the wall above her bed. 

“No, I got a job--a summer-school tutoring program. Tess and I are going to rent an apartment next year. We move in the tenth of May.”

It feels good, to have plans. Good, to let herself coast along the waves of college life. There are parties, sometimes, and study groups, and sleepless nights. There are professors she finds herself picking apart, plotting out which habits to emulate and which to steer clear from at all times. There are dates offered, dates turned down--men with kind eyes who only make all the clearer how little Dani wants to do with them, and women who are never quite what she needs. She kissed one, once, at a party. Dark hair and smooth brown skin, and the girl had invited Dani back to her room afterward like it was the most natural thing in the world.

Dani had thought about it with genuine interest. Dani had looked at this girl’s long fingers, so different from the callouses of Jamie’s, at pretty dark eyes that hadn’t quite matched up to the storm in Jamie’s gray-green ones. She’d smiled, shaken her head. A kiss was enough. 

She remembers the hesitation in Jamie’s voice, when she’d told her about it. “How,” Jamie had said, “did it feel?”

“Not like you,” Dani had allowed herself, and the silence had felt like electricity. 

There are phones, and there are letters, and there is a sense Dani can’t quite explain of growing up a little more every time they talk. Jamie sounds proud of her job, a lovely little flower shop helmed by a widower who treats her like a granddaughter and keeps talking about making her manager. Dani is proud of her progress through school, which feels less like a forced climb to the top, and more like a path to somewhere she wants to be. 

“I think I’m going to make a difference,” she says one night. “First time I’ve ever thought that.”

“Lucky kids,” Jamie says, and Dani carries that simple sentence all the way through the end of the semester. 

***

“Why,” Tess says one day, “aren’t you snapping that hot gardener up?”

Dani, lungs full of pot smoke, chokes. Pretends to choke a lot longer, in fact, while Tess whales on her back with an open palm, just to scrounge the time for a proper answer.

“She’s in Vermont,” she says at last, wincing when Tess rolls her eyes and makes a grabby gesture for the joint. 

“And she’d turn up on your doorstep in a heartbeat, if you asked.”

“She’s--she has a job,” Dani tries, knowing how it sounds. “And a life. In Vermont.”

“And you,” Tess says coolly, in that voice she uses to remind Dani they’ve known each other far too long for 2 AM conversations riddled with bullshit, “are graduating next year. You’re really going to stick around Ohio when you’re done?”

“Well--” She hasn’t decided, in truth. The idea of finding a school in Ohio, or in Iowa, or in any particular state, hasn’t really landed yet. Dani has started to build a one-day-at-a-time perspective into her routine, mapping out her life not in terms of extended plans and ten-year expectations, but little by little. Jamie, when she’d said as much over the phone months ago, had made an approving little noise. 

“Pretty much all you can do, isn’t it? S’all any of us have--one at a time.”

One at a time means not obsessing about a soft place to land on the other side of graduation. It means not worrying herself into a frenzy over a permanent address, not shuffling along in such a dire search for a finale that she misses the entire show along the way. 

“She’d be here,” Tess says again, “if you asked. If you made one phone call.”

Dani leans back on the couch, sighing. “Sometimes you just need to...”

“Waste time?” 

“Grow up,” Dani says. “Take space. Even if it’s the last thing you want. Even if it’s the hardest...”

“That,” Tess proclaims, taking another hit and dropping the joint into an ashtray, “is the stupidest thing I have ever heard.”

***

Jamie is twenty-two years old, and no longer feels the urge to run. Not toward anything--the endless expanse of people and places across a globe too big to fathom--and not away, either. For the first time in her life, she isn’t processing the desire to stand still as an alarm bell. For the first time, she isn’t processing the idea of disappearing in terms of who would or wouldn’t notice she’s even gone.

For the first time, the world seems to meet her halfway--not too loud, not too quiet. The old anger in her breast has softened out, the old restlessness channeled through hands which have learned the art of building up instead of tearing down. The world, her world, fits neatly around her routine. 

A little flat, paid for by good, honest work. A little shop, being passed slowly into her hands as the old man’s eyes worsen, as his retirement revolves ever nearer. A little life, quiet and boring and lovely. 

Judy O’Mara sends care packages, reminding Jamie she’s always welcome for holidays or just because. Eddie doesn’t say much--but every so often, a letter will come in his tidy hand, or a birthday card: reminders that she might not be blood, but she is still family. Jamie carries the mail into the flat, sets envelope and parcel on her little table, looks at them with a kind of quiet pride she can’t quantify even after all this time.

She thinks of her mother, who ran all the way across the ocean, never to be seen again. Of her father, who drove himself mad in a struggle to chase her down. Of brothers who did not watch her grow, who know nothing of her future or her past. 

She thinks of them, and the ache is an old one. Old, sewn up at the edges, no longer prone to bleeding all over the rug when she isn’t prepared for the pain. But it’s there, still. 

“I thought I’d forget,” she confides to Dani over a long-distance line, stretched out on her back on a small, comfortable bed. If she lays like this, with her eyes closed, with Dani’s slow breaths closing the gap between there and me, she can almost pretend Dani is here. Dani, head on her pillow, watching her lips as she forms the words. 

“I don’t think you forget love,” Dani says quietly. “I don’t think it ever goes away. Not really. Not the pieces that meant the most.”

Jamie likes the way she says things like that, like she means them. Like she understands love--and loss--and Jamie--in ways no one else does.

“Do you think about your dad?” she asks. Dani makes a tiny sound--surprise, or pain, or laughter; Jamie can’t be sure which. 

“Yes. On my birthday, every year. And Christmas. And April 28th.”

“What’s--”

“The day,” Dani says fondly, “he picked me up from school early in second grade. Right before he got sick. Maybe he’d just come from the doctor, maybe he knew--but he picked me up before lunch, and asked me what I wanted to do with a whole day. Just me and him. Last thing we ever did together, and I can’t even...remember all of it. Just the shape of it, really. But...”

She trails off, her sigh slow and sweet. Jamie touches the chain around her neck, tracing the links with the edge of her nail. She can’t say without asking, but she’d bet a paycheck Dani is doing the same with the stubborn threads of green and white around her left wrist.

This--this part of any phone call is her favorite. The part where conversation stalls, and Dani just sits with her in comfortable silence. The kind of silence, Jamie thinks, that people only get when they’re very, very lucky. The kind of silence that feels like truth. 

She thinks of filling it, sometimes, with words as important as the silence itself. With telling Dani she thinks of her every day. With telling Dani she’s missed her smile, her eyes, her hand landing on Jamie’s with flailing excitement at the best part of a movie. With telling Dani she thinks of kissing her, even now, with such intense regularity, it makes her a little crazy. 

She doesn’t feel like running anymore, not with Dani waiting on the other end of a phone line. Not with Dani’s photos on her fridge, Dani’s letters creased with the privilege of Jamie’s constant attention. Not with Dani saying her name like she’s been holding it in her mouth all week, keeping it safe, rolling her tongue over the syllables to taste every inch. 

She doesn't feel like running anymore, but when Dani says, almost shyly, “I graduate on the twelfth,” she imagines a compass in her head, its needle pointing relentlessly in a direction marked Dani Clayton. 

***

Dani Clayton is twenty-three years old, and the fine people of Ohio State University have pronounced her fit, at last, to step out into the world. Tess sits beside her in a metal folding chair, the both of them reduced to giggles at the sheer enormity of the feeling on a beautiful May day, wrapped in black gowns, silly tasseled hats, and the knowledge that they are now, in every way that counts, adults.

Dani doesn’t feel adult, exactly. Dani mostly just feels relieved. 

“You’re going to be at the party tonight,” Tess says in her ear, “right?”

Dani, who has been searching the crowd, aware Jamie is out there somewhere, aware Jamie rolled in last night in a car she actually owns, frowns. “I didn’t know I had a choice.”

“You don’t,” Tess says happily. “Graduation party. It’s the last midnight, baby.”

It is probably going to be the kind of party that gets out of hand fast, thinks Dani, but Tess has done an enormous favor to their relationship by not throwing such events in their apartment all year.  She figures it’s only fair to give her a final hurrah. 

“And your friend,” Tess adds slyly, as they stand amid applause and shift toward the aisle to make their grand exit. “She’ll be there?”

“I’m not forcing Jamie into a party--”

“Okay, one? It’s going to be fabulous. And two, who’s forcing? The woman drove out from Vermont to watch you graduate. You could walk her to the edge of a volcano, and she’d give you moon eyes the whole way.”

Dani laughs, a welcome shift from the nervous butterflies skittering around in her stomach. She’d told Jamie she didn’t have to come--that she wasn’t going to be doing anything impressive, apart from shuffling along in a line of identical gowns, accepting a roll of blank paper from the Dean’s hand. “It’s not even my real diploma,” she’d said. “They mail that out later.”

“It’s your real graduation, though,” Jamie had said. “Can’t wait.”

“She might not even want to stay the night,” Dani tells Tess now, fiddling with her bracelet. “It’s a long drive, she might have to get back to work--”

Tess clears her throat, pointing at something over Dani’s shoulder. She whirls. 

If she’d thought Jamie was the best sight in the world two years ago, with snow melting in her hair and the air of travel clinging to her clothes, it’s nothing compared to Jamie now. Jamie, standing not ten feet away in a crisp white shirt, ironed slacks, a smile Dani has not quite been able to conjure up properly over all these months apart. Nothing--not photo, not memory, not the phantom slide of Jamie through her dreams--matches the reality before her on a sunny spring day.

“Party,” Tess reminds her, giving Dani a very light shove. “Bring her.”

Jamie is grinning, her eyes dancing. “Look at you. All degree’d up.”

You came, thinks Dani. Thank you, thinks Dani. There aren’t enough words for it, as she takes Jamie’s hand, as she pulls Jamie out of the milling throng of graduates and families, off to a quiet patch of grass. 

“You didn’t have to--”

“I did,” Jamie says. Her hand is as calloused as Dani remembers, marked in places with fresh scars, memories she hasn’t yet turned into stories for Dani’s ear. A bandaid is wrapped around the tip of her thumb; Dani rubs her own fingers over it gently, itching to bring the wound to her lips.

“You look good,” Jamie says. “You look...”

“Old?” Dani teases. Jamie laughs.

“Happy, Dani.”

There is something to the way Jamie has always said her name--carefully, like carrying something precious across hot coals--that makes her feel expansive. She glances around, pleased to discover they’ve found themselves in unoccupied territory, sunlight spilling through a crop of trees into Jamie’s hair. 

Now, she thinks. Now’s the moment. 

“I want,” she says, and stops. The words pile up behind her lips, held clenched in her teeth. Jamie pauses her stride, gives her hand a single squeeze. Dani pulls at it gently, shifting until Jamie’s arms form a loose circle around her. 

The shiver of Jamie’s sharp inhalation could fuel her for days. 

“I want,” says Dani again, dizzy with the graze of Jamie’s hands resting comfortably on her hips, “to kiss you. Would that be all right? If I did that?”

“Here?” Jamie looks around, her brow furrowed. Dani remembers the girl running from them at Prom, the tight smile when Jamie had said date is...not how it usually works. 

“Anywhere,” she says, leaning in, watching Jamie’s eyes flicker shut. 

If the kiss in her dorm room had been a welcome, this one is a welcome home. Jamie’s hands slide across her hips, her fingers flexing against the stiff fabric of the graduation gown. Her kiss is a quiet, gentle exploration, every tilt of her head questioning. Are you sure, the kiss seems to ask, are you absolutely sure? 

“Yes,” Dani hears herself murmur, and Jamie’s smile is enormous, Jamie’s smile is blazing against her lips. She presses herself closer, kissing back with all the years of confusion, all the years of Jamie’s gaze seeking her out across a breakfast table, all the years of Jamie keeping her secrets and letting Dani grow up just out of reach. She pours it all into this moment, her hands in Jamie’s hair, her lips parting when Jamie asks without words. 

“This is,” Jamie breathes, “probably not the place.”

“My apartment,” Dani hears herself suggest, her skin going hot all over. Jamie’s hands clutch a little tighter, her voice catching in her throat. 

“Tess won’t mind?”

“Tess--” Party, Tess sing-songs in her head. Dani groans, pushing her face against Jamie’s neck. “Shit. She’s throwing a party.”

Jamie makes an amused sound that winds tight when Dani, unable to stop herself, lays a soft kiss just under her collar. “We’re expected, I presume.”

“Expected,” Dani agrees, kissing her again, testing the soft rumble of Jamie’s pulse under her lips. “Might be murdered, if I don’t make an appearance.”

“Nothing for it, then,” Jamie sighs. “’Course, if you keep doing that, I might be murdered before we even get there.”

Dani draws back, smiling. “Sorry.”

“Party,” Jamie says, her hands sliding up Dani’s back in a gesture so smooth, Dani shivers. “Be interesting, to see how things change.”

“I promise,” Dani says, kissing her once more before stepping back to the safety of distance, “I hold my punch much better these days.”

***

Tess knows, Jamie is sure. The minute they walk through the door of that apartment, Tess knows. 

“Good to see you,” she says, offering a handshake. Tess, in a fabulously tight dress and try me shade of lipstick, raises her eyebrows.

“Jamie. You take care of our girl yet?”

“Tess,” Dani hisses. Jamie swallows a laugh, shaking her head. 

“Honestly,” Tess huffs. “Hopeless. Dani, I’ll entertain your friend. Go lose the gown, it does nothing for your legs.”

Jamie watches her go, her mouth dry, itching to follow her behind the swing of a white door. Tess leans in, her voice lowered to a mock-conspiratorial whisper.

“The dress she comes out in, on the other hand...”

Jamie coughs. Tess looks delighted. 

“All right, enough turning colors on my account. I hear you’re good with your hands. Put ‘em to work filling the drinks cooler, will you?”

It’s a relief, to be set to task. She moves around the kitchen on Tess’ orders, upending bags of pretzels and crisps into bowls, straightening bottles of cheap booze across meager counter space. It’s simple work, distracting on its own merit, and the kind that doesn’t much care when she pauses from time to time to gaze at Dani’s closed bedroom door.

“Ah ah,” Tess warns. “You go in there now, I won’t be seeing either of you until tomorrow afternoon.”

“Is it that obvious?” Tess really doesn’t seem like the sort of person worth dancing around. Jamie is glad Dani found her, glad they seem to complete each other in the strangest sense of the word. 

“Honey,” Tess says with a perfectly straight face. “If you burned any hotter for each other, the whole complex would be in cinders. How long have you been in love with her, anyway?”

“I--” Tess’ eyes narrow. Jamie sighs. “Long time. Since we were...ten, maybe?”

“And how long are you gonna keep that to yourself?” 

“I’m not--” 

The click of a latch popping free clamps her teeth around the rest of the sentence. Dani, her hair falling in loose waves, her makeup immaculate, emerges with a heave of breath.

“Okay, sorry, couldn’t get into the--”

“Dress,” Jamie finishes, stepping around the counter and out of the tiny kitchen. “That is...some dress.”

“Told you,” Tess mutters. Dani glances down at herself, frowning.

“Too much?”

“No,” they say in unison, Jamie’s voice a little higher than normal. It is, she thinks, the best dress she’s seen in her entire life, shades of green and black woven around Dani’s body like some faerie creature designed it for her alone. 

“Legs,” Tess says cheerfully, gesturing to the high slit running up Dani’s thigh. “Like I said. All right, get in here, I want to do a shot toast before people start pouring in.”

***

The apartment has never been so full, and Dani has never felt quite so strong a pull toward her own bedroom. It has as much to do with the noise as with Jamie sitting beside her on the couch, her thigh pressed firmly against Dani’s own.

More to do with that, really, if she’s honest. 

“You,” Tess said as they’d knocked back their shots, “have to stick it out until ten. For me, please. After that, all the excuses in the world are yours, and I wish you pleasant orgasms in peace.”

Dani had felt a little like she might combust from the heat of that idea coupled with Jamie’s eyes on her, but she’d smiled agreeably and nodded. Ten. Not too long to bear, not after years of not being able to so much as touch Jamie’s hand. 

Except the clock seems to be broken. The clock seems to have frozen cleanly at 8:45, and there are people everywhere--many of them happily making out on her furniture--and Jamie is pressed against her like she’s been fused there by the gods of too many graduates, too small a space. 

“Sorry,” Jamie mutters against her ear when one of Tess’ friends nudges her even closer, pushing her nearly into Dani’s lap. Dani leans her head back against the cushions, breathing shallowly, trying not to look as though she’s six seconds from grabbing Jamie’s hand and dragging her into the bedroom. 

No one would care, she tells herself in a bid for calm. Half of these people have watched Tess make her way through every willing body in their class; half of those have been in Tess’ bed themselves. No one cares what Dani does, or who she does it with, not with Tess curating the guest list. 

Still--there’s a difference between admitting to herself what she wants and showcasing it front of fifty strangers. 

Especially when what she wants is warm and grinning at her with a glazed expression she’s never seen Jamie wear before. 

“Are you all right?”

“Sure,” Jamie says, gripping a bottle of beer like it’s the only thing tethering her to sanity. “Yeah. Great.”

“I’m sorry, I know it’s--a lot.” A lot, like listening to several kids belt showtunes over one another in the kitchen while Tess’ last girlfriend pirouettes beside the oven. A lot, like beer pong on the balcony. A lot, like someone yelling, “Ouija board, anyone not afraid of being cursed get your asses in here.”

“Cursed, huh?” Jamie glances over her shoulder. “Could be interesting.”

“You want to go in there?” Dani asks. Jamie glances down at the place where her own leg meets Dani’s, her hand sliding slowly from her knee to brush along Dani’s dress. 

“Not especially.”

Dani swallows. Jamie takes her dress between thumb and forefinger, rubbing the material lightly back and forth, her eyes fixed on Dani’s face. 

“Clock is slow.”

Dani nods. She can’t seem to look away from Jamie’s lips, from the curl of her smile, the way her mouth pulls to the right as she tries to arrange her features into the old calm. 

“Clock is very,” Jamie repeats in a low voice, allowing the dress to spill through her grip, “slow.”

Dani closes a hand over hers, fingers tracing up Jamie’s wrist, down her palm. She breathes out, breathes in, tries to smile.

“How married would we say Tess sounded, to the ten o’clock rule?”

"Very,” Tess says, appearing behind the couch. Jamie jumps, Dani biting down on a groan as Jamie’s thigh rubs hard against her own. Tess sighs. “You two. Never have I seen two people in as dire need of good sex. Jamie, are you good?”

“At?” Jamie rasps. It would be funny, Dani thinks, if not for how embarrassing it all is. 

“Never mind. Don’t spoil the surprise, I guess. C’mere, you two, join in the reindeer games.”

She’s gesturing toward the front door, where a number of her friends have formed a circle on the floor. Jamie raises an eyebrow.

“I’m. Sorry, is that--”

“Spin the Bottle,” Tess says happily. “Dani, if I get the chance to mack on your hot girlfriend before you do, the night will all be worth it.”

***

Jamie can’t quite believe she’s here again. How a person winds up trapped in two separate games of Spin the Bottle with the woman they’ve been in love with since childhood, she cannot say.

“Cursed,” she mutters, so only Dani can hear. Dani laughs, a hand sliding lightly up Jamie’s back. And back down. And back up...

“Stop fondling her, and spin,” Tess commands. She is quite comfortably drunk, but Jamie gets the sense she is less the kind of drunk to forget anything, more the one taking notes to bring up in a sober meeting a month down the line. 

Dani, clearly knowing there’s little use arguing, spins. The bottle lands on the most flamboyant young man Jamie’s ever seen, who wrinkles his nose.

“No offense, darling, but you’re much too pretty for me.”

“Rules,” Tess says around her drink. “Kiss, or I get to take an article of clothing of my choosing.”

“Whose rules are those?” the young man says, offended, and leans across to swipe the world’s quickest peck across Dani’s lips. Tess looks affronted.

“That was a pathetic kiss. House rules state kisses have to be not pathetic. Impress me next time.”

Jamie finds herself tuning out quickly as Dani sinks back down beside her. It’s impossible to care about the giggling good humor of drunk strangers with Dani reaching back, her fingers playing along the hand Jamie is leaning back on. She closes her eyes, breathes around the swirl of Dani’s fingertip over knuckle, her nails tracing scar and freckle with absent disregard for Jamie’s self-control.

Around her, there are clumsy kisses and hopeful kisses, people who clearly have known each other long enough to make things awkward or hilarious. Jamie can feel none of it, not with Dani’s fingers tracing between her own. 

“You,” she murmurs into Dani’s ear, “are not making this any easier.”

Dani shrugs. “You’d rather I keep my hands to my--”

“Ah hah!” Tess crows. The bottle, it appears, was spun by her hand. “Been waiting for this for four years. Get over here, Clayton.”

Dani raises her eyebrows, Tess all but falling into her lap. “I’m going to remember you always,” she says calmly, “as a sloppy kisser.”

“As I have heartily earned,” Tess says happily, craning up to press a long, wet-sounding kiss against Dani’s mouth. Dani’s laughing too hard to kiss back, leaning out of the way the minute Tess gives way to her own giggles. “Ah. Shame. I’d hoped that would be the one to finally make of you my Prince Charming."

“Well, I can’t be everyone’s bag,” Dani says with mock sorrow. Jamie likes the way she’s laughing, the way she’s forming her sentences among these people--like she doesn’t much care what any of them think. It looks good on her, this clean, easy self-awareness.

“Spin, Princess,” Tess instructs, collapsing back against another girl. Jamie glances toward the clock, relieved to see it has, finally, inched near the ten o’clock mark. 

Dani sighs. “All right, who’s the lucky--”

Jamie is unsurprised, somehow, to see the bottle pointing at her. Tess makes a noise that is, if possible, the most gleeful thing Jamie has ever heard out of another human being.

“No skimping, now, or I’m taking Jamie’s shirt.”

“Do you do this on purpose?” Jamie wonders, even as Dani is leaning in, a hand sliding up the side of Jamie’s neck. “Have you just perfected the art of--”

Dani swallows down the remainder of her joke with a soft sound of want, her tongue slipping into Jamie’s mouth without preamble. Jamie feels her own eyes roll back, her fingers coasting into Dani’s hair. The kiss outside hadn’t been quite like this--it had been sweet and coaxing, a gentle offer of Dani’s readiness to try at last. 

Now, with hours of barely touching between them, with each tick of the clock roaring toward the magic hour, Dani seems to have lost all capacity for calm. She pushes into Jamie, shifting nearly into her lap, her kiss hot and smooth and triumphant. 

She breaks with a sigh, tilting to look back over her shoulder at Tess. “Good enough?”

“She is going to break you in half,” Tess informs Jamie with wide eyes. “Go. Off with you. Consider this my blessing and my supreme misery, that we could never make it work between us.”

Dani rolls her eyes, pushing to her feet and offering Jamie a hand. “Ever the charmer.”

“Love you,” Tess sings. “Though, uh, not quite as much as she’s going to, I imagine.”

***

“Your roommate,” Jamie says as Dani slams the bedroom door and flips the lock, “is, ah...”

“One of the sweetest human beings I’ve ever met,” Dani confirms. “And the bossiest.”

“Why do I get the feeling she’s going to ask for a play-by-play over breakfast tomorrow?”

“Might as well prepare for it now.” The music is still creeping under the door, the laughter rattling her walls, but having Jamie in her room, having everyone else on the other side, feels like breathing for the first time in hours. She leans her forehead against the door, exhaling--and the memory of what she’d just done rolls back over her. “I--I’m so sorry, Jamie.”

“For?” Jamie sounds perplexed. Dani glances over her shoulder, feeling her face grow warm. 

“For climbing--for, uh--for kissing--”

Jamie moves to her with a smile, letting her hands linger on Dani’s hips without fully pressing into her. An offering, Dani recognizes, with an open door attached. Jamie’s way of saying, as ever, You can still walk away from this. From me. 

“She did threaten to take my shirt,” Jamie points out, frowning at the door as if Tess might be pressed against the other side. “Not sure what I would’ve done then.”

“Me either,” Dani mutters. Jamie laughs, pressing her face gently against Dani’s hair. “Really, though. I’m sorry, it wasn’t right to--to do that in front of every--”

“Dani,” Jamie says. “If it wasn’t okay, I wouldn’t have let you do it.”

The difference, Dani senses, between being comfortable in her skin for almost ten years and coming to all of this with fresh eyes. Even if she’s grown more used to looking at women--being allowed to look at women--the way she always thought she ought to look at men, she’s nowhere near Jamie’s level. Might never be, she understands. 

Jamie is still holding lightly, her thumbs tracing meaningless arcs through Dani’s dress. She leans back, lets herself fold against Jamie’s chest with a sigh.

“I am ready for this. I am.”

“Okay,” says Jamie, and it’s striking how she says it--not with a questioning inflection, like Eddie would have, but a solid downstroke of syllables. She says it, and she means it, and if Dani were to turn in her arms and say, Actually, I’m lying, actually, I don’t know what I’m doing, actually, I’m scared to death, she’d say it again the exact same way. 

“I just,” Dani says quietly, “have never done this before. Not...the way you have.”

“What? Jumping from city to city, never leaving room for goodbyes or see-you-agains?” Jamie sounds almost bitter. “Dani, you don’t want to do it the way I have.”

“No,” Dani agrees, letting her head roll back against Jamie’s shoulder, letting her eyes drink in the line of Jamie’s throat, the angle of her jaw. She feels Jamie’s arms tighten around her, hands sliding across her stomach, and she sighs. “No, I want to do it like this.”

Jamie looks at her, eyes dark with hope, and kisses her once. Drags her mouth slowly over Dani’s once, like a promise, like a door left open.  

“Don’t run,” Dani breathes, reaching up to grasp a handful of her hair, pulling her back in. 

***

Kissing Dani in the sunshine was a homecoming. Kissing Dani during the game was a spark. Kissing Dani in her bedroom, Dani’s hand skidding through her hair, Dani’s mouth opening beneath her own, is a lit fuse.

Dani turns in her grasp, her arm coiling around Jamie’s neck, her kiss fevered as she presses Jamie irresistibly backward. Jamie, who had thought they’d take some time to talk, some time with Dani posted up comfortably at her desk and Jamie idly brushing her fingers across trinkets and postcards, feels as though time is moving too quickly. 

“You’re sure?” she says, even as Dani’s nails scrape gently across her scalp. “You’re really--I don’t want to ruin--”

That’s the thing, has always been thing: not ruining it. Not ruining this thing she’s never really been worthy of, this kind girl who bloomed into a kind woman who is more than Jamie could have dreamed even at her most hopeful. 

“I’m sure,” Dani says around kisses, one hand in Jamie’s hair, one pressed to her heart. She’s breathing hard already, but she’s smiling, her body warm against Jamie’s as she propels them back toward the bed. “You?”

“For a--long time,” Jamie says in a voice strung too tight. She closes her eyes, trying to collect herself. “Really long time.”

Dani’s hand presses to her cheek, giving her the space to breathe slowly in. When Jamie opens her eyes again, she’s smiling--pretty as ever, kind as ever, Dani as ever. 

“You could have told me,” she says, and Jamie makes a helpless sound into the next kiss, pulling her in close. She allows Dani to ease her back, lets them both spill across a neatly-made bed, Dani laying beside her in a glorious dress. 

“We could just...” Her hand is gripping Dani’s hip, her heartbeat thrumming in her fingertips. Dani, as if sensing the nerves holding firm, makes no move to wind nearer. She lays a hand across Jamie’s hip in kind, matching the splay of her fingers, her thumb stroking idly back and forth. 

“If you wanted to,” she says, “yes.”

“A sleepover,” Jamie says, and laughs. “Do you know how hard those were, after a while?”

“No,” says Dani honestly. “I’m sorry. I wouldn’t have--I didn’t want to make things hard on you. Ever.”

“That’s why I didn’t tell you.” Jamie inches a little closer. Her hand drags slowly up Dani’s side, fabric pulling tight across Dani’s ribs under her palm. “Didn't want you to take it easy. Didn’t want you to pull away. Having you there, listening to you breathe as I fell asleep was...like my own little secret.”

She watches the slow climb of her own hand, feels Dani mirror the motion along her shirt. Feels Dani’s fingers pull at her shirt, testing, not trying to remove anything. Not yet.

“Always felt safer,” she admits, watching her hand brush the side of Dani’s breast, feeling Dani’s breath catch. “With you there. You and that stupid cat.”

Dani laughs. “Apollo. Still alive, if you’ll believe it.”

“Good,” says Jamie. “That fucker deserves it.”

“I felt it, too,” Dani says after a moment of just letting her hand slide higher, gently grasping at Jamie’s shoulder, folding her fingers around and squeezing. “Safe. With you.”

“S’why I didn’t--I didn’t know how you’d--” It’s mortifying now, to think she’d ever believed Dani would reject her. Mortifying, to think of Dani sneering at her as Kate had in public. Dani couldn’t. Dani would never. “I’m sorry. If I could go back, I'd tell you sooner.”

“That you liked girls?” Dani asks. “Or that you wanted...”

She’s moving toward Jamie, pushing in, even as Jamie is running questing fingertips along the bare skin of her shoulder, the strap of the dress sliding slowly down. Her breath is coming faster again, Jamie’s shirt wrinkling under her grip. 

“Never would have told you that,” Jamie says, bowing her head, letting her lips trace the curve of shoulder. She feels Dani’s hand evacuate her arm, landing instead in her hair. “That was too much.”

“Is this?” Dani asks, sighing when Jamie kisses along her skin in a slow, measured path. Her hand tightens once, when Jamie takes the strap of the dress between her teeth, guiding it aside to kiss the spot just beneath. 

“Better to take it slow,” Jamie says, even as her lips are parting, her tongue flicking out to taste. She hears Dani gasp, feels the scratch of nails, the urgent push of Dani’s hand. 

“Not too slow.”

It makes Jamie want to take forever, hearing the hitch in her voice. It makes Jamie want to keep up this exploration, with Dani guiding her toward her neck, with Dani steering her into hours of languid kisses. All the time in the world, she thinks, as Dani’s free hand closes around the buttons of her shirt. 

***

Jamie could keep kissing her forever, she thinks, and it would be perfect. It would be the most sense the world has ever made: a stopped clock, no responsibilities waiting outside that door, nothing left to them but Jamie’s long kisses sweeping slowly up her throat, Jamie’s body angling in. 

She pops open the first button, waiting to see if Jamie will stop her, but Jamie doesn’t so much as lift her head. Her hand is cradling Dani’s jaw, fingers bent to let her nails trace light heat along her skin in time with the roll of her tongue, and Dani pops the second. Lets her fingers linger on the third, pulling it free when Jamie shifts to lay the next kiss. 

It’s strange, she thinks with giddy anticipation. Out there, on the couch, in the game, she’d thought it would be hard and fast when they finally got into this room. She’d thought it would be Jamie tearing at her strategically-chosen dress, pushing her against the door, reckless desire spilling over into good sense. 

This, though. This is years of waiting. This is years of growing up with the smallest of distance strung between them, Jamie never quite daring, Dani never quite believing. 

This, Jamie idly rubbing her earlobe between finger and thumb, kissing the soft skin just beneath while Dani releases another button, is the product of time taken. Time cherished. Time made to obey. 

Time, which normally does what it will regardless of her opinion on the subject, can sit back and listen. Just this once. Just so long as they are on this bed, with Jamie pushing her hair back, with Dani sliding a hand into an open shirt. 

She’s aware of Jamie’s hips against her own, of Jamie’s hand gripping her dress. She’s aware of herself, rubbing against Jamie as though in no hurry at all, as though every slide of Jamie’s mouth across her skin doesn’t ignite something too hot and huge to ignore. 

“Easy,” she hears Jamie murmur into her ear, kissing a spot on her jaw she hadn’t realized could make her feel like flying. “This is...”

Dani makes a soft sound in her chest, fingers hesitating along the curve of Jamie’s breast. Jamie presses in, hips rolling slowly, each rock pulling Dani’s dress a little higher, and leans back to look at her. 

“You’re okay. If you want. You can--”

Dani kisses her, feeling the slow-motion slide of time around them quicken as her fingers fumble the last buttons open, as she pushes Jamie’s shirt off her shoulders. Jamie’s hand is on her hip again, sliding down, skidding right into the open slit of the skirt. She pauses, the tips of her fingers resting just against bare leg, and Dani shifts. Eases a leg between Jamie’s. Presses up. 

The sound Jamie makes into her mouth is the most gratifying she’s ever heard.

***

All the time in the world, thinks Jamie, but maybe not just for one round. Not with the way Dani is moving against her now, picking up speed, her tongue curling past Jamie’s teeth. 

Her dress is a mess, the skirt pushed to her waist, Jamie’s fingers digging with mindless strength into the curve of her thigh. She’s pulling Dani’s leg around her own hip, rocking herself against Dani with increasingly embarrassing pants. 

Dani, for her part, doesn’t seem embarrassed at all. Dani is kissing her for the world, kissing and grinding into her without a thought spared for what she might look like. 

Jamie leans back out of the kiss, opens her eyes, takes it in. Dani, one hand squeezing her shoulder, making quiet sounds that are all the more appealing for how hard she’s trying to muffle them. Dani, the strap of her dress sliding off her shoulder, looking rumpled and needy and happy. Happy, to be pressing against Jamie on a bed. Happy, to have Jamie looking at her now.

Jamie had always been so careful, looking at her before. Careful not to get caught staring, not to look as though she expected Dani to be anything but kind enough to orbit her world. Now, with Dani pushing against her thigh, with Dani’s nails biting into her skin, she stares openly.

There’s never been another girl. Not really. Not one who could match Dani, and she thinks she knew it from the start. Knew it from the time she’d kissed Anna at eleven, from letting Kate and the others use her all through school. All the women in the world hadn’t stacked up to Dani Clayton--and she’d tried. She’d tried to open herself up, to let them in, to make something stick. Love for the wrong reasons can still be love, she’d thought. 

But this: Dani pulling her into another searing kiss, Dani skidding eager fingers down her chest, around her back, working the clasp of her bra, Dani hissing out a breath when she catches friction at just the right angle against the flex of Jamie’s thigh. This is unmatched. This is unreal. 

“You’re here,” Jamie gasps against her, pulling back just enough again. Dani’s eyes are impossibly blue, an inch away. “You’re here, aren’t you?”

Dani looks puzzled, even through the haze of desire. “Jamie?”

“Only,” Jamie says helplessly, “I’ve dreamed this. I’ve--you’re here?”

Dani doesn’t laugh. Dani stops moving entirely, save for the gentle cradle of her hands around Jamie’s face. 

“I’m here,” she says, and smiles at her the way only Dani ever has. “Right here.”

“Thank fuck,” Jamie breathes, rolling Dani onto her back, bending to kiss her again. That smile, she thinks. That’s the thing no one else could ever get right. The smile, and the particular way Dani has always had of tailoring it for Jamie alone. 

***

For months, she’s thought about this. For months, she’s thought she’d be ready for Jamie kissing her, Jamie pressing her into the mattress, Jamie sliding her hands beneath her dress. She’d thought she could be cool, could hold herself with confidence, could make Jamie forget all the women she’s ever slept with for as long as she’s in Dani’s bed. 

She had not, as it turns out, given Jamie nearly enough credit.

Jamie, she understands intellectually, knows what she’s doing. Jamie, she understands intellectually, has had practice.

But Jamie in theory and Jamie in her bed are two wildly different ideas. Jamie in her dreams, a blur of hands and lips and gentle coaxing, is not Jamie here, Jamie now, Jamie pushing the dress to her waist and kissing her neck as her hand slips between Dani’s legs. 

Jamie in theory, Dani can be calm about. 

Jamie in practice, skilled fingers dipping into ruined underwear, groaning against Dani’s neck as she makes contact for the first time, nearly undoes her in seconds.

She finds herself grasping Jamie around the shoulders with both arms, struggling to keep her head, Jamie’s half-worried you’re here, aren’t you? still bouncing between them. 

Here, she thinks, giddy with it, almost drunk off the endorphins playing havoc on her focus. Here, with her, and it feels better than I possibly could have--

Jamie shifts the angle of her hand, her fingers doing something sweet and fast to shatter the last of Dani’s will. She muffles a cry into Jamie’s mouth, feeling the spread of Jamie’s grin--and that, more than anything, pushes her higher. The idea of Jamie grinning like that, with such smug pride, her fingers slowing to an indolent stroke, is too much. 

“Don’t,” she says against the side of Jamie’s face, breathing hard, “go anywhere. Don’t even move.”

Jamie makes a soft noise of understanding, gives a teasing rub with two fingers that sends Dani’s pulse skittering. “No hurry,” she points out. “Unless you’ve decided once is--”

Dani is kissing her, laughing, aware there’s never been a time in anyone else’s bed where she’d thought to laugh with their hands on her skin. Aware that she’s never felt quite so at home with someone half-dressed on top of her, looking at her the way Jamie is now.

“Honestly, though,” Jamie says in a softer tone, moving to pull her hand free. “It was okay? We’re okay?”

Dani touches her face, the familiar gleam of Jamie’s eyes and this new delight of being allowed to learn the warmth of her skin weaving into a private kind of joy. “So okay. Now.” She shifts her weight, pushing until it’s Jamie spread across the pillows, Dani seated neatly along her hips. Jamie gives a surprised huff of laughter, her eyes darkening even as Dani rocks slowly against her, fingers tracing her belt. “Show me how to do that to you.”

***

The party, Jamie registers eventually, has died down outside. She isn't sure when that happened--somewhere between Dani requesting instruction, Dani proving herself a quick study, Dani looking so pleased with herself as Jamie arched into her hand. Or maybe later: with Dani’s dress on the floor, her thighs trembling around Jamie’s head. Or later still: with Dani kissing her messily, exhaustion and desire twining as her fingers twisted in Jamie’s hair. 

Thirteen years of loving from a distance, she thinks, packed into a single night like it could ever be enough. 

“Can’t possibly still have the energy,” she says disbelievingly. Dani is rubbing against her like she’s forgotten how to just lay still, though her eyes are lidded with oncoming sleep. “What was that, five?”

“Not my fault you didn’t tell me,” Dani accuses wearily, “how good it could be.”

“My mistake,” Jamie drawls. “Next time, I’ll be sure to spook you with in-depth diagrams.”

Dani makes a noise of sleepy amusement, nuzzling under her chin. “You’re staying, right? Not going to wake up in the morning and find you’ve...”

“Run?” Jamie fills in. A pause, Dani’s breath a gentle current against her bare throat, and then she feels Dani nod. “Have no plans to be anywhere else for the rest of the weekend. Or with anyone else for...”

She shouldn’t say it. It’s too early to say it. Except she’s been in love with Dani since they were ten, and Dani hasn’t told her about any job offers yet, and she’s just too pleasantly wrung-out to care about holding herself rigid. 

“For as long as you’ll have me,” she finishes. She squeezes her eyes shut, her heart racing. “It’s a bit of a problem, maybe, but I’m...I’m pretty--”

Pretty in love with you, it turns out. Pretty gone for you in ways I didn’t know a person could be. 

She waits for Dani to interrupt, to fall asleep, to give her an escape route from this path she’s started down, but all Dani does is shift so she can look Jamie in the eye. Jamie swallows.

“It’s okay,” she says, “if this is as far as it ever goes. I get it. But it’s--more. For me. And I tried, Dani, to talk myself out of it over the years, but...some doors, you just leave open. You just can’t convince yourself to close ‘em, even knowing how much it could...”

“I’m glad,” Dani says quietly, “you didn’t. Close it.”

There’s more to say--how Jamie is going back to Vermont in a couple of days, how there’s room in her car for a passenger, how she has a whole map in her head of places Dani might like, someday. There’s more to do--how, even as tired as she is, her body is still pushing with urgency into Dani’s, her lips grazing Dani’s ear, her cheek, the corner of her mouth. There’s more, so much more, and Jamie thinks, Tomorrow. She’ll still be here tomorrow. 

She’s never quite believed in anyone, in the ability for any one person to stay put, like she believes in this. That Dani Clayton will be the first thing she sees when she opens her eyes. That Dani Clayton will not disappear out from under her.

She closes her eyes, and lets herself drift.

***

Dani Clayton is twenty-four years old, and the world makes an absurd kind of sense in ways she never could have predicted. Not the kind that can be planned for or mapped out, exactly, but achieving its own bizarre equilibrium all the same. 

Three kids, packed into a house with love enough to hold them all. Two heads of dark curly hair, one of gold. A girl standing between two friends, holding out her hands in either direction, saying, Best friends. You can have two, can’t you?

Three teenagers, shifting restlessly with value strung badly along their bones. Two kinds of expectation, wrestled over, forced into place, while the third shrugs it all off entirely. A girl standing between two heartbeats, hugging herself tight, thinking, Couldn’t I fit, too? If I just tried hard enough?

Three adults, whittled down to two in the span of a single evening, a single destructive no. Two more years of uncertainty, of learning to grow up without guardrails built into every moment. A woman falling in love from states away, gripping a phone like salvation, thinking, You feel it. You must. Don’t you?

It balances out, in the end, and she knows it will change again. That Jamie’s little apartment--intended for solitary life--will not hold them forever. That her delicate position at the school will, eventually, level out into something tenured. That Vermont might not even be the place forever, the one where they dig in their heels and build new dreams on the bedrock of old memory.

But, for now, home looks like Jamie with potting soil under her nails, and Dani grading papers in their minuscule kitchen. It looks like a shower with terrible water pressure, a fridge covered in notes from Tess, from Judy, from the retired old man who still checks up on his shop from time to time. It looks like a silver necklace knocking against Jamie’s breastbone, like a newly-braided bracelet tied lovingly around Dani’s wrist. 

It looks like a future, thinks Dani, which could go on six months or sixty years. Warm and willing, either way. Beautiful, no matter what.

It looks like a future, thinks Dani, unburdened by expectation. By should. By well, of course you will. That’s the best part of all.

“Judy wants us to come stay for Christmas,” she says, glancing toward the stove where Jamie is trying valiantly to rescue dinner. “Says Eddie’s bringing his girlfriend.”

“The new one?” Jamie sounds amused. “The one who looks--”

“Jamie.”

“--entirely lovely, and not at all like he pulled her from a catalogue.”

“Yes,” says Dani primly, struggling to keep a straight face. “That one.”

“And he’s...” Jamie hesitates, weighing the words. “He’s going to behave this time? Only, I don’t see much of a point in visiting if he’s going to spend the whole thing scowling.”

“Already gave his word. According to Judy.” Dani suspects threats were involved. Judy, who is delighted with the idea of Dani being properly led into the family at last, has little patience for anyone’s failure to support their relationship. Even Eddie.

“Good enough for me. You, ah. Wanna drop in on Karen?”

Fiddling with her bracelet, Dani shrugs. “Depends. Do we think she’ll pretend not to remember who you are?”

“Dani--”

“She accepts you,” Dani says calmly, “or she loses me. Easy as that.”

It would have been different, she thinks, with her dad. Would have been different, if her mother hadn’t spent just shy of twenty years running on spite alone. There are so many ways a story like this can unfold, if only the details fall in line. 

“I love you,” Jamie says, hands resting on Dani’s shoulders. She said it for the first time only a few months ago, not long after their first anniversary. Her face had been nervous, her hand drawing a green-and-white braided bracelet from her pocket. 

She still sounds nervous, sometimes. Nervous in the best way possible, her smile a lantern in a storm. 

Balance, thinks Dani now, craning her head back to receive Jamie’s kiss. A family you choose. People who fit you, even if that fit doesn’t look quite the way you’d planned at the start.

“This,” Jamie announces to the horrorshow that is dinner, “is a lost cause. Pizza or sandwiches?”

Dani watches her fumble through a stack of takeout menus, muttering to herself, and thinks the world does have a way of making sense. Family lost. Family gained. Love of all kinds, spread out along the way. And sometimes, when Jamie grins and reaches out a hand, Dani still feels as though she’s climbing a tree terrifying in height. 

Jamie, she trusts, will not let her fall. 

“I love you,” she says, as Jamie hoists a phone to her ear. She does, more than she knew she could love another person—completely, and in all ways that count. Knowing it, feeling it, is what really matters, but it’s important to say these things out loud. Important to make sure Jamie knows it, too.

Important, above all else, to show the universe what’s what.

Chapter Text

“I can’t do this.”

Dani glances over her shoulder, frowning. They had been, until this moment, walking in more or less perfect tandem–Dani trying to whittle down her usual stride, Jamie moving at twice her natural clip–a steady flow of forward until just now. Now, with Jamie pulling up fast, her hand in Dani’s performing a sort of rubber-band-snap trick to keep them both on the pavement.

“What do you mean, you can’t do this?”

This.” Jamie, grim-faced, gestures down the block. The house is still just out of sight, the car parked a truly ridiculous distance away. Jamie’s idea; If she sees us, she’d muttered, we won’t get a moment’s peace to figure it all out. 

“We have to tell her sometime,” Dani points out. “I mean–we do, don’t we?”

“Yes. No. Doesn’t have to be now, does it? Why don’t we just–just wait until we’re sending out wedding invitations. Or invitations to my funeral. Or never.”

Dani, despite herself, grins. It’s not that Jamie doesn’t get nervous–it’s just that Jamie doesn’t tend to show it. Not like she does, all sharp intake of breath and tight-clenched fists. Jamie’s nerves are quiet, smoothed over, tucked into the motion of hands which are never left idle. Jamie’s nerves are an unexpected kiss, a fumble of motion, the constant urge to put those feelings somewhere productive.

Now, she’s standing stock-still on this too-familiar street, one hand loose in Dani’s. Stock-still, looking for the first time in years like the child who had gazed balefully around a foreign living room. 

“Christ, she’s gonna fuckin’ disown me.”

She looks like she believes it, the only thing that keeps Dani from laughing outright at the idea. She believes it, and there’s a small, simple hurt on her face at the idea–her jaw held tight, her shoulders hunched. Dani presses a hand to her cheek, leaning in until their foreheads meet. 

“She won’t. You know she won’t. You’re her kid.”

He’s her kid,” Jamie corrects, breath skidding across Dani’s lips in a way that–even at this inopportune moment–makes her pulse race. They’ve been building this beautiful thing together for a few months, and the heat of it never quite seems to fade. “I’m just the baggage.”

“Stop.” Dani kisses her once, softly. “Stop doing that. No falling back on bad habits, Jamie. She’ll be happy for us.”

She says it, and she means it, as if there isn’t a tiny spark of absolute terror kindled in her own heart at the idea of telling Judy O’Mara the truth. That Dani has not moved all the way to Vermont to share Jamie’s little apartment out of friendly camaraderie. That Dani has spent the last few months shaping a life around not only school and new friends, as she’s told Judy over the phone, but around learning just how well she and Jamie fit together. 

They do. They fit so well. Jamie’s bed–their bed–has become the kind of safe haven she hadn’t known she could find anywhere. Jamie’s fingers toying with the braid of a worn old bracelet is like coming home. 

“Come on.” She squeezes Jamie’s hand, kisses her again, lets the warmth of Jamie’s body steer her toward courage. “Like a band-aid, Jamie. Just rip it off.”

“Better idea,” Jamie says, though her legs are moving reluctantly forward again. “We go back to the hotel, I rip other things off instead, we forget this whole stupid idea.”

Tempting. “After. Come on, you haven’t seen her in how long?”

Jamie doesn’t answer. Hand in hand, they walk, and with every house they pass, a few more years seem to cycle back. They are twenty-three, newly bound, and they are seventeen, unaware of one another, and they are twelve, camped out under too-few stars. 

They are on the front step, Jamie’s hand falling away, tucking restlessly into the pocket of her jacket like she’s terrified to be seen gripping Dani’s. Dani presses the tips of her fingers lightly to Jamie’s back for a moment. 

“Deep breath. She loves you.”

“Gonna fuckin’ find out,” Jamie mutters. 

The door swinging open feels like a portal to the past, Judy O’Mara’s small frame somehow seeming as expansive as it had when Dani had been eight years old. Her face wears a few more lines these days, but wears them well–the pride of a woman who has loved hard, raised good kids, made a place for herself in the world that feels warm and right. Her eyes are wide, her mouth falling open in a delighted grin, even as Dani raises a hand in a small wave.

“Surprise?”

“You didn’t tell me you were coming to town!” She pushes through the storm door, hugging them both in a single sweeping motion that nearly knocks Jamie off the porch. “Oh my god, you should have called, I’d have made a feast!”

“It’s eleven in the morning,” Jamie mumbles, but Dani can see her smiling. The Judy O’Mara of her anxious mind can’t withstand, even for a second, the truth of the woman. 

“A feast for lunch, then,” Judy says without missing a beat. She leans back, takes Jamie by the chin, turns her head gently from side to side as though looking for new scars. “You look good. Healthy. You finally learn to cook?”

“She did,” Jamie replies, tilting her head toward Dani. “Sort of.”

“I make an excellent roasted salmon,” Dani proclaims, “and…very little else.”

“Well, come in! Come in, tell me–I mean, you have to tell me everything, right? Oh, I wish I’d known, I would have moved some things around, told Mike the game could wait.”

“Game?” Jamie seems frozen on the porch, her face unreadable. Judy is moving deeper into the living room, her back to them, and Dani takes the opportunity to slip an arm around Jamie’s waist to guide her over the threshold. 

“Baseball. You know how the boys are.”

Never interested in baseball, Dani thinks wryly, remembering all the times Eddie had complained that nothing ever happened in a sport that slow. 

“They won’t be back until tomorrow, they drove all the way to Indiana for the thing. Silly,” Judy is saying. “Come on, into the kitchen, I can at least get you girls something to drink.”

“That’s, uh. That’s all right, actually,” Dani says, following the familiar path back to the big kitchen table. It feels a little less expansive now, a little more worn; the wood is pocked in places, scuffed and weathered by decades of plate and fork and cups laid down without coaster. “We really just came to see you.”

“Oh, that’s sweet to say.” Judy makes a flapping gesture without looking, busy at the kettle. Jamie, grimacing, sinks slowly down in her old seat as if pulled by magnetic force. “But I know how much you must miss Edmund. Even after it all…you know. He still loves you so much, Danielle.”

“I’ll bet,” Jamie says in a low voice. Dani kicks her very gently under the table, amused when Jamie arches a brow that says oh, there will be consequences for that later. 

Can’t wait, she thinks with a dizzy, rather inappropriate burst of desire, her hand creeping over to rest on Jamie’s knee. There’s a stabilizing sensation to the act, reminding her in no uncertain terms: this is who she is now. This, not Eddie’s long-lost girl, but someone lucky enough to be so in love with Jamie, it sometimes puts an ache into her chest. 

“Not to say you should be getting back together,” Judy says, running steel straight up Dani’s spine. 

“You–you aren’t?”

“Oh, Danielle, it’s been such a long time. I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t disappointed, you know, when it happened–but I always thought, in the back of my mind, how many childhood sweethearts really work out? You grow up. You grow apart. It’s natural.”

Jamie is grinning, biting the inside of her cheek, her knee beginning to shudder under Dani’s palm as her boot rocks against the tile floor. Dani squeezes harder.

“Well, that’s–that’s sort of the thing,” she says. “The reason we wanted to visit. We, um. We’ve–well–”

Judy is doing that mom thing she’s always admired, carrying three steaming mugs to the table without spilling a drop. She takes a seat across from them, beaming with every inch of her face, and Dani thinks, Love. This is what love looks like. This will be okay. 

“Judy, I–I wanted you to be the first to–I mean…”

There are words here, she knows with frustration. Words, not even so big or so complicated, if only she can pluck them from the air. Just say it, Dani. Just say–

“I never thanked you properly,” Jamie says. Her voice is impossibly steady, her face passive. Beneath the table, her leg has stopped its jittering dance at last. Judy looks surprised, Dani’s teeth clacking shut on her own stammering. 

“Why do you say that, dear?”

“’Cause it’s true,” Jamie says simply. “Never did. All those years of feedin’ me, keeping clothes on my back, never once making me feel…unwanted. Didn’t have to do that, Judy. No one was making you.”

Judy’s surprise is inching toward some emotion Dani can’t quite pinpoint–pleasure, that Jamie is saying this now, or pain, that Jamie thinks for a second she wasn’t worth it. “Sweetheart, of course I–I mean, you’re my kid. You know that.”

“Wasn’t, though,” Jamie says, almost earnestly. She’s leaning across the table, her hand moving to press Judy’s. “Was just some wee mess stumbling into your life, wasn’t I? And not always grateful, besides. I was–I don’t know what I was, half the time, but I was always lucky. So fucking–sorry, sorry, so utterly lucky. Was smart enough, at least, to figure that out.”

Judy’s cheeks are bright, her eyes brimming. She seems quite unable to speak, which Jamie seems to take as a relief. Her voice is rolling with surprising emotion, pushing a little faster than is normal, save for her most vulnerable moments. 

“I was lucky you took me in, and lucky your family was willing to open up for one more. And I was…really lucky for this one.” Her eyes cut to Dani, her foot curling beneath the table around Dani’s ankle. “You brought me to her. Don’t think I can ever be grateful enough for that.”

Judy looks almost puzzled, though she’s smiling. “I’m glad to hear it. I always had a feeling, you know. That…you were a good match, somehow. You balance out. It’s important, having a friend like that.”

Friend, thinks Dani with a mouth gone dry. Best friend, sure. Best friend I can’t imagine ever being without again. 

“You brought me to her,” Jamie repeats, almost stubborn, though she’s smiling. “I’ve never loved anyone more. Don’t think I could, given all the time in the world.”

The air seems to go still, the kitchen suddenly rife with small noises Dani’s never noticed before. The hum of the refrigerator. The trickle of water down the drain through a leaky faucet. The tap of Judy’s slipper against the floor. 

“Please say something,” Jamie says. “I don’t honestly know how to–”

“Eddie had an idea,” Judy says quietly. “When you were all still, gosh, back in high school. Long time ago, it seems now.”

Dani is nodding reflexively. Jamie isn’t moving at all.

“There was…a party? I think. Almost didn’t let you all go, it was against my best judgement, but–I figured, if you were together, what harm could come of it? And then Eddie came home early. Tried to pretend he wasn’t drunk, like he’s ever been good at lying, and wasn’t angry.”

Her voice is almost dreamy with memory, her back leaning against the chair as she raises the mug to her lips. She isn’t quite looking at either of them.

“I asked him where you two were. I remember being furious that he’d leave you alone. And I remember, very clearly, him saying something strange. Danielle doesn’t need me when she’s got her. I remember that so well. Danielle doesn’t need me when she’s got her.”

Jamie swallows audibly. Her hand is still resting on the table, inches from where Judy’s was not so long ago. She looks as though she’d very much like to give in to the oldest Jamie-urge in the book, to push up and bolt from the house without looking back. Dani traces her kneecap through her jeans, fingers pressing firmly until Jamie draws a deep breath. 

“I thought it was so odd,” Judy goes on. “That he’d say something like that. But he wasn’t in his right mind, and by the time I heard you sneak in–yes, Jamie, you were never as subtle as you thought, dear–he was fast asleep. No one said anything else about it, and I thought maybe you’d just gotten into a fight. Young love is like that. It can be so jealous.”

Not always, Dani thinks. If Jamie was jealous–and she’s sure she was, to a point; there are some feelings too big and too natural to ward off completely–she tried not to let it show. Jamie’s love has always been sunlight, reassuring and steady and there even when clouds roll in. 

“This is why,” Judy says, looking Dani in the eye. “Isn’t it?”

“Why he was mad?”

“Why you broke it off.” Her eyes never blink, never stray, her gaze as solid as the table. “You said it was because you didn’t love him the right way. I didn’t understand what that meant, but I knew you knew. Always knew your own mind, Danielle. It’s one of the things I’m most proud of.”

Dani breathes, trying hard to quell the dizzy rush in her head. “Judy, I–”

“She doesn’t think she needs anyone taking care of her,” Judy goes on, like she hasn’t spoken. “Never did, even when she barely came up to my hip. Always thought she had it handled.” Her gaze slides to Jamie’s face, her lips curving. “Isn’t that right?”

“Right,” Jamie says, sounding breathless. 

“But you took care of her anyway. Every step of the way. Wouldn’t listen to me or anyone else, but she always listened to you, didn’t she?”

“Right,” Dani says, a helpless grin working onto her face. This feels like a dream. This feels like a story not quite within her own control. Judy sighs, sips her tea. 

“Well. There’s nothing more to it, then, is there?”

“There isn’t?” Dani asks. Judy pushes up from the table, shaking her head. 

“I only have one question.”

The silence is too loud, punctuated by hum and drip and tap. The silence is going to drive her crazy, Dani believes, and drive Jamie to run, and this is all going to fall apart because she so desperately needed for Judy O’Mara to know them

“Will you be staying the night?”

“What?” Jamie says, in the same moment Dani blurts, “Sorry?”

“Staying the night,” Judy repeats. “Jamie, we’ve converted your room into a sort of hodgepodge storage-guest combination, but you can just throw all those boxes into the hall. I don’t suppose you’ll be needing the sleeping bag.”

“I–” Jamie is shaking her head very slowly, as though trying to clear water from her ears. “I–no, we’ve got…a hotel…”

“Oh, that’s just silly.” Judy waves a dismissive hand. “You’ll take the room. No sense spending money, you already came home.”

Home, Dani thinks, her heart pounding. Home, here, in the O’Mara house–an address she’d never quite claimed, but the place where all her fondest memories live all the same. The place she grew up. The place that brought her to Jamie. 

“Have you stopped in to see your mother yet?” Judy asks. “I can invite her to dinner, if you like, I haven’t caught up with her in…months, now, probably–”

“You’re not,” Jamie begins, the words drying up before they can truly escape. Judy pauses at the sink, her hand tipping the remnants of her tea toward the drain. 

“Not what, sweetheart?”

That word, more than anything, seems to unbind Jamie’s calm. That word, a simple endearment spread back through their lives like so much love in two syllables, belonging to Judy and Judy alone. Jamie swallows again, presses a hand to her jaw, closes her eyes.

“Upset,” she croaks at last. Judy raises an eyebrow. 

“My kids are happy. What on earth would I be upset about?”

It’s not a good time, Dani thinks as Jamie slumps against the table in mingled relief and exhaustion, to say I told you so. Later, she thinks–when they’re nestled in a bed just a little too small for their adult frames, when Jamie is looking up at her with glazed delight, when they’re trying their best to make a kiss sound like silence. Maybe she’ll do it then. I told you she loved you. I told you. 

Now, watching Jamie slide from the table, move across the kitchen in a daze, slip her arms around Judy in a firm hug, Dani thinks–not for the first time–that family is as much a choice as it is a gift. That Judy has always chosen well. That Jamie has learned from the best. 

Told you, she thinks, feeling perfectly at peace. 

Chapter Text

It’s the fact that they think they’re subtle, that really gets her. 

Not that Tess is upset to find Jamie crashing with them the week following graduation. Of course Jamie is crashing with them. Where else would she go, now that Dani “it’s important to grow up and change and learn who you really are, or some such bull” Clayton has finally snapped up the hot gardener of her dreams? Honestly, if Dani let her walk out that door–especially after that first night, which, hello, gardener; these walls aren’t half as thick as they apparently think–she’d have forfeited all rights to sanity, and Tess would have no choice but to make her move instead.

No, she isn’t upset to find Jamie still here the following morning. Or at all. She loves Jamie. What’s not to love? 

Honestly, so much to love. If she didn’t love Dani even more, she might have to really test the bounds of this friendship. Particularly when she opens her bedroom door to find Jamie–hair rumpled, dressed in a half-unbuttoned flannel and a pair of boxer shorts–at the kitchen counter. Like, warn a woman. 

“Warn you about what?” Jamie looks blank, her hands prying open each cupboard with evidently-mounting disappointment. “You really don’t have any tea?”

“Warn a woman,” Tess repeats, hip-checking her gently out of the way and scrounging the supply of English Breakfast out from behind the stoner snacks. “Before you turn up in her kitchen looking all sex-rumpled. I haven’t even had coffee, Taylor, Jesus.”

Jamie blinks, taking the box from her hands. “O…kay. How was the rest of the party?”

“Not nearly as engaging as your night,” Tess informs her pleasantly, delighted when Jamie’s sleep-muddled expression lights up with embarrassment. “But an extravaganza in its own right all the same. Where’s my girl? I know you railed her into next week, but it seems bad manners to leave you to breakfast alone.”

“I didn’t–we–”

“Thin walls,” Tess sing-songs. “Like paper. Or, what, you’re English–parchment?”

“We have paper,” Jamie deadpans. Tess pats her shoulder, working around her to fill the kettle. 

“Good fortune really does smile upon you. Ah! Sleeping Beauty arises!”

Dani, looking only slightly more functional than Jamie, is emerging from the bathroom with an expression that suggests she, at least, is very aware of the acoustics of their apartment. It’s so tempting to tease her about it–Dani has this truly adorable habit of looking like she might combust if pushed too far, the red of her face complimented nicely by the gold of her hair–but Tess figures some things can wait. Lord knows they’re going to walk right into it soon enough.

But like–so soon. Like, she goes off to take a shower, and comes back to find they still haven’t left the kitchen soon.

“Seriously?” She laughs, watching them leap apart. It’s too clear Dani has forgone the idea of coffee and bacon for the much-more-invigorating art of pushing Jamie against the refrigerator. Not that Tess can blame her. 

“We–were just–”

“Right in front of my cereal,” Tess says gravely, shaking her head in faux-disappointment as she stretches over Jamie–whose hands are still rooted to Dani’s hips, the hem of Dani’s shirt dropping hastily back over her stomach–to retrieve a box of off-brand Lucky Charms. “No shame.”

They’re both making noises of disagreement, as though Tess hasn’t had her share of groping in the kitchen experiences to call on. She snorts. 

“Look, far be it from me to stop your, ah, young love in its tracks. Just. Keep it out of my bedroom, is all I ask. Unless…” She wiggles her eyebrows. Jamie clears her throat so violently, it sounds as though she might fracture something.

“Shower. Should. I.”

“That sentence normally goes in the other direction,” says Tess helpfully. Dani swats her back, grinning. 

“Got that out of your system yet?”

“Oh, not nearly.” Tess beams. “By all means, Clayton, show her where the shower lives.”

“I know where the,” Jamie begins to protest, but Dani is slipping both arms around her middle, pressing against her back to urge her toward the bathroom.

“That’s her polite way of saying if I don’t go with you now, she’s going to spend the next half hour fishing for details.”

“You still owe me those,” Tess calls after them. “Every last filthy one.”

***

They think the shower is noise-cancelling, too, Tess realizes about four minutes later. Jesus, these beautiful useless idiots. 

***

It’s the lack of subtlety masquerading as Chill, really. The fact that every single time Tess leaves a room, she can count slowly to ten, poke her head back out, and find they’ve picked right back up where last she interrupted. 

Step into the bedroom to change her clothes? Come back out to find Dani straddling Jamie on the couch. 

Take a quick smoke break on the stairs out front? Glance through the window to find Jamie shirtless, the unmistakable tread of scratches running down her back beneath her bra. 

Offer to run out for lunch? Spend an extra five minutes idly counting clouds, because fuck only knows the sounds Dani is making isn’t karaoke. 

“You two,” she announces, tossing the pizza box onto the counter with a flourish, “are going to break something if you keep this up. I mean, you’re at least taking hydration breaks, I hope? Do I need to bring you a power bar?”

Jamie has the decency to look slightly ashamed of herself, though there’s a definite grin beneath the hunched shoulders. Dani, selecting a slice of pepperoni-and-banana-peppers, shrugs. 

“Consider it payback?”

“For who?” Tess demands, delighted. Dani raises her free hand, ticking her fingers down toward her palm.

“Tyler, whose butt I saw like ten minutes before you introduced us. May, who you used to desecrate the kitchen floor. Carlos and Beth–”

“Liz,” Tess interrupts, “she goes by Liz these days.”

“–Liz, with whom you conveniently forgot I needed to shower before my presentation and took up the bathroom for three hours–”

“Okay, okay,” Tess snorts, groping for a dishtowel in some shade of off-white to wave. “Truce.”

“And that’s just this apartment,” Dani says cheerfully. She tilts her head to look at Jamie, whose face can best be described as aghast. “Back in the dorm, she used to sneak girls in after I was asleep.”

“You were a sound sleeper!” 

“No one is sound enough to ignore a bed frame breaking, Tess.”

“I…avoiding college was the right choice,” Jamie says weakly. Tess bats her eyes.

“You’re saying you’ve never dreamed of breaking a bed frame with me, Taylor?”

Jamie darts a look around at Dani, her eyes just shy of screaming. Tess is having the best time of her life. 

***

“Tell me honestly, though,” she says. Jamie gives her a sharp look, uncertainty obvious even as she reaches to accept the joint Tess is passing her way. 

“Really don’t think Dani wants me giving you a play by play.”

“Dani, beloved of my soul, was fool enough to schedule a doctor’s appointment while you were still in town. She knows what I’m about.” 

To Jamie’s credit, she doesn’t choke this time. She puffs once, twice, holding the smoke in her lungs an impressively long time before craning her head back and exhaling. "What am I telling you honestly?”

“You’re going to keep an eye on her, right?”

Jamie looks surprised. “Yeah. Not that she needs it, mind. Just. Yeah. Always.”

Tess sighs. “She doesn’t need it, but you know as well as I what that woman is like. Too good. Too fucking good for her own good, you know? Forgets, sometimes, that she can come first, too.”

Jamie offers a smile nearly wicked in its amusement. “Oh, I take care of that.”

“Yes,” Tess drawls, “darling, I can tell. You know, really relieved she never brought anyone home before now. I’m not sure my beauty sleep could have taken the abuse.”

Jamie laughs, leaning back and pulling a throw pillow into a loose embrace. “She doesn’t need anyone taking care of her. But…”

“But you can’t help wanting to, anyway,” Tess guesses. When Jamie nods, she takes another hit, lets the smoke burn in her chest. “She has that effect on people. Our girl would take a bullet for anyone, and it’s…impossible not to love her for it.”

“She’s the reason,” Jamie says softly, “I didn’t run. Reason I did a lot of things, some of ‘em really, really stupid. Sometimes I think everything I’ve ever done can be traced back home to her, one way or another.”

“That, my dear,” Tess says, “is what fools and songstresses alike call love, I think. Just…do me a favor, keep her from killing herself for those kids.”

Jamie nods. “I will. Promise.”

“Good,” Tess says lightly. “I like you, Jamie. You’ve got the hands of a sinner and the smile of a saint. I’d really hate to have to track you down and kill you for doing her wrong.”

***

For all the sex, and all the blushing that follows, it’s late nights like this one that really say it all. Nights where cards fade into lazy conversation fade into this: Jamie, asleep on the couch, her head resting in Dani’s lap. Dani, looking down at her like she’s never felt so at home in her own skin. 

And Tess, watching them both, astonished by the lack of fear in the room. The lack of distance. The lack of uncertainty. 

Dani, who has always been a nervous sort, whose panic attacks are so predictable on bad weeks, Tess came back from that first Christmas break with a laundry list of coping methods to offer–looks perfectly at peace. Her fingers stroke back Jamie’s hair, tracing her forehead, her nose, every brush of contact only seeming to sink Jamie deeper into dream. Dani has never looked like this before. 

“You’re happy,” Tess says quietly. Not a question. Not a challenge. Dani smiles.

“Part of me thought she’d get sick of it, you know. Waiting for me.”

“Who could get sick of you?” Tess asks, and means it. No one in the world stacks up to Dani, on a list of favorite people. No one in the world ever could. If Jamie really did fall ass over teakettle for this woman when they were barely old enough to know what love was, she couldn’t be blamed for it. Not for a second. 

“You’ll invite me to the wedding, of course,” Tess says, when Dani–eyes closed, fingers still tracing aimlessly–says nothing for a while. One blue eye emerges, her nose scrunching up. 

“Jumping ahead, aren’t you?”

“She’d do it here and now, if you asked. Shit, I could get ordained, do it for you. Always thought I’d look nice in a little suit.”

“You’d be gorgeous,” Dani says, without a hint of deprecation. Tess blows her a kiss. “And…yes. If and when, I can’t imagine doing it without you.”

“As officiant?”

“I was thinking maid of honor,” Dani laughs. Tess leans back, smiling. 

“That’ll do.”

The silence creeps in again, the sleepy indulgence of post-midnight living that feels so perfectly suited to the college experience. Nothing else, Tess suspects, will ever be quite this again–the quiet feeling like peace, the weariness feeling earned, not crushing. Jamie breathes out in her sleep, one hand drifting to gently grasp the hem of Dani’s shirt.

“Gonna miss you,” Tess says softly. “And this one, too.”

Dani smiles, a hint of sadness in her eyes. “It won’t be the same again, will it?”

“Nope.” And maybe that’s a good thing, she thinks. Maybe that’s exactly how it should be. Growing up. Changing. Learning who they ought to be. “But you’ll call.”

“And write,” Dani agrees. 

“And send me pictures of your hot gardener,” Tess adds. “Lord knows, it’d be a crying shame to forget that.”

Dani laughs. “Never.”

“You did good, Clayton. Took you a minute, but–you did good.”

She lets the silence settle for real, lets Jamie sleep and Dani doze, lets herself sink into the armchair. They aren’t subtle, it’s true–she’ll probably wake tomorrow to find they’ve opted for a quiet round of the most wall-shaking sex she’s ever heard in Dani’s room–but that feels right, somehow. Good, to see Dani refusing to make herself small. Great, to see Dani refusing to temper an emotion this grand.

“I love you idiots,” she says softly. “You’re going to be just fuckin’ fine.”