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(you may be) my final match

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When Dani Clayton turns thirty, she makes herself a promise: from here on out, it’s all surprises. Her life up to this point has been marked by a distinct lack of wonder, of awe, of plot points unexpected. She has been with the same man her entire life, has followed the logical progression of a passion for education to its endpoint, has never once looked any of her questions in the eye. It would have changed everything. It would have undermined her entire reality.

She has chosen, quite intentionally, to lean into that.

And, before she knows it, three decades are behind her. Three decades of slowly fading into the background of her own story. Three decades of smiling, nodding, shrugging off the nagging sense that something is wrong here.

Three decades buried. No way of telling how many more ahead. And Dani, silently watching the clock roll over on her thirtieth birthday, thinks, This is a tragedy in the making. 

It would be easier, probably, to just put her head down and let it roll over her. Easier, less painful, and infinitely more dangerous.

Because there are things in the dark--things that try to pull at her clothes when she’s out and about, moving through packed bars, laying with him in bed at night. Things she doesn’t know how to look at. Things that mean too much. 

Like the graze of a woman’s eyes at the makeup counter in the mall.

Like the graze of a woman’s hand at her back during a dress fitting.

Like the way she knows, knows, the woman at the florist shop is smiling at her as women do not smile at other women.

Some women do, she reminds herself, pointedly staring at a bouquet of purple flowers. She can hear the florist chatting with Eddie, her voice a lilting roll of consonants and amusement. The vendors always chat with Eddie, rarely with Dani herself--a fact Eddie points out on every single ride home.

“They should be asking you, Danielle. I don’t know the first thing about planning a wedding!”

And I do? she never says. Eddie seems to believe there is a school for this sort of thing, one attended solely by women--certainly women like Dani. Women who dress in soft pastels, and sit placidly during dinner conversation, and date the same man their entire life. Women who don’t ask questions. Women who don’t make themselves promises.

She’s dimly aware of the conversation scudding along a few feet away, the indiscernible rumble of Eddie answering questions, and it is only when a hand brushes her sleeve that she thinks to look up.

The florist is looking at her, smiling at her--that way, she thinks with a hot flush, the way this woman has smiled every time she and Eddie have stepped into the shop--and touching Dani’s arm. Barely. The tips of her fingers only, a gentle suggestion that Dani might offer her attention this way.

“Sorry,” she says in that pleasant accent. “Seemed not to hear before.”

“I didn’t,” Dani confirms, flustered at the idea that both of them have been trying to get her attention for longer than a few seconds. “I’m sorry, what were we...?”

“Flowers,” says Eddie impatiently. “Danielle, seriously, I have no idea what I’m talking about over here.”

“He doesn't,” the florist confirms with a crooked little smile that pulls at Dani’s focus. She swallows, tries not to think about how this has been happening with increasing regularity: this thing, which absolutely cannot happen, of zeroing in on a woman’s smile. Or eyes. Or the pull of a shirt up her stomach. 

Don’t, she tells herself, as she’s been telling herself for years. Don’t do that, he’s right there. 

Eddie. Always there, always waiting, always...stable. Eddie, who has never noticed the way she flinches from the press of a pretty girl against her in a crowded bar. Eddie, who has never recognized her discomfort with female friendships for what it is. Eddie, who only looks at her and sees what he’s supposed to, what she’s curated for him. 

Eddie wouldn’t care for her resolution regarding surprises. Eddie wouldn’t care for it much at all.

The florist is talking, she realizes, right to her. Her attention is warm, charming, and Dani finds herself loosening up the longer the woman goes on about color schemes, seasonal options, whether they’d like to go expansive or keep to a minimal number of arrangements. Dani doesn’t have the first clue about any of it, but the woman sounds powerfully certain. There’s something reassuring about how naturally she speaks, as if holding all of the cards.

Dani could use someone like this in her life. Someone who truly understands where they’re coming from at all times. Someone confident, steady, sure.

“I’d like, um, the kind with the really soft petals?” she hears herself say, and barely refrains from slapping her own forehead when the woman’s small smile turns into a full-fledged grin.

***

Flowers, Eddie tells her after that trip, are your deal. Dani isn’t sure how he’s come to this conclusion, and is absolutely sure he was incorrect in doing so--but he has decided he won’t be accompanying her to the florist anymore. 

Which leaves her with Jamie.

“Seem distracted,” Jamie says one afternoon, a gentle prod by all measures. In truth, Dani has been staring blankly into space, unable to focus on anything except the way Eddie had said your deal.

“Do I seem like a flower person?” she blurts. “Like. A person who is...aware of flowers?” 

“Seem like a person who knows what a flower is,” Jamie says blithely. She doesn’t pull punches, Dani registers, though she softens her words just enough to be endearing, rather than painfully blunt. It’s a quality Dani has not gotten nearly enough of in her life. 

“He thinks I should know,” she says, aware this is dangerous territory--that she should not be telling this professional woman any of her concerns regarding Eddie and what he does and does not see behind her eyes. “He thinks it’s in the woman handbook, flowers.”

“Must’ve been out sick that day, then,” Jamie teases. Teases, like she’s fine with Dani leaning against her counter, complaining about her fiancé. “I dunno what handbook he’s thinking of, but I’m afraid you did miss it entirely.”

“Sometimes, I think--” She hesitates. This is definitely not appropriate professional conversation, not with a woman she’s met three whole times.

Not with a woman who smiles at her like that

And still, the words are coming: “Sometimes, I think he’s disappointed that I’m not more like...I don’t know.”

“Wedding Barbie?” Jamie suggests. Dani laughs, louder than she’d intended, catching the attention of a startled old woman near the rose display. 

“Exactly. I’m all wrong for this.”

“Mm,” says Jamie, in the tone of voice one uses when one is deliberately trying not to meddle. Dani raises an eyebrow. 

“What?”

“Nothin’. Not my place to say.”

It isn’t. It really isn’t, not with a notebook open on the counter with Dani’s name next to Eddie’s, etched side by side so Jamie can keep her customers straight. And, still, there’s a feeling in Dani she associates with the night of her thirtieth birthday. Surprise yourself. 

“Say it anyway,” she challenges, gratified to see Jamie’s expression slip for the first time from professionally-charming to surprised. 

“All right. Just seems to me...there are two kinds of couples, right?” She leans in, as if imparting a great secret. Dani, unable to stop herself, leans to meet her, trying not to notice the light scent of mint on her breath. “There are the ones who listen to each other—I mean, really listen. The ones who prioritize one another in the story. Those are the ones, from my experience, that make it.”

“And what’s the other kind?” Dani presses, already seeing where this is going. Already mentally slotting herself into place, feeling tense and tight and sure

“The other just coasts along on a pretty fantasy.” Jamie shrugs. “Sometimes they make it, sometimes they don’t, but way I see it? That’s not the kind of love that’s really all there.”

“And.” Dani swallows, watching the curve of Jamie’s lips, feeling the familiar discomfort wind tight around her heart. “And which do you think we are?”

“That,” says Jamie, obviously feeling she has officially overstepped, “is between you and yours, I think, Miss Clayton.”

***

Surprise yourself, thinks Dani when she heads home after school. Surprise yourself, do the things that scare the living hell out of you. 

In this case: talk. Speak her mind, for the very first time since she was a teenager. Speak her mind, putting it all out there, and know that Eddie--if he’s right, if theirs is the right kind of love--will meet her halfway.

She hears herself say, I was wondering if we could just...tone it all down.

She hears herself say, Not go so big with it. 

She hears herself say, Eddie--I can’t. 

This wasn’t the plan. This wasn’t the idea at all, when she’d marched from the bus stop with her hands curled into comfortably tight fists at her sides. Surprise wasn’t supposed to mean telling him thisSurprise wasn’t meant to blow it all up. 

Take it back, she thinks with helpless terror, even as her mouth is forming words she never meant to say out loud. Words like I’ve always known, and I just didn’t know how to deal with it, and it isn’t you, Eddie. It’s not your fault. 

There’s a ring in her hand.

There’s a ring in his palm. 

There’s a voice in her head, a pleasant accent, saying, “That is between you and yours.”

Surprise, she thinks grimly, as her entire life self-destructs. 

***

Well--it hadn’t gone remotely to plan, shattering her engagement into tiny pieces. Coming out hadn’t, either. 

Is that what I did? she wonders, feeling a bit sick. Did I just write an ending for myself before even opening the goddamn book?

There are other things to think about, probably--the fact that she has to find an apartment of her own on the fly, has to update her mother about the broken wedding plans, has to set up all the little markers of a life lived Alone. The rest can wait. 

The awareness that she just told Eddie it wasn’t him, it was men in general--can wait.

The awareness that she still can’t look at women in cafes, in grocery stores, on the bus--can wait.

Thirty and single for the first time in half a lifetime, she finds herself deconstructing all the pieces of Danielle and reworking them to shape Dani.  What goes in which pile? Love of old movies? Dani. Fear of leaving the house without makeup? Danielle. Complete inability to make a hot beverage properly? Both.

Desire for the confidence to look at women? To speak to women? To want women freely?

Entirely Dani. 

There are support groups for this kind of thing, she’s pretty sure--the internet, and the library, and strangers who collect at the local gay bar for Drag Night. There are Facebook groups, Reddit threads, a million faceless souls all with opinions of their very own as to the right way to do this. The right way to approach women. The right way to build into herself this new, terrifying foundation.

She gets halfway through typing up a Facebook post--her relationship status now glaring Single for all its worth from the top of her page--asking for recommendations before her good sense kicks out against two glasses of wine. She snaps shut the laptop, shuffling back as though from an enormous spider.

There has to be a better way. There has to be a less public, less embarrassing way.

***

“Haven’t seen you ‘round in a bit,” Jamie says in greeting, pulling at last away from a man who seems terminally unable to choose between two varieties of orchid. Dani, who has been loitering in the shop for almost twenty minutes, trapped between the idiot thought in her head and the idiot desire to run straight out into the street, smiles.

She thinks, anyway, she’s smiling. Jamie’s eyebrows are raising slowly, as if in mild concern.

“Everything all right?”

You shouldn’t ask me that, thinks Dani, aware that it is only because Jamie asks things like that--in an endearingly easy manner, as though she’s known Dani years instead of the span of a few professional minutes--that she’s even here. 

Jump, she thinks, one foot already off the ledge.

“This is going to sound crazy,” she says. “Absolutely, you’ll think I’m crazy.”

“Okay,” says Jamie affably. She’s leaning on her elbows against the counter, the sleeves of her gray shirt cuffed. A large inked hydrangea spills out across her forearm, almost too distracting in its vibrance for Dani to go on.

Ask, she thinks wildly. Ask about the tattoo. Say you’ve been thinking of getting one. Change course before you can really do something this incredibly lunatic--

“I broke up with Eddie.”

“Oh,” says Jamie, her brow furrowing. “Oh, I’m sorry to hear that.”

It is the polite thing to say, to a strange woman bursting in to announce the death of nearly twenty-year relationship to an empty shop. It is the polite, normal thing to say. Because Jamie is polite. And normal.

And quite literally the only person Dani knows who can help with this.

“I broke up with him, because--well, sort of a little bit because of what you said.”

“What I said,” Jamie repeats blankly, clearly straining to remember. Dani see-saws a hand in the air.

“Sort of. Not really. It just gave me the push to--because, see, you were right. About the two kinds of relationships. And I knew which one I was in, and it wasn’t--it wasn’t good.”

“Okay,” says Jamie again, slowly, as though she is listening very intently to a conversation that has already gone off the rails. She isn’t calling Dani crazy to her face, not yet, but her puzzlement is impossible to ignore.

Just wait, thinks Dani with an almost amused mania. 

“And it’s over now. Because...because I’m too old to just coast, right? Too old to just--just go with the flow of things I don’t want, because someone else wants them for me. Right?”

“Don’t look old to me,” says Jamie, like she has no idea where she’s meant to pick up the thread of this conversation and is summarily grasping at straws.

“The thing is,” Dani says, taking a deep breath, plunging over the edge. “The thing is, I couldn’t marry him, because I couldn’t love him. Because he’s a...because he’s not a...”

“Ah,” says Jamie. Lightbulb, thinks Dani with staggering relief. 

“And, see, I can’t even say it. That I might be--that I am, I’m sure--that I think--” She closes her eyes, frustrated. “Because it was never an option, for me. But I need to...I need to be able to face it. It’s time.”

“Dani, you know no one else can tell you that,” Jamie says, as politely as anyone has ever said anything. Dani shakes her head.

“I know. I’m not asking for you to tell me anything.”

“Okay,” says Jamie a third time. “What...are you asking?”

“For you to sleep with me,” says Dani, feeling very much as though she’s lost her mind.

***

“For me to...sorry, what?” 

It’s not the cleanest way to handle it, Jamie thinks, but there’s a certain allowance to be made for shock. For this clean-cut, gorgeous young woman to walk into her shop and announce she’s newly-single is bizarre enough--albeit, not the first time Jamie has been in a similar situation. Except, normally, the women in question are already familiar: from clubs, from the gym, from her Instagram DMs. Normally, the only surprise is that they’ve finally pulled the trigger. 

This one, though. This one’s spinning her head around.

“It’s just,” Dani says, her eyes wide and hopeful and blue enough to send Jamie’s instincts reeling toward interest all on their own, “you’re the only one I know. The only--I mean, you are, aren’t you? Gay.”

“What gave it away?” Despite herself, she is amused. This beautiful not-so-straight woman charging in to exclaim over how she has picked up on Jamie’s rainbow is truly something else. 

“I’m sorry--I don’t mean to assume.” Dani looks like she might start wringing her hands. Best to take pity on her.

“I am. Yeah. Very.” 

“Oh, thank god,” Dani sighs. “So--so, I know it’s crazy. It really isn’t something I’d do, normally, or...consider, even. But I want to--I have to know.”

“If you’re gay,” Jamie repeats, feeling very much as though she’s only been given half of a puzzle, and more pieces are being stripped off the table all the time. Dani rocks from side to side, clearly struggling with herself. 

“If I--yes. That. If I can...be right, like that. Finally.”

“Just,” Jamie says, setting this wealth of new and confusing information all in order inside her head, “to be clear. You--broke up with your fiancé. Because you’re reasonably sure you’re gay. And you’d like me to sleep with you. To prove it?”

“Not to prove,” Dani says quickly. “There’s no proving, I know that. But I want to...I want to try it, anyway. I want to do something for me, for once.”

“And that something you’d like to do is...” Jamie can’t help grinning. Dani is pink in the face, but remarkably steady otherwise. 

“If you’re interested. It doesn’t have to mean anything. Just a--a fling.”

It is, somehow, not the strangest thing a woman has ever asked of her. Still, she should say no, shouldn’t she? She should back away, hands in the air, tell Dani Clayton she seems a very nice girl, and nice girls really shouldn’t get tangled up with her like--not first time out, anyway. 

She should. 

“All right, then,” she says. “I’m off in twenty.”

***

Dani had, privately, assumed the hardest part would be asking. It was an idea primed for disaster. An offer designed to be disregarded. She hadn’t actually expected the florist to say yes. 

The hardest part, as it turns out, is not asking at all. The hardest part is waiting around while Jamie sets to closing up for the evening, trying to look all the time like she isn’t going out of her mind.

“Should we, uh.” She’s standing awkwardly near the counter, watching Jamie move about with the practiced motions of one who has swept floors, tidied displays, locked up a thousand times. There’s a grace to Jamie moving around this shop which is not unappealing.

Nothing about Jamie is unappealing. Therein being the basis of Dani’s fantastically-bonkers plan.

“Should we what?” Jamie asks, her voice as politely-charming as it had been when first she’d asked Dani about her favorite flowers. It’s like she’s fine with Dani having marched in here to ask for her sexual education services. Like this happens to her every day.

Look at her, Dani thinks, watching the sweep of gray shirt and black slacks strolling toward her. It probably does. 

“Should we talk about it?” she asks. “Set...I dunno, ground rules?”

“If you like.” Jamie reaches around her, flicks a light switch. “C’mon.”

She’s tipping her head toward a door at the back of the shop, holding it open for Dani to pass through. Stairs, Dani registers, leading up. 

“You live here?”

“Saves time,” says Jamie pleasantly. “Anyway, what sort of ground rules are you thinking? Things you like? Don’t like? Would like to try?”

“I--don’t know.” It’s obvious, she knows, from even having to ask Jamie for this at all, but she says it anyway: “I’ve never done this before.”

“Sex,” says Jamie, her voice patient. Dani frowns.

“No, I’ve--I know what sex is, Jamie. I’ve had sex.”

“With him.”

And no one else, goes unspoken. Dani grimaces. 

“Yes.”

“And did you like it?”

The heat dragging up her body is unfair, she thinks. These are obvious questions. Things anyone in Jamie’s position would ask, like a therapist setting the stage for assessing someone’s mental health needs. 

Jamie, as if reading her mind, smiles. Dani watches her dig keys from her hip pocket, slot one into the lock as she talks. “I’ve asked the hard question first, haven’t I?”

She pushes open the door, gesturing for Dani to step inside, closes it quietly behind herself. Dani sighs.

“I...it wasn’t what I wanted.”

“Apparently.” Jamie is still smiling, setting her keys in a bowl near the door. “Right. Well. The important things first, I suppose.” She holds up a hand, genially ticking points off on her fingers. “Sex is well and good, but that’s as far as this goes. Should get that out of the way before anything else. It’s not really my thing, people, and I’m not looking to settle down.”

“If I were asking to settle anywhere,” Dani says coolly, “I would have gone about it differently.”

“Perfect. Girlfriend, I have not. A relatively frequent stream of...friends, on the other hand...”

“I’m asking you to teach me how to be with a woman, not share my bed for life, Jamie.” The frustration is almost a relief. Jamie, smiling that way, is equal parts attractive and annoying. 

“Just making sure.” Jamie shrugs. “I’ve...had women come into the situation with a different perspective. S’good to make sure we’re all on the same page. Also, for the record, I’ve a clean bill of health. Shining beacon, as it were. So no worries there.”

The irritation leaks away, replaced by an anxious swirl in her stomach. Jamie is leaning against the half-wall between living room and kitchen, her head tipped to the side, regarding Dani like a fascinating art exhibit. Or a movie whose plot she can’t quite guess in advance. 

“We don’t have to, you know,” Jamie says after a moment’s silence. “If you’d prefer, I can call you a ride home. We can pretend it never--”

Dani shakes her head, crossing the room with sharp, rigid steps that bring her within reach. “If I don’t,” she says fiercely, taking herself by surprise, “there’s no telling when--if I’ll ever--and I need to know. If you’re willing.”

Jamie reaches up, brushes a wayward lock of hair behind her ear. Her touch is gentler than Dani expects, the tips of her fingers just barely grazing Dani’s skin. 

“Willing was never the question,” she says in a low voice that sends Dani’s stomach pitching over sideways. “Bed’s this way.”

***

She’s pretty, is the thing. Almost too pretty. The kind of pretty that used to bowl a much younger, much less self-possessed Jamie over with a smile. And maybe Jamie’s just going soft, maybe she’s just forgetting herself a bit, saying yes to this--but it’s the pretty that really gets her. The pretty, and the eyes. 

God, the woman’s got some eyes. 

And now, half an hour after a possibly-disastrous decision, the woman with her pretty blue eyes is in Jamie’s flat. In Jamie’s flat, where no one goes, not ever, because it’s one thing to sneak out when all is said and done. Kicking a woman out the door, even in the kindest way possible, is another game altogether. 

Women, Jamie has learned, have a way of haunting a place when they’re gone. A way of leaving perfume on the pillows, forgetting socks under the bed, scrawling love notes on the refrigerator white board. Hard enough, to tell a woman who hasn’t quite taken the hint enough is enough, in this age of social media. So much harder, when they know where a person kicks off their boots at night.

So--why bring her? Ease, she thinks. Simplicity. And maybe because she’d been a little too taken aback by Dani Clayton’s proposition to even consider the other options. 

And--just maybe--because there’s something in the woman Jamie recognizes in herself. Something of her nervous, hopeful expression that reminds Jamie of being seventeen, taken into a basement after school by a girl who was quick, efficient, left lipstick stains on Jamie’s thighs before ensuring they never so much as spoke again. 

It hadn’t been great, Jamie’s first time.

She doesn’t owe this woman a damn thing, it’s true, but she wants to make sure Dani can’t say the same after a night in her bed. 

She leads Dani to the bedroom by the hand, registering the naked third finger with a smile. It’s good, she thinks, for Dani, that she stepped away before it was too late. It’s not the sort of truth she’ll ever utter aloud, that she could tell there was something off--something about the way the guy’s eyes always slid off Dani, as if too accustomed to her presence beside him to see her--but it was obvious from the start. She wonders if Dani has no one in her life who cares enough to point things like that out. 

Certainly, she has no one to point out how obviously she’d lit up when Jamie had smiled. And that’s not Jamie’s to do, either. Jamie is just a means to an end tonight. 

Doesn’t mean it can’t be fun.

***

“Here,” says Jamie, stopping just shy of the bed. “How do you want to...”

There’s a thin recklessness to Dani’s anxiety, a sense of jump or give up. She moves close, lays her hands on Jamie’s arms simply for somewhere to put them, surprised by the lean muscle under her hands. 

“How,” Jamie repeats, like she needs Dani to tell her before she’ll budge. “How would you like to do this?”

“Your way,” Dani says. “Whatever way you’d want, if you were just--if you’d never—just. Just do it.”

“All right,” Jamie says, very softly, and it’s all Dani can do not to sway under the weight of sudden fear. Jamie’s hand slides along her jaw, feather-light. Dani feels her eyes close, feels her head tip, accepting Jamie’s kiss like a wish. 

Make me someone else, she thinks, hands gripping Jamie’s shirt. Make me someone who understands. 

“Stop me,” Jamie murmurs against the corner of her mouth, laying small, sweet kisses as though they have all the time in the world. “If anything isn’t right. Stop me.”

Dani is nodding, dizzy, even as Jamie kisses her again, less sweetly this time. Even as Jamie kisses her, easing her backward onto the bed, she feels herself nodding: Yes, good, right. This was the idea. 

Sex with Jamie as a concept had seemed insane, but wise--Jamie walks with easy purpose, carries herself with studied calm, does not flinch from shadows or unexpected sounds as Dani has trained herself to do. 

Sex with Jamie as a physical act feels insane--but in a lovely way, like a impulsive day off work, a song with a melody much faster than its gentle lyrics, a summer day arriving in mid-spring. 

Jamie kisses like there’s nothing to it, like she’s never wasted a whole semester panicking over a woman smiling at her from the other side of the lecture hall. 

Jamie kisses like there’s nothing to it, like she’s never lain awake at night wondering if that was really it, the great pleasure everyone speaks of with such longing.

Jamie kisses like there’s nothing to it except to do it, her hands exploring Dani’s face, her fingers skimming down the side of her neck until she shivers. 

“More of this?” Jamie asks, kissing her earlobe, pressing down very gently until Dani stops holding herself so rigidly against her and lets her muscles relax into mattress. Dani nods again, giving herself over to the texture of Jamie’s hair curling through her fingers, the soft sound of Jamie’s breath in her ear. 

Dani nods as Jamie kisses her throat, nods as Jamie’s hand teases gently along the hem of her skirt, nods with Jamie’s fingertips tracing her thigh. All Dani can do is nod, it seems--her thinking brain has abandoned her, replaced by a nervous little song in her head that seems only to repeat, Doing this, you’re doing this, you’re doing this with her over and over again.

“Stop me,” Jamie reminds her in the kind of voice that makes Dani want to do nothing of the sort. She shifts, catching Jamie by the collar of her shirt, aware that she does not know what to expect, but she knows this. Knows how to kiss Jamie back, deepening when Jamie makes a pleased sound against her. Knows how to close her eyes, spread her legs, hope for the best.

There, she thinks, as Jamie’s hand creeps higher. There, that’ll be ityou’re doing this, you’re doing it with her. 

Jamie’s fingers brushing between her legs are expected, and still, she makes a surprised whimpering sound. Jamie hesitates, leaning back enough to look down at her. 

“Dani?”

She’s being too soft, Dani thinks, so unlike the too-charming grin and easy manner from downstairs. Too soft, like Dani is breakable, like Dani needs to be handled with gloves on all the way through.

Like Dani isn’t already panting, her skin scalding with the press of Jamie on top of her. 

She wrenches Jamie back down to her, kissing her with all the recklessness she’d never allowed herself over years of wanting. Jamie presses down against her thigh, rolling her hips in time with her fingers tracing soft cotton, and Dani registers the friction with a gasp. Her grip digs harder into Jamie’s collar, her tongue brushing Jamie’s like a question. 

The noise Jamie makes--uncontrolled, unconcerned for what Dani might think of her for it--is dark and low and threaded with desire. Dani fumbles for her hips with graceless hands, pulling her harder against a trembling thigh even as Jamie’s fingers are pressing, circling, pressing with an easy-to-track rhythm. 

There, she thinks again, hearing herself make a hopeless sound, her stomach clenching. There, that’s all it is, just a quick shiver. Not so hard. Not so much--

She tilts her face away, breathing hard. Jamie pauses again, fingers resting lightly in place beneath a rucked-up skirt. 

“Okay?”

“Yeah,” Dani pants. “Yeah. Not so different, really, than it was with--”

“Different?” Jamie tips her head in obvious confusion. “I--wait, you didn’t think that was it?”

Oh, thinks Dani, here comes the embarrassment. She shifts back along the pillows, Jamie easing aside to let her up. “I thought--that’s all it’s ever...I've never--”

“Never,” says Jamie, sounding baffled. “Never in your whole life.”

“It’s only ever been that,” Dani says, almost sharply. Her stomach is still tight, a low dull ache reminding her that sex has never been satisfying, or fun, or a release like everyone says. It’s only ever been that: brief pleasure, followed by a dim frustration. 

“Dani,” Jamie says, and she closes her eyes. 

“This was a bad idea. This was stupid, I’m so sorry I wasted your--”

Dani.” A hand, cupping her cheek again, easing her to look down at Jamie’s smile. Her expression is warm--amused, but not laughing outright. “Dani, it happens. You think you’re the first woman never to have an--”

Dani cranes her neck back against the headboard, blowing a breath slowly out to keep from slipping into a mortified spiral. “With him, I just wanted it to be over.” She’s never said that out loud before, never admitted how the trick with Eddie had been fast. As fast as possible, so she could forget it had ever happened. 

“Right.” Jamie’s thumb rubs lightly along her cheek, and Dani finds herself leaning into the motion, craving the comfort offered. “But on your own, at least? Never then?”

“It’s--exhausting.” It’s not supposed to be, she thinks. It’s not supposed to be difficult at all, but supposed to has never much mattered to her. “I’ve tried, but nothing I think about is--it doesn’t--I can’t do it. By myself.”

Not by herself, straining to keep in mind visions of handsome actors, of love scenes from movies, of Eddie. And certainly not with him breathing against her neck, trying his best, reminding her only of how weird it never stopped feeling, to get naked with her best friend. 

Jamie, not naked, not her best friend, not anyone except an attractive florist she’d just happened upon, feels better than he ever had. It almost hurts, thinking that. Knowing the truth of it. 

“Do you want to try again?” Jamie asks. Dani spares a quick glance down, taking in her expression, finding no mockery along the curve of her smile. Jamie is a bit rumpled--Dani’s fingers in her hair, Dani yanking her collar out of place--but otherwise no different from the woman who had said, Willing was never the question. 

“What if I can’t?” Dani can barely stand the words, whispered like a curse. “What if I--”

“Do you trust me?” Jamie interrupts. Dani sucks in a breath. Nods once, sharply, knowing full well it makes no sense. Knowing, at least, that she trusts Jamie to know what she’s doing. “Can you do me a favor?”

Another jab of a nod. Jamie’s hand curls lightly around her wrist, tugging until Dani stretches out beside her once more. 

“Try to relax.”

***

Dani does not say easier said than done, but every line of her body screams it. 

Dani does not say easy for you to say, but every clench of her muscles tells the story without words.

A different approach, then, thinks Jamie. 

“Here,” she says, pulling gently until Dani is flat on the bed, looking up at her again with those ridiculously blue eyes. “My mistake, going too fast. Not the way.”

“It isn’t?” Dani asks, like some part of her is waiting for Jamie to reveal the secrets of the universe. She still looks embarrassed, her face flushed with misery and what Jamie is fairly certain is lingering arousal. When Jamie bends to kiss her, she kisses back--slowly, but eagerly enough. A good start.

“Just,” Jamie murmurs against her skin, kissing her once, twice, never letting her get comfortable enough in the kiss to take it by rote. “Let’s just do this. For a bit.”

“This is--” Nothing, she can hear Dani not say, likely worried about offending her. Jamie laughs. 

“This is where it should start. Getting to know her body. Getting to know what she likes.”

“She,” Dani says, breathless, one hand smoothing under Jamie’s collar to rest at the back of her neck. Jamie kisses her again, letting herself linger just long enough to feel Dani pressing up toward her before breaking again. 

“When you’re doing this for the first time with someone you actually want to be with.”

“Want to be here,” Dani says, almost pouting, and Jamie resists another laugh. No shortage of endearing qualities to the woman, at least. It will make someone incredibly happy, once the nerves are all out of her system. 

“Someone you want properly, I mean. And not just because they’re the hottest gay woman in the room.”

“You were the only gay woman in the room,” Dani says archly. Jamie feigns a wince, ducking her head out of the way when Dani moves to kiss her again. 

“Ouch. That earns a time-out, I think.”

“A--” Dani’s hand flexes under her hair, the breath leaving her in surprise when Jamie very gently bites her neck. “Oh. Oh.”

“Slow,” Jamie says softly, enjoying the increase in heartbeat beneath her lips as she leaves light kisses down Dani’s throat, “gets a bad reputation. Think slow is really the best way to start out, with someone new.”

It sounds good, anyway. It sounds like something a person would say, if they ever let the same woman into their bed twice. Dani doesn’t really need that information just now. 

“Slow,” Dani repeats, her fingers toying with Jamie’s hair, her head cast back against the pillows. “Okay. Good--good advice.”

It is, Jamie knows, if only from how she can feel Dani melting into the bed with every kiss. Dani’s muscles are gradually unclenching, her body less inclined to push against Jamie’s as though caught midway between fight and flight. This won’t be a twenty-minute experience, Jamie is realizing, and feels guilty for not having seen it before. 

Of course, she’d need slow. Of course, even if she didn’t know it. Even if she thought all that was changing was the shape of the thing. 

She lets herself disappear into Dani’s skin, pulling the collar of Dani’s jumper aside with delicate ease as she kisses lower. It’s good, like this--different from most of her experiences of late. Women, lately, are fast-and-hard, hot-blooded, jumped up on the idea of her or the memory of recently-posted thirst traps. It gets the job done, but it’s not this. Having a woman beneath her for the first time. Feeling the difference between a light kiss hitching her breath and a long one arching her back. Registering what is good--a light brush of teeth--and what is great--a lingering stroke of tongue back up to her jaw. 

She lets herself drift along on the ease of it, one hand teasing gently against the soft skin of Dani’s stomach, enjoying the way Dani squirms at every brush of fingertip. No need to rush her along, she decides, her own body responding gloriously when Dani’s fingers ease open the first button of her shirt. 

“Okay?” Dani asks in a voice higher than it had been, even, when she’d thought her body had done all it was built to do. Jamie nods, pleased when initiative overtakes anxiety and Dani begins popping buttons with obvious excitement. 

Let her, she thinks. Let her have the fun of unwrapping, of pushing the shirt off of Jamie’s shoulders and giving herself that first good look. It’s satisfying, watching her eyes dilate. Satisfying, watching her bite her lip. 

“Not what I expected.”

Jamie--slim, accustomed to clothes with enough give to make physical labor easy--smiles. It’s been a long time, since last she’d found someone surprised by the cut of lean muscle along her arms, the taut line of her stomach, the flowers inked into much of the skin she keeps hidden away. Most of the time, women seek her out for these things.

Not Dani. Dani just wanted to know what it felt like to be in someone’s arms. 

***

The idea that Jamie is comfortable taking her time is having more of an effect than she’d expected. 

The idea that Jamie is happy to just explore her, without rushing to the end, is having...quite a lot of effect, in fact.

“It’s okay,” Jamie laughs when she clamps her teeth shut around an embarrassing noise. “Did he not like you to, uh. Respond?”

“I didn’t,” Dani says. “Respond. Like that. I’ve never--”

Made a sound like that in her entire life, if she’s honest, though all Jamie had done was time a hand up her sweater with a particularly pleasant stroke of her tongue. It’s not any one thing, Dani thinks--not just the kneading pressure of Jamie’s fingers or the heat of her kiss, not just the sweep of her breath or the soft sound of approval she makes when Dani accidentally pulls her hair. It’s...all of it. It’s everything.

It’s overwhelming, if she’s honest.

Overwhelming--and not something she’s remotely interested in backing away from.

She can feel Jamie’s question, silently woven between them each time Dani tenses, each time she chokes on a humiliatingly loud groan. Do you want to stop? Do you need me to slow down? She could grab Jamie by the shoulders, push her back, and Jamie would just smile. She’s never gotten that sense before, that slowing down wouldn’t lead to pouting and grumbling and annoyance. 

“Can I...?” Jamie eases the hem of her sweater up her belly, pausing before she can reveal much. Dani, who only remembers Eddie pulling at her clothes with a desperate delight, goes hot all over at the idea that Jamie--who has known her for all of ten minutes in comparison--respects her enough to ask.

She’s nodding, and Jamie is helping her sit up enough to undress, and then Jamie is just looking at her. Leaning back on her knees, one hand pushing the hair off her own forehead, a vision of inked skin and simple black bra and flushed cheeks. 

“I’m not,” Dani begins, knowing it’s a mood-killer to say enough, or like you, or any of the thoughts tripping along through her mind. She’s fine, probably--certainly, acceptable. Not a model, not like the girls on TV Eddie always liked, who seemed to walk tall and trust themselves completely. Just a woman, thirty and nervous and normal.

“Anything special,” she finishes at last, when Jamie only waits. 

“Don’t know,” Jamie says, grazing a hand along her sternum, “who told you that.”

“Oh, come on.” She’s laughing. She can’t help it, this jittery combination of breathlessness under Jamie’s touch and amusement that Jamie would wait until now to feed her lines. “You’re already getting me naked, you don’t have to say that.”

Jamie smiles. She shifts herself over, lets herself rest lightly atop Dani’s hips, fingers tracing the cup of her bra. Dani draws a breath, holds it, as Jamie leans down to kiss her lips again. 

“I don’t much care for lying,” she says, and Dani lets herself believe. Lets herself, for tonight--just this once--fall into what Jamie is seeing. 

More important: what Jamie is doing. Jamie, bending her head, sliding slowly down Dani’s body, kissing a trail from breast to belly with indulgent care. Jamie, mapping every rib, every freckle, with flicks of her tongue. Jamie, moving down the bedspread as though this is Dani’s place, Dani’s throne, and Jamie is merely here to worship.

“You don’t have to,” she hears herself say through the rush of blood in her ears. “He didn’t like to--”

Jamie smiles. It is, thinks Dani with dizzy wonder, a smile she could get used to, when pressed to her hipbone like that. 

“You wanted to know what it’s like my way,” she says, pushing Dani’s skirt high. “Trust me.”

***

He didn’t like to. Maybe the saddest sentence in the English language, thinks Jamie as she settles between Dani’s legs. Maybe the saddest goddamn sentence possible for a woman to utter. 

He didn’t like to. He didn’t like. 

As if this is about him.

With other women, Jamie might linger until they offer direction--might let them grasp her by the hair and steer her, as pleased by their engagement as her own ability to make them writhe. With Dani, who looks apologetic even as Jamie is tucking her fingers into the band of perfectly-ruined underwear and easing them down smooth thighs, she suspects a different approach is in order.

Dani looks almost embarrassed, to have Jamie kissing along the curve of her leg. Embarrassed, as Jamie presses a kiss to her pubic bone. Embarrassed, as Jamie looks up at her, waiting for the go-ahead.

Embarrassed, but interested, as she nods.

He didn’t like to--but Jamie likes this more than she has ever been able to put into words. The distinct scent, the distinct taste, the distinct awareness that for as long as she’s working a woman over, this is all that matters. As long as she’s kissing, licking, offering gentle suction as a woman pushes up against her mouth, there is nothing else. 

Dani is breathing in sharp, ragged pulses above her even before she really gets started, as if the very image of someone pushing her thighs wider, someone who doesn’t complain or groan over the idea, is appealing all on its own. As if the tentative stroke of tongue is enough to do away with all the he didn’t like in her head, replacing everything she’s known with everything Jamie is willing to give.

Good, thinks Jamie, who doesn’t see a point to dwelling on the past. Bad can be overwritten. Mistakes can be repented for. Anything he failed at, Jamie can prove is worth doing better. 

She lets herself go, reading every jump of Dani’s hips, every soft cry as it pitches louder, liking the way Dani looks when she opens her eyes to find blonde hair spread across her pillow, Dani’s fists clenched around the sheets. She doesn’t grab at Jamie like most women, as though unaware she’s allowed to reciprocate anything Jamie is doing to her--and that’s fine. Jamie, grinding herself against the mattress as she sinks into a rhythm, is getting plenty out of this as it is.

“Oh,” she hears Dani say, almost enough surprise in her voice to be funny. “Oh.”

Exactly, she thinks, increasing pressure, holding Dani’s hips steady to keep control over how fast she’s rising. Now you’re getting it. 

***

Whenever Eddie did this, it was quick; he complained that he couldn’t breathe, that he couldn’t read her if he couldn’t see her face, that he just didn’t feel like it made as much sense as spending time on other methods. Whenever Eddie did this, she let herself make the right breathy little noises, the ones he wanted to hear, and accepted that a little bit of pleasure without release was as good as it got. It wasn’t surprising; that was just sex in general.

She doesn’t recognize herself, with Jamie at work. 

She’d be embarrassed, if she had the energy for it--but all she has room for is the feeling. The waves of sensation pouring over her without break, Jamie’s lips and tongue and breath weaving a story against her skin she’s sure she’s never heard in her life. She feels herself moving as though out of her own body, her hips jerking, her thighs tensing as Jamie studies her with soft groans of her own that seem to settle low in Dani’s stomach each time. 

She’s happy to be doing this, she thinks dazedly, hearing her own voice wrench from her in sharp, wild coils. Jamie isn’t rushing her along, pausing every so often to ask, “You there? You good?” Jamie seems as though she’s lost in a world only the two of them are welcome to, her hand teasing along Dani’s hip, her stomach, tracing up to lightly stroke her breast. 

There is no rush, and for the first time, Dani isn’t worrying that it’s taking too long--that she can’t get there--that she’s wasting anyone’s time. For the first time since she can remember, she is only thinking in desperate little words like harder, like little more, like I think--almost, I think--

Jamie,” she hears herself whine, and she wants to be embarrassed about that, too--crying a strange woman’s name in a foreign bed--but there is a tight spiral seeming to clench, seeming to press toward an inevitable close, and if she can just push a little further--if she can just rock a little closer toward the curl and swipe of Jamie’s tongue. 

Gray-green eyes raise to watch her, and she thinks Jamie is smiling. Jamie, stroking her right hand gently against heat. Asking a silent question. 

Dani nods once, hard, and feels her eyes roll back as Jamie slides a finger gently in. Her body contracts in on itself, as if trying to get away from the feeling even as she desperately tries to pull Jamie closer. It is, she thinks wildly, too much. No one person can feel this and remain whole. No one person can feel this and remain here

She shifts her face against Jamie’s pillow, struggling to muffle the cries as Jamie does something with mouth and fingers both that drives her vision to black. She is losing her mind, she is sure, and doesn’t really care--not with Jamie making quiet noises of pleasure against her slick skin, not when she opens her eyes to see Jamie rolling her own hips hard against the bed. That, she thinks, is the thing to do it--the knowledge that not only is Jamie taking her over the edge, Jamie is enjoying doing so. Enjoying it, maybe, as much as Dani is.

***

She’s falling, Jamie can tell--hard and fast, judging by the surprisingly-obscene sounds even the pillow can’t entirely shut out. She’s falling, her hips bucking out of time, and Jamie slides a hand down her own trousers to coax herself along. The combination of Dani smeared across her lips, Dani saying her name in a high voice, Dani clenching around her is more than enough. 

She rests, her cheek against Dani’s hip, the skirt bunched under her head. Above her, Dani is panting for breath. 

“That--that was--that was--”

“Take your time,” Jamie replies, her own voice hoarse. Dani groans. 

That,” she says, “makes sense.”

Jamie raises her head, grinning. Dani is staring down at her with glazed eyes, her mouth hanging open. 

“All this time,” she says, “I thought it was some kind of joke. Or just men.”

“Funny thing, sex. It does work best when you’re fucking someone you actually want.” Jamie hoists herself up the bed, collapsing beside Dani in a sprawl. Dani reaches down, straightens her skirt, as if doing so will do anything to conceal the mark she’s left across Jamie’s sheets. 

“Is that...what you’d call it?”

“What’s that?” That old pleasant warmth is already fading to a biting energy, the kind Jamie associates with needing to get out of a woman’s bed and into the safety of a ride home as quickly as possible. She sits up against the headboard, reaching down to fiddle her belt back into place. 

“Fucking,” Dani says, looking as though the word is somehow more embarrassing than the act itself. Jamie would bet her life Dani says it infrequently, and only by accident.

Jamie leans off the bed to retrieve her jumper, and Dani looks relieved to be pulling it over her head. “I mean, nothin’ wrong with that, is there? Consenting adults, and all that. Just always seemed like the simplest word.”

Dani nods slowly. Her eyes drag along Jamie’s frame, lingering here and there as if memorizing. 

“I’m sorry,” she says, as Jamie gets up, pads to the wardrobe, retrieves a soft t-shirt and a pair of shorts. “I--I should have--” She’s gesturing awkwardly with a still-trembling hand. Jamie grins. 

“S’all right. I took care of it.”

When?” Dani asks with such surprise, she can’t help laughing. 

“You were distracted. And it’s not like I needed much. Not with you, ah...” She trails off, charmed despite herself by the pink bleeding back into Dani’s cheeks. “You’re something, is all.”

“So it was...all right? I was all right?” Dani is leaning forward, knees pulled up to her chest. Jamie glances at the rumpled pull of her skirt, the tempting shadow just visible between her legs, and bends to retrieve her underwear. 

“Thought this was about my performance, mainly. But yeah, you were--” Oh, just say it. “You were terrific. Honestly. And, I’m guessing, it answered some questions.”

“Like, do I really want to sleep with women?” Dani says wryly. She presses a hand into her hair, looking as though she still hasn’t quite come back to her own body. “Yes, it, uh. Answered that pretty perfectly.”

“Great.” And now, thinks Jamie, the awkward part. The bit that is easiest to avoid, if only she’s wise enough to keep her own flat shut off from strangers. “Anyway...”

She hefts the bundle of fresh clothes, hoping Dani will take the hint. Blue eyes go wide.

“Oh. Oh, no thank you.”

“Sorry?” Jamie frowns. Dani is scrambling off the mattress, awkwardly hopping her way into her underwear with an expression that says the cool damp isn’t exactly comfortable against her skin. 

“No, I mean--it’s very nice of you to offer. But I really need to be getting...home. I do appreciate the gesture, though.”

“Gest--these are for me.” Jamie is feeling as though she’s lost the plot agin somehow, though she’s not sure how or when that could have happened. Dani, halfway to the bedroom door, stops dead.

“Oh.”

“I didn’t think,” Jamie says. “I mean. I don’t usually invite...people...to stay.”

Never, is maybe a better word for it. Never, at least in the past couple of years, when she’d finally realized sex without strings is the easiest way to fumble around the needs of other people. It had taken too long, that realization, and she’s stuck to it firmly ever since. The alternative can be a nasty thing, sharp of tooth, difficult to shake loose.

“Right,” says Dani in a voice Jamie can’t decode. “Because that would be silly. Because all I wanted was for you to show me what it was like.”

“Yeah.” Silly. Sure. That’s the word for a woman she just brought to the first orgasm of her life looking at her so coolly, it almost takes her breath away. Silly. 

"And,” Dani goes on, her voice jaunting along at a perfectly stable clip, “you did. Admirably. And now I know.”

“Now you know,” Jamie agrees. This feels like a script written in circles, she thinks, a script that never quite reaches the logical endpoint where Dani calls a car and Jamie gets to take a nice, hot--

“But the thing is,” Dani says, still calm as you please. “I only know some of it.”

Jamie feels her eyes narrow, her brow pulling tight. Dani, still hovering by the door, is starting to smile. 

A dangerous smile, Jamie is beginning to feel.

***

“Look,” Dani says, knowing she’s pushing her luck and not quite able to reel back in. Not with the fresh memory of how good it had felt in Jamie’s bed, not with the fresh awareness of how she’s never felt that good in her entire life. “I was thinking.”

“Again?” Jamie asks, a bit sharply. Her arm, wrapped around clean clothes Dani had mistakenly thought were for her, hangs loosely at her side. Her eyes follow Dani as she moves back across the room, as though tracking an unexpectedly-dedicated predator. 

“You showed me what it felt like,” Dani says. “And I'm grateful. But I didn’t do anything.”

“Didn’t need to. Told you, I handled my--”

“But if I’m with someone,” Dani says hastily. “A woman I, as you said, want to be with for real. I’ll need to know that, too.”

Jamie says nothing. Her mouth is twitching to the right, as though she’s not sure if she wants to smile or frown. “This is sounding less and less like a one-time deal.”

“But it’s perfect,” Dani says. Perfect is a strong word, but still--she’s pretty sure she’s right. “You like sex.”

“Correct.”

“And I need to know what you know.”

“You don’t,” Jamie says, sounding thinly amused at the idea. “You really don’t.”

“Okay, but we’ve already done this,” Dani presses, waving a hand between them. “I already know where you live, you already know how I look when I’m--”

“Coming spectacularly?” She’s sounding really amused now, and Dani finds herself blushing and grinning at the same time, struggling to close her lips over her teeth to look less exultant.

“So that’s two of the most intimate things you can know about a person, right? Why not lean into it? You teach me everything I ought to know about sleeping with a woman. And I’ll...”

Here, she falters. What exactly does she have to offer Jamie? Jamie, who clearly has no trouble attracting women to her bed, who clearly was doing her a favor in even saying yes tonight. 

“You,” Jamie says quietly, “are proposing a friendship with benefits. With someone you only met because you were trying to get flowers for your wedding. D’you know how mad that sounds?”

Mad, it may be--but Dani doesn’t miss the way her eyes darken when she steps closer still, into her personal space, curling a daring hand around Jamie’s bare shoulder. 

“Could be interesting, though, couldn’t it?”

“Could be terribly interesting,” Jamie breathes. 

Surprise, thinks Dani, running on a wild energy all the way home.