Actions

Work Header

(you may be) my final match

Chapter Text

September is here at last, carrying school in its wake, and Dani Clayton has planned for quite a lot. A classroom of new kids with new problems and passions to sort out. A host of new projects to hand out. Autumn in a new apartment, watching the sun filter in unfamiliar ways as the days grow shorter. She’s planned for it all, and it feels good

The only thing that doesn’t--the only thing she doesn’t quite expect--is the way Jamie is looking at her right now.

“You want to stop?” she repeats, trying to pitch her voice at a level appropriate for a woman who hasn’t just been thrown off-kilter with a sentence. Jamie scratches her head.

“Think we should, yeah.”

“Okay,” Dani says slowly, though it very much isn’t. “Okay...can you...tell me why?”

It’s weird, the look on Jamie’s face--like someone else is puppeteering her body, someone else writing a script against her will. “I just...I’m not comfortable with the idea that you’re using me to hide from what you really want, s’all.”

Since when? Dani thinks desperately. Certainly hadn’t felt like Jamie was uncomfortable a few days ago, rocking up to meet her with those gorgeous notes of need falling from her lips. Certainly hadn’t felt at all like discomfort, when Dani had leaned back, a little sheepish at her own bravado, and said, “Was that--I mean, first time--didn’t sneeze, so--“

Jamie had laughed, the sound shuddery and perfect in the dark, and she’d nearly fallen out of the chair in her rush to pull Dani into a kiss. It had felt, at the time, like a new beginning. It had felt, at the time, like something Dani didn’t dare look at too closely, even with the warmth of Jamie curling around her in a tight embrace.

And then, a few days of being too busy to meet up--Jamie, at the shop; Dani, preparing for the new school year. A few days of normal texts, of Jamie telling her what she was making for dinner, of Dani sending photos of the bulletin boards she’d finished. Simple. Normal. The way it’s been for ages.

“You aren't--comfortable,” she says now, her voice sounding flat to her own ears. Jamie, hands in her pockets, shrugs. “Did I--I mean, did I do something to make you feel uncomfortable? Was it…” Couldn’t have been. Could it? That bad? “Jamie, if I was that terrible the other night, I can always…you can teach me to--“

“Not that,” Jamie says, so vehemently, Dani almost recoils. “No, that was…that was fantastic. You’re fantastic. It’s not about that. It’s about…” She seems to be casting around for the right explanation, grimacing. “I want you to have an easier time of it.”  

“Can you...clarify that, a little?” Calm, she reminds herself. Calm and breezy, like I have any goddamn idea what she means. Like it doesn’t matter either way.

It does. Jamie looking at her like this, with the most obvious anxiety she’s shown since Dani’s known her, matters a lot. 

“Look,” Jamie says, and Dani fights the urge to follow her lips as they form the words. “It’s been six months. Six really great months.”

Really great, she says, and Dani wonders if this is how she’s let all the others down in the past. You’ve been great, this has been really lovely, think it’s best we go our separate--

“Dani?” 

“Yes,” she says, utterly unaware of what she’s just agreed to. Jamie nods. 

“Right. Glad we’re on the same page. Because, look, I know it’d be easier to just keep--and I’d be happy to, really, because it’s...it’s really good. You and me. But you can’t keep warding off the real stuff forever, can you?”

Real stuff. Real stuff, like--

“Dating,” Dani says flatly. “You think I need to start dating.”

“Well...yeah.” She’s honestly never seen Jamie look this young before, this out of her element. “I know, I know you've been saying soon, but--soon's one of those things that can be pushed off forever, if you're not careful. I don't want...to be the cause of that, for you. Anyway, wasn’t this always the idea? Eventually?”

It was, she has to admit, at the start. It was very much the idea, back before she’d started waking each morning with Jamie’s smile in mind, going to sleep each night wishing for Jamie in her bed. Before she’d realized sex can be a terribly inconvenient gateway to other things, no matter how casual things are kept.

“You don’t date,” she points out, feeling a little childish, but unable to stop herself. Jamie’s mouth twitches. 

“Think we’ve already talked about how you shouldn’t take all your cues from me, haven’t we?”

This is stupid. This is stupid, and she should say so. Jamie is clearly doing this for her, out of some misplaced sense of chivalry, and she should just point that out now so they can go back to having perfectly-engaging sex without ever looking too closely at what it’s doing on the subject of feelings.

Right, she thinks tiredly. Because that’s been going so well. 

"If I try--” She’s going to regret this, she can already tell. “If I try, will you stop blaming yourself for my lack of a love life?” 

“If you try,” Jamie agrees, “we can see what happens. Whatever you want. But try, Dani. Don’t you think you owe yourself a shot at real happiness?”

It’s tempting to argue, if only because the idea of Jamie lecturing anyone about letting happiness in is laughable--but Dani can’t deny it. Not knowing full-well why she’d made that promise to herself in the first place. Not knowing how close she’d already come once to living for other people, for ease and comfort, instead of what she really needed.

“One month,” she says. “I will try for one month.”

“Can’t find love in a month,” Jamie protests. Dani laughs.

“Found you by walking into a flower shop at random, didn’t I? Pretty sure there are no rules on the subject.”

She expects Jamie to grin, to spout off some cocky one-liner about being a once-in-a-blue-moon experience. Jamie only nods, her hands in her pockets, her posture weirdly rigid.

“Fair enough. Right. New rules. For one month, you accept every number you find remotely interesting. You will call those numbers. You have to give it an honest shot. Find a girl who…who agrees with you, and try.

“One month,” Dani agrees. “I’ll try. And in the meantime, no sex.”

“No sex.” Jamie frowns, rubbing her cheek thoughtfully. “With me, I mean. Can do what you like with anyone else, obviously.”

“Obviously.” Her stomach is doing unpleasant little barrel rolls at the idea. The notion that there are other women out there, other bodies she could invite into a bed Jamie has never seen, other hands seeking her out, is…anxiety-inducing. Too new. Too weird. Too not Jamie. “And you can return your full attention to your hoard of over-invested Instagram models.”

“I’m not sure they’ll be interested,” Jamie says blithely, “now they’ve gotten all those glimpses of my secret affair in the background.”

Dani snorts. She’s seen the photos Jamie is referencing, and how the women in the comments go just as wild for an earring or a peacoat as for lingerie. It’s the idea that Jamie might actually care for someone, she thinks, that they find so scandalous. The idea that anyone might have tricked Jamie out of her easy-come, easy-go philosophy of impermanence. 

Imagine.

“And we...?” She shouldn’t be pushing. Push much harder, and Jamie going to see in her eyes what she’s really asking. “Do we...stop hanging out?”

“Naked,” Jamie says. “Yeah. The rest of it?”

Dani nods. Jamie shrugs.

“Think we’re both mature enough to handle a perfectly platonic transition, don’t you?”

***

Jamie is not nearly mature enough for this. 

She doesn’t know how Dani is doing it. Doesn’t quite understand how Dani has taken six months of physical habit and just...switched it off. It’s for the best, certainly--if Dani were struggling as she is, they’d have broken the all-important new rule hours into the agreement--but, for Jamie, it’s misery.

She’s never felt this before. Not in a long, long time, anyway--and though she’d thought it would be hard, making this decision for the both of them a week ago, she hadn’t expected it to weigh quite this heavy. Hadn’t expected every night to be littered with dreams of Dani pushing her into a chair--Dani dancing with her in the rain--Dani’s smile the cleanest, brightest kind of light. It was meant to be difficult; it wasn’t meant to feel like someone slicing down to the bone every time she looks at her bed and finds it empty.

The right thing, she reminds herself coldly. The right thing for her. Dani deserves more than to view herself as fun for Jamie. Dani deserves someone who can open up and give her everything. 

Dani deserves to let herself look for it, at least, and she won’t do that with Jamie holding her attention hostage. This was always going to be temporary. 

Another time, she tells herself, each time she wakes with the urge to reach for Dani. Another night. She leaves the maybe unspoken, the no promises unformed. Some things just hurt too much to look at directly.

Anyway, at least Dani is still here. Dani is still coming round the shop after work, leaning on Jamie’s counter, chatting her ear off about the cute, maddening things kids do. She’s still texting Jamie on her lunch break--Plans tonight?--and coming up to help prepare dinner. 

She’s just...doing it all with her clothes on.

For the best, Jamie thinks, though the flat is consistently over-warm these days, her skin overly tight. Dani, who could never be accused of coming to a situation with only half of her determination, has promised she will try to date, and she seems intent on following through.

Which does not mean she lacks questions.

“Okay,” she’s saying, leaning forward on the couch. “But pretend I’m not you. Just for argument’s sake.”

“Don’t have to try hard there,” Jamie says wryly, sipping her beer. It’s been good, lately, to have a drink in hand. Ensures her fingers won’t go edging across into Dani’s space. 

Dani, for her part, keeps inching into Jamie’s as though totally unaware she’s doing it. Her knee is pressed lightly to Jamie’s leg, her hands folded in her lap. “Okay, smartass. I’m serious. How do you choose who to call?”

“Choose?” Jamie repeats, and grins when Dani prods her hard in the kneecap. “Okay, okay. I don’t know, how do you choose who to make conversation with in a crowded room?”

“I don’t,” Dani says. “And neither do you, I’ve watched you in enough crowded rooms. Don’t you always say they’re exhausting?”

Jamie makes a face. “You know what I mean. How’d you choose me, even? And don’t,” she adds when Dani opens her mouth, “say it’s ‘cause I was the only gay woman available. We both know you wouldn’t have done it if that were all there was to the thing.”

She watches Dani mull it over, elbow propped against the back of the couch, head resting on her fist. “You have kind eyes,” she says at last. “Don’t laugh--you do. And I liked the way you looked at me.”

“And how’d I look at you?”

Dani smiles. “Like you were really listening when I spoke. Like whatever I said, even if it was crazy--especially if it was crazy--you wouldn’t shut me out.”

“Right.” Jamie clears her throat. Dani’s hand is just there, just within reach. She closes her fingers more tightly around her beer bottle. “So, just do that. Call the one with the, ah, kindest eyes.”

Dani is gazing at her, lips parted, and Jamie thinks, Maybe this was all easier said than done. Maybe this was all very, very stupid. Dani’s hand is still there, Dani’s knee pressing a little harder into her, and all she’d have to do is--

"So, what do I need to change?”

“Change?” Jamie repeats blankly. “I don’t follow.”

“You know.” Dani gestures, a broad up-down of her hand to take in the whole of Jamie. “You’re my dating guru, what do I need to change to...”

“To get women to notice you?” Jamie coughs out a small laugh, aware that it sounds almost bitter. “Dunno if you’ve noticed, but you...don’t seem to have much trouble with that.”

“Right,” Dani says impatiently. “Because I’m with you. Because you look...” Again with the gesture. Jamie wonders dimly if this is what going mad feels like. 

“Are you really suggesting women have only been giving you their phone numbers because I supply some kind of...lesbian street cred?”

“Of course not.” The flush along her cheeks suggests otherwise. Jamie fights down a grin. “No, it’s just--I mean, I don’t look like you. Or walk like you. My nails aren’t...as...short.”

Still fighting down a laugh, Jamie says, “Well, sure, you’re not constantly striving to keep dirt out from under ‘em, are you?”

“Seriously.” Dani is starting to laugh too, and thank god, they can still do this. Thank god, they can still talk like normal human beings, like everything is fine, like Jamie’s heart isn’t crashing out of her chest at the idea of Dani going off in search of other women without her sitting across the table. “Seriously, should I--I don’t know, walk slower?”

“You walk fine,” Jamie says, the words jouncing along with unfiltered amusement. “And you dress fine, and you’re beautiful on your worst day, Dani, it’s fine.”

Fine. Sure. And she isn’t staring at Dani’s fingers, curled into a light fist, remembering the pleasant sting of those nails raking down her back. 

“Look,” she says hastily, trying not to remember a time not long ago on this very floor, how Dani had looked covered in sweat and Jamie and nothing more. "You’re overthinking it. Don’t change a fuckin’ thing, okay?”

Dani opens her mouth. Seems to think better of it. Nods. 

“You just need to be open-minded,” Jamie says, like she’s remotely equipped to be giving this kind of advice. “They’ll come flocking in, I guarantee it. And, hey, what about that friend of yours--the one who wants to set you up?”

“Are you going to take your friend up on that blind date?” Dani asks dryly. Jamie raises her hands, leaning back in surrender.

“Fair enough. Let’s just...let’s just stick to the open-minded thing, then.”

“Open,” Dani repeats. “Right. This is going to be...great.”

***

This is going to be a nightmare.

“What about that one?” Jamie is beginning to drive her crazy, pointing out every woman in the room. She’s trying, Dani understands--trying surprisingly hard, all things considered, carefully assessing strangers from across the room in an endless bid to find one who is Right For Dani. And she’s not doing a terrible job. The women she is drawing Dani’s attention to look just fine--pretty without being intimidatingly so, with soft features and warm smiles.

It’s Dani who can’t seem to get her head in the game.

“She’s...tall,” Dani says dumbly, eyeing the most recent target of Jamie’s observation. Jamie raises an eyebrow.

“Tall. That’s all you’re getting.”

“I don’t know!” Her voice is too loud, pitching over the steady murmur of bar conversation. “I don’t know, Jamie, this seems...”

“Look, you can’t always wait for them to come to you. Best way to make sure you’re engaging with someone you really like is to jump right in.”

She has so much advice, Jamie, and all Dani wants to say is, Okay, but why would I look for anyone else when you’re right here? All Dani wants to do is grab Jamie by the shoulders, stare into her eyes, blurt, I know it’s against the rules, but I don’t want any of them, I already found what I want, and it’s--

Not something Jamie wants to hear. 

Something that might, in fact, alienate Jamie altogether.

“I don’t think she’s the one,” she says instead. Jamie frowns.

“Why not?”

Dani points. The woman in question--tall, curvy, admittedly very much someone Dani would have been too nervous to look at directly in college--is bending to kiss a young man in a beanie. Jamie shrugs.

“Right, no harm done. What about--”

“Jamie,” Dani interrupts, “can we just...give it a rest, for tonight?”

It isn’t fair--Jamie really is doing her best, all high-energy smiles and conspiratorial tones--but she’s tired. The idea of sitting at this bar, nursing a drink she doesn’t really want, while Jamie tries to help her right into some stranger’s bed is exhausting. All she wants--all she really wants--is to go back to Jamie’s, let easy conversation become easier kisses, let herself fall back in time a week to Jamie being the most reliable force in her life.

You did say you’d try. But there’s trying, she thinks, and then there’s sitting next to Jamie like this place isn’t theirs. Like she can look around this bar and see a single woman through the ghosts of Jamie ordering drinks, Jamie spinning her on the dance floor, Jamie slipping out the back door with her to make out against the alley wall. 

I can’t do this with you sitting here, she thinks, but what is the alternative? To tell Jamie to go? To push away the last of what Jamie is willing to give her--this friendship without the benefits, this insight to who Jamie really is? She can’t make herself do that, no matter how hard this all is. It’s just a step too far.

“I’m pushing too hard,” Jamie says, sipping her drink. “Aren’t I?”

“No, it’s not that.” What is it, then--what is it that Jamie can understand? “It’s just...it feels weird. I haven’t dated in...ever, really, and going out to pick women up in bars? It just doesn’t feel like...me.”

Jamie, politely, does not point out how Dani has conveniently lost every number she’s been given, has gently said, “No thank you” to the few women who have tried their hand over the past few months. Jamie, politely, only sips her drink and lays a hand gently over Dani’s on the bar. 

“Nothing to be ashamed of, you know.”

“You’re right, though,” Dani says, watching Jamie’s fingers play across her knuckles. Her breath seems to be tightening, her leg angling instinctively toward Jamie’s stool. “You’re right, I need to...get out there. Probably.”

Because, if she doesn’t, it’s never going to feel right. Because, if she doesn’t, she’s just going to spend her entire life thinking about Jamie’s hand, Jamie’s laugh, Jamie’s easy conversation. The way Jamie doesn’t even seem to realize she’s doing this now, her touch so certain, it utterly slips her attention. The way Dani herself almost doesn’t think anything of it, it’s so--

“Ah,” Jamie says, her voice twisting tight, her eyes fixed on the enormous pane of glass behind the bar. “Bad news.”

Dani looks up sharply, following her gaze, and ice settles in her stomach. No, come on, not tonight. “What is he doing here?”

It shouldn’t surprise her, really, to find Eddie in the mirror. It shouldn’t surprise her at all, because Eddie has finally, finally stopped calling. Her phone has gone blessedly silent, save for texts from Hannah--The children miss you, dear, you really should come by for dinner--and her mother--Danielle, when are you going to invite me to see the new place?--and Jamie herself. Her world is smaller than it’s ever been, warmer and sweeter, and of course, that would give Eddie license to stomp right back into it at a moment’s notice.

“How’s the exit look?” she mumbles into her drink. Jamie cranes around her to check, brow furrowed.

“Bridal party, looks like. Gonna be here a minute.”

Dani swears. Jamie’s hand is still over hers, and this could be so simple if Jamie were anyone else. This could be so simple, so easy, if she thought Jamie would--

“Comin’ over,” Jamie intones, eyes on the mirror. Dani resists the impulse to drop her head against the bar.

“Danielle.”

“Edmund,” she replies, and wonders if she could get away with an entire conversation held with his reflection. Probably not. She sighs, turns, looks him in the eye for the first time in over six months. “How are you?”

We were friends once, she wants to say. Can’t we just erase all the bad and remember that? She can feel Jamie tensing slightly beside her, reading the crackle of energy on the air, preparing for whatever blow Eddie might release, and thinks, Will this be us, too? Someday down the line, will I be looking at you, thinking the same thing?

Eddie is squinting at Jamie, clearly trying to place her. “You’re familiar. We’ve met.”

“Florist,” Jamie says. His expression hardens. 

“Right. From when we...” Back to Dani, back to the task at hand. “You made friends with the woman who was going to do our wedding, Danielle?”

You have no idea, she thinks, pricked by the sudden wild urge to laugh. "I needed a friend.”

“A friend,” he repeats. “You needed a friend. You, who dumped me.”

“If you came over to pick a fight, you can just--”

“I’m not picking a fight,” he says coldly. “I’m trying to have a conversation. Which you keep avoiding, like a child, Danielle.”

“Hey,” Jamie says, very quietly. Dani squeezes her hand. 

“It’s all right.”

“I just want to talk to you,” Eddie says, and it’s like they’re teenagers again--like he’s just been shoved in the school hall, worrying over how to explain to his mother how he broke his glasses again. There isn’t even any anger in his voice. Anger, she thinks, would be easier.

“There’s nothing to talk about,” she says, struggling to keep her tone level. Had she really thought the break-up would be it? Would be enough to wash away years of him? Would be simple and clean, a pick-up-and-run to bring her far from his reach? 

She had. She really had, though she can’t imagine why, staring up at him now. 

“There’s nothing to talk about? What do you mean, there’s--you just disappeared, Danielle, like it was nothing, and you’re telling me now I don’t have a right to--”

“Hey,” Jamie says, a little louder. “Reckon that’s enough.”

“Oh?” Eddie says in a voice just this side of a sneer. “Do you? Because you’re such good friends, now, huh?”

There is something to be said, Dani thinks, for Jamie’s posture in this moment. For how she doesn’t push to her feet, doesn’t straighten up, doesn’t even smile. She’s just looking at Eddie like he barely counts for anything at all.

“Give it up, mate,” she says calmly. “It’s over.”

Eddie is not, by nature, a fighter. It doesn’t live in his blood, the impulse to puff out his chest and search for a target. Maybe he’s changed over the past few months, or maybe he’s reading something in Jamie’s expression he understands better than he’d like. Either way, the anger sweeping into his face now is almost alarming. “I don’t know where you get off--”

Step in. Step in, make a choice now, or keep running from this forever.

“She’s right,” Dani says. Her heart is thunder in her ears, but she feels strangely calm, despite that fact. It might be the wine. It might just be the weight of Jamie’s hand, the distance of her shoulder inches away. “We’re not doing this, Eddie. I can’t stop you coming into places where I...but that doesn’t mean we need this.”

“Maybe I do,” he says, almost helplessly. “Maybe I need it, Danielle. You just left.”

“I did.” And I’d do it again, every time, because anything less would be unfair to both of us. Someday, I think you’ll see that. “I loved you, Eddie. I did. Maybe always will, in a certain way, but you know it wasn’t right. Didn’t you? All along, deep down?”

His mouth opens. Closes. That strange anger, fitting so badly around his mouth and eyes, seems to flare again. He wants this. He craves this, if only to keep her talking a little longer.

She can’t. Not anymore. She thinks she’d be doing this even without Jamie beside her, willing to sort it out if need be. Jamie, who has only ever preached today, who has only ever tried to impart the fact of Dani’s own agency, would fight for her all the same.

It is invigorating, this mad discovery that Dani doesn’t need her to.

“It’s done, Eddie,” she says in the calmest voice she can muster. “It’s been done.”

“Because of,” he begins, acid dripping from every syllable, and she shakes her head to cut him off. Raises her glass to her lips. Takes a slow sip.

“It’s just me and you, Eddie. Only ever was, and you know it. I left for me. In a way, I left for you, too. This? Dragging it out? It isn’t healthy, for either of us. It’s time to admit that. Go.”

He looks, for a moment, too willing to fight back. He looks, for a moment, more willing than ever to argue her down to nothing. He’d been so close to it, so many times, over the years.

And then, abruptly, it all washes away. He looks, for just a single moment, like her friend again when his shoulders slump and his head bows, and she thinks, Shouldn’t have taken this. Shouldn’t have been this hard. 

“I’m sorry about that,” she tells Jamie when he has slouched off to a table far from the bar. “I really...hoped he’d just...”

“Get over it?” Jamie suggests. Dani sighs. 

“Was never going to happen, was it?”

“Not bloody likely,” Jamie says, grinning a little. She carefully takes back the hand that has been mindlessly holding Dani’s and wraps it around her drink again, adding, “You did great, though. Really great.”

"Not like last time, right?” Dani regrets the words instantly when Jamie’s eyes glaze over, the memory folding around them both. Last time, in Owen’s cafe. Last time, when the only thing standing between her and a full meltdown had been Jamie on her knees. 

Last time, which is suddenly feeling far too long ago, with Jamie’s boot pressing lightly to her ankle, Jamie’s breath visibly catching in her throat. 

“Bad idea,” she says in a low voice. “Isn’t it?”

Dani nods desperately, signaling for another wine.

***

The thing is, it’s not so bad, easing off of the sex. Not so bad as Jamie had feared when she’d suggested it, anyway, wondering if perhaps this would be the thing to break Dani’s attention at last. After all, what else did Dani even want of her, at the start?

Very little. Very little, and rightly so--hadn’t Jamie herself told her to keep her distance, to allow Jamie her boring little life of strange women and upheld walls?

She’d thought cutting off the physical aspect of the relationship would send Dani running, but so far, Dani seems intent on remaining a fixed point in her life. The first person Jamie’s ever known to put down roots without asking much in return, now that she thinks of it. The first person Jamie’s ever known to ask what Jamie needs. 

“At the moment?” She shrugs, feeling moderately trapped by the question. It seems too expansive, with too many possibilities, and--put on the spot--she finds herself unable to land on a single thing. Dani, leaning on the counter, looks amused. 

“Really? Nothing?”

“I’m not--” Jamie grimaces. “I’m not good at that.”

“You’re not good at what? Telling someone what you need?” Dani laughs. “Okay, we both know that isn’t true.”

“That’s different. That is--” Not something she needs to be thinking about just now, with Dani looking at her with such gentle affection. Not a memory she needs--Dani asking breathlessly where Jamie wants her, Dani following with eager delight when Jamie directs her with hands, with voice, with low instruction to touch here, lower, keep it slow, make it last--

She swallows hard. Dani had gotten good fast at following directions, and better still at predicting them in advance. Better still at reading Jamie without needing the words, without needing anything except Jamie’s hand wrapped around her wrist, Jamie’s body urging her on, Jamie sinking into the pleasure as easily as she might a favorite book.

Not something to think about now. Not something she should be thinking about at all, with Dani actively looking outside of this flat for someone who actually suits her. Not the point. “Just not used to anyone asking, is all.”

Dani’s amusement fades, her eyes searching Jamie’s too-neutral expression. “Well. I’m asking. And you should get used to that, ‘cause I’m not planning on going anywhere.”

Planning, Jamie wants to say, means very little to an unkind universe. It’s a bit maudlin, probably, for a pleasant evening. Isn’t Dani’s fault she’s had this sort of day--the kind where she remembers too well what planning once got her. The kind where she can’t stop thinking about the past.

“Talk to me,” Dani suggests, in the tone of voice she uses when she’s about five minutes away from putting her foot down. Jamie grunts. 

“’Bout what?”

“Anything. Your day, which--I’m guessing wasn’t great. Or what you'd like to do tonight. Or...I don’t know, your next tattoo idea. Just talk, Jamie.” She’s reaching out, wiggling her fingers, searching for Jamie’s grip. 

Hands, Jamie thinks ruefully. Still allowed, I suppose. Still safe enough. As if Dani, just by virtue of looking at her with those too-blue eyes could ever be safe. As if Dani, whose sense of safety is maybe the most dangerous goddamn thing about her, hasn’t completely fucked up this whole situation just by being

She takes Dani’s outstretched hand, allowing her to lead the way to the couch, and she thinks, This is how it happens. This is how her resolve finally breaks open. First, Dani’s hand in her own, Dani’s thumb traveling in that familiar arc along her skin. Then, Dani pulling her onto a piece of furniture. Finally, Jamie looking at her--looking at her, and finding herself quite unable to put common sense ahead of the emotional cart. 

Dani has her by the shoulders, is pressing gently down, and Jamie wants to close her eyes. Wants to fall forward into every memory of Dani pushing her down. Wants to run as far as she can from every memory of Dani watching her sink with an expression no other woman has ever worn in her presence. 

She lands on the couch, back against the cushions, elbow resting on the arm. Dani, still standing, smiles. 

“Close. Not quite.”

“Not quite what?” Jamie asks, but Dani is striding out of the room, heading back toward the bedroom like she owns the place. Jamie groans. “Oi--no falling back on bad habits--”

Dani emerges once more, stumbling under the weight of what appears to be Jamie’s entire bedspread. “Stop complaining.”

“What are you doing?” She can’t help the smile. Can’t help the little flutter in her chest that has been cropping inconveniently up whenever Dani starts behaving unpredictably. 

Can’t help the swoop of her stomach, either, when Dani plants herself squarely between her spread knees and leans in. 

“Dani--” Except Dani isn’t moving to kiss her, or coax the shirt over her head, or straddle her lap. Dani, moving with deliberate certainty, is wrapping her in the heavy blanket like she’s expecting Jamie to stay in this exact position until winter has come and gone safely away again. 

“This seems extreme,” Jamie tells her, arms pinned to her body, blanket drifting to brush the floor. Dani frowns. 

“One more thing.”

“Think I’m gonna pass out, you put anything else on me--” Not that Dani is listening. Dani is rummaging in her bag, extracting a laptop, striding back to the couch with her usual on-a-mission power walk. “You’ve gone out of your head, haven’t you? Telling you, the time to find a woman is now, before the lack of proper physical intimacy can drive you--”

Dani flops down beside her, curling her legs under herself, balancing the computer on Jamie’s immobilized lap. “Movie or music?”

“Is the answer going to change you cocooning me like the fuckin’ fly caught in the spider’s--”

“Movie,” Dani decides, popping open the lid and punching in her password. “Explosion or comfort?”

“Dani...”

“I’ll choose again,” Dani warns. “You know I will. And it’ll be in black and white, so don’t test me.” 

Jamie is grinning. “You’re going to do this to your date?”

Dani shakes her head. “Nah. This is reserved for friends only. Great friends who clearly had a terrible day, and aren’t talking, and need a different kind of cheering up. Now, we’re gonna sit back, and we’re gonna watch this, and you’re gonna--”

The web browser, Jamie notes, is already in use, jumping to life at full volume with the waking of the computer. The web browser, which is displaying a video she suspects Dani didn’t actually intend to share with the proverbial class. 

“Think this brand of cinema is off-limits,” she says as lightly as she knows how, like the idea of Dani watching this isn’t doing something untenable to her psyche. Dani slams a hand down on the keyboard, forcing the browser to exit out before the less-than-clothed, less-than-meek women onscreen can complete their goal.

The silence could kill a man, Jamie thinks. The silence could kill her.

“Well,” she says at last. “I’m certainly not one to judge, but if that’s your film of choice, I suspect we’re going to break a couple of rules.”

Dani makes a noise so like strangulation, Jamie has to actually check to make sure she’s all right. She’s sitting with head bowed, hair falling over her face in a curtain, staring blankly at the now-porn-free screen. 

“You’re embarrassed,” Jamie guesses. Dani makes that noise again, more quietly. “You really think there’s any point being embarrassed with me?”

“Friends,” Dani says, like it’s killing her to force the word out. “Didn’t. Mean for that to--”

The difference two weeks make, Jamie thinks almost idly. Two weeks ago, Dani might still have made this entirely-simple error--but she wouldn’t be hiding behind her hair as a result. Pink-cheeked, laughing, she’d have allowed Jamie to restart the video from the beginning, the pair of them making fun of all the stupid bits until the sexy parts grew too focal to ignore. They’d have disappeared into the search for new elements Dani might like, things Jamie hasn’t thought to share yet, exploring yet another new branch of a wonderfully-familiar path.

Two weeks ago, she’d have Dani in her lap, the computer dropped to the side, and neither of them would be contemplating just how confusing it is to put barriers into place after they’ve already mapped an open floor plan.

“Did it help?” she asks, when it becomes abundantly clear Dani isn’t going to say another word without provocation. From the corner of her eye, she sees Dani slowly shake her head. “So, uh...how’re you feeling?”

“I couldn’t watch it,” Dani says. She sounds like she’s speaking through a dream, as though the humiliation of the moment has ejected her from her body and she is now operating on absolute autopilot. “Too...”

“Loud?” Jamie suggests. “Wet? Silly?”

“Fake.” Dani closes her eyes, lets her head fall back against the couch with a sigh. “Reminded me of...before. When I thought--when I thought I couldn’t--”

Jamie understands. Thinks she’s understood for a while why Dani is the way she is--why she doesn’t like to take care of herself, why she’s always been so eager to engage with Jamie when she’s brimming over with feelings she needs to process. 

You need to feel connected, she thinks, knowing she is two weeks past being the right person to say it. You need to look into someone’s eyes, feel them breathe, feel them understanding you while you’re listening to them. You need it to be real, or it’s nothing at all. 

She takes a deep breath, closes her eyes, lets her own head drop back beside Dani’s. Two lonely souls, she thinks, with imminently-strained necks. So be it. 

“My mum,” she says, before she can think better of it, “was eighteen when she met my dad. Eighteen. He was twenty-four.”

She can feel Dani shifting, turning her head until her eyes can take Jamie in. Jamie keeps her own firmly shut. 

“Louise and Dennis. Quite the pair, as it turned out. Not that they realized it in time. Not that it stopped ‘em having my brother, Denny--and me--and the baby, after that. Though the baby was…well. The wrong kind of surprise, for Dennis.”

Dani is breathing slowly, at a most gentle remove between Jamie’s closed eyes and her blanket wrapping. Even so, she is sure Dani is trying to make herself as invisible as possible, as though afraid she’ll startle Jamie out of the story.

Little does she seem to realize, Jamie thinks, her mouth off at a sprint now that she’s opened the gate. Little does she seem to realize some stories, once begun, need to be told completely. 

She speaks of coal mines and adultery, of lonely children and bitter choices. She tells Dani about the baby, the accident, the scar. The foster homes. The running. The wrong kind of love, wrapping her up tight in an endless embrace, dumping her behind prison walls when it was finished having its way with her. 

That part, especially. That part, the reason above all reasons she keeps her head down and her heart locked away. A nice girl, who hadn’t been so nice, even while she asked Jamie for her secrets, for her care and attention, for her life. A nice girl, who had been too nice to go down for a mistake, Jamie, it was only ever a mistake. A nice girl, for whom Jamie had lost years of her freedom.

A nice girl, leaving witness marks of her own on Jamie’s life, long after her face had faded to smooth memory. Long after her name stopped mattering, her words and voice and way of walking having grown cobwebs in Jamie’s mind. Long gone, never brought up even as an anecdote again--but she’d lurked, all the same. Haunted, all the same. In every nice girl’s smile. In every pretty set of eyes. In everyone who had tried so hard to dig a crowbar into Jamie’s ribs and pry up the misery.

Dani has never heard so much as a breath of this nice girl, and maybe Dani doesn’t want to hear it now--the authenticity behind Jamie’s boundaries. The fact behind the fiction she’s so carefully crafted to keep safe. Maybe she doesn’t want to know the why, or the who, or the girl who had once run so far, so fast, into a prison cell if it meant keeping the heart of a woman who never really wanted it. Maybe she wants to imagine Jamie was smarter than that. Smarter than streets, and drugs, and a fall that hadn’t been hers to take. Maybe. But what Dani wants of her--what any of them want of her--has no choice but to come up hard against the truth. It’s the danger of staying put.

She tells it all, more than she’s spoken in a single go with Dani in nearly seven months, and she keeps her eyes shut for every word of it. These are things, she senses, she should have told Dani a long time ago. Little fires she should have set, lighting the path Dani was walking, to show exactly where she was doomed to end up. A braver woman would have. A less shattered woman. Dani would have, in her place.

“So, anyway,” she says at last, unaware of whether she’s been speaking for fifteen minutes or five hours. “That’s the long of it, I guess. How I got to be...well. Got lucky, comin’ over here. Fresh slate. Few business classes, a dream. Here I am.”

Here I am with Dani Clayton, who must be thinking it all over by now. Who must be ready to make a different choice by now. Who must be--

The hand cupping her cheek is so familiar, she’s not sure she’ll ever be able to bear the touch of another. She squeezes her eyes shut as hard as she can, dimly aware she has started to cry. 

Over half a year--Dani hasn’t seen this yet.

“Did you tell me all of that,” Dani says softly, leaning her forehead against Jamie’s, “to keep me from having a panic attack about the stupid porn?”

Jamie blusters out a laugh, sounding somewhat crazed to her own ears. Dani nuzzles gently against her nose, her breath warm on Jamie’s parted lips. 

It’s the moment, she thinks. If they’d started differently. If they’d planned this all out to walk in this direction from the start, instead of sprinting backwards over the wrong kind of story. This would be the moment she’d choose Dani, as she’s chosen no one else in years. 

Wrong story, she thinks again, as Dani leans slowly back. Wrong story, and she deserves such a good one. 

“Movie,” she says croakily, opening her eyes, meeting Dani’s too-blue gaze with a small smile. “Something...nice.”

Dani nods. “Nice. You got it.”

***

“Danielle?”

She is never, Dani thinks, going to stop flinching from those letters arranged in such a particular order. Never going to be over how the mere sound of her name drags her spine into alignment, jerks her chin up, curls her lips into a plasticine expression of yes, what can I do for you?

The voice, at least, is unfamiliar. Not her mother, thank Christ, or Eddie, or anyone she recognizes. She searches the produce aisle, wondering if she’s just responded to some mother calling for her wayward child.

“Danielle,” the woman says again, stepping around a bin of watermelon with a curious smile. “Isn’t it? Did I get that wrong?”

“No, it’s, um.” She knows this woman, she’s sure. Black hair, dark eyes, a knowing little grin. Beautiful. Familiar, like running into someone from high school ten years later. “Dani, actually. Usually. I’m sorry, I know we’ve...met.”

“Anita.” The woman extends a hand, her grip smooth and pleasant around Dani’s. “I, uh, did your dress. For the...well.”

She gives Dani an awkward little smile, tapping the finger where a ring hasn’t wrapped in half a year. 

“Oh! Yes. That didn’t...take.”

“I’m sorry,” the woman says, and sounds it--but there’s something about her smile. Something that reminds Dani forcibly of being tied to Eddie’s side, trying not to notice how some women--the brave ones--did smile at one another. 

“Don’t be,” she hears herself say. “It was a long time ago. And, anyway, we wouldn’t have been happy.”

The woman--Anita, the seamstress who had once given Dani an agonizing afternoon of clenched teeth and shaking knees--looks sympathetic. “You did seem...like you didn’t really want to be there. Unless--is that forward? That feels forward.”

Dani laughs. “No, you’re...absolutely right.”

“You look happier now,” Anita adds, and Dani almost says, It’s a wonder what six months in your own skin can do. Too much information, for a stranger--pretty or not. Too much. 

Too much, like thinking about the other night at Jamie’s. She’d swung from mortified--the porn, she hadn’t been able to explain then, had been a terrible mistake, an embarrassing effort to master her body’s impulses without resorting to the minute betrayal of using Jamie’s Instagram feed to do it--to touched by Jamie’s story, to feeling entirely too much all at once. She hasn’t been able to stop thinking about it since, how Jamie leaned hopefully into her hand, how she’d exhaled shaky nerves across Dani’s skin, how Dani had thought for a moment that this would be the time to put it all out there. 

She could have. If she was going to, it should have been then, with Jamie’s nose soft against her own, Jamie’s eyes closed, Jamie’s tears brushed away by the tips of her fingers. It should have been then, if she’d been brave. If she’d been able to surprise herself one more time. 

She hadn’t. Jamie had leaned back, and it had all gone back to the new normal: a movie, her head tucked against Jamie’s bundled-up shoulder, conversation gradually fading into silence. She had woken some hours later on her side, head pillowed in Jamie’s lap, with the blanket having been coaxed open to let her join Jamie inside. 

It had been hard, looking up into Jamie’s sleeping face, her chin resting on her chest, not to just admit it. Hard, not to shake Jamie gently awake and tell her that the other women were never going to count for anything. Not with Jamie here. That she was sorry, but some things just can’t be bottled up forever. 

It had been hard--but she’d kept quiet, somehow. Let herself out of Jamie’s apartment, leaving a note--Sorry for your neck--text me if you want to grab lunch tomorrow--in her wake. 

Jamie hasn’t said much since. A few texts. no time, sorry. shop’s crazy. Dani, fully aware that late September is prime wedding time, can’t fault her for it. 

Can’t help feeling, though, as if part of Jamie’s packed schedule has to do with avoiding her

Paranoid. Maybe. Or maybe this is Jamie’s way of pushing her out of the nest. Keeping her distance so Dani has no choice but to actually try to find a date with someone else. Keeping her distance so that--should Dani fail to find the courage--she’ll have no one to blame but herself. 

You just need to be open-minded, Jamie said, and she’d smiled, and Dani had thought she was capable of it. She really had. Except the month is running rapidly down, and she hasn’t asked a single woman out. Hasn’t been able to make herself dial a single number--though several more have been offered, sometimes with Jamie sitting right there, as though a challenge strange women hadn’t been able to ignore. None of those had seemed like a good reason to jump. Not if they were only doing it because she looked like some kind of prize to be won off of Jamie. 

The month is running out. What happens when it ends, and she can’t say she even tried?

“Would you like to get dinner?” she asks, so suddenly, she hears her words collide like a runaway train with whatever Anita has been saying. 

“Sorry?” Anita says. Dani frowns.

“Not if--I mean, if I read that wrong, let me...know. But if I didn’t...” Oh, what does it matter? Embarrassing herself in front of a woman she’s met exactly once before means nothing. “Would you like to get dinner. With me. Saturday night?”

The woman is blinking at her with obvious confusion, and Dani thinks, Oh, so this is what it feels like, to jump with no wings. 

“I would love to.”

“Sorry, what?” Her mind has already leapt ahead to how she’s going to phrase this to Jamie--Look, I tried, and she wasn’t into it, so can I get my merit badge and go back to normal now?--unprepared for Anita’s actual answer. She doubles back, head shaking. “Wait, that’s a yes?”

“Yes,” Anita says, smiling. “You sound surprised.”

“I’ve--never gotten a yes before. Well. Never asked before, I...guess. Huh.” It’s like watching a science experiment unfold, she thinks--like the kids’ faces when she tells them exactly how the volcano will erupt, watching it sink in only when baking soda meets vinegar at last. “Wow.”

“Wow,” the woman agrees, still smiling. “You know, I didn’t think you were...playing for this team.”

And you flirted anyway, Dani thinks with marginal awe. Jamie would be proud. 

Jamie is going to be proud.

She’s going to have to tell Jamie.

***

“Saturday? This Saturday?” Jamie is grateful her back is to Dani, half buried in her wardrobe. Her voice, miraculously, does not tremble, though her teeth are clenched. “That’s--that’s amazing, Dani.”

Dani, perched on her bed, sounds absolutely terrified. She’s sounded like this for ten minutes, ever since bursting into Jamie’s flat like someone had wound her up and let her go. 

Watching her push past, marching toward the bedroom on a mission, Jamie had thought this evening was going to go rather differently. Back to normal, maybe--Dani, fed up with trying to walk this path Jamie has lined up for her, fed up with Jamie telling her what she should and shouldn’t do. It would be fair, probably. Jamie wouldn’t be able to resist, probably.

Now, with Dani swaying on the edge of the mattress, hugging herself around the chest, she feels guilty for even considering it. Guilty for even thinking, for a moment, that Dani was coming back. 

You did this, she reminds herself, threading a hanger through a shirt and putting it neatly in its place. You told her to do this. Only thing for it is to be happy for her.

“What are you wearin’?”

She winces--that phrase in particular grazes old territory, too much like how she used to send teasing texts of exactly that sort and wait for Dani to discover them on her lunch break. If it bothers Dani now, she makes no mention of it.

“I don’t...know. Oh god. Oh god, what do I wear?”

A skirt, Jamie thinks automatically, furious with her body for responding with a swell of instant heat. No, not a skirt. A fucking pantsuit. Pajamas. Overalls. Fuck. Not a single helpful idea among them, though each calls to mind pleasant memories--that last, especially, which Dani had stolen one of the mornings she’d accidentally slept over. Jamie remembers all too well how she’d strolled out of the bedroom, hands in the denim pockets, one snap undone and nothing useful at all beneath. 

How do I look? Do I have the right vibe? Thinking of dressing up as you for Halloween.

“Jamie?” Dani is looking well and truly panicked now. “You have to help me.”

She does. She will. There’s no way she can talk herself out of it, not when it’s her fault Dani even asked this woman out in the first place. Dani, who would have been all too happy to waste away in Jamie’s bed, deserves this.

“What’s she like?” She pokes her head out of the closet, her face arranged in a carefully neutral expression. “The girl. Woman. Her name is...Anita?”

“Her name is Anita,” Dani recites, as though preparing for a big test. “She works as a seamstress, and is taking night classes in the hopes of owning her own business someday.”

How novel. “Anything else? Where are you taking her?”

“Dinner. Uh. Italian.” Dani draws a deep breath, staring at Jamie with wide eyes. “This was a mistake, right? I made a mistake. I mean, she fitted me for my wedding dress.”

“So? I fitted you for your flowers.” Jamie winces. “You...know what I mean. Look, she said yes, yeah? Usually a good sign.”

Dani doesn’t look convinced. Jamie, reminding herself to breathe the entire time, crosses the room and kneels at her feet. 

“You,” she says in her clearest, calmest voice, “are a wonder. She’ll see it, if she hasn’t already, but that’s for later. For now, you pick a dress that brings out your eyes, and you do--whatever a woman like you does with hair that good. And you show her a nice time. Right?”

“Right,” says Dani in the smallest voice Jamie’s ever heard. It would be inappropriate to kiss her, even as an impulse toward reassurance. It would be incredibly, impossibly inappropriate, even with the way Dani is gazing at her now. With the way Dani is breathing shallowly, her hand creeping away from its death grip on her own ribcage, moving naturally toward Jamie’s own. Incredibly. Impossibly.

Inappropriate. She pushes to her feet, abruptly breaking the spell. Dani’s hand wedges between her knees as if placed in time-out. 

“As for the date--talk. Figure out if you like her. Go from there.” Easy. Simple. Dani could do it blindfolded, just so long as she isn’t wasting time worrying what Jamie thinks about the whole thing. “You’re going to do great. You’re going to...have a really great time.”

She’s grinning. That idiot grin, the one she feels take over when she’s just run into a former fling in the grocery store, and there’s no way out but to talk. Like that time, over the summer, she and Dani had crashed into--Gretchen? Gerry? Whoever she’d been, she’d looked at Jamie like a lost pup, and at Dani’s hand set around Jamie’s ribs like Enemy Number One. 

And Dani, bless her, had only stuck out that hand and introduced herself like none of it mattered. Dani, somehow, had gotten the woman laughing in minutes, while Jamie had just stood there with this exact stupid grin hoisted onto her lips. 

Dani comes to it naturally. Dani will be just fine, and Jamie? Jamie will be...Jamie will be...

Alone. Again. But you do it to your own goddamned self, so what’s there to cry over, really?

***

Anita is, as it turns out, an extremely pleasant conversationalist. Maybe exactly the sort of woman Dani should have started with, she thinks--down to earth, sweet, a good sense of humor. Almost painfully likable. And, above all, mildly sheepish about her behavior when first they’d met.

“I didn’t think you’d actually do anything,” she’s saying over wine and appetizers. “It’s sort of my own private joke, when mothers are getting insufferable.”

“To flirt,” Dani says, grinning. Anita bobs her head from side to side in consideration.

“To distract. Most women, they laugh. It gives them a nice break from the stress, and we all get to pretend it was in jest all along.”

“But it wasn’t,” Dani presses, deeply amused when her date gives a comically huge shrug in response.

They don’t know that, do they?”

Jamie would like her, Dani is sure. Jamie would like her very much, this woman who owns her sexuality without using it to hammer at her surroundings. She doesn’t walk like Jamie, exactly, but she carries herself with precisely the same sense of dignified confidence. Like she’s already proven herself to herself, and no one else matters half as much.

Wonder if she follows the Instagram, she thinks, and nearly laughs out loud. 

***

Jamie has cleaned every inch of her apartment. All laundry has been folded--most articles twice--and put away. The kitchen is spotless. Every lampshade has been dusted within an inch of its life. 

She has also done the daily crossword--very badly--watered every plant in the flat--and popped briefly down to double-check the ones in the shop--and rearranged the books to code by color, instead of author. 

And all the bits of Dani that have snuck in over six months--the shirt Dani sleeps in when she crashes here, the toothbrush in the bathroom, the remnants of grading tools on the coffee table--are exactly where last Dani left them. Jamie has in no way been walking slowly around each in turn, carefully not looking at red pens and Dani’s preferred brand of soda in the fridge and that note scrawled in Dani’s quick hand (Sorry for your neck--text me if you want to grab lunch tomorrow). It’s fine. It’s a fine Saturday night. 

She is doing absolutely fine.

Dani’s probably on the main course by now.

Not your fuckin’ business. And what she does with her evening is no one else’s. There are perks to being a loner, she reminds herself--like getting a Saturday night to herself. Like having no one around to point out how opening her second bottle of wine is maybe not strictly necessary. Like being able to open all the windows, let the cooling autumn night flow in, breathe deep. Remember that, despite everything else, she is still free. 

Free. And proud, in her own way, of Dani for taking this leap. Proud of Dani, and safely left to her own devices, and if she misses Dani’s presence on her couch--if she’s still thinking of how she’d woken the other night to find Dani shivering, pressed close to her, muscles relaxing only when Jamie had carefully unfolded the blanket from around her own shoulders and wrapped Dani close...

She’s on a date. And bloody good for her, isn’t it? On a date--with a woman she might actually be able to connect with--and is it her fault Jamie allowed her to haunt every inch of this place? Is it her fault Jamie took her by the hand and led her straight in, welcomed her permeation of the entire flat?

The truest irony, she thinks--aware that the thought has more to do with the wine in her system than anything else, but is no less true for it--is that Dani doesn’t have an inch of Jamie marking up her world. Dani never let her in--not to her real life. But Jamie, who has gone out of her way all this time to keep the door barred for anyone who has ever knocked, opened it up for her before she could think of a reason not to. Jamie did that. It’s not Dani’s fault. 

Dani, when she’s ready, will be shot of all of this, and Jamie?

She takes another pull from the bottle, slouching over to the couch. There’s little point moping, she knows. Little point in letting herself linger in all the tiny scraps of Dani she hasn’t been able to purge from her home. Little point, most of all, in wondering where Dani is at in her date. 

Probably will tell me all about it tomorrow, she thinks glumly, and raises the bottle again to her lips.

***

“So,” Anita says. “Tell me about you. You must have one hell of a story.”

Dani laughs. “I wouldn’t call it a story. Just...decided I was done playing by other people’s rules, I guess. You know how it feels, to look back on your life and realize you’ve never made choices for yourself?”

Anita, to her surprise, nods. There’s an easy lack of weight to the gesture, like she doesn’t mind opening up. “My father is still hoping I’ll bring home a nice boy to make up for the last fifteen years.”

“Well,” says Dani, “I did bring home a nice boy. And he turned into a nice man, and it didn’t make me happy. So, when I hit thirty, I thought--”

“Fuck it?” Anita suggests. Dani laughs again. 

“Exactly. Yeah. So, I...blew up my entire life, basically. Started over in almost every way.”

“But you’re happier now?” Anita’s smile is very pretty. Very pretty, and very kind. She’s exactly the sort of woman Dani would have become friends with in college, if she’d been less terrified, if she’d had less of Eddie to concern herself with. 

“Much,” she says. “Much happier.”

It’s not a line. Not something pleasant to say to a new acquaintance, just to look shiny on the outside. She genuinely can’t remember being this happy--the kind of happy she’s been since meeting Jamie, since learning exactly how comfortable in her own skin she could be and still match up with another person--since being a kid. How, she wonders, does that all slip away? How do we let joy stop being a priority?

This is joyful. This, being out with a woman who smiles at her without shame, a woman who gingerly touches her wrist like it’s the bravest thing she’s done all week. This, being out, being free, being open to new circumstances. This is what joy feels like.

She wishes Jamie were here. She wishes, more than anything, that she could share it with Jamie. 

Tells you something, doesn’t it? a sly voice murmurs. She turns from it, ignoring it as she’s tried to ignore it for months. A perfectly nice date, with a perfectly nice woman, deserves better than her attention sliding inexorably back to Jamie’s flat. 

It isn’t fair of her to compare them. Isn’t fair in the least to know, even as she’s laughing at tales of Anita’s family, her job, the wild things brides say and do, every curve of her smile is being held up to Jamie’s. The way her eyelashes frame her cheek when she shuts her eyes in mock-embarrassment only reminds her of how Jamie’s eyes had closed tight while she unloaded the story of her past. The delighted sparkle of laughter reminds her all too clearly of how Jamie’s rings out, full and unexpectedly giddy, in the safety of her bedroom. 

It isn’t fair, and she tries not to see Jamie in this woman’s slender hands, in the soft column of her neck, in the way her eyes linger on Dani’s just a little too long as dinner slides into dessert. Tries not to see her in the way Anita chats with the server, in the looping signature she leaves on the bill, in how she insists--just as Jamie does--Dani can just get it next time. 

“You all right?” Anita is standing, slipping into her coat. Dani is sharply aware that the date is now hanging in that liminal space between decisions, where it might end now--or go on indefinitely. 

“Perfect,” she says, doing her very best to mean it. “Just--perfect.”

***

Ice cream makes a poor--and clichéd--dinner, but Jamie suspects this is not the night for a heavy dose of judgment. Some things just need to be embraced. 

Like the realization that the woman you’re in love with is probably putting all of those hours of practice to good use with someone else. 

Not that it’s her business. It is decidedly not her business. The fact that it has been feeling more and more like her business--simply by virtue of the tiny pulsing hurt in the center of her chest when she thinks of it--has much less to do with feelings and much more to do with the wine. 

Probably. 

Because Jamie is above feelings like this. Jamie is above attachment, and jealousy, and all the tiny little razors embedded in a situation as stupid as this one. Jamie is above expectations, and loneliness, and the silver-sharp memory of Dani’s smile cuttting holes in her good sense.

Jamie is not above pairing ice cream with her second bottle of wine, easing back on the couch, and pulling up Instagram. Simple solutions for a silly problem, she instructs herself. Any woman can be washed away, given enough time and dedication.

Any woman at all.

She has been idly liking photos for an indistinct number of minutes when she realizes each and every one could, if she squints and tilts her head, be mistaken for a specific blonde teacher. This one almost has the right color eyes. That one almost has the right taste in clothing. Each too close for comfort, each nowhere near the real thing.

She could invite one over, couldn’t she? Could put all this restless energy, all this reckless desire, into someone just looking for a good time. Dani’s having a good time. Couldn’t she do the same?

She shakes her head, hating the dip in her stomach at even the thought. Sets the phone down. Picks it right back up again with a sigh. 

“Don’t do it,” she mutters, even as she’s clicking on Dani’s profile. Dani, who she wants to see happy. Dani, who deserves all the sun the world has to offer. Dani, who was never going to find that kind of peace and joy under the rules of their ill-conceived engagement. 

Dani’s feed is soft where Jamie’s own is intentional. She doesn’t post pictures of recent tattoos, of carefully-lit muscle, of cocky smiles. She doesn’t post pictures for anyone else’s enjoyment. Dani’s feed is entirely curated for her own memory, a deliberately-maintained photo album tucked in her pocket. 

One she has locked down to all but a few names--Jamie included.

Dani was not the sort of person, prior to six months ago, who posted often. When she did, it was usually a spark of good humor in an otherwise-bleak world--an animal, a beautiful post-storm sky, a mural. Only in recent memory has her feed ramped up to include things Jamie truly identifies as being Dani. Not selfies--barring very few exceptions, there is almost no sign at all of Dani’s face on her page--but the important things. A pair of flea market earrings, cupped in her hand. A spider, proudly displaying its early-morning web. The ticket stub to a movie she and Jamie had seen strictly to avoid the flat at the height of a heatwave.

Jamie closes her eyes, remembering that day--how Dani had grinned, reached over, slid a hand up her shorts. She gives her head a shake to clear it, thumbing to the next photo in line: a menu at their favorite restaurant, where neither of them ever seems capable of ordering something new. Why bother? Dani had said the last time, shrugging. I’m here because I crave this. 

Her eyes had been fixed firmly on Jamie when she’d said it, and Jamie had looked away, tried not to remember how convenient the table in the back could be. Tried not to remember how often they’d chosen that spot for it being tucked behind a pillar, for how Jamie could lose endless time with her hand tracing up Dani’s thigh, Dani trying to breathe quietly through the teasing pressure of fingertips as they waited. Tried not to think about how this, like so many places, is so entirely Dani now, she couldn’t erase it if she tried. 

Another photo: Jamie herself, standing with her back to the camera, her head tilted to the side, her hands gently probing the wilting leaves of a plant someone had discarded outside the shop. What, she remembers grumbling, do they think, that this is a goddamned shelter for unwanted ferns?

She’d taken it inside anyway, Dani trailing at her heels, and what had been intended as an evening upstairs had morphed slowly into her talking Dani through every step of examining roots, testing soil hydration, selecting a new pot. She hadn’t even noticed Dani taking this photo; like most of Dani’s actions, it had been a quiet decision made in the moment, Dani wanting only to memorialize something small and lovely. 

Me, she thinks, noticing for the first time how many images of herself have crept into Dani’s feed. Never tagged, not since that first great attempted invasion of Dani’s privacy, but present--yes, many times over. Jamie laughing, backlit by a setting sun. Jamie with her chin resting on her knees, a book held open across the toes of her sneakers. Jamie’s hand wrapped carefully around a kitchen knife; Jamie’s fingers splayed across guitar strings; Jamie twirling a pen with idle concentration. 

Nothing invasive, nothing sexual, nothing at all to show the world how much of Jamie Dani has seen--but still, there is no denying the intimacy. These are not photos taken by a woman for her own personal use, or to show off for a faceless crowd. These are only Jamie as Dani sees her: quiet, focused, reliable. 

Happy.

She draws in a breath, closes her eyes, tries her absolute damnedest not to think of how close she’d been, to letting that kind of happiness in for good.

***

Dani can’t in good conscience let it end like this. Not so early, not without giving it the proper shot. A whole month, and she’s only been able to get this close once. Has only found something to reach for one time. It seems unworthy, giving up so soon.

But the idea of inviting Anita back to her apartment sort of makes her want to cry.

She settles instead for a walk too meandering to be called intentional, Anita’s hand swinging at her side as though she’d be perfectly all right with Dani taking it. Dani can’t quite make herself do that, either. 

She’s great, she thinks with true despair. She’s great, and she’s beautiful, and she made me feel things before I even knew her name, so why...why can’t I...

Because: Jamie.

Because: no matter how kind, no matter how funny, no matter how pretty her eyes, this woman is not Jamie.

It isn’t fair. It truly isn’t. And, if she believed fair was the real engine behind the universe, that might bother her more. If she believed fair motivated anything of the chaos that is living, she might genuinely be upset. 

As it is, she’s mostly just a little bit sad. 

“You’re not having a good time,” Anita says. Dani jumps, feeling caught, feeling much as she had the night she’d tried to explain to Eddie why feelings just can’t work sometimes.

“It’s not that. It’s been--you’ve been very--”

“Nice,” Anita says. She’s smiling, the expression slightly more restrained than it had been over dinner. She knows, Dani thinks, her heart sinking. It’s obvious. I’m obvious.. “But you aren’t biting.”

Dani opens her mouth to argue and finds there are no words honest enough. “I’m sorry. I don’t--I don’t know what to say--”

“Don’t,” Anita suggests. “Don’t say anything. You don’t owe me an explanation.”

“I wasted your time.”

“You gave me a perfectly pleasant several hours of conversation,” Anita points out. “And a memory of quite a lovely dress, which I will cherish for months, perhaps years, to come.”

Dani coughs out a tiny laugh, the guilt unwilling to go quietly even with Anita looking at her with abject sincerity. “I promised a...friend. That I would try dating.”

“Mm. But you’re not ready.”

“Something like that.” She doesn’t owe this woman quite that much, she senses--and maybe Anita wouldn’t want to hear it anyway, what Dani’s private catch on the matter really is. Probably, it’s too much information for a first date, either way. She can’t imagine being in Anita’s shoes, trying to parse out the kind of history she’s built with Jamie from that side of the road. “I really am sorry.”

Anita takes her hand, raises it to her lips, and Dani wonders if she should take it back. If she should try just a little harder, just for one night, for the sake of this kind woman who had made her laugh. 

Living for others again, are we? 

“Well, Dani Clayton.” Pretty eyes, sparkling in the dimming light. Pretty eyes, pretty smile, and Dani feels nothing at all. “Thank you, for a lovely evening. I hope, when you’re ready, you find someone who makes you feel...sure.”

She does not, Dani is relieved to note, try to kiss her. 

There are just some things you know, even without trying, can’t measure up.

***

She’s half-asleep on the couch, her phone resting on her chest, when someone begins slamming on her door. It is, barring an actual nuclear raid, the last thing she wants to deal with tonight. 

“Piss off!” Not her finest, perhaps, but Jamie is drunk, exhausted, and has only recently processed how badly she’s fallen for a woman just in time to watch her leave. Now is not the time for eloquence. 

A pause, too brief, and then the fist resumes its violent assault upon her door. Jamie grunts. 

“I said--”

“Jamie,” an unmistakably familiar voice calls. “Jamie, let me in.”

“Can’t be right,” Jamie mutters. She’s clearly gone past drunk and straight to the hallucination portion of the evening, because it’s barely ten, and there is simply no way Dani’s date has already--

She yanks open the door, gripping to the knob for balance. Dani--in a dress that matches her eyes, her makeup immaculately applied, her face impossible for Jamie to read--smiles. 

“Hi.”

“You,” Jamie says, swaying in place. “You. Here.”

“Is that all right?” Dani isn’t coming inside. Dani isn't pushing in with the casual ease of a woman who has basically been living at Jamie’s flat for months. She’s just standing there, hands folded in front of her, waiting. 

Jamie looks down at herself, at the ratty t-shirt gone half-transparent from overuse, the jeans with holes in both knees, her feet bare. Dani looks incredible, and she looks--

Like someone who has spent an evening nursing two bottles of wine, a pint of ice cream, and a pity party.

“Bit underdressed,” she says. Dani looks amused. 

“Can I, um...” She makes a little gesture with her head, and Jamie stands abruptly back to let her pass. 

“Date didn’t go well?” Not that she wants to know. Not that she can handle knowing right now. Tomorrow. Tomorrow, when the alcohol has purged from her system, and her worst concern is a headache. Tomorrow, when she can go back to pretending Dani isn’t too etched into every heartbeat to go on without.

“It was fine.” Dani is still obeying these hated new rules, standing a polite distance away. Probably for the best. She looks perfect, and Jamie feels as though she hasn’t been quite this much a mess since high school. 

Well, naturally, you twat. Went and fell in love, didn’t you?

“If it was fine--” Words are not coming quite as naturally as usual. Blame the wine. Blame the wine, and not Dani’s eyes being so impossibly blue, so impossibly fixed on Jamie like she hasn’t wanted to look anywhere else in weeks. “If it was fine, what’re you...”

“I tried,” Dani says. Jamie resists a cringe, struggling to remember what a person’s face ought to look like when the possible love of their life is talking about a date with someone else. 

“You...Dani, sorry, had kind of a...strange night, I’m not follow--”

“I tried,” Dani says again, and takes a step toward her. Then another. “That was the deal, right? I had to try. I had to ask someone out, and go to dinner, and try.”

Deal. That was the deal. That was the-- “Yeah,” Jamie says, swallowing hard. Dani is still far enough away to back off from, if she so desired. If she was so inclined to put any distance at all between herself and Dani Clayton. “Yeah, that was...what d’you mean, you tried?”

“I went out.” Dani is still looking at her, something beautifully imploring about her eyes. “I went out, and I had dinner, and we talked. And she was wonderful.”

“Oh.” She’s dimly aware Dani deserves more than that, more than a single syllable, but Jamie can’t quite convince her mouth to do better. 

“She was funny,” Dani says, almost breathlessly. “And smart, and really charming. I think she could have been important, if I’d been ready to let her. Before.”

“Oh,” Jamie repeats, feeling very drunk and more than slightly uncertain. “Before...?”

“But now,” Dani goes on, ignoring this last entirely. “Now, she was just...nice. Which is fine. But not...not quite...Jamie, are you drunk?”

“Yes,” Jamie says, quite sensibly, gripping the back of the couch hard enough to hurt. Dani looks like she wants to laugh. 

“Can...I ask why?”

“Tends to be the consequence,” Jamie says, “of two bottles of red wine.”

***

Jamie is drunk. Jamie is not supposed to be drunk, not for this. 

The whole way over, Dani has been planning out the way to say it. The way to come at it properly, to do something right, for once. Even if it’s not what Jamie wants to hear, even if it ruins everything, there are things Dani just can’t suppress forever. 

She’d expected Jamie to be solemn. She’d expected Jamie to be surprised.

Drunk, not so much. 

“Anyway,” Jamie says, her voice sliding a little to the left of its usual steady cadence. “What’d you--I mean, you didn’t come all the way ‘round just ‘cause you had a bad date. Right?”

No, of course not--but she can’t say it now. Not with Jamie looking at her with wobbly confusion. Not with Jamie’s eyes glassy, her entire demeanor the opposite of her immaculate apartment. 

“I missed you,” Dani says, the closest to brushing honesty she can bear tonight. Jamie closes her eyes, sways almost hard enough to tip over. 

“That’s...there’s something...Dani, we should talk--”

“Tomorrow,” Dani says. Whatever Jamie needs to impart, whatever Jamie needs to hear from her, it can all wait. Tomorrow. “It’s been a long day. You look tired.”

“Am,” Jamie says in a small voice. Dani takes her gently by the hand. 

“Let’s just...go to bed. All right?”

Jamie looks at her with something like hope, something like hurt, something caught in between that yanks at Dani’s heart. “Not supposed to. Rules.”

“Just to sleep,” Dani says. “I don’t have to stay, if you don’t want, but you should sleep.”

Jamie is staring at their joined hands, following at a stumble down the hall, and Dani is reminded forcefully of that first night, half a year ago. Of following Jamie to the bedroom for the first time, in awe of her confidence, certain Dani herself could never match up. 

“Can’t,” Jamie says, brow furrowed, “drive you home like this.”

“I’ll take the bus,” Dani tells her. Jamie has stopped beside the bed, looking at her with an expression Dani can only characterize as absolute longing. “Or, if you’d prefer, I can--”

“Stay,” Jamie says. Her hand flexes around Dani’s. “Please.”

It isn’t the first time Dani has stayed the night--not even the tenth, by now. She’s slept on the floor, the couch, this bed. She’s done so by accident, and with the grumbling awareness that the time has gotten away from them to a degree where it would just be silly, to leave now. She’s slept with Jamie, and she’s slept on Jamie, and she’s let herself relax completely in Jamie’s company.

This. This is the first time Jamie has ever looked her in the eye and asked her to stay.

Jamie undresses without aid, though the jeans almost kill her before she’s free of them, and collapses on the bed in that old ratty t-shirt Dani has on more than one occasion borrowed. Did she choose it on purpose, Dani wonders, for tonight, knowing the last person in it had been Dani? 

Unlikely. Unlikely, but with Jamie gazing at her with half-lidded eyes, her head nestled on the pillow, she can’t help the question coming to mind. 

“I’m just gonna...” She scoops up the oversized sleep shirt Jamie leaves folded neatly on the dresser for her, hugging it to her chest. “Bathroom. I’ll be back. Don’t wait up.”

“We can talk,” Jamie mumbles. “Not too sleepy.”

Dani laughs. “You’re half-gone already.”

“Not,” Jamie says, rolling onto her back. “Very alert.”

She is, when Dani returns ten minutes later with face scrubbed, teeth brushed, and her dress hung carefully on the bathroom door, dead asleep. Dani slides quietly in beside her, heart clenching when Jamie--already snoring--shifts backward along the mattress into her arms. 

“Tomorrow,” she murmurs into the back of Jamie’s neck, letting a hand curl lightly against the plane of her stomach. “We’ll talk about this tomorrow.”