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(you may be) my final match

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A dinner party is not the weirdest thing she’s done with Dani, it’s true. A dinner party is, in fact, worlds less weird than--say--attending a work event in formalwear before the relationship has solidified past its strictly-no-feelings bounds. 

And, as Dani has pointed out, it’s less a dinner party and more an eventuality that was always coming, Jamie. Something simple. Something entirely manageable, after all they’ve been through.

Still. 

“Are you actually nervous?” Dani, kind heart that she is, is grinning. It’s the very same grin she wore the first time Jamie uttered the word girlfriend out loud, feeling a little as though the ceiling might crash down on her head as punishment. 

“Not nervous. Just...anticipatory.” 

“A word used only when someone is trying not to freak out,” Dani points out. “Come on, it’s only Hannah.”

“It is not,” Jamie says, a bit sullenly, “only Hannah. Only Hannah would mean a pleasant three-person meal in this very flat. This is--this involves--”

Dani’s grin widens. "It’s the kids, isn’t it?”

“There are kids,” Jamie groans, tilting backwards over the arm of the couch in a theatrical sprawl. She doesn’t move, hips hiked up, legs dangling perilously off the floor, until Dani pushes her knees apart to lean between them. 

“Don’t tell me you’re scared of kids. You’re dating a teacher.”

“And you are very good at what you do,” Jamie points out. “Very fuckin’ good. And what do I do?”

“You know you’re an excellent florist--”

“Exactly,” Jamie says pointedly. “I do not work with gremlins. ‘Cause, see, if I was any good at it, I’d be in that fuckin’ line of work, wouldn’t I?”

Dani makes an amused sound under her breath, her hands warm on either side of Jamie’s hips. The relationship, as it stands--properly, Jamie thinks often, not to be mixed up with how they'd begun things--is over two months old now. The relationship, as it stands in totality is--

"Closer to a year than not,” Dani says, her hands idly working the hem of Jamie’s shirt higher with every word, “and you still haven’t met them. They’re important, Jamie.”

“I know--” It is, Jamie thinks, propping herself up on her elbows as Dani eases the shirt up her ribs, utterly distracting trying to hold a conversation this way. “Exactly the goddamn problem. What if I say something wrong? Can’t remember the last time I talked to anyone under the age of twenty-four, Dani.”

“It’s easy.” Dani is bent nearly double over her, kissing along the waistband of her jeans. “All you have to do is be yourself.”

“Myself,” Jamie repeats dryly. "Which part of myself is appropriate for a nine-year-old, exactly?”

Dani laughs, the sound muffled into Jamie’s stomach. “We should’ve accepted Hannah’s invitation weeks ago. You’ve got it all built up in your head now.”

“Well, can you fuckin’ blame me? Couple of rich kids, no parents, and you practically raised ‘em? It’s like meeting family, Dani.”

“You’ve met my family,” Dani says patiently. “You weren’t half this nervous.”

Jamie groans. “Well, you didn’t care what dear Karen had to say on the subject, did you? What if they hate me? What if they--”

Dani’s hands are firm on her hips, pushing sharply until she’s sprawled crookedly on the couch from the waist up. Her feet land on the floor, Dani shoving her knees apart to kneel between them. 

“Sit up.”

Grudgingly, Jamie does. Dani is wearing the look, the one she gets in her eye when her tolerance for foolishness slips. It is not entirely without its attractive properties, though it generally means conversation now, fun some other time.

 Now, she grasps the front of Jamie’s t-shirt in both hands, her expression serious. 

“Do you know,” she says in the calmest voice imaginable, “I love you?”

A pleasant warmth kneads into her stomach. It isn’t the first time Dani has said it--Dani’s been saying it for months, each time as though these three simple words are the language she’s been hoping for a reason to use her whole life--but the potency never seems to diminish. Dani loves her. Dani loves her, even when she’s behaving like something of an anxious twat. 

Dani’s eyebrow is raised, waiting for an answer. Jamie nods once. 

“Then,” she goes on, her hands loosening, sliding up Jamie’s chest to grip her shoulders, “can you believe me when I say if I love you, and Hannah loves you--”

“Love seems a strong word. Impressed by my workout routine, maybe--”

“--then those kids are going to feel exactly the same?” Dani smiles. “Especially Flora. She is going to think you’re the coolest.”

***

Jamie really doesn’t have anything to worry about in that department, Dani privately believes. Flora convinced herself of Jamie’s cool factor long ago, and with nearly zero input from anyone else.

As evidenced by the text she finds waiting, toweling off after a shower, in Flora’s distinctive careful style.

Miss Clayton, this is Flora Wingrave. Mrs. Grose says you will be coming for dinner tonight. Are you bringing Miss Taylor?

She thumbs back an affirmative, trying not to imagine Jamie’s face if she knew this small child was mentally referring to her as Miss Taylor. A delicious image best saved for another time, probably, when Jamie isn’t busy having a nervous breakdown over what a fourth-grader will think of her in a matter of hours. 

You can just call her Jamie. 

Mrs. Grose says it isn’t polite. 

Mrs. Grose, Dani suspects, is also looking forward to the shade of maroon Jamie is likely to turn the first time a child calls her Miss. 

Another text from Flora: What’s her favorite color?

“Jamie?” Dani calls. “What’s your favorite color?”

Jamie pokes her head into the bathroom, suspicion creasing her features. “Green, I think. Why?”

“Your birthday’s coming up, I thought I’d drop it on your Instagram and see what all seventy thousand of our closest friends do in response.”

It’s worth it, for the look on Jamie’s face. 

***

“I should have changed,” Jamie mumbles. She’s pulling at the front of her shirt, a crisp navy button-down patterned with bright blue flowers. With the sleeves rolled at her biceps and the collar open, she looks to Dani’s mind like someone who should never wear anything but this again. 

Still, it’s kind to humor a woman in distress. “Why’s that?”

“Is it not too...matchy?” She’s brushing her fingers across the hydrangea spilling purple petals down her forearm. “Do I lean too hard into the flower thing? I do, don’t I?”

“Is this what I sounded like, asking how to be gay enough to date?” Okay, maybe we’re doing only so much humoring. She grins, sliding a hand around Jamie’s arm. “If I promise we will have the most earth-shattering sex when we get home, will you stop panicking?”

“Am fully capable of panic and libido at the same time, I’ll have you know.” Jamie sucks in a breath. “Right. Do it, ‘fore I change my mind.”

She genuinely sounds as though Dani has her by the hand, ready to leap off the side of a building, instead of poised to knock on the door of Bly Manor. Dani hesitates, her fist inches from the wood--

The door swings open, a bundle of blue dress and brilliant smile launching from the foyer like a cannonball. “Miss Clayton, Miss Clayton, is this her?”

“It is.” Dani bends at the waist, catching Flora’s somewhat aggressive hug before it can knock her flat. “Flora, this is--”

“Mrs. Grose says it’s only polite to call you Miss Taylor,” Flora announces, swiveling on her heel to look Jamie in the eye. “But Miss Clayton says I can just call you Jamie. Does that mean I should call you Miss Jamie?”

Jamie looks as though she might turn and sprint back out into the night. Dani grabs for her hand without glancing away from Flora’s exuberant smile.

“Just Jamie, I think,” she says. Out of the corner of her eye, Jamie seems almost to deflate with relief. 

“Yeah, I’m, ah--basically a big kid, anyway. Never held much with the miss.”

Flora tips her head curiously. “Even though it’s not polite?”

“Even though,” Jamie agrees, her voice oddly strangled. She’s looking at Flora like she’s not entirely sure what to expect, as though Flora might at any moment burst into flame or stab her in the thigh. Certainly, when Flora reaches into her pocket and withdraws something small, Jamie very nearly flinches back. 

“Here,” Flora says, grabbing Jamie’s wrist and placing the item into her upturned palm. “Miss Clayton says green is your favorite color. I had to rush, but I’ll do you a better one for next time.”

“Next time,” Jamie repeats, raising the small item--a vaguely humanoid shape done in forest-green yarn--for inspection. It looks significantly more like one of Charlotte Wingraves old talismans, Dani thinks, intended to keep her family safe from perceived harm, than Flora’s usual creations, but Jamie is staring at it as though she’s never been handed something more precious in her life. 

“Yes. It’s important that everyone gets one.” Flora clasps her hands behind her back, beaming. “Do you like it?”

“Love it,” Jamie says hoarsely. Her eyes flick to Dani, her cheeks pink. “I--do I keep this, or...?”

“It stays here,” Flora says, reaching to take it back. “So you can be part of the family. Come on, you must see the house. And meet Miles. Although--” She lowers her voice dramatically, her free hand searching out Jamie’s fingers. “He didn’t make you anything. I checked. Very inconsiderate.”

Jamie, being dragged along in her wake, doesn’t seem to know what to say to this. Dani swallows a grin. 

***

Flora is genuinely sweet in ways Jamie didn’t think kids could be--particularly the privileged children of people rich enough to afford a place like this as though it’s nothing.

“Christ, what a house,” she mutters under her breath. Flora, rushing ahead to show off the all-original paintings and intricate wallpaper, doesn’t hear. Dani, holding her hand, makes a small noise of amusement. 

“The house is wild,” she admits, “but you get used to it pretty fast. They just don’t know anything else. More importantly, I think she’s really taking a shine to you.”

“Didn’t do anything,” Jamie says, unable to fend off a rush of pleasure. The idea of a kid like Flora being so instantly affectionate should be overwhelming--she truly doesn’t have the first idea how to hold a conversation with someone that small and excitable, hasn’t been around kids at all since she was one--but it feels more like walking into a party and finding the family retriever won’t leave your side. There’s a sense of peace, a sense of surprising pride, and when Flora comes pelting back to show off a particularly ugly granite bust she calls Boris, Jamie can’t help leaning down and asking for its life story. 

Dani’s eyes are on her the whole time, her expression warm. These kids--this little girl and her solemn brother, who looks Jamie over with curious uncertainty--are a part of her life Jamie can’t quite fathom. Still, there’s no denying how much they matter, how there is nothing owed to the way Dani speaks of them. It’s almost the same way she speaks of her own childhood, in haltingly-casual words that try always to skirt the depths of pain an eight-year-old girl can feel when her whole family disappears out from under her.

Jamie understands, to a point, but there are different flavors of pain. Some kids raise themselves because their parents run. Some, because they die. Still others, because there is an unplugging to grief impossible to anticipate. What these kids have been through--the burden Dani carries for them--is familiar, and singular, and awful.

Their parents, she remembers Dani saying when it had first come up in conversation, were busy, even back when Wingrave hired me--Dominic was always traveling with Henry, and Charlotte ran her own business. But they were good people, loved their kids, wanted what was best for them, even when they couldn’t be around. And when they died...

She’d gone stiff around the mouth then, her eyes far-away. They’d died, these kids orphaned in a single shot, but Eddie’s push for Dani’s resignation had already taken hold. She hadn’t been there. It doesn’t take much to see she hasn’t ever entirely forgiven herself for that, might not ever be able to accept how little blame she can take for such an unpredictable event.

The kids, though, don’t seem to hold it against her. Flora is between them, one hand in Jamie’s, one in Dani’s, talking a mile a minute about imaginary friends and real ones at school and Miles. The way she keeps looking at Dani, her tiny face shining with unbridled joy, feels like the most honest thing in the world. This is not, Jamie can tell, a kid who understands what it is to hold a grudge.

Miles is a little bit different. Where Flora won’t stop touching her hands, talking all the while (”What’s your favorite game, Jamie? Where do you work, Jamie? Do you like shepherd’s pie, Jamie, Mrs. Grose makes the best shepherd’s pie--”), Miles seems not quite sure what to make of her from the minute they stroll into the expansive kitchen. 

Dani, who has been steadily working to improve her culinary skills to keep us from going bankrupt on takeout, come on, we can do this, leaps straight into assistant mode. Jamie, feeling decidedly out of place, is relieved when Hannah revolves around and presses a glass of wine into her hand. 

“Make yourself at home, dear, supper will be ready soon.”

“Jamie says she loves shepherd’s pie,” Flora announces. And, when Hannah’s eyes narrow, she adds hastily, “And that I should call her Jamie. Just Jamie.”

“Pity.” Hannah’s eyes twinkle. “I was really hoping we’d squeeze a solid hour out of Miss Taylor.”

Dani makes a thin noise that might get away with sounding like a cough, if not for all the hours Jamie’s spent memorizing her laughter. Jamie discreetly raises one finger behind her glass. 

“Jamie?” Flora is bouncing beside her, a girl-shaped ping-pong ball. Jamie sips her wine to buy a few seconds, arranging her face back into what she hopes is question-answering-mode. 

“Flora.”

“How much did that hurt?” She’s pointing at the inked hydrangea, a hungry interest in her eyes. “They use needles, you know.”

“Not nearly as much as you’d think.” Jamie holds out her arm to offer a better look. Flora grabs hold with unanticipated strength; a small amount of wine sloshes over the glass, Jamie wincing as it strikes the floor. “Careful.”

Flora seems not to notice. “Do you have more?”

Jamie sends a helpless glance toward Dani, who is busily doing something at the stove which prevents immediate rescue. “I--yeah, a few.”

“Can I see?”

Just strip, she thinks dazedly, right here in the kitchen. Fantastic first impression. “I, uh--”

“Flora, set the table, please,” Hannah says, and though this is the woman who attempted to make Miss Taylor happen, Jamie’s not sure she’s ever been more indebted to another human being in her life. “Miles, take this over, and mind the heat--”

“Not expecting Henry, then?” Dani shifts behind Jamie, sliding an arm around her middle and resting her chin on her shoulder. Jamie leans back, resisting the instinctive urge to close her eyes. “I thought, maybe...”

“He’s in Toronto this week,” Hannah sighs. “Or possibly Dublin, honestly, I’m losing track. How that man keeps his schedule, I will never understand.”

“When’d you last see him?” Dani’s fingers curl lightly around the glass in Jamie’s hand, relieving her of its burden long enough to take a long sip before handing it back. Hannah frowns thoughtfully at the ceiling. 

“Must’ve been--”

“Almost a month,” Miles mumbles. “Doesn’t even call.” 

Jamie feels Dani draw in a breath behind her, clearly scrounging for something to make the kid feel better. Before she can speak, he’s shaking his head. 

“Dunno why he even comes back. He doesn’t like it here.”

“Of course he does,” Dani says. “Miles--”

“He doesn’t,” he repeats. “He can’t get away fast enough.”

Hannah’s brows are drawing together, Dani’s expression tilting toward the look she gets when she can’t quite puzzle out a problem child at school. Either one of them is the best person for the situation, Jamie knows; either one would be perfectly suited to talk Miles out of a mood. They know him. They get him. They--

“Y’know, my parents didn’t much like being home, either.” The words are spilling out of her in a too-casual voice, like she’s got any right to speak an honest truth to a kid she’s known for all of ten minutes. Dani leans sideways, quietly studying the side of her head; Miles looks up in surprise.

“They didn’t?”

“Nope.” Extricating herself gently from Dani’s embrace, she shifts her grip on the glass, takes another sip, strolls over to lean against the table. “Dad never seemed to scrounge enough hours at work, and Mum was, ah--best left unmentioned in mixed company, probably.”

His solemn expression is cracking open, curiosity bleeding through. “What’d you do?”

Nothing you should emulate. “Had two brothers. Leaned into them where I could.” He doesn’t need to know how little that was, how Mikey was too small and Denny too angry, how the foster system scooped her up before she was much older than Miles himself. None of that matters right now. “Learned a secret pretty young.”

“What secret?” He’s trying not to look invested, she recognizes. Trying not to look like he needs to know. She remembers seeing that own look in the mirror, how desperate she’d been in all those early homes to find something that might stick. 

She glances at Dani now, who gives a very small nod. Hannah, making a fairly obvious show of finishing meal preparations, is clearly listening as well. Jamie rubs her neck, tries not to think about how this is the first time she’s ever set foot in this dreamlike house. How she has no real place, telling Miles anything just now. How she’s already opened her mouth all the same, yet another instance of too late to turn back now.

What did we learn from Dani? Might as well jump. 

“Secret is, not everyone is good at people,” she says. “Or at family. But that the people who are--the ones worth sticking around for--are more important than you’d think. Like, ah...” She lowers her voice to a stage whisper, gesturing with her glass at Flora, who is not even pretending not to eavesdrop. “That wee thing over there. She’s important, yeah?”

Miles nods, no hesitation at all. She’d guessed as much; though he looks embarrassed when Flora gets going, there’s a very faint smile on his lips every time, the sort of look a kid doesn’t even realize he’s wearing. 

“And Mrs. Grose,” Jamie adds, when Hannah floats across the room with a stack of cloth napkins. “Been here every day, I’d wager. For how long?”

“My whole life,” he says, like he’s never thought of it quite that way. 

“Right. Part of the family. That’s the other bit, y’know, of the secret.” She glances up, meets Dani’s eyes. So little time. So little time has gone by, and still, it’s so true, it makes her chest ache. “Don’t have to be blood to be the most important goddamn people in the world.”

“Language,” Hannah says in a low, teasing voice, bumping Jamie with her hip like they’ve been doing meals this way for years. Jamie, laughing, shakes her head.

“Only just got in touch with my softer side, Hannah. Let’s save the profanity scrub for another day.”

“That was,” Dani murmurs, as Miles and Flora finish setting the table and Hannah motions for them to sit, “really, really good, you know.”

Jamie shrugs, but Dani slips a hand beneath the table to rest on her knee, and Miles takes the seat on her other side with a shy grin, and she thinks this all could be going much worse, actually.

***

The longer they eat, drink, chat with the companionable enjoyment of people who really do suit one another, the less Jamie looks like she’s going to bolt out the nearest window without warning. She has, little by little, begun reclining in her seat, legs sprawling under the table; when Miles grunts in surprise at the kick of her boot against his foot, she grins and kicks again until he laughs and kicks back. 

She fits, Dani thinks with no surprise at all--just as she’d fit with Dani with so little effort, as she fits with Hannah’s dry sense of humor, as she fits everywhere in Dani’s life. That she ever thought she couldn’t--that she thought for even a moment that she wasn’t good enough for Dani--is unfathomable. 

She’s even managing to handle Flora’s no-breath-needed stream of questions with minimal choking. 

Mostly. 

“What’s your favorite band?” Flora asks. Jamie, swirling her wine, considers.

“Blondie.”

“What’s that?” Flora’s nose wrinkles. 

“Old-person music,” Miles says with a grin. Jamie kicks him again.

“Come on. Heart of GlassCall Me?” She shoots Dani a disbelieving scowl. “What heathens have you tricked me into dining with?”

It’s good to see her this way after two days of bemoaning her nonexistent skills with children. Better yet how clear it is Jamie is actually trying--leaning over to engage Miles in conversation about the most vile vegetable, or patiently walking Flora through the finer elements of 80′s rock bands. 

Or:

“Are you going to ask Miss Clayton to marry you?”

Jamie, blessedly, has just swallowed a mouthful of food. The noise she makes is entirely her own, and--while slightly higher in pitch than her usual voice--not the most embarrassing thing in the world. 

The hacking fit Dani is having, on the other hand, spraying wine onto the tablecloth--

“I,” Jamie says, trying to help Dani breathe again with one hand thumping her on the back, “um. That’s a bit--”

Personal, Flora,” Dani wheezes. And early. And why is she assuming Jamie would be the one to ask? “Hannah, I’m sorry--”

“Oh, it’s not a family meal if no one’s stained the linens,” Hannah says breezily, pushing back her chair and recovering the empty plates from her own place and Dani’s. “Flora, sweetheart, could you pour Miss Clayton a bit more water?”

“Very smooth,” Jamie murmurs into her ear, sounding far more amused than she has any right. Dani fixes her with a deeply impotent glare; it lasts maybe five seconds before the soft arc of Jamie’s smile melts her irritation away. “You all right?”

“Lungs,” Dani rasps, “will probably recover. Pride...”

“You still have pride, after a decade working with kids?” Jamie shakes her head. “Been around ‘em a single evening, and I’m considering pitching what’s left of mine in the bin.”

“But are you?” Flora, hefting a pitcher of water so heavy, her tiny arms tremble, has reappeared between them. Jamie relieves her of her burden before her strength can give out, shaking her head with a grin. 

“Think that’s between me and Miss Clayton, don’t you?”

Flora heaves a sigh. “But you’ve been together forever.”

Dani opens her mouth to correct Flora’s somewhat flawed conception of time and what constitutes forever--and stops. Jamie is still looking at her, one hand braced gently against her spine, her gaze warm and no longer the least bit amused. 

Not even a year, Dani thinks with a familiar helpless wonder. Not even a year, and no one in their right mind would be planning for forever. No one in their right mind. 

And still, Jamie is looking at her like she’s never seen anyone who makes as much sense. Flora is looking from one to the other like a tennis spectator, and Miles is trying to tug Jamie’s plate away, and Jamie is just...watching her with an expression so soft, it makes Dani’s heart race just to look at her. 

“Probably should stick it out a bit longer,” Jamie says quietly--ostensibly to Flora, though her eyes never leave Dani’s. “Just to be sure.”

“Probably,” Dani agrees, sliding a hand to cover Jamie’s. Flora heaves a deep sigh.

“Will you at least come for supper again next week?”

“I think we can do that,” Dani says. Flora straightens, pleased.

“Splendid. We’ll talk about it again then!”

***

There are no more near-asphyxiations, though Flora continues her barrage of chatter even as the evening moves from kitchen to den. Jamie honestly doesn’t seem to mind the fast-track questions (”Favorite animal?” “Dog.” “Favorite season?” “Spring.” “Favorite person in the world?” “Well, it was Miss Clayton--but, don’t tell, I think you’re giving her a run for her money.”). Her mood is bright and cheerful, not a shred of her earlier anxiety to be found.

“I think,” Hannah murmurs from beside Dani on the couch, “she passes inspection.”

Dani grins into her mug, sipping hot tea and watching as Jamie--who has abandoned her own drink in favor of showing Miles the correct form for a decent push-up--begins a rapid-fire up-down with Flora seated on her back. Miles, giggling hysterically and barely able to lever himself back up, looks happier than she’s seen him in months.

“She’s a good influence.”

“Or a terrible one,” Hannah teases as Miles abandons his push-up attempts in favor of joining Flora. Jamie collapses to the rug with a dramatic oof, rolling to tickle the first kid she can reach. “Remains to be seen.”

It is funny, Dani thinks, that Jamie considered herself awful with kids; watching her now--allowing a near-hysterical Flora to grasp her hands and stand on the soles of her sock-clad feet, pushing her into the air until Flora shrieks with glee--there is no evidence of a woman who considers herself inappropriate for nine-year-olds. No evidence at all, as her eyes meet Dani’s, her grin broadening, that she hasn’t been here all along. 

Even more true an hour later, which finds Jamie leaning against the couch with Flora dozing against her shoulder. She rolls her head back to look at Dani, slightly abashed.

“Think I broke her.”

“You’re getting off easy,” Hannah informs her. “It’s looking like you’ll be able to hoist her straight into bed without her demanding a story.”

Dani laughs. “Oh, next time. Maybe you can bring your guitar.”

Jamie fires her a look that would draw blood, were it not tempered with such affection. “You have had entirely too much fun poking holes tonight.”

“The both of you ought to thank your stars,” Hannah points out with a sly expression. “She’s been talking for two days straight about getting your story. Which, correct me if I’m mistaken--is a bit lacking in child-friendly details?”

Jamie clears her throat. Miles, cross-legged beside her, frowns. 

“Why’s that?”

“Bit too much...violence,” Jamie says quickly, wincing. “And, erm. Strong language.”

“Yes,” Dani adds when Miles is clearly unconvinced. “There were...ghosts.”

“Very scary.”

Miles snorts. “There’s no such thing.”

“Well, sure,” Jamie says, warming to the bit. “We have to say that, as certified adults. S’the only way we’d ever get wee gremlins to bed and find time for ourselves.”

“The best influence,” Hannah drawls as the color drains from Miles’ face, suspicion creeping in. Dani laughs. 

***

“Oh, don’t go,” Flora mumbles as Jamie--fully aware she is going to feel this tomorrow after all those push-ups, and still unable to talk herself out of carrying the kid up a flight of stairs--deposits her into an exceedingly pink bed.  “We didn’t even play any board games.”

“Next time,” Jamie assures her, ruffling her hair. Flora yawns. 

“Promise?”

“Only,” Jamie says, dropping her voice to a stage whisper, “if you promise to show me the gardens. Feel a bit cheated, missing out.”

“Ooh--” It’s sort of hilarious, watching this tiny half-asleep creature try to sit up without fully opening her eyes. “I didn’t show you the statue gardens! Mrs. Grose, can we--”

“Next time,” Hannah repeats firmly from the doorway. Dani, striding in from Miles’ room to perch on the edge of Flora’s mattress, leans down to kiss her forehead. 

“We'll be back before you know it.”

Flora hums contentedly, already on her way into dreams before the door is shut behind them. Jamie leans against the wall, scrubbing at her hair with a sigh.

“Did all right, didn’t I?”

“She’s going to request your attendance personally for her next Story-Time,” Hannah says, more ominously than Jamie would like.

“The bloody hell is a Story-Time?”

“You’ve been great,” Dani says a bit too hastily. Jamie makes a mental note to ask again later, when Dani is perhaps more naked, pleasantly boneless, and less capable of skirting the question. 

Hannah tries valiantly to shoo them out of the house without accepting Dani’s offer to help tidy the kitchen, but two-on-one proves effective--and it’s nice, Jamie thinks, to get a little adult time. The kids are wonderful, if a bit exhausting, but Hannah has been rapidly climbing her list of favorite people for weeks. There is, she thinks, a lot to be said for the woman’s tenacity, sense of humor, big heart. Not to mention how easily she’s let Jamie into her world on barely a word from Dani.

It’s beautifully mindless, moving around this overwhelmingly-large kitchen: Jamie washing dishes, Dani drying, Hannah sipping tea and settling things in their accustomed places. The kind of pleasant that doesn’t need much, apart from the easy flow of conversation--Dani talking about work, Jamie laughing over an overly-excitable bride, Hannah regaling them both with a near-miss last week involving Miles, the lake out back, and a wayward frog. 

It’s easier than anything like it used to be. It’s been too long, Jamie thinks, since she’s had friends; she’d almost forgotten she was capable of it, of talk and laughter and the easy roll of affection without sex.

As if reading her mind, Hannah says, “I really am glad you came out tonight. This house is just too big some evenings. I swear, I don’t make a habit of bemoaning good fortune, but being alone every night sometimes has me seeing things.”

“Could always go out,” Jamie says, sliding Dani a meaningful glance, pleased when Dani perks up immediately. How many times have they debated this very thing, delighted with themselves for the notion? “There’s a lovely little coffee shop we’ve been meaning to show you...”

Hannah raises an eyebrow. Dani, slinging her dishtowel over one shoulder, grins. 

“Oh, yeah, you’ll love it. Best espresso in town.”

“Why,” Hannah says calmly, “do I suddenly feel a rush of utter dread.”

“Dread?” Jamie is pretty sure, judging by Hannah’s grimace, her innocent tone could use work. “Two perfectly lovely people offer you a day to yourself at a charming little cafe, and you leap straight to dread? Hannah, I’m shocked.”

“You can’t seek retribution for a blind date you never accepted,” Hannah points out, prodding her in the shoulder with one finger. “Particularly as you ended up on it anyway.”

Dani, finished with the dishes, dries her hands and tucks herself neatly against Jamie’s side. “We only want what’s best for you, Hannah.”

“And what's best for you,” Jamie adds happily, “is an espresso.”

“And absolutely nothing else.”

“Certainly nothing mustache-shaped.”

“You two,” Hannah laughs, “are never watching the children alone. I shudder to think what you’d do to degrade their ability to lie over a single evening.”

"Excuse the fuck out of me.” Jamie puts on her best affronted scowl, an impression she suspects is not as effective as it could be; Dani’s hand is surreptitiously untucking her shirt, her fingers cool against the skin of her back. “We would make excellent babysitters.”

“You’d...want to babysit?” Dani pauses in her ever-attentive mission to distract from the conversation at hand, her eyes wide. “For real?”

“Well.” This is going a bit further than intended. Scratching at her cheek, Jamie shrugs. “Not on my own, I wouldn’t. But--yeah. Why not? If you were, y’know, along to play chaperone. Make sure I don’t throttle anybody by mistake.”

Dani doesn’t seem to know how to handle this revelation with words, choosing instead to push her hard against the counter with little regard for their audience. Her hands slide up Jamie’s back, her grin huge even as Jamie makes a muffled sound into her mouth; over her shoulder, Hannah turns her eyes abruptly heavenward, her expression amused and long-suffering.

“If you’re going to do that, I’ll be in the other room with a book. Be sure to retrieve your leftovers from the fridge when you’ve finished.”

***

“Were you serious?” 

Jamie glances up from unbuckling her belt, eyebrows raised. The evening, as all must, had wound down eventually--not due to an impromptu make-out session so much as Hannah’s increasingly-huge yawns an hour later--and their triumphant return to Dani’s apartment was punctuated by much reassurance that she had, indeed, done well. Dani suspects she didn’t need to sound quite so impressed, though Jamie’s embarrassment was offset nicely by the proud little smile dancing around her mouth. 

“Serious ‘bout what?” she asks now. Dani, seated on the edge of the bed, smiles. 

“The kids. Babysitting. You really liked them that much?”

“’Course.” Jamie looks slightly sheepish. “They’re good kids. I’m not saying I’d like to adopt the beasts, but...yeah. What’s a night or two?”

More than I thought you’d want, Dani thinks--an old thought much repurposed. Jamie, as it turns out, is still full of surprises, including the sort that seem even to startle Jamie herself. 

“And thank you,” Jamie adds, as Dani moves from the bed to offer unwarranted help unbuttoning her shirt. She grins, glancing from the cloth coming slowly undone under eager hands to Dani’s questioning expression. “Sure, for that--but also for not. Y’know. Saying I told you so.”

Dani pauses, slipping a hand around to cup the nape of her neck. “Why would I say that?”

“Because I was being--what was the word--”

“Panicky?” Dani offers, her free hand popping another button. Jamie laughs.

Anticipatory, think it was.”

“Right,” Dani agrees, leaning into the hands moving around her waist. “Panicky.”

“Anyway. Thank you for only making the bare minimum amount of fun.” She exhales, and Dani is surprised to find her smile still touched with nerves. “I just. I know they’re important to you. And, after tonight, I can see why. I wanted...to make sure I didn’t fuck it up.”

“You fucked nothing,” Dani assures her. “You’re Flora’s new hero, probably, and if Miles doesn’t demand guitar lessons by summer, I’ll owe you twenty bucks. They were smitten.”

Jamie sighs again, bowing her head against Dani’s shoulder in relief. “Good. Good. And Hannah--”

“Is never going to let us get her into that coffee shop.” Dani laughs. “We probably should have been more subtle. I really do think she and Owen would get along.”

“Get along?” Jamie shifts to kiss her neck, grinning. “They’ll be looking up flower arrangements by fucking Christmas, we ever get them into the same room. Maybe I’ll, ah, drop a hint on Flora next time we come ‘round. Ought to do the trick, don’t you think?”

“Can you imagine Flora meeting Owen?”

“Never a moment’s peace again, probably.” Jamie, relieved the dinner has successfully resolved into home again, is rapidly turning her focus from the conversation to what she plainly feels is Dani’s state of overdress. “We can talk about it later?”

“As opposed to--”

“As opposed to someone promising what I seem to remember as earth-shattering sex, should I survive the engagement.” She raises her head, eyes shining. “Thought you might get us started right there in the kitchen, for a minute. Are we that fond of Hannah, would you say?”

Dani has, over the past nine months, truly lost a handle on her own shame. She’s honestly never been happier. “Couldn’t help it. Sometimes, you still surprise me.”

The smile softens, Jamie leaning back with an appraising eye. “Good way?”

“Every time.” She sometimes thinks these are the best moments with Jamie--the soft ones, with Jamie kissing her slowly, taking her time. The gentle ones, with Jamie uttering a small sigh, accepting the hands Dani slides into her open shirt. Sometimes, this is as beautiful as the world ever gets. 

And sometimes, just for a minute, she still can’t help herself.

“Wonder what the fanbase will think,” Dani murmurs into the kiss, “of that picture I took tonight--the one of you mid-push-up with Flora on your back.”

Jamie reels back, mock horror shattered by the spread of her amusement. “Oh, you wouldn’t. I’d never hear the fuckin’ end of that. Christ, Dani, if I hear hashtag-goals one more fucking time--”

“Depends.” Dani grins, pulling her by the belt loops toward the bed. “You’ve got, mm, let’s say until bedtime to convince me not to. Or else what’s left of your prickly persona goes up in adorable flames.”

Jamie is laughing almost too hard to kiss her, pressing her back onto the mattress. “When’s bedtime?”

“When I pass out?” Dani suggests. Jamie, still laughing, pins her hands to the pillow. 

“Think that can be arranged.”