Dani uses her hip to bump open the stairwell door, moving carefully to accommodate the precarious load of grocery bags in her arms. It would be difficult for any stranger to tell, but on the inside she’s vibrating, excitement plucking her nerve endings like guitar strings. If it weren’t for her cargo, she would be taking the stairs two at a time. Every second is a second closer to Jamie, and each step is a step closer to step one of Dani’s plans for tonight.
When she was younger, before Bly, Dani used to plan everything. Life demanded plans: lesson plans, dinner plans, wedding plans. In hindsight, it seemed that life had already arranged things for her without her even asking it to. But when a lot of dominoes started falling one after the other, she stopped bothering with plans. Between impulsively boarding a plane to London and Jamie strutting into her life, it was easier not to think ahead.
Plans don’t matter much when Jamie is around, it turns out. She is very good at ruining Dani’s plans. So good at it, in fact, that Dani doesn’t even care. Half the time she ends up forgetting what her plans were in the first place. And Dani is okay simply floating along on their little raft, taking each piece of life as it comes to them. But taking it one day at a time also means that some days might require a little more than others. If Dani has to think about the future— even just the near future— she wants it to be done right. Some days are too important to not have some forethought. Like today.
Today marks three years since Bly. Three years of them. Three years of living a wonderfully simple life with the person who is, for all intents and purposes, her wife.
Since Bly, Dani collects each day like a medal. She thinks of them like those glittery star stickers, four sheets of fifty from the drugstore, that she used to put on her students’ papers. She adds all these days they get to have to her imaginary shelf, ornaments and baubles, trinkets and ribbons. If she’s lucky, she’ll collect enough little trophies to warrant a whole display case rather than a shelf. She would really like to be here for their tenth anniversary. The year 1997 seems about as far away as Iowa now, but sometimes there is a piece of Dani that’s willing to tempt optimism.
So today, on their third anniversary, the (honorary and self-declared) Taylor-Claytons do have some plans. Dani has an outline for the evening and it’s all tied up with a neat little bow, so unlike the tissue paper and tape concoctions she would fashion for Eddie’s birthday gifts in middle school.
And after a long day of anticipation, she is so ready to put her tidy little plan into motion. So far it’s been perfect, albeit a bit boring. Jamie had closed the shop early in the afternoon and went home to finish some chores, while Dani went further into town and got some shopping done. Now she’s standing at their front door with the words “Hey, wife” perched on the tip of her tongue. (And wow, the word wife tastes so good. Would it be coming on too strong if she says that more often?)
But then Dani fastens her hand on the door handle, and her mind launches itself like a rocket, soaring somewhere back across the Atlantic. She falters, fingers tightening on the knob. No. No, no. This can’t be one of the bad days (or off days, rough days, shit days, as Jamie likes to call them— there’s a thousand and one descriptors for when Dani loses her internal battle). There haven't been many bad days so far, and they’re only accumulating. But it can’t be today, it’s their anniversary, three years since—
Now Dani’s mind is a million miles away when she unlocks the door to the apartment. Too preoccupied with thoughts that are only half her own, she almost misses what’s on the other side of the door. But then she looks up and nearly trips over the threshold. She stares, rooted in place and unsure if she’ll ever be able to move again. A single step forward would be enough to realign fate, she thinks. Along with that, something else occurs to Dani: she should’ve known what to expect, or rather unexpect, from her girlfriend.
Jamie is standing in the kitchen pouring wine into two glasses. Her back is to Dani, but Dani has never needed to see Jamie’s face to be spellbound by her; voice and body work equally well. And it looks like Dani is being treated by the latter tonight, as she blinks, dumbfounded, from the doorway. Her eyes follow the ripple of faded scar tissue tracing Jamie’s shoulder blade, moving with her arm as she tilts the wine bottle upright and sets it on the counter. It’s the slightest movement, but it’s enough to make Dani choke on empty air.
Jamie is naked. Naked as she’s ever been, naked as Dani has seen her so many times in bed, in her arms, in shared morning showers when they’re running late. So many times Dani has seen this skin, but it’s still so striking, especially in their kitchen of all places. This unexpected appearance has totally thrown Dani off whatever trajectory she’d been on thirty long seconds ago. It’s almost enough to make her forget about her impending episode. Jamie has once again dismantled Dani’s plans, and this time it was before they’d even been set in motion.
Then Jamie turns around, and Dani is incapable of forming a coherent thought. “Hel... lo...” she mumbles. The paper grocery bags rustle uncomfortably in her arms.
“Evening, Poppins,” Jamie greets her as if nothing is amiss. She takes no notice of Dani’s brain flying out the window— or if she does notice, she indulges in it. “You’re just in time.”
“... just in time?” Dani parrots, the words barely a whisper on her lips.
Jamie grins and saunters over to her. A day seems to pass between each step, and Dani correspondingly goes through a week’s worth of emotions during those few seconds. Jamie takes the grocery bags off her hands, her brow lifting in a soft arch when she snags Dani’s gaze. Then she turns back around, the sunset from the window in front of her framing her bare body in a pinkish outline. She deposits the bags on the counter, taking out any perishables and sticking them in the fridge. Then, at last, she fixes her attention back on Dani. “Just in time for wine,” she explains. “I got some fancy shit, because I think it might be a special day today. Hence the twelve dollar bottle instead of the ten dollar bottle.”
Dani snorts at her joke, and it rescues her from living out the rest of her life like a tree. She remembers how to use her feet just long enough to get her from the door to the edge of the tiny kitchen. Once there, she hesitates again. Jamie smiles and holds out one of the glasses, which Dani accepts. “I must be dead,” she states matter-of-factly.
Something flashes in Jamie’s eyes, but it’s gone just as quickly as it appeared. “Don’t flatter me. We both know I look good, but I’m not drop-dead gorgeous,” she replies before clinking her glass with Dani’s. “Cheers to us, wife.”
Dani steals a sip that’s barely a mouthful, then sputters out, “But aren’t you— aren’t you cold?”
Jamie shrugs. “I do this from time to time. ‘s not a big deal.”
Dani shakes her head in awe. Three years. Guess she couldn’t know everything in three years. “You must be freezing,” she insists. “It’s always drafty in here, and—”
“Then why don’t you warm me up, Poppins?”
Well, then. Maybe all along, it’s actually been Jamie who will be the death of her. And if Dani must die such a sweet death, then so be it.
She loses control of her hands so suddenly that her wine glass nearly hits the floor. But Dani catches herself, setting it on the counter before cupping Jamie’s face and eagerly bringing their lips together. Jamie’s mouth has barely been kissed by the wine, but Dani detects it anyway, swiping up all the flavor with each movement of her tongue. Jamie’s thumbs stroke Dani’s jawline in a rhythm that has been perfected over time.
After a minute Jamie intensifies it, pressing their bodies together and holding Dani like she’s a handful of soil that could crumble through her fingers. Dani groans softly at the increased contact. The peaks of Jamie’s nipples, stiffened exponentially by open air and arousal, scrape through Dani’s shirt, the only layer between them. With such a thin obstacle preventing skin-to-skin contact, it’s impossible for Dani to calm her heartbeat.
In an instant, Jamie takes it all away, pushing her hands into Dani’s chest and stepping back. Dani whimpers, and the noise feeds Jamie’s smirk. “We still haven’t had dinner yet,” she points out. “No wonder you’re so hungry.” With that tone of voice, she may as well be speaking with her lips pressed directly into Dani’s neck, etching the words into her skin.
“We can eat later,” Dani says.
“Hmm,” Jamie grunts. Her hands still press into Dani’s chest. “Y’sure?”
“I want you.” Dani stares at her, imploring. Wandering into those green eyes is one of her favorite pastimes, and now is no exception. And besides, there’s a lot backing up Dani’s argument; Jamie’s clothes have been shed (and are nowhere to be seen, in fact), so they’re already halfway there.
And so it’s decided. They almost don’t make it to the bed, what with Dani momentarily forgetting about the existence of gravity (no one ever said grace was her middle name, after all). But when she stumbles, Jamie catches her, solid and safe.
Dani loves the space they’ve carved out for themselves here in this sleepy town. But nothing else compares to their room. It’s her favorite cuddle spot. And when Jamie is on top of her, and her spine is buried in the mattress deep enough to touch the box spring, their bed might as well be the only bed in the world. The soft surroundings in their room make the two of them softer, blurring all their edges that have sharpened with time, and planting seeds of laughter in the bottoms of their chests.
Dani falls onto the bed first, the comforter conforming to her shape. She lays there with her pants already unzipped, watching as Jamie crawls up next to her and captures her in a gentle kiss, quickly leaving her lips to draw a pathway of kisses along Dani’s throat. Dani flexes her fingers, wanting something to do with her hands; as if Jamie read her mind, she takes Dani’s hands and brings them to her bare chest. “Fuck,” Jamie gasps out. Obviously she’d anticipated the touch, but Dani knows her hands must be pretty cold. Dani also knows better than to take her fingers away, though; instead she applies more pressure so that her palms cover each breast, fingertips curling inward. Another soft curse slips from Jamie’s lips, prompting a whine from Dani below her.
Jamie’s hands ghost over Dani’s torso, pausing to draw pleasure from the memorized places. Dani remembers the first time, after the moonflowers, how it seemed like even then Jamie had already committed Dani’s most sensitive areas to memory. Her fingers like to stray, but they stray with purpose.
“You okay?” Jamie checks in. An errant curl falls over her forehead.
“Yeah,” Dani breathes. Her clothes come off at a languid pace. Jamie’s fingers are careful with the buttons on Dani’s blouse, mindful with the clasp on her bra. Like a reflex, Jamie mutters “Beautiful” when she looks at Dani bare beneath her. The way she says it makes Dani forget her own name.
She throws her head back while Jamie’s lips travel south again, finding a new home between Dani’s legs. Brushing feather-like kisses onto her thighs, she takes her time bringing Dani to the edge. But when Jamie’s tongue is deep inside her, lashing with steady, impeccable strokes, Dani’s mind wanders again against her will. She tries to refocus herself, drifting her fingers through Jamie’s curls while Jamie dips into her again and again, her nose brushing Dani’s clit at achingly irregular intervals. But it’s no use— her thoughts are in grayscale and sepia tones, bleeding together into a competition between desire and loss, the feelings blurred and indistinct like faces in a faded old photograph.
Please, no. Not today. Not now. Dani doesn’t realize the pleas are leaking out of her until she recognizes Jamie’s face hovering above her, mouth ajar as she takes in Dani’s distress. “Dani,” she whispers, holding her cheek. “Look at me, baby. You’re here, not there. You’re here with me in Vermont—”
“— in Vermont, the year is 1990, my name is Dani Clayton, I’m with you—”
“You’re here with me,” Jamie murmurs between Dani’s breathless pants. “An’ you’re gonna be alright with me. ‘s gonna be okay.” She waits a moment for Dani to calm, then presses a fleeting kiss on her lips. Jamie’s mouth is still damp; when Dani tastes herself on her, it tastes like Jamie drank from a cup full of stars. She breaks the kiss to mumble into Dani’s mouth, “I want you. Not her. You.”
“Say... say you won’t give up on me,” Dani rasps. The words come from deep in her chest, so weighed down by torment that they stumble on the way out of her mouth. Dani is too seized by hysteria to define what any of it means. But the shape of the syllables on her tongue is familiar, telling her that what she’s saying is at least semi-coherent.
Jamie’s response is swift, a promise sealed on either end by firm kisses. “Give up on you? Give up on us? Never, baby. I would never.”
Burning tears sting Dani’s face, gravity sinking them down into the bed covers. She thinks often about how Hannah must have felt, being a ghost for so long but not knowing it. Dani never knew her when she was alive, but she had seemed so real. Maybe she’s unintentionally having the same effect on Jamie; maybe she’s already gone, but still real enough to Jamie to keep her here. Maybe a year from now, Jamie will be holding hands with empty air. How much longer can Jamie believe and keep Dani out of the well? There’s only so many wishes she can make, only so many coins she can throw.
They’re naked and it’s cold, but they stay on top of the covers because shared body heat is a good enough blanket. Jamie kisses her lazily. Jamie kisses her, straightens out Dani’s spiraling, and keeps her on the edge of the climax she had been approaching. Jamie kisses her until Dani mumbles, “M’okay.”
“What d’you wanna do?”
“Keep going,” Dani says. “Please.”
Jamie lets another minute pass, providing a safety cushion between Dani’s permission and picking up where they left off. Then she says, “I have an idea.”
That’s how they end up in their cramped bathroom, Dani seated on the vanity while Jamie curls two fingers inside of her, using a third to rub small, tight circles on her clit. Her other arm switches between supporting the small of Dani’s back and mussing the loose waves of hair puddling on Dani’s shoulders. They lean hard into each other, Dani’s lips barely moving against Jamie’s neck. She’d started out nibbling at her throat, leaving the little marks she knows Jamie likes to show off, but now she’s too close to her peak to do anything but whimper Jamie’s name. That’s fine, because it still drives Jamie wild hearing the same two syllables dribble repeatedly off Dani’s tongue. And to top it off, she has one of Jamie’s old flannels thrown over her shoulders, the collar upturned and most of the buttons undone. Jamie had grabbed it on the way because she knew Dani would be too cold in here otherwise.
Jamie opens her eyes, indulging herself with their reflection in the mirror. It was only natural to position Dani with her back to it; although she chased away Edmund’s ghost long ago, she’s still neutral at best when it comes to mirrors. On some mornings, she can only glance at herself for a couple minutes, then dust on the rest of her makeup by memory. On the worst mornings, she stands with her eyes closed while Jamie gets her ready. But running a brush through her girlfriend’s hair is so soothing that it never even occurs to Jamie to complain about it.
It was all those mornings that brought this fantasy to Jamie’s mind. All the times Dani has been unable to look at herself, all the times Jamie acted as her eyes and her mirror.
In the reflection, Jamie sees Dani’s back, covered by her shirt and hunched slightly as she presses her forehead into the sweet spot where Jamie’s shoulder meets her neck. Jamie doesn’t even look at herself. She knows what she looks like, and knows how her pleasure displays on her own face. She just watches Dani and her body and her long hair, watches her sway and tremble around Jamie’s fingers, watches the way Dani tenses and relaxes when she inhales Jamie and exhales I love you. It’s utterly mesmerizing. If only this wasn’t a mirror, but a painting instead: permanently framed, erotic and striking, for their eyes only. Jamie wishes Dani could enjoy this same perspective.
“Y’know what I see?” Jamie asks. She can barely recognize her own voice when it’s choked by ecstasy. Dani lifts her head, breathless as she rests her chin on Jamie’s shoulder. “You’re in my shirt. Your hair is a mess. It’s fucking beautiful, Dani.”
Dani lets out a sob of pleasure that echoes in Jamie’s ear.
“I wish you could see what I see. Wish you could see yourself right now, love,” Jamie whispers.
It’s those words that coax Dani to orgasm. Jamie thrusts a few more times, prolonging her high, then holds her close while she comes back down. Jamie knows Dani is truly back when she mutters “Thank you” of all things.
“‘Thank you’?” Jamie teases. Dani pulls back to meet her eyes, and finally, finally, Jamie has lured out her favorite smile in the world, the one framed on either side by those little lines, with the rest of Dani’s perfect face surrounding it.
“What? It’s only polite,” Dani hops to her own defense. God, and Jamie thought she couldn’t love her any more than she already does.
Truthfully, she’s relieved. Relieved, of course, that Dani squirmed out of Viola’s chokehold, but also relieved that Dani isn’t upset at having her anniversary plans derailed— or rather, delayed. Jamie figures that this isn’t too far off from Dani’s sequence of events; they just went a little out of order.
They take their time in the afterglow. Dani steps into some pajama pants while Jamie throws on a robe. It’s only when they finally wander back out into the kitchen that Jamie remembers the pot she had on the stove. It’s just about to boil over when she sprints to it and lowers the heat. She turns back to Dani with a wince. “I’m shit at this stuff.” Dani shushes her, but Jamie plows on, “I was trying to start dinner before you got here. I knew pasta was part of the plan, and... well.” She pauses. “Y’know, this anniversary thing is still kinda odd for me, Poppins. I never really made it this far before.”
Dani retrieves her abandoned wine glass, allowing herself a heartier sip than she did earlier. Her eyes peer at Jamie over the rim, the lower half of her face distorted by the curve of the glass. The lingering glint in her gaze tells Jamie that she will be well taken care of after dinner. Swallowing another sip, Dani says, “And I know by heart the number of the Chinese delivery place down the street. There’s a reason we’ve made it this far.”
Jamie snorts out a laugh.
Dani walks over to the phone, grabbing the receiver off the wall. “I can’t believe you were cooking naked,” she admonishes as she dials. She doesn’t have to ask for Jamie’s order; she also knows that by heart.
“To be fair, it wasn’t boiling when I left it,” Jamie argues. She doubts she’ll ever get the hang of it. She’s pretty sure she knows why, but she’d rather not confront it.
Dani’s talking to the restaurant now, so she doesn’t respond. She leans her shoulder into the wall, the phone cord swinging as she tucks the receiver between her ear and shoulder. She shoots Jamie another small smile while she recites their order. Jamie grins drowsily at her. Today wasn’t perfect, but most of their days aren’t. There will be a million other ones. They’ll be okay.
She just has to keep believing that for the both of them.