Every movie, every book, every story about the horrors of letting in the ghosts has prepared Dani for the constant state of alarm. The panic. The discomfort of the situation.
Not a single goddamn one told her how stupid it would be.
The first time Viola Lloyd rears her spectral head outside of a dream, Dani is doing her best to enjoy an incredibly pleasant spring morning. She’s been having strange thoughts--strange echoes of night terrors that have been escalating, images weaving as though shot from the depths of some great ocean--for a few months now. Has been trying her very best to take Jamie’s advice and not worry about it. One day at a time. Stop gazing into every reflective surface in the county and just...live.
And she’s been doing that, she thinks, with a decent amount of peaceful abandon for a woman carrying an unknown beast in the depths of her psyche. She’s traveled. She’s seen much of America, and more of Jamie. She’s learned she’ll never get any better at tea, that she’s honestly not terrible at pasta, that she can talk the ear off old women who just want to stop and smell the flowers. It’s been a serene six, seven, eight years, if she lays them all end to end, and she’s glad of it.
But the dreams are coming faster now. With more regularity. Long stretches of night fade into black and white, into memories she can feel with her whole body, but knows aren’t her own. Corsets and sweeping skirts, a sister she never had, a husband. A child. None of this belongs to Dani, so it must be her, mustn’t it?
It scares her. She talks about it to Jamie when she wakes--sometimes in the morning, sometimes in the middle of the night; whether she’s truly awake or not, Jamie always listens. They always hunker back down, holding tight to one another, Jamie whispering into her hair that you’re still here, you’re still you, it’s all okay, Poppins. It helps, as much as anything’s going to.
What doesn’t help is sitting here on this park bench, a list of shopping plans open in her lap, and hearing--hearing isn’t even the right word for it, it’s like a ringing voice coming up from the very back of her head--someone say, “And what on earth is that?”
Dani sits straight upright, every line of her body rigid with fear. “What...is what?”
She’s said the words out loud, she realizes when an elderly man with a basket of stale bread turns slowly to look at her. Her mouth twists itself into a rictus grin of apology, and he shuffles off, looking very much like a man prepared for his own murder at the hands of a lunatic schoolteacher.
“Well,” the voice says, coolly amused. “That was embarrassing for us both.”
What, Dani thinks, the fuck is going on?
“What’s going on,” Viola Lloyd’s deep, accented voice says, “is truly beyond my knowledge. Do you know the last time I had this many thoughts of my own? Must have been...oh, three hundred years, now...”
Why, Dani thinks furiously, are you having them now?
“I certainly couldn't say.” Viola sounds astonished. “The last I recall, I was trying to reclaim my child--”
Flora, Dani interrupts with a rush of anger, was not your child.
She imagines she can feel Viola’s hand flip to and fro, carelessly. “It’s all apples in the end, isn’t it?”
She’s clenching her fists in her lap, she realizes, as if there’s anything to fight. As if she could ward Viola off from inside her own body.
“Oh,” Viola says coolly, “I wouldn’t worry just yet. I couldn’t say for sure--it’s all rather new, you must understand--but I don’t think I could do anything to you. Not yet. Look, here, I’ll try...”
Dani’s muscles strain against an invisible force that never comes. Viola chuckles.
“See? Nothing. The lights are on, my dear, but none but you is really home.”
Then why are you awake? Dani demands.
“Not a clue, darling. It’s nice, though, isn’t it? You really take it for granted in life.”
Take what for--
“Seeing,” Viola breathes. “I haven’t seen anything properly in centuries. I’d forgotten how bright the world was. How full of...color.”
Is it Dani’s imagination, or does Viola’s tone hold an edge of disgust on that final word?
“So, again, I find myself asking. What on earth do you call that?”
Dani allows instinct to turn her head, somehow sensing the direction Viola wishes for her to look. She finds herself staring at a young child playing at her mother’s feet.
I--it’s... And it’s here, in this moment, faced with the nearly impossible task of explaining to the 400-year-old ghost woman who shares her body what a Slinky is for that Dani Clayton decides this whole cohabitation thing might have been a mistake.
“Hang on,” Jamie says. “Hang on, she’s awake in there?”
Dani, folded nearly double on their couch with her face in her hands, nods. Her head is pounding. Viola has been, ah, what’s the polite way to put it? Running her mouth. For nearly four hours.
“She’s got some...opinions,” Dani mumbles into her cupped hands. Jamie stops rubbing light circles into her back, curious.
“Might be a shorter list, to ask what she doesn’t have an opinion about,” Dani says. At the back of her head, she feels Viola cross her arms.
“This sounds like you are on the path to impudence, Miss Clayton.”
“But hang on, I thought--” Jamie seems to be choosing her words carefully. “I thought she was just sort of...in there. Tucked away, like the kids said. What do you mean she can see?”
Dani blows out a long breath, wishing dearly for a cigarette. “I don’t know, Jamie, I’m not the authority on carrying Victorian women around in my skull.”
“Bit nearer to it than me, Poppins.” Jamie’s smiling, plainly trying to make her feel better. Dani turns to glower at her.
“I love you very much. Please don’t test me right now. She hasn’t stopped talking for more than twenty minutes all afternoon.”
Jamie raises her hands in surrender. “Can she...can she see me now?”
“Tell her,” Viola says. “Tell her I can see her, and her mannishly-inappropriate hairstyle.”
“I will not be saying that,” Dani mutters. Jamie raises an eyebrow.
“Are you having a conversation now? What’s she saying?”
“Please let her know I find her insistence upon men’s trousers silly at best, her blouses are entirely too loose, and I am bewildered by the wealth of ankle she seems to find appropriate in mixed company--”
“She says you have a nice smile,” Dani says. Jamie’s eyebrows raise to her hairline. Viola makes a horrible little noise of revulsion.
“How dare you place words in my mouth!”
“You are absolutely not telling me the truth, are you?” Jamie says in the same moment. Dani groans.
“Aspirin. I am going to need so much aspirin.”
It’s not all the time, thankfully; Dani thinks she’d go mad if Viola were truly there at all hours, yammering away about silks and petticoats and the good old days when a person could just drop dead of the plague with no notice. Sometimes, Viola even goes days at a stretch without saying a word, as though she’s sunk back to sleep in whatever little corner of Dani’s mind she calls a bedroom.
And then, like a thunderstorm, she emerges once more. Usually with something snappy and irritating to share with Dani.
“Are we really wearing that?”
“There is no we, Viola,” Dani grumbles. She’s in the process of trying to choose between a flower-patterned dress and a denim vest, unable to gauge what kind of day it’s going to be when she steps out of the closet and into the chaos. Business has been booming down at The Leafling, which is wonderful, but more than a little overwhelming. And Jamie, god love her, has taken to watching Dani when she thinks Dani won’t notice, always with this worried little crease between her eyes.
It’s making her crazy, if she’s honest about it. Jamie isn’t the worrier in the relationship, and watching her slip into the role is making Dani feel worse about the whole situation. She needs Jamie to tell her it’s all fine, it’s all perfectly all right, they’re going to make it through this new weirdness together no problem.
“My dear, we became a we the night you said the magic words,” Viola says, a bit pettily. “Or have you forgotten me already?”
“How,” Dani grits out, “on earth am I supposed to forget you? Feel like I spend every day just...waiting for you to spring up and ask some idiotic question about cars or airplanes or deodorant--”
“For a schoolteacher, you surely lack for patience, Miss Clayton.”
Dani closes her eyes, searching for strength. Her hands grope, landing on dress and vest and yanking them free. “You know what? Both. We’re doing both today.”
“We most certainly are not! Not even a glove to be found? And again with the florals! We’ve been over how tacky the florals are, Miss Clayton. Miss Clayton, are you listening?”
“No,” Dani says decisively, wriggling into the layers and looking around for her chunkiest pair of earrings.
“You are the scandal of the town, Miss Clayton,” Viola sniffs.
“Does she, ah...watch when we do this?”
Dani groans. They’d been having such a nice evening--an old movie fading slowly into wandering hands, Jamie’s mouth making its way down her neck, Jamie’s fingers slipping beneath the hem of her shirt and tickling her ribs. She’d just flipped Jamie onto her back, was just looking to remove the deeply inconvenient articles of cloth between them, when Jamie pressed a palm lightly against her chest.
“Not trying to be weird about it,” Jamie says, breathless. Her eyes are dark and heavy; though she’s stopped Dani moving closer, one of her legs has wound around Dani’s hip, easing her in. It’s giving Dani the worst kind of mixed message, to say the least.
“Would you like us to put this sort of thing on hold until I find a way to exorcise the demon from my head, Jamie?”
“I did not say that. I decidedly said nothing of the kind.”
Dani lets her head fall forward, covering Jamie’s face in a fall of blonde. “Sorry. That was snippy. I just...I don’t know the answer. She’s...” She tilts her head, eyes shut, searching. “Quiet. For now.”
Jamie brushes her hair back, cups the side of her face, thumb moving in a slow arc across her cheekbone. “S’all right then. Can’t blame me being curious, can you? I mean, it’s not every day you find a third party sneaks into your bed.”
Dani leans into the soft stroke of her hand, sighing. “I don’t like it, either, you know. She’s so...judgey. I hadn’t realized ghosts could be judgey.”
“What’s she judging?” The hand on her chest slides, gripping a fistful of her shirt, pulling her toward Jamie. Dani sighs again, letting Jamie kiss her with the soft determination of someone apologizing for stopping this train in the first place.
“Me,” she murmurs against Jamie’s lips. “You.”
“Me?” Jamie sounds affronted. “What’s there to judge about me, I’m a bloody peach.”
Dani laughs, bites her lower lip until Jamie groans. “It’s not anything personal. It’s just...the whole world is so different from what she remembers. There’s TV, jean shorts, women out there having jobs and lives without consent of their husbands...for her, it must be the Wild West.”
“Judges what she doesn’t understand, is that it?” Jamie is doing an admirable job of pretending to still be invested in this conversation, even as her hands are making short work of Dani’s sweatpants. Dani sucks in a breath.
“I guess. Yeah. Can’t blame her for that, really.”
Jamie mulls this over, fingers tracing hipbone. Her nails bite gently into soft skin. “Does she judge us for this, I wonder?”
“Do you care?”
“Not,” Jamie says, twisting her hand and bringing their mouths together hard, “in the least.”
“Put it out the window.”
“I am not putting it out the window, Viola.”
“Down a flight of stairs, then! What in all cosmic reaches of hell is this for, if not throwing it somewhere it can never harm another soul again!”
Dani exhales through her nose, slowly, embracing every meditative memory of dealing with errant children. “I am not,” she says slowly to the empty apartment, “going to throw my television anywhere. And I'd really appreciate it if you’d stop making that suggestion every time I turn it on.”
“You are letting your soul rot from the inside out with this filth!” Viola is all but shrieking. Dani imagines her pacing back and forth, back and forth, her hands wild. “Your moral fiber, Miss Clayton. What of your moral fiber?”
“If MTV rots away one’s moral fiber,” Dani says, as calmly as she knows how, “then I suspect we’re all lost causes, anyway.”
Viola is silent for such a long time, Dani thinks she’s done the trick. She turns her attention back to the laundry she’s been folding to the tune of Janet Jackson. Her head bobs gently in time as the videos shuffle past--Madonna, Michael, Paula, George. Then, with the hour change, newer fare. She’s still getting around to some of these artists, still trying to work out how she feels about them.
"Did you hear that?” Viola seethes. “What was that about an anaconda? Is this man suggesting we feed a woman to snakes? What barbarism do your people accept in this age?”
Dani folds a pair of Jamie’s socks with such deliberate care, she nearly forgets to breathe while doing it.
“Moral fiber,” Viola hisses. “Moral fiber is wasted on this age of nudity and...and...hammertime.”
Dani finds herself desperately invested in ironing the wrinkles out of a pair of jeans with her hand until Viola goes quiet again.
“You could have such nice hair,” Viola croons. “Such nice hair, if you would only put them away...”
“They’re convenient,” Dani says, scraping her hair back into a pink scrunchie. Viola makes a noise of disgust.
“They’re abhorrent. Honestly, your time and its...fashions. What do you call this?”
She’s gesturing toward the bathroom counter, to the little basket that holds all the hair supplies. Dani sighs.
“It’s a headband, Viola. We like headbands. They keep the hair out of our eyes.”
“There are other ways. Fine hats. Lovely veils. Why don’t you own any lovely veils, Dani, do you want the common folk seeing your every decision in your eyes?”
Dani reaches for the hairspray. Behind her, Jamie bustles in with shirt half-buttoned, suspenders swinging around her thighs. Viola makes another catty little noise.
“Any news?” Jamie asks, reaching around for a hairbrush and kissing Dani’s cheek.
“She doesn’t like scrunchies,” Dani reports. “And she’s started calling me Dani.”
Jamie frowns. “Good sign or bad?”
“Impossible to guess.”
“Tell her you want some veils,” Viola says sweetly. “And for her to learn the value of a fine skirt.”
Dani, ignoring this, reaches around the back of Jamie’s neck and pulls her into a searing kiss. Jamie drops the hairbrush with a clatter, leaning Dani back against the counter and gripping the small of her back like she’s suddenly forgotten they’re both late for work.
When they break apart, they’re both flushed, Dani giggling into the underside of Jamie’s jaw, Jamie’s eyes glazed. In the back of her mind, she hears Viola sigh.
“That is truly childish, you know.”
It’s kind of an accidental habit, punishing her inner ghost for bad behavior by channeling her frustrations into sex. She couldn’t explain it if she tried, except to say Viola does tend to shut up when Dani’s properly distracted. Maybe it’s just the way the connection works, thinner when Dani isn’t willing to give it energy. Maybe Viola’s embarrassed. Either way, a year after Viola first speaks, her life with Jamie burns hotter than it ever has.
It’s best when Viola is trying to run her mouth over Jamie’s fashion sense, she’s noticed. It is, in fact, the only way to shut Viola up about the aforementioned fashion sense. Which Dani intellectually understands; coming up from a world 400 years away, where women dressed in endless layers and a person’s value was often found in the shine of her jewels and the rich fabric of her skirts, slamming face-first into the 1990s must have been a trip. Truly, Viola is lucky Dani didn’t cart her out of that lake earlier. If she thinks scrunchies are bad, she should have seen the heyday of shoulder pads.
Honestly, though, the worst thing is listening to Viola trill on about how much better Jamie could look if she’d only bow to the whims of femininity. Jamie, whose primary word on fashion has always been “can I dig a hole in this?” is perfect just the way she is. In fact, as the years go on and her jeans grow cuffs, her shorts grow shorter, her tops crop midway up her stomach, Dani thinks the world is finally suiting Jamie instead of the other way around.
“She’s prancing around for the world to see--”
“It’s ninety-six degrees out,” Dani says in a low voice. She understands these conversations with Viola can be internalized, but she tends to wind up wearing this distant expression every time, and Jamie can spot it a mile off. Best to just mutter aloud in the sanctity of their own home.
“She’s walking her wares up and down the block,” Viola rages on. “Not a shawl to be seen!”
“Jamie,” Dani calls from the kitchen, “have you ever in your life worn a shawl?”
“That’s, uh, one of those blankets with the fringy bits, yeah?” Jamie calls back. She’s bent over the air conditioning unit, trying to coax life into the old girl. The cropped line of her black t-shirt rides up her back, revealing glistening skin. Dani tips her head to enjoy the view. “I’ll pass on account of any blanket in this heat being like to kill me.”
“Best not to test it,” Dani agrees. Viola heaves the longest-suffering sigh Dani’s ever heard.
“It doesn’t bother you in the least, your woman out there, where anyone could see her...her bare stomach!”
“One,” Dani says coolly, “she’s my girlfriend, not my woman. Two, I’ve never once tried to dictate her clothing, and I’m not stopping because a dead woman insists. Three, I happen to like it.”
“Like what?” Jamie strolls back to her, pushing sweaty hair off her forehead with a sigh. She stops a few inches away, rocking back and forth on her heels like she wants nothing more than to close the distance despite the mind-numbing heat.
“Viola is commenting upon your more risqué clothing choices.”
“What? This?” Jamie grasps the exceedingly high-cut hem of her shirt and tugs it gently upward, teasing. “What’s her problem with all this?”
“It’s on display, evidently.”
“As it should be,” Jamie says almost primly. “I’m a fine specimen to behold. Learn to enjoy it, love, it’ll be faster than trying to change the view.”
This last, she says in a slightly louder voice, as though speaking to the shadow behind Dani’s eyes. She’s grinning, and Dani has time to think how strange it is, how quickly they’ve learned to accommodate Viola’s appearances into their conversations--Jamie has taken to leaving beats between her sentences, allowing for Dani to process two people speaking at once--before Jamie is wrapping both arms around her and lifting her off the floor. She squeals in surprise, delight turning to desire as Jamie licks a bead of sweat from her neck.
“Not again,” Viola sighs. “You’ll wake the whole village.”
“Apartment,” Dani corrects, catching Jamie by the jaw and kissing her hungrily. It’s too hot for this, probably, but she can’t quite remember how to care when Jamie pulls free of her grasp and slides to her knees, taking Dani’s skirt with her.
“It’s a nightmare, regardless.”
Eventually, Viola proves herself capable of learning a thing or two. Namely, that she is welcome to run commentary on anyone in the world except for Jamie.
Even old ghosts can learn new tricks, apparently, although it takes a number of months, a great deal of sex, and one memorable weekend in which--upon Viola raging over every article in Jamie’s side of the closet for half an hour--Dani simply removed the option of clothing from Viola’s sight altogether.
“This,” Jamie panted, both of them on the floor with a sheet draped over their tangled limbs, “is working for me in the weirdest way, Poppins.”
“I think she’s really starting to hate me,” Dani said conversationally, even as her fingers slipped between Jamie’s legs yet again. Jamie’s hips rose to meet her, one hand burying itself in her hair.
“Well, that makes one of us, doesn’t it?”
Not commenting on Jamie, naturally, does nothing to stop Viola talking about every other goddamn thing in the world.
“We’re going to have to have a long talk about not shaming women for their bodies, you know,” Dani tells her one afternoon. Viola has been tearing a young woman to pieces over her short skirt, furious that someone so pristine could soil herself with such impunity. Dani must be getting used to this in the weirdest way possible, because this kind of floral language is starting to feel second-nature.
“I would never shame anyone,” Viola protests. “I am simply stating fact. Men do not value women as it is, and while we may win their games, we get nowhere at all if we do not play them.”
“This isn’t a game, Viola, it’s her life. Her body. She can do whatever she likes with it.”
“But I want her to succeed,” Viola insists. There’s an almost disconcerting eagerness to the words. She really truly believes what she’s saying. “A woman viewed as nothing more than a strumpet will have an even more difficult time securing a dowry, and then where will she be?”
“In college?” Dani suggests blithely. “Traveling? Living isn’t just for men, Viola, I know you know this. You refused the oath of obedience on your wedding day.”
“Of course it’s not for men’s sake alone, but when the law--”
“The law is different here,” Dani says, almost gently. “Has been for a long time. Or haven’t you noticed how well Jamie and I get along without a man to be found?”
Viola’s silence stretches so long, Dani’s sure she’s either gone back to sleep or is finally choosing this moment to let the ugly banner of homophobia unfurl. She’s been waiting for this moment for years, it seems, waiting for the ghost in her head to mimic her mother on the one and only occasion she attempted to send home a letter.
“You’re different,” Viola says at last, very softly. Dani blinks.
“You’re different,” Viola repeats. “Jamie is your forever. Does that young girl have her forever, Miss Clayton?”
“Well--I don't know, I don’t suppose it’s my business--”
“Perhaps she will find it in one like our Jamie,” Viola says impatiently. “But perhaps she will find instead the stones of men who have not, over four centuries, really changed all that much. Is it so wrong of me, to have a mother’s care for that?”
Dani doesn’t know how to answer. Doesn’t have the first idea, when faced with a Viola who is not simply catty for cattiness’ sake, but genuine. She opens and closes her mouth a few times, unable to find argument.
“We just. We just don’t pick on girls for what they do with their bodies, all right? It’s...it’s cruel, and it isn’t necessary.”
Viola sighs. “Fine. But we still ought to discuss the pattern choices. Those polka dots are not flattering in the least.”
It’s only later, watching Jamie chop carrots for dinner, that Dani realizes Viola had said our. Our Jamie.
“Oh sweet Christ,” she mumbles.
The change is slow. Subtle. If not for the fact of carrying this woman in her head, Dani’s not sure she even would have noticed.
“She what?” Jamie looks up from the plant she’s tending, fingernails grimed with soil, wedding ring carefully strung upon a thick chain around her neck until she can clean up again. “She...sorry, what?”
“I can’t be sure,” Dani muses. “It sounds...crazy. But I think she’s starting to like you.”
“Well, sure,” Jamie laughs. “I’m a deeply likable human being. But this is the Lady, yeah? Same one who dragged Peter fucking Quint to his death? Same one who thinks I show too much skin?”
“I’m...not convinced she thinks that anymore.” It’s really hard to say for sure. On the one hand, it’s possible Viola has shut up about Jamie’s shorn sleeves and shorts because every time she mentioned either, Dani made it her personal life’s mission to make sure Jamie never wore anything else around the house. On the other...
“I think she looked at your butt the other day.”
Jamie raises her eyes slowly, brow furrowing. “Can she do that? Turn your eyes to something you weren’t already looking at?”
“No,” Dani says, a bit stiffly, all too aware of stepping into the trap. Jamie grins.
“But it was different,” Dani presses on through flushing cheeks. “I mean--even if I was already looking, she was--I mean--she--”
She doesn’t know how to explain it. How the rumble in her chest, already so familiar at the sight of Jamie puttering around their home, had seemed to expand until it encompassed all of her. How it was like someone had turned the heat in the room to its breaking point.
“I can just tell, okay?” she says, aggrieved. “She looked at your butt, and she liked it.”
Jamie makes a thoughtful face, brushing dirt off her hands with slow, deliberate motions. “So...what you’re saying is...your personal ghostie has a crush on your wife?”
Dani presses her face against the counter, letting the cool metal relieve her blush. “Shit. Yeah. I think she might.”
“This is,” Jamie says triumphantly, pressing up against Dani from behind and kissing the back of her neck, “the funniest thing that has ever happened, by a country goddamn mile.”
A series of events, cascading in short order, that Dani almost actually feels bad about. If one could feel guilty about putting strain on one’s personal-pan Casper.
The Britney Spears video, for one. Viola still does not like music videos--or music, frankly, unless it involves a ridiculous number of flutes and orchestral swells--but she’s grown to tolerate them. Mostly.
That is, until Britney sways onscreen in a plaid skirt and schoolgirl pigtails.
“Fuck,” Dani gasps, hand coming down hard against her own breastbone. It’s like someone grabbed the dial on her blood pressure and cranked it all the way up. That someone, she suspects, being the dead woman who has been more and more present of late.
“I--I cannot--I simply am not capable of understanding--” Viola sounds like she’s short-circuiting. “I know we are not meant to comment, but what on earth is she doing?!”
“Dancing,” Dani says sharply, trying to coax her breathing back down. Is this what a stroke feels like? Is her fucking ghost roommate giving her an actual stroke? “Viola, you’ve seen dancing.”
“She is so young! She is a child! Who is protecting this person from the world?” Viola is furious. Viola is exploding. Dani sort of wonders if her chest is going to explode, too.
“She’s...a pop star. This is what they get paid lots and lots of money to do.” It’s a bad answer, she knows. These videos make her a little uncomfortable too, when she thinks on them too long. But Viola? Viola’s rage is a towering beast of a thing. For a minute, lungs scraping at the air, Dani is genuinely afraid this is the point where the switch flips. Where she finds herself staring at the room from the back of her own head.
“Someone,” Viola says in a low, terrible voice, “must protect these children.”
It takes almost an hour to calm her down. Dani doesn’t turn MTV back on for a while after that.
“The. The moon?” The opposite end of the emotional spectrum this time. If Viola had been nearly apoplectic over Britney’s choreography, she now sounds faint.
“You should have floated that a bit more softly,” Dani tells Jamie, who looks confused.
“Float what, all I did was mention NASA--”
“The moon,” Viola repeats. “We have seen. The moon.”
“She’s having trouble with the moon landing,” Dani says. Jamie waves her hands helplessly.
“Poppins, I have trouble understanding the geography of Texas, we all have problems.”
“We have,” Viola breathes, “stepped foot. Upon. The moon.”
Dani pours herself another large glass of wine.
“How’s this, then?” Jamie gives a very small, somewhat self-conscious twirl. “Too much? Too little? Too, ah, revealing, as the ghost contingent might say?”
Dani, leaning against the bedroom wall, can’t quite find the words. Viola, too, is conspicuously silent.
“It’s bad,” Jamie says, nodding fervently. “Yeah, y’know, I think I knew it when I picked it up. Better on the sales rack, as they say. I can just...if you wouldn’t mind popping the zip real quick...”
“Yes, Dani,” Viola says quietly. “Pop the zip.”
“You don’t even know what that means,” Dani hisses. Jamie raises an eyebrow.
“It’s not bad,” Dani says quickly, ignoring the little harrumph Viola utters. “It’s very not bad. Opposite of bad, really.”
Relief floods Jamie’s face. The dress is low cut in a way very little of her clean-up clothes are, with a slit running clear up the leg. Patterned in burgundy petals, the black velvet is stark against her pale skin.
“I won’t get run out of the convention, then? Only they said there’s a bit about drinks and networking, and it was just shy of black-tie. I could do that instead. Get a black tie. Think I’d look nice in a black tie.”
“The dress,” Viola says in a low, conspiratorial voice. “Tell her it is a nice dress.”
“It’s a nice dress,” Dani repeats with comic dazedness. “Best dress I’ve ever seen, maybe.”
“And now,” Viola says soothingly, “you go to her. Walk confidently now, shoulders back, chin up--”
“Are you...wing-man-ing me toward my own wife?”
“Seduction requires confidence, Dani.”
“What’s she saying?” Jamie’s face has gone a curious mix of apprehensive and amused. Dani swallows.
“Seduction requires confidence, evidently.”
A slow grin spreads across Jamie’s face. Dani raises a hand, finger extended.
“Don’t. Don’t make that smug face.”
“What’s smug about it?” She’s moving across the room, arms already reaching. “This is my very natural expression, I’ll have you know. The most normal expression in the world for a woman whose wife is being told to undress her by the ancient rage-ghost sharing her body.”
“Our lives,” Dani says helplessly, already pressing herself flush against Jamie, “are different than other people’s lives.”
“Yes,” Jamie agrees in a low voice, sliding the sweater over Dani’s head. “Can’t find it in me to complain, though, can you?”
It’s weird, almost. Weirder, that it’s almost not. That the beast in the jungle, the creature Dani spent nearly a decade dreading, has pounced at last and...mostly, she just seems to want to see Dani happy.
Jamie finds it hilarious, in that pretend-callous way Jamie has of smoothing over genuine concern with soft laughter. She doesn’t like Dani sharing her mental space with someone at all hours, Viola popping up like a wack-a-mole game on high. But, if Dani must share the space with anyone, at least--
“It’s someone who thinks I'm gorgeous.”
“You are gorgeous,” Dani replies, a bit exasperated. “Gorgeous, silly, perfect person. But my inner ghost has a crush on you, that isn’t strange for you?”
“Poppins, my life has been strange since a doe-eyed American strolled into it and told me she still saw her dead fiancé when we kissed.” Jamie reclines on the bed in a sleep shirt and underwear, hands playing lightly with the pillowcase beneath her head. “Strange is my bread and butter these days, and if I had to sacrifice you to have it any other way, we both know how it would go.”
Dani makes a mulish sound under her breath. Jamie cups a hand to her ear.
“It’s weird,” she repeats, arms crossed over her chest. “She’s weird. I always thought she’d do something bad--walk me off a roof, or strangle someone to death, or try to rob a convenience store. But mostly she just wants to protect young girls from an uncaring world and look at your butt in the shower.”
“That is...very specific,” Jamie says lightly. Dani shakes her head.
“It’s so bizarre. The longer this goes on, the more she sees of the world, it’s like...like she’s getting more real. More Viola, less Lady.”
Jamie sits up, hand sliding to rest high on Dani’s thigh as if to shield her from harm. “But not more solid, right? Not taking up space you already rent?”
Dani shakes her head. “That’s the thing. She doesn't feel like she’s taking over. And it feels...like she should.”
“You want her to?”
“No, no, of course not.” Dani raises Jamie’s knuckles to her lips, raining soft kisses up and down her hand until the tension goes out of her brow. “I just don’t understand what’s happening. This isn’t...what I expected.”
Jamie exhales, shifting her weight until she’s sitting in Dani’s lap. She takes Dani’s face between her hands, kisses her long and slow until Dani eases back against the headboard.
“This is good, Poppins. You’re a good influence. You were on those kids, and on me, and now on this Lady of yours. Maybe that’s all a ghost needs, deep down.”
Dani leans into her, lets the rhythm of kiss and gentle bite and hands slipping beneath her clothes carry her away for a while. Still, no Viola, and she’s grateful. She doesn’t like to think how that would feel, Viola popping up while Jamie’s curling her fingers deep, groaning soft against her shoulder. There is a time and a place for hauntings, and time with Jamie is something else entirely.
She’s pretty sure Viola even respects that. Which is, like everything else, incredibly strange.
Viola attends their second wedding. Their real wedding. It’s bizarre on a level Dani isn’t prepared to deal with, feeling her surface as the plans become reality. Jamie’s got flowers, naturally, and Owen’s catering, and Henry has the kids--who are kids no longer, but fully-formed people with lives of their own--running errands on the day. And Dani...
Dani is looking at herself in a wedding dress for the second time in her life, only this time, she can breathe.
“You are radiant,” Viola says. Dani closes her eyes for a moment, steels herself.
“Nothing else to say? No notes?”
“You chose wisely,” Viola says. Dani sighs.
“I figured lace was classic, and someone told me I had nice shoulders once, so--”
“The dress is beautiful,” Viola says. “But I was not talking about your grooming for the day.”
Dani gives a shaky laugh. “I love her, you know. I really do.”
“I can tell.” A beat of silence. Then: “I did not understand at first. Her. Or you. I suppose I will never understand completely. But...I understand the depths of what you feel. It is a part of me, too, I think. That devotion, sinking into all the spaces where I had forgotten.”
“You’re in love with Jamie, too?” Dani asks, not really wanting the answer. Viola laughs.
“Yes. And no. You and I are intertwined, Miss Clayton. What you feel, I feel, to a degree. More importantly, I have seen your life with her. The life you build with the reckless joy of two people doomed one day to die.”
“Thanks,” Dani says, a bit sharply. She senses Viola putting her hands up, a terribly-modern gesture of surrender.
“You understand what I mean. It takes courage, to love this completely. To do so while carrying a burden neither of us can truly comprehend is...something else altogether. There is a strength there I could not have understood on my most willful of days.”
“You turned Death away at your own doorstep,” Dani points out, smiling. Viola is pleased.
“I did, didn’t I? And I could never regret it, even now. But you. You are doing something so much more incredible. Loving, even knowing what ending love must craft.”
“This is a bit dark for my wedding day,” Dani points out. Viola nods.
“You are radiant. And you are fortunate. And I wish you both all the happiness in the world.”
It is the strangest wedding toast she’s ever heard, and something within Dani’s heart has never been more at peace.
“How’s our Lady doing tonight?” Jamie asks as Dani slips into bed beside her. She tips her head, thinking on it. Viola, as she usually is once Dani crosses the bedroom threshold, is nowhere to be found.
“Good, I think. Calm.”
“And my wife?” Jamie looks at her, eyes serious. “You’ve been quieter lately. Fighting her less?”
“She’s been fighting me less,” Dani says. “She...likes it here, I think. Likes us. You know, I thought after this much time, she’d get bored or restless or...go back to her old ways, but...”
“But I’m just too gorgeous,” Jamie teases. Dani slings a leg across her body, holds tight to her with hands that never feel as though they can hold on hard enough.
“I think sometimes...sometimes it’s just about remembering. What it’s like to be a person. What it’s like to be in love.”
“Mm,” Jamie agrees, fingertips drawing dizzying spirals on the bare back of Dani’s shoulder. “Well done, you. You’ve tamed your beast.”
Dani sighs, content. “I think it was a joint effort.”
“Yes,” Jamie agrees, kissing the top of her head. “Because I am, famously, too gorgeous to deny.”