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baby, don't cut me loose

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Jamie panics at first. Waking up alone to a flat that's deathly still will do that to you.

Most mornings she has to practically prise Dani out of bed with a crowbar, so she knows something's wrong the moment she opens her eyes to find her wife's side of the bed cold and empty. Still, it's not until Jamie spots the note - folded oh-so-neatly on the bedside table - that she suddenly feels her whole world tip the wrong way up. The terror bubbles up inside her out of nowhere, a brimming pint glass of dread that threatens to spill over with every ragged breath she takes. For a few long heartbeats she can't bring herself to do anything except sit very still while her head spins and her pulse pounds in her fingertips.

But this isn't the first time Dani's beast in the jungle has come prowling out of the dark, and Jamie hasn't gotten them this far by being shite in an emergency. So even as her throat is being choked by sobs, some part of her is filled with a deadly sort of calm. Breathing deep, she concentrates on giving herself over to the feeling. Letting it flow through her, slowly bringing her world back into focus.

Once she's got her bearings, she speed-reads the note. Just on the off-chance that Dani has scrawled a helpful map, or left some other clue as to where she's disappeared to at stupid o'clock in the morning. She hasn't, obviously. But it doesn't matter. Jamie thinks she has a pretty good idea where Dani is going. There's only one place she can go, really. Back to where it all started. Back to Bly.

The first thing she does is ring for a taxi, the fifteen minutes it takes to turn up feeling like an absolute eternity. It takes her exactly two of those minutes to get dressed, then she's outside on the street, pacing up and down to keep warm and thinking hard.

Since that day with the overflowing bathtub, Jamie has been keeping a close eye out for any telltale signs that Dani might be skirting too close to the edge. Coming home to find Dani like that - drenched, glassy-eyed, almost insensible...

Well.

It had broken her heart a little, honestly. But once the bathwater had been drained away and the floor of their flat stopped looking like a flood plain, Dani had seemed to come back to herself. And despite all her fears to the contrary, she was still clearly, undeniably, the same old Dani. Still cramming every spare inch of their flat with half-dead plants salvaged off the street. Still earnestly bringing Jamie bloody awful cups of tea that somehow managed to be both too sweet and too bitter. Sometimes Jamie would look up at just the right moment and catch Dani looking at her with more tenderness than she would ever have thought possible.

Still her best friend, still the love of her life.

And so life had returned to normal. Days, weeks, then months passing by without any major incidents, paranormal or otherwise. Yesterday had been no different, as far as Jamie can recall. A chill wind whistles down the street and Jamie hugs herself, rubbing warmth into her arms as she calls to mind the events of the day before.

They'd had a fairly busy morning at the shop - two wedding parties, then a guilty-looking young lad, splashing out on what Jamie always privately thinks of as the sorry-for-being-a-massive-dickhead bouquet. Things had slowed down after lunch, and by mid-afternoon it was quiet enough to justify knocking off early. Jamie had barely flipped the sign to closed before Dani was dragging her by the hand to make out in the cool darkness of the stockroom like a pair of dopey teenagers.

Jamie had offered to make dinner, then burnt it. Dani had pretended not to notice. They'd split a bottle of wine in front of the telly, some soppy historical romance that Dani had insisted they watch before falling asleep half-way through with her mouth hanging open. Jamie had to half-coax, half-carry her to bed.

It had been a good day. A typical day. One of those nice, boring days, with nothing to set it apart from the hundreds of other nice, boring days they've had just like it. Nothing that would have sent Dani spiralling.

Unless Jamie's missing something.

Overhead, the first hesitant rays of sunlight are just beginning to creep across the sky. It's even earlier in the morning than she'd originally thought - the streetlights haven't even come on yet - and by the time her taxi rounds the corner she's feeling marginally better. After all, Dani can't have much of a head start. All Jamie has to do is catch her up.

"Airport," she tells the cabbie, sliding into the backseat. "Fast as you can, yeah?" He doesn't move though, just eyes her warily in the rear-view mirror. She catches a glimpse of herself and yeah, alright. She does look at bit mental, admittedly. Still half in her pyjamas, with wild hair and an even wilder look in her eyes. Plus she's trembling like a junkie in withdrawal, what with all the danger-chemicals currently flooding her nervous system.

Fuck's sake. 

She digs into her purse, comes up with four crumpled twenty dollar bills and waves them desperately through the partition. "Seriously, mate. I need you to put your foot down." He takes the notes from her without turning around, holding each one up to the weak morning light in turn. After examining them closely for a seemingly interminable amount of time he nods, satisfied. Then, without warning, he floors it. They pull away from the curb at full-tilt, speeding through the sleepy streets so fast it makes Jamie's stomach lurch.

---

Airfare is extortionate.

The plane ticket costs an arm and a leg. Almost double what they make in a week at the shop, the stubborn part of her brain that will always remember what it's like to be dirt-poor reminds her. But their weekly budget isn't what's important right now. The only important thing is getting to Dani before she-

Before it's too late.

She has a sudden vision of Dani floating at the bottom of the lake at Bly Manor, hair drifting around her face like a halo, waxy white limbs tangled among the reeds. It makes Jamie shudder, makes her want to scream. She settles for clenching her fists so tight the bones creak.

Her complete lack of luggage had earned her a funny look from the woman at the ticket desk but it means there's nothing slowing her down as she sprints through the terminal, feeling every cigarette she's ever smoked protesting in her lungs. For the first time in living memory, there's no line at airport security and Jamie glides through the metal detectors like a pond skater, stopping only once to hold her passport out for inspection with clumsy hands. Before she knows it, she's being waved through to the departure lounge.

Then the terror's back to seize her by the throat again, because there are about ten other people in here with her and none of them are Dani. Jamie spins in place, scanning the room with sharp eyes. In the gift shop, a young couple in matching puffer jackets are trying out travel pillows. A middle-aged businessman in a cheap suit is knelt on the floor, rummaging through his carry-on. Over by the toilets, a bald bloke sits with his face buried in a newspaper. There's a first-class lounge tucked discreetly behind a huge, sad-looking spider plant, but when Jamie pokes her head inside the only people she finds are couple of boot-faced old dears that look like they shit caviar.

By this point concern is clawing at Jamie's insides, her brain kaleidoscoping with worst-case scenarios. What if Dani's already been and gone? Or what if she didn't come to the airport in the first place? What if she went straight to the train station, or the bus depot or-

There.

In the very furthest corner by the window. A thick sweep of hair the colour of beach sand that Jamie would recognise anywhere.

Dani is more slumped than sat in her seat, knees pulled right up to her chin, bare arms wrapped tight around them. Her head is down, all of her lovely hair falling over her face like a veil. She looks awfully small, Jamie thinks, curled up into herself like that. Like she's willing herself to disappear. But she hasn't, not yet. She's still here. Still alive, and the relief Jamie feels at the sight of her is like a physical thing, punching the air from her lungs.

Jamie heads towards her, weaving through the rows of terminal seating with the single-mindedness of a guided missile. "Alright, Poppins?" she says, all mock surprise as she flops into the seat directly opposite with a clatter. "Fancy seeing you here!"

Dani's clearly lost in thought, judging from the way she almost jumps clean out of her skin as if a shotgun's gone off next to her ear. Her head snaps up, her eyes flicking to meet Jamie's for just a moment before she screws them tightly shut, like she's absorbing a blow.

Charming, Jamie thinks dryly. Is that any way to greet your adoring wife? 

Still, Jamie persists. "You off to anywhere nice? Aruba? Honolulu? I hear Cape Verde is nice this time of year..."

"What are you doing here, Jamie?" Dani asks in the strangest voice. She doesn't sound angry, or upset, or surprised, just... Flat. Weary.

"What am I doing here?" Jamie scoffs, trying to ignore the way her stomach twists. "Seriously?" Dani only sighs, letting go of her knees so her feet hit the floor with a soft thwack that seems to echo in the cavernous space. Hair spills around her shoulders as she brings her head up by inches.

Jamie leans forward then, hands on her knees, searching Dani's face for some indication of just how deep down this thing goes. She doesn't like what she sees. Dani's skin is so pale it's almost translucent, with dark smudges under both eyes like sooty thumb prints. Her gaze has settled somewhere just over Jamie's left shoulder, eyes red and raw. Unseeing.

She looks a million miles away, Jamie thinks. She looks untouchable.

"Alright," Jamie says finally, swallowing hard around the lump in her throat. "Well, let's see. I woke up at the arsecrack of dawn and you'd vanished. So, here I am-" she gestures broadly with her hands, meaning to indicate the gift shop, their fellow passengers, the fucking aeroplanes cruising along the runway outside, "-to stop you from doing something unbelievably stupid, looks like."

Dani makes an unhappy sound, shaking her head slowly back and forth as if to some internal rhythm. "You shouldn't have come here," she insists quietly, still not looking at Jamie. "Didn't you get my note?"

Jamie makes herself shrug lightly. "Skimmed it. I was in a bit of a hurry, see. But I think I got the gist." She clears her throat, pantomimes scribbling on the palm of her left hand with her right. "Dear Jamie," she begins, furrowing her brow like she's casting about for just the right words, "we've had a good run, but I'm pissing off back to England to chuck myself into a lake. Not to worry, it's all for the best. Thanks for the memories! Love and kisses-" here Jamie flicks her wrist, as if signing off with a dramatic little flourish, "-your wife, Dani."

At another time, on another planet, it could almost be funny. But Jamie's not joking now. The words are tumbling out of her, strangled with hurt and too loud for a public place. Even to her own ears she sounds a bit hysterical. The relief she'd initially felt at finding Dani in one piece has given way to something else. Something dark that throbs in her temples, her chest, like a red-hot poker.

Anger, Jamie realises. She's angry. Angrier than she's been in years. Angrier than when she was a little toe-rag teenager angry at everything. Her mum, her dad, her social worker. The world.

It scares Jamie a bit, the knowledge that she can still get this angry. And with Dani. Jamie does not get angry with Dani, as a rule. She has long since accepted that building a life with Dani meant a life of ups and downs, peaks and valleys. A few smashed plates here, the occasional bit of flooding there. Dani gets a bit erratic sometimes, a bit unpredictable. On and off, like someone fannying about with the lights. But it's not like she can help it. Jamie knows this, has known this, for years. Jamie bears this in mind. She makes allowances, and she absolutely does not get angry.

Except.

Except that morning she'd rolled over to find Dani gone - missing - and what was essentially a suicide note on the bedside table.

Through the window, she can see the fragile light of morning. The sun's not even all the way up, but she already feels like she's lived three gruelling lifetimes today. There's a searing ache blooming at the base of her throat, her head pounding from the adrenaline hangover. She feels like she could cry and, for the first time in their life together, Jamie wants to take Dani by the shoulders and shake her, hard. To look her fixedly in the eyes and plead with her.

How could you do this? 

How could you leave me behind, when you knew what it would do to me?

But losing her temper has never gotten Jamie anywhere except into the back of a police car. And it definitely won't help her now. Not when Dani looks on the verge of unravelling completely. Jamie can feel the agitation pouring off of her like steam. She's wringing her hands in her lap, twisting her fingers together so hard it must hurt. Jamie wants to take her by the wrists, gently pull her hands apart, but she doesn't know if Dani would be amenable to that right now.

Instead, Jamie closes her eyes. Takes a breath, counts to ten. Calls upon the boundless supply of patience she'd been forced to cultivate during those mind-numbing years serving at Her Majesty's Pleasure. She exhales long and slow, pressing her palms flat together like she's in church. When she feels like she can open her mouth without shouting, she fixes Dani with a look. "I'm gonna ask you this in the nicest possible way," Jamie says, fighting to keep her voice from shaking. "What the fuck do you think you're playing at?"

The noise Dani makes is half-way between a gasp and a sob, and Jamie feels guilt spike through her instantly. But at this point even tears are preferable to that lifeless, thousand-yard stare. Jamie can handle tears, no problem. It's the hollow-eyed silence that scares her.

Sensing her opening, Jamie scoots forward in her seat until their knees are almost touching. When she speaks her voice is low and soothing, tempered with slow, exaggerated calm. "Just tell me what's going on, Dani. Please."

It works.

Dani slowly lifts her head to look up at Jamie, meeting her eyes properly for the first time since she sat down. Her lips are set in a thin, bloodless line as she plunges her fingers deep into her hair. She takes an audible breath, then another, then exhales shakily. "Last night-" she manages in a voice clogged with tears. "You were asleep- I woke up and- and-"

"And?" Jamie prompts, when it seems like Dani might slip back into silence.

"And," Dani grits out, fingers pressed to her scalp, "things had... escalated."

Escalated? Christ on a crutch. It's like trying to get a straight answer out of a bloody magic eight ball. But there are moments in life when it's better to say nothing, so Jamie keeps her mouth shut and waits.

Seconds tick past, then: "I was so afraid, Jamie." She almost whispers the words, so faint that Jamie nearly doesn't catch them.

"Afraid?" Jamie repeats, frowning. "Of what? I thought you said you weren't afraid of her any more."

Dani wipes at her eyes roughly and now that she's said it, it's obvious. Jamie can see the fear written all over her face. It's there in the tight set of her jaw, the crease of her brow, the barely-constrained panic glittering in her eyes. Yeah, Dani is bricking it about something, and seeing that puts a sizeable dent in Jamie's anger. She's about to reach for her when Dani suddenly straightens, glowering at Jamie with red-rimmed eyes. "I'm not afraid for me," she hisses, suddenly fierce, "I'm afraid for you."

"Me?" Jamie echoes dumbly. "What-" But Dani is crying openly now, her shoulders hitching with every breath. They're probably giving everybody in the terminal quite the show. The man behind the counter in the gift shop, for one, is craning his neck at an impossible angle to get a good look at them. Nosy prick. She hopes he traps a nerve.

Jamie turns away from him with a scowl, angling her body to block Dani from view as much as possible, and lowers her voice to a gentle murmur. "Hey, come on. It's okay, Dani. Whatever happened, we can figure it out. I just need you to explain it to me."

And Dani does, in between gasping sobs that sound like they're being wrenched out of her. A dream that felt more like a premonition - Jamie underwater, stiff and lifeless. Dani jerking awake to find her hands curled into claws, inches away from Jamie's throat. Jamie listens intently, watches the spasms of guilt cross Dani's face like clouds across the sky. When she finally stops talking she's breathing a little harder, quick and shallow, and colour has risen high in her cheeks. Her hair is falling into her eyes, tangled from where she's been anxiously running her fingers through it, and all Jamie wants to do is smooth it back out of her face and kiss her.

Because while maybe Jamie should be horrified, terrified, by the prospect of being throttled in her sleep, she just... isn't.

Not in the slightest.

Not even a little.

In fact, it takes all of Jamie's self-control to bite back a smile. Not because this is funny - clearly it's serious enough to send Dani bolting into the night like a spooked horse - but because the idea of Dani ever causing her any physical harm is so absurd, so laughable, it loosens some of the pressure in her chest.

But to hear Dani tell it, she'd been two and a half seconds away from being choked like a scrawny chicken. The incident has left Dani shame-faced and petrified, talking about herself like she's basically a ticking time bomb, and so Jamie chooses her next words with great care. "That must have been really scary for you," Jamie says slowly, deliberately. "But it's okay. I'm okay and-"

"It is not okay," Dani tells her, voice raw and wrecked. "I could have hurt you."

"But you didn't. You wouldn't."

Dani shakes her head. She looks hollowed out, utterly defeated. "You don't know that."

But Jamie does know it. She knows it in her bones. Knows it in the very fibre of her being: Dani Clayton would never hurt her. However strong the beast inside her thinks it is, Dani is stronger. If the beast is relentless, Dani is immovable. If the beast is pain and fury, Dani is gentleness. Goodness.

Dani has enough goodness inside her to power a fucking nation state. It pours out of her like a burst water main, and the idea that some long-dead Lady Muck bitch with a family tree that curls back on itself like a fucking Christmas wreath, that she could be the one to strip that goodness away from Dani? Could make her hurt the people she loves?

It's infuriating.

And more to the point, it's a load of old bollocks.

Because Jamie knows Dani better than anyone, and Dani would never.

She could tell Dani this. She could tell her and tell her until she went blue in the face, but Dani's got that stubborn set to her jaw that tells Jamie it wouldn't make a blind bit of difference.

"So that's it then, is it?" Jamie says after only the slightest hesitation. "Your mind's made up?"

"It is." Dani nods tightly, the picture of resolution. "I have to do this. I have to end it. Before someone gets hurt."

And Dani's reasoning has clearly taken on a logic of its own, because there is no way that a spontaneous field trip to Bly ends with anything except both of them getting hurt, one way or the other.

A disembodied voice crackles out over the tannoy, pre-boarding for the Delta flight to La Guardia has begun, sparking a flurry of activity. Chairs creak, suitcases rumble as they are dragged upright. A woman chases her toddler past them, breathing hard. Jamie keeps her eyes trained on Dani's face. Dani holds her gaze steadily, rigid with determination.

"Okay," Jamie says after a long moment. She nods curtly. "Fine." She shifts in her seat, pulls the plane ticket from her back pocket. "I suppose it has been a while since we had a holiday." It's a bit dog-eared from where she's been sat on it, so she sets it flat on her thigh, slowly smoothing out the creases with the pad of her thumb. Then she makes a face. "A winter break in England wouldn't have been my first choice, mind. The weather's bound to be shite. But then, the weather's always shite."

"What is that?" It's more accusation than question, Dani's eyes locked on the ticket in Jamie's hands like it's about to sprout fangs.

Jamie shrugs innocently. "One way ticket to Gatwick," she says, holding it cheerfully aloft, then she lowers it again, faltering. "Cost a fucking bomb. I had to uh- Well." She clears her throat, sheepish. Rubs the back of her neck. "I put it on our credit card. The Amex."

Dani straightens, her eyes narrowing almost imperceptibly, and says, "that card is supposed to be for emergencies," in a tone that comes so close to scolding that Jamie has to bite her lip to keep from smiling.

"I know," Jamie says, carefully placing the ticket in her shirt pocket. "I think this qualifies, though. You see, my wife's in a right state 'cause the dead woman that lives in her head is being a proper fucking cow. It's a bit of a nightmare, really."

"Your poor wife." Dani presses her lips together, gives her a pointed look. "She must be exhausted."

"She is, at that," Jamie allows the point with a small nod. "But she's the also strongest person I've ever met. And the bravest. And-" Jamie leans closer, lowering her voice conspiratorially and wiggling her eyebrows, "-she is fit as fuck."

That gets her an eye roll, the corners of Dani's lips quirking into what could almost be a smile. But it's gone as quickly as it appeared, Dani's face abruptly ironing out as she shakes her head. "Jamie, you can't-"

"I can though," Jamie blurts out, quickly cutting her off. "And I am. Coming to England, that is. You're stuck with me, I'm afraid." Dani sucks in a sharp breath like she's about to interrupt so Jamie hurries on, a hint of desperation bleeding into her voice. "You signed on the dotted line, remember? Sickness, health, till death do us part? The whole nine yards." She holds up her left hand to really hammer the point home, the gold band snug on her finger catching the light. Dani blinks at her, wide-eyed. Her mouth is slightly open but no words seem to be forthcoming, so Jamie just shrugs a shoulder and presses on. "It's all right there in the fine print, baby. I'm always telling you to read the fine print."

Dani crosses her arms then, tight across her chest, and fixes Jamie with a look that is equal parts annoyed and thoroughly unimpressed. Jamie doesn't care. She's on a roll now, determined to brazen this thing out. ""Look," she sighs, holding up her hands in placation, "it's entirely up to you, Poppins. If you're sure - really, truly, one hundred per cent sure - that you want to pack it all in and call it quits?" Jamie tilts her head, tries for nonchalance. "Then just say the word. We'll get on that plane. Go to Bly. Let that stupid fucking murder house swallow us up." She moves a finger in the air between Dani and herself. "Both of us." Her voice cracks a bit then, an eggshell hitting porcelain, and she takes a moment to study Dani's face for a reaction. It's smooth as a mask, unreadable as a fresh piece of paper, but Jamie can tell by the tilt of her head that she's listening.

"But," Jamie continues, pausing to swallow in a dry throat, "if you're not sure, if you think you can stick it out for just a little longer, even if it's only for one more day-" she stops, waits for Dani to meet her eyes, "-then you need to let me take you home."

The last word seems to hang in the air between them, Dani's eyes shining with something that Jamie thinks might be longing. Her face feels brittle with stress but she makes herself smile entreatingly, pressing the advantage. "We can go home," she says again, the word like an incantation. "Get back in bed, have breakfast. The kettle's still off limits," she clarifies quickly, before Dani can get any ideas, "but you can sort out the toast while I do the tea."

Dani lets out a tiny hiccup of laughter, wipes at her eyes with the heels of her hands. Jamie takes that as permission to lean forward, closing the distance between them. She's half in her chair, half on the floor as she takes one of Dani's cold hands between both of her own. "I really could use your help today, actually," she says, her thumb stroking gentle circles on Dani's palm. "We've got a massive delivery of roses coming at two. It'll take me all bloody night to de-thorn them by myself."

Something in Dani's face falters and Jamie wants to pull the words back, to snatch them out of the air like mosquitoes.

Because of all the possible inducements Jamie could have come up with, please come home so we can spend the afternoon up to our elbows in spikes, mangling our hands to mincemeat is not the most compelling. In fact, it's only marginally better than please come home, there's an enormous pile of ironing in the basket and my shirts always come out weird when I do it. 

So when Dani smiles it takes Jamie completely off guard. It lights up her whole face, tremulous but real, and so sweet it makes Jamie's chest ache.

"We have a good life, don't we?" Dani murmurs, almost to herself. She sounds a bit dazed, like it's only just occurred to her.

Jamie nods emphatically, her throat suddenly thick. "The best."

"I'm sorry I keep making it so much harder."

"You don't-"

"I do. The bad days- Sometimes she's so loud..." Dani trails off, rubbing at her temples. "Sometimes- It's like there's a storm in my head, just this roar drowning everything else out."

"I know," Jamie says, even though she doesn't. Not really. "But storms pass."

A crease appears between Dani's eyebrows. "What if this one doesn't?"

"It will." Jamie insists, putting every ounce of conviction she has behind the words. "We'll wait it out together."

There's a slow beat of silence where they just look at each other. Jamie holds herself completely still, as if the slightest movement could tip the scales one way or another. Her heart is thrashing in her chest when she feels Dani's hand move between her own. For one horrible moment Jamie thinks she's pulling away, but she only adjusts her grip so they're palm to palm, then tangles their fingers together. Dani blows out a long shaky breath, then nods like they've reached an understanding. "One day at a time, right?"

Outside a jet engine roars. The sun has shifted overhead, a strip of light slants through the window across Dani's face, reflecting in her eyes. For the first time in a long time Jamie finds herself noticing the asymmetry there. The brown and the blue. The dark and the light.

In the very beginning, when her shoes were still squelching with lake water, the contrast had been so striking, so unexpected, that Jamie couldn't help searching Dani's eyes for a trace of the unfamiliar, for something ruthless and ancient and inexhaustible. But no matter how hard she'd looked, all she could see was Dani.

All these years, all she's ever seen when she looks in Dani's eyes is Dani.

"Exactly," Jamie agrees. Dani's hand is warm in hers as Jamie gently tugs her to her feet. She comes easily, leaning into Jamie's shoulder, resting her head there. "One day at a time."

Jamie feels tears stinging her eyes, even as her smile widens to cheek-aching proportions. Because she knows it isn't over. Sooner or later, Dani's beast will come skulking back, ready to dig its claws in all over again. It might be easier to drive off next time. Then again, it might not.

Probably, this is something that will follow them for the rest of their lives. Forever lurking at the edges, creeping like a shadow. Dani will still have her bad days. But, Jamie thinks, there will be good days too. Beautiful, boring days.

And those will always be worth protecting.