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(the rest is just) confetti

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She’s fading. She can feel it--the past six months have served as more than a warning, of how it will go in the end. Moments vanishing into hours without her consent. Hours becoming days before she can blink. She’s fading, all the pieces that once were Dani Clayton being wiped slowly--slowly--slowly away like a wet cloth across a blackboard.

She moves as quickly as she’s able, knowing there isn’t much time left. Knowing the moments-hours-days in this unplugged reality can only end one way. One way that is acceptable, anyway. 

The Lady would prefer otherwise. The Lady would prefer another method, another road taken. Every day, Dani gets a little closer to walking that road. Every day, the Lady gets a little closer to the surface. 

She almost has a face, some days. Almost has a self, some days, beyond anything Dani has been able to make out over the years. Sometimes, she opens her eyes and watches blue eyes, long lashes, hair so dark, it’s nearly black tumbling across a sharply beautiful face, and she thinks, This will be me. If I let it. If I let her. No more Dani Clayton. No more love of Jamie’s life. Just this woman, whose red lips turn up at the corners like she knows a secret Dani would kill to keep buried. 

She boards a plane. A nearly twelve-hour flight to London, they say, with expressions that suggest so much more. You don’t look so good, Miss. You don’t look so good at all. Can we call someone to travel with you, to make certain you aren’t alone?

Not alone, she thinks hollowly. Haven’t been alone in so long. 

The last flight she boarded was so different. The last time on a plane, over a year ago, with Jamie at her side, had felt like one final bid for freedom. She hadn’t even cared where they were going--had just run her finger up a globe with her head turned to the side, heedless of where she’d land. Didn’t matter. Jamie’s hand over hers, Jamie’s ring caressing her skin, had been enough. 

The Lady followed her, of course. She’s been outrun by too many ghosts, never once able to pull ahead in the race for her own sanity. She knows by now--knew, even before the not-quite-face started appearing in every pane of glass--there would be no escaping. A sacrifice willingly made is only legitimate if it is driven to completion. 

But she’d thought--hoped--desperately needed--more time. More time with Jamie. More time burning popcorn, and lazily cherishing Sunday mornings in bed, and trying to wrap gifts the night before Christmas with Jamie bustling over mulled wine in the next room. More time. You get only so much, and she’s had so much more than she’s earned, but still--

I wish, she thinks, and does not allow herself to go further. If she finishes that thought, it’ll all change. If she finishes that wish, she might turn around in a London terminal. Book the first flight right back. She imagines herself turning up on the doorstep, imagines Jamie’s shell-shocked face on the other side of the lock. Jamie, pulling her close, whispering into her hair that she is still here, still her, still pushing toward a future both of them can see growing thin. 

I wish, she thinks, and does not finish. She leans her head back, lets her eyes close, letting Jamie’s sleepy smile play across her memory. The memories are really all she has now, for this final day. This final bid for Dani. She ought, she thinks, keep her eyes open. She ought, she thinks, drink in every color the world has to offer. The sunrise. The storm. The grass, the architecture, the human laughter which ties the world together on even the worst day. She ought to keep the world firmly in hand as long as she’s able.

But it’s memory that wins out, in the end. She’s so tired. Maybe this is the Lady’s gift to her--maybe this is the Lady being kind, in her own horrific way. Not tucking Dani away, not really; Dani is terrified to let her hands off the wheel even for a moment, terrified she might wake to a plane in an unresolvable nosedive. She holds on, knowing it’s only for a little longer, knowing the exhaustion has to win out eventually--and knowing, even still, there is this one thing left to do. 

No; she does not allow herself to be tucked anywhere. But the memories are stronger than the daylight stretching out beyond the plane carrying her home. The memories are stronger than the airline stewardess with her nervous eyes, than the drink cart rattling by, than the offer of food. Dani closes her eyes, and she is--

--in a bathroom, Jamie’s shirt soft around her shoulders, Jamie’s hand firm around her upper arm. Jamie, eyes refusing to shed tears, Jamie, lips trembling, Jamie, reminding her she will stay, she will stay, she has to stay--

--in a hotel in New York, skin stained with the neon of city lights strobing through the window as she kisses Jamie, as she keeps her eyes on Jamie’s face, as she watches Jamie cast her head back and arch into her hands--

--in a restaurant in Paris, cigarette smoldering between her fingers as Jamie’s hand slides around her ribs. Jamie’s thigh relaxed beneath the stroke of her fingers, Jamie’s perfume mingling with her own from the careless, easy way Jamie had leaned her head against Dani’s shoulder on the cab ride over--

--in their kitchen, a ring hidden in a pot, Jamie’s eyes widening with understanding as it clicks home that Dani is doing this, Dani is certain, Dani knows this is the thing to do even as she’s running out of time to do it. Jamie’s hands in her hair, Jamie’s thumbs on her cheeks, Jamie laughing and crying and kissing her all in mad, perfect joy--

--in the back room of The Leafling, Jamie shushing her, listening for the knock at the door that says they ought to have opened back up after lunch twenty minutes ago. Jamie shushing her, and sighing, and giving up any pretense as Dani kisses her neck, hand slipped between trouser and skin, not caring the least about time as it marches on--

--on a plane. She is on a plane, and the plane is touching down, and time is unraveling around her faster, now. She feels the world bend and twist, as though she is walking not on solid ground, but upon shifting waves. If she loses focus for even a moment, she might forget--might forget a woman cannot walk on water, might forget and sink under before she’s ready to go. 

Could she ever be ready to go?

She calls a car, wishing almost that it could be a dark-haired man in glasses and a leather jacket who steps out to help with bags she has not brought. She calls a car, and closes her eyes in the cold sunshine to wait, and she is--

--in an apartment barely furnished, takeout containers spread across the floor, Jamie’s head in her lap. Jamie, saying, “Christmas in Vermont--know it’s silly, but I feel like I was always supposed to be here.” Jamie, leaning up to kiss her with breath tinged with wine, the giddy anticipation of a new life dancing along her tongue as it slides between Dani’s lips--

--in a bedroom no longer her own, tears running down her cheeks, Jamie’s pinky notched around her own. Jamie, in shades of blue and promise, saying, “D’you want company? While you wait for your beast in the jungle, do you want--” and pressing lips to white knuckle in a knight’s oath--

--in a hallway, vibrating with need, wishing she could find the words to coax Jamie into another night. Just one more night, she thinks, knowing it could never be enough. One more. And one more. And one-- as Jamie is kissing her with sweet promise, Jamie guiding her hands up to hold tight, Jamie saying, “There are other nights, and there will be...”--

--in a grove of glorious flowers, rain sweet on the air, feeling as though this is what it is to jump--to fly--to bury her hands in Jamie’s hair and linger in every inch of her skin, her jacket pulled tight between her fingers, her hips bumping into Dani’s like she never wants to be apart from her again as she recognizes, “Once in a blue goddamn moon, I guess”--

-in a kitchen filled with the mundane ease of afternoon meal, of new friends and new charges, a woman strolling in as though she has nowhere to be and no rush to find it, her eyes meeting Dani’s with the simple certainty of oh, hello, you--

--standing at a lake. She is dressed, she notes with distant alarm, in a tight red dress unlike anything she’s ever owned. She is dressed for a show no one else will see. A moment, she thinks, given to the Lady without realizing. And still, she wound up here. Still, her legs carried her all this way. The Lady had allowed it, or Dani had mandated it, but either way: she is here, now.

She is here, and she wishes. She wishes with everything she would not allow herself on the plane over. She wishes, and she dreams, and she knows she could not for all the world put Jamie through it. Even now. Especially now. 

She is twisting the ring, as she begins to walk.

She is holding the ring, as the waves lick higher. 

She is gripping the ring, as her shoulders, her neck, her head vanish beneath the waves. 

And this, here, a final gift--from the Lady, or from Viola, or from the magic of the night Dani Clayton gave up her future to save a child from this very fate. One more sweet moment granted, as she closes her eyes, as she lets the cold seep into her bones. Her lungs are quiet. Her heart does not pound from her chest. She is--

--in a bed with someone she has chosen, for the first time. In a bed, with someone who helps banish the shadows, just a little. In a bed, with Jamie’s hair curling between her fingers, Jamie’s skin sliding warm and supple against her own, Jamie kissing every part of her she’s never allowed anyone else to grace. Jamie, asking if she’s all right. Jamie, asking if she’s sure. Jamie, already loving her in ways she can’t yet know will punctuate her entire life. 

Jamie, holding her tight as she breaks, swells, breaks again. Jamie, kissing her brow, tasting her skin, testing the weight of her as she rolls them both over and takes the lead. Jamie, smiling with wonder, eyes dilated, body seeking contact as they move between soft sheets. 

Jamie, falling asleep not upon finishing, but in the middle of a conversation. Jamie, who has been asking about school, about favorite movies, about Dani’s first look at the stars and last time being sick, as though she’s trying to pack a lifetime into a single night. Jamie, punctuating every sentence with fingers tracing Dani’s every scar, every freckle, every beat of a heart that already sings Jamie’s name. 

Jamie, falling asleep mid-word, pushed tight against Dani as though making of herself a talisman against the dark. Jamie, breathing soft and deep and even. 

Jamie, with her now, with her always, with her until the very last. 

Jamie. 

There is, at last, peace. 

Chapter Text

They don’t even realize it’s happening, at first. The cold months have come on strong, and customers are slowing to a crawl--the world is dim, the air has teeth, and even the allure of bright colors and fragrant life are not enough to coax people out into the snow. The shop is getting by on phone orders, bundled figures appearing out of the storm just long enough to exchange one sort of green for another before vanishing once again. 

When the teenagers come, Jamie thinks nothing of it. They aren’t the sort to worry over, she determines right off the bat--their eyes don’t skitter, their bodies don’t slink, there is no sign at all that one is playing hook while the rest filch items from the shelves. Anyway, theirs isn't the sort of shop that inspires theft. 

“Probably just cold,” she says when Dani points them out--the same four kids every time, huddled together as though for protection against something adults can’t quite make out. They creep among the flowers, hands firmly in pockets as though afraid any touch might inspire a wilt, a collapse, a destruction they can’t bear. 

They don’t come every day--maybe every other, maybe every three or four--but as the winter wears on, Jamie comes to anticipate them like a sort of questionable clockwork. They must be school-aged; they never turn up before four in the afternoon, and rarely loiter longer than an hour in unzipped coats, snow-speckled beanies, scarves draped around throats like casual armor against the wind. Slowly, they make their way through the shop, every step careful, every glance quick. They never buy, though from time to time, one might ask a question--what’s this one? is it poisonous? how long does it take to grow? 

Jamie answers one and all, remembering all too well what it was to be young and cold and lonely. There’s a firm delight in watching their faces open up--one girl’s brown eyes growing bright when Jamie asks her favorite flower, another leaning excitedly in when Jamie offers to show them how and why she’s arranging certain plants together. Dani leans against the counter, arms crossed, smiling. 

“You’re good with them,” she says softly when they’ve gone. Jamie shrugs. 

“Just being polite.”

It’s more than that, though, she knows deep down. More than being simply kind, when she moves behind the counter one evening and tips her head toward the back room. The kids, moving as a single entity as if afraid to break some magic spell, step through to a space designed entirely for Dani and Jamie--a couch, a table for lunch breaks, an endless array of grow lamps and seed trays. They ooh and ahh, asking fevered questions: why is this one so smallis this one sick? how do you know how often to water them? 

They remind her a bit of Flora, with their thirst for understanding, and a bit of Miles, with their nervous grins. They remind her, most of all, of Jamie herself at that age: gangly and uncertain in her body, stealing looks at women who seemed to carry themselves with a grace she’d never possess. Even now, the way they look at Dani when she pulls her hair back into a ponytail and rolls up her sleeves is familiar. That hunger for someone to see them. That need to be noticed, and cared for, and respected. 

“Think the one in the pink’s got a bit of a crush,” she observes. Dani looks startled.

“Not on--”

It’s sweet, Jamie thinks. She doesn’t know quite how these kids found them--doesn’t know what quiet alarm bell must have gone off to tell them this place was safe, secure, for them. It’s good, to think they’re finding themselves here. That one seems to be learning she wants a garden of her own, bringing a notebook to jot down all the starter plants Jamie has to offer for spring. That another seems more interested in the business of it all, trailing Dani with questions about accounting and inventory and how they’d decided on the name. 

They all seem most interested in simply being here. In breathing in the warmth, in trailing fidgety fingers across hardy leaves, in watching with rapt attention as Jamie shows them how to repot a plant too expansive for its own good. They haven’t grown to ask the real questions yet--who are you two, really? how did you meet? what is it like, being with someone who sees you for real?--but Jamie thinks they might someday. Maybe in spring, when world exhales again. Maybe in the hope of summer, when Jamie might offer them all temporary jobs. 

For now, The Leafling is simply a place to escape the cold. It is quiet, and it asks nothing of them, and if their eyes linger on Jamie’s hand against Dani’s back, if their smiles grow unaccountably broad when Dani drops an unthinking kiss on Jamie’s cheek, it may be something else, too. Something that says, you can be happy this way. Something that says, we’re here, too. 

Jamie wishes she’d had something like this, at their age. She figures it is the least she can do for the girl she once was, to be here for them now.

“Softy,” Dani teases as they lock up. Jamie shrugs.

“Yeah, but when has that ever been a surprise?”

Chapter Text

The phone is ringing again.

The phone, it seems to Shirley Crain, never quite stops ringing these days. It’s Steven with excuses, or Theo to say she’ll be working late; it’s the rehab center with updates that make Shirley tired, or Dad trying to patch something too long broken to even find all the pieces. It’s people, mostly, strangers Shirley doesn’t know and can’t help letting in anyway--people who are aching with loss, adrift in their own shock, saying, “I don’t have much, but I want to do right by her--is this enough? Do you have packages that could...”

The phone is ringing, and Shirley is exhausted. A fifteen-hour shift, a headache that seems only to swell when she baits it with aspirin and cold water, a creeping guilt that never entirely fades when she catches sight her own reflection. 

It’s ringing. Still. Always. She closes her eyes, taps her fingers against the back of the phone case. Flips it over. 

Nell.

Of course. 

Shirley has never much believed in sixth sense magic--in Theo’s furtive need for gloves, or Nell and Luke with their “twin thing”, or Dad’s peculiar brand of talking to shadows--but she always seems able to tell when the call is coming from her youngest sister. There’s an extra vibrato in the ringtone, somehow, when Nell is calling. An extra tremble in Shirley’s hand as she lets her finger hover over the accept button.

Oh, might as well. Nell will only call again in an hour, or two days, or next week. Might as well see what’s on her mind.

“Hello?”

“Sorry,” Nell says instantly. “Sorry, it’s late.”

Shirley’s eyes slide to the computer monitor, to the white numbers announcing an accusatory 9:07. Shit. It is. “Honestly, I hadn’t even noticed.”

“Oh.” A beat. Nell had clearly been prepared for sharp words, had clearly been ready to shield herself in endless apologies until Shirley came back to a level she could approach. Am I like that? Shirley wonders with a wince. Do they need armor to make this call? 

“What’s up, Nellie?” Too casual. Too smooth. She sounds like she’s trying to play Theo’s role, all cool eyes and darting snark. “I’m--it’s good to hear your voice.”

It is. She misses Nell more than she truly knows what to do with--misses Nell’s easy smile, the way she leans forward into a conversation with hands clasped between her knees, the furtive little looks she sends across the room to whichever sibling is making the most sense that day. Nell’s choice to move across the country had been reasonable--at least to Nell--but to Shirley, it had felt like one more battle lost. One more sibling stepping over the line to Steve’s way of thinking. 

“Nell?” She thinks for a minute the line has gone dead, that Nell has abandoned whatever worried twitch sent her hand skittering for Shirley’s name in her contact list. “Are you...”

“Sorry,” Nell repeats. “Sorry, I had--it was a weird day. Do you have those? The ones where you just...really need to hear someone’s voice?”

Someone stable, she doesn’t say. Someone who isn’t hiding out in a nightclub, or warding off the urge for a needle, or pinning all the family trauma to a butterfly board with the biggest, sharpest knives he can find.

“Bad dreams again?” Shirley asks, and Nell exhales. Laughs. It’s shaky, that laugh--it sounds like Mom did, near the end of that summer, when she’d been all dressing gowns and pounding headaches. Shirley closes her eyes.

“No. I mean, yes. Yes, I guess. Always. But no. I think I just...you remember movie nights? I miss movie nights.”

Nell, always going back. Nell, always finding little ways to dig up the past. Sometimes, it’s like this: mundane, sweet, nostalgic. Sometimes, it’s harder to stomach. Shirley is grateful she's having this sort of night, the kind steeped in monotony. 

“What movie would you watch, if you could?” she asks. She leans back in her chair, lets her muscles slacken, lets Nell’s surprised giggle drag her over the line from exhausted mother, wife, businesswoman to sister. 

“This is stupid--I can never remember the name of it--the one that used to scare the pants off Luke? You remember?”

“Going to need to be much more specific than that,” Shirley says, smiling. Luke hadn’t found a movie he couldn’t run screaming from until he was almost twelve years old, and even then, it had been a matter of stiff upper lip above actual courage. 

“The one with the sea monster,” Nell says. “And the guy--the kid from those hockey movies--”

“Magic in the Water,” Shirley intones, remembering all at once a mock sleepover in Aunt Janet’s living room, sleeping bags spread across the floor. Theo, pretending she was too old to care about a baby movie; Luke, pretending he was too old to flip out whenever the screen got even remotely dark. 

“And Luke hated it so much, she agreed to switch movies halfway through,” Nell goes on. “And she put on--”

“The fucking NeverEnding Story,” Shirley finishes, laughing despite herself. 

“Luke just screaming when the luck-dragon shows up for the first time,” Nell says fondly. “And I’m trying to remind him that’s a good guy. That’s a good thing to have turning up. And Luke just goes--”

“Why,” Shirley recalls, “would you want a dragon in your house?” She waits for Nell’s giggles to die down, for Nell’s breath on the other end of the line to level out again. “So, which one would you put on right now?”

“Easy,” Nell says simply. “The Secret Garden.”

It’s so out of left field, so perfectly Nell that Shirley bursts into laughter again. She can hear Nell grinning, can picture her perfectly: dark hair curtaining a hopeful face, eyes bright as she leans across her table or into the comfort of her couch. Nell no-longer-Crain, with a ring on her finger and a house she’s made into a home miles and miles away from anything Shirley can touch. 

“I miss you, Nellie,” she says, shutting her eyes against a surprising well of emotion. “I really do.”

“Come out,” Nell says. “Next time you get a break, fly out and stay with us. Arthur would love to see you.”

Next time you get a break. Nell, dreaming again. Nell, believing with her whole heart that life is simple enough to allow for breaks, for impulse flights, for sisterly bonding time just because it’s needed. 

“You’re okay?” Shirley says, sidestepping the invitation for now. “You’re doing all right with all that sunshine?”

“Sure,” says Nell without missing a beat. Shirley imagines her smile dipping, the tension drawing back into her shoulders as she hunches smaller in her seat. “Sure. It’s great.”

It’s great, Shirley. I’m great, Shirley. I only call because my head is ringing with monsters too big to shut out even after twenty-odd years, Shirley. 

She isn’t Mom, Shirley thinks. She isn’t Mom, muttering to empty rooms, or Dad, all vacancies and no space to rent. She’s just Nell: a heart laid open, beating too hard, waiting for someone to patch her up again. And if that never happens? If no one ever learns quite how to stitch her shut?

She has Arthur, Shirley thinks, and there’s relief in the idea. Arthur and Nell, a closed circuit. Two people with all they could need in one house. Maybe there will be kids someday, or maybe they’ll sweep in at Christmas with expensive gifts and wild laughter, and it’ll all be--it’ll all just be--

Great, Shirley. I’m great. 

She hangs up gently on Nell’s soft goodbye, and wonders why it doesn’t quite feel like Nell was telling her the truth. 

Chapter Text

It’s not jealousy, exactly. Jealousy is an ugly word, prompted by the belief that your person is, in fact, drifting--or that you are, in fact, not all there to hold their focus.

Which, admittedly, Dani isn’t. All there. Not all the time. But she still wouldn’t call this jealousy. Jealousy was Eddie’s arm tightening around her shoulders at the movie theater. Jealousy was her mother’s eyes darkening whenever a woman was too polite to her father as he ordered drinks. Jealousy was whatever kept Peter Quint locked to the Bly grounds, his fists tight around Rebecca Jessel’s desire to be better, even in death. 

Jealousy is ugly. This is not jealousy. This is...

Casual amusement. 

“So,” Jamie is saying, leaning against the counter and pointing to a brochure. “These are the most popular options for a wedding arrangement. You said you don’t want roses?”

“Tacky,” the bride says, her nose wrinkled. She’s probably in her early twenties, Dani gauges, and seems tailor-made for big, sprawling events like a wedding. Even the way she walks is orderly, her heels clacking, her body following a straight line from flower to counter and back as she speaks. 

The bride isn’t really the person Dani has been watching, all things considered. The bride knows exactly where she is, what she wants, how she’d like them to fall in line for her special day. 

It’s the other one. The maid of honor, who appears by all indication--jawline, hair color, similar smile--to be the bride’s sister. Maybe twenty-five, maybe a little older. Pretty, as these things go, though not exactly Dani’s type. 

Dani doesn’t seem to be her type, either, from the way her eyes drag up Jamie’s frame and linger around her lips. 

If Jamie has noticed any of this--the way this woman is quite literally attempting to phase through the counter to where Jamie is standing--she’s doing a remarkable job of not showing it. Her eyes sweep from bride to book and back again as she keeps up a steady stream of conversation primarily intended to keep the customer talking. Jamie’s method of finding exactly what a person is looking for is very similar to her method of living with Dani: coax them into talking about themselves, about their day, about what they like and don’t like, and piece the rest quietly together. 

She’s so busy listening, she seems to miss altogether the way the maid of honor reaches across the counter and drifts a hand close to Jamie’s. “What would you pick, for your big day?”

Jamie smiles, and though her gaze does not cut to Dani, there’s something about the way she leans back and bumps Dani’s ankle with the heel of one boot that says it all. “Haven’t really thought about it, if I’m honest. Not really the white-wedding type.”

“What type are you?” the woman asks hopefully. Dani swallows a snort. Jamie only smiles. 

“Quiet, I think. Private.”

The woman chews this over, letting her fingers sneak closer to Jamie’s hand. Jamie, politely, retrieves her own fingers before contact can be made, her attention sliding seamlessly back to the task at hand.

“So. You’re thinking how many smaller arrangements, for the tables?”

Dani is not watching the maid of honor out of true jealousy, so much as curious interest. The world is changing around them a little more every year, celebrities beginning to come out as politicians bat around the legality of love they don’t understand, and things are...improving. Cautiously, she suspects things will continue to improve, that there might one day be a time where she’ll be able to take Jamie’s hand in a public restaurant. Kiss Jamie in a movie theater. Love Jamie in some way resembling acceptable for the eyes of strangers. 

Even then, even in a world where no one cares, she can't imagine the bravado of this woman. The sheer strength of will it takes for a strange woman to meet Jamie as she steps around the counter to show them out, her hand sliding up Jamie’s arm in a fashion not remotely professional. Her voice is soft as she leans in toward Jamie’s ear, her smile predatory. 

Dani watches with curious interest, and if there is something small--a ghost of anger, a ghost of sudden sharp heat in her stomach like a fist tightening--it is nothing. It is irrelevant. Jamie is her own person, is completely welcome to whatever interactions come her way. Jamie, she reminds that part of her which sometimes feels nothing like her at all, loves her. 

Loves you, that little part murmurs, but can’t have you. Not all of you. Not the way this woman gets her husband, forever, with a ring, and a party, and a white dress--

Jamie is stepping away from the woman, a slow roll back to match the tense smile on her lips. The woman’s face is darkening, something unpleasant in her gaze when it swings to find Dani. Jamie raises a hand, waves goodbye, allows them to round the corner before she flips the sign and latches the door.

“Unbelievable,” she mutters. “Did you see that?”

“The part where she was eating you alive for an hour, or the part where she tried to mount you right at the door?” Dani says dryly. That little kicking drumbeat in her chest is still pounding away, the squeezing fist rapping out a message she can’t ignore. Even if it were legal. Even if they all understood. Even then, you wouldn’t be able to do it. 

“Don’t think her sister didn’t notice, either,” Jamie says, rumpling her hair with one hand. “Think she’ll have some explaining to do this evening--hey, you all right?”

“Sure,” Dani says, too brightly. Can’t have all of you, and doesn’t she deserve better? Doesn't she deserve someone who is always steady, always the same from dawn to dusk, who never looks into a mirror and sees--

“Dani.” Jamie’s hands are on her shoulders, Jamie’s face much closer than she realized. She starts, nearly stumbles, relieved when Jamie’s grip tightens just enough to keep her upright. “You look like you’ve seen a--”

“Just...” Dani shakes her head. How to put this? How to explain it? “Just...something about that didn’t...sit right, I guess.”

“No,” Jamie agrees, “I’d think not. Handsy, wasn’t she? But I hope you don’t think--hope I’ve never given you cause to worry--’cuz, Dani, honest to God, I’ve never--”

She looks so nervous, it’s almost like the years have rolled back to a sunny day in this very shop, to a single moonflower and Jamie’s hopeful smile. All at once, that grip of fear in her gut loosens, Dani’s breath returning to her in a long sweep. 

“Jamie. Breathe.” 

“No, I only--I know how it probably looked, but she was trying to give me her number, and I--”

“Told her she’d have to get in line?” Dani teases. Jamie looks about ready to swallow her own tongue. 

“Told her I'd never met someone half as in love as me, and she should be lucky to find the same someday.”

“Oh my god, Jamie, she’s never going to come back.” She’s laughing, unable to stop herself. Jamie, not looking even the least bit ashamed, tucks her hands into her pockets and shrugs. 

“I didn’t like the way you were looking at her, is all.”

“What, like I was going to escort her out in a fury and blame it on my low-key possession?” 

“No.” Jamie is not smiling. There is an earnest quality to her face, even as she reaches up and touches Dani’s cheek. “Like she was making you sad. Haven’t seen you like that since we left England. Dani, honestly, you know I’d never want...anything but this. Ever.”

It isn’t a question. It is maybe the truest thing Jamie has ever said, and it pulls at Dani’s heart harder for that. 

“I trust you,” she says quietly. “It wasn’t that. Wasn’t even her. Just...it’s enough? Even knowing we don’t know...even knowing there could only be--”

“It’s enough,” Jamie says, cupping her face in both hands, pressing her forehead to Dani’s with enough force to make them both laugh a little. “It’s always enough.”

She kisses Dani once, twice, and Dani lets herself linger in the moment. Lets herself forget about windows and strangers and tempting hands striving to coax Jamie off the path. None of it matters. None of it matters if Jamie is truly happy here, if Jamie is truly home here. 

“I’m only saying,” she says when Jamie breaks, glances back over her shoulder, begins guiding Dani backwards toward the supply room. “You have options, for when I’m too old or too boring. What was she, the seventh one to try to slip you a phone number?”

Jamie groans. “What is it about me? Do I have emotionally available stamped on my forehead? This never used to happen in England.”

“You scowl much less now,” Dani points out, breathless when Jamie sweeps an arm around her waist and dips her toward the couch. “And you wear all those suspenders--”

“Could tell them,” Jamie teases, following her down. “Could greet each and every woman at the door with, ‘Welcome to The Leafling, purveyors of fine floral arrangements, my name is Jamie and this perfect specimen is the love of my--’”

She’s kissing Dani, all jokes forgotten, and Dani finds herself dreaming--not for the first time--of wild possibilities. Of a sunset wedding, of friends gathered close, of Jamie kissing her just like this in front of anyone who matters even a little bit. Of what it would be like, to look at Jamie and know how real they are, even in the moments Dani doesn’t feel real at all. 

Doesn’t take a wedding for that, she thinks, as Jamie’s lips trail down flushed skin. Doesn’t take anything except for her...and me...and...

There’s a ring she’s been looking at. A simple thing, gold, heart-hands-crown. No one would know. No one would need to know. All that matters is...all that matters is...

She can’t have all of you, that horrible awareness of time mutters. Dani closes her eyes, grips tighter to Jamie as she vanishes into the kiss. 

She gets everything that counts, she decides here and now. She gets it until there’s nothing left to give. 

Chapter Text

“What brought you back?” 

It’s been days--two, Jamie thinks, though time seems to be unraveling in a way unique to grief--since the lake. Since finding Dani with a foreign color in one eye, a child in her arms, a shiver in her bones no amount of firewood seems able to coax out again. It’s been days, and she hasn’t been able to bring herself to leave Dani’s side. 

Dani doesn’t fight her. Dani, instead, seems magnetized in some fresh way, always finding her way back to Jamie no matter the situation. Jamie returns from the kitchen with mugs of hot tea she nearly splashes on the both of them when Dani shifts out of a shadow, hugging herself with nervous intensity. Jamie moves toward the front door and finds Dani waiting outside in a jean jacket and vacant stare, wondering if Jamie can find something for her to do with her hands. She can’t sit still, it seems, unless Jamie is holding her--and even then, she can’t stop shaking. 

She hasn’t asked many questions. Hasn’t spoken much, except when spoken to by one of the kids, by Wingrave asking dazedly for advice on tiny matters around the house. Things that should have been Hannah’s purview, or Owen’s--things that should, in a world that makes any kind of sense, still belong to their flirtatious grins, their genial banter, their soft way of moving around one another in a constant orbit. 

Dani answers politely, matter-of-factly, and when Jamie moves slightly out of reach, she seems to drift as though under a power not entirely her own until her hand can slide into Jamie’s once more. 

It’s on the second--or possibly third--day that she asks it. “What brought you back?” Her voice holds that same level, matter-of-fact tone from telling Flora to brush her teeth, telling Miles to tie his shoe before he stumbles. “What brought you back that night?”

Jamie hums to buy time, gazing at the ceiling. They’re wrapped close in Dani’s bed--what Jamie has come all too quickly to think of as their bed, uninterested in going back to the cold quiet of her own flat ever again, so long as Dani needs her--as the hours drift from late to midnight. Dani’s head is on her chest, Dani’s hand closed tight around her t-shirt as though holding Jamie in place with nothing more than her own urgency. 

“Told you. Had a dream.”

“You said that,” Dani says quietly. “But it...I mean, it doesn’t make sense, right? A dream. Dreams are weird.”

“They are.”

“They don’t usually force you out of bed and into the car.”

Jamie sighs. “It...you’ll think I’m...” She can’t finish the sentence. Can’t say that final word, which has been haunting Dani since the moment they met, and seems only to have tightened its hold on her life since the lake. 

Dani raises her head very slightly, her smile nowhere near meeting her eyes. “Crazy?”

“It was a dream,” Jamie repeats. “A nightmare, I guess. Nothin’ more.”

“But you came.”

You needed me. Not that there was any way to know that. Not that there was any reason to assume that. She’d gone to bed that night after a cold shower, face in her hands as she’d relished the memory of Dani asking her to stay. The memory of Dani’s kiss, her hands pressing Jamie close, her urgent hope so clear, Jamie still isn’t sure how she’d denied Dani its power. 

“It sounded like Hannah,” she says now, slowly, each word fragmented in her mouth. It hurts to think of Hannah--of Hannah saying, “Not you, oh, not you. What are you doing here?”--of Hannah’s eyes huge and screaming in her normally-serene face. It hurts, to remember the way Hannah had looked at them, and how Jamie hadn’t even had time to reach out to her, hadn’t even been able to pause to consider what might turn Hannah from the elegant woman of her memory to this terrified version stumbling out of the dark. 

“The dream,” Dani presses. Her hand traces Jamie’s collar, her fingers light on Jamie’s skin. Jamie shivers, does not reach to stop her, and Dani keeps going--trailing the backs of her fingers up Jamie’s neck, her nails along the line of Jamie’s jaw, as if memorizing Jamie in this tactile method is the only thing keeping her in this bed. 

“It sounded like Hannah screaming,” Jamie says, and closes her eyes. “Have you ever heard Hannah scream?”

Dani shakes her head once, thumb swiping across Jamie’s chin, fingers splaying along her cheek. Jamie closes her eyes tighter. 

“Nor I. Not once in three years of knowin’ her. But she was screaming in this dream--like she couldn’t breathe right. Like something had her by the throat and...and she was shouting for us both. Me and Owen.”

Dani sits up, watching her steadily. That brown eye is eerie even still, though each hour sets it more firmly into her face, tries a little harder to convince Jamie it’s always been a part of Dani Clayton. She swallows, lets Dani’s hand continue its play up the planes of her face, stroking along her lips, her nose, the curve of cheekbone. 

“She was screaming, and I was running, and the lake was...everywhere. Had come up off its banks somehow--I thought maybe a storm had...dunno, but it was creeping up to the house. And I just kept thinking...just kept seeing your room. This room. Underwater.”

It hadn’t been Dani’s room, then, though--not if she’s honest with herself, not if she tries to call the dream back like a film gone in reverse. It hadn’t been Dani’s room yet, this horribly sunken version of bed and nightstand and lamp. 

It had been Rebecca, hadn’t it? Rebecca, wrapped around herself with nothing more to hang onto. Rebecca, staring with horrified eyes up into the lapping waves as they drew ever nearer. 

Trauma, thinks Jamie, does funny things. Plays funny tricks on a person. She can’t forget Rebecca’s body in that lake, even now, facedown in that black dress. She can’t forget the drift of her hair, the boneless sprawl of her limbs, the horrible bloated cast to her skin. 

What horrors will Hannah wreck from beyond the grave, she worries. What will Hannah visit upon her, that final lasting image of a woman at the bottom of a well? 

“I knew,” she says hollowly. “In the dream, I knew if the water got to you before I did...if you went under before I could...and I’d promised you, Dani, I’d just promised you there would be other--”

Dani’s fingers press to her lips, stilling the words before they can stumble and rattle over one another. Before she can begin to rave, the horror of dark and cold and impossible threading into a net that might drag her under. 

“A dream,” Dani says softly. “It was a dream.”

It was, Jamie wants to say, and it wasn’t. It was Hannah. Somehow. Because hadn’t Owen, on the other end of the phone, blustered the same? Hadn’t Owen said, “This is gonna sound--but Hannah--Hannah’s underwater, Hannah’s drowning, we have to go back--”

“A dream,” she says shakily, and knows she’ll never be able to forget it. Not the insistent creep of black water up over rosebushes, tumbling statues, tracing hungry fingers beneath the doors of the manor. Not the way Dani’s room had rocked like a ship unmoored as it had filled higher and higher, Dani’s horrified eyes reflected in a lake that had no business climbing past its bounds. 

“Had to do it,” she says. “Had to get to you before...”

Dani surges in, kisses her, agony and affection mingling in a moment that catches Jamie before she can drift. She finds herself clinging to Dani as one clings to a life raft, hands in Dani’s hair, mouth opening to accept whatever Dani can offer tonight. Dani feels so solid, even when her gaze is a million miles away. Dani’s hands are so real, even while her voice trembles and her bones shake beneath paper-thin flesh. 

“Just a dream,” Dani repeats, half a moan, like banishing a campfire horror. “Just a dream, just a dream, just a--”

Jamie sinks into her, eyes closed, understanding there are some wishes too big to be granted. Some truths too true to accept. Just a dream--and just the future, somehow, knocking on a door I won’t open. Not ever. Not with her standing with me on the other side. 

Hannah’s voice is banished by Dani’s kiss now, by the slide and rock of Dani’s body fitting against her own. Hannah’s screams are put to bed, replaced by Dani’s breath in her ear, Dani’s acceptance of every inch Jamie is able to give. 

They will be back, Jamie thinks. Little by little. Less and less. To some degree or another, they will be back. She’ll never entirely forget that night. 

In a way, she’s grateful. This final rescue at the hands of Hannah Grose. This final protective ward cast over the house to which she’d given so much. 

She only hopes Hannah knew, before it all went dark, she’d saved them all. 

Chapter Text

There is a trick to Theo the others don’t seem to know. A trick--like a secret knock on a clubhouse door, like a magic word, like a faerie ring. It took Nell years to figure it out, so she can’t much blame the others for not understanding. They’re all busy all the time--Steven with his typewriter, Shirley with her photos, even Luke, drawing and drawing and trying to pretend he isn’t still counting to seven even at thirteen. They don’t have time to figure out little magic spells, little hidden locks and trick doors that pop open if you just bang on them right above the hinges. 

Theo is like a trick door--and once you figure out your way in, you get to stay. Theo is only good at keeping people out, not throwing them back once they’ve made it past her moat, her walls, her army with flaming arrows. 

“Too much Lord of the Rings,” Theo says when Nell points this out, but she doesn’t look mad. Doesn’t look like she’s going to tell Nell to fuck off--that’s Theo’s favorite word these days, sixteen and fuming just about all the time: fuck you, fuck that, fuck off

Nell whispers the word to herself under cover of darkness, trusting no one but Luke will ever hear, and trusting Luke to keep it to himself. Luke is quiet these days, distracted, always smelling of cigarette smoke and the sick tang of fear, but he doesn’t tell. He doesn’t tell anyone about Nell’s screaming fits at night, about Nell’s terror of rounding a corner too fast, of climbing a flight of stairs before switching on a light. Doesn’t tell anyone that there’s someone waiting at the top for her too often, someone with a long gown, lank hair, a twisted, horrible neck--

She looks up from her homework, inspects the sprawl of Theo at her desk. Theo, in jeans with the cuffs turned up, patches sewn into the knees, Sharpie’d words and faces staining the denim. Theo, who has long abandoned her childhood affection for hats, but who seems never to be without a pair of gloves. 

Theo, who catches her staring and frowns. “What.”

She always says it just like that, no question mark at the end: What. What, Nell. What are you looking at, Nell. 

“Nothing,” says Nell quickly, and goes back to Lord of the Rings. Theo grunts, leaning over her own work like she thinks Nell is going to copy, somehow. 

“You’re being weird,” she says after a minute. Nell closes her eyes. If she had a dollar, she thinks. Weirdo Nell. Crazy Nell. Hey, Crazy Crain, you still seein’ ghosts? 

“Not sleeping so well,” she says quietly. Theo makes a noise that might be annoyance with anyone else; with Nell, it usually indicates she’s listening, even though her eyes never leave her workbook. 

“When have you ever?”

Nell laughs once, short and hollow. Thirteen is too young, Janet says sometimes, for a laugh like that. A laugh like that belongs to a woman of the world, a woman who has terrors under her belt, who has seen things. 

I’ve seen things, Nell thinks, the image of a woman with a bent neck and an unhinged scream imprinted on her mind more clearly than memories of her own mother. 

“School good?” Theo asks, in that neatly-removed way she has of asking anything. Careful, thinks Nell with amusement too old for her years. Don’t want anyone overhearing you actually caring. 

She can’t be upset with Theo for it. She thinks sometimes that if she, Nell, is the watcher of the family--the one who sees Steve’s agitation, Shirley’s close-lipped anger, Luke’s battering-ram terror--then Theo is the listener. Except Theo maybe doesn’t have space for all that listening. Theo maybe shored up all the cracks in her a long time ago to keep all the dark, dirty, ugly parts from creeping in and filling her up. 

Nell is, as much as she knows how to be, envious. She can’t imagine closing the doors that hang open in her head. Can’t imagine being strong enough to shove against them until no one else can get inside. 

“School’s fine,” she says. “Luke’s flunking.”

“Luke’s always flunking.” Theo raises her eyes, brows narrowed. “You’re not still doing his homework.”

Nell shakes her head, not trusting her tongue. Theo can smell a lie as sure as alcohol on Luke’s breath when he staggers home from the boys he calls friends, the ones who only stopped calling Nell batty because Luke threatened to knock them over. He could do it, she thinks. He’s bigger than most of them now, except Steve, and getting taller every day. Solid where Steve is lean, a tower in broken glasses and rumpled hair. Sometimes she looks at him and wonders if her brother is even still in there, under all the stupid unfunny jokes thirteen-year-old boys crave. Under all the terror Luke has always sheltered beneath. 

He is. He has to be. She doesn’t know what she’d do without him. 

“You gotta let him sink or swim sometime, Nellie.” Theo shakes her head. “Can’t carry him forever.”

“I’m not,” Nell insists. Helping isn’t wrong, she thinks. Everybody needs help sometimes. Even Theo. Theo, who is a trick door, who will let a person in if they’re small and quiet and don’t ask anything of her. Theo, who is a trick door Nell found a way past years ago simply by being willing to sit in the corner with a book, with a doll, with her own thoughts, and let Theo breathe. 

Theo turns in her chair, fixing Nell with such a stare, Nell almost withers beneath its potency. Theo is like someone else, when she looks at Nell this way--like someone Nell can’t quite remember from another life. 

“What?” A question mark, from Nell’s lips. She feels as though she’s always asking questions, and no one ever seems to have answers to any of them. 

“You’re not flunking,” Theo says slowly, “right? You’re not--you don’t need help?”

She says it grudgingly, like she’s not sure anyone should need help. Like she’s not sure she’d have the space to offer it, if Nell said yes. It’s tempting to try. Tempting to say, Actually, Theo, yeah--yeah, I do need help. Only, I’m still seeing her. She’s still following me, and I can’t talk to anyone about it, not even Luke, and I need--I need--

The rules with Theo are simple. Quiet. Stay quiet, stay out of Theo’s way, remind Theo there is space for people who don’t imprint themselves onto her skin and force her to carry them. 

“I’m good,” she says, and smiles. Theo squints. Nods. 

“I was thinking,” she says. “This weekend. I was going to get my ears pierced.”

“You already have your ears pierced,” Nell observes. Theo grins. 

“Again, I mean.” She leans back in her chair, lets the legs pop off the floor. The last time Nell tried to emulate that trick, she’d toppled over in math class and slammed her head on a cabinet. Theo makes it look effortless. “You wanna come?”

Nell almost claps her hands, almost leaps up, almost forgets the rule: quiet. Quiet and easy. The best way to stay in Theo’s good graces is to vanish into the wallpaper. She settles for grinning back. 

“Can I get my ears pierced again?”

“Aunt Janet will be mad,” Theo says, but she’s sixteen, and she’s effortless, and Nell couldn’t care less what anyone but Theo thinks just now. 

Most anyone. 

She imagines Luke clapping a hand to his ear and wincing, the cigarette falling from his lips onto the gravel of the playground. It’s an image more satisfying than she’d like to admit. 

“Please?” she says. Theo shakes her head. 

“Only,” she says, turning back to her work, “if you don’t tell her it was my idea.”

Chapter Text

Time is unstable now. It’s almost the same as those last few months, really--the instability had become the only thing, the only certainty to a day. Hours had blinked back to moments; moments rushing forward to days. She’d closed her eyes on a Tuesday, woken on a Saturday, had been dimly aware of moving and speaking and managing all that time without ever feeling its fingers on her skin. 

Time is unstable now. It’s almost what she’s used to, almost the same--except it goes backwards, sometimes. Goes all the way backwards, sometimes. She opens her eyes, and she’s watching herself move in slow motion across these very grounds, her eyes blue, her skirt long, stumbling across a girl and a song at this very lake. 

No idea. She’d had no idea. 

Time is unstable now. It twists and it bends, and she thinks she could learn to control it, as the hours turn to days turn to years. How long has it been already? There’s no telling. There’s nothing to hang onto, no handhold, no markers along the miles. She moves, and it’s like being awake, sometimes--there is sun, and there is shadow, and there is moonlight. There is a life once lived--well lived--well loved--beneath her skin. She knows it, somehow. Knows it, the way you know a dream even as it dissolves in the shower as you prepare for--

School.

Work.

Life. 

Time is unstable now. It builds and it skews and it stumbles sideways into itself, and she’s seeing it all. A boy with curly hair stepping out of a car into the path of a casket. A girl in a sundress with a father, a mother, a home chipped and broken and pieced back together with desperation. A man who thought he loved her; a woman who couldn’t love him back. A plane. A backpack. Hands belonging to strangers, smiles crooked on her own lips, a resume offered in a neat office. A job lost. A job won. A pair of glasses in the mirror. 

Time is unstable now. It spins and it wheels, and she remembers it all--remembers walking into this lake, remembers walking beside this lake, remembers a child being carried to doom in this lake, remembers arms around her waist in this lake, breath on her lips, shh, shh, it’s okay, Dani, it’s okay--

Time is unstable now. It shuffles and it dances and she’s trying to center herself. Trying to remember how long it’s been since she stopped being entirely her--years, she thinks. Decades, she thinks. A night a million miles away, a choice made, words spoken. She said the thing, and she became something new. Something half Dani Clayton-half Viola Lloyd. Something half woman, half ghost. Someone who hadn’t known, even then, what she was giving up--or what she’d fight so hard to keep for as long as she could. 

Time is unstable now. It cavorts and it cartwheels, and how long since she stopped breathing? Since she stopped being that half-and-half, that slow-fade, that peace-becomes-fear, and became instead: this. This version of herself who holds no weight, who leaves no mark behind, who does not possess skin or mass or footprint, and who is, still, somehow...here. Here. More here than she ever thought she’d be again. 

Why is she still here?

You are, the voice says in her ears, hopeful, hopeless, you are still here

Her hand, she thinks, and she’s gripping the ring. The ring. The ring. The--

Time is unstable now. It jolts and it jounces, and she is in a kitchen making a proposal, and she is in a kitchen watching a woman wash her hands, and she is in a kitchen shattering a plate while Jamie holds her, holds her, repeats, “We could have so many more years. Dani. Dani. We could have so many--”

Time is unstable now. It ricochets and it roils, and she is standing here. Standing here. Waiting for something she knows is coming. Waiting for something she knows still needs her, still pulls at her, still forms its own insistent gravity--

Time is unstable now. 

Jamie, as she has always been, is not. 

Jamie, out of that cab in the same shirt she’d slept in. In Dani’s jeans, and sneakers that had really belonged to them both. Jamie, shoulders rounded and back straight, dragging breaths. 

Don’t, she thinks. Don’t, you don’t want to see it. Knowing it won’t be real until Jamie does. Knowing it won't be real for Jamie--and maybe not for her, either. Time is so unstable. Time is so unbound around her, casting her into a grove of moonflowers--once in a blue goddamn moon, I guess--and into a hallway--there will be other nights--and into a bedroom--are you sure, Dani, I only want to if you’re sure--and into--

The lake. Jamie is in the lake. Up to her waist, up to her chest, drawing a deep breath and diving. 

It becomes real only when Jamie looks it in the eye. When Jamie sees her--what was her--what can’t be her any longer, because it belonged too much to the Lady, Jamie. It belonged too much to the spell. It couldn’t last, because nothing does, because there is no forever for flesh and blood, Jamie. You taught me that. You told me that, that it’s so beautiful that we can’t last, that it’s so gorgeous that we can’t hang on forever. You said it. You meant it, then. 

Jamie has been under too long. Jamie has been under too long, and time is unstable, time is unreliable, time is a twisting net tossed over her--but Jamie has looked, now. Jamie has seen, now. And if it’s enough to solidify the thing for Jamie, if it’s enough to let her fall over the cliff, it’s enough for this, too. For her to follow Jamie into the water. It’s easier this time; she doesn’t have to worry about the burn in her lungs, the ache in her head, the terror and the peace trading hands like a kid passing baseball cards. She follows Jamie down, and Jamie is reaching, Jamie is screaming, Jamie is saying those words, those hated, magical words--

She wraps both arms around Jamie. Pulls her toward the surface. Feels Jamie go limp, letting herself rise as the horror and the shock set in for real. Time is unstable now, but Jamie isn’t--Jamie is a real, living, breathing human being who must still abide by certain rules. Who must still kick her way to the surface and break, gasping, as Dani hugs her close. 

She doesn’t see, it’s clear. Can’t feel Dani, it’s clear. Can’t know, as she collapses on the bank, her hair sopping, her face streaked with tears, that Dani is behind her with arms around her shoulders. That Dani is bowed over her, breathing with her, urging her back to reality with every slow inhalation. 

Dani, holding her, does not sink in. Does not vanish beneath Jamie’s skin. Does not close her eyes here and open there, seeing what Jamie sees. Jamie is still muttering--you, me, us, goddammit, Dani, please--and still, she does not allow herself that cruelty. Not for an instant. 

You are not mine, she thinks with everything she has, and knows Jamie doesn’t understand. Can’t possibly, not yet. Knows Jamie has no sense of the gravity she maintains, that Dani couldn’t deny the pull of that gravity even if she wanted to. 

Her body remains behind, as all bodies must--and it will break, over time. She understands there will be the natural passage, the natural flow of time and water and organic degradation. It doesn’t matter. Her body remains behind. 

She is with Jamie in the cab. 

She is with Jamie on the plane. 

She is with Jame in their apartment. 

She is with Jamie every step of the way. 

You are not mine, she thinks every night, as Jamie begs the mirror, as Jamie pleads with the bath, as Jamie slams a fist down on the countertop and closes her eyes and sinks into grief. You are not mine, Jamie, you have to understand. 

She doesn’t. She can’t. Maybe someday, Dani thinks. Maybe someday, she will allow the truth to take root in her bones: that no person can ever own another, not with all the love and well-meaning the world can muster. That to love someone is to let them go, no matter what they might demand in return. 

Time is unstable now. It burns and it bleeds, and Jamie walks through it in horrible, painstaking chronology. Monday becomes Tuesday. April becomes May. Each year falls in line, and Dani wishes she could show her. Wishes she could explain that she is here--she is ten, and she is thirty, and she is forty-two, and she is in love with Jamie in all the ways that extend beyond clock and calendar. That she is in love with Jamie before she even knows her, and she is in love with Jamie long after time has forgotten them both. That she is here, and she is here, and she is still here. 

Time is unstable now. She can see how it all will unfold, a tablecloth shaken out: Jamie swearing over tattered roses, and Dani kissing her in a greenhouse, and Dani offering a ring, and Jamie saying, I’m actually pretty in love with you, it turns out. 

Jamie, telling a story at a wedding. 

Dani, taking in a story in a moonlit grove. 

Jamie, falling asleep with her head on Dani’s chest. 

Dani, waking slowly with Jamie in her arms. 

It’s all the same, she wants to say. It’s all falling around us, moments, memories, in an endless sweep like rain. It’s all the same, she wants to say. You are here. I am here. We are here. 

Time is unstable now. Jamie is sleeping in a chair, Dani’s hand on her shoulder. Jamie is sleeping in a bed, Dani inspecting her scar for the first time. Jamie is sleeping in a greenhouse, decades of life behind her, never to wake again. Opening her eyes at Dani’s knock on the door. To Dani, who has been waiting a second, a year, an eternity to welcome her home again.

Time is unstable. 

Dani settles in for the ride. 

Chapter Text

“How,” Jamie asks, in a voice just this side of amused, “did you even do this?”

“I was--” Dani tilts her head away, breathing in sharp, uncontrolled inhalations that never seem to entirely fill her chest. “I was--trying to--”

Jamie pauses, free hand sliding to squeeze Dani’s uninjured one. “Gonna need you to stop until you can assure me you aren’t about to pass out.”

“I’m--fine--”

“You’re making me nervous, is what you’re doing.” Jamie leans back on her haunches, eyes searching Dani’s face. “Where’re the kids?”

“Hannah.” Dani closes her eyes, swaying in place so violently, Jamie isn’t entirely sure she’ll stay in that chair much longer. She presses a hand to Dani’s knee, squeezing in time with her own long, slow breaths until Dani begins instinctively to match her. 

“There we are. Okay. Try again. How did you manage this?”

“Was trying,” Dani says again, “to open the shed.”

“The shed,” Jamie repeats. “The one I expressly tell the wee beasties to leave alone, given that the door is not fit for human hands? And will, in fact, slam shut on a person without warning? That shed?”

“They told me there were--bikes--”

Jamie swears under her breath. “Cretins.”

“They’re kids, Jamie.” “They could’ve gotten you amputated, Poppins. Accident or not, don’t think you’d be thrilled with one less hand to your name.” She watches Dani’s face for flickers of amusement and, finding none, whistles. “Seriously, you were maybe half a moment from needing to favor your--hang on, you right-handed?”

Dani nods once, eyelids fluttering. Jamie nods sagely. 

“Lucky indeed, then. I’ve seen your handwriting, Poppins, can’t imagine what it’d look like if you had to train your reserve up.”

Dani laughs, a single braying burst that seems to take her by surprise. Jamie squeezes her knee again, trying not to look too closely at the gallop of her own heart when Dani’s good hand scoots over to cover her fingers. 

“How bad is it?” Dani is doing a truly admirable job of looking both as though she has never wanted to see something less in her life and like curiosity might actually kill her. Jamie reaches up, gently turns her head away once more. 

“Bad enough you don’t want to peek, fine enough for me to patch without a hospital run.” In truth, the wound isn’t deep. Dani must have snatched her hand back from the door mid-slam, two fingers caught in the crossfire. She might, Jamie observes as she gingerly shifts the hand over for a better look, lose a nail. Her knuckles will likely be swollen for a week, and the whole thing will hurt like fuck, but the actual blood is dripping from reasonably shallow cuts.

“I’m okay,” Dani says miserably. “This is--this is embarrassing, I’m sorry--”

“Sorry for listening to kids, or sorry you needed the help?” Jamie gives one finger an experimental press with her thumb, relieved when Dani doesn’t scream or drag her hand back in agony. “Can you bend this?”

Wincing, Dani does. Jamie nods again.

“Not broken. Good sign. Okay. How are you with sudden blinding pain?”

“What?” Dani asks, but Jamie is already pouring disinfectant across the open wounds. Dani hisses through her teeth, whipping her head around to glare at Jamie’s face. “Shit.”

“Yeah,” Jamie says agreeably. “Think how much worse it’d have been if you were tense.”

“Right,” Dani almost laughs. “This isn’t tense.”

She stays quiet as Jamie cleans the cuts with a soft cloth, as Jamie runs gingerly across the bruises spreading up from the knuckles. Only when Jamie begins bandaging does she speak again.

“Thank you. Really. I’m...I’m embarrassed, I--”

“Stop,” Jamie says. Dani frowns. 

“I’m just...I’m a grown--”

“You are,” Jamie says, binding the two fingers together. “A grown, perfectly capable woman who smashed her hand in a door. And y’know what that makes you in my book?”

Dani waits, her eyes furtive, her mouth tense. Jamie finishes the job with minimal flourish, careful to move the bloody cloth out of sight before Dani can turn her head. 

“Patched.”

Dani slides a nervous glance toward her injuries, seemingly surprised to find them hidden beneath clean bandage. “That’s it?”

“You were expecting, maybe, some localized cauterization?” Jamie pushes herself to her feet, brushing her hands on her overalls. “Can be arranged, if you like. I’ll just get my axe, Owen’s little blowtorch out of that drawer...”

“I mean,” Dani says, almost sounding more pained to be having this conversation than she had when she’d staggered in ten minutes ago, bleeding hand clutched to her chest, so pale Jamie had quite literally dropped what she was doing to catch her under the arms. “I mean...you...you’re...really good at that.”

“Had to be,” Jamie says lightly. “Been taking care of myself since--well. A while. You know how many little war wounds you pick up, grounds like these?”

“Well, you knew about the shed.”

“Certainly did. Should’ve warned you, too, come to think of it. I’ll make you a list of all the shite I’ve told them time and again not to fuck about with.”

Dani watches her as she moves to the sink to wash up, working the blood out from her own skin and trying not to think too much about it. Trying not to think, either, about how Dani had stumbled into the kitchen as though looking for her in particular, how she’d gasped out, “Jamie--I’m--not so good with blood, I hoped--”

“You’ve been a teacher how long?” she asks over her shoulder, raising her voice above the running water. “Never had to tend a scrape?”

“It’s different,” Dani says. “Other people’s--when other people need help, it’s like a switch just...turns off in my head.”

Jamie nods, wiping her hands on a towel. “And that switch doesn’t apply when you’ve busted your own fingers.”

“Nowhere to be found,” Dani says with a shaky laugh. “Dumb, isn’t it? It’s just a bit of blood.”

It’s more than that, Jamie thinks. More a matter of mortality, when it’s your own blood--a matter of the pain shrieking up your every nerve, rattling out all logic and leaving behind the awareness that you are damaged, that you have broken, that you are alone and in pain with no one to remedy the matter. 

“It hurts,” she says simply, leaning back against the sink and meeting Dani’s eyes again. “When it’s you. Pain shuts off an awful lot of good sense.”

Dani nods, cheeks pink. Jamie moves closer, careful not to step back within Dani’s bubble now that she has no cause. 

“C’mon. Those kids need a reminder as to what they ought not to be playing around with. You good?”

She is, Jamie thinks. She’s good, and she’s strong, and a little blood changes none of it. 

Chapter Text

It’s a quiet affair. Private. Jamie has never thought much of weddings, of the big explosive events that beg for attention, for near-strangers piling in from out of town, for gifts and cards and money spilled in every direction. Jamie has always thought, quietly, in a space reserved only for herself, that weddings are too expansive to be allowed. That love is too enormous to be contained in a white dress, a tiered cake, a church. 

She asks, that night, wound close to Dani in bed with that ring so new and so bright on her finger, if Dani has thought about it. If Dani needs that, wants that, with her. She’d said we can’t technically get married--but I don't really care, and she’d smiled a little, and Jamie had thought, Doesn’t matter. Doesn’t matter if anyone ever knows. Easy to think, in a moment of absolute jubilation. Later, with her head on Dani’s chest, with Dani’s hand trailing absently through her hair, she wonders. 

There’s something about the admission. About the announcement. About the rooftop cry of this is ours, this perfect, flawed thing I built with her. There’s something about the idea she finds appealing in ways she’d never bothered to imagine before Dani and a ring and a promise made by evening light. 

Dani doesn’t answer, at first. Not until Jamie raises her head, finds her eyes far away, her jaw tense. 

“We don’t have to,” she says, too quickly, worried she’s already taken this fragile promise Dani has made to keep moving forward and broken it. Dani’s lips curve, her hand steady on the back of Jamie’s head. 

“Don’t think we should...plan anything,” she says. “But...something small. Something just-us. Yeah.”

It’s only right, they decide--not to throw a party or invite the masses in to this quiet life they’ve made, but to signal to the stars that they’ve chosen. They’ve decided, even if no one will ever know or care, upon one another. 

There is a park, not far from the shop, where Jamie has always felt a little closer to home than anywhere else. A little closer to the old world, the old her, where all that green overwrites the awareness that America is something of an invasive species. It seeps into the cracks, pushes up the concrete, makes itself known on the flattening of her syllables, the words traded thoughtlessly from her native slang to this new, unpolished form. America, stamping itself onto her life one year at a time--except in places like this park, with trees that block out the skyline, with flowers that grow where they will, life finding a path of its own. 

She’d dreamed, once upon a peaceful yesterday, of taking Dani here one day. A fantasy world, where Dani didn’t flinch from clocks and calendars, where Dani didn’t meet every “next year” with a knowing little smile. A fantasy life, where she might sink to one knee--or just turn her head in Dani’s lap, letting the sun kiss her skin--and say, “What d’you think of forever?”

She never would have. Never would have, even if Dani didn’t look at her with such miserable longing sometimes, that fear papered over her smile like the patching of a damaged wall. Dani’s relationship with commitment is particular, and difficult, and her own. That Dani was the one to ask, in the end, feels right. 

Jamie would never have asked--but here, at sunset, on a day in late summer, she thinks, It’s still good. Here, where life is allowed to roam free as anything in this country ever can. It’s still right. 

There is a gentle breeze, a light mist of evening rain, a dress Dani wears when she’s feeling particularly alive. A ring to match the one on Jamie’s finger. No officiant, no witness; only heads bowed together in a grove of trees, surrounded by flowers not quite white, not quite blooming under moonlight. Only Dani murmuring inches from her lips that she could stand here for the rest of time, and it would feel very much by design. Only Jamie, eyes open, unable to sacrifice even a second of Dani’s smile. 

There are promises whispered, and laughter muffled, and they do not miss the music. The dancing. The toasts. Later--much later--Jamie will look out over a crowded floor packed with champagne flutes and long dresses and she will think, Ours was perfect. Ours fit. 

They tell their friends of the engagement, of the potted plant and the promise. They do not tell them they are, in their hearts, as married as anyone ever needs to be. It is, like so many parts of a story written with two hands, theirs alone. And there will come a time where papers may be signed, where the America which has seeped into so many cracks will demand proof--and Jamie will give it, gladly, because it reassures Dani to see their names on that paper. It reassures Dani, to know there will be something left behind when she’s gone.

She will give that much, and she will accept Dani’s scrawl on the page, and she will know it doesn’t really matter. They already know. They’ve already known. 

Some stories do not need to be shared, to be true. 

Chapter Text

Dani’s distaste for mirrors is nothing new, by the time she begins turning her eyes away in earnest. “Habit,” Jamie remembers her saying apologetically, not six months in, when she’d shaken her head at an apartment Jamie had found perfectly pleasant. Too many mirrors, she’d realized later--the closet, the bedroom door, the kitchen had all reflected their faces at every turn. Dani, not yet too haunted to breathe, unable to forget the year she’d spent striding stubbornly away from the gaze of a dead man, hadn’t been able to stomach the idea. 

Even so, she didn’t mind what she called a “normal person’s” use of mirrors. One in the bathroom; one set into the vanity in the corner of their room. Those had been acceptable, even useful, and Dani had said, “It’s not like he’ll be there.”

The anymore had gone unspoken.

The don’t know what she’ll do had, as well.

She’d fallen slowly back into the groove of accepting her own reflection--to apply makeup, to brush her teeth, to glance at her outfit before leaving for the day--and if she’d done so with caution, if she’d flicked her gaze once, twice, to make sure only Jamie was ever beside her, that was fine. It hadn’t bothered Jamie in the least. She’s never been much for her own gaze staring back, either. 

“Didn’t even have one,” she said idly, the first time she’d seen Dani flinch. “In the old flat. Dunno if you noticed.”

Dani, who had seen the place exactly once, when Jamie had packed a single bag for the life they were setting out to begin, shook her head. Jamie shrugged. 

“Overrated, in my humble opinion.”

Dani had laughed, and she’d set about building back to normal, and Jamie had watched her body language slowly smooth out. How she’d learned, over time, to check from the corner of her eye, forgetting to believe she’d find a monster in the glass. How she’d learned, even, to appreciate the finer things about a mirror: how it would warn her to Jamie slipping up from behind, lips on her neck, Dani laughing before Jamie’s hands could land on her hips. It had all been easy, for a while.

And then, as things do, normal had slipped sideways again. 

Dani, these days, doesn’t just flinch at the sight of a mirror. Her whole body seems to retract, her chin ducking against her chest, her breath freezing mid-swoop. She chokes, stumbling back, and no matter where they are--in the apartment, out to lunch, in a department store--Jamie is there to grasp her around the waist and turn her away. “No worries,” she hears herself say with the glittering good cheer of a lie. “No worries, let’s just--just go this way--”

No worries. Sure. No concern at all for the pale cast to Dani’s face, the way her eyes seem to stare out at something set back in time. No worries. 

“It’s--” Dani closes her eyes, frustration evident in every line of her face. “It’s silly--that I can’t--”

Jamie takes her by the hands, remembering a night years ago when she’d done this very same thing, when Dani had looked at her mouth with earnest desire, and everything had made a blistering sort of sense. “Nothing silly about you.”

“That I can’t look,” Dani presses on in a strangled voice. “That I--Jamie.”

She only ever seems to say Jamie’s name this way, lately, this explicit way that drives at Jamie’s heart like a blow. There’s such a lack of hope in the syllables, when Dani says it like this, and Jamie wants to say, Stop. Stop doing that. Say it like you do when I’m kissing you, or when I’ve pissed you off, or when you’ve lost in me a goddamn shop, but stop saying it like you’ve already surrendered. 

She doesn’t say any of it. Instead, she says, “Tell me what you need to know.”

Dani, eyes closed, shakes her head. Jamie squeezes her hands, slides both arms around Dani’s body, holds firm until the gentle shivers subside. 

“Don’t need anything from a mirror I can’t give. C’mon. Try me.”

She watches the disbelief in Dani’s expression shift to exhaustion. “Just--my hair is--”

“Perfect,” Jamie interrupts. Dani cracks open one eye, frowning. “Seriously. S’all...shiny and wavy and distracting. What more could you want?”

Dani snorts out a laugh. Jamie, whose own hair is a perpetual mess, who seems to find more silver in among the brown with each passing week, grins. 

“Next.”

“Makeup,” Dani says, in a voice midway between fed-up and amused. Jamie takes her chin gently in one hand, making a show of tilting her head back and forth. 

“Eyes,” she says seriously, “perfect. Foundation, expert. Lipstick--”

“Don’t,” Dani says warningly, but she’s starting to grin. Jamie leans in, kisses her slowly, leans back again. 

“Little disheveled, if you want my honest word on the subject.”

Dani slumps into her, face pressed to Jamie’s neck. “Bet I look tired.”

“Nope.”

“Bet I look worn out--”

“Gorgeous,” Jamie proclaims. This much is never a lie. Dani’s face is now, has always been, the most perfect she’s ever seen. 

She feels the sigh go out of Dani, her shoulders hunched, her breath cool on Jamie’s skin. “You didn’t sign on for this.”

“Signed on for you,” Jamie says into the side of her head, into hair that is, in fact, still the best she’s ever laid eyes upon. “Whatever that means. Always.”

She’d thought, when the face in the glass had been younger and less weary and infinitely more foolish, this kind of devotion was an idiot’s game. A game played only to lose. She’d been so sure of it, that being this kind of invested in another human being was a special kind of lunacy. 

Now, with Dani breathing against her neck, Dani’s hands wound in her shirt, she thinks the only lunacy would be in walking away. In leaning back from this too-wonderful woman who fears a mirror is enough to break her. 

She knows, with patient certainty, that it will only get harder. That she’ll one day be the one smoothing blush into Dani’s cheeks, tipping her head back to apply mascara, helping wash her face clean at the end of the day. That there may come a time where Dani will be too tired and too averse to her own reflection to keep track of braiding her own hair, to keep up the pretense of a woman at war. She understands that this is not the sort of degradation which reverses--not by luck, not by prayer, not by stubbornness. 

And it doesn’t matter. She signed on for Dani. Whatever that looks like. Whatever it may mean down the line. 

“You’re sure I look all right?” Dani ventures, sounding almost too tired to care. Jamie kisses the side of her head again, holds her just a little bit tighter. 

“Most beautiful woman in the world, my wife.”

Chapter Text

She wishes the twin thing would work for happy the way it does for pain

When they were little, it was different. When they were small, she hadn’t minded so much the connection’s tendency--the way it had stretched the bonds between them, tightening its grip to remind them pain is the greatest of learning tools. It had only felt special, then--how her eyes had strained, despite doctors telling her mother, I don’t know what to say. Her vision’s perfect, until Luke began blinking at the world through Coke bottle glasses. How her wrist would twinge, alerting her to Luke having fallen out of his treehouse, landing all forty-five pounds of him on his right arm. It had been a secret alarm bell in her head, a reminder that she and Luke, though separate, could never be pulled too far apart. 

As they got older, she’d test the bounds of this secret connection, throwing stones against the window between herself and her brother. Can you feel this?--when she’d asked Theo to tickle her until the air left the room. Or this?--as she’d gulped down a milkshake, the sugar singing gleeful on her tongue. How about this?--the first time she’d been kissed, ten years old and dizzy with the there-and-gone press of someone else’s lips. 

No, Luke always said, rubbing his nose, scratching his head, looking forlorn. She’d frowned, wondering if maybe only she couldn’t line up the dominos. If maybe Luke could send his joy as easily as his fear. 

Except she hadn’t known, the time Luke had been so proud of getting into the art fair in third grade, until he’d told her. 

Except she hadn’t known, the time Luke wolfed down half the Christmas cookies and tried to blame the dog, except for by the guilt in his eyes.

Except she hadn’t known, the first time he kissed someone--thirteen and clumsy, but so alive it was like flying--until he’d crept into the room they no longer shared and recounted the tale.

Not a one-way phone line, then. Just not how it works. 

The pain, though. The pain is always there. Clear and crystal and sharp as a hailstorm, it comes. When she got into a car accident at seventeen, bruising her ribs, Luke had come sprinting up to the curb before she’d been able to call anyone. When Luke had slipped on the diving board in gym class, splitting his head open along the hairline, she’d developed a migraine bad enough to blur her vision. When she’d cut her hand making dinner. When he’d taken a beating after a bad card game. When she’d fallen down the stairs, when he’d had the worst hangover of his life, when she’d been so sick, she had feared herself pregnant. All the pain. All the illness. All the wretched agony the world has to offer--they take it, together. A twin thing. 

She remembers--in the distant dreamscape where she keeps all memory of Olivia Crain--her mother murmuring to her father once. I know it’s crazy, but they’ve always been like this. She cried while he was getting his shots, the whole time; he went perfectly silent when she had that fever, you remember the one. It had been something of a relief, to know someone else could see it. That the magic, if visible to her mother’s eye, was real

Every broken bone. Every shattering headache. Every instance of stomach flu. They feel it together.

When her heart breaks open, spilling all manner of hope onto the floor, she waits for his call. When she has dragged herself to the phone, dialed the appropriate numbers--the EMT there and gone before she can so much as blink--she waits for his call. When the silence of a house that was intended for a family, for a dog, for a life presses in around her hard enough to hurt, she waits for his call. 

A twin thing, she thinks numbly. It works for pain, always. Only the pain, maybe. Never the good. Never the glory of a first I love you, the dreamlike haze of a marriage proposal, the giddy skidding laughter of that first night under this roof sharing the same last name. Never that. But the pain? The pain is always true. The pain will always reach across the miles to rap on his door. 

I feel yours, she thinks. When he slips off the wagon. When his withdrawals become too much to bear. When he’s punched in the face, when his knuckles split open in retaliation, when he’s scraping for air and can’t quite find it. I feel yours every fucking time. 

It’s the first beat of rage she’s ever allowed herself, hastily swallowed. Hastily banished. He is Luke. He is Luke. There is a line, golden and unyielding and permanent, strung between them. A twin thing. 

She leans her head back against the wall, feeling exposed, feeling shattered, and waits. He’ll call. He has to.

It’s a twin thing. 

Chapter Text

Jamie likes to pretend she doesn’t have nightmares. She likes, too, to pretend she is a sound sleeper--like Dani doesn’t catch sight of her face in the night, the flutter of eyelashes that says she is awake and listening for Dani to come back to bed after a trip to the bathroom. Jamie likes to pretend an awful lot of things where vulnerability is concerned, and Dani doesn’t feel as though she’s in any position to judge.

Some nights, though, there is no denying fact. Some nights, the horrors of her own nighttime reveries are bumped out of place by the ones spilling over into Jamie’s. 

She is, each time, quiet. So quiet, Dani almost doesn’t notice the way she shifts along the mattress, pushing out of Dani’s loose grasp, edging toward the last measure of safety the bed has to offer before dumping her out onto the floor. She makes not a sound, save for short gasps, as though she’s been trying to hold her breath for too long. As though she’s been trying to make herself invisible to whatever monster might have crawled out from under the bed. 

The first night, Dani made the mistake of touching her--of tracing a hand up her back with well-intentioned gentleness, just to remind Jamie, I’m here. It’s me. It’s all right. It was a trick that had always worked on Flora, on kids she’d babysat for as a teenager: You aren’t alone; nothing is going to get you. 

Jamie, to her surprise, had jerked so violently away, she really had fallen out of bed. Landing in a sprawl on the hotel room floor, she’d curled herself into a ball, arms wrapped around her knees, and shivered there for almost two minutes before Dani could coax her back to waking. 

“Sorry,” she’d mumbled, so heartily humiliated, Dani hadn't had the stomach to ask. She’d only helped Jamie to her feet, eased her back into bed, assuming they’d talk about it in the morning.

They didn’t. Jamie, come sunrise, had been out of bed and dressed before Dani could wake. Her face had been all bright, all smile, all didn’t happen, Poppins, and I’ll deny it if you bring it up. Dani hadn’t dared.

Now, when it happens--maybe once every two or three weeks, when rain lashes the windows and the winds outside are high--she doesn't try to touch Jamie. She only waits, perfectly awake, perfectly separate from Jamie’s huddled frame in a small bed, for the shivers to level out. Waits for the moment, usually defined by Jamie rolling onto her back, when Jamie will come to her. Jamie’s hand groping across the blankets to grasp Dani’s shirt, or fingers, or the band of her underwear. This moment, silent and desperate, is the first sign Dani is allowed back in.

“Do you...” Her voice is too loud, even at a whisper. “Do you want to talk about it?”

Jamie winces, brow tightening, eyes stubbornly closed. Her grip tightens. 

“I think--think you should,” Dani presses softly. “Jamie. This happens--”

“S’all right,” Jamie mumbles. “S’nothing.”

It isn’t. Dani can tell nothing from a private violence, maybe better than anyone. It isn’t nothing, because this is the only time she ever sees Jamie like this. The only time Jamie ever hunches into herself and shakes like a child in a thunderstorm. 

“Can I do anything?” she asks, when it becomes clear Jamie isn’t going to open up. Not yet. Maybe she will, someday--when there are more than a couple of months, a handful of rented cars, the precious novelty of exploring something utterly fresh between them. Jamie will tell her, maybe, in the same way she’d told the rest of her story: at a moment unexpected, a moment designed by Jamie’s hand, when she’d been able to bear the strain. 

For now, Jamie simply stretches out on her back, eyes shut, fingers grinding the bones of Dani’s hand together. 

“Just--remind me,” she says at last, in a voice too sturdy to be sleep-addled. 

“Of what?”

“That I'm not--” Jamie stops, clenching her jaw in the dark. Dani rolls toward her, hesitant, laying a hand on her cheek only when Jamie leans toward her touch. “That I’m here. That no one else is.”

“No one,” Dani confirms. “C’ept me. I can--I can do a sweep, if you want--”

Jamie pulls at her with graceless fingers, pulls until Dani is holding her flush against her own body. Each shaky drift of Jamie’s breath is haggard, just this side of a sob. 

Later, Dani thinks, she’ll have stories--of foster parents, or unvarnished childhood monsters, or prison. Stories of girls who cut her open, of men who kicked at her ribs, of a life painted with too many bruises to count. Later, Dani thinks, she may hear them all, one by one or in a single dose, a reckless retelling of an old play whose lines Jamie can’t forget.

Now, in a hotel room, with Jamie’s skin under her lips, Jamie’s trembling soothed by her hands, she doesn’t think it matters. Nightmares don’t care to be explained away. Their only resolution is this: the reminder that the daylight can burn away even the darkest shadows. The reminder that a hand held tight can ward off the worst of the fear. 

They won’t talk about it, come morning. Jamie already believes she is meant to hold Dani up, to fend off Dani’s shadows. Jamie has not yet figured out what Dani has: that this battle will only work long-term if they stand united, back to back, equal in support of every kind. 

Jamie, for now, thinks she has to play hero. That she has to keep her demons to herself, her gaze fixed firmly on Dani’s. Jamie, for now, can believe that. 

And on nights like this, when she’s ready, Dani will be waiting--for her to move across a tiny mattress, her hand needy, her eyes shut tight. Dani doesn’t mind. There are all manner of ways to ward off the night. 

Chapter Text

It’s not planned. Not that the first time was a plan, Jamie thinks. The first time was less a plan, more a tumble--a leap--a decision. You’ve shown me yours, it’s only fair, she’d thought, with the dizzy exhilaration of making a choice you might very well regret come morning. Dani had spent so much time walking through the dark alone, not a hand to grab, not a light to shine. It had only seemed right, for Jamie to meet her halfway. 

And tumble they had--into Dani’s bed, into this thing Jamie hadn’t been looking for, but hadn’t quite been able to look away from, either. They’d fallen onto the mattress, every move fresh and new and exhilarating. Jamie hadn’t done this in years; Dani, not at all. And there had been something to it, something nearly immaculate that Jamie had almost felt unworthy of--the way Dani muffled laughter against her skin, the nervous skid of her voice pressed into Jamie’s neck as she’d stood there in jeans and damp hair. It had been soft, and careful, Dani gently folding her jumper and setting it aside, Jamie stretching every new beat out as long as she could stand until it was clear--more than clear, certain--that Dani was ready for the next. 

It had been lovely, and almost simple, and for all the nerves in the world, it had felt like stepping into the light for the first time.

And then, not a day later, everything changed. Change is good, Jamie knows; organic and expected, even if not exactly predictable. Change is right, Jamie knows; a world without change isn’t natural. Still, she’d thought--hoped, maybe foolishly--that they’d get time before the change swept in. That it would be a gentle shift over months or even years, rather than a sudden assertion of new facts. 

Facts like: there are things in the world neither of them are prepared to handle.

Facts like: those things have grabbed hold of Dani in ways Jamie can’t reach.

Facts like: even now, outside the gravity of the manor and the life they’d begun there, the shadows are darker than she could ever have comprehended.

Truths, every last one, and Jamie has never been one to argue against truth. The world is set by laws and regulations--one season drifts into the next, the weather speaks for itself, no one can stop the spread of roots beneath the earth. These are good things, true things, rational things she has based her adult life around. 

And still, she wishes. Wishes she could have had more time with Dani’s nervous skidding laughter. More time sitting back, her favorite shirt on the floor, watching with amusement as Dani gently folds her own top and sets it aside. More time making it all as easy as she can for Dani to learn. 

Instead, they’re both learning--and it’s not the kind of thing any past relationship can prepare for. Not for the way Dani disappears into her own reflection sometimes, gazing for hours into the passenger mirror as though unable to keep her eyes from searching for something Jamie can’t see. Not for the quiet uncertainty of Dani’s smile, so unlike the bright, hopeful expression she’d worn when Jamie had kissed her that night. They can’t prepare for eyes that change color without warning, for beasts lurking unseen, for a promise made without fully understanding the consequences. 

They can’t prepare. But they can walk into it together. That matters. 

At first, Dani hadn’t seemed to want to touch her. Or hadn’t seemed able to touch her, maybe; she’d hugged herself close, put her hands in her pockets, kept her distance. But, slowly--as they’d made their way through England, as they’d bought plane tickets and planned for adventure across the pond--that had dissolved. Slowly, she’d come back. One day at a time, a little nearer. Brushing Jamie’s hand on the flight over. Her shoulder pressed lightly to Jamie’s in the car rental office. Her body sliding past in a hotel room.

Small touches. Glancing, testing, experimental touches. Nothing big. Nothing like what they’d already uncorked in a bedroom back in Bly. 

The weeks unfold, and every night, Dani curls a little closer. Sometimes, Jamie finds herself unable to sleep at all, with Dani’s head on her chest. Sometimes, it feels so much like playing champion that she feels too small, too fragile, unworthy of the honor. Dani, groaning in her sleep, clutching at Jamie’s shirt like she’s in danger of sliding away, seems not to notice. Dani is fighting her own battles, and she’s doing so without letting Jamie so much as hand her a weapon. 

The weeks unfold, and the air between them seems ever to tighten. Every time Dani catches her eye and holds. Every time Dani takes her hand without looking. Every time Dani stands, swaying, her body leaning forward as she had in a hallway once upon a lifetime ago. 

And still: nothing. Jamie doesn’t push. Jamie can’t bear to see the crease in Dani’s brow, the flinch from an unexpected touch. Dani is not fragile, she is sure; Dani Clayton is still so much stronger than either of them could have imagined, she knows. Still. Still, she can’t be the thing to break any part of Dani open. 

Dani has to come to her. 

And, without plan, without intent, Dani does.

They’ve been on the road for almost a month, two people learning one another without the easy fall-back of sexual intimacy. It is unlike any relationship Jamie’s ever had--though, in fairness, she supposes she figured that out about Dani before she even knew they’d wind up here. Before she could even guess. Dani has always been different. 

In a past life, she would be building the blocks of their future on physical touch. On hands sliding into clothes, on lips tracing and tongues tasting. She understands that much very well--that a person can give so much up without meaning to, can have so many trunks unlocked by simple virtue of getting naked. It’s easy, watching people, learning what they need. Easy, if you’re willing to pay attention. 

But it’s easy, in its own way, learning Dani this way, too. Learning how she leans into uptempo pop-rock, and turns up her nose at twangy folk-country. Learning how she claims not to be hungry, only to steal half the food off of Jamie’s plate. Learning how to read the serious cast of her eyes when she’s thinking, how it’s different from the purse of her lips when she’s about to spiral into panic. It’s easy in every way, as she’d never expected it to be. 

Except for this. Except for the electricity. She can’t for her life find a way to read that--because it’s always there. Always between them, this intangible heat springing up at a moment’s notice. One minute, they’re laughing--Jamie bending to pat a retriever who has bounded across the park to make a new friend, Dani chatting idly with the middle-aged woman apologizing for the dog’s exuberance--and then: 

Then it’s like they’re back there, back at Bly, back in that bedroom. Back with Jamie’s arm looped gently around Dani’s waist, Dani’s hands framing her face, all warm breath and lips not quite touching. That same heat, that same lightning-in-a-bottle irresistibility, punching up between them. 

It’s in every shop, the aisles so slender, they find themselves pressing tight as they inspect wares. In every diner, Dani leaning nearly out of her seat into some unseen gravity Jamie can’t seem to help producing. In every hotel room. 

Every single hotel room.

It’s hers, Jamie thinks, even as her heart pounds and her fingertips seem to go numb with anticipation. It has to be hers. Dani’s choice. Dani’s willingness to, once again, tumble with her into something new. 

It’s hers, even as Dani seems to burn on the other side of a bathroom door Jamie has left cracked open while she showers. Dani’s choice. Dani’s willingness to want this with her, for her own reasons, and not simply because they’ve done it once before.

It’s hers, even as Jamie slides into bed with the quiet uncertainty of yet another night not quite there. Not quite ready. Dani’s choice. Dani’s willingness to set aside the thing she insists is watching her, waiting to pull her under. 

The air seems especially fraught tonight, somehow--she thinks maybe it’s the August of it all, pushing in through the cracks in the windows. August in the American Midwest is hotter than she anticipated, a deeper heat than she’s felt in a long time. There’s a thick quality to the humidity she doesn’t like, and she finds herself wishing for the affectionate chill of autumn. 

Especially now, with Dani stretched out beside her on the sheets. It’s too hot for much; Dani had looked almost apologetic, stepping out of the bathroom in a long t-shirt and underwear. Jamie, who’d spent the previous night tossing and turning in an ill-advised pair of sweatpants, tried to look easy shrugging. 

“S’too bloody hot for anything else, right?”

There had been relief in Dani’s eyes, but slipping between the sheets had felt like stepping into a house without turning on the lights. The air is simply too heavy to be allowed. The bed is simply too small. 

Dani is simply too close and too far at the same time. 

It has to be her, Jamie thinks again, a constant mantra against her own desires. It’s a personal doctrine, a requirement. It has to be--

Dani is breathing in the dark, slow, hitching breaths that sound almost like a nightmare. She’s laying on her side, facing Jamie, two people curled not quite to meeting, and every time Jamie opens her eyes--Dani is gazing back. In the dark, it’s hard to make out the mismatched colors. In the dark, she can almost believe both of those eyes are still blue. 

Dani, breathing deeply. Saying nothing. But one hand, Jamie realizes, is moving. One hand, drifting almost like a dream, resting lightly along Jamie’s hip. 

She doesn’t speak. Doesn’t close her eyes. Only shifts, slowly, her legs straightening against the warm rustle of stiff sheets. Dani’s hand remains where it is, a fixed spot in a room which seems suddenly to be adrift. 

Jamie, slowly, raises a hand to match. A light brush of fingers, curling around until Dani exhales and lets her own body inch nearer.

Dani, who seems so far and so impossibly close. 

Has to be, Jamie thinks, the only words coming to mind as the hand on her hip drifts up, slowly sliding along her ribs. Dani’s palm is warm, her fingers trembling, slipping up under the cotton t-shirt. She rests there, halfway up a ribcage which seems suddenly too brittle to hold the crash of Jamie’s heart, waiting. 

Jamie, slowly, matches her. 

This will be, she is sure, as far as it goes. Dani is pushing her own boundaries tonight in ways Jamie hasn’t let herself even think about, but it’s so hot, and the air is so heavy, and there is simply no way--

Dani’s legs, bare and smooth, are brushing her own. She drags in a breath, aware Dani can feel it beneath her hand, and can’t find it in herself to be embarrassed. Not with the way Dani is curling closer, the bed--already so small--shrinking to nearly nothing. 

Dani, who has been close, but hasn’t looked at her quite like this in weeks. Dani, who has been so distracted by her own reflection, by the monster she senses beneath the waves. Dani, who seems now, for the first time since leaving England, to see only her. 

“We don’t have to,” Jamie hears herself breathe. “We don’t--”

Dani makes a noise: maybe a laugh, maybe a bid for silence. Her hand is sliding higher, her fingers tracing the underside of Jamie’s breast with the barest contact. Jamie swallows the next words, her own hand flexing in response. 

Dani is nearly on her pillow, she realizes. Her head lifts slightly, her eyes searching Jamie’s, and there is a moment where Jamie thinks, She’ll run now. She’ll flinch back. She’ll do it again, and it will hurt again, and there’s nothing I can--

Dani is kissing her, and if Jamie had feared a loss here--if Jamie had feared Dani might forget how to do this, or how to want her--there is no point entertaining that fear any longer. Not with Dani’s lips pressing gently once, twice, then harder. Dani, banishing the rest of the distance in a single fluid motion, sliding across the mattress and pressing Jamie down onto her back. 

It is not planned, she can tell--from the heady breath catching in Dani’s chest, from the dark glaze in Dani’s eyes as she gazes down at her. Dani is as surprised as she is, even pressing her body down, her hips rocking against Jamie’s almost accidentally. A flush rises in Dani’s cheeks, her lip pulling between her teeth. 

Jamie nods. Words, she senses, will break the spell--whatever it is Dani needs to do here, to prove to herself here, does not need words. Consent, though. Consent requested and freely given. That much feels right.

Dani presses down to kiss her again, even as Jamie is arching up to meet her, and it isn’t gentle this time. Isn’t easy and slow and stretched carefully out, each beat elongated until crashing hearts can level into something sustainably enthusiastic. This is a month of waiting, a month of electricity, the sweat-slide of muggy August air pressing down around them. This is Dani leaning out of the grip of whatever she most fears and into the desire she’s been fostering since a kiss in a greenhouse. 

This is Dani’s hand’s exploring, her fingers in Jamie’s hair, tracing Jamie’s jawline, pulling Jamie’s shirt up over her head. This is Dani’s mouth at her ear, gasping in surprise when Jamie’s hands close around her hips and jerk her down against one bent thigh. This is Dani rolling to meet her, one hand fumbling beneath her waistband, fingers searching and finding and stroking until Jamie’s breath is a hot spike in her chest. 

It’s the kissing, she thinks, she’s missed most. No one has ever kissed her like Dani does--not like a secret to be hidden away, or a private scorn to look back on later, or even a hot glee no one should ask to understand. Dani kisses like she wants to be here. Dani kisses like she never wants to be anywhere else. Dani kisses her in this hotel, in this bed, with her fingers curling and her hips grinding mercilessly, with exactly the same excitement as in a hallway--in a grove--in a greenhouse. Every time, no matter what Dani Clayton carries, she kisses the same way. 

She believes, in some part of her, that Dani will build those walls again when her hands have finished their pleasing work. That Dani will roll off of her, lay on her back, stare blankly at the ceiling as she waits for her beast to rise up. 

Dani doesn’t. Dani makes soft, urgent noises against her upturned jaw, kissing and sighing as Jamie’s back bows off the mattress, and Jamie has barely found equilibrium again--legs trembling, hands buried in Dani’s hair--when she slides not off, but down. Down the mattress, kicking aside useless sheets, dragging the underwear off Jamie’s hips as she goes.

“You don’t have to,” Jamie begins, but Dani is looking at her around the almost leisurely kisses she trails down a shivering body, just looking at her as her mouth explores still-new territory, and Jamie sees no point in arguing. Not with the way Dani is sliding half off the small bed, her hands insistent and hopeful as they guide Jamie’s legs up over her shoulders. 

No words, Jamie decides again, letting herself sink into Dani’s kiss. Letting herself rock against Dani in slow, easy rhythm, she grips the sheet in one hand and Dani’s hair in the other, guiding her with gentle pressure. Dani hadn’t done this, the first night. Dani had, in fact, spent much of that night on her back, shivering all over with excitement and trepidation and pleasure. Teach me, she’d said in a voice half-shy, half-brazen, and Jamie had complied with the joy of one who knows this kind of education can take a lifetime. 

Teach me, Dani had said then, but now, it seems to be a different instruction. Let me, maybe. Let me learn. Let me want this. 

Far be it from me, Jamie thinks dazedly; her mind may worry about going too far, about pushing Dani out of her comfort zone, but her body is familiar with this ride. Her body is all too delighted to find Dani picking up the signals of what she likes, Dani testing with soft kiss and rough lick to find what works best. 

And maybe now, Jamie thinks with a mind wiped nearly blank, Dani will pull away. Maybe now, Dani will vanish on her without warning. Maybe.

Except, no--Dani is curling against her once more, one thigh draped over Jamie’s hips, moving against her with slow, indulgent thrusts. Her hand curls around Jamie’s shoulder, her breath coming in fast little puffs as she picks up speed, and it’s all Jamie can do not to flip her over and take the wheel. All she can do, to curl her fingers around Dani’s thigh, digging in as Dani presses against her, slides away, presses against her. It does not feel, she recognizes, as though Dani is trying to reach a conclusion of her own. It feels only as though Dani is desperate to feel her, to keep herself present, to make absolutely certain neither of them can forget she is in this bed. 

No chance of that, thinks Jamie, weariness and arousal making the strangest bedfellows. All night, Dani could keep this up--all night, with sweat running down her back, with her lips tracking every inch of Jamie’s skin, drawing her tight and shattering her control. She wouldn’t mind. It’s too hot to sleep, anyway. 

“Okay,” Dani says, her voice half a coiled groan, as she eases a hand down to tease at Jamie once more. “We’re okay. We’re here.”

“We are,” Jamie agrees, turning her head, kissing Dani with what she hopes is all the long, steady promise of a bedroom and an offer to keep company. Whatever that means. For however long Dani wants. “We are absolutely fine.”

For the first time, she’s pretty sure they both believe it.

Chapter Text

This is probably a bad idea. It is, isn’t it? Almost certainly.

Why is she here?

Dani Clayton has been playing this particular set of thoughts--bad idea, terrible idea, why would you do this?--on repeat for three days. Ever since setting up that dating profile. Ever since realizing there isn’t much use in setting up a dating profile if you’re not going to use it. 

Oh, it’s all fun and games, building the thing. Find a photo that accentuates all the best parts of your face--Dani, after an hour of careful consideration, wound up going with one that accentuated her hair, more than anything, but she suspects the same idea counts. Then, the profile. What do you like? Teaching, long walks, new experiences, bad coffee. What don’t you like? 

Men, she’d thought, and snorted aloud into her wine before settling on: Deep water, accordion music, expectations, being called Danielle. 

A little more flourish, tipsy keystrokes, a casually-framed short-version of her life. Perfect. And then...well, then you hit the publish button, don’t you? You decide, for better or worse, to jump off this diving board and see just how far you can stand to swim before the energy gives out on you.

The faces appearing before her hadn’t been bad, certainly. Pretty, most of them. Interesting, a few. Still, she hadn’t swiped right on any--once or twice, because she’d forgotten which way meant yes please, but mostly because no one seemed quite...right. Which, she’d thought, was silly. The whole point of an app like this is to cast as many nets as possible and see what comes up. The whole point is to have fun

But every time she’d hovered over a promising image, a woman who likes dogs, or plays the violin, or goes rock-climbing in her spare time, she’d thought of him. Eddie. Who had taken one yes to a single date, and tried to make a whole life with her out of it. 

Eddie, who had taken her two decades to pull away from. 

What if the women here were the same? Not Eddie, exactly, but--presumptive. What if they believed a swipe-right was as good as a marriage proposal? What if she got bound up in conversation, and then a date, and then a relationship with someone else who just didn’t fit right?

Left. Left. Left. 

And then: the mistake.

She hadn’t meant to swipe right. Exactly. She hadn’t planned, maybe is the better way of putting it, on swiping right. She’d only wanted to look at the woman’s profile a little longer. Only wanted to inspect the facets this woman had put out on display with almost resigned simplicity. 

Some people, Dani had by now realized, wrote poetry and paragraphs to describe themselves. 

Jamie Taylor had bullet points.

“Gardener. English. Likes: Plants. Stories. Tea. Dislikes: Bullshit.”

The end. That had been quite literally the sum of it. Gardener. English. No bullshit.

But the picture, somehow, Dani hadn’t been able to look away from. Not because of carefully-arranged lighting, not because of a curated model-clean image--but because the woman appeared to have posted the photo almost under duress. It came in profile, as though someone else had done the job, her head turned toward the camera as if interrupted. Her hands were buried in a flower pot. Her clothes were simple--a tank top, a silver chain resting against the jut of collarbones, a pair of worn-looking jeans with holes in the knees. Her eyes--some fascinating color Dani couldn’t quite place--looked somewhere between amused and irritated. 

She looked real. 

Stupid, Dani thinks now--because that was probably the idea, wasn’t it? This woman, Jamie, had planned to look exactly this way. Real. Vexed at the idea of putting herself out there. Reluctantly available. 

It was a ploy, certainly--but one that seems to be working, because not only did Dani accidentally-not-accidentally swipe right, she found herself texting the woman. For hours. She’d expected much less, had figured this Jamie person would be as brief in text as she had been in bio, but...

Jamie had talked to her. Willingly. Teasingly, with more humor than truth, maybe, but with no sign at all that she was sick of Dani’s questions, bad jokes, nervous assessment that I really don’t do this, I honestly don’t get it. 

I don’t, either, Jamie had replied, and that had felt like enough of a reason to keep testing the waters. Enough of a reason to keep the conversation going back and forth, back and forth, until nearly two in the morning.

Shit, she’d said. I need to be at work in four hours. 

Shame, Jamie had replied, her tone already searingly familiar over text. Own your own business, make your own hours. Far wiser approach. 

I’ll make a note of it for when I found an elementary school, Dani had replied, laughing. She hadn’t said she’d already been in bed for an hour, the phone resting on the pillow beside her head so she wouldn’t miss the buzz of a new message. It had seemed perfectly reasonable at the time, with wine-warmed blood and the happy haze of good conversation. Jamie made her laugh. Jamie put her at ease. Jamie might not have been real, but she felt real, and that was good

Better than anything she’d felt in years, if she was honest with herself. 

Still, when the next day had come and gone with no message, she’d thought, Fair enough. Jamie had been good virtual company for one night. It was more than she’d expected to get out of this app.

Far more than she’d expected, particularly when Thursday night rolled around and her phone buzzed.

Teacher, yeah? No school on Saturday?

Correct, Dani had replied, as amused by the out-of-left-field text as she was irritated with how her stomach had flipped over upon receiving it. You have figured out the complexity of the American school system. 

I am a genius, Jamie sent back, followed quickly by: Drinks tomorrow night? 

Drinks. A thing that people do. A thing that adult people do for date reasons. 

She isn’t real, she’d thought, even as her thumb was punching back: How’s 8? Miller’s?

A mistake. Definitely a mistake. Because the app had been a lark, and the conversation had been too easy, and the fact that she can’t quite pick out the colors in Jamie’s eyes from a single photo is making her crazier than she’d like to admit. 

A mistake, saying yes. A mistake, suggesting the local pub-like establishment around the corner, whose beer-and-burger specials had kept her fed on too many evenings spent working late. A mistake, because once this goes south--as it’s absolutely bound to, as everything Eddie-shaped always has--she’s going to lose her favorite hangout in the deal, too.

And yet: here she is. Standing at the door, wondering if the outfit chosen for the evening festivities--tight jeans, pink blouse, hoop earrings--is too much or not nearly enough. 

What am I doing here?

Maybe, she thinks with mingled alarm and hope, she won’t even have showed up. Maybe it’s all part of the ruse: look approachable, look human and normal, look a little too beautiful in the most grounded way possible--then, cheerfully, invite a woman to drinks and just don’t show. A fun story for whoever comes next. Can you believe she thought I’d want to meet her after one night of texting?

“Dani?” 

English, Dani thinks with a sudden rush of heat. Right. Somehow, she hadn’t quite been prepared for the accent, which--coming out of this woman, draped with languid ease at a table--is truly a little more than Dani thinks she can handle just now. The accent, combined with the mess of curls dragged back from her face, and a dress sense that manages to be both casual and deeply attractive at the same time, is...

“Jamie,” she says, her voice a little lower, a little more hoarse, than is truly necessary. The woman pushes up from her seat, a small-framed figure in a black button-down, suspenders, ripped jeans. She’s pressing a hand toward Dani, offering a firm shake as though they are business partners, not an off-the-cuff bad idea of a date. “You look--”

“Never been here before,” Jamie says, almost apologetically. She gestures for Dani to sit before dropping back down in a sprawl that implies exactly the opposite of what her mouth is insisting. “Wasn’t sure about the, ah, dress code.”

“You--you did fine,” Dani tells her, wishing suddenly she’d gone for a dress. Or a  different human body altogether. She feels too tightly-strung, too anxious for the easy smile on Jamie’s lips. “Um. You’re very. In person.”

“Very,” Jamie repeats, a hint of uncertainty in her voice. “Is very American for wish I’d gone left, after all?”

No. No. Absolutely not. That.” Bit too forceful, she suspects, judging by the smile spreading into a grin. “No, it’s just--your picture didn’t--tell me you’d be so...”

“Clean?” Jamie suggests innocently. She raises her hands, wiggling her fingers in a small wave. “Scrub up fine, when I need to. Seemed to call for it.”

“And you...sure did answer,” Dani says stupidly. “The. Call, I mean. I’m sorry, I really don’t do this often.”

Something seems to soften in Jamie, her smile less teasing as she leans across the table. “Hey, no worries here. Same person you were talking to the other night.”

Dani nods, embarrassed, and flags down a server. Drinks ordered, she draws in a deep breath.

“I mean, I haven’t done this in years. Or. Ever, I guess.”

“A first date?” Jamie asks. When Dani doesn’t answer, she adds in a knowing tone, “A date with a woman?”

“Both,” Dani says honestly. “My last relationship was--well, I mean, we were engaged--”

Jamie whistles under her breath, reaching up to scratch her head. “Blimey. What happened?”

“He’s...him.” It’s too much to go into on a first date, too much to explain, even though talking to Jamie over text had been so dangerously easy. “My best friend growing up, but that was...growing up.”

Jamie nods thoughtfully, tilting her chin in thanks when the server deposits two full pint glasses and a basket of fries on the table. “Rough time, sounds like. I can relate. My last relationship also did not go well.”

“Was he also a man who thought you’d be all too happy to quit your job and take care of a bunch of babies?” Dani asks, perhaps a little too bitterly for the occasion. Jamie flashes another grin, sipping her drink.

“She was a woman who thought I’d be all too happy to take the fall when she got busted for possession.”

Dani gapes. “Oh. Oh--I didn’t know--I’m so--”

Jamie shrugs. “She wasn’t wrong. I was nineteen, and deeply stupid. Live and learn, as the poets say.”

“Which poets?” Dani asks, smiling a little. Jamie’s brow furrows.

“John...Lennon, possibly? Hard to say. Anyway, relationships are a chore and a half, but the greatest people in the world tell me thirty is too old to play musical bedframes, so. Here we are.”

No bullshit, thinks Dani approvingly. For what little she’d put into her profile, Jamie evidently hadn’t been lying about that.

“You haven’t been in a relationship since you were nineteen?”

“In my mind, I was still in the relationship at twenty-four, when they let me out. She didn’t agree. Found out she’d been married two years, by then.” Something darkens in Jamie’s eyes for a moment. She sighs. “Like I said. Not my finest. But I am, as they say, a shining beacon of reform these days.”

“Now, when you say they,” Dani teases, grinning. Jamie nods decisively. 

“John Lennon. Definitively.”

There it is, thinks Dani, watching Jamie pop a fry into her mouth. There, the easy roll of conversation from the other night. As though they’ve known each other forever. As though two people who have thus far failed irrevocably at relationships make a perfect match.

Easy, she thinks. Don’t go wild, now. 

“So,” she says, when the comfortable silence between them has grown a bit too comfortable for the setting, “who are the greatest people in the world? The ones who tell you thirty is too old for...did you say musical bedframes?”

Jamie laughs. The ring of it curls gently around Dani’s head like a soft hand, a sound she’ll find herself replaying later with a skipping heart. 

“Not many willing to put up with a grump of my caliber, but Hannah and Owen fight the good fight. So long as I at least pretend to try.”

“Let me guess. They set up the account for you?”

Jamie makes a sort of gesture in the air with the hand not holding her glass. “Threatened to bury me in puns and children, respectively, if I kept putting it off. Owen’s still grumpy about the photo choice.”

“I liked it,” Dani says without thinking. Jamie raises an eyebrow.

“Well, you did swipe as much. Mind if I ask why?”

Walked into this one. Still, she doesn’t mind as much as she probably should, not with the genuine curiosity in Jamie’s eyes. “You looked--don’t laugh.”

“No promises,” Jamie says, but with the gentle tone of one who knows exactly how much to tease before it’ll hurt. The idea warms Dani in a way she’s not quite ready to look at yet.

“You looked real,” Dani says. “Like you weren’t going to play games, or waste anyone’s time. Like you just wanted to be happy in peace.”

“That is,” Jamie says, holding out a fry for Dani to take, “sort of the idea, yeah.”

There’s an almost puzzled cast to her smile, like she didn’t entirely expect this answer, and is pleased by it at the same time. That same sense from the photo sweeps over Dani now--that this woman is authentic, even if she’s not always shiny, that she’s kind even if not entirely clean. That she doesn’t have any interest in muddled expectation or living a comfortable lie.

“And me?” Dani asks. She doesn’t entirely mean to--but she’s sure, in asking, that Jamie will answer. Jamie is unlike anyone else she’s ever met, the first person she’s ever known to meet each question head-on. 

“Honestly?”

Dani nods. Jamie seems to consider it, turning it over in her head as she twists a fry between her fingers like a cigarette. 

“All of it.”

“That’s,” Dani begins to laugh, “that’s not--”

“No,” Jamie says, and she isn’t smiling, exactly. Her eyes have a sort of shine Dani likes very much, but there is no hint of teasing in them now. “Really. All of it. You’re...very pretty, and that’s--but the way you described yourself. Like you didn’t care to be anyone in particular. You like new experiences, and bad coffee. You hate being called Danielle. I...I wanted to know why.”

“It’s not my name,” Dani says simply. Jamie gives a brief laugh, her hand moving across the table to lightly brush Dani’s fingertips. 

“I wanted to know why all of it. Why do you like bad coffee--”

“It’s the only kind I know how to make,” Dani says automatically. “Just sort of leaned into it.”

“--and teaching--”

“I want to make a difference,” Dani says. 

“--and where you most like to go on those long walks--”

“Anywhere I can breathe,” Dani says. Her fingers are hesitant, tracing the tips of Jamie’s. There’s something electric about this, about barely touching, about barely knowing someone and still wanting to give them neatly-packaged secrets shaped like the mundane. 

Jamie is smiling. “See, that. I like that. All of it.”

It’s nothing, Dani thinks reflexively. A collection of details. A sparse approximation of a life. Eddie knows all of this, and then some, and never matched up to knowing her.

But this woman, leaning across the table with one hand outstretched, looks so different. Watches her with steady interest. Is listening to every word Dani says, though the bar is growing crowded around them, and soon, conversation will become a task instead of a gift.

“Would you,” Dani says, feeling certain that some mistakes are not as bad as they seem, “like to take one of those walks?”

“Tonight?” 

“Yeah. Tonight.” Emboldened by the smile, by the curl falling into Jamie’s eyes, by the knowledge that she still can’t quite make out what color those eyes are, Dani takes her hand. It’s so easy, she thinks she could do it even without looking. “Right now.”

No bullshit, she thinks. No expectations. Just Jamie looking at her like she can’t quite believe what she’s seeing. Dani can’t blame her. This isn’t at all what she’d thought she was getting, walking in tonight. 

But there’s something about it--something about the feeling that she’s been here before, or should be here forever, or will always find her way back to a woman who looks at her just like this--that almost makes her feel brave. Almost makes her feel wonderful. She rises from the table, laying cash beneath her half-empty glass, and feels a pleasant jolt in her chest when Jamie follows without another word.

If this a mistake, she thinks as they step out into the brisk evening air, it’s one she’s hungry to make. 

Chapter Text

“You know I live above that pub, right? Told you that already. Got a little flat right above the boring little pub.”

She knows what she’s doing, is the thing Jamie can’t quite wrap her head around. She absolutely knows what she’s doing. Where on earth is the woman from five days ago, the one who looked at her with such bruised eyes and swollen lips and tried plaintively to pull at her jacket? Where did she go, and who is this bold version in her place?

Dangerous, probably. Already, she’s lowering whatever meager defenses Jamie had managed to craft over the past week. Already, she’s blowing right past them as though never there at all, and Jamie doesn’t fully understand this. She’s never had trouble blocking someone out before--at least, not someone like Dani, who makes her feel...makes her feel...

Good. Makes her feel like the brightest thing in the room, most days. Makes her feel like no one has ever wanted her there so badly before. 

The woman’s only kissed her once, and already it feels like she’s made a home for Jamie somewhere in her heart. Somewhere under all the bad she’s carrying, under all the flinching she’s done, all the death and loss and fear, there’s a place for Jamie. If she wants it.

She’s looking at Jamie now like she’s proud of how she walked in here this morning. Like she’s proud of how closely she’s standing, how she’s biting her lips now to hold back a grin so enormous, Jamie can’t help but return it. Five days away, and she returns to someone who knows what she’s doing--and what she’s doing is flirting so hard, it’s a wonder the table doesn’t catch fire.

Did that on purpose, she thinks wonderingly. What the fuck is happening. 

***

The coffee, in its own way, worked. Not that she thought Jamie would actually like it, because honestly, it’s bad coffee--and Jamie is just too British for words--but the thing is, it was never meant to be liked. It was only meant to make Jamie smile.

Which it did. Eventually.

Or, she did. Is doing. Right now, as the words tumble out of her--Would you wanna get a drink? Away from the house. Away from all this. That could be kinda boring, right?--a part of her is desperately terrified to realize, she is doing this. She is leaning against this table, clutching a mug of truly toxic coffee, watching Jamie suck in her cheeks like it’s doing a damn thing to erase that smile. She is saying the words she’s been playing over and over in her head for five days running:

“You. And me. Could get a boring old drink. In a boring old pub.” God, her heart is sprinting. It’s entirely possible she won’t get out of this sentence, with all its halting hesitation, alive, much less this greenhouse. “And see where that takes us.”

And this is the part where Jamie will melt, she hopes. Swoon, even. The part the coffee laid road leading to, a glorious red herring approach. Here, where Jamie will see that she means what she says, and she’ll grow faint with whatever affection Dani has earned, and this will all be--

She’s grinning. Jamie, not quite facing her, is grinning. 

“You know I live above that pub, right?” This is not, Dani recognizes, exactly what one might call a swoon. This is the expression of a woman who has done extremely quick math and come up with a calculation Dani had sort of hoped she’d swing right past. When she’d swoon. 

She is not swooning. She is, instead, leaning slightly back, eyebrows raised appraisingly, reminding Dani in one fell swoop that there are people who are eager to flirt and people who are good at the art. And that Jamie, for all her glower and loner tendencies, is very, very good at the art. 

“Told you that already, didn’t I?” Her voice is almost soft, definitely teasing, her expression perfectly arranged to say this is my territory, Poppins, and you had best be careful how you tread in my garden. “Got a little flat. Right above the boring little pub.”

And then she’s...turning back to the work. Turning away, not a blush to be found, not even the hint of a swoon. Dani’s expression, so carefully schooled into neutrality, is breaking into the biggest grin of her life and Jamie has the temerity to not even keep eye contact.

“I mean--you maybe...mentioned it--”

“Only,” Jamie goes on, still focused on the task at hand--which Dani does not in the least understand, though there’s something to be said for Jamie in profile: head bent, eyes attentive, hands working into soil. Jamie never quite looks so alive as when she’s working, as though it is only in garden or greenhouse that she truly allows herself to flourish. 

Would she look that alive, Dani wonders with unbidden curiosity, anywhere else? Maybe in the boring little flat, maybe with me, maybe--

Only,” Jamie repeats, darting a small glance her way. Dani realizes she’s staring, closes her mouth. “I figure there are plenty of places two people could go on a date. Which is, if I’m not mistaken, what you’re suggesting. Isn’t it?”

“It...I--yes.” No point denying it. No point trying to wash away the simple brazen fact. A boring little date. It’s not a big deal. It doesn’t have to be a big--

“So,” Jamie says, her voice still doing that dangerous thing Dani doesn’t quite understand and can’t quite turn her attention from. That dangerous half-soft, half-amused thing that is all accent, all in control, all turning Dani’s own courage back on her like a firehose. “We could do it anywhere, couldn’t we? Doesn’t have to be the pub.”

“I--” Dani resists the urge to close her eyes. She’s going to make me say it. She really is. This wasn’t the plan, exactly. The plan had been so much simpler. It had not taken into account Jamie, who is going down into this thing with her willingly--but maybe not easily. “I mean, I just--”

“Just curious,” Jamie goes on breezily, drawing her hands from the soil at last and taking a slow step closer. The space between, already limited at best, reduces to nearly nothing in that single motion. Dani swallows.

“About?”

“It’s particular,” Jamie points out. A slight shift of hips, a nearly negligible twist of the waist, and she’s got Dani backed into a corner. Or, more accurately, against a table. “The pub. Bit curious, is all, why you’d want to get me into that pub.”

***

This poor woman is going to burst into flames, Jamie thinks, and maybe they’ll both deserve it. She isn’t upset with Dani anymore--has found in the span of about five minutes that there’s no staying upset with Dani when she turns those huge blue eyes on full-force, stands just so, puts on the bravest face Jamie has seen her wear since stalking Peter Quint through the night. She isn’t upset, exactly.

But Dani seems to think this was going to be easy. A cup of coffee. A slick line. She seems to think Jamie was just going to lean into it. 

Which she is. In her own way.

She’s careful not to touch Dani, not to press in with her body to such a degree that Dani will feel trapped. She’s only standing, a tiny width of space between them, her hands loose at her sides. Only standing, polite, smiling, waiting for an answer.

“Bit curious, is all, why you’d want to get me into that pub.”

“I don’t--I think--I mean--” Dani shakes her head slowly, her eyes wide and imploring. “Do you not...want to get a drink...”

“Didn’t say that.” The last five days haven’t been enjoyable. Burning sick days, pretending to be too ill to check in on the house, had felt cowardly. The shame in her stomach, twisting like acid around the hot desire of the memory, had felt familiar in the worst way--like being seventeen again, not knowing where to put all of these too-fierce feelings. Anger would have been easier. Disappointment, shame, embarrassment--each too heavy to put down on its own--had made for the worst kind of cocktail.

This, though. Dani looking at her--not needing to tip her head back, not needing to peer down, simply looking straight ahead and making perfect eye contact--feels good. Feels better than good. Feels like she’d felt in the moments before the flinch, when Dani had grinned into her mouth and pushed hard against her like she’d been waiting for this moment for days. This, Dani drawing deep breaths, clutching her mug, feels liking picking up right where they’d left off. 

Dangerous, she thinks again. Dangerous, to let Dani in this way. Dangerous, to admit how alive she feels, teasing her this way. 

Dangerous, every time Dani’s eyes flick to her lips and back again. 

“You’re really not going to say it,” she says, shaking her head in a parody of disappointment, reaching in gently to pluck the mug from her hands and set it aside. “Poppins. Really. First rule of flirting.”

“What’s that?” There’s a challenge in Dani’s smile, she thinks. A challenge so light and so free--and so intoxicating in its authenticity--she can’t help but laugh. She makes a show of leaning close, watching Dani’s eyes darken, watching Dani’s breath catch.

“Always be ready to commit.”

***

She’s going to kiss me, Dani thinks. Here. Now. Six in the morning, she’s going to do it. 

But, of course, Jamie doesn’t. Jamie, who thought it had been her Dani was trying to get away from the other night. Jamie, who took it so to heart she hadn’t even come back for nearly a week. 

It’s been so strange, going through the motions without Jamie around. Strange and hollow, and Dani knows--the way you know you can’t keep holding your breath much longer--life will never feel quite as vibrant without Jamie in it. 

Didn’t take long at all, she thinks, remembering the shadow of a young man standing before a dying fire. Didn’t take long at all, but I can’t not know that. 

Jamie’s here now, a crooked little half-smile on her lips, her eyes bright, but there’s something she’s still holding back. Something she’s still not absolutely sure Dani won’t let fall, split upon collision with the ground. 

She isn’t going to kiss Dani. She’s just going to stand here, making her crazy, smiling exactly like that. 

“Always be ready to commit.”

And there are other things Dani could do, it’s true--laugh, push at her shoulder, make another horrific stab at imitating her accent. There is plenty Dani could do.

But just now, with Jamie standing this close, with the air crisp and this single room so different than it had felt days ago, she’s not sure she can be blamed for what she settles on.

Not sure anyone could blame her for sliding a hand around Jamie’s middle, pushing off the table, using the momentum to twist until it’s Jamie backed against the table, Jamie looking at her with genuine surprise on her face.

That, Dani thinks with terrified glee. That’s the look I was going for. 

"Consider me committed,” she says, and though Jamie had been careful not to touch her, she finds herself unable to do the same. Her hips press Jamie backward, one hand clenching at the small of Jamie’s back. The other finds Jamie’s sleeve, less for contact, more a desperate bid for balance.

“Touché,” Jamie says in a low voice--not that easy flirtation tone this time, but something less in control. “My, ah. Hands are dirty.”

“Do you want me to come back later?” 

Jamie laughs, leans forward, shakes her head. “Didn’t say that.”

It wasn’t the plan, to kiss her here. She’d meant only to apologize--or, not apologize, but make clear that she was sorry how it had gone, that there are paths she very badly wants this to take that are the right way, the best way, the way it should have been all along. She’d meant only to make that clear, to land her proposal, to make Jamie feel a fraction as giddy as Jamie makes her every damn day.

And yet, with Jamie kissing back, Jamie making a helpless sound of frustration as her hands tip backward to grip the table behind her instead of ruining Dani’s coat, it feels right. It feels like meaning what she’s said. It feels like commitment. 

“For the record,” she adds, pulling away to breathe. Jamie’s knuckles are stark around the table, her elbows bent, her chest heaving. “This is why I’d like to get you into that pub. Or your boring little flat. More of this.”

“Could’ve just said so,” Jamie says, and maybe it’s not swooning, exactly--but the flush in her face is deeply satisfying all the same, particularly when she tips her head back to allow Dani access to her neck. 

“I thought I’d be polite about my desire to get you into bed, thank you.”

“Polite,” Jamie repeats, her voice sharpening when Dani slips a hand into her hair and kisses just above the collar of her jumpsuit. “Right. Completely slipped my mind.”

“I am,” Dani insists, pushing her harder against the table, “very polite.”

She is alive, here in this greenhouse, choosing Jamie. She is alive, and she is free, and she is all but breathless when Jamie--patience giving at last like the final strand of a snapping rope--slips both hands into her coat and clenches her hips. Jamie, who is so alive with her hands at work, and so much more so now, kissing until Dani is sure they’re both going to give up the idea of a date altogether and just settle for that rumpled little couch.

“Okay,” Jamie says at last, tipping her head away. Her hands are under Dani’s sweater, tracing the warm skin of her back, and Dani finds she couldn't care less about the dirt. “Okay. You’ve made your point, Poppins.”

“I have?”

“Mm.” Jamie leans her head down against Dani’s shoulder, exhales almost shakily. “No scary-bug flinch. Very good. Best save the rest for the boring little pub, yeah?”

Dani doesn’t want her to go. Doesn’t want her to pull free, put those hands back to work with plant and seed and root. Jamie is grinning again, brighter than anything Dani has seen in days, and Dani wants to stay within sight of that smile for the rest of her life. 

“You’ve got kids to wake. And I’ve got...um...things.”

“Things,” Dani repeats. Jamie nods. 

“Important things. With...plants...the work.” She reaches vaguely for a trowel, gestures with it like she’s considering bringing it to war. “Look, it’s early, I was not prepared for any of this, Poppins.”

Dani laughs, extricating herself at last and recovering her mug. Leaving is the last thing she’d like just now, but Jamie isn’t wrong--the kids will be up soon, and the day will fall into its usual register. Except, this time, she’ll know Jamie is out here, thinking about boring pubs and boring dates and the least boring kiss of Dani’s life. 

“Would,” she says, pausing at the door to glance back, “you call what you’re feeling now a swoon, by chance?”

Jamie blinks. “I--um.”

“Never mind.” The answer, Dani decides, is almost certainly yes. 

***

Honestly, thinks Jamie, watching her stroll--stroll! as if Dani Clayton strolls anywhere!--out the door, she did every last bit of that on purpose. 

“Swoon,” she mumbles, shaking her head. “Don’t fuckin’ swoon.”

It would, she thinks as she tries in vain to remember where she’d left off, explain the vague sense she might at any moment pass out--but Dani doesn’t need to know that.

If she gets any more brazen, after all, Jamie is going to be in serious fucking trouble.

Chapter Text

She’d thought, when she was much younger, she’d have more in her head today. Big worldly concerns, or tiny personal ones--thoughts of the expansive universe to which she will still belong, even if she isn’t strictly speaking her anymore, and thoughts of the little flat she’s been renting for the past few years. What will happen to her few belongings, to the box in which she keeps all the parts of Dani she couldn’t--even decades later--bring herself to part with? What will happen to the plants, to the stray cat who visits on its own timeline, to the photos and journals that chronicle a life lived too alone to stomach?

Thoughts, big and small, important and petty. She’d assumed she’d have them all, in this moment. 

But, in fact, there is really only the one. One simple thought, maybe foolish in nature, but no less loving: I’m here. I got here. 

It hadn’t been a certainty. There is no such thing, she supposes, as certainty when it comes to the end of one’s life--particularly when one has been smoking entirely too much for entirely too long. Cigarettes do a person no health favors, she thinks wryly; who knew? She hadn’t cared, at sixteen, at twenty-three, at thirty. Had cared even less, if it was possible, by the time she was sharing those cigarettes with Dani Clayton. And after?

After, it had been almost a challenge. Take me, then. Take me like she wouldn’t. She’s not proud of it, how often she’d sat back and chain-smoked in the living room, the rug strewn with flats and dirt and seedlings. I’ll make them live, and these will kill me slowly, and all will be on balance. 

The raving thoughts of a grieving woman. She’d had plenty of those, in the beginning. Plenty of insane ideas, the fabrications of denial and anger, bargaining and depression. She’d lost her mind for a while, she suspects, and even getting it back hadn’t felt entirely like coming home to herself. Not when there was no Dani present to laugh with, to kiss, to fall asleep curled around. 

It wasn’t herself she came back to, precisely--not Jamie Taylor, who had made such grand mistakes, had learned such desperate lessons, had fallen so in love against her best judgment. Not Jamie Taylor, who’d made a home for herself at Bly--and, more solidly, more importantly, in Dani. That woman, she thinks, is gone--drowned as surely as Dani. That woman never quite emerged again. 

This one--the one who has been carrying Dani’s story in her heart ever since--is different. Jamie Clayton does not possess the same gruff exterior; she thinks any hope of that was shorn away the night she unfurled her life’s comedy of errors to Dani like a one-woman play. Or maybe the night she’d held Dani, shivering all over, after the Lady had come to call. Or maybe the morning she’d extended a promise. 

This woman is not gruff, is not properly shielded from the world in layers of grit and good humor. This woman is quiet. Her smiles do not, perhaps, reach her eyes. She loves, but her love is not the fierce devotion of a wife who is simply incapable of giving in--not for anyone but the memory of Dani, who seems even now to be just out of reach. Dani got all of her--every bit--Jamie Taylor and Jamie Clayton alike--and everyone who has come after, every friend and acquaintance and stranger, has only the Storyteller. Whatever that may mean.

It was the Storyteller who came back out of that lake, sputtering and sobbing. It was the Storyteller who moved slowly back to the cab, to the airport, to Vermont. The Storyteller, who packed up the shop and the apartment. The Storyteller, who made a point to never again stop moving for long. Wasn’t any point. The stopping had already happened. The shelter had already been built. Time, then, to move on. 

And keep moving. 

Until now.

She’d always planned, in that deep-recess area of her mind where instinct lives, to make it back here someday. Just once. Just for this. Dani wouldn’t take her then, it’s true, but she’d been different all those years ago. Younger. The kind of foolish that comes with youth. She’d felt ancient, swimming out, and even older swimming back, but she’d been barely forty-five. A life only half-lived, though she’d thought it over the second she’d looked down and found Dani staring back. 

Dani wouldn’t take her then, no matter how hard she’d begged, and she’d been furious--for a while. Furious, and broken, and unable to breathe under the weight of all the nights she’d woken reaching for a body no longer within her grasp.

She hadn’t understood. Still doesn’t, maybe, even now. Dani didn’t have to take her. Dani could simply have shown herself--just once--and it would have been--

Enough? she thinks, and closes her eyes against fresh pain. No. Never enough. One look, and maybe she’d have lost her mind for good and all. One look, and maybe she really would have drowned, though she’d have been glad to do it. 

It wouldn’t have been enough. Nothing but Dani back, Dani here, could ever be enough.

And so:

She’s standing at the edge of the lake. Her back is bowed, her hair pure silver--nothing new, it had lost the last of its color barely five years after Dani had gone. She thinks sometimes it was a mark of trauma. Thinks other times that there are some faces you simply can’t bear to see in the mirror, not if the eyes of the woman you most loved will never look upon it again. Sometimes, the body understands what the mind can’t fathom. 

Poetic, maybe.

Bullshit, maybe.

Either way, she is silvered, and she is bent, and she is so tired. So tired, and so ready. It feels different than it had at forty-something, different than it had even at sixty. That had been the feverish agony of a woman not ready to live without Dani Clayton. This?

This is merely the end of the road. 

“All right,” she says, and her voice isn’t what Dani would remember--softer, the accent muddled from years in America, and then England, France, England again. There’s a little more London in her now, and a little Paris, and lot of Dani Clayton’s particular brand of Midwest. She is, as any good Storyteller becomes, something of an amalgamation. A sum of all the parts she’s taken on over the years. 

Still. It is hers, beneath it all. Her voice, ringing across the water as the sun sinks low. 

“All right, Poppins,” she says. “Time now, I think. D’you want company after all?”

I’m here, she thinks, sinking to sit beside the waves. Water drifts up, brushes the tops of her shoes. She allows it without flinching, closing her eyes. I’m here, Dani. Always said I would be, and I am. 

Not a big thought. Nothing important or world-shaking. Just--

A blink. Like falling asleep. It takes no more, no less, and she almost doesn’t realize it’s happened. Almost doesn’t recognize the change for what it is until she is looking down at her own hands--strong hands, steady, unshaking hands--and tracing the smooth skin with the tip of one finger.

“Right,” she says aloud. “It’s done.”

She pushes to her feet, and there’s no shock in her dress--no shock that she’d be in this hated brown shirt, these jeans, these canvas high-tops. No shock that her hair would be pulled back from her face--not silver, not completely, but threaded in bright sparks through the brown like so much starlight. Of course this would be it. This is how she went, really--not seventy-eight and bent in on herself, but just shy of forty-five. Just shy of a full fifteen years with Dani Clayton.

A person can die, she thinks idly, in so many different ways before it’s all over. No one talks about that. No one seems to--

A footstep, behind her. An animal, maybe, come to inspect the remains of the Storyteller. She turns her head, and even as she’s turning, her heart--how she can feel her heart when it has so clearly stopped, she doesn’t know, doesn’t care, it’s no less real for its impossibility--is rocketing out of rhythm. Her lungs, clearer than they’ve been in decades, swell with a sharp intake of breath. Her eyes, sharp and keen, settle on the woman.

“Dani.”

For a moment, they simply stare at one another--Jamie, frozen in brown flannel, black canvas, silver-threaded hair; Dani, locked permanently into that jumper, with the sleeves that fell over her hands when Jamie took them in her own, the one Jamie had to help her out of at the end of the night because she’d been shaking too badly to do it herself. For a moment, they stand, and they stare, and then Jamie is moving. Faster than she remembers being able to move. Here one moment, there the next, her arms around Dani in a wild embrace.

“Fucking thought you’d be--you’d have forgotten--”

Dani buries her face against her shoulder, warm and sweet and somehow smelling just as she had their whole life together. The same smell that took an achingly long time to fade from the flat. Jamie hadn’t been able to make herself go until it was gone, until every last breath of Dani was lost, until--

“Jamie,” Dani says, and even the voice is the same. Her face, her eyes, her hands--all as Jamie remembers. Not that last time, not in the lake, but for all the years leading up. Dani, as perfect and wonderful as in her dreams. 

“Jamie,” Dani repeats, and she’s shaking almost too hard to register, for a moment, the slight uptick of the second syllable. The very mild upward curve that Jamie hasn’t heard in such a long time. No one else says her name like that. No one else.

It takes a surprisingly long amount of time, then, for her to realize:

That is how Dani says her name when she is in trouble. 

***

It hurts, watching Jamie. For a long time, it hurts, a deep-pull ache like gravity, like a bone that never quite sets properly. Dani hadn’t realized things could still hurt, in death--hadn’t quite realized how it feels to have time wash over, not one beat at a time, but in a single hurried dash.

For her, she is alive, and she is dead, and she has been both longer than anyone cares to remember.

For Jamie, she’s been gone seven days--

Seven weeks--

Seven years--

For Jamie, she’s been gone, and gone, and gone, and the ache persists...but something else, slowly, begins to work its way in, too. Something Dani had not altogether expected. 

Aggravation. 

Worry. 

Desperation.

Jamie, her beautiful, rational, pragmatic Jamie. Her solid, strong, patient Jamie. Jamie who has always believed in her. Jamie who has always made sense. 

Jamie, who is--

***

“Leaving doors open, Jamie?” Dani has repeated this same about six times. Her voice is nearly shrill, her hands waving; if Jamie didn’t know any better, she’d think they were both very much alive, still back in the old apartment, Dani wondering why, Jamie, you thought putting the bed frame together meant drape a sheet over the mattress corner, Jamie. If Jamie didn’t know any better, she’d swear they never left. 

Quick, she thinks in a less-than-stellar moment of brilliance, pin her to a wall, kiss her neck. 

“You weren’t there,” she says weakly. “You--I wanted to make sure--”

“Jamie!” Dani is pressing probing fingers against her forehead, as though pushing back against a migraine. “I mean, in the apartment was bad enough--you knew how that kid downstairs was about borrowing things, but. Hotels? Hostels? Jamie, for the love of god, you even refused to lock the car.”

“Didn’t sleep in the car,” Jamie says, a bit defensively. Dani raises her eyebrows. “Often. Okay, look, I know it sounds bad, but--”

“Oh, didn’t just sound bad, Jamie.” Dani is stomping back and forth along the shore, her hands lost beneath the drape of her jumper sleeves. It’s an image that inspires such a strong wave of memory that Jamie almost tips over backwards. 

We’re in the hall, she thinks suddenly. We never left. She’s asking me to stay, and I’m taking her hands, and she’s kissing me--

“You’re not even listening,” Dani says sharply, and she realizes they really are in the hall now--both of them, now and then, a matched set. Dani, in this exact outfit twice over. Jamie, in that old t-shirt and jeans, her hands guiding Dani’s to her body. 

“How--are we--”

“That’s what I’m trying to explain,” Dani says, sounding slightly less vexed. “That’s how it goes, when you’re--when you--it’s all confetti, Jamie. All of it. Do you know how many times I saw it all go bad?”

“But.” That doesn’t make sense. She’s fine. Well--not fine, precisely; in the strictest sense, she is rather dead, rather permanently so--but it happened on her terms. Her decision. Back to Bly, back home again, once more into the lake--or at least the shore of same, and--

“Jamie.” Dani’s hand is slipping into her own, squeezing gently. “Look.”

She is forty-four, and aching, the door propped open with a snow boot. She is forty-four, asleep on the couch, unable to bring herself to the bedroom. She is forty-four, and someone is--someone is--

“That doesn’t make any sense,” she mumbles, even as she watches a lanky frame--that very kid Dani had mentioned, slipping into the apartment. Pausing to stare down at Jamie’s sleeping body. Shaking his head and heading toward the stereo--

She blinks, and the very same boy is standing up straight, spinning on his heel, walking right back into the hall. The door clicks softly shut behind him.

“That--I mean--it doesn’t prove--”

Another blink of time. She is in her fifties now, silver-haired, dozing in a hotel chair. Flora’s wedding, maybe--or similar, she’s lost track of hotel rooms exactly like this one, every one painted in white and blue and floral prints on the wall. 

She’s in her fifties, and the door is propped open as always, and there is a man who reeks of alcohol, bumbling in. Staggering against the wastebasket in the corner. Tripping over himself as he makes toward the bed--pauses--stares down at Jamie--

She blinks, and the man is straightening, shoulders back, marching right back out the way he’d come in a neat, graceful arc. The door, again, latches in his wake.

“Hang on,” she says, starting to get it, “hang on, you’re not honestly telling me--”

She is in her early seventies, draped over her flat’s pitiful sofa, and the door is open, two men in black are slipping into the room, one gazing down at her with an expression of distaste on his face--

“This one had a gun, Jamie,” Dani says, sounding utterly aggrieved. “Do you know how hard it is to possess two grown men into not murdering your sleeping wife? I can only do one at a time, Jamie.”

“How...many times...”

Too many, Jamie, Jesus.” Dani heaves a sigh. “I literally left so you wouldn’t be killed, do you have any idea how maddening you made things?”

“You could have stopped it,” Jamie says. Dani gestures emphatically toward the scene, which is slowly dissipating back into the manor hall. 

“I did stop it! So many times! Not to mention all the times you dozed off on the road, or drank a bottle of wine and then went up to hang out on the roof, I mean. Jamie. I love you very much, but what the fuck?”

“You could have stopped it,” Jamie repeats, her voice low and even. Her heart is still clamoring, her hands itching to grab hold of Dani again--and she will. She knows it, even now, even with Dani furious at her, that this is just a beat. Just a conversation they have to have, before it all goes back to the way it should have never stopped being. “If you’d just let me see you once. One time, Dani.”

“I--” Dani inhales, as if steadying herself. “I couldn’t.”

“Oh, but you could possess people? You could catch me whenever I started to veer off the road or tilt over the edge?” She’s surprised to find there’s a little anger left in her, a little surprising dose of the old Jamie rage buried beneath years and years of therapy. “Dani, if you’d just let me--”

“If I’d let you,” Dani says quietly, “would you ever have done anything else?”

Jamie hesitates. So easy, she thinks, to say yes. Yes, of course, I wasn’t suicidal, just miserable, just lonely, just grieving, Dani. 

But, in the end, was there so much of a difference? A life lived well in daylight and recklessly under the stars is still dangerous. A life never letting anyone else in, because it might mean explaining the ritual she couldn’t put away, even at the end. Bathtubs filled to spilling. Doors unlatched. Eyes searching every reflection. 

“I wanted you to be happy,” Dani says. “I wanted you to live. Wasn’t stupid enough to think you’d stop being stubborn, but I thought you’d at least close the goddamn door, Jamie.”

“Couldn’t.” Her throat is dry, tight, her hands shaking. “Couldn’t if it meant letting you go. You know that. You had to know that.”

Dani seems to deflate, shoulders hunching in, head bowing. “Yeah. I did.”

“Anyway,” Jamie says, “look who’s talking, stubborn. You put yourself on a plane without me, Dani. You wouldn’t even talk to me--”

“I did talk to you.” There is no anger in her voice now, no desperation. She sounds very calm. “I talked to you, and I let you hold me, and I let us both believe it was never going to happen. For as long as I could. But she tried to take you, too, Jamie. She tried one time, and I wasn’t willing to sit around until it took.”

“Dani Clayton,” Jamie says, almost grinning. “Bit of a weirdo--”

“--so much stronger than I knew,” Dani finishes. Her hands are taking Jamie’s again, pulling her close. “I’m sorry. This isn’t how I wanted--I planned--I mean, not exactly a party, but...you had me scared. I didn’t even know that could happen, after it all ends. but it turns out...”

“You really possessed all those people?” Jamie looks at her with fresh wonder. Dani winces.

“Okay, don’t put it that way, I only did it long enough to get them away from you.”

“And me?” It’s never occurred to her before, this grim fascination of an idea. “Did you ever do it to--”

“No!” Dani looks horrified. “No. I just...think of it like a hand on your shoulder.” 

“How often?” 

Dani is smiling. A sad smile, but there’s hope in her eyes. The whole picture is so like the summer they’d met, so like how Dani had looked at her before she’d taken that first big leap of faith and reached for Jamie in a greenhouse. 

“Always. All the time. I mean--time, now, is kind of always anyway, but...yeah. Always.”

“So you...saw me...” Jamie winces. “With the water. And the mirrors. And the--”

“Oh, don’t think we’re done talking about this,” Dani says, almost genial in her aggravation. “Jamie, you were seventy-eight years old and sleeping on the fucking floor.”

“Hey,” says Jamie quickly, “been a long time. You should, uh, show me how this whole ghost thing works. Can we fly? I bet we can fly.”

Dani opens her mouth as if to say don't change the subject, we have almost thirty-five years of recklessness to discuss--then seems to change her mind. She’s kissing Jamie, and it’s as real as anything, as solid and perfect and like coming home as it ever was. She’s dreamed about this. For decades, she’s dreamed about Dani’s arms around her like this, Dani kissing her with that familiar old hunger. 

Dani, whose eyes are as blue as the woman who once stared with blank surprise at Jamie in a kitchen, leans back. “Seriously, though, Jamie, no beds? Ever? How were you even able to walk at the end there?”

“Had to get back to you somehow,” Jamie says, and then, thoughtfully: “There are beds here, though, huh? Good ones. I seem to remember...”

“Not done talking about it,” Dani reminds her, easing in for another long kiss. The hall is shifting around them, changing, Dani’s old bedroom rising up in its wake. “But Jamie?”

“Mm?” It’s just like she remembered--no double-dose of them this time, either. Just Dani, leaning almost shyly against the edge of the mattress, reaching up to hold her when she moves in close. Just Dani, nuzzling gently into her, hands cradling her face.

“Welcome home.”

Chapter Text

The greatest injustice in the world, Owen Sharma thinks, is in how many women he’s buried. How many loved ones--why are brilliant young women always punished?--he’s laid to rest. How many times he’s looked away for only a second, only to find they’ve slipped through his fingers.

The greatest injustice in the world, Owen thinks, is in how many times he’s stood over the graves of women who should have had so much more time. Women with new recipes untested, new cities left unexplored, new experiences permanently unlived. Rebecca Jessel will never practice law. Hannah Grose will never see Paris. Dani Clayton will never...

Dani will never...

He’s never even there. Maybe that’s the worst part of all--that he’s always just off-camera, always just this side of where he ought to be. At home, when Rebecca drowned; at the manor when his mother passed; looking at his shoes while Hannah...

And now: now, with no warning at all, the phone ringing in the middle of the night. The voice on the other end is almost unrecognizably flat. The voice on the other end, he thinks, will haunt his dreams for years to come.

“Come to Vermont.”

“Jamie?” She sounds wrong. Not simply too calm, not simply too level, but as though all the life has been wrung from her body. As though she’s calling him from another plane altogether, and Owen will later be embarrassed by his first awful thought: She’s dead. She’s calling me from her own grave. It’s Hannah all over again.

But of course nothing ever could be. Nothing could ever match Hannah, the impossibility of her that summer. The impossible, cruel way the universe had of pushing her nearly into his arms before letting that trapdoor fall open beneath his feet. Jamie isn’t dead; Jamie is breathing into the other end of the phone, as though straining to keep herself together. Which can only mean one thing. 

He’s on the first flight. A bag with a few changes of clothes, a passport, a photo he is to this day unable to travel without. The plane juddering beneath him, his legs crammed into the small space, he presses his thumb to the smile beneath the plastic sheet. 

Hannah, I don’t know how to do this again. He’s never quite known how to do it at all, how to be this person--and wasn’t that because of Jamie all along? Jamie, who had found Rebecca’s body and made all the appropriate calls, her expression stony as she’d explained to the police how they’d found her. Jamie, who had answered the phone that night, turning on her heel with eyes that suddenly took up half her face, apologizing as he’d never heard her do before. Jamie, who made arrangements for food and drink while he stood like a puncture wound in blue jeans staring at what was left of his mother’s estate. 

Jamie, who stood beside him in front of a well, looking down even when he hadn’t been able to stomach it any longer. Jamie, always looking down into the face of cold reality. 

He’s never quite where he needs to be when it happens, but Jamie is. Jamie has always been. She is almost unfairly good at it: standing tall, accepting the truth, holding them all up when they shatter. 

And now, here she is: opening the door in cuffed jeans and a rumpled brown flannel shirt. Here she is, a few years older than Paris, looking at him like she’s never seen him before. Like the woman who called was someone else entirely. He thinks he sees a little of his mother in the blank distance of her eyes, and his heart cracks. 

“What happened?”

She turns from him, gesturing for him to come in. The flat, which has every hallmark of home, is surprisingly warm. Surprisingly messy, too--there are clothes on the couch, most of them things he recognizes as Dani’s from the photos they’ve been mailing his way for years. The floor is covered with pots, lemongrass and tiny succulents and a large-leaved plant he doesn’t recognize standing proudly amid clods of dirt, a watering can, several crumpled packs of cigarettes. 

She reaches for one of these now, taps out the final smoke into her palm, crunches the wrapping. “Want one?”

That voice again, that strange timbre--the accent a little less than he remembers, a little ironed-out by nearly fifteen years in this country, though that isn’t what works a shiver up his spine. It’s so flat. It’s so toneless. Jamie has been many things since he’s known her--angry, aggressive, cool, even violent--but never this detached. 

He’s never seen her like this. He’s never thought to worry he ever would. Jamie has aways been the most stable of them, taking up the mantle when even he couldn’t carry it. 

We, he thinks wearily, are the survivors. The witnesses. No one ever talks about what that’s like. 

Untrue. People talk about it. People who do useful things, like attend support groups, or get themselves to therapy. Henry does, sometimes--nursing seltzer, smiling ruefully at Owen over dinner. We think it’s the losing them that hurts the worst, until it happens, he’d said once. It isn’t. It’s the part where you have to keep waking up, dreaming for a split second each morning they’re still here. 

Nearly fifteen years, and there hasn’t been a single morning Owen hasn’t thought absently of calling her up. Not one where he hasn’t thought, Been too long without her voice. Without her laugh. God, that woman’s laugh. 

“Jamie...”

Her head comes up sharply, her eyes flashing--and then, like it was never there, the expression passes. She lights the cigarette with a steady hand, settles herself back on the rug with it clamped between her teeth. There’s soil smudged on her cheek, caked into her hair, and he wonders when last she showered. 

“Jamie, do you want to talk about it?”

She doesn’t. He knows that. He remembers too well how she’d sat beside him on a sofa in 1987, passed him a bottle of wine in silence. How she’d said simply, covering all bases in two words, “Fuck it.” 

It had been Dani, he remembers, who spoke of it first. Dani, looking paler than normal, looking shaken, saying firmly, “We should do something. We should do something for her.”

“Sit,” Jamie says without looking at him. She’s already getting back into it, he realizes--working her hands carefully back into a terra cotta pot, brushing the soil from spindly roots with loving care. It’s how she looked after Rebecca, brow furrowed, smoking and working in silence. There are problems that can’t be managed, he understands, and the only way someone like Jamie can tolerate that fact is to find new troubles to set right.

“Where is she, Jamie?” She’s not going to like this, he knows. He’d hate it, in her place. Had hated it, whenever someone dared speak Hannah’s name for those first few months. She’s going to hate him for it now.

But someone has to speak. Someone has to throw the line, lest she drift too far to come back. She called. There was a reason for it. 

“Jamie. Where is she?”

She gives him nothing. Jets smoke, taps ash into an empty beer can, keeps her eyes on the work. This isn’t like after Rebecca, he can see--Jamie back then had been hard-edged, furious that she hadn’t gotten to Becca in time, but she’d at least been willing to hold conversation. More than willing. It had seemed to ground her, reflecting on the Peter Quint of it all, on the shame of not being able to help enough, on how to explain it to the kids. 

Now, she sits with her back against the couch, her eyes not tracking the progress of her own hands. Owen, kneeling beside her, feels as though the room is waiting for something. Waiting for a knife to slide into the bubble she’s built, tearing it open to allow all that building water to rush in. 

He changes tack. “How long have you been doing this?”

“Three days,” she says. Her face is scrunched with concentration, her fingers testing something he can’t track in the roots. 

“Have you eaten?”

“’Course,” she says, gesturing recklessly with the cigarette at a stack of pizza boxes, several empty wine bottles, a dozen abandoned mugs. “All the food groups.”

“Slept?” He remembers that was the worst part, sleeping. Before it had all gone wrong, he’d gone to bed each night with a promise: Tomorrow, I’ll tell her. Tomorrow, I’ll finally do it. 

After, he’d stayed up until dawn in the kitchen, kneading dough, testing wilder and wilder concoctions. Jamie would stumble in at three in the morning, still half-asleep, to find him shoving a bowl of batter under her nose. 

Here. Try this. What does it need?

Cinnamon, she’d say gamely, though she’d clearly only been craving a glass of water. He’d slump against the table, head hanging between his arms.

She’d say it was divine as-is. 

Yeah, well. She always did like to see that idiot grin. 

“Jamie,” he says now, patiently. “Have you slept?”

She shrugs. He doesn’t need to walk down the hall to know the bed is likely sitting untouched, perfectly made--or, worse, exactly as she’d rolled out of it the last time. Exactly how she’d left it, when whatever had gone wrong had happened. 

It’s so easy, leaving things. 

It’s nearly impossible, setting them right again when the bigger problem can’t be fixed.

“Where is she, Jamie?” He hates himself. Hates pushing her. Hates the way her shoulders square a little tighter, her jaw clenching, her muddy fingers stretching to find an unopened pack of cigarettes to replace the one burned to nearly nothing between her lips. “Jamie. You called me.”

“Wouldn’t have,” she grumbles, “if I’d thought you’d talk this fucking much.”

Not true. He can see it in her, the shade not of the woman she’d been when they had met--hardy, rugged, a little grin around her mouth that said she’d make him regret it if he even considered pulling on her strings--but the one Dani had loved into being. We are all, he thinks, shaped by the love they give. Changes the molecules. Turns us from dough to something worth serving. 

The woman he’d met, tempered by a past she never discussed, patience she couldn't quite get a handle on, wouldn’t want him to talk this much.

The woman she is now, the one who had sat in his restaurant watching Dani like she was written in the only language worth knowing, called for a reason.

“Jamie.”

“Stop.” She closes her eyes. Her hands are shaking too hard to work out another cigarette, too hard to urge the Bic to light. 

“Where,” he asks gently. She’s shaking her head. When did so much silver slip into her hair? When did those lines crop up around her mouth? How long has it been, since he was where she needed him to be?

Didn’t need me. Not then. Had everything she needed, with Dani, but now--

“Jamie, where--”

“She’s gone.” Her eyes are blazing, her lips trembling. He has never, never seen this look on her face. This shattered, almost exultant misery is impossible to endure. She doesn’t look like Jamie now. She is only a collection of her worst fears made real. “She’s gone, Owen. She’s--”

She hunches into herself, a single crack splitting like a windscreen beneath a thrown rock. One foot lashes out sharply, sending a pot cartwheeling over onto its side. 

“She’s fucking gone,” she repeats in a voice like a woman kicked in the stomach. She raises her eyes, red-rimmed, and almost smiles. “I fell asleep.”

Strange, he thinks as he shuffles across the rug to wrap his arms around her, the last thought that kicks out when they’re gone. Not I should have told her, not I should have been there, but: I was in the kitchen. Not I should have stopped her, not I should have been faster, but: I fell asleep. The should doesn’t matter anymore, once they’re gone. All that matters is what you did. Where you were. What you can never change. 

“I fell asleep,” she repeats, and there’s nothing flat about her voice now. Even speaking of Rebecca, the Wingraves, Hannah, she’s never sounded half this shattered. “I fell asleep, Owen. I fell--”

He’s pressing his face against her shoulder, feeling unforgivably enormous draped this way over her slight frame. She folds double, rocking back and forth, one hand digging so hard into the other arm that he’ll be gently patching bloody gouges in an hour’s time. For now, he only sways with her, allowing the momentum of her grief to rock him back and forth, back and forth.

“She’s gone,” she says again. “She’s gone. She’s--”

He’ll stay a while--not quite feeling secure leaving her on her own, not quite willing to risk letting her slide back into this space. He’ll stay, helping her in the kitchen (She was better at it. Less likely to poison us, anyway.), and with the nightmare of making those phone calls (Her mum needs to know. Hated me, but still. And Judy O’Mara. And Henry. Fuck. The kids won’t even...). She won’t let him near the bedroom, won’t let him tuck her into that bed. The one and only time he’ll offer to help sift through Dani’s belongings, she’ll flex a fist around a bottle like she’s thinking of swinging it at him. 

She won’t look at him when he steps into the bathroom to find the tub draining over the side onto the floor, either, the sink full of clean water. When he opens his mouth to question, she’ll reach past him, slap down the plunger, stride out of the room without a word. 

Leave her whatever rituals she needs, he’ll think, remembering all those unnecessary three-a.m. cakes. Leave her whatever ghosts she can’t let go. 

He’ll stay as long as she needs, he decides with her beginning to sob at last. He’s never quite been there, when it happens--never been able to look death in the eye as Jamie has. It’s the greatest injustice in the world, how many loved ones have gone on without him, leaving only stories in their wake. 

He’s never where he needs to be, to stop it happening--but he can be here. For a little while, at least. He can hold her, and he can look down. 

There is no justice, this time, in letting Jamie believe she needs to be strong enough to do it alone.

Chapter Text

It just...slips out. She doesn’t mean to. One minute, she’s watching Jamie struggle to screw a stubborn table leg into its socket--Jamie, unseasonable as ever in shorts and a sleeveless shirt despite the October chill, brow creased with concentration--and the next, it’s passing her lips without warning. 

“I love you.”

Jamie, twisting the screwdriver, makes a soft sound of agreement--stops--looks up with surprised eyes. “Wait.”

“No,” Dani says quickly, “don’t--make it into a thing.”

Because, the thing is, she’s not supposed to be saying things like this. Not yet. Not with her hands trembling each time she glances into a mirror. Not with the calendar feeling each morning like a bad joke. One day at a time. It doesn’t leave room for big things like this.

Big, enormous, wonderful things like looking at Jamie--screwdriver hanging from one hand, mouth open--and understanding in her bones what had made Eddie want so badly to dream up a future with her.

“But you said,” Jamie begins. Dani shakes her head.

“I did. I do. I mean it. But don’t--just--just because I said it doesn’t mean you--”

Jamie is getting slowly to her feet, moving toward her with care. Dani winces, rolls her shoulders, trying to retrieve the sense of calm that has slowly, slowly been making its way back into her world over the past few months. It isn’t a promise, that calm. It might in fact be a trick stair, ready to send her sprawling should she finally rely on its presence. 

But whatever tricks time might play, Jamie never would. Jamie, extending a hand, taking her own, squeezing it gently.

“I,” she begins, and Dani braces herself for the words to feel raw and too sweet and not Jamie enough. Jamie, giving back what she’s been offered, just to soothe what she can. She’d mean well, but it wouldn’t feel--

“I,” Jamie repeats, “think this table is a lost fuckin’ cause.”

She’s smiling. She’s smiling, tucking the screwdriver into her belt loop--Dani watches it tumble straight through, landing on the floor with a mild thud--and sliding her arms around Dani’s neck. 

“I know,” she says when Dani opens her mouth to explain--I don’t know who I’ll be next week and I can’t make promises and I can’t not be in love with you. “Poppins, I get it.”

I had to say it. Just once, I had to be sure you knew. Saying so out loud would drain the dizzy delight from Jamie’s smile. Saying so out loud would be an act of violence in an otherwise gentle moment. She leans into Jamie’s kiss instead, allows Jamie to sweep her away from the fear towering so powerfully over the idea of tomorrow. 

She waits for the rest of the day--the week--the month for Jamie to return the words to her. Finds herself thinking with anticipation of how that phrase will sound on Jamie’s tongue every time Jamie slips a book into her hand in a shop, every time Jamie rocks against her in bed, every time she glances up from the stove to find Jamie gazing at her without apology. Every time, she thinks with a jolt of electricity: she’ll say it now because she feels like she’s supposed to. 

Jamie doesn’t. Jamie, as if bound by laws of her own that bear no resemblance to Dani’s expectation, says all manner of other things. For you and fuck, please, and still too pretty, Poppins. Never those words. Never with that plastic air of because I should. 

And Dani...can’t stop. Dani finds herself saying it in shops, under her breath (I love you, thank you). Finds herself saying it in bed, into the curve of Jamie’s shoulder (I love you, don’t stop). Finds herself saying it in the kitchen, laughing as she flicks water in Jamie’s direction (I love you, you goofball). Each time, less accidental than the last. Each time, with more heart, more confidence, more certainty that it will not be the last. 

“Like when you say it,” Jamie says sleepily--Christmas Eve, languidly staring into the lights strung over their tiny tree. “Makes the whole world shine.”

Dani doesn’t ask why she isn’t saying it back. Doesn’t really care if Jamie ever says it back. Eddie used to say it all the time, like a habit so ingrained, he no longer felt its meaning. Jamie--nearly six months into this thing they’ve built with such careful wonder--doesn’t need the words to say it at all. It’s in every stolen kiss, every brush of her hand, every time she looks at Dani and says, almost absently, “This shop could really work, I reckon. Really could. With luck.”

As if, Dani thinks, there could be any greater luck than finding Jamie in the first place.

Now, with Christmas Eve ticking over into Christmas Proper, that luck seems to engulf every bit of her. Jamie snuggles in close, dozing with her face tucked against Dani’s shoulder, and Dani feels her heart pick up in rhythm, exhilaration mingling with something much softer. “Sort of never want to stop. Not until you get sick of me.”

“Works for me,” Jamie mumbles, offering a clumsy kiss to the knit of Dani’s sweater. “Not sure you’ll ever stop, if that’s what you’re waiting for, though--”

“One day,” Dani says. Jamie snorts a laugh. 

“At a time. I know. But hey--made it to Christmas. That’s not nothin’.”

Dani, gazing past the tree to the snow-speckled window beyond, can’t disagree.

Chapter Text

The sculptor learns early the value of strong hands. She learns it early, and she learns it well: that small does not mean weak, that devotion holds as much place in work as in human relationships. You have a builder’s hands, they tell her, and she believes it; she sees no other choice. The world is cruel, and complicated, and callous. You create, or you simply let yourself fade away. 

She finds purpose in the work. In repairs, and in planting new life, and in this more than anything else. In leaving something behind that wasn’t there to begin with. In looking at an empty space on a shelf and deciding it merits filling. She finds purpose, and more than that: she finds magic. A truth in art that cannot be located anywhere else.

There are things the sculptor does not feel she comes to naturally--relationships and conversation, people and the paths they tread together. People, she thinks, are unreliable. Stone is steady. People are ever-shifting, nebulous, unpredictable. Stone is reliable. 

She finds purpose in the work, magic in the muse. In selecting a piece of marble of proper size and weight, in testing her tools against its hardy surface. In settling into a rhythm, carving away the facade to reveal what has always been waiting for freedom beneath. It takes time, bringing life into a place that did not bear it to begin with. Seeds take root slowly. New shoots must be tended. This, here, is no different. 

For a time, the sculptor isn’t sure what she’s building. For a time, she isn’t sure it matters. The value is in the strength of her hands. The value is in the work itself, in the patient escalation of art from stone. Some things, she knows, can’t be rushed. Some things, she knows, can’t be forced. 

It comes to her not in a dream, not as a vision from beyond, but in the simple care for the work. One day, the face begins to emerge. Slowly, but with powerful intent--as though it was always there, as though it was always meant to rise beneath her hands. The stone knew, she thinks; maybe it was the sculptor who simply wasn’t ready to see it. 

Now, though, now that it’s begun, she finds herself unable--unwilling--to stop. The work is methodical, almost gentle; she angles her tools, tilts her head, feeling all the while as though the truth is growing more and more obvious with every passing hour. There is stone here, and there is beauty. They are not the same. The stone, she navigates with her builder’s hands, with the deliberate focus of work. The face, she navigates with a flutter of exhilaration bordering on fear. The stone can be replaced, she feels; another block brought in if this one fails to reveal its secrets, another attempt made later down the line.

The face belongs to this moment alone. This face, appearing with such precision, she feels almost unworthy of it, is singular. 

People are complicated, dangerous creatures; the life shining out from the stone is something else altogether. It is precious, and it is perfect, and yet there is something about it--as she carves away the excess, presenting the world with voluminous hair, with a smooth brow, with full lips and round jaw and long neck--that feels almost too honest to look upon directly. There is work, she thinks, and there is art, and somewhere in the middle lands whatever this is. 

This, no longer a slab of potential, but a woman emerging from the depths of a blank canvas. 

This, no longer a realm of routine, but a reason to tip her head and see the world in fresh light.

Her hands are strong, her dedication complete: no longer does she worry over slight or mistake, her fingers shaking around her instruments as she coaxes forth shoulder and bust and waist. No longer does she think she is too perfect. There are blemishes in the piece, formed as though without her artist’s intent: wrinkles in the dress, as though the woman has been running a long way without pause; freckles on the skin she does not remember scattering like constellations across a summer sky; hands which, though slim, look as though they have held secrets, and found some of those secrets burn. 

The sculptor is not sleeping, she finds, nor craving the variation of other work. The sculptor’s devotion is absolute. This is what matters--this woman who seems, day by day, more real than the people who pass on the street. This woman who seems more genuine than tattered smiles and shaking heads. She is made of effort, and she is made of time, and she has perhaps been here all along. Waiting for the right hands to come along and offer the attention needed to urge her to breathe.

She finds purpose in the work, and finds, too, that it no longer feels like work at all. Whatever happens now, she believes, will happen regardless of her skill with hammer and chisel. Whatever happens now, she believes, was set in motion the moment she met marble eyes.

Days pass. She is dreaming of this face now, as she hasn’t dreamt of a living woman in years. There is no sense to it, she understands; marble hands cannot reach for her skin, marble lips cannot accept her kiss. A marble heart does not beat--and yet, as the last of the excess stone vanishes under her hands, she grows more and more certain. This is the finest art any sculptor could produce, through will or through luck. She suspects the woman is product of a little of each. She suspects the woman is something else altogether.

The sculptor does not think of herself as a lonely woman. She does not think of love as a void within her life, a blank space on a shelf needing to be filled. She hardly thinks of love at all--save for in her workspace, gazing upon a face too soft, a brow too determined, to be anything but human. She turns her head away, almost embarrassed at the onrushing emotion, the heat of her blood. This, she knows, is art. This, she knows, has come to light under her hands.

And this, she knows--though she cannot explain it, though she’d never speak the words aloud--does not belong to her. To gods or to dreams or to the simple good fortune of a muse whose head happened to tilt her way, maybe; not to her. The work was her own. The woman is too much like life to possess.

She is uncertain of the next step. Statues are meant to be crafted with perfect concentration, and then sold--auctioned off to those wealthy or fervent enough to collect. This, though, she can’t imagine setting before the greedy eyes of patrons. This, if she does not look directly, seems almost to draw breath. How, she thinks, can an artist sell something which feels too much like a someone? How can a price be placed on a woman whose eyes seem to follow her every move?

Blue, she thinks without meaning to. Her eyes would be blue. 

There are other reasons, too, for the hours slipping in between the work. The woman is almost finished now, the residual stone around her base nearly gone. The details are fickle, every motion minute; the sculptor agonizes over the moments left to her, grieving the end of the job. This is, the rational part of her--which has always been strongest, always been as much a part of her work as her hands--knows, the way every piece ends. Art will, inevitably, conclude; to keep going much longer will put the structure itself at risk. She will have to step away, and she will have to make eye contact at last with the end result of her efforts. 

And she will have to admit, at last, that there is love and there is art, and sometimes, the two are too similar to be extricated from one another.

She can’t love me back, she thinks, as if the thought has never occurred to her about a woman before.

She can’t care for me, she thinks, as if that fact has ever made a difference to the sprint of her heart.

She needs to be allowed to breathe, she thinks, as if there was ever any stopping it, from the moment this marble was chosen.

The days pass, one at a time, and the sculptor cannot allow herself to stall any longer. She works the last of the dress, her hands giving deliberate attention to every detail of cloth woven from stone. The work belongs to the woman, she feels, as much as to herself--a muse granted without warning, without asking anything of her in return. It hurts, to think it will be over by sunset. It thrills, to think she was ever granted this moment at all. 

She steps back at last, rubbing tired eyes, and gazes upon the truth born of stone. The woman is beautiful, the column of her neck true enough to convince the sculptor of a pulse, the curve of her fingers honest enough to convince the sculptor of desire. Her smile is, above all else, warm and sweet, almost hesitant in its shine. 

The sculptor sets aside her tools. Brushes off her hands. Nods once. Enough, then, she thinks. It’s enough. 

She dreams of the woman again, but this time, there is no sign of stone about her at all. No awareness of the timeless nature of her skin, the inorganic permanence of her smile. In the dream, she exhales across the sculptor’s lips, her eyelashes fluttering against a smooth cheek. In the dream, the illusion of each wrinkle in her dress grows soft beneath the sculptor’s searching hands. 

In the dream, the woman laughs, and there has never been a more human sound in all the world. 

She aches, waking to an empty bed, to the memory of the work’s finality. The sculpture is complete. The muse, then, must move on to touch someone else. The sculptor, who has always put faith in the strength of her hands, in her determined ability to coax life from nothing at all, will start again.

She walks slowly to her studio, noticing little of the sunrise, of the cool air coasting over her skin. The dream is still so fresh, more real than the morning coming to life around her. If she closes her eyes, she imagines she can feel the woman pressed warm against her frame, fingers pushing recklessly into her hair. If she closes her eyes, she imagines--

The studio stands empty. 

The plinth, upon which the sculpture has left her mind and joined the world, stands empty.

The sculptor stares, the empty grief of the work’s conclusion finding a new home in her chest. Someone, she believes, has stolen the woman away. Someone who cannot possibly understand how impossible that ought to be--how a woman can’t be stolen, only liberated, only given a chance to set out on her own merit. 

The woman is gone. All else stands as it has for weeks: tools in their appointed places, windows unbroken, tables still set upright. There is no sign of break-in. No sign of robbery. The woman is simply...

“I thought,” a voice says from the door, “I could surprise you.”

The sculptor turns, an admonition ready on her lips. I have no time today, she wants to snap. I’ve lost her. I have--

The woman in the doorway is beautiful, her dress rumpled as though from an endless run. Her hair is windswept, her eyes a bright blue. Her smile is, above all else, warm and sweet, almost hesitant in its shine.

“You seem,” the woman says as the sculptor moves to her in a daze, “like you could use the company.”

The sculptor has never trusted in the reliability of people. People are complicated, unpredictable creatures. Stone is solid. Stone is certain. 

This woman, somehow, is a little of both. This woman--art or muse or sheer mad luck--is a little of everything. 

Her pulse rushes under the sculptor’s strong hands.

Her smile does not so much as shiver under the stroke of the sculptor’s thumb. 

She does not belong to the sculptor, nor to anyone who might be looking to purchase the artist’s wares. She does not belong to anyone at all.

She is purpose all her own. 

Chapter Text

The dream is the last straw. 

There are moments in your life, Dani Clayton thinks--with a clarity that seems unfathomable for this late hour--you simply can’t turn away from. Or, more accurately, you could--but you wouldn’t be you anymore, turning back. You’d be something else. Something untenable. 

The dream is one such moment. The certainty of it is one such awful, harrowing moment. 

Jamie’s expression never changed. Never faltered. Never so much as twitched away from that quietly-expectant misery--and that trust, even as the hand closed around her throat. Even as she went under. The trust, more than anything, will haunt what time she has left.

Because Jamie does trust her. Always has. Always, Dani knows, will, even if it’s the worst thing for her. 

Jamie will trust in Dani Clayton until it kills her, unless Dani does something about it first.

And so, when she wakes with her hand inches from Jamie’s throat--when she wakes with the tips of her fingers brushing the slow, steady thrum of Jamie’s pulse--she makes the choice. The hard call. She makes it like a woman, a thousand years ago, made a choice to turn away from a bad marriage before it could land. The way a woman, a hundred years ago, made a choice to turn toward an uncertain future born of a dark lake. She makes it with the calculated, unshakeable certainty that, every so often, you have to make this kind of choice. Because it’s essential. Because you couldn’t live with the person you’d be if you didn’t.

She moves slowly, counting every breath that leaves Jamie’s parted lips. Jamie, who sleeps so comfortably in this bed. Jamie, whose nightmares soothed themselves in the wake of Dani’s hands on her skin over the years. Jamie, who carries more than enough scars of her own without bearing Dani’s burdens, too. 

She moves, sliding off of Jamie’s body, sliding off the mattress upon which they’ve had thirteen good years. Thirteen solid, loving, happy years. That isn’t nothing, she assures herself. That is so much more than the woman she’d been all those years ago, freshly freed and freshly haunted again in equal measure, had thought she deserved. 

Thirteen years in this bed. Reading, talking, kissing, sleeping. Thirteen years. It isn’t enough. Nothing will ever be enough. But it’s not nothing, and Dani tells herself--with the solid assurance of the dream--she can make do. Thirteen years of Jamie’s accent wrapped lovingly around her name. Thirteen years of Jamie’s hands seeking hers out across the dinner table. Thirteen years of petty arguments resolved with tearful apology, or with giggly kisses, or with the steadiness of Jamie’s eyes meeting hers. Jamie nodding. Gold rings holding firm against the dark. 

It’ll never be enough. And maybe Jamie won’t forgive her for this. But there are things a person can’t live with becoming--and even knowing how close she’s come tonight to brushing up against the shadows she’s been carrying for too long is...it’s...

Enough, she tells herself, knowing it’s a lie and a truth and a promise. 

She doesn’t pack. What does a dead woman toss into a carry-on? There will be no final costume change, no coiffed hair or carefully-applied makeup. She’s more or less given up on all of it, anyway, exhaustion draining her dry even on the rare occasion the mirror doesn’t leer in her direction. Jamie doesn’t seem to mind. Jamie doesn’t seem to mind any of it. 

I’ll feel everything for the both of us, she says, and she means it every single time. Means it the way Jamie can’t help. The way only Jamie has ever known how. It never, ever comes from a place of pretty words, with Jamie. Never comes from a should be this, a script without heart. Jamie can’t not say it. Jamie can’t not mean it.

Jamie can’t not trust her.

So Dani has to go.

Her hand is on the door, her head bent forward against the familiar wood. This door, through which Jamie walked so recently with that all-important piece of paper. This door, through which Dani walked so many years ago with a plant in her hands and a promise on her lips. This door. She’s stopped seeing it, hasn’t she? Juggling groceries, or mid-conversation, or pushing Jamie hard against it with a flare of passion. The door has become, like so many things, a standard piece of set dressing. Irrelevant, compared to the story. Forgettable, compared to the intricacies of the day. 

And now, this final time, her hand on the knob--now she thinks, I will remember. This door. This apartment. The walk, made so many thousands of times, from the bedroom to the bathroom to the kitchen. The couch, where Jamie often dozes over a book with her legs sprawled in Dani’s lap. The rug, picked out together that first year living in Vermont. The photos on the wall, the postcards on the fridge, so many tiny memorials to the people they’ve grown into together. 

I will remember, she thinks fiercely, all of it. 

Foolish, to stop. Foolish, to give in to this moment of such human weakness. Such human fear. If she could only keep walking in a single, unbroken line--like she would, like the path taken up those stairs and into that wing over and over again--she’d have been on the street by now. She’d have been calling a car by now. She’d--

“You’re not even going to leave me a note?”

She closes her eyes. Presses her face harder against the door. The memories, she thinks, have snagged her as she should have expected. As memories always do. Hadn’t it been memory, keeping her with Eddie longer than she should have stayed? Hadn’t it been memory, keeping her in contact with a mother who had long unplugged? Memory, in the end, is as much a gravity well as a blessing. A treasure like love is so dangerously good at being multiple things at once.

A thing like need. A thing like fear. 

A thing like I don’t want to go. 

Jamie doesn’t sound angry, exactly. Her voice is ragged with sleep, and with something so quietly broken, Dani can’t stand to look at it. That sound, that unfamiliar tension, has been creeping into Jamie’s voice more and more lately. A sob unuttered. An unfamiliar desperation. 

Jamie doesn’t do desperate. Jamie doesn’t do terror. Jamie is a solution with a grin, a pair of strong hands holding Dani steady when the world rocks around her without pause. Jamie is a foundation. A bedrock. A gloriously embedded series of roots, planted with hope, tended with care, turned from a pot into a home with time and effort and love. 

Jamie is waiting now. Quiet. Not angry, exactly--but not forgiving, either. Hurt, Dani thinks, recognizing at last that utterly unfamiliar note. She’s hurt. I’ve never hurt her before

She’s frustrated Jamie over the years, plenty of times. Upset her. Knocked up against exposed nerves she hadn’t known to look for. She’s made Jamie grumpy, even angry a few times--and Jamie’s done the same in return. Two people can’t share a single life without crossing boundaries from time to time. Without finding fragility under overturned stones. But it’s always been fixable. Always been so clear, where the repairs were needed to get them back on track again. They’d never gone to bed angry, not once in thirteen years, because you can’t promise tomorrow. You can’t promise a chance to make it right if you let it go too long. 

You can’t promise.

Dani can’t promise. 

“Not even going to answer?” That old Jamie grit, winding into the syllables, but the hand that brushes between her shoulder blades is soft. Jamie isn’t angry. Jamie is hurt. Jamie is scared. Jamie is half-asleep and so awake, and if Dani turns--if Dani looks now--

Tell her, some panicked part of her pipes up. Tell her what happened. What you almost did. What you’re going to become. 

She won’t care, the more rational part replies. Jamie trusts her. Jamie wants to carry it all for her. Jamie will carry her until it tears her open to do it, and then she’ll keep going. Jamie, even with blood staining the carpet and heart hanging out of her chest, would never know how to stop.

Jamie would drown, if Dani let her. If Dani were coward enough, selfish enough, to let the fear win. 

“Dani.” The way no one else has ever said her name, she thinks with eyes still scrunched shut. No one has ever formed those two syllables the way Jamie does. Like an oath. Like an I love you. Like an I’m listening. I’m here. I’m not going away. 

“Dani,” she says again. “Come back to bed. Please.”

It’s the please, Dani thinks as she turns at last, as she takes in the sight of this woman with whom she wants only to share her life, that does it. The please, a word that feels too much like begging to suit their thirteen years of equilibrium. Jamie, especially, doesn’t beg. Jamie listens. Jamie understands. Jamie fixes. Jamie doesn’t plead, or demand, or insist. 

Jamie, looking at her now with rumpled hair, in only a sleep shirt and a grim expression. Jamie, who’d sounded so shattered, saying those words. Come back to bed. Please. Like she knows already what Dani is doing. Like she knows already that there are things a person can’t come back from. 

Tell her no, the rational side thinks. Tell her no. Tell her you love her. Tell her there’s nothing that matters even half as much as that, not even this moment. Tell her goodbye.

I don’t, Dani thinks with helpless misery, already reaching out a hand, want to go. 

She’ll remember every step, later. Every step back to the bedroom. Every step with Jamie’s hand solid and soft in her own. The way Jamie walks with shoulders straight, with chin up, even as tired as she is. The way Jamie waits until she’s between the covers again before she’ll climb in, too. 

The way Jamie holds her as she sobs. As they both lose the composure they’ve spent too long clinging to. The way the mattress shakes beneath them, her face pressed to Jamie’s neck, the thrum of Jamie’s pulse ragged against her lips. 

She’ll remember it all, later. She needs to remember. Every step. Every kiss Jamie presses to her hair. Every stroke of Jamie’s hands down her back. She needs to remember it all. 

You’re not even going to leave me a note?

She will. She will do that much, she promises herself, as Jamie’s tears slowly wane. As Jamie’s breath slowly evens out. As Jamie, confident that she has--once again, as she has so many times before--fixed the problem, lets sleep wash the fear away. 

She’ll leave a note. She’ll try to get it all down, somehow. She’ll do her best.

But first. First, for a little while longer, she’ll stay. Jamie’s heartbeat is so familiar, a metronome of security beneath her head. Jamie’s breath is so familiar, a lullaby she’s been falling asleep to for almost fifteen years. Jamie, who makes a soft sound in her sleep and holds Dani all the closer, like she’s been doing for as long as anything has ever mattered. 

Jamie, who may never forgive her, but who will certainly have to understand. Someday. Somehow. Jamie has understood it all, even when she shouldn’t have. Even when there was no rhyme or reason to it. Jamie is good at listening. Jamie is good at piecing it all together. 

Jamie is so good

She’ll leave a note. She’ll do that much. But not yet. Not quite.

Dani Clayton, folded in the embrace of the woman who loves her most, does not want to go. 

Chapter Text

Jamie can’t remember the last time she needed someone to tend her cuts and scrapes. Can’t remember, even, the last time she wanted as much from another person. There’s something too vulnerable about holding out an open wound and saying, Here. Please. I can’t do it alone. 

Jamie can do it alone, is the thing. Has done for so long, she’s forgotten what it was to want another person’s skin brushing her own, another person’s eyes concerned for her well-being. It’s become second-nature, pushing all of that aside. How many times has she wandered into the kitchen, a cloth pressed firmly to a torn-open patch of wrist or palm, and scoffed at Owen’s worry? How many times has Hannah strolled into the room to find her bracing an ice pack against a freshly-bruised knee, rolling her eyes heavenward at her own clumsy misfortune? It’s natural, courting injury as she maneuvers the grounds. Almost easier than it should be. 

She’s never wanted anyone to fix it for her. Never trusted, if she’s honest, anyone to have the touch. People are too soft. Too twitchy about doing damage. As if there’s any helping a thing like that.

She’s never wanted it--

But Dani, meeting her in the doorway of the greenhouse, has an expression she’s never seen before. Not open worry, not nauseous distaste--an almost perfect, steady calm. 

“Let me.”

No question mark at the end of the sentence. No hopeful sway to Dani’s hips, no itchy pull of Dani’s fingers along the elbows of her own jumper. Dani’s face is set, determined, almost as though she’s been waiting for this day since the first time their eyes met. 

“No need,” Jamie says, though her head is pounding. Dani is plainly unimpressed. 

“C’mere. Sit down.”

She can’t explain why she obeys; her body seems primed to follow instruction, perhaps as evidence of a concussion. There is a split above her brow where a tumbling branch caught her just right, and privately, she’s relieved--that it was her standing beneath the tree as the wind jerked it out of place, and not one of the kids. Jamie had been quick enough to dodge aside. If it had been Flora, if it had been Miles...

Better me. I can take it.

Dani has a kit in hand, she realizes, lifted from the manor bathroom. Sitting beside Jamie on the sofa, she tears open a single-use alcohol wipe. She hesitates only once, one hand hovering beside Jamie’s jaw; when Jamie nods, that hand takes her chin, fingers splayed gently to tip her head back. 

“Deep breath.”

“I’m fine,” Jamie starts to say, the words hissing out of her when Dani angles the wipe against the edge of the wound. It’s small, thankfully--the branch had been, too, though Jamie knows better than anyone that size is no measure of danger--but the sting clenches her teeth together. She closes her eyes, trying her best to disassemble the pain and piece it back together into a more enjoyable sensation.

Not the burn, but the soft pressure of Dani’s hand on her skin.

Not the throb running a path along her skull, but the warmth of Dani’s breath mingling with her own.

Maybe this isn’t better, she realizes. Maybe it is infinitely worse, fixing on Dani’s knee pressed to her thigh, Dani’s hand cradling her cheek as though she doesn’t even know she’s doing it. Her eyes flick open to find Dani leaning close, inspecting the wound with an unflappable composure.  

“It isn’t deep,” she says. “Might scar a little, though.”

“Not my first,” Jamie quips before she can stop herself. Dani’s eyebrows raise, her lips curving in a small smile. 

“You’ve got stories.”

Not a question--and not a pressure, either. Just an easy statement. Sometimes, this is just Dani’s way: neat, straightforward, to the point. Jamie wonders what kind of life shapes a woman this way, to navigate the grip of anxiety one moment and turn utterly steadfast the next. She’d like to know. She’ll never push. Dani is a co-worker, nothing more; the last thing Jamie needs is to go crossing bounds again.

“Thank you,” she says, as Dani fishes out a bandage and some tape. “Didn’t, uh. Didn’t need--”

Dani silences her with another smile, tinged with something so like sadness, it puts any knock on the head to shame. “When I was little,” she says, “I was always getting hurt. I was a clumsy kid, I guess. Fell down a lot--out of trees, off my bike. My dad was always the one to take care of it.”

Jamie says nothing. This is the most Dani’s ever spoken directly to her, and she finds the bounce and curve of her Midwestern accent strangely comforting. 

“He wasn’t really a typical dad that way, I guess,” Dani goes on, gently holding the cotton bandage up to the wound. She reaches down, clasps Jamie’s wrist, eases her up to hold the square in place. “Hang onto that a sec. My dad, he was...softer than other kids’. He always knew how to clean my scrapes without making me cry. Never quite got the hang of that, after--he died when I was eight, I dunno if you knew that--”

Jamie shakes her head. Dani, patiently cutting a strip of tape, shrugs.

“Got sick. Was gone almost before I knew it. And my mom was never...much good at any of that, so I had to learn how to patch myself up. The alcohol was always the worst part. Almost.”

“Almost?” Jamie repeats. Dani is replacing her hand with deft fingers, adhering the bandage with simple efficiency. When she checks a mirror later, she suspects the whole affair will be neat, orderly, perfectly applied. 

“Yeah,” Dani says, leaning back to observe her handiwork. She seems satisfied, piling everything back into the first aid kit, closing it with a click. “Worst part was after. He would always find the best bandaid--something brightly-colored, or with cartoon characters--and then he’d lean over whatever I’d busted open that day, and he’d kiss the spot twice. Once for forgiveness, he always said, to let the skin know he didn’t blame it for bleeding. And once for healing. Two kisses, every time. It felt like magic. I could never...”

She quiets, her smile fading. It’s too easy for Jamie to imagine a small girl with a blonde braid, kissing her own scraped knee after a fall, knowing full-well it wouldn’t be the same. Too easy to imagine Dani at eight--eleven--thirteen, patching herself back together on her own. 

“Well,” Jamie says, clearing her throat. “You left a bit out, then.”

Dani raises her eyes, frowning. “Sorry?”

“Did the patching,” Jamie points out. Her mouth is weirdly dry, her head thundering away. This is, she senses, navigating too close to the brink of something. Friendship, maybe. Or just Dani thinking she’s making fun. And still, she can’t stop herself. “Seems like you forgot the magic.”

Dani hesitates, her hands folded in her lap. She’s picking, Jamie realizes, at one cuticle, nearly enough to tear the skin. 

“Go on, then,” she adds, heartened to see Dani’s grave expression tilting toward the sun. “Forgiveness and healing. Could use a little of both, maybe.”

She doesn’t know what she expects, exactly--even saying this feels like the product of insanity, a crack on the head urging her toward things she’d never normally try--but Dani draws a breath. Folds a hand around the back of her head, fingers sifting into curls. Leans forward.

It hurts, a little, Dani pressing her lips to the bandage, though she knows Dani is being gentle. Hurts a little, and sparks something Jamie hadn’t meant to let in, too. She closes her eyes, Dani’s kiss seeming to scorch. 

“Once for forgiveness,” Dani murmurs, lips brushing the skin of her forehead. Another kiss, sweet and soft and sending an electric charge down her spine. “Once for healing.”

She doesn’t lean back, not right away--her hand is warm, her eyes searching Jamie’s, and for a single beat, Jamie wants to tilt her chin. Coax that gentle kiss to find her lips. Change it all. 

The concussion, she assures herself, responsible for the reckless impulse. Responsible, too, for the thread of disappointment coiling in her stomach when Dani removes her hand, places it back in her lap, shakes her head almost ruefully.

“He was better at it.”

“Maybe,” Jamie says. “But I can be clumsy, too. Stay long enough, you might get enough practice to measure up.”

Dani meets her eyes, looking embarrassed, looking delighted. Jamie rubs the back of her neck, casting around for a way out of this hole she’s dug. 

“Listen to me. Take enough thumps to the head, I’m gonna starting spewing puns like Owen.”

“Oh no,” Dani laughs. “Anything but that.”

She has to go, she explains, back to the kids. Jamie’s welcome to join them--she’s got a game of cards planned, and they could use a fourth. Jamie almost agrees. Almost lets herself follow Dani into the house, her fingers straying mindlessly to brush the fresh bandage sealed with a kiss. 

“Shouldn’t,” she says--to Dani, to herself, to the burgeoning heat in her cheeks as she recalls how gently Dani had pressed her lips to the wound. “Work to be done, y’know.”

Dani nods. “See you at dinner?”

She should say no to that, too. Should go home to her little flat, to the quiet which always makes perfect sense, which never turns up with a first aid kit and assertive hands. 

“Yeah. Dinner.” She’s smiling. Dani, leaning against the doorframe, is, too. 

“No more knocks on the noggin,” she adds with mock-gravity. Jamie snorts, gives a careless little salute. 

“No fuckin’ promises.”

It’s difficult to say what’s harder to ignore, when Dani’s gone and the work rises up to meet her once more. Hard to say which part--the thumping of the headache, or the memory of Dani Clayton’s lips pressed to her forehead--has a greater hold on the rest of her day. No one asks, and she’s honestly relieved. 

If asked, Jamie would insist the headache has won out. If asked, she’d have no other choice.

If asked, Jamie would absolutely lie. 

Chapter Text

She hasn’t seen Jamie in two years. Hard to believe that. Hard to imagine. Jamie was such a fixture of her life at Bly, such a steady lantern in the dark for all those months--late-night conversations, endless hands of cards dealt, what felt like half the Wingrave wine cellar drained dry between them--that Dani genuinely forgot what it was to not have Jamie in her world. Jamie, who had been there for a single summer, feeling like the sanest measure of her entire life.

And then Dani had moved on. Hadn’t had a choice. The job was for the summer, and Wingrave had decided to try his hand at fatherhood, of a kind. There was no place for an au pair any longer. And there were other roads, Dani sensed, calling her name.

She’d said goodbye, and it had hurt. Hannah, holding her close. Owen, sniffling back tears without apology. The kids, clutching her around the legs. 

Jamie, extending a hand. 

Jamie, who had so quickly become her best friend in all the world, extending a hand

She’d bumped it stupidly, her fingers curled into a fist to keep from properly touching Jamie’s skin. It hadn’t been intentional, exactly, though some part of her--red-faced and replaying the moment on a loop in the cab--thinks it might have been safer to lean into the mistake. If she’d taken Jamie’s hand, given it a firm shake, she’s not sure what would have followed. Not sure she would have been able to keep her balance, with her thumb braced along the backs of Jamie’s knuckles, with Jamie’s palm smooth against her own. 

Better to look stupid, she decided, in the long run. Anyway, their time together had lasted all of three months. Seasons come, seasons go, and Jamie would forget her soon enough. Surely. 

It’s been two years. Two years, and Henry Wingrave--cleverer than he’d looked, sneaking booze into his teacup at an awkward interview--had somehow found her address. The letter was neatly printed, an invitation: Miles’ thirteenth birthday, back at the manor. He hadn’t asked for much. They all missed her.

They all. 

She tells herself not to think about it on the flight over. Tells herself not to pick it apart, calling a cab. Tells herself, remembering with a stutter of mortification how her loose fist had jabbed Jamie’s outstretched fingers, they means very little. A kindness, she suspects. A polite phrasing. We all miss you, Miss Clayton, very much. 

Do you? she wonders, wringing her hands, gazing out at the once-familiar landscape. Do you all miss me? All of you?

As if one doesn’t matter just a little more than the rest.

As if she hasn’t been dreaming of one member of that little family more than she’s comfortable with. 

She hasn’t seen Jamie in two years, and she’s almost terrified to find out what might have happened to their too-easy, too-warm friendship in her absence. Jamie had not been an easy wall to crack open in the first place. She’d been tough and wiry at the start, with wary eyes and a short temper. Kind, yes, and easier to talk to than she’d had any right--but difficult, all the same. It had taken weeks for Dani to coax her into genuine conversation. A month before she’d believed Jamie truly did brighten, to see her coming through the door. 

Two years. How tall could those walls have grown by now? How heavy might the door barring her from Jamie’s life be, with all those months of silence stretched between them?

Why didn’t you write? she imagines Jamie saying, her mouth curled in a grim smile. Didn’t even try, did you?

Not true, though Dani can’t fathom telling her so. Dani did try. Over and over, not just for those first few months, but for two years. Two years trying to put it all down on paper. Two years trying to explain how Jamie--her eyes gleaming in the firelight, her smile sweet, her hand brushing Dani’s without thought--had been the only person on her mind, no matter what she tried to do about it. 

Two years trying to find the words for a letter to explain what she knows, and what she can’t believe, and what she can’t get away from: that it had taken only a single season, to fall in love. That it had taken only a single season to find someone she honestly can’t imagine life without. 

Jamie wouldn’t understand. 

Two years. And now she’s here, pulling up the winding drive to that big old house she’d called home for almost no time at all. She’s here, stepping out of the cab, feeling no older than the au pair who had run from grief and wound up finding a short-lived, powerful purpose. 

They’re waiting for her, she realizes--lined up outside the house like Flora’s dolls. Hannah, as beautiful as she remembers, with a brand new ring on her third finger. Owen, his arm wrapped around her shoulders, his apron dusted with flour. Flora, almost willowy with newfound height, launching at her, and Miles, broader in the shoulders, brighter in the eyes, reaching to kiss her hand. 

Henry, too, looks pleased to see her. He looks healthy, his skin no longer the sallow of a man hidden away from the world. He smiles, and he presses her into a loose embrace, and she thinks it was worth going away, if this little family was able to bloom in her absence. 

They’re all here. They’re all wonderful.

Except.

She doesn’t ask where Jamie is. Tries her damnedest not to let them see the crestfallen expression she turns inward, the plummet of her heart. Jamie isn’t here. Jamie has, perhaps, moved on, too--found a new job, a new life, elsewhere. 

Jamie is gone, and no matter how wonderful the rest of them are--no matter how glad to see them she is--this will never feel quite right. 

“You’re just in time,” Hannah is saying. “Supper’s about ready, we’re just going to set the table. If you wouldn’t mind doing one thing?”

Pasting a smile onto her face, Dani nods. “Anything. Point the way.”

“You remember the greenhouse, I assume?”

A flutter, kicking up in her chest, hard enough to rattle her voice when she says, guardedly, “Of course.”

“Our last party is working late,” Hannah says, sounding slightly grumpy. “Again. Honestly, you’d think she’s growing the key to immortality out there, with the hours she’s been keeping.”

“She--” Dani swallows. Keep it simple. Keep it normal. It’s been two years. “She’s still...?”

“Grouchy?” Owen suggests. “Stealing my best biscuits?”

Here,” Dani breathes. He looks perplexed, his head inclined in affirmation.

“Of course. Couldn’t pry her from those roses, the stubborn woman.”

They say it like it’s obvious, like the story was only ever going to play out this way--but even as she’s striding across the grounds at a brisk pace, Dani isn’t sure she believes it. Could it be a prank? An elaborate way to get back at her for leaving? Maybe she’ll reach the greenhouse, place her hand on the door, and find the place gaping open with nothing but ghosts for company--

Jamie’s back is to her, the gray of her coveralls stamped with dirt. Her hair is loose, her head bobbing, and Dani--her steps cautious as she confirms, yes, this is the same woman who has been turning up in her dreams for months--realizes she’s wearing a pair of headphones. Her hands are steady, though her boot taps out a rhythm, and when Dani gets close enough, she picks up the hum of Jamie singing under her breath.

Jamie, no different than she recalls. Jamie, exactly the same, bopping along to the Walkman poking out of her pocket. 

Jamie, who turns and leaps with surprise, jerking the headphones down around her neck. 

“Christ,” she breathes. “Scared the living shite out of me.”

“Sorry.” She isn’t, though. Somehow. Maybe because Jamie’s bewildered expression is already giving way to a huge smile. Maybe because Dani suddenly can’t breathe, overwhelmed by the memories of this very room--cards and conversation, wine and laughter. Jamie’s hand, brushing her own. Jamie’s eyes, searching her face. 

Jamie, never quite closing the gap. Never quite daring. 

“You weren’t meant to be here until six,” Jamie is saying now, brushing the hair from her eyes. Dani glances at her watch.

“It’s six-thirty-nine.”

Fuck,” Jamie mutters. “Lost track of--was supposed to help in the--never mind.” 

She’s staring at Dani like she can’t quite believe her own eyes, her smile so enormous, Dani can’t imagine how she’d ever thought Jamie could be gone. Jamie, who is such a fixture. Jamie, who is so reliable, so wonderfully here

“Can I hug you?” she asks, and Jamie all but charges toward her. It’s a clumsy embrace, arms tangling around shoulders, Jamie’s hips bumping her own. Jamie, who hugs her so hard, leaning back, Dani’s feet actually leave the ground.

“Missed you,” she breathes into Dani’s ear. “Wanted to write. Wanted to--didn’t know what I’d fuckin’ say.”

Dani buries her face in Jamie’s neck, inhaling the long-missed combination of soil and sweat, that undercurrent of mint that follows every cigarette. It’s not a polished, pretty scent; it reminds her of summer afternoons, of hard work, of Jamie’s smile flashing over a glass of water. 

It reminds her of the heat in her fingertips, the urge to catch Jamie by the sleeve and pull her close, the reflexive lean of her body into Jamie’s on the couch as they both teetered toward dozing off. 

“We’re supposed to be at dinner,” she says, relishing the slide of Jamie’s skin against her own. “We’re late.”

“M’always late, these days,” Jamie replies. “Think it’s worth it this time.”

“Can we--” Dani swallows. “Not now, I know we’re supposed to--for Miles. But after? Tonight? Can we talk?”

I can’t walk away again, she thinks. I can’t go another two years without this. I can’t put it in a letter, but I can’t let it go, either. Not without knowing.

Jamie can’t read her mind, she’s sure--and yet, Jamie’s hand cupping her cheek, Jamie’s thumb pulling gently across her skin, seems to find everything in the silence. Jamie nods once, letting her hand fall away. 

“Think I’d like that very much, yeah.”

It takes every ounce of self-control, not to hold her hand all the way back to the house.

Chapter Text

It’s almost embarrassing, how quickly she’s come to crave this. Almost appalling, how little calm she’s retained in the aftermath.

Dani is many things--a trove of unexpected depths, a bundle of courage tucked into a small frame, an excellent caretaker and a boundlessly selfless soul--but what really gets Jamie is how she kisses. She’s like no one else, when she kisses. It’s almost as though this, guard lowered, leaning into her own desire, is the best version of Dani the world is ever granted.

The best version Jamie is ever granted.

They’re meant to be working, she knows--meant to be setting tables and minding children and keeping busy--but there's just something about kissing Dani that takes on a life of its own. One kiss becomes two becomes just one more. And once more after that. And suddenly the clock means nothing at all, because Dani’s hands are roaming over shoulders, Dani’s lips are parting over her own, and she--

“This is a problem,” she mumbles. They’ve been hidden away for too long, she knows; down to the cellar for a bottle of wine, they’d gone, and by now, dinner might well be getting cold. 

But she’s got Dani propped against the wall, Dani’s fingers playing beneath the collar of her t-shirt. Dani, head tipped forward--just one more--to kiss her again. 

“Hannah’ll be upset,” she adds, leaning back just enough to watch Dani pull a face, nose scrunched up in disapproval. “Has to be, what, ten minutes now?”

“Eight,” Dani says. “Ish.”

“Eight minutes for a bottle of wine?” And yet, she can’t quite stop herself from pressing another kiss to Dani’s lips, pleased when Dani’s hand curls behind her head, urging her closer. “It’s a travesty.”

“Not doing this for an hour,” Dani points out, “is a travesty.”

One day, Jamie thinks wildly. It’s been one goddamn day--after only one night in Dani’s bed--and she’s not sure how she’s ever going to survive without this again. She’s meant to go home, eventually, to shower and change her clothes and give this all a chance to breathe on its own. How is she supposed to manage that, knowing how far home is from the hands digging into her hair, from this impossibly gorgeous woman’s kiss?

“Ten minutes,” she repeats, leaning back again; to her amusement, Dani follows without missing a beat, chasing her kiss with such dedication, she relents. Dani’s hair is soft between her fingers, Dani’s teeth gentle as they sink into her lip. Dani’s thigh is warm between her own, and Jamie finds herself thinking, Been ten already. What’s a few more? 

“They’re happy for us,” Dani murmurs into the corner of her mouth. Her thumb is tracing the curve of lower lip, her fingers spread across Jamie’s cheek. Her eyes are closed, nose nudging Jamie’s as she presses in again, slips her tongue past Jamie’s teeth with an assertive delight Jamie suspects will never stop taking her by surprise. 

“They’re going to be insufferable,” she replies, tilting away again. Again, Dani follows, lips brushing lightly, fingers skimming the skin just above her waistband. “You are not helping me be the responsible one.”

“I’m very responsible,” Dani assures her, not quite closing the distance. Something about that--about the whisper of her breath, the tease of her fingertips against the buckle of Jamie’s belt, a kiss almost offered without completion--is driving Jamie entirely out of her head. 

“You’re a bad influence.”

Dani does not dignify this with a response, and Jamie finds herself pressing into the kiss without another word, relishing the soft moan which meets the next roll of her hips. Pushing up on fifteen, now--much longer, and Hannah’s going to send out a search party.

Just a little longer, she thinks, as Dani works at her zipper with a determined hand. Just one more. 

Chapter Text

Doesn’t take much, some days, to set her off. Dani hates that about her anxiety--hates that she can, sometimes, go weeks without a flare up of panic tightening around her throat, and then something tiny will do the trick without warning.

Something minuscule and pointless and normal will knock her right off the rails.

Something like a thunderstorm.

One minute, she’s gazing out the window, her eyes landing on a bike tipped over in the rain. One minute, she’s exasperated--how many times, Flora, have we talked about taking care of our things?--shaking her head. Out the door, she thinks, and into the squall. It won’t take long to wheel the little pink bicycle to safety. She’ll get wet. So what? Little rain never hurt anyone. 

She’s trying to decide exactly how to go about talking to Flora this time--she hates falling back on guilt, on yelling, on any of the techniques her mother so prized--when the thunder crashes. Not above her, by the sound of it, but around--and for a moment, her feet are planted on the mat of a parked car. For a moment, the sky is empty, and the light is gone, and there is only a crash, a deafening violence, echoing around and around and around.

She is swaying, the bike forgotten, her memory bound up in a momentary decision. Fuck. You. Danielle. A door, swinging open. A man, stepping out.

A crash--a crash--violence no one intended, violence no one can take back--echoing around and around and--

“Poppins?”

Not his voice, nothing like it. Startled and soft, almost lost under the cataclysmic sluice of water pounding down on their heads. A hand, folding around her wrist, as eyes reflecting the stormy sky seek hers out. 

“Poppins, c’mon, you’re gonna catch cold.”

She’s moving, she registers, only because she’s being guided. Her head is pounding, full of nothing but the crash, the violence, the echo of it slamming shut on potential--for forgiveness, for life, for the person she’d once been. The person he’d been. She’s moving, and she’s breathing in heaving gasps, and there is that voice, blisteringly gentle: “Poppins, c’mon. Little further. That’s it.”

A door, swinging open. 

A door, swinging shut.

They’re standing, she realizes, in the shed. Flora’s bike is there--Jamie must have grabbed it with her free hand, hauled it along as easily as she’d urged Dani. Jamie, soaked to the skin, her t-shirt plastered to her body, looking at her like she’s well and truly lost it. 

“Sorry,” Dani says--tries to say--gasps instead. She’s shivering all over, and knows it has nothing at all to do with the chill. “Sorry. I don’t--I don’t know what happened--”

“S’okay.” Jamie, brow furrowed, is still looking at her. Not with judgment, Dani senses, though she’s almost too mortified to care. Just looking, like she’s not entirely sure what she’s just rescued Dani from.

Dani isn’t entirely sure, either.

“I--needed to put the bike away,” she says. Reflexive. Explain yourself, Danielle. Explain it all away, and smile, and pretend nothing went wrong in the first place. Except Jamie, though nodding, is still looking at her. 

“Well. That’s done.”

Dani squeezes her fists, head bowed. Water drips from the end of her nose, from the loose fall of her hair. “It was--I don’t know. The noise. Sometimes, the noise reminds me--”

She pulls up short. Jamie doesn’t know, she reminds herself. Jamie has no idea.

“I had a fiancé,” she says, and can’t bring herself to follow through. “Before. Not anymore. Just--sometimes it reminds me--”

It’s coming out all wrong. Jamie’s going to get the wrong idea about Eddie, about the engagement, about all of it. Jamie, at any moment, is going to say something that will make it all worse. 

Except Jamie isn’t speaking. Jamie is only watching, one hand extended as though to a trembling dog found cowering beneath a bush. 

“You don’t have to explain it.”

Dani’s head comes up sharply. Jamie, hair a tangle of damp curls, face serious, shrugs.

“Isn’t my business. You okay now?”

No, thinks Dani wildly. Can’t remember when I was okay. 

“Cold,” she says instead, and it’s not the right thing--not enough--but Jamie nods anyway. Takes a halting step forward. Both arms are extended now, and Dani finds herself walking into them without question. Finds herself wrapping her arms around a slim frame, folding into Jamie’s surprisingly strong grasp around her shoulders. 

She’s never touched Jamie before. Not really. A grab of sleeve, a brush of hands in the kitchen once or twice--nothing like this. Nothing like her face bent against Jamie’s shoulder, her body trembling as Jamie squeezes tighter, as if trying to siphon warmth into her through nothing more than an embrace.

It’s working, if she’s honest. Little by little, the tremors are fading. Little by little, she finds herself drawing full breaths, her chest pushing out against Jamie’s in a steady rhythm. 

They’re breathing together, she realizes--wonders if Jamie did that on purpose. If her every deep breath was intended to catch Dani’s, to reroute panicked gasps into full inhalations. She wonders if Jamie knows what it’s like to spiral this way, and how to crawl back from the edge. 

The shivers are ceasing, the chill in her bones replaced by a warmth that has little to do with a body pressed to her own, but Jamie isn’t letting go. Jamie is making a soft sound under her breath--words, maybe, or a song--and her hands are rubbing up and down Dani’s back. They’re the same height, she registers for the first time, turning her face against Jamie’s cheek. They’re the same height, and couldn’t be more different, and Jamie is holding her like it’s up to Dani to decide when this stops.

Jamie is holding her, murmuring against her ear, and Dani’s suddenly wondering if she could stay here forever. In this shed. Listening to the rain pound the roof. Listening to her own heartbeat in her ears. 

Jamie, who has barely spoken to her beyond casual conversation, holding her like there’s no question at all to it.  

All day, they could be standing here--all day, all night--and it wouldn’t feel like too much. Not so long as Dani keeps her eyes shut, smelling rain on Jamie’s skin, the roll of her voice nearly lost beneath the storm. All day, all night, she could stand here in this embrace, and it would feel...it would be like...

Like I was here all along, she thinks, almost woozy with the idea. Like we’ve both been here the whole time. 

Like time isn’t a straight line at all, but a untempered, winding creature doubling back on itself. Like this was always going to happen, because it already has, because Jamie has always been--

She takes a step back at last, head bent. Jamie’s arms fall away without a word, and Dani realizes Jamie is not stepping backward. Jamie is standing perfectly still, her hands sliding into her pockets. 

“All right?”

Not quite trusting herself, Dani nods. The panic, as quickly as it’d come on, is gone now. Something else is waiting in its place--something warm in the pit of her stomach, dangerously unfamiliar. Something that wants only to move forward again, to loop her arms back around a slim frame standing just her height. 

“Storms,” Jamie says, almost idly--just as she’d once said kids. “Too much sometimes. Even for me.”

Wouldn’t be, Dani thinks recklessly. If you just had someone to hang onto whenever they came around. An insane thought. A silly thought with no foundation at all. 

In silence, they lean against the shed door, waiting for the rain to fade away. 

Chapter Text

“That,” Jamie points out with an eyebrow raised, “is not playing fair.”

She’s doing her best to sound serious, trying to reach for what she thinks of as Dani’s Teacher Voice. It’s an effective voice, when Dani utilizes it--effective, she thinks with a grin, in more ways than one--but she’s never quite been able to find the right inflection. Maybe it just fits more neatly in an American mouth. Maybe it’s that Jamie’s practice with standing her ground tends to involve more curse words and the occasional loaded weapon.

Maybe it’s just that there are things Jamie is not primed to win out against, and Dani looking at her this way ranks highest on the list.

“What’s not fair?” Dani is saying now. Her face is the picture of serenity--stretched out on the bed with the sheets pulled up, she could fool most people into thinking her innocence is genuine. Dani Clayton, well-meaning and sweet, cast across a Monday morning mattress.

Dani Clayton, whose hand is currently easing the carefully-tucked line of Jamie’s shirt out of her trousers, pushing it slowly up her stomach. 

“You do understand,” Jamie points out, standing with hands loose at her sides beside the bed, “the whole point of assigning a revolving schedule for mornings is so the shop does get opened on time. Because, if you’ll recall, it didn’t work so well with both of us.”

“Matter of opinion,” Dani says breezily. Fair enough, Jamie has to concede--maybe the shop didn’t open on time as often as was prudent, but the mornings spent lounging in bed--or in the shower--or lazily waking up the fun way while waiting for water to boil in the kitchen--had certainly not gone to waste.

Still. Business is good, and she’s not fool enough to think that’ll last if she keeps allowing Dani to--

Her eyes roll back, her breath catching; Dani has rucked the shirt halfway up her torso, is leaning off the mattress to kiss her stomach with deliberate intensity. It really isn’t fair, she thinks; she’d done so well this morning. Up well before her alarm. A wonderful shower, long enough to be enjoyable without actively making her late. She’d even dressed in the bathroom to prevent this very thing.

Dani’s arm is hooking around her waist, her hand insistent against Jamie’s back. She finds herself off-balance with one knee pressed into the mattress, her other foot stubbornly on the floor.  

“I was going to be early,” she says weakly, even as Dani is unbuttoning the shirt from the hem, moving steadily higher, following a trail of teasing licks. She’s sucking a small mark along Jamie’s ribs as her fingers notch open Jamie’s belt, and she’s grinning all the while. 

Honestly, it’s not like Jamie can be upset about it, either--and not just because her body is responding as it always has to Dani’s eagerness. This is, to put it plainly, the most alive Dani has been since leaving Bly. This, mornings like this one, is the most Dani she’s been in months. And it’s getting more frequent--not just Dani’s desire so openly on display, but everything that makes her so wonderful. Her laughter, filling a room. Her voice, pitching higher as she weaves stories over dinner prep. Her eyes, less and less terrified as the days stack up, finding Jamie’s with delight. 

Dani is coming back to herself. There are days, yes, where the panic takes hold--where the good humor recedes, replaced by the haunted expression of a woman carrying the unexplainable. But most of the time? Most mornings? 

Most of the time, it’s this. Dani, unbuttoning her shirt. Dani, sitting up, letting the sheet fall away from bare skin. Dani, reaching for her collar, pulling her down into a kiss so laced with urgency, there’s no point trying to argue. Jamie wouldn’t even want to win this kind of fight. 

“Boss’ll have words,” she mumbles into Dani’s kiss, even as Dani is pulling her down, climbing into her lap, driving both hands deep into her hair. “Gonna be consequences this time.”

“Counting on it,” Dani replies around the kind of long, wanton kisses Jamie’s never quite been able to resist. “Sort of like making the boss grumpy. Sort of like making the boss squirm, too.”

She’s laughing, biting at the lobe of Jamie’s ear, and it would be so easy to get hung up on the miracle of it. The miracle of Dani, finally, embracing the philosophy of treating every day on its own worth. The miracle of Dani finally easing back from the edge of whatever she’d been gazing down into when Jamie found her in that lake.

It would be so easy--except that wouldn’t look like living, would it? That would be just the same as Dani staring into mirrors, fascinated by her own fate. This is so much better.

This, flipping Dani over. This, laughing into her neck, knowing full well that they’re both going to be late yet again--and that it doesn’t matter, really. That all that truly matters is Dani’s skin beneath her hands, Dani pressing up into her kiss, Dani teasing, “Show me those consequences, then.”

She’ll be late. They both will. Maybe the shop will remain resolutely closed until noon, excuses made about shipment and inventory. It doesn’t matter. 

Dani, spread beneath her, murmuring her name as she slides beneath the sheets, matters. Dani, built up slowly, pleading for more even as she gives herself happily to Jamie’s easy persistence, matters. Dani, arching with muscles trembling, coiled tight under her kiss, the stroke of her tongue, the deliberate pressure maintained without release, matters. 

All morning, she could do this--shirt hanging open, belt undone, focused entirely on the soft wet pressure of her own mouth teasing Dani to impatience--and it would be the only thing in the world. Dani is all that counts. Dani’s hands in her hair. Dani’s voice crying out. Dani regretting absolutely nothing of grasping her by the shirt and tugging her back into bed.

Dani matters.

Everything else falls away.

Chapter Text

The best part of a new relationship, Jamie reflects, is in all the little details. The strange quirks of a person you might never see until you begin dating them, until the hours spent in their company twist from nine to five to all bets are off. Getting to know someone’s body is grand; getting to know them, the heart of them, the truth of their day-to-day, is better.

She maybe hadn’t realized that, until Dani--but Dani is teaching her with every passing day just how much is waiting beneath the surface. There is, it seems, an endless supply of bizarre details to file away, each wreathing Dani in more charm than the last.

Dani, she’s learned, doesn’t like to drive--she’s tried exactly once, and spent the entire thirty-minute stretch drawn tight as a bowstring--but loves rolling down her window and letting a hand dangle in the breeze. She is great with a map, almost pathological at remembering radio stations, but frequently gets distracted by conversation and forgets to point out a necessary exit ramp. She is untrustworthy when left on snack duty in gas stations, constantly inclined to pick up a coffee or a bottled orange juice over water, but always seems to find the best chocolate in any given state.

Food, in general, proves particularly interesting. Dani thrills at the opportunity to introduce her to terrible fast food (”We have this,” Jamie says pointedly, as they pull into their first McDonald’s; “Not even close,” Dani says gleefully, and proceeds to order her a Happy Meal for the sheer joy of it). She is perhaps too invested in what sort of pizza Jamie considers the right kind (”Dunno,” Jamie says in a helpless tone, unaware that there are options. “The kind with, uh, sauce?”). There is, it appears, a right and wrong answer to crust width, cheese ratio, and toppings; the first time she orders pineapple, Jamie almost can’t bring herself to take a bite, she’s laughing too hard at the intense expression on Dani’s face. 

(“You are,” she proclaims, “ridiculous.”

“It’s good,” Dani insists, and there is no sign of a beast about her smile as she watches Jamie try the pinapple-and-bacon monstrosity and, grudgingly, admit defeat.)

She learns that Dani prefers movies at home to the theater, but makes an exception whenever a new action film comes out. Dani likes dancing, but doesn’t love strangers being able to see her do it; she’s self-conscious about her questionable rhythm, at least until Jamie leans close and murmurs that rhythm hasn’t been a problem yet, from where she’s standing. Dani likes old bookstores, new flea markets, ice cream parlors run by elderly couples who compliment her earrings. Dani likes America, as it turns out, with all its many oddities, and Jamie finds that affection infectious. She is rapidly coming to like America, too--at least, the America she’s offered through Dani’s eyes.

Dani is effervescent by daylight, chatting with strangers, eagerly returning stray footballs that land near her in the park to laughing children. She turns thoughtful when the rain rolls in, always at her moodiest when the sky grows pregnant with clouds that refuse to break open. She feels weird, she says, when the moon is nearly full, and she misses constellations whenever they pull up to a city, and there’s something about Midwestern manners she can’t seem to shake whether they’re in Miami or Detroit. 

She’s fascinating, and she’s complicated, and the good days hold just as many facets as the bad. Jamie is growing to love them all--the way Dani shrieks with laughter when tickled, and the way she grows somber at particular Paul Simon songs for no reason Jamie can understand. She loves the way Dani slips a hand beneath the hem of her shirt and holds on for dear life on long drives, her fingers skimming the edge of Jamie’s jeans. Loves how Dani can’t shower with the door closed, can’t sleep with it open, can never figure out the window latch in any given hotel room.

And she loves how Dani behaves with her alone. Not the sex--though that’s only getting better, Dani finding more confidence each time they come together; Jamie’s started to find herself pressed up against doors with unexpected strength, pushed down onto beds with her head spinning and Dani already getting to work--so much as the intimacy. They’re different, she’s learning. Different tiers of the same cake, maybe. Can’t have one without the other, not if it’s good, not if it’s with Dani. 

Sex comes easily, though it’s taken a little while for Dani to open back up again. When she does, the transition is absolute--no fear, no hesitation, her hands and lips and voice winding together to explain, If it’s just today, if I only have now, I need to be here. She doesn’t want to miss a moment, she says. Doesn’t want to let anything slip by. She wants to experience every inch of Jamie, and every inch of this country they’re exploring, and every inch of time won back from an unfair universe.

The intimacy--the way her hand always seems to find Jamie’s pocket, the way her forehead leans against Jamie’s back, the way she lets her foot press against the side of Jamie’s boot under a restaurant table--comes from the same place. That need to remember. That need to be here. If only for today, if only a little at a time, she can’t resist. 

Which brings her to the part of Dani Jamie thinks she likes best:

Dani’s absolutely unexpected need for attention. 

“Did you just--” She hesitates, wondering if she’s hallucinated. It’s such an odd little thing for Dani to have done, sprawled beside her on a motel bed. Such an odd thing, both of them with books open against bent knees and no conversation between them for half an hour. 

And still, she’s almost certain. More so, when Dani gives a guilty grin. 

“You bit me,” Jamie says, wonder in her voice. “Really?”

Dani doesn’t look particularly apologetic. “Missed you.”

“I’m right here,” Jamie says, unable to restrain the laughter in her voice. “You could, ah, initiate whenever you like.”

“Wasn’t about that.” Dani shrugs, small and clean in a post-shower sleep shirt and very little else. Jamie lays a finger between the pages of her book, closing the cover. 

“Was it a food thing, because I have never seen someone put away a burger that size, but I could always order--”

Dani laughs. “No, I just--wanted to.” She shakes her head, looking as though she’s surprised herself as much as Jamie with the simple act of leaning over and sinking her teeth gently into the curve of Jamie’s shoulder. “Didn’t even think about it. Just...felt like getting your attention.”

“You have it.” She always does, even when Jamie’s reading, or starting to doze off, or thinking about tomorrow’s leg of the journey. Somewhere underneath it all, the reliable heartbeat powering her day, she’s always thinking of Dani. That should frighten her. That should worry her very much--and yet, somehow, it feels like the most natural thing in the world. 

“I won’t do it again,” Dani says, “if you didn’t like it. It was weird, wasn’t it? Weird thing to do.”

“Very weird,” Jamie agrees. “You’re a bit of a weirdo, Dani Clayton. Dunno if I’ve pointed that out.”

Dani jostles her, shoulder to shoulder, and Jamie drops her book onto the nightstand. In truth, she loves that Dani is starting to do weird little things just to see what response she’ll get--loves that Dani doesn’t twist herself into knots, questioning an act, choosing instead to just go for it. It feels like the Dani she held in a hallway, hours before their lives had changed forever. 

“What are you doing?” Dani is giggling already, as Jamie curls against her side, nuzzling into her neck. 

“Returning the favor.”

“That--” Dani draws a sharp breath as Jamie finds a particularly sensitive spot and draws the skin between her teeth. “Um. That’s--not what I--”

She’s melting into the pillows, one hand cupped behind Jamie’s head. Her pulse is quickening, though she’s starting to laugh as Jamie rains tiny bites down the side of her throat, along the slope of one shoulder. The cotton of her t-shirt pulled between even teeth, Jamie leans back slightly, meeting her eyes. 

“Wanted my attention,” she says, the words garbled around shirt. “What d’you want me to do with it?”

“This,” Dani laughs, her eyes fluttering when Jamie releases the shirt and returns her mouth to the soft column of her neck. “This is, um. Working nicely.”

“Figured,” Jamie murmurs, letting one hand toy along the curve of Dani’s thigh. “I like it, you know.”

“This?” Dani’s head is casting back, offering more room to explore; her fingers wrap around Jamie’s, guiding her toward an end to this conversation, the beginning of a different kind of discussion altogether. Jamie smiles. 

“You. Doing weird shit just because. Biting my arm, or singing to me in the shower, or just...bein’ here. I like it. Like you.”

More than, she thinks. More than just like. It’s been true for weeks and weeks, maybe since the morning she’d tried to hold firm against pleading blue eyes in a greenhouse. Maybe. She’s more than liked the way Dani catches her gaze, brushes up against her, seeks out her attention for longer than she even knows what to do with. 

Too early to say so. Too early to scare Dani away. She’s getting brighter, getting more hopeful every day, but she still flinches from words like Christmas, like next year, like in a while. She wouldn’t cope well with Jamie telling her the truth just yet. 

Better to just do this. To learn the little details--the tiny stamp of intimacy on every step of this journey. To accept the just try it of pineapple on pizza, of dancing on moonlit beaches, of Dani’s teeth sinking into her shoulder for no reason at all. It’s better. It’s the best thing she’s ever done. 

There are so many details, with Dani. So many stories to learn, so many quirks to memorize. And there is always, at the end of the day, this: just Dani, in her bed. Just Dani, drawing shallow breaths, pulling her down into a hungry kiss as she urges Jamie to explore with eager hands. Just Dani, who wants her attention merely because it’s Jamie offering it up. 

Bit of a weirdo, she thinks, and thank fuck for that. 

Chapter Text

He’s pretty sure she’s gotten smaller. How is that possible? How does a person--a person like Nell, especially, who has always been his big sister in every way that counts--just...shrink this way?

His fault, maybe. His fault, probably. Everything is his fault these days, and there’s nothing he can do to change it. He tries. He’s been trying since he was thirteen to change things. To convince the world to spin backwards, to convince everything that once made sense to fall back into place.

It hasn’t made sense since he was six. It hasn’t made sense, and the lights rounding the corner never mean Mom is coming home, and the monsters don’t go away just because he closes his eyes, and Nell is...

So small. 

She doesn’t know to look for him yet. Her attention is fixed on the job at hand--parallel parking, one of the few skills he picked up before she did. Her eyes are serious, her nose all scrunched up the way it gets when she’s thinking hard; he remembers watching her get that look more and more, back when they still shared a room. Remembers the way she’d fold around her books, her expression creased, and thinking, Mom used to look like that. Mom used to look exactly like that, drawing her maps. 

They always felt that way to him: maps. Treasure buried in the walls, maybe. Secrets buried between the lines. Mom would hike him into her lap, brush back his hair with one hand--he still remembers the gentle thump of her wedding ring against his scalp, her hand pressed to the crown of his head. If he closes his eyes hard enough, he can will that tiny, irrelevant pressure under his hair. 

Mom always looked so solid, sitting at her desk. Nell is that way now, and Theo, and Shirl. Steve, too, probably, though Luke hasn’t seen him in a while. Hasn’t seen any of them. Maybe he’s the only one who didn’t get that look. Didn’t inherit Mom’s special way of squinting at the world, moving her pencil, making something real where once there was only imagination.

Dad made it real, he thinks, as Nell finally straightens out, the wheels of her four-door kissing the curb. Mom dreamed it up, Dad gave it bones. Neither of them ever saw how many teeth a thing could have, in the end. 

He rubs his nose, hating the shiver rocking up under his clothes. Three layers of t-shirt-hoodie-jacket, and still, he’s freezing. Always freezing. Nell runs warm; always has. Even when they were little, she’d climb into his bed, tuck against his side, and it would feel like cozying up to a personal heat lamp. 

He always felt a little bit braver, with Nell tucked in like that. A little bit braver, knowing things were finally as they should always have been: Nell and Luke, Luke and Nell. Shared a womb. Shared a room. Shared so much fear. 

So much loneliness.

She looks tiny, climbing out of the car now. Tiny, with her hair bound up in a messy bun and her nose pierced on one side, her earrings bent from some kind of silver wire she probably did herself. Does Nell make her own jewelry now? Does Nell do all sorts of things he can’t imagine, like Mom did, inventing magic straight out of her head?

He tries. He tries so hard to make magic, but all that ever seems to come out are the monsters. 

“One, two, three,” he mumbles, watching her lock the car, push her hands into the pockets of an oversized olive jacket. “Four, five, six, seven. One, two, three--”

Counting steps. Counting earrings, and wayward locks of hair falling into her face, and shades of blue--her jeans, her shirt, her Converse sneakers so much further from falling apart than his. Nell is always so much further from falling apart. 

When did she get so small?

She’s caught sight of him at last, and he almost wishes he’d thought to get up. Run away. He’s good at that, isn’t he? Running. Had to be. No matter where he goes, the monsters follow, but if he just runs fast enough--far enough--into the arms of something sweet and floaty and protective--

Her hand raises in a wave, and he senses a warning behind the greeting: Stay put. I’m coming. Nell hates when he runs. His legs are so much longer, his fear so much more potent. Nell is brave. Nell has always been brave. 

For a while, he thought she might make him brave, too. That she’d rub off on him, sooner or later. He knows the others hoped it would happen--that her good grades, her dedication to doing things right despite the visions in her head, would sink into his skin somehow. 

It’s too late to run. Too late to escape. He hasn’t seen her in over a year, not since she accepted a scholarship half a state away. He meant to go to art school. Meant to put it all somewhere valid, somewhere productive. Steve thinks he’s wasting his time, refusing to go: All that talent, and you’re burning out on booze and pills. Steve thinks he can be better.

Luke knows he’s only ever been this: scared. Scared, a vessel for things he doesn’t understand. For bowler hats and too-bright smiles and the gentle thump of his mother’s ring against the crown of his head. 

“Hey.” She’s here, standing just a few inches out of reach. She’s here, and she’s smiling, and she looks like his sister, when she smiles. Looks like Nell as he remembers her--not as a teenager, but when they were little. Nell in that big old house with its hungry memories. Nell counting soldiers with him. One, two, three, four...

She’s reaching for him, and he almost flinches back. If she’d been anyone else, he’d rebel from the idea of hands on his skin. If she’d been Theo, or Steve, or even Dad, he’d be too repulsed by his own fear, his own shivering bones, to accept. 

But it’s Nell. It’s Nell, and that’s always a kind of truth he needs in his life. One person he can always, always count on. 

He wishes it went both ways. Wishes he could be better, the twin she deserves instead of the one who sets off alarms in her head, in her ankle, in her chest with his poor judgment. 

He’s hugging her--she’s hugging him; it doesn’t matter. They are, briefly, one entity again: Nell-and-Luke, the way it was always supposed to be. One womb. One room. One fear. 

She’s so small now. Or maybe he’s just too big. He doesn’t like to think of it that way; it doesn’t seem fair that she’d get all the good heart, all the courage, all the reliability of a big sister, and he’d get this body. Broad shoulders and big, clumsy hands. Long legs, perfect for running away. 

That’s Luke, he remembers Theo saying when he was fifteen. Not enough common sense to fill a fucking Dixie cup, but boy, can that kid run. 

“I missed you,” Nell mumbles into his chest. Her arms don’t even fit all the way around him anymore, but she’s trying her best all the same. He wonders if Mom would have hugged this way--if her arms would have grown shorter as he expanded, if she would have fought to hang on despite how big he is, how small the rest of the world seems in comparison. 

She’s going to pull back soon, he knows. Tilt back her head, fix him with the eyes he sees in the mirror whenever he dares to look. She’ll smile, and it’ll be a little sadder than it was last year, and she’ll ask, “How’ve you been?” Like she hasn't heard the stories. Like she doesn’t know.

Everyone else knows before he even tells them. Only Nell pretends otherwise. Only Nell gives him the benefit of the doubt, the space to weave his own story.

He could lie. Maybe he will. He’s getting better at it, even with her. 

But first, there’s this quiet. This quiet, simple moment of Nell pressed against his chest, Nell’s hair tickling his chin. Nell, not saying a word, just letting his heart sync up with her own.

Her heart has always been stronger. He doesn’t deserve it.

“I missed you,” she’d said. He can’t say it back. He doesn’t know how. 

The only thing to do, he thinks, is hang on. 

Chapter Text

Dani is getting further away. She doesn’t want to think about it that way. Doesn’t want to imagine what comes next. They’ve made it so far, have worked so hard to build a life that is as soft as it is strong, as beautiful as it is brazen. There is a shop, an apartment, a pair of rings. There is a future here. She’s sure of it.

She has to be sure--because Dani isn’t. Dani isn’t sure of anything good these days. 

She’s going to take me, she remembers Dani saying once. She remembers standing stock-still, a tear tracking down her cheek, shivering despite the warmth of Dani’s bedroom. She always gets that way, when the feelings get too big--excitement or fear or misery, it doesn’t matter; her body trembles without her consent, like she’s been standing in a snowstorm for hours. Dani usually notices, usually angles in without a word to rub the feeling back into her arms. She hadn’t, that day. Hadn’t yet known to look for the signs that what Jamie was feeling was too much to stand.

She doesn’t notice these days, either. She’s too busy staring.

So often, she finds herself staring, too--not into a bathtub or a mirror, but at Dani herself. Come back to me, she can’t quite make herself beg aloud. She has never been the begging sort. Doesn’t have any desire to change that now, not with Dani needing her to be strong.

And still, the tremors are coming on, drawing gooseflesh under her sleeves. The tremors are pushing up from her bones, like hypothermia in July, the fear of it too heavy to restrain. 

Dani is getting further away. Dani is fading. Dani looks at her sometimes like it takes effort--real, honest work--to remember where she is. Like she’s actively piecing it all together: This is our home. This is our kitchen, with the novelty salt-and-pepper shakers, with the spatula I hold like a pro and you hold like you’re going to stab someone with it. This is our living room, with the combination cassette-CD player we bought when business started really taking off. This our movie collection, which is really my movie collection, because you have never understood the culture of black-and-white. This is our bedroom, with all the pillows we could fit, because we both sleep best when there’s no space to roll away. This is our home. This is our life. 

Dani knows it. Deep down, she does. Jamie has to believe that, has to believe no beast in the jungle could ever strip that away. And still, sometimes, Dani looks at her with helpless uncertainty. Not where am I--not who are you--but something worse. Why am I, maybe. How am I still, maybe.

Because, she thinks, you have to be. Because you are still right here, and I need you. 

It’s selfish. It’s selfish, and she can’t say it--can’t put that on Dani on top of everything else--but, Christ, it’s true. She went so long convincing herself she needed no one at all, and then this American wandered into her world. This American with a take-no-shit attitude that resonated, with wonder in her smile and hope in her eyes, with fire in her kiss. This American who, to this day, spins the worst British accent she can muster, just to watch her cringe. 

She never needed anyone, and then Dani came along, and is need really so bad if it’s mutual? If you both know how deep that need runs? If you’ve sowed those seeds together, watched them take root, built a life on lush ground?

She needs Dani to stay. And every day she feels Dani getting a little bit...less. A little bit less sure. A little bit less here

She’s shivering. Hands braced against the counter, head bent, she’s shivering all over, and she can’t stop. The oven is cracked open to pump heat into the apartment, and the windows are sealed against the draft, and still, she can’t stop. It’s the fear, she thinks, that gets you. The fear, draining all the stable from your legs. 

The fear that she’s going to turn around one day, and Dani will just be gone.

Come back, she thinks, a desperate mantra. Her eyes are screwed shut, her fist thumping the counter in time with the voiceless words. Come back, come back, come back. 

It’s like a magic spell. It’s like a summoning. She’s pounding the counter, the helpless weight of that fear pressing her lungs until each breath comes staggering after the last, and then: arms, winding around her waist. Arms, sliding up to clutch around her chest. Arms, holding tight against the tremors. 

She’s gasping for air, and Dani’s face is pressed between her shoulder blades. Dani, folding around her as best she can, murmuring into her shirt: It’s okay. It’s okay. Shh. It’s okay. 

She’s rocking back and forth, bent over this counter, and Dani allows it. Dani sways with her, one palm flat against the buttons of her shirt as if to quell the stampede of her heart. Dani holds her, and Dani murmurs into her back, and Jamie does not cry. Will not cry. There are some weaknesses you can’t take back, once they come, and she can’t allow for it now.

She reaches up, folding a hand over Dani’s, the gentle clack of ring on ring echoing in her ears. Dani shifts against her, squeezing until the shivers level out--and Jamie thinks suddenly of a rainstorm, a sky splitting open, a panic attack soothed in a shed. She hadn’t thought about it, back then, any more than Dani is probably thinking about it now. It had only been natural, drawing Dani close. Only been right, how easily they’d fit together. 

Stay, she thinks, unwilling to beg. Stay with me. Please. You have to stay. 

Dani exhales, forehead flush against her spine. “I know,” she says. “I know it’s bad.”

Jamie says nothing. Can’t. There are just some truths she is unable to let into the light.

“I love you,” Dani says, like a prayer. “I love you. I’m--” She hesitates, and Jamie suspects she’s remembering something else from way back when: I don’t like bein’ lied to. She draws another breath. “I’m here,” she says. “I am.”

“Promise?” Jamie asks without thinking. She can’t raise her head, can’t turn to meet Dani’s eyes. She doesn’t want to see the bleak grief cracking open in the face of this woman she doesn’t know how to live without. 

“Promise,” Dani says, and her hand flexes against Jamie’s shirt. Cloth wound between her fingers, she tightens her grip until it feels as though she’s tying herself to something solid. Tethering herself by force of will to the ground Jamie can’t leave behind. 

Stay, she thinks desperately. Please. Please, just stay. 

She can’t say it. Can’t bring herself to plead. She doesn’t like--no, can’t stomach--being lied to. 

Dani, quietly, with a ferocity she’s been missing for almost two years now, grips her tighter. 

Chapter Text

Having a best friend again is strange. She’d gone so long imagining the phrase as a sort of neon sign staked firmly in the past: Best Friend, already spoken for. Eddie had always been it; no other volunteers need apply. 

But Eddie’s gone now, out of her life, living out wherever his might go in another country altogether, and Dani finds the position has–slowly, without really planning for it–been filled once more. Not that she planned for it. Not that could ever could have. 

She didn’t come to Bly looking for Jamie, and if you’d told her the gardener who refused to so much as meet her eyes, much less introduce herself, would become the most important person in her life–well. Life is full of surprises.

There is so little of Eddie in Jamie, she sometimes wonders how both could have occupied the same shape in her heart. Sometimes wonders how Eddie–who prized cleanliness, routine work hours, dinners at his mother’s once a week–would look at Jamie, if he could see her. Jamie, all tousled hair, happiest with a cigarette between her teeth and both hands buried in soil. Jamie, who has never kept a nine-to-five, never craved Sunday afternoons with her parents, never looks at Dani like she expects firm posture, bright smile, neat clothes. 

They couldn’t possibly be more different–and yet, somehow, Jamie is her best friend. Unfair to think it, maybe, but she might be the best friend Dani’s ever had. Her sense of humor is dark, her vocabulary wallpapered with curse words and shorn letters; she smells of nicotine and sunscreen, dresses in wrinkled flannels and torn jeans. Where Eddie looped an arm around her shoulders, Jamie nudges her with bony elbows; where Eddie pressed his lips to her temple, Jamie leans carefully away. Different, in every measure. 

And it isn’t that she likes Jamie more. That wouldn’t be fair–not after so many years in Eddie’s company. It’s just that when Jamie looks at her, eyes bright, dirt smudged on one cheek, sometimes, she feels…

“You’re thinking,” Jamie observes. She doesn’t say it the way Eddie would–the way he always pointed out when she was clenching her fist under the table, or picking at her nails, his voice edged with concern bordering on condescension. Her voice is light, her lips curved in a small smile. 

Eddie never quite smiled at her like that. Or, if he did, it didn’t pluck the same chord in her stomach. Not that that matters. Not that that affects the sincerity of friendship. 

Not that it’s making her feel weirdly flushed this afternoon. 

“Am I not allowed to think?” she asks. The sun, she thinks, is responsible for the goofy smile on her face. The heat of the day, which stretches on and on the way only early July knows how.

“Not arguing,” Jamie says. “One of us ought to.”

She’s on her knees, pulling weeds, her face shining with sweat. There’s something about days like this–afternoons where the kids are occupied helping Owen bake cookies, leaving Dani to nurse a glass of water and pleasantly-meandering conversation–that feels almost too good to be allowed. Eddie would have wanted to do something with a day like this: hike, or clear up the yard, or go visit family. 

Jamie, on the other hand, pushes to her feet and surveys the bed she’s spent all day working. “Think that’s good enough for a break. Here, budge over.”

Dani obediently scoots to the edge of her seat, amused when Jamie flops down half in her lap. A year of working at the manor, and Jamie’s gone from a woman who couldn’t make eye contact to save her life to this: gangly limbs tossed haphazardly over Dani’s, sweat-slick skin sticking where it lands against Dani’s shoulder. It’s too hot for cozying up like this, but she can’t seem to convince herself to push Jamie away. 

“There,” Jamie sighs, tilting her head back against the plastic of the lawn chair. “Christ, feels good just to breathe.”

“You breathe,” Dani says, “and I’ll think. Together, we make an almost-functional human being.”

“Almost,” Jamie says wryly. Her hand loops around Dani’s, teasing the sweating glass out of her grip long enough to take a sip. Dani nudges her. 

“Could get you one of your own, if you ever learned to ask politely.”

“Don’t like me polite,” Jamie says with a shrug. “My brand is prickly-yet-charming, and we both know I’m your favorite for it.”

“Technically,” Dani corrects, “Flora is my favorite. Mainly because she doesn’t make me remind her to say please.”

“Please,” Jamie says without missing a beat, “keep pretending you aren’t captivated by my winning personality.”

Dani laughs. “Oh, is that what I am?”

“Mm.” Jamie takes another sip, reaches over her to set the glass down on the table, closes her eyes. “S’what you were all pensive about just now, I’m sure. How entranced you are with my witty banter.”

“Entranced,” Dani repeats.

“Beguiled. Mesmerized. Drunk with adoration.” Jamie’s face is pink, a bead of sweat neatly lining her upper lip. Dani only realizes she’s staring a fortunate beat before Jamie rolls her head to the left, peering at her with lazy amusement. “Go on. Tell me how much you love me.”

“Love how ridiculous you can be, maybe.” And how sweet, and how unquestioningly soft, though she doesn’t see a need to put that into words–or a way to do it without sounding entirely out of her head. The heat, she thinks, is absolutely getting to her. 

It’s the heat, making her want suddenly to slide an arm between the plastic back of the chair and the cotton of Jamie’s tank top, pulling her even closer. The heat, making her want to displace the normal back-and-forth ease of friendship with something else entirely. 

She’s had a best friend before. She’s never quite wanted to do with Eddie what she is, more and more, thinking about with Jamie curled up beside her. 

Distract, she thinks, because Jamie is still watching her with that half-lidded expression she gets when the sun is particularly bright, the day’s work has been well-tended, and Dani’s shoulder is a cushion beneath her head. More and more, it’s been feeling like a dangerous sort of moment, Jamie’s face lingering near the crook of her neck. Jamie’s breath coasting down the neckline of her dress. Jamie’s smile sweeter than should be allowed, given the grumpy way she slouches around the grounds. 

“Thinking,” Jamie says, her voice almost soft. Dani shakes her head. 

“It’s not illegal.”

“Is,” Jamie says, “if you’re gonna just stare at me all googly-eyed while you do it. C’mon, what gives? Is today some holiday I’ve forgotten?” She sits up a little straighter, her face comic in its sudden concern. “Shit, Poppins, it’s not your birthday.”

She almost wants to say it is, just to watch Jamie turn fascinating new shades of maroon. “No–just–it’s hot.”

Jamie sags back with palpable relief. Her arm is freckled, Dani notices, beyond the norm; the summer is drawing all sorts of secrets from her skin, and it’s suddenly painfully tempting, the urge to trace her nail along these newfound constellations. 

Distract, she thinks again, more urgently this time. Without thinking it through, without considering the consequences, she dips two fingers into the glass of water and flicks the still-cool moisture directly into Jamie’s face. 

Jamie, to her credit, hardly jumps. She’s just blinking at Dani like their conversation has taken an unanticipated left turn into another language, water dripping from the end of her nose. 

“Okay,” she says. “If that’s how we’re playing it.”

Her arm reaches across without hesitation, replicating Dani’s playbook: two fingers dipped, flicked, landing back in her lap as Dani sputters. 

“You got me in the eye.”

“Cooled you off, though?” Jamie asks, almost politely. Dani laughs, and suddenly, it’s war. There’s barely enough room on the chair for the both of them to sit like adults, much less to squirm around, hips knocking, legs tangled up as the remainder of the glass finds its way–droplet by droplet–into Jamie’s face, down Dani’s neck, sometimes missing entirely and disappearing into the sizzling summer air. 

Dani is ultimately the victor, an upset decided when she grasps the glass–now containing maybe two inches of water–and upends it directly over Jamie’s head. She’s laughing almost too hard to breathe, particularly when Jamie gives a firm shake of her hair, looking like a rumpled dog after a bath.

“That,” Jamie says in a low, dangerous tone, “cannot stand.”

She’s up before Dani can stop her, sprinting toward the garden hose uncoiled in the grass. Dani twists in her seat, knees drawn up to her chest, arms extended.

“Don’t you dare!”

“All’s fair,” Jamie says, almost apologetically, depressing the trigger. 

They are, Dani notes somewhere in the back of her mind, full-grown adult women. They are thirty years old, gainfully employed, responsible for the upkeep of an entire house and the well-being of two small children. 

They are also now chasing one another across the lawn, Dani sopping wet, Jamie laughing so hard she nearly trips over her own feet taking a corner too fast. The hose is growing more and more tangled by the minute as she dashes in a zig-zag pattern, periodically firing a jet of water over her shoulder, and Dani has no prayer of catching up–not with her shoes squelching, slipping on wet grass, her lungs clenched around a soundless jag of laughter. 

Adults, she thinks, as Jamie makes the insurmountable error of trying to bolt past her like a quarterback dodging a tackle; she makes a successful leap over the tangled hose, but forgets at the last second to factor in the edge of the lawn chair. Dani has her around the middle before she can dart out of reach, the both of them tumbling over in a cackling heap of grass clippings, puddled hose water, freckled limbs. 

They’re rolling, shouting wordlessly around giggles, Dani struggling to pry the hose out of Jamie’s hands. It’s harder than it looks; Jamie is small, but strong in an annoyingly wiry sort of way. Even when Dani manages to get her onto her back, the water is inescapable, dousing in short jets across her chest, down her arms, pooling awkwardly between them. 

“You are,” she laughs, “a child.”

“Could a child do this?” Jamie replies, jerking upward at the hips with unexpected force. Dani rocks up with her, one hand grasping the sodden front of Jamie’s shirt for balance, and drops back down without budging from her seat. Jamie releases an oof as her back makes rough contact with the ground again, giggling too hard to successfully shove Dani over.

“Yes, actually, I think a child would be exactly that effective,” Dani informs her. Her body has never felt quite this alive, her muscles aching with the effort of an unplanned run. Jamie, chest heaving for breath, is practically glowing. 

“Just want to remind you,” Jamie says, “you did start this.”

“Does that mean I win?” If she hasn’t, she can’t imagine it would feel any better than this: straddling Jamie’s hips in the soft grass, cool water seeping down her back, her dress sticking pleasantly to warm skin. Jamie allows the hose to drop from her grip at last, her head tipped back, eyes closed.

“Call it a draw.”

“What if I wanted to win?” She slides a hand up without thinking, pinning Jamie by the wrist before she can decide to take up her watery weapon again. Jamie draws a deep breath, face flushed, grinning. 

“Guess you’d have to work harder for it.”

Children, Dani thinks–but suddenly, it doesn’t feel childish anymore. Suddenly, she’s overly aware of her dress rucked high around her thighs, of how short Jamie’s shorts really are, how her body is considerably less obscured than usual with her shirt plastered to her frame. Suddenly, she’s aware of Jamie’s hand flexing against the grass, pinned beside her head with a loose enough grip to break–though Jamie isn’t breaking it. Isn’t even trying.

Jamie is, instead, gazing up at her with hair mussed, eyes bright. Jamie, whose free hand is sliding up to rest along the curve of Dani’s hip. 

She’s Dani’s best friend, like he was, but this doesn’t feel like it belongs in the same category as late-night stories swapped by the fire, or letting each other steal the vegetables the other doesn’t care for off their plate. This feels like a category all its own: the way Jamie licks her lips as Dani’s head lowers, the way Dani’s fingers graze the freckles painting her wrist on the way up to notching her palm against Jamie’s. 

Her hair is wet, and Jamie’s face is sweaty, and there’s so little romance to the whole picture, it takes her by surprise. She’s always thought there should be talking before a thing like this, at least–a decision made on equal footing. 

“I don’t have to,” she says, even as Jamie is saying, “Do you want to?”

Children would laugh again, go back to wrestling, go back to how it all felt just a few minutes before. They are not, Dani notes as she lowers her head–as Jamie shifts up at the shoulders to meet her–children. 

She’s hyper-aware of all of it now: the sun beating against her shoulders, the hand Jamie is using to grip the back of her dress, the exact angle of Jamie’s mouth parting beneath her own. Her tongue is gentle, brushing Jamie’s, and the sound Jamie makes into her is anything but. 

She’s smiling, she realizes, so hard, it hurts–that deep, wonderful hurt of laughing too hard for too long, of slipping in the grass and landing in a heap with someone who couldn’t help catching her on the way down. She’s grinning into Jamie even as she’s kissing her, even as she’s letting her body stretch out to press Jamie more firmly against the damp ground. 

And Jamie, fingers curled between her own, making soft sounds of appreciation into the kiss, is grinning right back. 

“This was your plan all along,” she accuses, brushing the hair from Dani’s eyes when they break for a breath. “Awful lot of work, for a kiss.”

“All’s fair?” Dani suggests–and she genuinely, honestly cannot decide which she likes more: the way Jamie kisses, or the way Jamie kisses and laughs at the same time. All of it, she feels, goes a country mile beyond best friends. All of it goes a country mile beyond anything she could ever have dreamed up, walking away from him the way she did. 

Chapter Text

Some brands of courage, Dani thinks, come to a person only because the stars have aligned to a particular degree. Grief has nested too deep for too long and there’s a ridiculous amount of wine in the bloodstream and there’s a pair of warm, understanding eyes inches away. It’s not an excuse, letting all of this wind together into here we are. It’s not even a drunken accident, a marker of her pain, a marker of how long she’s wanted to try something like this.

It’s just alignment. Beautiful, wonderful, unexpected.

That she’s finally kissed Jamie feels like a miracle–she’s wanted to, half a dozen times since coming to this place, and has talked herself out of it just as often. It simply hadn’t been the right time, she’d thought, or place, or situation. Not in the bedroom, with Jamie’s breath soft on her neck, Jamie’s hands gently guiding a zipper out of place; there had been too much in the air between them, an electric uncertainty bordering on home in ways Dani hadn’t been able to look at too closely. Not out by Jamie’s truck, either, with the watchful glow of the moon bearing down and Jamie’s hand curled questioningly around her own; there had been too many words waiting in the wings, Dani unable to find language for all of them at once. And certainly not on the couch in that room, Jamie drawing deep breaths, her throat working around a swallow that had seemed to carry secrets Dani so desperately wanted to understand. 

She’d wanted, and she’d known it would crack something open–in Jamie, or in herself, or between them both–if she’d moved into that desire with open arms.

But here: here, in a shadow-speckled greenhouse, with Jamie’s collar firm under her hands, Jamie’s grin pressed to her lips, it’s different. Everything has lined up, finally, in a way Dani can understand. To form a path Dani can follow.

And following it, she is. Without thought. Without pause. 

Without question.

“You sure?” Jamie’s already said once, and is repeating now. Dani isn’t looking over her shoulder this time, isn’t seeking the certainty of ghosts in this place. He has no place here, she believes with sudden fierce warmth. This is not his to intrude upon. It’s Jamie’s. Jamie, stamped into every table and window, Jamie’s hands having constructed everything about it that matters. Jamie selects which plants to grow and tend and weed. Jamie brought in the blanket draped over the sofa now, the watering can, the spare pair of boots. Jamie’s tools, Jamie’s coveralls, Jamie’s presence everywhere she looks. 

If she was looking.

She isn’t. 

Her eyes are closed, her hands skidding clumsily up to grip the shoulders of Jamie’s almost comically-oversized jacket. She hasn’t been able to bring herself to touch Jamie just yet–not her face, not her hair, not her hands. It seems like a bridge waiting just there, a bridge to somewhere warmer, safer, more comfortable. She’s not sure she’s yet earned rights to that world.

Jamie’s jacket makes sense. Like Jamie, it is sturdy. Like Jamie, there is no question of its purpose. Holding the collar in her fists, Dani feels as though she has been offered an anchor in a storm, concrete unfolding beneath her feet for the first time in far too long.

Jamie doesn’t seem to have the same qualms. Jamie, whose hands are so alive, as Dani has never seen–fingers sliding into her hair, cupping around her ear, gently cradling her jaw. Jamie, who seems unable to get enough of Dani–not the soft purple of her coat, but Dani herself. As though this is all Jamie has wanted since Dani first arrived.

They’ll talk about it someday, Dani is sure–about how much of that is truth, and how much is simply romantic mid-kiss fever. Jamie hasn’t wanted her since Dani arrived. Jamie has watched her with guarded eyes, small smiles, keeping her body just out of reach. Jamie has only, surely, started wanting her recently.

She doesn’t think that matters. Not really. Not with Jamie kissing her this way now, lips parted in a soft sound of acceptance. It was so easy, once upon another woman’s life, to believe love only counted if it was instant, if it was always, if there was no beginning and no end–an ouroboros of sorts she wasn’t to question. 

That had been his way of thinking. Now is forever, and always was; don’t ask me for more. 

She could ask Jamie. She could pull back now, meet Jamie’s eyes, and Jamie would wait. Patient. Curious. Jamie would wait, and Dani could ask–when did you decide, she’d say, to want me?–and Jamie would give her as true an answer as she knows how. She can already tell that’s just Jamie’s way. Truth is not softer than fabrication, maybe, but it is kinder, in the end, and it is easier to fall back on than trying to keep all those balls in the air.

Dani knows that much. 

I don’t like bein’ lied to, Jamie had said only a few moments before, and Dani can’t tell her the truth with words. Doesn’t know how, not yet. But she can tell her the truth with the rest–with every piece of her not bound up in the fear, and the shame, and the guilt she’s been trying so hard to outrun since that squeal of tires on a slick blacktop road. She can tell her the truth with every piece of her not bound up in him

She keeps her eyes closed, kissing Jamie, and lets herself go. Lets herself sink into the rough fabric of Jamie’s jacket between clutching fingers–into Jamie’s tongue sliding smoothly into her mouth–into Jamie’s palms pressing to her cheeks like she’s holding something sacred. She lets herself push into Jamie, her hands sliding around Jamie’s back to grip that jacket like a lifeline. She lets herself lean back when Jamie pushes in return, laughing a little when her shoulders hit the arm of the sofa. 

“You’re sure?” One last time, for good measure, because wishes are always dosed out in threes. Because Jamie, leaning over her–looking, for the first time since Dani has met her, tall, almost expansive in a way that strips the breath from Dani’s chest–doesn’t want her to just say it. Jamie, leaning over her in this oversized work jacket and that tempting black dress, wants her truth–whatever that looks like. 

The truth is, Dani is sure.

The truth is, Dani is terrified.

The truth is, Dani thinks if she were only one or the other, she’d know this was wrong. That she’s both–that she has never wanted anything more than Jamie’s thumb pressing lightly to the corner of her lips, Jamie’s body pressing her down into firm cushions, and has never felt quite so alive with fear at the same time–is right. It’s how it should be. It’s the good kind of sure, with every clamor of her heart singing its agreement, and the best kind of fear, adrenaline skipping spikes down her limbs. 

If she looks past Jamie now, if she chances a glance at the starlight reflecting off the black greenhouse windows, she might find the other kind of sure. The other kind of terror. The ones still wrapped up in a man whose hands had gone from warm to imposing before she’d known it was happening. If she looks past Jamie now, all the good will rush out of her, and the grief will rush back in. 

She looks only at Jamie’s face. Jamie’s crooked little smile. Jamie’s hair, falling out of its carefully-mussed bun, tumbling at last into eyes that seem to register nothing in this room–in this world–except Dani stretched out beneath her. 

“I’m sure,” she says, and it seems to be exactly what Jamie needs. Not a nervous nod, not a swept-away laugh, but a promise given voice. I’m sure. I want to be here. I want to be with you. I’m sure. 

If she’s got nothing else, she’s got this. It’s more than she could have dreamed, days ago, her hand warm with the memory of Jamie’s fingers wrapped around it. 

Jamie is kissing her again, no hesitation at all, and Dani allows herself–inch by inch, breath by breath–to expand beneath the soft slide of those kisses. Her hands tease up from collar to throat, her fingers tracing the staggering speed of Jamie’s pulse. Her thumb finds the arc of Jamie’s jaw, blunt nail scratching a gentle path until Jamie’s lips part over her own in a sigh. Her tongue brushes Jamie’s once, twice, a hand reaching up to knot in Jamie’s curls, and there is no pause for reflection, no chance offered to whatever might be waiting in the dark to intrude. 

She’s sure, and she’s wonderfully afraid, and she’s never in her life been both at the same time. Tomorrow, she suspects, there will be other feelings crowding in–guilt, maybe, that she’s forgotten him at last. Or a glee too intoxicating to escape. Or maybe there will be Jamie across the breakfast table, head down, eyes darting, too embarrassed to allow Dani back in behind her walls. 

Maybe.

Tomorrow, Dani thinks. I can think of that all tomorrow. Tonight is its own triumph. Tonight is its own small victory. Tomorrow, she can stare into a mirror and tell Eddie once and for all she’s done–moved on at last, whether she wanted to or not, has found someone who makes her feel like she can brave every ghost the world could ever be haunted by. Tomorrow, she can deal with the pain of letting go, of the unsteadiness daylight might bring to Jamie’s smile, of whatever conversation will piece together the people they were this morning with the people waiting on the other side of sunrise. 

Tonight, she is sure. Of one knee jammed against the back of the sofa, Jamie’s weight rocking between her spread legs. Of Jamie’s kiss sliding warm and sweet from her lips to her neck, Jamie murmuring things so soft and gentle, it sends an ache through Dani’s chest. Of Jamie’s hands growing bolder, Jamie matching every moment of exploration with questioning eyes: Is this all right? Are you all right? You sure?

Tonight, making urgent sounds into Jamie’s kiss, letting herself tip over from a woman burdened to a woman wanting, she is sure. As sure as she’s ever been. She is sure, and she is the right kind of afraid, and she understands Jamie will only go as far as the road Dani is paving allows. She understands Jamie will not hold it against her, if she presses a hand to her chest and turns her head away. Jamie will lean back, accept more of her story, accept whatever it is Dani is offering. 

It won’t matter. One way or the other, it’ll be closer than Dani’s ever been to freedom. 

Tomorrow, she can unpack what it means. What everything aligning in this exact way has brought her. Tomorrow, she can decide where she stands, and find out how far Jamie wants to walk with hand outstretched. 

Tonight, she is kissing Jamie, and she is wrapping her arms around Jamie’s neck, and she is memorizing the comfortable weight of Jamie’s smile against her skin. Tonight, everything has lined up just right.

She does not look away. 

Chapter Text

Jamie doesn’t tend to notice these things–little changes in her own appearance, little alterations made by the simple passage of time. Her attention, she scoffs when Dani laughs over her failing to pick up on a burr caught in her hair after a trip to the park, is better suited to other things. “World’s big,” she says, tilting her head to allow Dani to comb the remnants of whatever tree she’d walked beneath from her curls. “Why should I go wasting time starin’ at my own damn face?”

“Because it’s a good face,” Dani tells her. She doesn’t add that Jamie’s face, like everything about her, makes more sense than the rest of the world. That nothing about Jamie seems to come out of nowhere–every scrape and scar is accounted for with a story, every wrinkle turned out from the edge of her lips or around her eyes sparked by the familiarity of her frown, the inevitability of her smile. Everything about Jamie can be traced back to the honesty of time spent in the sun, or injuries incurred at work, or letting another year stroke its fingers across her skin. 

She notices the first gray hair maybe five years in. They’re on a camping trip, small tent pitched just upshore of a gently lapping brook; Jamie, crouched beside the water to inspect a turtle, looks up with a grin, and Dani notes a flash of silver at the crown of her head.

She doesn’t point it out. It’s too easy to anticipate Jamie’s amused drawl: “Got a gorgeous beast right here, and you’re worried about my hair?” She tucks the knowledge safely away, entertained by the idea that Jamie is carrying a secret upon her own head and has no idea.

She says nothing, but her fingers seek out the unexpected silver the next time Jamie comes close enough. She trails her hand through rumpled hair, watching the familiar warmth of brown cascade across her skin, pleased to find several more bursts of light wound in among the dark.

“What?” Jamie asks, smile crooking the way it always does when she senses Dani is about to poke fun. “Bein’ a weirdo again.”

“Am not,” Dani replies, and kisses her. 

It becomes a bit of a private game, an amusing turn of events: Jamie, the most naturally-observant human being in the world, has absolutely no idea she’s shot through with unexpected arcs of silver. No idea at all. At first, Dani thinks she’s intentionally ignoring the color leaching out of her hair; a flash of memory spirals back, Judy plucking what she called my little secret out by the strand and holding a finger to her lips as she reached for a box of red dye. Heavy maintenance is very much not Jamie’s speed, but maybe turning her cheek and feigning ignorance achieves the same goal.

A month goes by. A year. They’re turning up on their own time, these pops of colorless strands standing stark against dark waves, and Dani takes it upon herself to brush her fingers across each one she finds. She likes very much the depth they bring to Jamie’s hair, the way the sun catches a little differently when she turns her head. Likes the knowledge that each strand is a stamp of memory–proof of time spent. 

Likes, most of all, that Jamie legitimately seems to have no idea. Jamie, who tugs a black elastic band off her wrist with her teeth, raking the messy tumble out of her eyes, perpetually annoyed with the curls that always seem to evade her hands. Jamie, who spends hours with a book in one hand and Dani’s hair sifting through her fingers, and still has absolutely no clue what’s happening on her own head.

“You’ve never cared, have you?” Dani asks one afternoon, watching Jamie sort through their spectacular collection of cassette tapes, little plastic cases clicking comfortably to break up the quiet. Jamie, cross-legged on the living room rug with Survivor’s Vital Signs in one hand and REO Speedwagon’s Hi Infidelity in the other, raises her eyebrows.

“Seemed silly to go alphabetical while they were multiplying like fuckin’ bunnies, but now we’ve slowed down a little–”

“About looks,” Dani corrects. She’s hanging half off the couch, the tips of her fingers brushing Jamie’s knee. Life has been getting less predictable lately, messier around the edges; she looks into mirrors with breath held tight in her lungs, uncertain of what will look back. Touching Jamie has become less about habit and more a matter of lifeline. “You’ve never cared about how you look. Maybe the only woman I’ve ever known to say that.”

“I care,” Jamie says, with very little defensiveness. It is astonishing sometimes, looking back at the woman she’d met in that manor kitchen, how little defense Jamie seems to have for her these days. Questions are met in good faith, answered in kind, like Jamie knows there’s nothing Dani could ask that would intentionally bear teeth. “Care when I need to.”

“Like when?”

“At the shop,” Jamie says, tossing aside a Paul Simon cassette with a wrinkle of her nose. She finds Pat Benatar instead, sets it in the pile between The Beatles and Blondie. “Always look professional, don’t I?”

“But you don’t like–think about it? What you’ll look like in twenty years? Or fifty?”

Fifty, Christ.” Jamie rolls back her head, grinning. “Be a hell of a thing, stacking fifty more years on. What d’you think you’ll look like in fifty years, mm?”

Dani doesn’t answer. It’s too early to tell what the smudged face in the mirror might mean–too early to panic–but the idea of fifty years more with Jamie seems terrifyingly unlikely. 

“Anyway.” Seeming to sense her unease, Jamie rocks up onto her knees, awkwardly shifting across the rug to lean against the couch. She braces a hand behind Dani’s head, her eyebrow arched. “You tryin’ to say I don’t pay enough attention to my looks? I don’t scrub up enough for you, is that it?”

Her fingers brush Dani’s ribs, digging in just hard enough to tickle. Dani squirms, laughter burbling out against Jamie’s neck. 

She doesn’t bring it up again, preferring the secret of Jamie’s slowly graying hair held within her own heart. The threads are becoming more insistent as the years drift by, joining tiny lines etched into Jamie’s skin. Her hands, put through so much work, are comfortably worn at knuckle and fingertip. Her smile pulls the skin around her eyes a little tighter as they celebrate eight years–nine–ten. 

She looks good with the extra age, Dani thinks. She wears it all so well, without pausing to prod at herself in the bathroom mirror; if she’s the least bit unnerved by the passage of time, she never lets it show. If Dani didn’t know better, she’d think Jamie never really looks at herself in the mirror at all. 

Too busy looking at me, she thinks, and tries not to ache at the idea that Jamie has forgotten herself beneath the need to keep her attention on what she considers more important things. Like watching for one of Dani’s moods to spike up in public. Like waiting for Dani’s shoulders to hunch against ghosts only she can see. 

Dani doesn’t look into mirrors herself much these days, either–though, every once in a while, a glimpse will sneak up. Just the barest flash of her own face in the passenger mirror of the car, or the idling bathwater. Sometimes–less and less often–the face waiting is even her own. 

It is so her own, those days, that Dani finds herself embracing a new concern. Something odd, something she’s only started to really see in recent memory. 

Jamie is starting to show her age, little by little. Not all at once, not in any way that is strange for a woman creeping into her forties–but the years are there, certainly, stamped gently into her skin. The years are threaded through her hair, these silver pops around which Dani’s hands seem to take on a mind of their own. There’s something wonderful, lively, even sexy about the way time is impacting Jamie–grounding her a little more every year, the natural wearing of all those hours hung like medals around her shoulders. 

Dani, catching sight of herself in the bathtub, can’t help but notice: no one could say the same for her. Not that time is beating away at her, not that time is turning her to stone before she’s ready–but that time appears to be doing nothing at all. Her eyes bear no extra marks, though she has spent just as much time as Jamie laughing, frowning, holding her breath as the world spins beneath her. Her hands look just the same as they had in 1987. 

Her hair is still stubbornly gold.

“Do you think it’s strange?” she whispers one night–not entirely sure if Jamie is even awake, not sure she can even bear the answer Jamie might give. 

“What is?”

She swallows hard, fingers carding gently through Jamie’s hair. The gray seems to gleam in the glow of the streetlamp through their window. 

“That I’m not…that I don’t look…”

Jamie pushes onto one elbow, peering at her in the dark. “You look like you,” she says, when Dani is unable to press on. “You look like Dani.”

She’s trying to answer the other question, Dani understands, the one being asked with greater frequency: am I here? am I me? what if I’m her, deep down, and have been all along? She shakes her head. 

“That’s not…I’m not…”

Jamie waits, brow knit the way it always has when she’s listening. Even when her expression smooths out into sleep, that small divot will remain, etched into her skin like a tattoo memorializing all these late-night conversations. Dani reaches up, presses her thumb gently to it now, her breath hitching when Jamie turns to kiss her palm. 

“It’s nothing,” she says. There’s no way to explain it without making Jamie worry more, worry again, lose yet more sleep watching for signs Dani is slipping away.

Jamie nods slowly, not quite believing, not quite daring to call out the lie. “All right,” she says, and the silver in her hair seems to burn, and Dani loves her enough to close her eyes and pretend everything is okay.

When morning comes, she wards off the thoughts. It’s easier, in daylight. Easier to turn her head, fix her eyes on Jamie, allow the familiarity of Jamie’s hands, smile, kiss sweep the fear back under the bed. The nights are long, the dark heavier than it has any right to be, but in sunlight, Jamie shines. The chain around her neck–the colors in her eyes–the silver shot through her hair. In sunshine, Jamie is the most alive any person can be.

And if she is, so must Dani be–because there is so much love in the way Jamie tips into her arms, so much affection in the sweep of her kiss, in the way she leads them around the kitchen in an impromptu waltz. Jamie, as always, burning away the shadows. 

Jamie, who dips her backward, drinking in her laughter with the biggest grin in the world. Who cuts her eyes to the right. Who tightens her mouth in surprise.

“Hang on,” she says, her hands still braced at Dani’s back and hip. “What the fuck is this?”

Dani’s heart gives a giant leap, her hands clutching at Jamie’s shirt for balance. This is it, she thinks. She can see her now. She can see her, not me, and it’s over, it’s all over, it’s–

“Dani.” Jamie is frowning, easing her back to her feet. She crouches down, gazing into the window of the oven. One hand rises to her head, her brow furrowed.

She sees her, Dani thinks, backing toward the sink. She sees her, and–

“Jesus, how long has my hair looked like that?” 

She blinks, shaking the panic away. “What?”

Jamie is looking at her, almost awestruck, her face clean and younger than usual with the last vestiges of sleep clinging to her eyes. “All that gray. Knew there were one or two, but–”

Dani is laughing. Leaning back against the counter, the mirth spilling out of her, she laughs. Jamie, straightening up with a low groan–her knees pop audibly, her head shaking–looks bewildered.

“Suppose you thought you’d just wait,” she says dryly, “and see if I ever noticed?”

Dani nods, cackling too hard to answer. It’s become so normal, counting the bright bursts amid Jaime’s natural hair color; she’s honestly forgotten Jamie ever didn’t have these silver sparks. Every inch of her, from the crow’s feet etched near her eyes to the tiny scars on her hands, is quite simply home. 

Jamie is plainly trying to look grumpy now, her hand tangling her hair. With Dani giggling like this, unable to catch her breath, she isn’t doing a very good job.

“Been this way a while?”

“Years,” Dani giggles. “Since I proposed. Before.”

Jamie rolls her eyes, slouching the two steps it takes to reach the counter and Dani’s shaking frame. “You,” she says in a mock-irritated tone, “are supposed to help with these things.”

“With what?” Dani brushes the hair back from her eyes. “You’re beautiful. And more than that, you’re…stately.”

Stately,” Jamie repeats with a snort. “Haven’t heard that one. That’s a Hannah word, if ever there was one.”

They sober, just a little, the appropriate affection offered to memory. Jamie’s head bows against her own, her nose brushing Dani’s lightly. 

“I like it,” Dani says, her voice soft. “I like watching it happen. Like growing old…”

She trails off. She isn’t growing old, is the thing. Isn’t changing. Is as incontrovertible as a lake set into ancient grounds. She is not growing old at all.

Jamie’s fingers curl around her chin, tipping her head back. “Growing old together,” she says, firmly. Not denial, exactly–just certainty. Jamie, imposing her will on a world that tries so hard to have its own way with them both. 

“Growing old together,” Dani repeats, and even if it isn’t true in the strictest sense–even if it doesn’t look like it should–she knows Jamie believes it. Knows Jamie will fight tooth and nail to make the universe bend around her love. 

There are things, Jamie believes, that are natural. Organic. Exactly as they should be. There are things that can’t be changed by dreams, whims, magic spells. 

They will grow old together. That is, Jamie believes, the way the world works. The way it has always been and will always be. Jamie’s hair grows silver. Jamie’s skin etches with lines. Jamie’s hands are solid in her own, though she sometimes bends her fingers with a grimace, rubs her wrists when the weather angles toward snow. 

They will grow old together. For Jamie, there is simply no other consideration to be made.

“I like it,” Dani repeats, fingering the nearest strand of gray. “It’s distinguished.”

Jamie, shaking her head, is grinning as she leans in for a kiss.

Chapter Text

“You’re sure about this?” Jamie leans back, hands in her pockets, gazing at the serene white house, third on its block. “Could still go around the corner and wait, if you like. Saw a little shop...”

She trails off. Dani suspects her body language speaks for itself, all locked jaw and slight tremble. 

He wouldn’t have noticed, she thinks, and the rush of hot grief is so sudden, she has to close her eyes. Jamie hesitates, leans in until her shoulder presses lightly against Dani’s, lowers her voice.

“Whatever you want, Poppins. Reckon I can play nice as a friend as well as--”

“No.” She finds she can’t look at the house directly. It’s much easier, turning her eyes to Jamie. Much easier to search her face for signs Jamie isn’t okay with this, despite what she’s been saying all afternoon. 

She finds nothing but a slight smile, a furrow of Jamie’s brow. Jamie, holding honesty at the forefront as always. Jamie, who offered her company, and has--for months--shown no sign of flagging in her promise to see this adventure through. Wherever it may take them.

Wherever.

“No,” she repeats, her voice as firm as she can make it. “I’m not here to...I’m not going to...”

Play that role again, she can’t say, but she can tell from the way Jamie nods it’s coming across. I’m not here to be Danielle, she doesn’t say, and Jamie’s hand brushes her hip in silent solidarity. 

“Whoever you need me to be. And we don’t have to stay a minute longer than you want.”

It pains her, that Jamie would put that on the table--whoever you want me to be. Jamie’s told her all about her one and only brush with what she had, once, considered real love. How she’d told that girl the very same. How she’d seen it through, as Jamie does with all undertakings she values, to the very end. She’d been who that girl needed her to be--and she’d been the same for the women who had come after, to a lesser degree. A fumble in the dark. An agreement to never bring it up again. A test. A lantern. A buried memory. 

“You,” she tells Jamie now, “are you. And I’m me. And if that’s not enough for her...”

Jamie nods again. “Lead the way, then.”

She remembers the house being bigger, somehow. Cleaner. Remembers the porch sprawling open to offer more space for rocking chairs and bunched-up bodies clutching glasses of iced tea. She remembers the lawn extending out and out, littered with discarded bicycles and baseball gear. 

She remembers Eddie, knees bent, hands pressed into the concrete behind his reclining form. Remembers the way he’d greet her outside every day of summer, the light reflecting off his crooked glasses. The way he’d smile, turn his head, shout through the screen door: “Mom! Danielle’s here!”

No one shouts for her now. Nothing but the rap of her own fist heralds her arrival. No one is looking for Danielle today, and she’s grateful, because they certainly wouldn’t find her. Not with all the weeds of memory sprung up around the girl she’d been. Not with the jungle of unease growing thick around the woman she is. 

“Oh my--”

Judy’s older. So much older than she ought to be, Dani’s absence contained within little more than a year. There are creases Dani doesn’t recognize around her mouth, silver tucked into the muted red of her hair. A year, she thinks, without a son does this to a person.

A year without a daughter.

The screen door swings open so sharply, it catches Jamie along the hip, nearly tips her off the stoop. Dani’s hand closes around her wrist, an easy reflex months in the making, though Jamie’s already shifted her balance and adjusted her expression. Not irritation, not pain--a welcoming little smile, a quiet expression that says, Not here to make a fuss. Not here to be noticed, even. 

She waits for it to spill out of Judy’s mouth--a shocked exhalation of her full name--but Judy’s arms are already around her, and her voice seems capable of no more than a swallowed sob. No one, Dani thinks, has ever hugged her the way Judy does. Her own mother couldn’t manage it.

She’s folding. She’s folding before either of them can speak a single word, her heart careening behind her sweater, and if she closes her eyes--if she lets herself press into Judy’s arms, inhale the scent of fresh coffee and clean clothes--she can almost forget...almost forget...

“Honey,” Judy breathes, “how have you been?”

How. Not where. Not how could you. One simple word, summing it all up. Dani makes a choked sound, nearly a laugh, and lets one hand swing hopelessly out to the left. 

Jamie catches it without a sound. 

Judy is stepping back as though embarrassed, smoothing down her blouse, eyes wet. “You--your mother said you were traveling.” There is remarkably little accusation in that sentence, Dani thinks. Remarkably little offense. You didn’t tell me, but she did, and it’s all right. It’s all right that you couldn’t. 

“Europe,” she says croakily. “England, mostly. Got a job--”

“You look...” Judy trails off, peering into her face, and it’s small, the recognition. Small, but there in the parting of her lips, the slackening of her jaw. Your eye, she imagines Judy breathing, what’s happened to your eye, sweetheart?

“It’s been a long time,” Dani says, a bit shakily. “Lots to--I mean, if you have the time. I don’t want to intrude.”

Judy takes another heavy step backward, into the house, gesturing emphatically. “Don’t be silly! Don’t--God, Danielle, I’ve wanted to write. Your mother said she didn’t have the address, and I didn’t want to bother you, but...”

Jamie is still holding her hand, she realizes, as Judy’s shocked gaze moves from Dani’s face (Dani’s eye, she knows, the russet brown stark against the pale pink of her cheeks) to Dani’s outstretched arm. Judy takes in this new development for a moment, silently: a solemn young woman in a black knit sweater, the cuffs of her jeans turned neatly up, her sneakers white and her fingers implacably wrapped around Dani’s. Jamie, who smiles that soft, not here to be noticed smile, and inclines her head. 

“Mrs. O’Mara.”

“Hello,” Judy says. Not the way Dani’s mother would say it, not even now--clipped and cold and waiting for explanation. She says it with such an easy air of welcome, her head tipped curiously to the side. “Judy, please.”

“Jamie,” Jamie says, and something in Dani seems to cave inward. Some great, hulking shard of terror seems to dissolve in on itself. She is Judy, and you are Jamie, and I am--I am--

Her? No. Surely not, not with Jamie’s fingers tangled, with Jamie standing just off-center on this strange stage. The whole neighborhood, she realizes, can see her: standing with shoulders hunched, holding a strange woman’s hand, staring at her not-so-mother-in-law with bruised eyes. 

The whole neighborhood can see, and she doesn’t care in the least about any of it except to say--

“Dani. I actually go by Dani these days.” 

These days, like it’s been ten years instead of one. These days, so much grief and fear and love and joy packed into twelve months, she almost can’t comprehend it. Is she really the same woman who packed her bags in secret? Is she really the one who stood as tall as she could at a funeral in a black dress she hadn’t the heart to bring when she ran?

Is she, in fact, her--lonely, beastly, incapable of peace?

Jamie’s hand flexes once, a stroke of her thumb along Dani’s knuckles bringing her home. She draws a shuddering breath. 

“It’s been a long time,” she repeats. “There are...things we could talk about. Stories. If you want. Some of them, I should have...told you a long time ago.”

Judy, looks for a moment, taken aback. Looks, for a moment, like she has been handed a script so far from the one she’s memorized, she might not make it back into the scene at all. 

“Dani,” she says, turning the syllables over in her mouth. “Of course. Dani and--and Jamie.” Her mouth trembles, just once. The name, Dani understands, is so close. Those ie sounds, running parallel. So close, and so different. 

“We don’t have to,” Dani says. “If you’re busy.” If you can’t. I understand can’t. I understand not being able to let something like this in. “I probably should have called--”

“Don’t,” Judy says thickly. Stops. Swallows hard. “Don’t be silly. I’m--I’m just about to start dinner, if you’d like to stay?”

Stay, she doesn’t add, and tell me your stories.

Stay, she doesn’t add, and let me in to this room you always kept so carefully locked.

Stay, she doesn’t add, because we need each other, just a little bit. Maybe just this one last time. 

“Both of you,” Judy adds, when Dani hesitates. There is an understanding in her eyes--and a bewilderment, too--the two warring as she gazes at their profiles standing side by side on this too-small porch. “Jamie. It’s...it’s wonderful to...”

She can’t quite finish. Dani suspects she can’t quite lie. Because maybe it is wonderful to meet Jamie--or maybe it will be--but there is something cruel about asking a mother to gaze into the eyes of a woman who might never have crossed their paths if not for a horrible accident. A sudden tragedy. A grief Judy simply cannot release. 

There is something cruel about asking Judy to look upon Jamie now, but there’s something cruel about asking Dani to carry him forever, too. About asking Dani to shelve her heart in favor of her pain. She won’t do that, not anymore, not for Judy or anyone. There’s no telling how much time she has left, and she will not sacrifice a moment of it being someone she isn’t. 

“It’s okay,” Jamie says quietly. It isn’t entirely clear which of them she’s speaking to, as her fingers tighten around Dani’s, her shoulders angled back, her mouth turned up in that tiny smile that says, This isn’t about me. Jamie, who’d be anyone Dani needs right now. Jamie, who only wants to provide company. Jamie, who knows enough of the story to understand this will not be easy--and genuinely does not mind. 

Dani can see it. She thinks Judy can, too, even as her throat works around a sob. Her eyes are wet, darting from one face to the other. Something seems to solidify in her next breath, drawn deep, let out slowly. 

“Please,” she says, gesturing again for them to follow her in. “Stay.”

“We would love to,” Dani says, and Jamie’s hand does not slide, does not twitch, does not abandon her for even a moment as, together, they step into the house.

Chapter Text

It’s such a stupid fight, Jamie thinks even as they’re having it. Such a stupid argument, she doesn’t quite know what kicked it off. Months and months on the road with Dani, months and months of learning all the little particulars of her--taste in music, dislike for repetitive tapping sounds, unpredictable sense of humor, awful propensity for replicating in private the accent of whatever state they’ve landed in today--and never once did they argue. Not really. She was beginning to think they never would--that Dani’s peculiar burden, her own peculiar resistance to logic, would keep them both safe from that which befalls all couples.

Silly. Silly to imagine, with the lovesick eyes of that honeymoon stage, and sillier now. The Dani she’d been met with at the start had been alternately strange and sad, hopeful and haunted, but she’d always been new. There’s a certain sweet charm that comes with novelty, making even the most irritating traits shine. Everything can be wiped clean with a kiss, when it’s new, or with wandering hands, or with a well-timed joke.

But months fade into more, and before she knows it, there’s nearly a year behind them. A year of them. A year of Dani’s smile growing stronger, of Dani’s hands shaking less, of her own belief that this is...good. Better than she could have imagined, letting her guard down. Better than anything she’s ever been granted in her life.

And now: 

Now a fight. Stupid. Small. Not like the closest they’ve come before now--Dani rolling her eyes at Jamie’s inability to make a bed, Jamie scoffing over Dani’s oddball methods of sorting laundry--but...stupid, nonetheless. She’d been tired. She’d snipped. Dani, unexpectedly, had snipped back.

And suddenly, they were arguing. Genuinely, for the first time, arguing--about Jamie’s tendency to shut doors, about Dani’s irreparable need to feign a smile. Both of them spotting that urge in the other which is so easily reflected in a mirror: to fix at all costs. To close off paths to darkness. To make it better, even if it means doing it in silence, or doing it alone.

Dani says, “If you’re going to keep walking away in the middle of a conversation--”

Jamie says, “Well, it’s not like you’re talking--”

It’s stupid. It’s silly. It shouldn’t be happening at all. Tired, she thinks. Tired, and it’s been raining for days, and the shop hasn’t been pulling the customers they’d expected this quarter. Dani has been quieter lately, it’s true, though not the way she’d been those first few weeks. Not the quiet of miserable baggage. Not the simple weariness of looking into the jungle for the eyes of a beast. 

Jamie can understand that. Jamie’s gotten good already at searching out those moments, at taking Dani’s hand--or leaving her to her peace--as needed. 

This, the normal of it all. This, she isn’t ready for. She’s never had a normal relationship, exactly; there had been bone shards and broken promises in the last one, and secrets tucked carefully away, and smiles that never met bright eyes. There had been a lot to unpack, to offer up on the altar of her own dignity. But normalcy? The normal edge of a woman’s voice when she’s just too tired to say the right thing? The normal cut of her own words when she’s just too off to play diplomat in response?

It’s new, and it’s weird, and it sits badly in her chest when Dani throws up her hands and says, “This isn’t getting us anywhere. I need a minute.”

She watches her stalk away, down the hall to the bedroom. Dani doesn’t slam the door. It almost makes it harder; if she’d done that, the intention behind the act would be clear, impossible to miss. If she’d done that, Jamie could piece it together: a shut door means keep out, means stay away, means don’t follow. 

The Dani who wakes from shuddering nightmares always wants her close.

The Dani who’d just shaken her head in exasperation? She can’t be sure.

A part of her wonders if this isn’t all her fault--if it’s the mark of a bad day she should have seen coming. She’s better about this, normally. She’s better at all of this. The woman who had just snipped and sliced, whose smile had been bitter-edged, isn’t unrecognizable; she’d known her so well from a year-old mirror. The woman who had threatened violence at every irritation. The woman who had grown thorns to prevent her own puncture wounds. Not a woman she’s ever been with Dani, really, but do these shadow parts of a self ever die? Has she tricked herself--tricked them both--into believing Dani’s love was enough to bury thirty years of habit in the ground?

Dani hasn’t shut the door, but she hasn’t come slinking back out with apology in her voice, either. And maybe that’s as it should be. Maybe that’s right. Hadn’t it been Jamie who had started it? She can’t be sure--there’s a strange fog around the conversation, an adrenaline-pumping, threat-level-high intoxication eating away at the memory already. Anger has a way of banishing good sense, and all detail along with it. Maybe she hadn’t started it, but she sure hadn’t let it die with a single snide remark.

And now, she thinks, sitting on the edge of the couch with a spreading unease, Dani can see. For good, for real, the bits of her she’d managed to hide away for a year. Dani can see the part of her she’d tried so hard to keep leashed since a meltdown in a rose garden.

Dani can see it, and doesn’t Dani carry enough? Isn’t Dani tired enough, without this added burden of someone else’s anger?

It’s not...peaceful. It’s rage. She shakes her head, presses a hand to her mouth, remembering the shiver in Dani’s voice. And maybe this hadn’t been rage, exactly--neither of them yelling, neither throwing things or landing harsh blows--but it hadn’t been peace, either. It leaves a sour taste in her mouth, a tremble in her legs, how little like them the evening has felt.

The door is open, but she can’t hear Dani moving around. Maybe she’s gone to bed. Maybe she’s decided enough is enough for one night. 

All right. It’s one night. What’s one night? There will be others--probably. Never any certainty to a thing like that, but she’s as near to sure as she can be. There will be other nights, and they’ll talk it through, but...not now. Not with Dani having left her here. Not with Dani sitting silent in the other room, probably letting her own anger twist around her like a shroud. 

The couch isn’t so bad. The knit blanket is too light for the spring chill, maybe, and the throw pillow is too small beneath her head, but she’s had worse. Years on a prison cot, for one. In comparison, this couch is paradise. 

A quiet paradise. 

A quiet, miserable paradise.

She exhales, reaching to switch off the lamp. One night. Admittedly, sleeping alone for the first time in a year feels wrong--incredible, how quickly she’s come to rely on the pressure of Dani’s arm around her middle, the soft brush of Dani’s breath against her shoulder--but she had started it. She’s almost certain now. She’d started it, and Dani had rightly left her to think on her mistake. Dani had rightly walked away and left her to mull it all over.

It works. It has always worked. Worked just fine back then, leaving a shadowed greenhouse for a few days to get her head on straight. Maybe Dani’s right about that tendency to shut doors, to lick her wounds in private. Maybe Dani’s right that it’s a habit too ingrown to break.

Probably. 

She’s too aware of everything--the breeze through the cracked window, the hum of the refrigerator, each creak-and-settle of the walls around her--in the dark. Too aware of how small she feels, stretched out beneath a thin blanket, her hands folded awkwardly on her stomach. Too aware of the way Dani had thrown up her hands, headed back down the hall, left her to pace the cage of her own stupid anger alone.

What was she even so upset about? That Dani had...what? Looked at her askance? Shaken her head? Not quite modulated her tone, and come out sounding as though the business taking a bit of a dip is Jamie’s fault? Dani hadn’t meant it like that. She’s sure neither of them had really meant any of it like it had come out--that, sometimes, words and tone get all muddied up and blow holes in things that ought to be strong enough to withstand any attack. Hadn’t they been over it and over it in therapy? That she needs to stop and breathe and calculate the intent, not the impact, of a person’s behavior?

Intent: mild irritation. A bad mood. Offense taken and dealt without really looking.

Impact: Dani in the bedroom. Her on the couch. Sleeping apart for the first time since leaving Bly. 

She closes her eyes. Tries to breathe. Tries to remember what it was like sleeping alone, all those months ago. Tries to remember how naturally it had come, stepping back from the others, going home to her own flat. 

That woman feels even further away than the one who’d used anger as armor. That woman feels too far to reach. 

“What are you doing?”

She jumps. Dani is standing in the hall, backlit by the bedroom light. Her expression is washed out, unreadable. 

“Sleeping,” Jamie says in a voice not quite calm, not quite stable. Dani makes a thin noise.

“On the couch?”

“You--” She sits up, clutching the blanket for support. “You said you needed space.”

“I said...” Dani takes a step nearer, and another. Her brows are drawn, Jamie can see now, her arms wrapped around herself as though for warmth. “I said I needed a minute.”

“Right.” This doesn’t feel like them. This feels even less like them than the argument had--because that, at least, had been petty and dumb. This feels too much like open water, uncharted, unexpectedly deep. “Wanted to respect that.”

“By sleeping on the couch.” Dani has stopped, still hugging herself, just out of reach. Jamie gropes up for the lamp, switching it on without looking. 

“Well...yeah. You said--”

“A minute, Jamie.” Is it her imagination, or is Dani trying not to smile? “You thought a minute meant the whole night?”

She doesn’t answer. Her throat is suddenly tight. Dani is looking at her, not with irritation, not with a fed-up grimace, but with a burgeoning smile. 

“Haven’t you ever had a weird spat with a girlfriend before?” 

Not trusting herself to speak, Jamie shakes her head. Not one like you. Not one carrying too much to manage. Not one I’ve fallen in--

“Well--neither have I, I guess.” Dani is almost grinning now, though there’s something jumpy about her eyes. Something like she’s trying, even now, to hide behind old habits. “That was...that was weird, right?”

“It was,” says Jamie carefully. She’s too off-kilter to read between the lines of Dani’s rictus grin. Too unbalanced to see what Dani is really trying to ask.

“It was weird,” Dani repeats, as if trying to convince herself. “And weird happens. Weird doesn’t mean...weird doesn’t mean we...”

Ah. There it is. She may have lain out here staring at the ceiling, parsing out her own guilt, but Dani was in there doing something worse. Dani was in that bedroom trying to determine how much of that fight was even her--and how much, maybe, belonged to a particularly weighty ghost.

She unfolds from the couch slowly, not sure if Dani is quite ready to be touched. She’s rocking a little, Jamie can see now, back and forth on her heels. Like she’s trying desperately to hold together. Like she’s coming ever-closer to unwinding. 

“Fights happen,” Jamie says. “Dumb ones, more’n most. I’m sorry for starting it.”

“You didn’t,” Dani says. “Did you?”

Her grin is loosening a little, the struts falling out along the way. In a minute, the whole thing is going to come down, and the expression waiting beneath will--Jamie suspects--look an awful lot like a woman freshly haunted. 

“I don’t know,” she says honestly, taking a hesitant step closer. “Does it matter? Sorry either way.”

“Me too,” Dani says, her voice small. “It was a--a bad day.”

“Yeah.” Her fingers are twitching at her sides, itching to reach out. Dani glances from her face to her hand, her smile flickering at last. 

“Can you, um. Can you come to bed anyway? Even if it’s not okay. Even if we’re--”

“We’re okay,” Jamie says, and knows it. Stupid, petty arguments full of bitter, petty words mean so little when stacked up to how Dani makes her feel. Even on bad nights, Dani makes her feel safer than anyone she’s ever known. 

She hopes Dani can say the same. Is determined, if Dani can’t yet, to make sure she leaves that exact legacy on Dani’s life. Safe. Secure. Loved. 

Dani is reaching out, pulling her close, her breath fast and sharp. “Can we make it a rule?” she asks into Jamie’s shoulder, her forehead pressing down hard. 

“What? Never go to bed angry?”

“Never go to bed apart.” With every stroke of Jamie’s hand across her hair, she seems to settle a little more. Seems to breathe a little easier. “You can be angry, I can’t--we can’t always help that. But come to bed anyway. Kiss me goodnight anyway. Can we make that promise?”

She sounds uncertain, and Jamie knows she’s remembering a final conversation with another person she’d loved. A last she hadn’t known was such until it was too late to take back. There hadn’t been room for forgiveness there, or apology, or a goodnight kiss. 

“Promise,” Jamie says, and knows it’s one she’ll keep faithfully to the end. However long they get. However much time. If they fight once a year or once a month, it won’t matter. Never go to bed apart. That’s doable. It’s the least she can do. 

“Does this mean,” Dani asks, voice muffled, “we’re official now?”

“Officially what?”

Dani shrugs one shoulder. She seems unwilling to remove her face from Jamie’s shoulder, to pull free of Jamie’s embrace. “I dunno. Isn’t this what real couples do? Argue?”

“Maybe.” She’s not sure either of them is standing on firm enough ground to say what real couples do, or don’t do, or shouldn’t do. She’s not sure relationships have enough ground rules to be drawn out and catalogued as such. 

What she is sure of is how Dani makes her feel. That she has, over the past months, been stepping closer and closer to a line. That she will, soon enough, tip over it into something that looks an awful lot like always

She could say it now. It might soothe Dani, to hear the words for the first time. But it wouldn’t feel quite right. Wouldn’t be quite what Dani deserves. It can wait. 

“I don’t think that part matters,” she says instead. “The arguing. I think the part that counts is what comes after.”

“Where I can’t stand five more minutes without you hugging me?” Dani sounds shaky, embarrassed. Jamie grips her a little tighter.

“That even when you want to throttle me, you still want me in that bed more.”

That, she thinks, is the mark of a relationship. Of their relationship, at least. Not the bickering. Not the silliness or the pettiness. The desire to make it right again as soon as it’s over. 

“Don’t like fighting with you,” Dani says. Jamie gives her a gentle shake. 

“I do hear it improves the sex.”

“I like the sex,” Dani says, almost sullenly, and Jamie laughs. 

“Well then. No reason to change things, is there?”

Chapter Text

She’s lost Flora. 

There is, Dani thinks with the forced calm of one already beginning to spiral, little cause to panic. The house is big, but it’s not that big--and Flora is a good kid. She’s not exactly prone to just wandering off. She certainly wouldn’t, say, vanish from sight and reappear somewhere unexpected, suddenly acting like she didn’t entirely remember the time in between.

That doesn’t sound like Flora at all.

She isn’t running, per se, from room to room. Running would suggest there is a problem to be handled, and if she starts thinking along those lines--if she starts obsessing about Flora’s distinctly off-putting way of gazing over her shoulder, of saying things just a little too odd to be hand-waved away, of looking at Dani as though she can see straight through her to the unease thrumming under the surface--well. That way lies nothing useful. Nothing at all.

“Have you seen Flora?” The kitchen had seemed a good bet. Here, after all, is Owen, puttering away over the ingredients for the evening’s meal, his mood somber as he uses the manor to avoid reflecting on his mother’s upcoming funeral. Here is Hannah, dutifully rearranging the china, pretending not to steal glances at Owen’s lanky frame every few seconds. That spot at the table is made for Flora, little legs hanging off the chair, brimming with questions--

But Flora isn’t there, and Owen is shaking his head. 

“Not since lunch. Lost her, have you?”

No, she almost snaps. A count of three, a long-held breath; she smiles tightly, reminding herself that this is not Owen’s fault, nor Owen’s job. The children will be your responsibility alone, after all. 

“She’s quick,” she says instead. Hannah purses her lips.

“Perhaps upstairs with Miles?”

She isn’t. Miles, bent over a book with a solemn expression, blinks up at her as though she’s dragged him by the shirt collar out of the actual wardrobe to Narnia. 

“She asked me to color--what time is it?”

“Two,” Dani says, sparing the briefest glance for her watch. He shrugs. 

“An hour ago, I think? I told her to ask Hannah.” A flash of concern crosses his face, a too-adult creasing of brow. “Was that wrong? I just wanted to finish my book--”

“It’s fine,” Dani assures him, ruffling his hair. Too-adult, his expression may be, but this is the most kid she’s seen Miles in days. The last thing she wants is to dissuade him from reading, or from the loose sprawl of his posture. 

An hour, though. In the days since coming to Bly, Dani can’t remember twenty minutes passing without Flora turning up underfoot. 

Outside, she thinks with another swell of barely-restrained panic. She’s outside. By the lake, probably, where Flora can so often be found keeping company with dolls and talismans and snatches of ethereal song. 

It isn’t exactly a reassuring thought, particularly with summer rain sluicing down the windows, scattering over the roof like pellets. A storm, it isn’t, but an eight-year-old girl has no business wandering in weather like this. 

You'd have loved it, at her age, Dani reminds herself. There’s nothing at all wrong with a little girl puddle-jumping for the sheer joy of it. Flora probably got bored, cooped up with a bunch of busy adults and her brother uninterested in playing games. She’s fine. She’s almost certainly fine.

An umbrella is waiting beside the door, still damp from Owen’s trip in before breakfast. Dani takes a breath, pops it open, steels herself for the brisk wind. 

The grounds are gray, the puddles turning the grass to a squelchy mess beneath her shoes. She keeps her head up, her eyes carefully turned away from the puddles which sit like recklessly-dropped mirrors at every turn; if she so much as glances down and spots a flash of glasses, she’s not sure she’ll be able to keep her composure. 

Flora is not by the lake, as it turns out. Nor the statue gardens. Nor the rose bushes. Flora is nowhere, she’s starting to think, and her mind is finally turning toward the worst--toward the depth of that lake, how easily a small girl might slip off the embankment and tumble headlong into its hungry waves without notice--when she remembers the greenhouse.

Jamie will help. The thought rises without warning, a solid patch of sunlight at the center of the storm. Jamie will help--because Jamie knows every corner of these grounds as well as her own hands. Jamie, who maybe doesn’t know Dani all that well, but didn’t seem to mind offering gentle reassurance, exchanging unexpectedly deep conversation on the couch...or Dani taking her hand in the dark. Jamie, who had said, Who the hell knew? Jamie, who had worn an expression a little like awe.

They haven’t had time to talk about it since, but even so. Even so, for Flora, Jamie is sure to--

She hesitates at the door, fist raised to knock. It feels foolish, rapping on the entry to a greenhouse like it’s Jamie’s own bedroom--but this is, she reasons, as close to Jamie’s home as she’s ever likely to get. 

“Jamie, are you...”

“Here,” her voice comes from somewhere just out of sight. Dani takes a cautious step in out of the rain, jostling the umbrella and pulling it hastily shut. Best not to invite bad luck--she’s certainly already had her share. 

“I’m looking for Flora,” she calls, feeling a bit silly. There’s so much going on in this room--plants and tables, pots and a variety of outdoor furniture draped with old blankets. Normally, Jamie is easy to spot amid the riot of greens and pinks, her hands busy coaxing seedlings to life. Today, Dani feels as though she’s tripped and fallen into a game of hide and seek. 

“Don’t have to look far,” Jamie’s voice comes again--from behind the sofa, Dani thinks. “C’mere.”

“Miss Clayton!” Flora pipes up, and Dani feels the tension leave her body in a violent rush. Her hand grips the nearest table for support, her eyes closing in relief. “Come color with us”

“Come--sorry?” She can’t have heard right. Jamie? Jamie the gardener, putting aside work and temper to waste an afternoon on crayons?

Yes--yes, that appears to be exactly what Jamie is doing. Sprawled on her stomach, still dressed in her coveralls, she’s got a blue crayon in hand and a green one tucked behind her ear. She glances up as Dani steps nearer, a smile lighting her face. 

“Kid came stumbling in out of the rain an hour ago. Expect she didn’t think to warn you in advance?”

“Sorry.” Flora offers a sheepish smile, sitting up quickly. “Are you very cross?”

“No, of course not.” Just going to need a minute to purge the image of finding you facedown in the goddamned lake, is all. “Next time, though, you’ll have to tell me you’re leaving the house alone. I need to know where you are at all times, Flora.”

She expects Jamie to scoff at this--to say, Ah, she was with me, she’s fine. Instead, Jamie stretches over to land a sharp flick on Flora’s upper arm. 

“Rude to make Poppins worry. Look, she’s gone all pink.” She looks up at Dani, grinning. “Not a bad look, if we’re in the market for honesty.”

Dani suspects pink is the lightest shade she can manage, with Jamie gazing at her that way. It’s too easy, all of a sudden, to remember an unexpectedly soft hand under her own fingers, Jamie turning reflexively at the wrist to hold her back. 

“I’m terribly sorry,” Flora says, a phrase Dani is starting to think is more Flora than even perfectly splendid. “Here--I was just about to do one of you!”

Jamie gestures with the blue crayon, a silent suggestion for Dani to sit beside her. “Might as well. Rain doesn’t look like it’s letting up anytime soon.” She lowers her voice, eyes fixed on Flora’s determined rummage through the crayon box. “Sorry about that, Poppins. Know she’s been unpredictable lately, didn’t like the idea of her stumping around in the cold. If I’d known you were worried--”

“It’s all right.” In truth, she’s glad Flora made her way out here. Growing more pleased by the moment with this development, really, as Jamie slides a blank sheet of paper in front of her and presses a purple crayon into her hand. 

“Join us. We’re doing portraiture.”

“I can see that,” Dani laughs. Jamie’s handiwork speaks of a distinct lack of care for detail--each sketch on her page is, at best, a stick figure with a single defining feature. “How does Owen hold up his head, carrying a mustache the size of his torso?”

“With minimal decorum,” Jamie says, grinning. “And she’s right, it’s your turn.”

Dani suspects she’s going less pink, more a volatile shade of maroon, with both parties squinting at her face, their papers, her face again. Flora is doing her very best work, taking several minutes just to select the closest shades of blue, yellow, pink. Jamie makes an enormous production of holding up a crayon, closing one eye, gauging proportions--and then, cheerfully, scrawling a figure identical to the other four already on the page. 

“I’m taller than Hannah?” Dani asks, unable to resist a giggle. Jamie frowns.

“Ah, you’re...standin’ on a crate.” She adds a box beneath Dani’s non-existent feet with a flourish, nodding. “There. It’s symbolic.”

“Of what?”

“I’ve ranked you all on how much I like you. Takin’ into account, of course, certain accusations pointed my way regarding mud and shiny floorboards.” Jamie winks. Dani finds herself gripping her crayon almost hard enough to hurt. 

“You’re not drawing, Miss Clayton!” Flora observes. Dani glances away from Jamie’s smile--a difficult act only a few days ago, nearly impossible now--and clears her throat. 

“Well. Maybe just until the rain stops.”

There are, she thinks as a comfortable quiet settles over the greenhouse, infinitely worse ways to spend her afternoon. 

Chapter Text

Does it count as a date, Jamie wonders, when we’ve not been apart in four months? Hard to imagine, but it’s true--the time has very much gotten away from her in Dani’s company. Not that she’s complaining. Not that she can find much at all to complain about, with Dani at her side.

Nervous, Dani may be. Uneasy about planning for the future. Sometimes, she turns her head and finds Dani gazing back with a chillingly blank expression, and thinks, She’s going. She’s going already. 

And then Dani will blink, and she’ll smile, and Jamie can’t fathom how she’d ever thought the worst. Even for a second. There is so much life to Dani--different now than the woman who had pulled her close in a hallway, maybe, but full of life all the same. Dani’s eyes are different these days, beyond her newfound heterochromia, and her dreams are darker, but she is in all other ways the most alive person Jamie’s ever known. 

Particularly the way she tends to stare.

“What?” Jamie asks, grinning. There’s a certain steady pleasure to this moment, how Dani’s eyes snap to her the second she enters a room. “Why are you looking at me like...”

She hesitates. Like you want to take a bite. She doubts Dani would respond well to that phrasing. Four months in, Dani still tends to dart away from her when caught staring, her posture tightening up. Blatantly pointing out exactly what her face is doing just now is sure to send her into a mild tailspin.

And yet--hard to deny the truth of it. Dani, perched on the edge of the couch they’ve only recently hauled up the stairs to this very-new apartment, is gaping at her like she didn’t expect Jamie to even be home, much less stepping out of the bathroom. The surprise is etched into every angle of her, partnered with something Jamie is inclined to call naked desire. 

Bit much, she thinks, heartbeat increasing tempo, but if it walks like a fuckin’ duck...

“Like what?” Dani is shaking her head, smoothing out her skirt, fingers tightening around the fabric like she doesn’t entirely trust her own hands. “I’m not lookin’ at you any special way.”

She’s right about that much--if only because Dani has a tendency to look at her this way always. Doesn’t matter where they are, or who’s around, or how Jamie’s dressed. Turtleneck, battered jeans, or this, her eyes always darken the exact same way. Her jaw tenses, her tongue flicking out to wet her lips, and every single time, Jamie thinks, No one. No one has ever looked at me like...

Like it’s second nature. Like she’s been doing it all her life. Like Dani has forgotten how to even begin to tame her own expression, so long as Jamie is standing in front of her.

She’d be lying if she said she didn’t like it.

“I didn’t even know you kept a dress,” Dani says. She’s still staring just over Jamie’s shoulder, as though the only thing holding her in check is the blank wall.

“Didn’t,” Jamie says. “Recent acquisition.”

To see what would happen, she doesn’t add. To see if it would make a difference to the way Dani looks at her like she can’t get enough. A part of her can’t forget how Dani had lit up the day of the funeral, as though the sight of dress and lipstick and flirtatious little grin had been powerful enough to keep the monsters at bay.

Truer than Jamie could have realized, then. Still true now, she thinks, as Dani slowly rises and allows her gaze to take in the full picture once more. Dani is, she can tell, being as careful as she can. Dani is trying not to be too much. Like they haven’t been spending endless hours together, strolling through states, watching the seasons change. Like they haven’t spent all these weeks learning one another in motel rooms, and--as of very recently, in this flat. Like Dani is still, somehow, embarrassed by her own inclinations. 

It’s okay, she wants to say. You can look. You can do anything you like. Dani believes it, in the dark. Dani believes it when it’s Jamie at the wheel, guiding her hands. She believes Jamie wants her then--naked and pressed into a mattress, under the pulse of a hot shower, even in the backseat of a car. There are places, Dani seems to think, where she is allowed to want and be wanted.

But Jamie has to start it. Jamie has to expressly grant permission. Somehow, Dani still hasn’t quite realized it is her want--wherever it comes, whenever it comes--Jamie most prizes. 

Look, she thinks. Touch. Do what you want. No one’s ever told Dani that before. No one’s ever been able to make her believe it. Understandable; some things can’t be resolved a few months in. Some trunks have been locked too long.

She offers her arm, pleased when Dani hooks a hand through the bend of her elbow. “Shall we?”

Dani glances at her, glances away again, swallows. For a moment, Jamie wonders if she might tilt them back against the front door, taking the date off the table entirely. Wouldn’t be so bad. Would, in fact, be a glorious way to spend an evening with this woman.

But date was the plan, and date Dani seems committed to. Even as her fingers trace the soft skin of Jamie’s wrist. Even as her hip presses lightly to Jamie’s own. Even as they make their way to the restaurant, to a table near the back, and order. 

“This feels strange,” Dani says quietly. “Being out like this.”

“We go out all the time,” Jamie points out, knowing what she means. Knowing there’s a difference between lounging in a booth for dinner and going out like this--hair up, makeup done, Dani trying so hard not to take her in with hungry eyes. Is it really a date if you’re always together anyway? It would appear the answer is very much yes.

And it would appear Dani is just as out of practice with the whole idea as she is. Her hands are twining on the tablecloth, her head bent. Every so often, her eyes flick up to Jamie’s face, and it’s like having a campfire turned directly against her skin.

“You can do that,” Jamie says after the third or fourth time. She can feel herself grinning--the old flirtatious good humor, which has grown to encompass so many private moments. She may not be able to resist Dani’s big doe eyes, but Dani’s never been good at turning away from this particular breed of smile, either. Well-matched. And fucking lucky. 

 “Do what?” Dani isn’t feigning innocence, she’s sure. Dani is genuinely trying not to do this very thing. Dani is trying to be polite, and proper, and in public, and Jamie’s heart clenches a little to think of how often she’s done the exact same thing with any number of women she’d felt she couldn’t even glance at.

“Look at me,” she says. Dani’s eyes rise, her lip pulling between her teeth. “You can do that. However long you like.”

“We’re in--”

“It’s just looking.” Jamie smiles. “No one can stop you.”

Dani shifts in her seat, fingers knotting together. Jamie would bet her life she’s gripping her own hands that tightly to keep from reaching across the table.

“I don’t mean to.” Dani pauses. Smiles a little. “I don’t mean to look at you like--like I--”

“Want me?”

Dani makes a small noise under her breath, something Jamie suspects might be a groan. She laughs. 

“Poppins, you do know the idea of a date.”

Yes.” Dani has this predictable way of huffing words out in irritation when she’s embarrassed. It’s entirely distracting in its own right. “But you’re--I’m not--”

Jamie waits. Things like this take time, she reminds herself. Things like this are not instantaneous. What Dani is comfortable doing--being--in private might never quite look the same out in the world. That’s all right. What matters is that Dani gets to choose. That Dani knows she’s allowed to.

“I don’t own you,” Dani says in a low voice at last. She’s looking Jamie in the eye now, and there’s so much happening on her face--an embarrassed pull of her mouth coming up hard against the heat of her gaze. “I don’t want you to feel like I’m always ten seconds from...from...”

“Tearing my clothes off?” She can’t keep the amusement out of her voice, and suspects it’s the only thing holding Dani here. That, if she were to say the same sentence with no humor at all, Dani might actually burst into flames right over the nearly-full wine glasses. “Can’t see a problem with that.”

Jamie.” It’s nearly a whisper. She sounds so ashamed, even as her eyes flick from painted mouth to the low cut of the dress’ neckline. 

“It’s not ownership, wanting the person you’re with,” Jamie says, as gently as she can. “It’s...welcome. Very.”

“We’re in public,” Dani repeats in a strangled sort of voice. “And you’re wearing that, and I...”

“Do you like it?” 

Dani nods, very quickly. Jamie glances around, and, finding the waiter absent, slides a hand beneath the table to cover her knee. 

“I like that you like it. Might surprise you, but I did put it on because I hoped you’d like it.”

Dani swallows. Her leg is rising and falling in an unsteady tattoo under Jamie’s palm, the skirt riding precariously up her thigh. Jamie smiles. 

“You are allowed,” she says, “to look. And to tell me what you think. And, shocking though it might be, to respond according to what you want. I like that you want me.”

“I know,” Dani says, in the kind of voice that says she doesn’t entirely believe it, even now. Jamie shakes her head. 

“No, don’t think you get it. It is the best goddamn part of my day, watching you watch me. Knowing you’re thinking what I’m thinking. It’s...” She hesitates, her thumb stroking along Dani’s kneecap. “There’s nothing wrong with it. Or you.”

Dani is breathing a little less sharply with every pass of her thumb, her cheeks pink. She closes her eyes--and then, with the air of a woman turning a particularly stubborn key, opens them again. It is the memory of the funeral dress turned up to eleven. It is the moment she’d stepped out of the bathroom doubled, tripled, almost too much to stand in the middle of a populated restaurant. 

It is perfect. 

“See,” Jamie says, taking her hand back and settling it beside her fork. “That. With me, you never have to tone that down.”

“I do,” Dani mumbles. “I really do.”

“Why?”

“Because,” Dani says, leaning across the table, her voice pitched dangerously low, “we haven’t even been served yet, and I want to drag you home already.”

Jamie grins. “Going that poorly, would you say?”

She’s a little surprised Dani doesn’t kick her under the table.

She’s not surprised at all when Dani’s hand appears on her own thigh, intentionally driving her dress up. Dani is, she’s pleased to find, grinning. 

“Ah,” she says breathlessly, “now you’ve got the idea.”

Chapter Text

Jamie has a surprising number of freckles. Not that it’s Dani’s business what hidden secrets are stamped into her skin. Not that Dani needs to be looking at her skin at all. 

Not that she can help it, either, with Jamie doing things like this. 

“You look warm, Miss Clayton,” Hannah points out, depositing a tray upon the little table with an arch smile. “Perhaps you’d like to take a leaf out of our groundskeeper’s book?”

Dani shoots her a sharp look, remembering just in time two very important details: one, that she has only known Hannah for two months, and therefore is not quite at the slapping at her arm in frustration stage of friendship; and two, that Hannah does not know what’s going on in her head every time Jamie’s around.

Hannah might suspect with the certainty of a particularly clever detective breaking down a fourth-grader’s criminal activity, but she does not know, and that has to count for something.

“She doesn’t--usually do this.” Heaven help her, was that her voice? Her voice, which is generally high and quick and never tinged with that particularly raw shade? 

“She does when it’s hot enough.” Hannah sounds entirely unimpressed. “Every time, I have to spend half the afternoon explaining to Flora why she’s required to keep all her clothes on.”

Someone should probably have that talk with Jamie, Dani thinks wildly. Someone should definitely explain to Jamie, in no uncertain terms, how dangerous it is for her to be waltzing around the grounds in overalls and a sports bra, her hair pulled out of her face. Someone should definitely get across to Jamie how it is utterly distracting, and not the least bit professional for someone like Dani--who is a co-worker, who is meant to be keeping children out of trouble, and has somehow found it’s much harder to keep herself out of it instead--to deal with.

“Water,” Hannah advises. “Before you keel over. Would you like me to tell her it’s making you uncomfortable?”

Judging by the raised brow, the tilt of Hannah’s smile, the barely-restrained note of amusement in her voice, it’s clear she knows uncomfortable isn't exactly the word. Dani shakes her head. 

“No. I’m. I’m fine.”

“Ah,” Jamie says cheerfully, right on cue. “Hannah, my love, you are a godsend.”

She’s just there, pressed nearly to Dani’s back, reaching over for a glass of ice water. She’s there, and her skin is rosy with the lightest sunburn, and Dani thought Hannah was being cheeky about the whole keeling over jab, but on second thought--

“All right, Poppins?” Jamie’s free hand has wound around her forearm, she realizes. Jamie is looking at her with mild concern, she realizes. Probably because she is quite literally swaying in place.

“Hot,” she croaks. There are freckles on Jamie’s hand, too--and wrist, splashed at random up her arm. There are more than a few on the bare curve of her shoulder. She’s still mentally tallying them up when Jamie presses her gently toward a chair. 

“Didn’t dress for it,” she observes, looking Dani over with worried eyes. “Should take off that jumper before it kills you.”

Have to keep it on, Dani thinks nonsensically--though, it’s true, she had dressed for the gray of this morning, not the heatwave the afternoon has become. Still. Have to keep it on, and maybe add a few more layers, besides, because she can’t let herself linger on what she might look like to Jamie otherwise.

Can’t linger on how Jamie’s eyes might drift over her skin if she were to strip down to a tank top and shorts. Can’t linger, worst of all, on how it might feel if Jamie were to pull her aside--

“Poppins?” Jamie is waving a hand up and down in front of her face. “Right, enough of this. With me.”

There’s a gentle command in her voice Dani finds herself following without thinking. She catches herself taking two steps away from the chair, pauses, stands there looking helplessly back at Hannah.

“I,” Hannah says magnanimously, “think I can manage the children. Go.”

“C’mon,” Jamie adds, and now her hand is in Dani’s somehow, her fingers tightening around Dani’s like this is the most normal use of her body. She gives a light pull, and Dani is suddenly trailing along at her heels, trying desperately not to stare at the back of her neck, the skin shining up from the break in denim at her side. 

Freckles, she thinks wildly. I shouldn’t know she has freckles. 

“You still with me?” Jamie is tugging her, she registers, toward the greenhouse. She gives a shaky nod. “Good. Would hate to have to give you mouth to mouth.”

“You don’t give mouth to mouth for sunstroke,” Dani replies in a voice she still doesn’t recognize. Jamie sends a smile over her shoulder.

“No? My mistake.”

It’s not flirting, Dani tells herself. Jamie is her co-worker, one who keeps to herself and doesn’t have any reason at all to flirt. Jamie is just being kind, worrying over her now, because Dani’s gone and lost her mind over skin and freckles and the spot at the back of Jamie’s neck that leads her brain helplessly into wonder what that tastes like territory--

“In,” Jamie says, gesturing to the door of the greenhouse. “Got a spare set of clothes you can borrow.”

“I have clothes,” Dani points out. Jamie laughs.

“I’ve seen your clothes. They’re not going to help today.”

“What’s wrong with my clothes?” This is good. This, a mild flush of irritation, distracts nicely from the way Jamie looks crouching beside a trunk Dani’s never noticed beneath one of the tables. 

It almost distracts from the way Jamie looks up at her, a teasing grin playing around her mouth. 

“They’re well and good,” she says, “for carting around after the little beasts. Here. Got nothin’ in pink, ‘m afraid.”

She’s holding up a white t-shirt with the sleeves shorn off--the frayed threads at the shoulders suggest Jamie cut them free herself, possibly in the middle of a workday--and a pair of denim shorts. Unable to find a polite method of declining, Dani accepts. 

“I’ll...just go up to the house to change, I guess--”

“Nah.” Jamie twists around, hands in her pockets, making a point of gazing off in the opposite direction. “Silly to waste the time. Go on, before Hannah thinks I’ve lured you off to commit a murder...”

It’d be kinder, some part of Dani thinks. Standing with Jamie’s clothes clamped against her chest, sweat creeping down the back of her neck, watching Jamie tip her head back and whistle, is entirely painful. 

Particularly when Jamie, evidently registering the lack of rustling fabric, chances a glance over her shoulder and adds, “Unless you need help there, Poppins?”

Dani grimaces. Jamie grins. For a moment, she thinks the rest of the afternoon will become this: staring at one another in a sweltering greenhouse, Jamie watching her like she knows exactly what Dani has been trying so hard not to think about lately.

Jamie smiling like she’s got no problem with Dani counting up all those freckles. 

“Okay, okay, turn around.” She heaves a sigh, waiting for Jamie to rotate back before hauling the sweater over her head. It’s impossible to deny the relief that floods in the minute she’s free of it, and how much better Jamie’s shirt feels against her sticky skin. 

The same cannot be said for the shorts.

“You’ve got to be kidding,” she says before she can stop herself. They are, admittedly, nearly the same height and close enough in build for most things--but does Jamie really wear these? 

“Only when it’s this fuckin’ hot,” Jamie says, still facing the other way. Dani closes her eyes. “Ah, you didn’t mean to say that part out loud, did you?”

“Just--they’re so--” They’re not shorts, she thinks, trying to tug down the hem. They’re like two tiny squares of fabric haphazardly stitched together. The pockets are longer than the pants themselves, for Christ’s sake. “You wear these around people?”

“Just the ones I like,” Jamie says idly, and Dani hates herself a little for being disappointed she’s never seen them before. 

“I can’t face Hannah like this, she’ll laugh herself sick.”

Jamie, at last, twists at the waist. Her eyes drift down Dani’s frame, her lips parting slightly. 

“They, um. Feel less short when they’re on me.”

Dani is going to combust, and then there will be nothing to worry about. No freckles. No shorts. Certainly not the drag of Jamie’s eyes up her legs. Dani combusts here and now, and gets out of all of it almost painlessly.

“No, hey.” Jamie is closing the gap between them, reaching out. Her hands find Dani’s, prying her clawing fingers away from the hem of the shorts. “If you feel weird, you can put your jeans back on. Was only trying to...to help.”

Her voice has gone weirdly slack, Dani registers. Weirdly breathy. Her eyes are still wide, still fixed on Dani’s legs, a color rising in her cheeks that has little to do with her sunburn. 

“What?” Dani asks--less because she wants to know, and more because she can’t stand not knowing. Jamie’s fingers are soft around her own, her breath seeming to hitch in her chest.

“Nothing. You, ah. Have freckles.” Jamie gives her head a shake, blinking rapidly. Her hands fall away from Dani’s. “Never noticed before.”

She’s staring at Dani like she’s never seen her before, and Dani suddenly wonders what courage would look like in this sweltering room. If it would look like hooking a hand around the strap of Jamie’s overalls. If it would look like pulling Jamie in. Letting Jamie press her back against the nearest table. Letting Jamie’s fingers trace up beneath the hem of these ludicrously-short shorts. 

Courage, she thinks, would taste like sweat and mint, like freckles mapped under a curious tongue. It would sound like Jamie’s voice muffled against her neck, the snarl of a zipper lowering in an otherwise-silent jungle of glass and greenery, the thump of a shirt tossed recklessly to the ground--

“Right,” Jamie says, and swings back a step. Her smile is sitting crookedly on her lips, a funny little tilt that makes her look younger, somehow. “I should--should get back to work. Just. Just toss ‘em wherever.”

Courage, Dani thinks, wanting so badly to grasp her shoulder as she turns. She could. She could close her fingers around nearly-bare skin and sink her mouth against the back of Jamie’s neck. She could slide a hand up Jamie’s stomach, pull her backward, feel her tremble under a hungry kiss tattooed to the freckles at her nape. 

She could. 

If she were just a little braver. 

But Jamie is already walking away, one hand tousling her hair nearly out of its bun. Jamie is already walking away, faster than Dani’s ever seen her walk anywhere. 

You, ah. Have freckles, she’d said in a voice like a woman dreaming. Dani bites her lip. 

The shorts, she thinks, could have their uses after all.

Chapter Text

She never let them have pets. There isn't much Dani Clayton regrets--isn't much point, she's found, in the endless, boundless stretch of after--but sometimes, she does regret that much. Jamie always laughed it off, said she didn’t mind--What do I need pets for? Got more than enough to keep alive, thanks very much.--but Dani knew she’d never had animals growing up. Hadn’t stood still long enough for a cat, or a rabbit, or even fish. Maybe it’s true that you can’t miss what you never had, but she can’t help wondering if Jamie’s got some little puncture, deep down, that should have been filled with a big-hearted creature who would have put her first. 

And Dani, to her eternal chagrin, hadn’t been able to fill that. Hadn’t been able to allow herself that. The beast, she was sure, would someday rise, and it was bad enough to think of Jamie going without. Bad enough to imagine Jamie staring hollowly at the door, wishing for Dani’s key in the lock. What would a dog have done? What would an animal who had only ever wanted love and to be loved have thought, the day Dani inevitably left and could not return home again?

How she’d thought of it in life, anyway. Now, she’s aware of so much. Aware of time in a slipstream around her, of the immediacy of the past, the present, the future all bound up with gold-edged ribbon. She is Dani Clayton, eight years old and watching her father waste to nothing, and she is Dani Clayton, twenty-nine and watching Eddie laugh at their engagement party, and she is Dani Clayton, thirty-one and watching Jamie nervously place a moonflower on a counter. Forever, she is Dani Clayton--the lost little girl, the stubborn young woman, the beloved wife. 

And Jamie? Jamie does not yet understand forever. She isn’t yet a part of the slipstream. Jamie is silver-haired, twisting that ring: a gardener and a widow, a storyteller and a scarred heart. Jamie doesn’t get it yet. Dani wishes she could tell her. Wishes she could impart the wisdoms of after while Jamie can still make use of them. 

She can’t. She’s tried. Her hand on Jamie’s shoulder, night after night, she’s tried to will the knowledge into the love of her life. I’m here. I’m always right here. You have to keep living, Jamie, you have to keep going, because I will always be right here

For years, she’s worried it’ll never sink in. For years, which are moments, which are blinks, she watches Jamie stagger through the world. Jamie, making bargains with gods and ghosts. Jamie, unable to see her, unable to let her go. Jamie, desperate and grieving and miserable. It sets an ache in Dani’s chest she hadn’t thought she could feel anymore. All time is now. How is there still pain?

But watching Jamie--watching her run baths, button into Dani’s old blouses, prop that god-forsaken door open in dozens of hotels over the years--how could it not be painful? Watching Jamie hurt is the worst of the world. Watching Jamie in her recklessness, watching solid, grounded Jamie crack open one empty mirror at a time. How could it not dig at her?

You’ll understand, Dani thinks--and it is as much a wish as a certainty. Someday. Soon. Now. Always. You’ll understand. The gardener always learns. The gardener always listens. The gardener can’t not piece it together, given enough time. 

But, for Jamie, it’s slow. It’s linear. It’s one day at a time, one year after another. For Jamie, it’s another Christmas alone. Another of Dani’s birthdays celebrated in silence: a lit candle, a photo, a woman bent over her own knees as her shoulders shudder. For Jamie, time plods. Time bleeds. Time is a wound she can’t stitch shut.

And then: the first one follows her home.

It’s an accident, Dani knows--would know, even if Jamie hadn’t in recent years taken to muttering to herself in the solace of an empty room. Jamie hadn’t even realized it was happening until the scruffy little mongrel followed her off the street, into the building. It sits--curly black fur, enormous brown eyes--at her side as if waiting. As if the invitation is implicit. As if it’s already home.

“No,” Jamie says. Dani can’t help smiling; there’s something to Jamie saying no that way that has always sounded an awful lot like a wall coming down. And, sure enough, the minute the door is open, the dog saunters inside as though it has never belonged anywhere else.

A bit, Dani thinks, like Jamie after Dani had taken her hand that night. 

It’s an accident, but Jamie has never been much good at turfing out creatures in need of love once they’re inside. The dog stays. Jamie calls him Iowa--it seems to have been the first thing to slip out of her mouth, and the dog cocks his head and wags his nub of a tail, and that’s that. Jamie, for the first time in her life--fifty-seven years old, paying rent on her first flat in over a decade--has a pet. 

Dani thinks it’ll be good for her. A dog begs routine. A dog needs walks, and feeding at reasonable hours, and doors that are shut at night. That Iowa seems older--relaxed and certain and just a bit bull-headed--is even better. He doesn’t run ragged around the flat, knocking into tables, shattering flower pots. He simply trots along at Jamie’s side as though he’s always been there. 

It would be enough, Dani senses, if it were just the two of them. Jamie has always thrived in the caring for other living things. Jamie is happiest when given a task, a hands-on approach to the world. The dog, she may not have sought out--but the dog is hers, and she is his, and there is a kind of salvation in unexpected love. 

The next one is even more of an accident, if that’s possible. A huge bear of a beast, shaggy and stained and wet-eyed. Jamie finds it limping through the streets of London with mud caked on its belly and head hung low. No tags. No marker of any kind. Iowa nudges her around the knees, looking at the mountainous creature, and Jamie sighs. 

“No,” she tells him, but Dani--and Iowa--can tell it’s a lie even before the syllable is completely formed. Jamie is already reaching a cautious hand toward the trembling dog. It whimpers. It presses its nose to her outstretched fingers. Iowa’s tail wags. 

London is, when given a proper bath and brushing, quite beautiful. Her limp is temporary; her attachment to Iowa in particular, eternal. The first night, with the dog resting her chin on Jamie’s knee, stretched across a threadbare couch, Jamie says, “Found it on the street. Wanted to save it” in a tone that suggests she’s speaking from a dream. Her jaw clenches. Her eyes close. Dani has never wanted so badly to break her own rules.

Neither dog seems to notice her. She’s relieved, in a way; Jamie’s nightly ritual never wavers, save for reluctantly closing the door--as with so many features of Jamie’s world, the safety of others precludes her own--and if the dogs began barking at shadows, it’s likely Jamie would never sleep again. Anyway, these aren’t her pets. Jamie has saved them--or they’ve saved her--and that bond is one Dani can’t muster envy for. 

Two dogs and a home full of plants. It doesn’t bring the light back into Jamie’s eyes, not all the way, but she walks a bit taller these days. Fidgets a little less. Cries often enough, but now there are soft muzzles to press her face against when she does. It’s better, Dani can see. Nothing will ever be what it was, but better is sometimes the most you can ask for in life. 

The third dog is less an accident, more a surprise. A two-for-one deal, to a degree; Jamie has wandered into the local shelter, where she’s taken to volunteering on weekends, and come across a sharp-toothed, snappish shepherd no one else seems able to touch. He’s been through the ringer, the other volunteers say, sage and exhausted by similar experiences. Abuse, probably. Neglect, probably. Only three or four, but with enough mistrust baked into his bones for three lifetimes. 

“He doesn’t like men,” one weary-looking young man says. “Or people who move too fast. Or multiple people coming at him all at once.”

“Can relate,” Jamie says, her mouth quirking. Dani laughs. “What does he like?”

The volunteer points. There, in the back of the shepherd’s cage, is a lithe black shadow. It blinks lantern-gold eyes up at Jamie, tail twitching, and makes a rasping sound that might, in another animal, have been a proper meow. 

“Came in same-day. Can’t separate ‘em. Not sure how we’re going to get them adopted.”

Jamie rubs her jaw, left hand hesitating on the way down. She touches the tip of a finger to her ring and heaves a sigh. 

“Fuck.”

She calls the shepherd Paris, and though it takes time--several patient weeks, Jamie turning up at regular hours each day to coax the nervy animal into growing accustomed to her smell, her voice, her easy-slow method of moving--by the time the papers are signed, there’s no changing it. The flat is now overrun, dog hair clinging to every surface, water bowls standing sentry in the kitchen. The cat’s litterbox goes into the bathroom, Jamie frowning a little as she surveys the new landscape of her home. 

“You,” she tells the cat. “Best behavior. Anything goes crash in the night, it’s your hide.”

The cat preens, rubbing around her ankles. Jamie sighs.

“Christ, if she could see me now.”

Something tugs deep in Dani’s chest--pride, and sorrow, and love of the most fervent kind. The dogs--proud Iowa, sweet London, Paris keeping a careful distance from both--are draped around the living room. Jamie’s home is theirs. Jamie is their home. Dani knows so well what that feels like. They’re lucky creatures.

The dogs are sleepy, warm, happy. The cat--

The cat is looking at her.

Dani frowns. She’s imagining things. Must be. She’s been drifting around Jamie--traveling the world at her side, resting a hand over her shoulder each night--for years and years. Nothing has ever looked at her. Nothing has ever seen her. Not Jamie. Not the dogs. Nothing. 

But this cat. This cat, with its huge golden eyes, black ears twitching, is staring right at her. 

“Huh,” says Dani.

“Mrow,” says the cat.

“C’mon,” says Jamie, oblivious to it all. “Supper.”

Days go by before Jamie properly names the cat. She strokes her fingers gently over the creature’s back, tracing the length of spine and tail, and frowns each night. “Who,” she says quietly, “are you?”

The cat butts against her palm, rumbling deep in its chest. Jamie makes a soft pensive sound.

“Vermont?” She shakes her head. “Nah. You’re different, mm? Somethin’ else.”

The cat chirps, turning its head, gazing into the corner where Dani is leaning. Dani raises a hand, wiggling her fingers experimentally. The cat makes the same noise a second time, as if in greeting. Jamie raises an eyebrow.

“Eerie little beast. Never thought I was much for cats, y’know. But here you are.”

Never thought you were much for people, either, Dani thinks with amusement. Didn’t stop you drawing us all close. 

In the end, Jamie begins calling the cat Gremlin. A nickname, offered in warning, at first--any time she moved too near a plant, or experimentally sniffed at London’s paws while she slept, Jamie would quietly intone, “Oi. Gremlin. Back it up.” It is, in its own way, reminiscent of the way Poppins had clung to their first year--an accidental gift cherished by its recipient. 

Dani can tell the cat--rumbling her pleasure each time the name is used--agrees. Plants are left to their devices. The dogs seem strangely hard-wired to accept the cat as their queen. Jamie shakes her head. 

“So be it, suppose.”

It’s good, watching her build a routine around them. Dani hasn’t seen her stand this still since Vermont, but the dogs love the nearby park, and Gremlin sunbathes happily on the balcony, and Jamie seems, for the first time in years, to be fostering a simple sort of peace. The baths still fill, and her eyes are still too often far-away, but the door is shut. The dogs stretch out around the living room--which doubles, as all living spaces have for a decade, as Jamie’s bedroom--as if warding off intruders. The cat sets up shop on the back of the couch, peering down with regal bearing as Jamie slowly dozes off. And, when Dani inevitably presses a hand toward Jamie’s shoulder the first night--

“Hey,” she says, very quietly. “What’s this?”

Gremlin makes a raspy sort of sound, nudging toward her. She does not make contact, exactly; Dani hasn’t quite figured out touch, in all this time. She hasn’t had much cause. Touching Jamie is a dream, an ache she has carried since her death that reminds her forcefully of before, at Bly, when she hadn’t thought herself worthy or capable. Touching Jamie is the one part of all of this that still feels linear--I could touch her in life, and I can touch her when she gets here, but in between...in between...

In between, Dani can reach toward her. Can brush the space around her shoulder. Can be here, with her, in every way except directly, because some things are still unfair. Like Jamie feeling alone, even with Dani right here. Like Dani being able to always-someday-soon-now except for where it matters most.

She is in the kitchen at Bly, and she is in their bedroom in Vermont, and she is 1976, 1988, 1999, and she is--

Almost petting this cat. Almost. Her brows come sharply together, her heart thudding. 

“How?” she asks Gremlin, who seems not to mind. The cat presses in a bit harder, as if to say, Keep trying. Dani sees no reason not to obey. 

Each night, the animals spread around Jamie in a protective circle: Paris at the door, London beside the couch, Iowa nestled between Jamie’s knees. Each night, Gremlin sets up on the back of the couch, watching Jamie’s breath even out, and turns those enormous eyes on Dani.

And, little by little...

She can’t pick the cat up, or close her hands gently around her face. She can’t make the kind of contact she would as a living woman--matter pressing against matter, mass imposing upon mass. But her fingers are unequivocally brushing thick black fur. She can feel the cat’s breath on her skin. This is true, and real, and solid--and the cat, looking entirely too proud of herself, can plainly feel her in return.

Dani Clayton has been dead for over a decade, and Dani Clayton has been here all the same ever since, but for the first time, Dani Clayton is touching. Dani Clayton is feeling, not simply in the ether of memory, but now

She holds a breath as Gremlin rubs against her fingers. She’s still holding it when, slowly, carefully, she reaches down to the couch. 

Her fingers brush silver. Jamie’s brow knits, her lips parting. She’s always looked like this in sleep--as though some part of her just isn’t willing to shut down all the way. She’s always looked as though some part of her needs to be on guard. 

Now, with Dani’s fingers threading through her hair, that tight, armored expression gives a little bit. Just a little. 

In the morning, Dani wonders if Jamie’s eyes will flicker open and she will, finally, see her. There’s a breathless kind of terror to the idea--that she’s gone this long keeping Jamie safe from diving permanently into her own grief, only for a cat to undo all of that work. But, when the sun rises and Jamie rises with it, she gives no sign at all. No sign that she can see Dani, standing beside the couch, though Gremlin is staring right at her. No sign that anything has changed.

Except--except her hand, lingering at the crown of her head. Her fingers, sifting almost absently through her hair, tracing the same path Dani had been unable to pull away from. Her brow furrows. Her head shakes. 

“Breakfast?” she asks the animals in various stages of waking around her. Gremlin stretches, back leg popped high, and hops down. Dani doesn’t think she’s imagining the cat’s easy swagger as she makes her way to the kitchen. 

It isn’t the life she’d imagined for Jamie, laying awake and watching her sleep. Not the life she’d wanted for Jamie, hoping as hard as she could that the beast would remain always at bay. She’d never looked at Jamie and expected dogs to follow her home, hurt and lonely and in need of someone to show them the world can be kind. She hadn’t expected a cat with a swishing tail and a regal demeanor, standing sentinel. Jamie’s life has never quite veered in this direction before.

But: watching her now, as she slips a bit of apple to each dog, strokes the cat, leans her hip against the counter as she waits for the water to boil, Dani has to admit it suits her. Jamie has always been at her best giving love, even against her own better judgement. 

In time, Dani’s sense of soon-someday-now-always will broaden to encompass Jamie, as well. The years will press on. There will come a time where the brush of Dani’s hand across her sleeping cheek--the phantom press of Dani soothing Jamie out of a particularly bad nightmare--will evolve into the intertwining of finally standing on the same plane again. It is the natural order of things. Organic. Dani, standing outside of time, is patient. 

And Jamie: is slowly building herself a home again. Jamie is waking to take dogs out, and brushing down Gremlin’s ink-black fur, and looking more present in the world than she’s been in a decade. Jamie, staring into the mirror each night with Paris pressed resolutely against her legs, Iowa hovering in the doorway, almost smiles. 

“Someday,” she murmurs, “I am going to have some stories for you.”

Dani smiles. She knows, of course--outside of time, it’s hard not to know--but she can’t wait to hear them, all the same. Stories always land a little differently, coming out of Jamie’s mouth. 

Soon, she promises silently. Someday. Always. Now. 

In the meantime, Jamie reaches for a bundle of leashes, giving Gremlin a brief scratch between the ears. She pauses at the door, glancing back over her shoulder, her eyes drifting over Dani without notice. At her side, heading the pack, Iowa gives a small bark to confirm his readiness. 

“Right,” says Jamie softly. “Back soon.”

It is the first time in too long Dani has been sure she will be okay.

Chapter Text

Time slips away when you’re out of your head, Dani has found. It moves so much faster–so much slower–so much less correctly with blood pumping at a dizzying rate. With black spots marring her vision. With her breath caught, tangled in a fisherman’s net of sharp inhale, hold, hold, bare exhale, she can’t think. There are tears dewed on her eyelashes, and fingers folded into shaking fists, and she is little more than the repetition of her own weight meeting the door–again–again–again–

It’s open, she realizes, and wonders how long it has been open. Not long, certainly. Not with how forcefully she’s been hurling herself against unyielding lumber. Certainly, she would have–

Well. Tumbled out as she is now, a horrible muddling of limbs and purple sweater and mascara scraped down her cheeks. The breath she has been clawing for still won’t quite come, not even with the door hanging open and the soft light of Flora’s bedroom pouring inside.

Not even with strong hands catching her by the shoulders, a voice speaking low and smooth into the silence left in the wake of her screams.

“Hey. Hey, now. Hey, you’re out, you’re all good.”

She blinks once. Twice. The world as painted by hysteria is neatly bisected, right down the middle. On one side: the mirror, his solemn face, the horror of being locked in with him. On the other: butterflies on the walls, a dollhouse in the corner, cool air rushing against her flushed skin.

Dark curls. Bright eyes. The gardener from lunch, the one with whom Dani still hasn’t held a real conversation.

Jamie.

“What,” she tries to say–what are you doing here, you left hours ago, you shouldn’t be here–and can’t get any further. What, echoing between them, strangled on the end of a sharp inhalation that refuses to fill her up. Her throat is closing. There is a boulder lodged against her windpipe, another sinking down against her chest. She is, she realizes, folding her hands together so hard, her knuckles stand stark against the front of Jamie’s overalls.

“Kids,” Jamie says–a one-word question. The panic swells higher as Dani realizes she does not know. They were there, turning the key. They were shouting through the door. And then…then…

“Don’t know,” she wheezes. “Don’t know–I–”

Jamie grits her teeth. Her eyes dart back toward the door, her body still tilted entirely toward Dani. “You all right if I…?”

Dani nods, a rapid bird-flutter of a gesture that sends her sour stomach heaving. She gropes backward for Flora’s bed, sinking onto the edge of the mattress. Jamie watches her with an expression she can’t quite read, her jaw lifted, her shoulders set.

“Back in a sec. Promise.”

Dani shuts her eyes, scrounging for breath, listening to the steady thud of boots striding out of the room. Her fingers sink into Flora’s bedspread, her elbows pressed to her knees as she struggles to keep from folding completely in half. Who will that help? She’s out. She’s out, and there’s plenty of air out here, and she’s–

Hands, gently brushing her arms. She peels her eyes open, hating how swollen they already feel, hating that faint whistle at the back of her throat that says her lungs still aren’t quite doing their job. Jamie is kneeling on the floor, looking at her with absolutely none of the tight unease from lunch. Her expression is surprisingly warm, though creased with concern, and her hands do not fall away from Dani’s arms. 

“Found ‘em,” she says. “They’re fine. What happened?”

Dani draws as deep a breath as she can manage, unseeing eyes rooted to the front of Jamie’s shirt beneath her scuffed overalls. The neat rectangle of navy cotton swells out–in–out with Jamie’s entirely-stable breaths. She finds herself blankly trying to mimic the beats, relieved and embarrassed in equal measure when Jamie seems to realize what’s happening and begins breathing with intent. In. Hold. Out. Hold. Again, again, until Dani’s heart finally catches up with her brain. 

“Better?” Jamie asks. Dani, uncertain how much time has slipped away with this woman holding her by the elbows, setting a pace for slow, even breaths, nods. “Right. Good. Now: what happened?”

A flash of movement tugs at her attention, pulling her eyes to a point over Jamie’s shoulder. Miles and Flora, leaning against the doorframe, their faces ashen. She swallows hard. 

“We’re sorry,” Flora says quickly.

“It got stuck,” Miles adds. There is a furtive look to his eyes that says even he does not expect her to believe this. Dani swallows again.

“Bed.”

There are more words in her–big, angry, panic-throttled words–but she wouldn’t let them fly even if Jamie weren’t here. That isn’t how you deal with kids. That isn’t how you deal with traumatized orphans. 

Not even when they pull stunts like this. 

“Honest,” Miles starts to say. She closes her eyes, scrubs her hands over her face. Her palms are hot, her newly-caught breath stuffy. She wants to stay in the cupped enclosure of her own hands forever. 

Flora makes a tiny hiccuping noise, the precursor to tears. Jamie’s hand flexes around her arm. Dani bites her tongue until the throb of pain cuts through the memory of his glasses, his glasses in the mirror, I was in there with him alone.

“We,” she says in as level a voice she can muster, “will talk about this in the morning.”

Jamie is looking at her, she realizes. Jamie, leaning back into a crouch, is watching her with the wary concern of one waiting to see if a rabbit will escape a snare unscathed. Dani gives her a very small nod–I’m okay–and she pushes to her feet, claps her hands, turns on her heel.

“Right. You heard her. Bed.”

Dani removes herself from Flora’s bed, still shaking even as she tucks the tiny girl under the covers. Jamie stands back, almost to the door, watching the proceedings as if half-believing she’ll have to take over at some point. 

No, thinks Dani with hot embarrassment. This is her job, not Jamie’s. Jamie even being here is more than her job description. Even still floundering at the end of a panic attack, Dani can do this much.

“I really am sorry,” Miles mumbles, blankets pulled up to his chin. Dani searches his face. Not a single beat of a lie there now; he looks perfectly miserable, his cheeks bright with shame. She exhales, hoping her voice will hold. 

It does. Barely. “Get some sleep. We’ll discuss it tomorrow.”

He rolls over, face mashed against the pillow. Dani drags in an unsteady breath, holds it as she closes in on the door, the light switch, the hallway. 

“All right?” Jamie asks again when the doors have been closed and the children tucked away. Dani presses her face to her hands, groaning. 

“Yeah. Yes. I’m sorry, that was–”

“Sorry?” Jamie repeats blankly. “What’ve you got to be sorry about? Didn’t lock yourself in there, I’d wager.”

No. No, she hadn’t. And tomorrow, she’ll have to pull herself together better than this–locate the mask of the Polished Au Pair, who is good with even the most difficult of children, who doesn’t scream herself hoarse and bruise up her shoulder trying to get away from memories held behind glass–

“What are you doing here, anyway?” Her voice is brittle, the words edged. Jamie only looks at her steadily, hands in her pockets, not taking so much as a step back. 

“Left my flat key. Ring broke this afternoon–must’ve skidded under something out in the greenhouse. I was going to check when I heard the, ah. The…” She trails off, looking almost embarrassed for the first time–embarrassed not for herself, but for Dani, who had indeed been scraping her throat raw with shrieks. Dani grits her teeth. 

“I have a–”

She’s not sure what she’s going to say next; a condition? A phobia? The absolutely horrific poor fortune to be haunted by her ex-fiance in every reflective surface? Jamie holds up a hand. 

“Doesn’t matter,” she says. “Not unless you want to talk it over. Do you?”

Dani shakes her head. Truth be told, she’s wrung out–her head is pounding, her hands numb from being squeezed into such uncompromising fists. Jamie looks unsurprised. 

“Then it’s your own,” she says easily. “You share it on your time. Christ, Poppins, think it’s the first time kids have reduced a grown woman to tears?”

There’s plenty to unpack here–Jamie’s kindness, in letting it slide; Jamie’s careless phrasing, as though she expects minor doses of aggression from perfectly well-mannered children every day; Jamie’s expression, even, holding firm on Dani as though she’s the only real thing in this house. Dani finds herself landing on something else entirely.

“Is that…mud?”

There are, she sees now, footprints. Wrapping down the hall, leading down the staircase, all the way to the front door. She frowns, following them at a slow clip, her legs still trembling. Jamie follows. 

“Wasn’t me,” she says, as if Dani holds accusations on her tongue. “Hannah says this happens sometimes. Maybe one of the beasts taking the piss?”

“Maybe.” The prints are larger than either child could make on their own, Dani thinks with a plummeting sense of alarm. Large, and staggered, and odd. Still. Kids. Jamie’s probably right–it’s likely just a prank. A silly trick to test the new au pair’s mettle. 

She turns her head, surprised to find Jamie still looking at her. “I’m sorry. Did you need help finding your key?”

Jamie shrugs. “Nah. I know the way. And if it’s not where I figure, I’ll just post up on the couch for the night. Hannah won’t mind.”

Dani smiles faintly. “There are so many bedrooms, I’m sure you could–”

Jamie flaps a hand. “Don’t like sleeping in beds that don’t belong to me. Couch’ll suit me fine. Anyway, maybe I won’t need it. Night might have a little good luck left in it yet.”

“You’re sure you don’t want to…” God, she’s so tired. What is this impulse to play hostess, even with her bones twisted to exhaustion and a thunderstorm ringing in her head? “I mean, you could…stay. I could get you a drink?”

Jamie smiles. It’s the first true smile Dani’s seen on her lips since flicking water on the kids at lunch, and it doesn’t just light up her face–it revolutionizes her entire body. All at once, Dani remembers how she’d felt watching this woman stroll into the kitchen this afternoon: like a song she’s been humming under her breath for a lifetime. 

Heat twists up her neck. She clears her throat. 

“I think,” Jamie says gently, “I should let you get to bed. Tomorrow, maybe. If you’re up to it.”

She leaves the rest of the offer unspoken–tomorrow, maybe you can tell me what really happened–and Dani understands, somehow, that if it never comes up again, Jamie won’t mind. Jamie doesn’t seem the sort of woman who is rocked by much.

“Thank you,” she says, walking to the front door, leaning awkwardly against the enormous slab of wood as Jamie steps outside. “For–anyway. Thank you.”

“Anytime,” Jamie says, and though this woman had frowned at her this afternoon, wariness cutting grooves through her dirt-smudged face, she is nothing but warm now. Warm and more than a little bit beautiful, with moonlight scudding off her hair. 

It’s been too long a night for that, Dani warns herself. Too long a life for that, probably. Certainly nothing she’s prepared to deal with right now. 

“One more thing,” she adds, unable to help herself, even as Jamie crunches over gravel with hands swinging loosely at her sides. Jamie doesn’t quite stop, only turns at the waist with an inquisitive eyebrow raised. Dani smiles weakly.

“Poppins?”

“Yeah,” Jamie says, and Dani is so tired. So tired, she must be imagining the light tinge of pink around the woman’s cheeks. “You know. Julie Andrews.”

“Sure,” says Dani, who can’t think of a single actress she less embodies in this moment. “Right. Of course.”

She can’t help grinning a little, falling into bed a few minutes later–still in sweat-damp clothes, her boots barely kicked to the floor–with the scorching awareness that the surly gardener has just given her a nickname. Possibly because she doesn’t actually know Dani’s real name, sure–but a nickname, all the same. A nickname, and a warm smile, and the impression of long fingers wrapped gently around her arm. 

Tomorrow, she’ll handle the kids. Put her foot down. They need to know, right off the bat, that she won’t stand for this sort of thing. She needs to know it, to prove to herself she can still do this, just as she’d insisted to Henry Wingrave. Tomorrow, she’ll talk to them the right way–steady, calm, no accusation in her tone–and give them a suitable punishment. 

Tomorrow. 

Tonight, Jamie’s shining eyes, slouched shoulders, accent curled around Poppins almost let her forget the horror of being locked in with a ghost.

Chapter Text

It’s complete luck, Dani will think later. True idiot luck, nothing more–maybe the first lucky thing to happen in the last hour. Absolutely, they shouldn’t find the village at all. Absolutely, they shouldn’t have managed it: a grown woman with no car, no idea where she’s going, and an eight year old girl sobbing against her shoulder as she runs. They should wind up lost in the dark, staggering desperately in a circle, maybe turning right back up where they started. 

Utter luck, that the adrenaline holds out, that the darkness doesn’t swallow them whole, that she finds herself stumbling through the door of a ramshackle little pub with Flora. Shouldn’t happen. Some tiny part of her wonders if this isn’t the magic of Bly, extending far beyond the reach of that house. Some tiny part of her thinks, If it can reach this far, what’s stopping them from doing the same?

“Hey,” the old man behind the bar snaps. “You can’t bring her in here!”

“Please.” Her head is pounding. Her throat is raw. Screaming hoarsely into a gag will do that to a person. “Please, I’m looking for–for Jamie…”

She trails off, realization striking: she doesn’t even know Jamie’s last name. A woman she somehow feels she’s known forever, a woman she is painfully certain she is already growing to love in ways Eddie couldn’t have pulled out of her with an infinite lifetime, and she doesn’t know her last name. It would be hysterically funny, if she could remember what laughter tasted like. 

More good luck, sweeping in like a thunderstorm: the old man is nodding, though he still looks uneasy at the sight of Flora’s puffy red eyes. At the sight, too, of Dani’s rubbed-raw mouth. They must look awful, a pair of ghosts in their own right, crashing into the easy calm of his night. 

“She know you’re comin’?” he asks gruffly, and Dani shakes her head. “But she knows you.”

He’s looking at Flora, and Dani wonders if the small-town awareness Owen has spoken of with such irritation extends to the Wingrave children. Probably. Probably everyone in town knows the miserable story of two orphans left to cope in that big old haunted house. 

“She knows,” Dani says, when it becomes clear Flora is incapable of her usual boisterous chatter. “Please. Can you call her?”

He makes a face, his hand straying to the black plastic handset behind his head. “Fine, but if you’re lyin’, it’s only fair I warn you she’s got a temper–”

Dani lowers Flora onto a stool, leans her weight against the bar, presses a hand to her head. This is insane, she tells the spooling pressure in her chest where air does not seem willing to flow. This is insane, to think there are ghosts pulling at the Wingrave children’s strings, pulling at Miles even now.

Miles. She left him. She left Miles, Rebecca Jessel’s warm voice still ringing in her ears. It’s too late. Too late. Too–

“Dani?” Jamie’s voice, just behind her. She can’t bring herself to lift her head and look. It’d be so much sweeter to remember her last image of Jamie instead, the last glimpse of normalcy drunk greedily in with no knowledge of what would come next. There will be other nights. Promise. Jamie’s hands curled around her own. Jamie’s kiss pressed to her lips with uncharacteristic euphoria. Jamie had giggled, and Dani had felt ten feet tall, the luckiest woman in the world, the richest–

“Flora.” Jamie is bending, a hand pressed to Flora’s face, smoothing back the sweaty mess of her hair. “What’s going on? Where’s Miles? What are you–”

Flora makes a hitching sound, and Dani imagines trying to explain it–not to Jamie, who believes her so readily even when there’s no reason, but to Henry. Henry Wingrave, trusting her with his brother’s children. Henry Wingrave, who she’ll have to face and say, Sir, I did my best, but you never warned me about the ghosts–

“C’mon.” Jamie’s uttered that word once before, an incontrovertible command. Last night, taking Dani’s hand in the kitchen, leading her out to take in flowers and stories. She doesn’t quite do it the same way now–her hand brushes the small of Dani’s back instead of her fingers, urging her gently along–but Dani can hear that same calm charge in her voice. It’s as though Jamie understands something has broken, and has chosen stability in answer to the too-big horror strangling Dani’s ability to explain. 

She lets herself be propelled through the pub, through a door at the back, up a flight of stairs. Somewhere at the back of her mind, she’s loosely aware that it shouldn’t be this way–that she should have visited Jamie’s flat for the first time on Jamie’s schedule, in Jamie’s truck, with Jamie grinning at her over a beer. But, then, what about tonight has gone to plan? What about tonight has been right?

“Sit,” Jamie says, urging her visitors toward a lumpy couch at the center of the small room. She looks calm, though Dani suspects it’s the kind of calm that might at any moment crack open. “Talk.”

An invitation, more than a demand. Dani buries her head in her hands.

“It’s crazy. It’s crazy.”

“You ran here in the dark,” Jamie says. “You ran here in the dark with Flora. Wouldn’t have done that if it wasn’t bad.”

Shouldn’t have done it at all. Should have called Jamie–run through the house in search of Hannah–done any number of things that wasn’t a flat sprint over unfamiliar ground into town. Should have kept her head. 

“Miles,” she says, and almost shatters right there. Her head is a land mine, pulsing warning. Her chest aches. Jamie is kneeling on the floor, she realizes, her hands busy at Flora’s face, her hands, searching for sign of damage. Dani inhales. “She’s–she’s okay. Rebecca made sure of it.”

Jamie looks up sharply. “What?”

Dani knows what she looks like, what she must sound like: a rumpled, ragged mess spouting dead women’s names like she has any right to them. Still, Jamie isn’t staring at her like she’s crazy. She’s watching with guarded eyes, her hands–satisfied that Flora is, physically, unharmed–moving to Dani. 

“What about Rebecca?”

“She let us go.” Jamie’s thumb is pressing very gently to her jaw, tilting her head to give the lamplight room to spill over her skin. She hears a breath catch, hears Jamie make a tiny, wounded sound at the sight of the skin rubbed red around Dani’s mouth. “She told me to take her and run.”

And I shouldn’t have. I’ve never listened to ghosts before. Why start now?

“Rebecca,” Jamie repeats. Her hand slips behind Dani’s head, gently inspecting; she finds the knot soon enough, Dani’s telltale gasp of pain pulling something taut behind her eyes. “Fuck, Dani, what–”

“Peter.” Flora’s voice is very small, a shock of unexpected color amidst Jamie’s usual palette. “Peter said we were helping.”

The calm in Jamie does not just break at those words; it erupts, her entire body revolutionized by her sudden rage. She’s got a temper, the old man had said, and Dani’s seen notes of it–at the rose bushes, hoisting a shotgun in the dark–but never quite like this. She stands abruptly straight, her shoulders pulling back, her expression livid. 

“What,” she says, “do you mean, helping?”

It spills out in a chaotic rush–Flora, mostly, explaining through hiccups. Dani supplements where she can, as if she understands any of it. As if she hasn’t, in some part of her throbbing brain, wondered all this time if the evening wasn’t a hallucination born of her concussion. 

“He hit you,” Jamie says. Not a question. “Tied you up. In the attic. And he took Miles.”

Those are, Dani thinks wearily, the bullet points. “He said they were trapped. That the house would wear them away. Rebecca wouldn’t…”

“'Course not,” Jamie says hotly. “’Course she wouldn’t. Fucking Quint.”

Dani blinks up at her. Her vision is gray around the edges, she realizes. Can’t be a good sign. She shivers. “You believe us?”

A little of the rage melts out of Jamie at this–her eyes softening just a bit, her fingers uncurling from a fist. She almost smiles. “You two? Best people I fuckin’ know, why wouldn’t I believe you?”

“Because it’s crazy,” Dani says hollowly. “It’s crazy, but–” But that little boy had stood wrong, with Peter pulling his strings. That sweet, lovely little boy had gone hard around the mouth, had gone steely at the shoulders, had held himself like a man three times his age and thirty times more capable of cruelty. 

“I believe you,” Jamie says simply. She gives Dani’s shoulder a squeeze, Flora’s hair a gentle ruffle. “I believe you.”

The flat is quiet after that, for a while. Wrung out, Flora is dozing against the arm of the couch before she seems to know it. Jamie gestures for Dani to stand, the pair of them gently shifting Flora until she is resting comfortably on a throw pillow. She breathes like she’s still preparing a scream, like she is still ready to charge back into that house after her brother, even as Jamie drapes a blanket over her small frame. 

She leads Dani to the bathroom, then, sets her down on the toilet seat. Her hands are steady as ever, gentle as she administers a warm cloth to Dani’s scraped skin–cleaning around her mouth, around wrists that have been chafed nearly bloody–and a bundle of ice to the back of Dani’s head. Dani chases a handful of aspirin with cool water and tries to look as though the whole world isn’t swimming away from her. 

“It’s bad,” she says. “It’s so bad, Jamie. I couldn’t do anything.”

Jamie makes a soft sound of acknowledgment. Dani’s wrist is upturned in her hand, her fingers skimming lightly across rope burn. Dani barely feels it. 

“What if–” She doesn’t want to give it voice. Doesn’t want to admit it’s even possible. Isn’t there something to be said for the power of belief, unpredictability shaped by human faith? “What if he really is gone for good? How do I explain that? How do I live with that?”

Jamie raises her eyes. “Not gonna have to find out.”

Dani frowns. “What do you mean?”

“I mean.” She turns, drops the wet cloth in the sink, clicks the cap back onto the bottle of pills. “Didn’t let Quint get away with this shite in life. Don’t think for a fuckin’ moment I’d let him do it now.”

Dani shakes her head. “It’s too late–Rebecca said–”

“Love Rebecca.” Her voice is strangled when she says this, as though Jamie is speaking through the entire last year of grief at once. “Loved Rebecca, sister I never had. But she didn’t know everything. Christ, even just getting wound up with him–she makes mistakes, too.”

“But–”

“Dani.” Jamie takes her face between steady hands. Even just this easy proximity, the sweep of her breath not far from Dani’s own, settles something Dani thinks has been screaming most of her life. “I promise. Whatever we have to do–whatever it takes–we’ll fix this.”

“We’ll fix a ghost,” Dani says flatly. Jamie smiles, leaning in until her forehead knocks lightly against Dani’s own. 

“We’ll fix Miles. Kid’s been through too much already. I’ll be damned before I let Quint have him.”

It’s just as insane a thing to say as the rest of the night. Jamie doesn’t know–can’t know–how to make this right. Jamie is just one woman, though maybe the best person Dani’s ever been fortunate enough to find. Jamie can’t turn back time. 

Still. She almost forgets that, watching her make phone calls–to Owen, and to the house, where it rings and rings and Hannah never picks up. She almost forgets that Jamie is not a superhero, as she presses the ice pack to Dani’s head with one hand and says into the receiver, “Quint, yeah. Dunno how. Does it matter?”

She almost forgets that they are not superheroes when Owen knocks on the door. That they are only an au pair, a gardener, a cook, and a little girl. That they are no match for whatever the house has become over the years. She almost forgets. 

Because the set of Owen’s mouth is uncompromising for the first time since she’s met him. Because Flora, refreshed from her nap and no longer tilting toward tears, is grim in the seat beside him. Because, thigh warm against her own in the backseat, Jamie is holding her hand like it’s never crossed her mind to let go. 

They are not superheroes. They are not prepared for the ghosts of Bly Manor. They don’t know where Hannah is, how Rebecca is holding on, what Quint will do in Miles’ body. They don’t know anything at all. 

But they are going back. Because some stories need changing. Because some tragedies cannot be simply accepted. Because Peter Quint deserves to be put in his place, and Miles Wingrave deserves a life of freedom, and whatever’s gone wrong at the great, good place–their home–can be set right. Dani can feel that, way down beneath the headache and the fear. It can be, even if she doesn’t yet know how.

You, she thinks, looking from Owen at the wheel, Flora seatbelted carefully in, Jamie running a thumb over her knuckles. Me, she thinks, watching her own battered face in the rearview mirror. Us, she thinks, remembering the dinner table earlier that night, Hannah’s smile, the music of their mingled laughter. 

This can be fixed. Somehow. It must be.

“Right,” she says in a voice much stronger than she expects as they pull up the long drive. “Step one: find Miles.”

Chapter Text

They listen, which is frankly more than Dani expected when Hannah insisted on calling the police. She suspects it has less to do with the Peter Quint of it all, and more to do with the lightning strike, the cataclysm of rain, an old house plunged into deep black. No phone lines, the officers point out with weary expressions that say they are not certain Peter Quint is truly a danger–but Lord Wingrave is not without a certain amount of authority around these parts, and if any further tragedy should befall his niece and nephew, these men would find themselves overloaded on unpleasant paperwork and worse press. 

Bad reasons, Dani thinks with a scowl. They ought to have gone into this field to help people, not scoff at Hannah’s fear and Dani’s unease. They ought to be doing something, not simply waving them off the property for the night. It’s listening, sort of, but it isn’t hearing. 

She glances at Jamie as the officers speak–directly, she notes, to Owen, as though as the only man among them, he has defaulted to de facto lord of the manor. He looks uncomfortable, rubbing a hand through wet hair; Dani remembers him saying, I was born in Bly, wonders if he went to school with either of the men in slick uniform. 

Jamie doesn’t look uncomfortable. Jamie looks angry. There’s a fire burning in her Dani suspects never entirely went out after this afternoon’s rose debacle, one that might have been tempered if they’d been able to track Quint down outside. But he’s in the wind, the product of long legs and a better awareness of the terrain. Dani, giving chase into a fresh downpour before she could think better of her choices, is still itching at the memory of his long coat vanishing into the dark. 

She’d run into Jamie, instead–full-force, a bone-rattling collision that had sent them both tumbling into the sopping grass. It might have been funny, if not for the echo of Quint’s footfalls dying away.

“If he’s here?” Jamie asks now. “Quint. If he’s still here? What then?”

The officer in charge gives her a brief look, barely long enough to register detail. “If he’s here,” he says boredly, “all the better that you aren’t.”

Jamie grinds her jaw. She seems barely to be containing herself, resisting the impulse to explain in no uncertain terms that this is their home, this place Quint is intruding upon. Their home–Hannah and the kids and Dani, at least–where Quint would be trailing slimy fingers. The idea of that smirking face going through the bedrooms makes Dani shudder. It seems to press Jamie toward an unwise argument. 

Without thinking, Dani reaches out, lays a hand on her shoulder. Jamie’s hair is still dripping, her jacket sodden. Her eyes, catching on Dani’s face, widen a little, her teeth unclenching. 

“You have somewhere to go?” the head officer reiterates, glancing back toward the door as though dreaming of a warm car, a comfortable house far from the manor. Owen nods in Hannah’s direction. 

“Mum won’t mind. Can have a little sleepover.”

“Yes!” Flora perks up. She’s been uncharacteristically quiet, leaning against Miles’ side, but her whole face switches on like a lantern now. “A sleepover!”

“How’s about it, Miles?” Hannah taps him lightly on the head. “A little evening adventure.”

He looks uncertain, but when she ruffles his hair, a slow smile creeps across his face. Dani’s relieved to see it–she’s started to believe Miles is thirty-five in a ten-year-old frame, the weight of so much loss bearing him down like an anchor. He deserves a little fun. 

“And you,” Hannah adds, looking to Dani as if reading her mind. “What do you say to a night off?”

Dani blinks. “Oh, I don’t think that’s necess–”

“Chased a man into the storm,” Hannah interrupts. “Not a decision I’d approve of twice, but it was quite brave. And, forgive me dear, but you look like you could use a proper rest in the aftermath.”

That might be, Dani thinks absently, the nicest way of saying you look like shit I’ve ever heard. 

“I’ll just get cleaned up real quick,” she says, “and then I’ll be perfectly fine to–”

Hannah raises a hand. “I insist. Let Owen and I handle them for the evening.”

Dani opens and closes her mouth several times. What’s the alternative? Is Hannah expecting her to stay here? Here, in a house they’re all carefully not admitting feels much bigger in the dark, huddled around the glow of policeman flashlights? 

“Can crash at my place,” Jamie says, almost gruffly. “If you don’t mind the company.”

Hannah looks unsurprised by this offer. Dani feels a little light-headed at the idea. 

“I–I’m all muddy.”

Jamie makes a show of looking down at her own clothes, caked in wet clods of grass, soaked nearly to the skin. She raises her eyebrows in Dani’s direction as if to say, Any more sterling arguments?

Dani has none.

Jamie doesn’t say a word as they load into her truck, Dani trying her best to shrink down to inhabit as limited a space as possible. Her legs ache with the effort of holding her feet aloft, her thighs pressed together to prevent staining the whole seat with grime. Jamie glances in her direction, pulling carefully out onto the road, and Dani could swear she’s trying not to smile.

“Know what I do for a living, don’t you?”

Dani nods. Jamie clears her throat.

“Then should go without saying you’re not the first to track mud into the truck. Relax.”

Embarrassed, Dani does as she’s bid. From the corner of her eye, she sees Jamie’s mouth twitch again–sees Jamie’s hands resting comfortably at ten and two, Jamie’s shoulders slightly rounded as though by holding her posture firm, she can punch a hole through the sheeting rain. She doesn’t seem nervous in the least to be driving through this mess with Dani huddled beside her. 

Jamie, Dani is starting to think, doesn’t get nervous.

Well, that makes one of us

She has nothing to be nervous about, is the thing. Chasing a strange man into a storm, racing after him with nothing but a fire poker and a hot protective impulse–that should have made her nervous. Should have scared the shit out of her. And it hadn’t. She’d felt bizarrely well-equipped for the decisions she was making, at the time. Peter Quint, she’d been certain, should have been the nervous one.

But now, sitting with wet hair and mussed clothes beside a woman she’s held barely three conversations with, Dani feels distinctly out of her element. No kids. No easy warmth of a carefully-sewn-together family opening its arms to let her in. Just a truck, rattling along a slick road on its way to a tiny town she’s never set foot in before.

And a woman with wet curls plastered to her forehead, stealing tiny glances at Dani like she’s not quite sure what to do with her.

“Flat’s small,” Jamie says, as if apologizing, as she parks outside a pub that looks older than any establishment in Dani’s hometown. “Don’t need much. But there are no screamin’ kids.”

Flora and Miles aren’t much for screaming without reason, but Dani thinks she takes Jamie’s point all the same. Quiet, Jamie is trying to say. Dani can properly rest here, Jamie is trying to say. Jamie doesn’t mind offering up her space.

“Ready?” The rain is still coming down in a torrent. Jamie’s hand is positioned at the doorhandle, Jamie’s posture strung tight. “Make a break for it on three. One–two–”

They run, damp clothes made soggy all over again, and Dani is surprised to hear herself make a whooping sound of joy as she splashes through puddles. Jamie, she thinks, could move faster–Jamie’s got a runner’s stamina when she puts her mind to it–but she’s jogging along at an easy pace, refusing to leave Dani behind. Her hand catches once on Dani’s sleeve, pulling her to the stairs behind the pub, guiding her up to a door at the top.

“Storms like these,” Jamie says when they’ve tumbled breathlessly into her home, “remind me of bein’ a kid. Sitting in school, hoping the power’d go so they’d send us home early.”

“Did it ever happen?” Dani wraps her arms around herself, trying not to shiver, trying not to drip too expansively across the scored floorboards. Jamie grins.

“Once. I was seven. Spent the whole day out in it anyway, caught the worst cold of my life. Best goddamn day a kid could want.” 

She looks so at home here, as Dani watches her pull off her boots, drape her jacket lazily over a chair, stride around turning on lights. At the manor, Jamie is casual enough, rarely inclined to rush or worry, but here, it’s instantly clear she knows every creak in the floor, every stubborn lightswitch, every inch of a domain that is entirely Jamie

A domain she has, for no reason at all, opened up to Dani tonight. The reality of it crashes home all at once, landing hard. Jamie barely knows her, and still is willing to give Dani a place to stay. Jamie barely knows her, and still is holding out a gray towel and a bundle of clothes, her smile crooked.

“Thought you might like to get out of those.”

A spike of warmth makes its way up Dani’s spine, settling somewhere around her ears. She crushes it down, forcing herself to accept the sweats and t-shirt with a grateful smile of her own.

“Thank you. Honestly, you didn’t have to do any of this–”

“The rain,” Jamie says easily, “is the fun part. The cold, not so much. Bath’s this way.”

Bathroom, Dani assumes she means–until Jamie gestures at the little tub, barely big enough for a woman her size. She looks marginally embarrassed for the first time, but it’s a resolute sort of embarrassment, as though Jamie has little patience for it. 

“Not much,” she says. “But still better than catching ill. Take however long you like.”

Dani watches her back out of the room, a tumble of unfamiliar emotions in her chest. Someone offering up everything–home, clothes, bathtub–without asking for something in return is strange. Someone doing that much and then leaving, peaceable as the turn of a new day, is unheard of. She hesitates, waiting at the closed door for signs that Jamie will change her mind–or knock, having thought of something else Dani might need–and nothing comes. This room has become, so long as Dani wants it, her space. Jamie will take it back only when Dani’s finished. 

Unwelcomely, she tries to imagine Eddie doing this very thing. Eddie, who only refrains from haunting her European adventures with postcard and phone call because he has no idea how to find her. Eddie, who would think the offer of clothes and a hot bath automatically come with other perks, and who would smile as he stepped in to collect like he couldn’t imagine her wanting to be left alone. 

She shakes her head. Eddie is gone, and she is here, and Jamie isn’t him. Is so unlike him, in fact, it’s hard to imagine them standing in the same room.

And why, some little part of her pipes slyly up, are you comparing them in the first place? 

She shivers, turning on the water, letting it run as hot as possible before sinking in. She leans her head back against a wadded-up washcloth, surveying the simplicity of the bathroom–single toothbrush, single cup for water, a minute assortment of hairbrush, hair ties, sunscreen. There is a dried rose framed beside the door, a small bunch of purple-and-white flowers she can’t name in a tiny windowsill vase. 

It’s all very discreet, all very Jamie. To look at it with this much freedom, to be trusted alone in a space that has belonged to no one else, makes her heart pound.

She’s only being nice. And so what? What does it matter? 

It matters. Even if she never says so, even if she never lets it out of her heart, Dani can’t deny that it matters. Like it mattered watching Jamie walk into the kitchen earlier this week, glancing at her with an easy raise of brows like she was thinking, Sure. You can stay. You’re one of us. 

Jamie, calling her Poppins, telling her she’s doing great, offering her flat without a second’s pause. None of it warranted. None of it asked for. All of it so incredibly welcome.

She stays in the bath until the shivers ease out, carefully soaping her hair with the little bottle of shampoo on the windowsill. A different scent and brand than her own, and as she’s rinsing clean, she realizes she will smell like Jamie now. If for only a night, her hair–and the clothes Jamie gently pressed into her hands–will hold just a little bit of the gardener’s influence. 

The warmth she’s beginning to attribute to Jamie sweeps through her again at the idea. That, and the awareness that these are Jamie’s things hugging her body. Jamie’s belongings, offered up like she feels not the least bit possessive about her living space. Sure. You can stay. You’re one of us

“Warm?” Jamie asks when she finally steps back out of the bathroom. Her hair is still wet, though she’s changed into a clean white shirt and sweatpants of her own. Dani nods, confused when Jamie grins. 

“What?”

“I think,” Jamie says placidly, “this is the first time I’ve seen you out of pastels. Suits you.”

Dani glances down. The threadbare black t-shirt bears a jagged white London Calling in peeling letters. She can’t help smiling.

“Maybe I’m a secret punk fan.”

“Are you?” Jamie sounds interested. Dani shakes her head.

“Sorry, no. Always open to learning, though.”

Here it is again: that funny, twisting feeling in her stomach that says she is at home with Jamie. That Jamie is easy and warm, despite the anger simmering somewhere deep down and a tendency toward cropping her sentences with swear words. That Jamie has opened her home to Dani only because Jamie has opened to her, on some level neither of them is entirely sure how to approach. 

“Thank you,” she says, because it’s easier than putting this feeling into words. “For all of this. You didn’t have to.”

Jamie shrugs. “Wanted to. You haven’t had an easy couple of days. Sometimes, a little quiet goes a long way.”

She’s seated on the arm of the couch, bare feet dangling an inch off the floor. Looking at her, Dani can’t entirely wrap her mind around the idea that she’s only known this woman for a couple of days. That she doesn’t, in fact, know much of anything about her at all. 

And still, when Jamie rises and begins arranging pillow and blanket on the couch, Dani’s stomach performs a backflip she’d never come close to feeling with Eddie.

“That’s really kind of you,” she says, the words a blind effort to distract from her trembling hands. “I really don’t need much, you don’t have to go to any trouble–”

Jamie glances over her shoulder. “No trouble. Bed’s just that way.”

Dani turns to look. Sure enough, behind a pulled-back curtain, she can just make out Jamie’s mattress and frame. “I–I mean, I won’t be bothering you, if that’s what you–”

“What?” Straightening, Jamie frowns. “No, I mean, it’s yours. Take it. I sleep on the couch half the goddamn time anyway, it’s no–”

“I am not,” Dani interrupts, “taking your bed, Jamie.”

Not since her last argument with Miles has she been engaged in such a standoff. Jamie, still holding a pillow, looks ready to chain herself to the couch. Dani, heady with the inescapable awareness of Jamie’s shampoo rinsed out of her own hair, can’t have that. It’s too much. Clothes and space and ride–all of that, she can accept. But foisting Jamie from her own bed?

“I’m not doing it,” she says. Her arms are folded, her mouth pulling into a smile she can’t for her life shake. “I’m told I’m very stubborn, so you might as well just let me have that couch now.”

“I–” For the first time all night, Jamie seems to be at a loss. “I’m–aiming for chivalry, here, Poppins.”

“You’ve been nothing less,” Dani assures her. “A white knight, really. But I’m afraid this is where I have to draw the line.”

“I sleep on it all the time.”

“So, it’s my turn.”

Jamie’s whole face seems on edge of some kind of collapse–though into laughter or upset, Dani can’t begin to guess. She has a brief flash of possibility, the two of them standing on either side of the couch all night, arguing well into daylight over who ought to take the proper night’s sleep.

“You’ve got kids to handle in the morning,” Jamie says reasonably, proving her point.

You spent all day working in the sun,” Dani volleys in return. She thinks for a moment, then adds, “Also, I knocked you into a puddle earlier, and you didn’t get a nice warm bath.”

“Didn’t need one.” Jamie looks exasperated. “Poppins, come on. This doesn’t have to be a big bloody deal.”

It doesn’t, Dani agrees. It really doesn’t. All Jamie has to do is step out of the way, step behind that curtain, put herself to bed where she belongs.

Or, alternatively–

It’s coming out of her mouth before she can stop it. Before she can run through all the reasons not to suggest this very thing. Before she can pin down the butterflies having a dogfight in her stomach and make a decision based in good judgment. 

“Look, if you’re that committed to making me sleep in the bed, come join me.”

Jamie nearly drops the pillow. Her calm has utterly vacated the flat, leaving behind a woman who looks–if Dani isn’t much mistaken–much nearer to frantic than she’s ever seen Jamie before. Much nearer to the kind of nervous Dani had been on the ride over. 

“I,” she says. “That–I shouldn’t–”

“It’s the best compromise,” Dani says, trying to sound reasonable. Trying to sound as though the invitation to share Jamie’s bed isn’t making her entire body run with sudden electricity. “Neither of us is very big, I’m sure we can fit.”

“I’m–sure we can.” Jamie is grimacing. Jamie looks pained. If she had an elegant way out, Dani would take it back simply to erase that look from Jamie’s face, a look that says Jamie would rather sleep in her tiny bathtub than wherever Dani is. 

Elegant way out, she can’t find, and she’s tired. Tired, and buzzing with nerves, and somehow, the au pair wins out over all possible variants of Dani Clayton. “It isn’t that bad an idea,” she says, her voice steady. “I don’t even snore.”

This breaks something open between them. She can’t put her finger on just what it is, or why, but suddenly Jamie is laughing, and Dani is grinning, and she knows the stalemate is at its end. It’s been too long a night. There’s just no point.

“Here,” she adds, settling at the edge of the bed, watching Jamie switch off the lights and creep closer as though trying not to startle a skittish animal. “I’ll lay right on the edge, you won’t even have to know I’m here–”

“Don’t be silly,” Jamie says. She hesitates; Dani wonders if she’s giving a final chance for Dani to shoo her away, to choose a night spent alone after all. She thumps the bedspread with a flat palm, staring meaningfully at Jamie until the mattress sinks beneath the weight of au pair and gardener alike. 

“See?” she can’t stop herself saying. “We fit.”

Jamie stares at her, a lingering gaze Dani couldn’t decipher on her best day. She opts to ignore it, stretching out under the rumpled covers. Beside her, Jamie slides a hand beneath her head, staring up at the ceiling. 

“Not so bad,” Dani says, wishing she could shut up, wishing she could stop thinking–about Jamie’s head on the pillow beside her, about Jamie’s scent sunk into this pillow, about the indent of Jamie’s body in this old mattress where maybe no one else has ever lain. Jamie makes a low sound in her chest. 

“Long day.”

“So long.” Was it only this morning Dani was having a small panic attack, the strain of a new job on top of familiar guilt too heavy to bear? Was it only this afternoon she’d grabbed Jamie’s shoulder, pulled her back from storming off to skin Miles alive?

Was it really only this evening she’d stalked out after Peter Quint, crashed headlong into Jamie, listened to police officers warn them all away from the manor in a blackout?

Jamie clears her throat. Dani’s starting to think it’s a nervous habit–Jamie seems to do it only around her. Why on earth would I make her nervous? “Comfortable?” she asks the ceiling. Dani nods. 

In the dark, the bed seems smaller. The pillows are touching, the blankets bridging the brief gap between Jamie’s right leg and Dani’s left. In the dark, Jamie’s breath is audible, the smell of rain and shampoo and clean clothes twisting together into a single knot. 

In the dark, Dani thinks, they could be anyone. Not gardener and au pair, but anyone, bound by a single unpredictable night. 

She wonders if they should talk–about Peter Quint, about the tension of the evening, about the kids, or the roses, or any number of little odd moments around the manor. She wonders if Jamie expects her to ask questions–who Quint is, what he was to Rebecca Jessel, what he might be doing skulking around the house. 

She can’t quite find it in her. It’s too warm, too soft, the silence as inviting as the rustle of Jamie’s borrowed clothes against her skin. Laying in the dark, Jamie’s foot nearly touching her own, listening to the storm pound the windowpanes, Dani is breathing easier than she has in months. 

“I’m glad,” she says quietly, “you’re here.”

Jamie’s head rustles the pillowcase, turning to look at her. “Yeah?”

Dani smiles. “Yeah. I can’t explain it, but I feel…safer.” Something sharpens behind her ribcage, something that begs her to add, With Hannah, with Owen, with the kids, too. She doesn’t. It’s true, but it’s also not really what she means

“He doesn’t know where to find you,” Jamie says, and for a moment, Dani wonders how she could possibly be talking about Eddie. Then Jamie adds, “I hate that fucker. So does Owen. Everyone is safe tonight.”

Right. Peter Quint. Of course. “I’m glad,” Dani repeats. She feels the mattress shift as Jamie carefully settles in. “Jamie?”

“Mm?”

Too many things to say. Too many questions to ask. Too many of those butterflies winging around as Jamie’s elbow bumps her, as Jamie’s breath brushes her cheek. She shuts her eyes, the simple image of Jamie’s gaze inches away too much to handle. 

“Thank you.”

“Anytime, Poppins,” Jamie murmurs. And though Dani’s heart is racing, though her skin is hot, though the storm outside is brutal and Jamie’s bed is much smaller than she’d thought–she finds herself relaxing. Finds herself thoughtlessly shifting to a more comfortable position on her side. Finds herself, even, leaning in toward Jamie’s warmth as the sound of her breathing shallows. 

For the first time in what feels like years, Dani Clayton sleeps.