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who am i (that i should get to hold you)

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You’ll know, they say from the start. You’ll know who it is when the dreams stop.

It’s romantic, Dani Clayton thinks when she finds out how it all works. Romantic and wonderful, the idea of being perfectly matched to someone you might not expect. No one really knows how it works, or why, only that the dreams are the clearest indication you’ve found where you’re meant to be. They start without warning--show you your soulmate--and, once you’ve fallen in love, they disappear as though never there at all. 

It’s magic, Dani Clayton thinks, and there couldn’t possibly be anything better.

“When will I start dreaming?” she asks her father. She is small, golden-haired and blue-eyed, too young yet to know real fear, real loss, real misery. She is small, hiked up onto his shoulders as they stroll through a park, and she thinks this is the height of the world as it should be. Sitting here, trusting him, she has found true joy.

“It’s different for everyone,” her father says, and Dani thinks, Soon, I hope. The other kids in her second-grade class are already starting to have theirs, coming to school with hushed whispers passed between them like furtive notes.

Brown eyes. Mine has brown eyes. Quick, help me make a list.

Scar on her knee. Heather, don’t you have a scar, let me see--

Dani listens to them with quiet curiosity not-quite bordering on envy. Not yet. She’s only seven, and the idea of a soulmate is like a wonderful book lifted from the adult section of the library: fascinating, engaging, but somewhat out of her reach. She doesn’t mind coming to the party late; in a way, it’s nice watching everyone else talking about theirs. It gives her a model of sorts, a path to watch out for, as she waits for the magic to find her, too.

***

Her first dream comes the next year--not two months after her father’s death--and Dani’s thought upon waking is not relief, not joy, but the simple misery of I won’t be able to tell him. Her father, who had given her his eyes, his jawline, his fidgety habit of biting the skin around his nails while he thought. He was supposed to be the one she ran to when this day finally came, ready to take notes on all the little details with her.

All right, she imagines him saying, lay it on me. What are we looking for?

She stares up at her ceiling now, the images fresh in her memory. What is she looking for? Dark hair. Dark, curly hair, the kind that is messy no matter what is done to it.

That’s it, so far. They say it’s different for everyone, but that the dreams often come in pieces to start with. So as not to overwhelm, they say, as though anyone has true authority on the subject. It gives you one piece at a time until you can build a whole.

Dark hair, tousled curls. She gazes at the ceiling and wishes she could tell her dad everything.

***

A boy moves in down the block midway through the year. He has brothers, a kind-faced mother, a neat and orderly way of walking. He has dark hair, tangled into mussed curls. Dani looks up the day he walks into class with a pristine backpack and a wide smile, and thinks, Maybe.

She thinks it would only be fair if there was a sign to go with the details--a clench of her stomach, an extra beat of her heart, a doorbell going off in her head. Anything to tell her she’s on the right track. Instead, she gets only this boy, pointed to the empty desk on her left, who slides into his seat and leans over.

“Edmund O’Mara,” he says, and sticks out a hand. Dani, who has never been prompted to shake by someone her own age, is charmed.

“I’m--”

“Danielle,” the teacher interrupts. “Would you like to show the class how to work out this problem, since you’re so chatty this morning?”

Her face flushes with embarrassed anger, her hands knotting in her skirt. She opens her mouth to argue, to say she hadn’t been doing anything wrong, and closes it again just as quickly. She’s aware of Edmund O’Mara watching her, his smile never wavering.

Pick your battles, her father advises in her head, and she thinks, Dark hair. His hair?

Maybe. Maybe.

***

Eddie is proving quickly to be the only person in the world Dani can trust. He has a sharp eye, a great sense of humor, and when she tells him about her dad, he doesn’t make fun of her for bursting into tears. Most of the other kids are already bored with her grief--it took less than two weeks for even the nicest of them to move on to their own problems.

Homework is piling up, Dani struggling through a mountain of assignment sheets in bed after her mother calls for lights out. It just keeps coming, and her mother just keeps getting further away, and soon, the only thing she has are the dreams.

She’s having them nightly now, a little different every time. Dreams where she is holding someone’s hand--a firm grip, short nails; Dani files the information away upon waking, adds it to the list. Dreams where she walks through a forest--a park--a jungle with this hand in her own, dark hair shot through with unexpected gleams of gold in the sunlight. She takes to watching Eddie suspiciously at recess, trying to determine if his hands will one day take that shape, if his hair has those hidden threads of color buried in the curls.

“Have you had yours?” she asks one day, sitting on his bed after school. He gives her a weird little smile, like he's embarrassed, and she thinks, Boys act like they don’t care. Like they’re not excited about it. The kids at school tease the information out of each other, boys laughing and shoving on the playground until one finally spills: Tall! She’s going to be tall!

She’s sure Eddie will dip away from the question, turn back to the toy soldiers he’s been showing off, but he doesn’t. He says, “They started when I moved in.”

“Mine too!” Dani says, though that isn’t exactly true. They started, in fact, weeks before Eddie turned up at school, became a steady fixture at the desk to her left.

“Maybe it means something,” he says, his eyes darting away behind brand-new gold-rimmed glasses. He does not, Dani notes, tell her what he’s been dreaming of.

***

She dares him to kiss her when they’re ten. It is entirely the fact of last night’s dream that makes her do it; the dreams up to this point have been sweet, soft, fingers notched through her own with perfect ease. She has never yet seen the person’s face, only the dark curls falling over their ears.

When she dreams of her first kiss, she wakes feeling as though someone has run an electric current straight to her heart. She sits up, hand pressing to the stumbling beat under her nightgown, her head swimming. Kissing, from what she’s been able to tell from late-night movies, is a bit awkward. A bit messy. It all looks and sounds very wet to her in a way that makes her nose crinkle with disgust, the men all grasping the women by the jaw as if trying to consume them.

The kiss in the dream, however, was...wonderful. It’s the only word she has, the only way to explain it. Her soulmate will kiss not as though trying to consume her from the inside out, but as though trying to pass something into her. As though trying to share some part of themself they couldn’t possibly explain with words. She touches her lips, remembering the gentle pressure, the almost apologetic way the kiss had broken, and thinks, That’s why they do it, I guess. Because it feels like walking into sunshine.

She dares Eddie to kiss her later that afternoon, and shivers when he breathes against her lips. She wants to laugh, the tickle of it feeling silly and stupid, but if she laughs, he won’t do it. She closes her eyes.

It isn’t wet, at least. If anything, Eddie’s lips are chapped from the summer sun, from the chlorine of the public pool. He leans back, looking at her with eager hope, and she thinks, Maybe it just takes practice.

***

She dreams of green sometimes, the lush green of plants well-tended, and searches for that color around Eddie’s house for days. His mom keeps a few potted plants on the kitchen windowsill. There’s a treehouse out back. The wallpaper in the bathroom is sort of green, if she tilts her head and squints.

Maybe, she thinks, it’s for later. Sometimes the dreams are like that, people say--details coming together over time, instead of all at once. Maybe when they’re older, Eddie will drive a green car, or his favorite shirt will be green, or...

He asks if he can kiss her again a few weeks after the first time, and she almost tells him no for reasons she can’t articulate. It feels like once is a fairy-tale, a princess waking from slumber. Twice feels like a promise she isn’t quite ready to make.

But he’s looking at her with such a smile, his glasses sliding, and she wonders what the harm could be of a quick peck now and then. He always pulls away fast, beaming, color rising high in his cheeks.

She’s always left thinking of the first kiss, the dream kiss, the way she’d woken feeling as though she could fly. They’re too young, she decides. That’s the only answer. They’re too young for it to feel right.

And they’re too young, she adds in a dizzy rush, the day he drops to one knee on the way to school and asks for her hand in marriage. They’re much too young for that, too.

She can’t shake the idea that the dream hasn’t yet mentioned anything about a dress, a church, a priest.

***

Eddie begins telling her about his dream when they’re twelve, adding new details every other day. He’s getting taller by the minute, his arms too lanky, his legs too long. She watches him from the corner of her eye, trying to match this gangly boy on the edge of puberty with the images from her own dreams.

She wonders if she should worry, that the dream has not yet coalesced into someone she can really see. Wonders if it’s a bad sign, that it’s still all curls and hands and that overpowering sense of life, stacking up and telling her almost nothing at all.

“You’re young, honey,” Judy tells her when, while Eddie’s on a pizza run with his dad, Dani nervously asks how long it takes for the dream to really come together.

“Eddie says--”

“Eddie’s young, too,” Judy laughs, ruffling her hair. “Sweetie, enjoy it. It’s like a puzzle, right? It’s supposed to be fun.”

Fun. Dani smiles as though she understands, as though it’s fun trying to piece together the parts of her sleeping world in a way her waking mind can comprehend. It does seem to be fun for her classmates, who steal glances at one another, wondering if that blonde ponytail, or those freckles, or that particular slouch calls out to their dreams. It seems fun for Eddie, too, who describes his dream person like he’s dictating a photo of Dani herself aloud.

Dani wants to enjoy it. Wants it all to fall into place. There’s just something about the image, the way it refuses stubbornly to resolve, that makes her nervous.

“I didn’t have a face to mine until I was in my late teens,” Judy assures her. “There’s nothing to worry about, sweetheart.”

Nothing to worry about, Dani thinks, picking subtly at her nail beneath the table, listening for the return of Eddie at the door. We’re too young for it to matter.

She wonders why that doesn’t feel quite true.

***

“It’s you,” Eddie breathes. They’re in the backseat of his dad’s car, his hand flexing against the front of her blouse with considerably less grace than he seems to realize, and Dani feels as though someone has dropped an anvil onto her chest.

“What?” She pushes at him, relieved when he gives in and scoots back across the bench.

“I didn’t know when to say it,” he says. They’re seventeen, and Eddie seems more sure about just about every aspect of the world than Dani ever has. “You’re so--but it never changed, after we met. It’s always been you.”

She wants to smile. The right answer would be to smile. The right answer, after years of Eddie as her best friend, as the hand to hold during movies, as the voice on the other end of the phone line, is to smile. To be pleased. To be sure.

“How?” she asks. His brow squeezes in confusion, his mouth twitching. She’s been looking at his mouth a lot lately, trying to line up its curve with the crooked smile that has become the focus of recent dreams. It’s...close enough, she thinks. If she’s standing at just the right angle, it can fit.

“I just know, Danielle. Don’t you?” He’s grinning, expectant. She’s been his girlfriend long enough to know that look, the one that says he wouldn’t be listening even if she disagreed.

“I guess,” she says, hoping he’ll hear the hitch behind the words, hoping he’ll lean back and actually talk to her--but it’s been almost two years since their last truly good conversation. She thinks sometimes this is just the way of teenage boys, the misfortune of hormones kicking into high gear.

She thinks sometimes teenage boys are fortunate, that they don’t have to date themselves.

More than anything, she misses her dad in moments like this. Misses the way he’d take her out to the park at sunrise, walk with her among the thickets of trees as she told him everything that had happened that week. It had been so nice, having someone to trust with her secrets, someone who doesn’t push or make fun or grow distracted while she’s still mid-sentence.

She tries to talk to her mom, believing in some still-childish part of her mind that Karen will come out of the darkness someday. That she’ll set aside her resentment and her cocktails and say, “All right, tell me all about it” in that tone of voice Judy comes to so naturally.

“Sounds lucky,” her mother says in a clipped voice, frowning at Dani over her glasses. “He’s a good boy. You could do worse. Like your father.”

No well, what do your dreams say, Danielle? No dark hair, you say? Bit too long to match Eddie’s, you say? Certainly no well, you know what they say about the dreams, about how to tell you’re really in the right place. Are they still filling in, Danielle? Are they still getting clearer?

“You’re absolutely sure,” she says carefully to Eddie at lunch the next week. “No chance you’re...no chance it’s...I mean, it could be...”

“It’s you,” he says brightly, leaning to kiss her over his tray. “It’s only ever been you.”

She smiles, wondering when the cafeteria grew so cold.

***

He is still having them, at least. There’s that much to cling to.

“Every night,” he says proudly, and that’s good. That’s a relief. They’re meant to solidify first, and then, slowly, to fade. Dreams that had come nightly, even several times a night, in several iterations, are meant to gradually taper off--to once a week. Twice a month. Once every year, maybe.

That’s when you know, they say. That’s when you know for sure. When they stop.

Dani’s dreams are not stopping. Not even slowing down. She watches the years tick past--eighteen, nineteen, twenty--and finds herself longing for bed, no matter where she is. College life is harder than high school, in terms of workload, and so much easier, in terms of everything else. She’s good at school, good at putting her head down and focusing on a goal. If she’s finishing assignments more quickly than her peers, if she’s working harder with her mind on the reward of getting to sleep, getting to dream, there’s nothing wrong with that.

Nothing wrong with feeling more comfortable sinking into dreamscape, into the press of hands that are strong, yes, but also gentle. Nothing wrong with preferring the smile of her dreams, teasing in its curve, to the smile across from her at dinner.

It could still be him, she thinks with ever-dwindling certainty. It could. Maybe this smile is just older. Maybe this smile just knows more.

She’s twenty-one, and dreaming of the rich tang of sweat, the earthy smell of the outdoors, the faint tinge of cigarette smoke.

She’s twenty-three, and dreaming of a low, comfortable laugh that drifts across her skin like a kiss.

She’s twenty-five, and dreaming of arms around her, easing her back into an embrace she never wants to leave.

Eddie, she thinks desperately, could fit. If she nearly closes her eyes. If she doesn’t think too hard about the color of his eyes behind his glasses. If she doesn’t think too hard about the angle of his jaw.

Make him fit, she begs the dreams each night. Make him fit so this finally makes sense.

She is twenty-seven, and she is dreaming, and she is aching with all the ways it isn’t quite right.

She is twenty-nine.

And his dreams stop.

***

He’s on one knee.

He’s on one knee, and it’s like she’s ten again. Ten, in a sundress, her knees scuffed and her ears ringing from the absurdity of his question. Will you marry me, Danielle?

It had been so easy to laugh off then, her hand yanking at his elbow, pulling him clumsily to his feet. So easy to point out how silly it would be to get married in the fifth grade.

She wishes it could be that easy now.

“It’s always been you,” he says, and she knows how she’s supposed to feel about it. Knows she’s supposed to weep with joy, fan at her face, pull him into a delighted embrace. She knows she’s supposed to look at him and see the solid, steady reflection of her dream.

A dream that still hasn’t completely rounded out at the corners.

A dream she can’t get back into fast enough each night, praying it will finally grow clean and sharp and true.

His dreams have stopped completely, and she can’t even get hers to show themselves clearly enough to be trusted.

I can’t, she thinks. Say it. Say it right now, right to his face. I. Can’t.

“Okay,” she says weakly. “Okay, yes.”

It wouldn’t be so bad, would it? If the eyes in her dream are ever-shifting in color, if the hair is still too shaggy, too messy, if the hands aren’t nearly as broad as his have become over time. It wouldn’t be so bad, if he always smells of laundry detergent and mint Chapstick, if she’s never once scented the earth on his skin.

It wouldn’t be so bad, to know he’s too tall. That his shoulders are too wide. That his hips aren’t curved enough, that his laugh isn’t sweet enough, that there’s no trace of accent when he says her name.

It wouldn’t be so bad, to know the still-blurry face in the dream doesn’t match up. A person doesn't have to marry their soulmate. And if she is, in fact, his, well--that’s something, right? That can be enough.

Right?

***

Wedding planning is a whirlwind she isn’t prepared to weather, and it almost helps. Almost wipes away some of the unreality of having agreed to this in the first place. There are photos, and there is a party, and there is a ring, and all the while, she is smiling. She is smiling, beautiful and plastic and twitching at the edges, and when they come to her with open arms and excitement, she does the only thing she can.

She lies.

When did the dream solidify for you? Oh, she says, oh, it was so long ago, I couldn't say.

When did it start to fade again? College, she says, or after, I can’t be sure.

When did it stop? When I knew, she says, and smiles such a smile, they can’t see past it to the tremble of her lips.

They don’t ask for details. Maybe they can sense, even through the pageantry and the polite nods, she wouldn’t have any to give.

The only hint she ever gives to anyone is the time--slightly drunk, having been talked into entirely too much wine--she turns to Judy and asks in her softest voice, “Was it him? In your dream. Was it...?”

She’s nodding at Eddie’s father, laughing with his sons over a game of cards on the other side of the room. Judy looks puzzled.

“Well...yes. Of course, sweetheart.”

“I don’t think,” Dani says, her voice thick with weariness, with drink, with emotion, “my dad was in my mom’s. I don’t think he was her--her--”

She bursts into tears, feeling twenty years younger than her actual age at the idea that her father--with his blue eyes and his warm smile and those fidgety fingers he passed on to her--had been dreaming of Karen Clayton his whole life, while Karen had been dreaming of anyone else. How terrible, to know you’ve been settled for. How terrible, to know a person is for you, and you are not for them in return.

How terrible, to allow that person to chain themselves up and throw themselves at your feet, simply because it is easy.

Judy is holding her, shushing into her hair, smoothing down her dress across her shoulders, and Dani thinks, It’s wrong. It’s so wrong. How can I possibly explain it to them?

She falls into bed, half-needing, half-dreading the dream. It comes, as it always does, with open arms. The face is still a blur, still shifting and dancing when she tries to catch all its fine detail, but the voice is soft in her ear. The voice, warm and wry and wonderful, which is not Eddie’s, which is nothing like Eddie’s, curling around her like a clean blanket.

You’re doing great, the voice says, and she believes it the way she’s never believed Eddie, not since they were small and hopeful and stupid.

You’re doing great.

She wakes thinking flowers, thinking shadows, thinking us.

***

He takes her out to dinner. It’s meant to ease the tension, she knows; he sees all too little of her, but it’s impossible for him to miss this much. The way she’s been dragging through her days, exhausted by the simplest things, worn thin by school, and conversation, and the implacable pressure of his hand on her shoulder.

He takes her out to dinner, and she knows he wants to see the old her. The version of her that smiled and waved and feigned simplicity. He misses that girl. He believes, deep down, she still is that girl.

If he were still dreaming, he might be able to see the changes in her. If the magic still spun behind his eyelids each night, drawing her in neat, perfect lines, he might notice how she walks heavy these days, how she clenches her fists to keep from shaking, how her smile is a balancing act while her teeth clench.

But Eddie hasn’t had a dream in months, save for the usual absurdity of the subconscious. Eddie sees only what is right in front of him, and not usually all that clearly.

She’s not sure why she asks him to tone it down. It just sort of slips out, the words making a panicked bid for freedom while she isn’t looking. She says it, and he’s frowning, and she thinks, His lips are too thin. His cheeks are the wrong shape. His fingers are uncalloused. A reel of wrongs, lined up, each making the last harder to write off.

“For a second,” he says, sounding tight and not even the least bit relieved, “I thought you were gonna say you didn’t want to get married at all.”

You’re doing great, says that rich, accented voice that is nothing like his. She meets his gaze, registering for the thousandth time how their color stands still, refusing to shift with the light.

There was, perhaps, a better time to tell him.

There was, perhaps, a kinder way to say it.

Dani closes her eyes, and jumps.

***

“The dream,” he says. They’re in the car, his eyes fixed unblinking on the road, though he has yet to even turn the engine over. She watches his face from the corner of her eye, hating the way his throat bobs.

“I know. I’m sorry.”

“You said,” he tells her. “You said you’d stopped having it, too.”

Did I, thinks Dani tiredly, or did you just read that in my silence?

“Was it ever me?” His voice is rising, anger filtering in beneath the hurt. “Huh? Was it ever me, Danielle?”

Dani Clayton, a voice she’s never met murmurs against her ear. She closes her eyes.

“No,” she breathes, a confession she’s needed to make since she was eight years old. “No, Eddie, I don’t think it ever was.”

His throat works, his hand coming up hard against his eyes. “I don’t understand. This makes no sense. You said.”

I didn’t, she thinks, with a bit more force. “I wanted it to be--I mean, the hair was the right--and I thought maybe the smile--”

“The smile?” he repeats, an ugly cold lining to his voice. “Danielle, it stopped being about your hair, and your eyes, and your smile when we were fifteen. You’re still sitting there trying to make a smile fit?”

She knows. She remembers him talking about the cadence of her laugh, about the precise way she has of walking, about her poor cooking and her fear of driving and her terrible way of mimicking actors onscreen when her brain feels she should be able to do an accent, and her mouth refuses to comply. He stopped describing a girl who might be Dani Clayton before they were out of high school, painting instead a person she couldn’t help but grow into. He knew things of her she hadn’t even realized were coming.

But he didn’t see this.

He didn’t see her, despite it all. A dream can only give so much, even backed with all the magic in the world.

“You,” he snaps, “are supposed to be my soulmate. What am I supposed to do now, Danielle?”

“I love you,” she says weakly. “I can’t--I can’t change the rest, but I do love--”

“Oh, fuck you.” He shakes his head, spits it again. “Fuck you, Danielle.”

He’s never said those words to her before. Never even jokingly. She tries to reach across to him, tries to make him look at her. I can explain, she thinks, knowing full well that’s just another lie. I can make it right, knowing with perfect clarity there is no such thing.

He’s unbuckling his seatbelt, hand slipping on the door handle. She tries to follow, tries to get him to stop for just one minute, one minute so she can force the world to stop spinning.

He’s out the door.

A horn is blaring.

Dani Clayton is screaming.

***

The dreams should stop. It would only be fair. It would only be kind.

Edmund O’Mara is dead, and Dani is still wearing his ring, and everyone just keeps telling her sorry, how sorry they are, what a sorry situation this is all around. The dreams should stop. The man who thought she--of all the options in the world, of all the people breathing--was his soulmate, is dead.

And still, Dani Clayton is dreaming.

In the dreams, she is afraid. She can’t see the thing chasing her--can’t be sure it’s even really there--but the fear is like ice down her back all the same. She’s running, hunched in an effort to seem small, to disappear into the shadows. She’s running, and there is a hand in hers.

A soft, strong hand, matching hers almost exactly in size. Soft and pale, with freckles scattered up the arm here and there in a reckless splash. The hand squeezes once, as if to say, Never far from you. Not for all the wishes in the world.

She wakes feeling safe for ten whole seconds before the memory of the truck, the blood, the hospital comes crashing back down.

Eddie O’Mara is dead.

But dead is not gone.

***

He watches her more now than when he was alive, somehow. Sees more, too, she thinks. When you’re dead, there are no longer any boundaries to navigate, not if you can get in.

He’s in every pane of glass--each window, each gleaming wall, every single mirror she passes. He’s waiting. And she thinks he can see her dream now, can make out all the little details she tried to stow away.

He never speaks. She wishes sometimes he would--that he would allow himself to be more than the shine of his glasses, the blood caked into his skin, the somber expression. It’s her fault, she knows. It’s her fault, because she couldn’t get the dream to line up, and she couldn’t keep lying to him the way he needed.

Accident, they all whisper. Terrible, tragic, awful accident. You’re so strong, Danielle. You’re so brave. At least you'll see him again in your sleep.

She stops sleeping. Stops everything, really. Wonders if she can turn it off by sheer force of will. She was Eddie’s soulmate, even if he wasn’t hers, and it isn’t fair to think she has a chance at finding the person from her dreams now that he’s dead. It isn’t fair to think she should have that opportunity, with him barely thirty and rotting in a grave. It isn’t fair.

So, she stops sleeping. She drinks bad coffee and turns on every light in the house, and she covers the mirrors. Every last one. There are some things she owes him in death, but she can’t stomach the sight of his unmoving expression around every corner.

She doesn’t deserve the dreams. They whisper to her of gentle hands, of a kiss that tastes like sunshine, of someone holding her close and keeping her safe, and she shakes them off. She doesn’t have to listen. Doesn’t have to look for signs of dancing eyes, of a hidden scar, of strong hands with dirt edged around the fingernails.

Eddie O’Mara is dead, and there are some gifts the dead ought to be granted.

***

“You look terrible,” her mother tells her.

“Are you eating?” the other teachers at school ask.

“Honey, you need to take care of yourself,” Judy insists, even as she’s pushing Eddie’s glasses into Dani’s hand. Even as she’s giving this piece of doomed memorabilia to Dani like she could do anything with it except watch for his eyes in the glass.

There were never glasses in the dreams, she thinks dully. Not even once.

She owes him, the ghost of the man who loved her. She owes him, and she can’t pay that debt, because she can’t shut the dreams off for anything. She’s been dozing off in front of the TV, on the bus, in the teacher’s lounge. Every time, she is greeted by soft murmurs, a gentle press of fingers along her cheek, an easy silence she has done nothing to earn.

They’re out there, whoever they are. They’re not Eddie, and she doubts she could handle it even if she did find them, and Dani--

--can’t stop wondering.

It’s the accent that finally makes her do it. The soft curl of syllables turning up at the corners, trimming the ends from words she pronounces with hard, sudden stops. The accent, which fits no one she’s ever met in small-town Iowa, puts her on a plane.

And the dreams...

Grow stronger.

***

She walks most places. Driving, which felt like an awful idea even before Eddie’s death, is a violence now; she doesn’t mind public transportation, someone else’s hands on the wheel, but the idea of renting a vehicle herself is repugnant. Anyway, she likes this better: moving on the power of her own legs, thinking with every step of her father, of his hands holding her little legs steady on his shoulders as they explored the world together.

She walks, exploring shops and cafes and parks, and she tries not to notice reflections. Tries not to notice the eyes watching from every window. Every car door. Every mirror.

He’s followed her, and it isn’t that she thought he wouldn’t--not really. It’s only that she thinks there’s only so much one person can carry in their head.

The dreams, from the moment she touches down in Europe, grow clearer.

Eddie, too, somehow.

She closes her eyes, turns from him, turns toward the freedom a new country offers with open arms. It’s beautiful here--France, Spain, Germany all holding secrets she could never have known to want, back home. It’s beautiful, and the people are willing to teach little customs, snippets of language, pleased with her eagerness to learn. She might never want to go back, she thinks after a month. After four, she can’t find a reason why she would.

After six, she needs to find a reason to stay. A job. A fixed, steady way of building this new life, where she is Dani, always Dani, never again Danielle. A life where the mirrors stay covered and her head turns from windows, but the dream is growing sharper every time.

It’s a woman, she knows now.

It’s a woman, she maybe should have known all along.

She doesn’t know what to do with that information, really. Doesn’t quite know how it could even be true. It’s one thing, she believes, to look at women--to wonder after the softness of them, the curve of painted lips, the specific way they move around one another as though on a pattern Dani never quite picked up. It’s one thing, to find women beautiful, and interesting, and to want to look.

It’s quite another to know the face in the dreams belongs to one.

To feel, with a certainty she did not previously understand, that the person slowly approaching resolution is, in fact, like her.

It doesn’t mean anything, she knows. Doesn’t mean she’ll ever even find this woman. The world is huge, and she has been moving for so long, she’s not sure she remembers how to stand still. The odds of stopping somewhere long enough to meet this woman--long enough for the dreams to solidify--well, they're...

She glances up, catches a glimpse of glasses and dark hair in a passing bus. She closes her eyes.

It wouldn’t matter, even if she did.

Eddie is always watching.

***

There’s a certain pride, in landing the job at Bly Manor. A certain pride in proving--to herself, to Henry Wingrave, to her mother--that she is still capable of some things, even if those things do not include sleeping soundly or passing reflections without gasping.

You can pretend, it’s tempting to think, even as she’s climbing into a car and making small talk with Owen Sharma. You can pretend none of it ever happened.

Or, she thinks, she could just...be. For once in her life, she could simply walk into that old house with the right name, the right intentions, the right way of doing things. No pretending necessary.

She’s still trying to figure out what that will look like when she slides into sleep and finds herself facing a long row of rosebushes.

The air is cool on her skin, the world little more than sunlight and green leaves, and she knows, somehow, that she is getting closer. Knows, somewhere deep down where thought stops and instinct takes over, that she can almost smell this place on the air. Can almost taste the breeze playing through her hair. Can almost feel--

A hand, at her hip. A hand, curling around to hold her close. Not a trap, not an exercise in ownership, but a genuine desire to press near and feel safe.

She turns, certain, almost certain, hoping for certainty, that the face will have resolved when she looks. She can feel it in the clamor of her pulse, in the quick inhalation. If she turns her head enough, the woman will be there--

She jolts awake, her neck aching. Up front, Owen looks guilty.

“Sorry. Country roads. You still on American time?”

She laughs it off and feels herself already setting the stage somewhere between pretending and sincerity. “No. Just haven’t been getting much sleep lately.”

She does not tell him the rest--this man is kind, she thinks, but there is something reserved in him. Something of his smile that feels too sad, too tired, for her to pick at with her own problems.

She wonders if he’s still having the dream. If he has found his person yet. If they’ll ever be close enough for her to feel all right asking.

The house comes into view, and her breath stops. There’s something evocative about it, something like coming back to summer camp ten years later and barely remembering the kid who understood its rules. Have I dreamt this? Have I been here before?

“Can I get out and walk the rest of the way?” she asks, needing to feel the soil beneath her feet, needing to explore the unrepentant green of the place without anyone watching.

If she stumbles upon a rosebush, she’s honestly not sure what she’ll do.

***

She stumbles, instead, upon a lake and a girl. A lake, a girl, and a song she swears she’s heard somewhere before, coiling beneath closed eyes.

“What a beautiful song,” she says, though a low pulse of adrenaline skirts up her spine. The little girl turns, eyes wide, and Dani gets her first impression of Flora Wingrave: precocious, too small, endlessly well-mannered in a way that makes her grin.

Miles Wingrave, too, is charming. A bit quiet, perhaps, but he takes her hand like a boy twice his age, and she thinks, I can make a difference. With both of them, I think I can.

She turns her eyes to Hannah Grose, delighted with the woman’s easy manner and strong elegance. Like Owen, she gets the sense Hannah could be her sort of people, given very little time.

Do you dream? she wants to ask. Do you dream, or do you have it all figured out?

Questions for another day. For after a tour of the house--sprawling, each new room appearing like magic after she’s sure the place ought to have run out of space--and a pleasant dinner, and a settling in of new routine. There are things that pull at her, a nearly overpowering sense of deja vu, leaving her frowning around corners.

“All right, Miss Clayton?” Hannah asks politely. Dani shakes her head, smiles like she hadn’t been sure, suddenly, so sure she’d step into this room to find gentle curves and a tangle of dark curls waiting.

“It’s been a long trip,” she says instead, relieved when Hannah gives her a small pat on the shoulder.

There are other kinds of tiny oddities: Miles, watching through the crack of her door; Flora’s discomfiting sureness about a doll kept under her dresser. The bizarre sense of being watched, no matter where she walks. She goes to bed with every intention of staying there for the night, recalling the exhaustion from the car ride over--but something about the idea of dreaming here, in this house, is too big to stack on top of the day.

One night, she thinks with a desperation she doesn’t entirely understand. One night without waiting for it to crash home.

The walls seem to exhale around her, the shadows twisting as she waits for water to boil, and it does not feel right, exactly. But neither is it the breathless wait for a hand in the night. A house, Dani thinks, she can handle.

***

She feels good, for running on nearly no sleep; she’d kept herself solidly awake with a combination of tea and blazing lamplight until sunrise. It is not, she tells herself, a fear of shadows. It is not, she tells herself, a fear of what she might see behind closed eyes.

The house is great, the house is good, the house is already too familiar--and she can be all right, here. If she works at it. If she tries.

The air just smells good, she thinks as she strides the grounds with the kids that morning. The air smells crisp and clean, the sun stubbornly cheerful above her, and Flora is a bit standoffish, Miles a bit hard to read, but it’s nothing she can’t handle.

The man, too, is manageable. A repairman, she thinks. Rude, maybe, in his refusal to return her wave, but nothing to spark alarm.

“They got away from me,” she announces in the kitchen, already at home amid the warm smiles and gentle banter of people she’s known a day. It’s easy to set aside the tension of that man’s gaze, the awareness walking past too many windows that any one of them might host Eddie’s blank face. It’s easy, she tells herself, to play the part of the well-adjusted young au pair, not running from anything, not put-off by the memory of places she has not yet been.

She’s sipping lemonade when the woman walks into the room and all the air goes out of her.

The hair, less curly than she’d imagined. The face, smudged with dirt. The eyes, meeting hers briefly and skating away again, are--

Gray in this light, maybe.

She exhales, suddenly aware she has been staring for entirely too long to explain away. The woman, washing her hands, teasing the children with a flick of water, does not seem to care at all that she is sitting at this table. She doesn’t introduce herself. Doesn’t say a thing until Dani, in a desperate bid to remind herself she is here, she is right here, even if her mind is filing over every iteration of the dream she can recall, says, “Was there...someone working on the grounds?”

Those eyes flick up. Green? They’re gone again before Dani can say.

And hadn’t they been that way, in the dream? Hadn’t they been ever-changing, ever-matching the light in unexpected ways, like Eddie’s never--

“Can’t imagine,” the woman says, and it takes everything in Dani not to blurt, Accent. Is it the right one? The curl of tongue around words that sound so different to when Dani forms them?

More, she doesn’t say. Keep talking until I know.

The woman eats, laughs, keeps up steady conversation for the rest of lunch. Never once does she tell Dani her name.

***

“Who, uh...who was that?” Dani asks. Owen, clearing dishes, looks perplexed.

“Who was who?”

“The--” Dani makes a jerky gesture toward the chair the woman had, half an hour ago, pushed back with a cheerful, Back to it. “Her.”

“Oh!” His expression clears, though the confusion is not entirely gone. “Jamie. What, you didn’t--I mean, I just assumed you’d already met.”

So did I, she thinks with a helplessness that feels very much like being swept out to sea. “No. No, Flora mentioned her yesterday, I think.”

“Strange that she wouldn’t say anything. She’s normally got better manners.” He pauses, squinting thoughtfully. “Well. A good heart, anyway.”

“No fair,” Hannah says gently, swatting him with a dishtowel, “poking fun when she isn’t here to defend herself.”

“So, she’s the...” Say it. You already know. She can’t, of course, can’t possibly know the answer to this question. Her pulse is running races in her throat, her hands tingling.

“Groundskeeper,” Hannah fills in for her. “Gardener, really, if she has it her way. The rest is just padding. She’s a good sort. I think you two will get on fine.”

Sure, Dani thinks distantly. Get on just fine. Because it’s not definitely her. Could be anyone, still. Could be--

“What color,” she hears herself say, “would you say her eyes are?”

“Green,” says Hannah.

“Gray,” says Owen.

“Right,” says Dani, looking determinedly away from their identically quizzical expressions. “I, uh. Should go find the kids.”

***

The kids lock her in a closet.

The kids lock her in a closet.

Dani, running on almost no sleep and an almost certain feeling of having met the Bly gardener over and over in a world made of dreams, is not having her best night.

Breathe, she reminds herself, even as her voice is cracking. Breathe, she reminds herself, even as her hand is forming a fist, slamming itself against the wood. Breathe, she thinks desperately, and realizes she is screaming herself hoarse.

She doesn’t remember collapsing. Barely remembers, even, how she’d staggered backward and dragged the full-length mirror with her, Eddie’s damning expression watching her all the way. Her chin touches her chest, her eyes drooping with the drained exhaustion of one who has just panicked away the last of her daily function.

The hand in hers is grimed with dirt. She’s grabbed it, she realizes, while the woman was working. Grabbed it, and used it to pull the woman close.

Don’t, she thinks, even as her dreaming eyes turn. Don’t look at her--

The click of a lock jerks her out of her doze. She rolls to her feet, surges out of the closet, shuddering all over even as the kids are saying, “We’re sorry. Dreadfully sorry. It was an accident.”

They’re grieving, she reminds herself.

They’re hurting, she reminds herself.

“Bed,” she says aloud, resisting the urge to bury her face in her hands and weep. “Bed. Now.”

There is mud in the hall, gravel beneath her boots, mascara smeared under tears she couldn’t ward off, and the air is too clean, too crisp, too brisk. Eddie’s glasses, in the mirror. A strong hand in her own, soil under the blunt nails. 

It’s too much, she thinks, turning to stare dazedly up at the children in their windows. It’s just all too much.

***

She sleeps. There’s no stopping it this time, no warding it off with caffeine and sugar and the restless energy of a new bed. By the time she falls onto the mattress, she’s almost too tired to even pull the blankets up. 

The dream, as though frustrated with her attempts to hold it at bay, is waiting. She is standing in a room--no, not a room, a shop. Nowhere she’s ever been, nowhere she’s ever seen, but the dream assures her it is familiar. Home, even. 

Her eyes trace the walls, finding all manner of plant life--flowers and vines, a forest of small trees, the world of man and the world of nature blending with seamless wonder. She reaches, brushes her fingers across a string of white blossoms lining the counter, feels them sigh beneath her touch. 

She knows, before she turns, that the woman will be behind her. Knows, before she turns, that this is the moment she’s been trying so hard to turn from. Did Eddie know, the way she does now, that he was in not only the dream but The Dream? Did her father know, setting eyes upon her mother, that he’d drift off to find her face more solid than it ever could be in life?

Wake up, she thinks helplessly, even as her body is pivoting. Wake up, I don’t know that I can take it, not yet. Not with Eddie on the other side of consciousness, waiting to trip her up. Not with Eddie’s eyes lost forever to the shine of oncoming death. 

Wake up, because this is the moment it all changes for good, she thinks, but the curiosity is too strong to deny. 

The arms around her waist are slim. The chin on her shoulder rests lightly. The hair tickling her face is dark, lightly curled, soft. 

She turns, and she knows. She knows it will be her. Hadn’t she felt it, watching this woman walk into the room in a house on the other side of unreality? Hadn’t she known, down deep, that she’s known this woman forever, somehow?

Jamie’s face, among flower and wall and golden light, is the most solid one she’s ever seen.

***

Okay, she thinks, okay, so it’s her. But it doesn’t have to stay her. It happens all the time, she’s told--a face might solidify in a moment, only to be replaced in a month, or a year, with someone better fitting. Soulmates are complicated. Soulmates can evolve. 

All the time might be a bit of a stretch. 

All the time might be...

“You all right?” Hannah looks gently concerned. “You look...”

Rattled, Dani thinks is probably the word she’s searching for, though Hannah is far too polite to say so. “There was a...moment last night,” she says, because she is thirty years old, and only just felt the dream lock into place, and Hannah doesn’t need to know that. This, though. This, Hannah might require. “The kids.”

She explains, carefully leaving out the finer details of her panic attack, though how Hannah hadn’t heard her screaming and banging away from downstairs, she can’t say. She’s only relieved the woman hadn’t come charging up to rescue her. There are only so many indignities a person can suffer in an evening.

Hannah, to her credit, looks unhappy. “They’ve been through a lot, I’m afraid. They can be...unpredictable at times.”

Dani nods, understanding, and knowing all the while there is no excuse for some behavior patterns. Still, isn’t this why she’s here? To help? To guide them in the right direction?

Not, she adds with resolve, to fall in love.

The kids are no more willing this morning to explain themselves, no more enticed toward truth by her stern expression than they had been by her sweat-soaked face and trembling mouth. She settles for a minor punishment: a mop, pushed into Miles’ small hand. A trip to the cellar to recover a lost doll. 

A curious prickling at the back of her neck, she attributes to old houses. 

An uneasy sense of being watched, she offers up to residual weariness. 

It is, she reminds herself, fingers curling around Flora’s gray-dressed doll, only a house. Nothing to be frightened of. Nothing at all wrong with even the depths of the cellar. 

Still. The night was long. And dark. And there is a sense of the unexplainable she cannot, even striding back into the kitchen, quite wish away.

“We,” she announces over breakfast, “are going to be spending some time outside today.” 

***

“Why,” Miles complains, “do we have to do this?”

“Builds character,” Dani tells him with a smile. He wrinkles his nose. 

“What kind of character comes from pulling weeds?”

“I like it,” Flora announces. She has dirt caked into both palms, on the knees of her pants, in her hair. “Look! Miss Clayton! Miss Clayton, I’m Jamie!”

“You are not,” Miles says grumpily. Flora turns out her lower lip in a pout. 

“I am! I can be Jamie!”

Dani hazards a glance toward the little table where Jamie herself is sprawled, chatting away with Hannah, a cigarette loose between her fingers. Her posture is that of a woman most at home on these grounds, with these people, sun on her face and breeze playing around her hair. 

She is, Dani tries terribly hard not to notice, extremely pretty when she smiles that way--tossing her head back and laughing at something Dani can’t pick up from this distance. 

If that laugh is a little more familiar than it has any right to be--

If the distant scent of smoke calls forth something Dani isn’t ready for--

If Jamie’s eyes are flicking her way, her head tipping a bit in greeting, and if it’s making Dani feel at once too warm and too present--

“How’re they doing?” she manages, aware of Flora shaking dirt out of a torn root system, of Miles discreetly wiping his hands on his pants as if fearing a permanent stain. 

“Perfectly,” Jamie replies. Nothing more. Nothing to invite Dani into whatever bubble she’s formed with Hannah and Owen and a tray of drinks. 

Nothing to suggest she’s been seeing Dani’s eyes in her own dreams. 

She swallows, turns her attention back to the task at hand, to Flora now dangling a ripped-up plant over Miles’ hair with the clear intent of covering him in soil. She steps between them, giving Flora a warning look, and tries not to think of Eddie’s face in a car. Tries not to think of his broken, angry voice saying, What am I supposed to do now?

The face in her dreams is Jamie’s. There’s no denying that much. The faint cling of cigarette smoke, the calloused fingers, the smudges of dirt on denim. The dream is--has always been--Jamie. 

But that doesn’t mean Jamie has been dreaming of her in return. Jamie might not even--Jamie might not even be--

“Miss Clayton!” Miles is extending cupped hands toward Flora, who is shrieking her name as she scrambles away from whatever insect he’s picked up now. “Miss Clayton, make him stop!”

As if that’s ever been my strong suit with anything else, she thinks darkly. 

***

She sends the kids off to clean up, impressed by how well they’d worked with minimal complaint. They’re good at heart, she honestly believes--whatever they’re carrying, whatever grief scars the innocence they ought to have been allowed for years, yet, they mean well.

Flora, certainly, stealing into Dani’s room to put her things away, could not mean anything else.

Flora, certainly, could have no idea where those glasses have been.

The breath is hitching in her chest, the tears coming hard as she flees--flees, she is fleeing an eight year old girl--and all she can think is, Glasses, there were never any goddamned glasses. Not once. Not even for a second. 

Why didn’t she tell him that? Why did she go so many years, letting him believe, letting herself believe, when there was never once a pair of--

“You all right?”

She closes her eyes. She doesn’t need this. All she’d wanted, really, was to find a new world in which she could rebuild. That was it. Nothing terribly complicated. A new world, where Dani could rise from the ashes of Danielle, where she could walk wherever she pleased and try exciting food and smile at strangers in coffee shops. A new world, without the weight of a dream she can’t control hanging over her head. 

Without the woman she’s been waiting for her entire life very pointedly not trying to look at her tear-streaked face. 

“Kids.” Jamie, standing a polite distance from her nervous breakdown, sets something down. Dani can’t bring herself to look. “Run you ragged.”

No why are you freaking out? No not up for this, are you? Just Jamie, stating a plain fact.

“Well,” Jamie goes on, and god, there’s no way to deny the voice. No way to deny how often she’s woken with this exact curvature of accent ringing in her head. “People, really. All of ‘em. S’why I prefer plants. Easier to get along with.”

She pauses briefly, as though waiting for Dani to chime in. Dani is unable to breathe, unable to allow herself the room to say anything at all, lest she blurt, It’s been you since I was barely able to understand what this would mean, and I never knew. 

“And if I ever don’t like one. If one ever looks at me kinda funny, can always just...y’know.” Jamie makes a gurgling sound that, even without looking, Dani can tell is accompanied by a throat-slitting motion. “So, if it’s child-rearing advice you’re after, I’d just--”

She can’t help the laugh that chokes out of her, a strangled sound so unlike herself, it’s almost embarrassing. 

Jamie, to some degree Dani can’t make out with her face turned away, sounds pleased with herself when she adds, “There we are. S’not so bad, right?”

She has to say something. She has to do something, apart from staring fixedly away from Jamie, though everything in her vibrates to match the dream. Turn. Turn and look. You’ve waited so long. “Yeah,” she manages. It’s nearly nothing, but Jamie seems to take it as encouragement. 

“I cry three, maybe four times a day ‘round here,” she says helpfully. “Five, if I’m really being honest with myself.”

Why, Dani thinks, are you being honest with me? Jamie owes her nothing. Jamie never so much as extended a handshake, has never shown the slightest sign of wanting to speak to her before this moment. 

if this is a bother to Jamie herself, she’s remarkable at hiding it. Dani can’t resist turning her head, looking around the shrub she’s failed to hide behind in time to see Jamie’s surprisingly-earnest expression. 

“How else do you think I keep all these fuckin’ plants watered?” she asks pleasantly. “With my endless well of deep, inconsolable tears, that’s how.”

Maybe it’s the amused twist of her mouth when she says it, Dani thinks, or the teasing dance of her eyebrows. Maybe it’s the way she’s standing with hands in her pockets, the silver of her necklace standing out in the sun. Maybe it’s just some indefinable part of Jamie that calls to the image Dani’s been handling, twisting, trying to piece together her whole life. 

Whatever it is, she finds herself unable, suddenly, to quiet the crashing imbalance of her heart when Jamie adds, solemnly, sincerely, “Look, you’re doing great.”

Flowers, she thinks suddenly. Shadows. Us. 

“Thank you,” she says, because it’s saner than, We’ve done this before. Do you feel it? Do you remember?

“Back to it, then,” Jamie says, almost idly, picking up her buckets and angling back toward the house. “Chin up, Poppins.”

Do you remember? Dani doesn’t call after her. Do you remember me at all? 

Haven’t we done this already?

***

“Little shit,” Jamie snarls. This, at least, is something Dani is unfamiliar with. This--the sparking anger under Jamie’s words, her normally-light demeanor all but aflame as she inspects a tattered rose--is new. Not comfortable, maybe; there’s something about Jamie’s rage she finds incomprehensible after years of chasing her smile behind closed lids. Not comfortable at all. 

But new, at least. Not a story Dani’s already read. Not a story she wants so badly to ask if Jamie has shared. 

“Hey,” she says mildly, aware she needs to say something. Jamie shakes her head, as if Dani isn’t even here. 

“Little fucking shit,” she repeats, standing, clapping her hands in a gesture of resolution. “I’m gonna kill him. Swear to god--”

“Hey, no.” Dani’s hands are reaching without her consent, grasping hold before Jamie can make it three steps. She tries not to notice the ease with which her fingers find Jamie’s sleeve, the too-natural weight of Jamie’s arm beneath her grip. “They’re just a few flowers.”

“Oh,” Jamie says, almost shrilly. “Sure. Well, that’s fine, then.”

Dani almost wants to take a step back. Almost wants to duck out from beneath the rising swell of Jamie’s anger, suddenly directed at her. 

Not at me, she reminds herself, searching Jamie’s eyes--and even now, she can’t quite tell. Blue? Gray? Not Eddie’s, certainly. “A little boy,” she says, trying to locate her most stable tone of voice, “cut a few flowers, what’s the big deal--”

“They weren’t ready,” Jamie spits, “to be cut.”

There it is. There--not in the blade’s edge of her voice, not in the blazing eyes, but the words. They weren’t ready. They weren’t--

Jamie seems to be trying to pull herself back together, away from a person who would shout into the face of a complete stranger. There’s something skittering about her, something that doesn’t sit right with anything else Dani’s seen, and Jamie seems almost embarrassed even as she struggles to explain.

“Look, I just. I have a way of doin’ things, and I don’t like people messing about in my garden--”

“No,” Dani says before she can dig herself any deeper, the mortification blooming up through her anger. “You’re right.” And then, because it doesn’t seem like enough, even with the tension already slipping out of Jamie before her eyes, again: “You’re right. I’ll talk to him.”

Jamie seems unable to meet her eyes now, swaying back and forth as though emptied of all adrenaline. “’Course.” Her gaze flicks up, her mouth working. “Look, could we just go back to the bit where, ah, you were acting mental, and I had to talk to you down?”

It’s the tiny quirk of her smile, Dani thinks, that really feels right. That tiny, nervous twitch of her mouth saying, I’m sorry. It wasn’t you. I’m sorry. 

In a way, it’s almost reassuring--that there are parts of Jamie that haven’t made their way into the dream. That Jamie is, in fact, a real, living woman who can’t be summed up by an image in Dani’s head. Even after years. Even after a lifetime.

Did that ever occur to Edmund, she wonders, even as she’s smiling at Jamie now. Even once, did that occur to him? That a dream can’t possibly contain a whole person?

She suspects it is not a question whose answer she actually wants. 

***

The night goes from lovely--a game of hide and seek with the kids--to unpleasant--the shadows shifting as though under their own power--to worse. By the time Miles is on the floor and Peter Quint has disappeared into the depths of the grounds, Dani is really beginning to wonder what she’s signed on for.

Going out in the dark armed with a fire poker and a flashlight perhaps isn’t her wisest move--but she finds herself truly unable to sit still. There’s a jittery feeling that has only been climbing the walls of her for two days, stoked by every strange interaction and jumping floorboard. The idea that she might run into Peter Quint is terrifying; the idea that he, a flesh and blood man with flesh and blood rules, might make more sense than the rest of Bly put together is almost a reassurance.

She does not find Peter Quint.

Her light, instead, sweeps across a wicked-looking gun, a brown jacket, a pair of eyes that, in the dark, could be colorless. 

“Got the right idea,” Jamie points out, when they’ve recovered themselves. “Make this a teachable moment for him.”

Dani, uncertain, says nothing. She can’t get a read on this woman, who seems to jump from low-energy smiles to blistering rage faster than she can follow. The Jamie who told her, in a low, certain voice, that she was doing great and the Jamie who would be more than happy to add Peter fucking Quint to the tally could not seem more different. 

And yet...a thread stretches between the two that Dani thinks she understands too well for having only just held her second conversation with the woman. A solidness stands behind both Jamie’s smile and the way she is hefting that gun. It, too, is more reassuring than Dani can fully wrap her head around.

“Have you--” 

Her head comes up, her eyes finding Jamie’s, but Jamie is not finishing that sentence with been dreaming. She’s nodding toward the chapel, wondering if Dani’s done the job properly yet. 

Of course she won’t ask, she chastises herself, even as she’s falling into step with Jamie’s stride. It isn’t polite to ask after other people’s dreams, not unless you really know them. Walking up and telling them they’re your person? It simply isn’t done.

Anyway, there’s no evidence at all that Jamie dreams. That Jamie would care for her, with or without dreams pushing her in Dani’s direction. That they have anything at all in common. 

Except, perhaps, a fervent desire to rid the grounds of Peter fucking Quint.

It isn’t nothing.

***

Owen offers to stay the night. Jamie, Dani notices, says nothing of the kind. Only walks into the next room and plops down on the couch like she’s always been there, like she is as much a fixture of this house as that winding staircase. 

Do you feel it? she still does not say. Do you feel it like I feel it?

Jamie sips her drink and speaks of Rebecca Jessel and lets her eyes scrape across Dani’s face like she’s trying not to notice it. Dani tries to follow suit, tries not to feel as though the hair falling into Jamie’s eyes belongs between her fingers, as though the way Jamie leans back does not remind her of holding Jamie close. Dreams are only dreams, and Jamie owes her nothing. 

She is not conscious of the musical chairs, of Owen standing, stretching, moving to tend the fire and pour himself another drink. Somehow, Dani finds herself on the couch, sitting just far enough from Jamie to make absolutely sure she won’t embarrass herself. 

Jamie, for her part, only looks Dani over as she settles in. Only smiles a crooked little half-smile and pulls the blanket from the back of the couch to offer up. It’s hard not to notice the slide of her fingers for the briefest of moments as Dani takes it from her, pulls it obediently over herself. 

We fit, she thinks against her own will. Don’t you feel it? 

“Rather that was you curled up there,” Jamie murmurs, watching Hannah’s head bob against Owen’s shoulder. Dani looks at her sharply, searching for hidden depths: is Jamie jealous of Hannah? Of Dani, somehow? 

No. There is something else, a resigned sort of bitterness, behind her expression. Like someone who has, for too long, watched someone else handed the product of work they did not put in.

Sure enough, she adds, “Every girl in the village is mad for him. Doesn’t even know it. Which makes him worse.”

She isn’t laughing, though Dani does not get the sense it’s really Owen she’s bothered by. A person can’t choose their love. A person can’t choose who looks at them. 

Did you dream of one of them? she wonders. Was it a girl in the village, a girl who dreamt of Owen? Is this one big string of clasped hands, no one ever finding their match because their match is already looking somewhere else?

Exhausting, she thinks. So much easier, if none of it mattered. If she didn’t feel in her bones that Jamie’s eyes lingering on her own is the rightest thing in the world. 

“Has he,” she begins, and stops dead. Jamie frowns. 

“Has he what?” 

Dani’s mouth works, color rising up her neck. “It isn’t my business. I just--I was curious if he’d--”

Jamie, incredibly, seems to understand. “Solidified?” She shakes her head once. “Nah. I mean, not that he’s said. I think he’s lying, personally, but it isn’t my business, either.”

Dani darts a glance to ensure Owen is not aware they’re speculating about him from six feet away. He appears, to all rights, to be dozing with his head balanced gently atop Hannah’s. 

“Why do you say that?”

“The dreams,” Jamie says lightly, “grow solid when you’re meant for someone, yeah? And they vanish altogether when you fall in love?”

Dani nods. Jamie smiles. 

“I asked him once, when I started, what his looked like. He said he hadn’t had one in a year.” When Dani only looks puzzled, Jamie leans close. “He’d been here almost a year to the day. Hired on by...”

She nods in Hannah’s direction. Dani, startled, smiles. 

“You don’t think--”

“They’ve talked about it? Christ, no. Too goddamned noble, the both of them, to ever bring it up. But it’s in the way he looks to her when he’s made the worst of his jokes. And the way she always laughs, even if she groans while she’s at it.” Jamie shrugs. “Don’t need to be in their heads at night to see it. I had to guess? I’d say her dreams stopped right around that same time.”

Dani can’t imagine. Being so close to her person, the dreams having dried up long enough ago to ensure the certainty of it, and not saying a word? 

“What’s stopping them?” she wonders in a whisper. Jamie bunches along the couch, pressing nearer so as not to let her voice carry to sleeping ears. 

“Way I see it, they’re the opposite of Rebecca and fuckin’ Quint.”

“How so?” There’s a sense, when the others speak of Rebecca Jessel, that the story is so ingrained in the wallpaper there is no reason to outline it clearly. Peter stole money, stole valuables, stole Henry’s trust and Rebecca’s heart. And Rebecca, driven to the lake by his betrayal, hadn’t been able to take it. Beyond that much...

“He got away,” Jamie says, her eyes distant. “She paid the price.”

Dani isn’t sure how it relates, but Jamie is curling into herself, her face a mask of barely-restrained pain. 

“The wrong kind of love,” she says after a moment. “Can fuck you up. Follow you. Make you do some really stupid shit. And those two? That was the wrong kind of love.”

She tips her head back to the sleeping pair, to Hannah’s careful press of cheek to Owen’s sleeve, the contact between them cautious, hopeful, even in slumber. 

“They’re different. Them? Never thought for a minute, either of ‘em, about how to pin each other down. Maybe they’ll never say a goddamned word about it, but...” She rubs a thumb across her lip, thinking it over. “Dunno. Maybe it’s better that way.”

Is Dani imagining the way her eyes flick over, just once, to Dani’s own face?

“Better? How can it be better, if they’re giving up on--”

“It’s better than what he did,” Jamie says. “Burrowing into her. Twisting in deep. Don’t know why so many people mix up love and possession, but...”

Dani watches, searching for the thoughts behind the words. Wishing, not for the first time, that the dreams offered a road map to a person’s truth as well as the imprint of their laughter. 

“Can’t possess something you never take at all,” Jamie says at last, sounding very tired. “Maybe that’s good enough. Knowing you can’t...damage the thing.”

There’s something behind her eyes Dani aches to understand. Her hands fidget in her lap, rebelling against the urge to reach across and touch Jamie. Just a light brush of fingers, just enough to bridge the gap between dream and real. 

“People do,” she says, as if unable to stop herself, “don't they? Mix up love and possession. I don’t think that should be possible--I mean, they’re opposites, really.” 

Jamie almost smiles. Almost. She’s looking at Dani for what might be the first time, really looking at her, and Dani’s opening her mouth, Dani can’t stop herself, Dani suddenly needs to know--

“They really ought to be in bed,” Hannah’s voice cuts in, a gentle admonition pulling her gaze from Jamie’s. Dani jerks. 

“Oh. Yes. Yes, of course.”

She watches Jamie carry Flora up the stairs, tucking her into bed and stepping aside to let Dani finish the job. Jamie does not, she notices, look at her with such a heated expression again.

She does not, in fact, look at her at all.

***

Her sleep is anything but restful, a pendulum that swings aggressively from dreams of Jamie saying can’t possess something you never take at all to waking hallucinations of Eddie’s hand stretching bloody across the bed. Behind her eyelids, Jamie is almost smiling. Each time she opens, looking to the space on the mattress where Jamie had been in her mind’s eye, all she can see is five desperate fingers, splayed on the pillow, a dark stain spreading into the cracks of its knuckles. 

Waking to find Jamie asleep on the couch, fully dressed as though she’d nodded off sitting sentry, does nothing whatsoever to clarify the situation.

***

The day, as she is coming to expect at Bly, is not simple. Flora, for reasons she can’t work out, throws a fit. Flora, for reasons she can’t work out, needs a doctor. 

By evening, it’s like none of it ever happened, and Dani is starting to feel as though landing here at Bly Manor is more than a little like a waking dream itself. 

She finds herself orbiting Jamie from a distance, watching not for signs of dream elements--it’s all too clear that Jamie fits every marker, from the arch of her brows to the line of her neck, from the teasing quality of her smile to the very specific way she reaches for a glass--but for reality. She’s looking, she thinks, for all the parts of Jamie that could only belong to a living, breathing woman; the parts of Jamie a person who hasn’t spent a lifetime dreaming of her could fall in love with.

She wants, more than anything, to speak to her again, but Jamie seems to be cultivating a careful distance between them. Jamie, it would appear, had her fill of Dani during last night’s conversation, and would like nothing more than to spend the rest of the day pretending she isn’t even there.

I said something wrong, she thinks, watching Jamie bustle around Owen with a bottle of wine. It’s too much to hope she said something right

Too much to hope Jamie, sliding down the couch in the early morning sun, had been hearing her voice in her sleep. 

Flora, by evening, is good as new. Dani gets her first glimpse of Storytime, the first glimpse of Flora and Miles trying to process huge emotions, and the first glimpse of Jamie speechless.

The very first glimpse, too, of Owen in tears.

If we can dream, she thinks, remembering her father’s face as Owen’s crumples against Hannah’s shoulder, of a match to our souls, why can’t we get warning about this? Why isn’t the magic good enough to show what we will one day lose, and make it easier on everyone? 

Jamie is standing close. Jamie is standing closer than expected, her hands in the pockets of her jacket, her body swaying in the dark. Jamie is there, and Owen is weeping, and Dani feels as though this is a play she should have the lines to. This is a show she should have seen before. 

The magic can show her Jamie’s eyes, can show Owen Hannah’s hands, can show Eddie blonde hair, but never once does it show the stain of grief. Never once does it lay that groundwork. 

Some things, she supposes, you have to survive to understand. 

“I’m so glad,” she hears herself say, when Owen is gone and Hannah rushes to the chapel. “I’m so glad you stayed.”

It isn’t enough. Isn’t everything she wants to say. But time can be so short, and death is merciless, and Jamie should know--if not everything--at least this much. 

“I am, too.”

She pulls up short, her head spinning. Jamie is looking at her for the first time all day, a long, searching look that makes Dani feel as though they’ve been here before. 

“I--” She wants to say it. Now is the time, if ever there was one. “Jamie, I--”

Her hand, in slow-motion, reaches for Jamie’s. She is here, her skin drawing warmth from Jamie’s wrist, and she is in the dream, hearing Jamie say can’t possess something--maybe that’s good enough--

Her hand drops as if scalded. Her mouth works. Jamie looks away. 

I’m sorry, Dani thinks.

Talk to me, Dani thinks.

Do you feel it? Dani thinks.

“Who the hell knew?” Jamie says, and she’s in the truck, she’s pulling down the drive, she’s disappearing into the night. Dani’s whole arm is tingling, pride and worry mingling in her chest. 

When she lifts her eyes to find him waiting, a specter of disapproval, she can’t even be so surprised. Of course he’d be waiting. Of course. 

It was supposed to be you, his mouth says without moving. It was always supposed to be you. What am I supposed to do now?

Go, she cannot find the strength to tell him. Go away. 

She does not sleep at all.

***

Days pass, and the house is quiet. Owen is gone, off making the necessary funeral arrangements; Hannah is there, her usual pleasant demeanor edged with sorrow. The kids seem uncertain of how to tread this new, distant version of another person’s grief. 

Jamie keeps to the gardens. 

Let her, Dani thinks, when it becomes apparent Jamie has--despite I am, too--gone back to avoiding her altogether. Let her do whatever she needs. She doesn’t owe me this. 

She only wishes there was a way to get the same across to Eddie’s ghost, who seems only to grow more tangible with every moment she spends thinking of Jamie. She finds herself wishing he would invade her dreams, if only for a single night, so she could say it to his face. Leave, Eddie. I can’t, Eddie. I can’t do this with you anymore. 

It’s on her lips each time she miscalculates and her eyes find a mirror. It’s on her lips, and still, she can’t bring herself to say the words. 

Wasn’t it your fault? Wasn’t it your fault you couldn’t let it happen, even knowing what he needed? Wasn't it your fault he stepped out?

No, she thinks, without nearly enough certainly. She thinks it might be Jamie’s voice saying so. Jamie’s voice, reassuring as ever. 

Jamie wants to keep her distance, and Dani wants to let her--and yet, somehow, she finds herself visiting the greenhouse one afternoon with a plate of sandwiches and an uneasy smile. It’s Hannah’s doing, she’s primed to say, even as she knocks. Hannah, making sure Jamie’s all right. If Dani happened to be in the room--if Dani happened to make herself available to play courier--

“Hi,” Jamie says, sounding not nearly as startled as Dani expects. She isn’t looking at Dani, either, but her face is calm, her hands busy with a watering can. 

“Hi. Um. Hannah thought you should eat.”

“Hannah forgets, time to time, she is not my mother.” Jamie doesn’t sound particularly put-out. “Can just set it over on that table, thank you.”

Dani does as she’s told, stays where she is, feels as though this moment is running parallel to the night she’d taken Jamie’s hand. She clears her throat. 

“I--I wanted to check in, too. With you.”

“What for?” Jamie isn’t looking. Jamie is very methodically checking the leaves of a fragile-looking plant, entirely engrossed in her work. Dani presses a thumb to her lips, chews furtively at the nail.

“We, um. We just haven’t spoken in...a while. How are you?”

She resists the urge to close her eyes and groan. Jamie, to her surprise, gives a very small laugh.

“Slated for a funeral tomorrow,” she says in a mild tone. “Safe to say I have been better, but all things considered...sure. Can’t complain. How’re you holding up, Poppins?”

That nickname again, rolling so naturally from her tongue. She can’t know what it does to Dani to hear it. 

“I’m okay. Yeah. Without Owen, it’s been...strange, but not...I mean, we’re doing all right. Hannah’s making a stew for dinner, if you wanted to--” Don’t push

Jamie smiles. “Tell her I’ll be by tomorrow. Got some business to attend in town tonight, for Owen’s sake.”

“You’re helping with the funeral?” 

“Yeah. Bits and bobs, things he doesn’t need to be worrying himself about. Meant to be talking to a man about refreshments for after. I, uh.” Jamie scratches her head, looking almost embarrassed to be telling Dani this. “Live above the little pub in town. Have a good rapport with the owner.”

Dani tries not to look as thought she is eagerly drinking down any scrap of information Jamie is willing to share. “That’s really nice of you. To help out with--I mean, I’m sure it’s not easy.”

“Margaret was a good woman,” Jamie says. “Good, solid woman. Wasn’t her fault her mind wasn’t...well, anyway, it’s the least I can do.”

“But you’re coming by,” Dani presses. “Tomorrow. You’re coming by the house?”

Jamie, brushing her hands carefully against the front of her overalls, nods. “Figure we can all go together. Happy little family and all.” She grimaces. “For whatever it’s worth to Owen, though I doubt he’ll see us. Man’s moving through a fog.”

“I can’t blame him. He seemed to love her a lot.”

“Devoted,” Jamie agrees. “More’n anyone I’ve ever met, maybe. Makes it harder on everyone, to see him this way, but these things happen.”

Dani tries to find something to say, something to keep the conversation from hitting a lull--but already, Jamie seems to be turning away from her. Already, Jamie seems to be remembering this is her space, her job, and Dani is merely intruding.

“Listen,” Dani says, with a rush of unexpected bravado. “I wanted to talk to you.”

“Doing a fine enough job so far,” Jamie teases. The shine of her smile is almost enough to undo Dani’s spark of courage. 

Her eyes are green today, she notices.

"Poppins?” Jamie tilts her head, waiting. Dani swallows. 

“No, it’s--it’s nothing. I should get back to the kids. Um. Enjoy your lunch.”

Eddie, she can sense, is waiting in every window of the greenhouse. Eddie is watching, waiting for her to slip up, waiting for her to turn Jamie from a woman with her own agency to a preordained dream. 

We all do it, Danielle. It wasn’t just me. You’ll see. 

“I’ll see you tomorrow?” she says, hovering in the doorway. Jamie, a perplexed little knot in her brow, nods. 

Dani, feeling like the biggest coward to walk the world, flees.

***

She dreams of hands on her skin. 

Dreams of soft curls between her fingers. 

Dreams of someone else’s sigh on her lips. 

She dreams of Jamie’s eyes gleaming nearly midnight in the darkness, as bright and as certain as anything.

Waking, she is all too aware it’s the first dream she’s had in three days.

***

Doesn’t mean anything, she tells herself, with all the fortitude of a kind lie. Sleep has not been a friend since moving into the manor, and if the dream is starting to slip its leash, if she is finding herself tumbling through each night in inky darkness instead of the technicolor of Jamie--it doesn’t have to mean anything. 

The dream solidifies when you’re right for your soulmate. The dream vanishes when you fall in--when you fall in--

There’s a funeral for a woman she’s never met. Dani, pulling on the only black dress in her possession, can’t help remembering the last funeral, the one where Eddie’s smile shone out from framed photos and Eddie’s somber expression tracked her from the mirror. Can’t help remembering the sorrowful way people had gripped her hand, apologizing, said, It’s such a shame. Such a shame. You’ll see him in your dreams, Danielle, you know that. You’ll see him when the dreams come back again--

“You decent?” Jamie asks from the other side of the door. Dani, dress gripped in shaking fists, raises her head. 

“Come in.”

This Jamie, this polished-up version to match Owen’s mourning, slides smoothly into the room with a smile that says she can guess what Dani is thinking. Can tell Dani didn’t expect this of her--a dress, a jacket, silver hoops at her ears and a silver smile on rubied lips. 

The woman, Dani thinks. The reality, not the dream. She sometimes thinks she likes moments like this--moments never once hinted at over a lifetime of sneak peeks--best. The moments where Jamie can surprise her, and the whole world feels organic. Unplanned. Beautiful. 

“Oh. You look...” She buttons down the next word behind a smile, remembering all too vividly how Jamie had turned from her yesterday. Jamie, however, looks pleased.

“I can scrub up when I need to.” She hesitates, gaze wrapping warm around Dani’s body for a lingering moment. “That’s, uh. Quite a dress.”

It’s embarrassing, and Dani says as much, but a person can only stuff so many outfits into a backpack. Jamie, perching at the foot of her bed like she understands what a gift it is to step into another person’s space for the first time, looks amused. 

“Does look a bit like you’re tryin’ to scandalize the village. Can’t say I fault the general principle...”

It’s the most comfortable conversation they’ve ever had, somehow. Dani, in a dress she hates; Jamie, preparing to grieve a loss. There’s something on the air all the same, something that says neither of them have been waiting for this moment, waiting to watch the dominos fall. 

The surprise of it, Dani thinks. That’s where the beauty lies.

Jamie tells her not to go, and Dani nearly goes down under the well of relief springing from the words. Jamie tells her she doesn’t need Dani to be her date to a funeral, and there’s such gentleness behind her smile, Dani believes her.

Owen won’t mind, Jamie says, and Dani thinks, I wish someone had given me the option the last time. 

“Can you help me get this thing off?” she asks, forgetting for a hazardous moment the sensation of Jamie’s fingertips tracing collarbone in the dream. Jamie, inches away with eyes that are nearly gray, looks away. 

“Blimey.”

Not like that, thinks Dani, even as a part of her mind that looks so much like memory whispers, Exactly like that. “No, seriously.” She spins a laugh behind it, and finds it’s less to convince herself and more because Jamie’s face, Jamie’s awkward little grin, is too charming not to grin at in return. 

She half-expects Jamie to pull away, to make excuses about why she shouldn’t be touching Dani--but Jamie only steps in close, her hands delicate on the zipper. Dani tries not to sigh in relief. Tries not to feel as though this moment has been building forever. 

She turns her head, struggling against the impulse to lean back into Jamie, and there--in the mirror, a familiar disapproval. Dark hair. Flashing light. Bloody hands. 

The gasp that wrenches out of her is nearly painful, her eyes jerking away from the glass. Jamie, puzzled, concerned, says, “Did I pinch you?”

Every time, Dani does not say. Every time you get close, every time I think it’s time to tell you--there he is. Every goddamn time. 

“No,” she says instead, turning misery into a humorless grin. “I’m sorry.”

Jamie’s eyes search hers for a moment, and Dani waits for it. For the what’s wrong with you, anyway? For the listen, we need to talk. 

Instead, Jamie says, “All right. Well. I’ll be back in a few hours. And if I find out you’ve not been relaxing...”

Serious consequences, Dani thinks, following her out of the room with an urgent need to remember Jamie this way: as Jamie has designed, not by some figment of inexplicable magic. Aren’t there always?

***

By day’s end, she’s spun out as far as she thinks she’s able to go. By day’s end, she’s said all the wrong things, nearly attacked Owen with a sharp object, and caught herself staring at Jamie like all the hours in the day wouldn’t be enough to drink her down. 

By day’s end, she mostly just wants to go to bed--but there’s Jamie, waiting in the foyer with Dani’s coat in hand and a tilt of her head. 

“We’re all outside. You’re joining us.”

Her body obeys, allowing Jamie to slide the coat over her shoulders, allowing Jamie to lead her out into the dark. Jamie is different in some small, incredible way tonight--as though something about the funeral unlatched a door she’d been trying to keep closed. She stands nearer to Dani. Sits closer. Lets her eyes roam over Dani’s face in the firelight. 

Do you dream? Dani can’t ask. Do you dream of me? 

They speak not of dreams, but of bones. Of those lost, those never forgotten, those who grow over time into the sort of anchor which drags you into the depths. Dani closes her eyes, knowing Eddie is there, somewhere, lurking in the shadows. Waiting for her to admit fault at last. 

You could have just said what he needed to hear. You could have just pretended. 

But the dreams would never have stopped, and could she really go a lifetime not knowing Jamie’s smile? Jamie’s real smile, the one so human and so lit with mixed emotion that no dream could ever compare?

You’re falling in love with her, she thinks, and understands with an indefinable certainty there is no stopping it now. She’s sliding out of the blue and into the black, and even if she never says a word, even if she never admits it aloud, it will change none of it. The dreams are coming less--in fragments instead of film reels--and Jamie watches her with such intensity, she almost can’t stand it. 

“We could...” Jamie gestures toward the dark outline of the greenhouse, set back amongst the trees. Dani tilts her head in question. 

“What about them?”

Owen and Hannah are bent close, murmuring to one another over bottles of wine. Jamie gives a wry little smile. 

“Really think they’d miss us?”

Dani is tired, and when Jamie stands and offers a hand, she can’t think of a good reason not to take it. Eddie will come, or he won’t; she has no control over the matter. What harm is there in sitting close to Jamie in the meantime, soaking up what little she is allowed?

Maybe it’s the wine. Maybe it’s the exhaustion. Either way, she finds herself saying, “I had a fiancé once. Told you that, right?”

As if she could forget. As if she could ever forget Jamie’s face when it had come out over dinner that first night with all parties present, Hannah and Owen nodding like these things happened all the time. Jamie, twelve hours into knowing Dani was even alive, had sat back in her chair, given a single resolute nod, and said not a word the rest of the meal. 

She doesn’t mean to open that box back up now. Doesn’t mean to let that ghost slip. There’s so little Jamie knows of her--nervous little American, good with kids and terrible with demons, a fiancé left behind and too many words piled up on her tongue to do anyone much good. There’s so little Jamie understands--and yet, even now, saying the words out loud for the first time, she feels certain Jamie will not judge. Will not strike her down as insane, as a lost cause. 

“We were engaged,” she says. “And he...he died.”

Out of the corner of her eye, she sees Jamie’s hand freeze halfway to her head. Dani's mouth pulls into a mockery of a smile. 

“He died, and I...I just kept dreaming. Hadn’t been able to stop. Even when I said I’d marry him. Even then.”

There it is. First time, out in the world. First time she’s said it to anyone except the bathroom mirror. 

Jamie leans back, watching her with careful interest. “Did it...did it change? The dream.”

“No.” No hesitation. Maybe if there was less drink in her, if she wasn’t so worn out, she’d find a neater way of saying it. But, as it is: “No, it never--I mean, it evolved. Picked up speed, the way it does. Details fit, some of them, at the start, and I tried...”

“To make them work,” Jamie says softly. Dani squeezes her eyes shut.

“The hair was almost right. Too long, but close enough. The hands, I thought, maybe. Short nails. Worker’s hands. I thought it could be him, once I’d let him grow up enough to--but there were other things that just never...the laugh was wrong. The voice. There was a scar...”

She visualizes it clearly, raised skin like a burn etched into a pale expanse. She shakes her head.

“There was a scar he never had. He smelled wrong. He didn’t stand right, or touch my hand the way--the way she did, and--”

She. Another first. She’s never in her life admitted that much, and there’s the sense now of a roller coaster making the last of its climb. She can’t open her eyes, can’t look at Jamie, who has--she is quite sure--stopped breathing. 

“He was wrong, and I...didn’t tell him soon enough. But I did. I broke. We broke--I mean, I--and then he died. And it didn’t...matter, anyway.”

Jamie is still watching her, quietly piecing it all together. Dani clutches the blanket in her lap, smiling despite herself. 

“They never slowed down, even a little, until I got...until I got...”

Jamie is leaning close, she realizes. Jamie, looking at her so intently, she can’t help but look back. 

“I didn’t want to say it,” Jamie says, her voice nearly a whisper. “I didn’t want to put it on you. Thought you wouldn’t have...agreed to him if you hadn’t...”

Loved him. Wanted him. Fit with him. Jamie doesn’t have to say any of it. Only lays a tentative hand on Dani’s knee, inhaling slowly when Dani takes it in her own, turns it over, traces the tiny imperfections she’s seen a thousand times without knowing. 

“When did you know it was me?” Dani asks, hardly believing this conversation. Hardly believing Jamie’s skin is pressed to her own. 

“Minute I saw you,” Jamie says. “But you said you were engaged. I didn’t want to--”

Dani is kissing her. Dani is kissing her, and it’s not like a dream, which folds and spins and dances around her. Dani is kissing her, and reality is so solid, fashioned of such incontrovertible evidence. Jamie in a dream is woodsmoke and spring dew and distant laughter. 

Jamie here, in the greenhouse, with her hands coming lightly up to hold Dani’s face, is almost too gentle. Her mouth slides across Dani’s, falls away, her breath wine-stained across Dani’s lips. 

“You sure?”

“Yes.” No hesitation. No time to let the ghosts have their say. Maybe if she had less wine in her, maybe if the exhaustion wasn’t so great, she needs to find a balm for its hold. 

She’s pressing back into Jamie, ignoring all the rest, and the electricity pulses through her as it did when she was ten years old and jolting out of a dream. Jamie, grinning into her skin, Jamie, murmuring, Thank fuck even as Dani is grasping her collar, pulling her close. Jamie, a hand buried in Dani’s hair like she’s been waiting for this since the minute she first drew breath. 

It is the dream--and it is more. It is real. It is sunshine and it is shadow, and it is above all else the way Jamie is almost laughing against her lips, Jamie’s tongue tracing into her mouth, Jamie leaning in as if to ease her back along the couch--

She opens her eyes. She wishes, even as she’s gasping, even as she’s jolting away from Eddie’s blank stare, she hadn’t opened her eyes.

“Okay,” Jamie says. There’s something broken in the way she rubs at her mouth, trying to erase the smudge of lipstick Dani’s just ruined. “Right.”

“I don’t--” There’s no way to smooth this over, no way to make it clean again. “I don’t know what to say--he’s--I see--”

“It’s all right, forget about it. S’my fault.” Jamie is making herself so small, somehow, disappearing into her jacket a second at a time. 

“Jamie--”

“It’s not my place,” Jamie says abruptly. “Not my place to say what you can--and I knew that. Knew better. I...should go.”

“Jamie, I need to explain--”

Jamie is already off the couch, folding the blanket over her arm as if desperate for something to do with her hands to keep from reaching for Dani again. “Another night, maybe,” she says, already halfway to the door. “Another time, maybe.”

It isn’t you, Dani wants to scream. 

It isn’t about anything you did, she wants to say. 

Eddie, she notes, does not even have the good grace to still be waiting, as she glares savagely into the greenhouse windows.

***

The dream is fidgety, when she slides into it. The dream is growing gray around the edges--bits and pieces of Jamie’s stride, Jamie’s freckles, the very particular sound she made when Dani had pressed into her with the intention of learning everything in a single night. She tumbles into it, rises back out, plunges back in with the restlessness of one not quite drunk enough to sleep.

Not quite sober enough to stand the silence. 

She takes the glasses and a fresh bottle of wine, pausing along the way to reassure a frantic Flora that nightmares are the stuff of bad memories and nothing more. Flora, soon, will begin having the dream herself. It will be kinder than whatever bare-bones monstrosities are being called to light by her grief. 

Or maybe, Dani thinks, facing a dying fire with a pair of glasses biting into her palm, kinder isn’t the word. Maybe it will only teach her how far she can be pushed before something gives way. 

“It’s just you and me now,” she tells the ghost. She settles her weight on a log, raises the bottle to her lips. “So, go on. Tell me again why it’s all my fault.”

Eddie, predictably, says nothing. She lifts the wine in a small, jeering toast. 

“Go on. Tell me how I should have just kept pretending.”

He watches her. He was always, she thinks bitterly, watching her. Always piecing her together from the other side of real, never quite interested in the parts that grew up from things she had planted. 

“It was her from the start,” she says coolly to the night air. “From the very beginning. Don’t know how I could have mixed it up, now that I know how she--well. Don’t know how I could have fooled myself so long.”

His reproachful silence is too little. Too little for her to stomach with this roiling anger running hot under her skin. Jamie has it, too, she knows--the quiet rage at being twisted around by another’s hands. Of having her needs disrespected. Of being told to sit down and take it peacefully. 

Dani Clayton does not think of herself as an angry person, but she is angry, now. And tired. So unbearably tired.

“The dreams are fading,” she tells Eddie, leaning forward to make certain every word lands. “Do you hear me? They’re fading fast. Started the minute she first spoke to me, and I’m glad. Even if she never speaks to me again after tonight, I’m glad I know what this feels like. It wasn’t you. And I'm sick of apologizing for that.”

She stands, swaying, allowing the night breeze to buffet her from side to side. “I don’t know,” she says, “what you were supposed to do, Eddie. But you weren’t supposed to die. And I’m not supposed to lose a lifetime replaying that moment.”

It’s as near a goodbye as she knows how to fabricate. It’s more than she was ever able to give her father, more than she thought she’d ever be able to fashion for Eddie. 

“It was her,” she says softly, “and it will be her, and I am honored to think it’s me for even a second of her life.”

Eddie, sparking with the dying embers, makes no effort at rebuke.

***

Jamie doesn’t return for days. 

The dream, too, remains stubbornly absent. 

Dani, by Wednesday night, is going just a little bit out of her mind. She hasn’t gone this long without a glimpse of gray-green-blue eyes in her whole life. 

Tomorrow, she decides, staring at the ceiling. I fix this tomorrow. 

***

Jamie seems somewhat perturbed at the offer of coffee, but she doesn’t say no. Dani thinks that must count for something, even as Jaime is discreetly spitting her mouthful back into the mug. 

“I’m not the best at coffee, either,” she says, smiling. Jamie raises her eyebrows, sets the mug aside. 

“How’s your week been?”

Missed you, Dani doesn’t quite have it in her to answer. She settles for the rest--the oddity of no-Owen, no-you, less-and-less-of-Hannah. The kids are strange, and the quiet laying over the house like a trap just begging to be sprung is maybe strangest of all. She doesn’t have the words to explain it, knows Jamie probably wouldn’t understand even if she did. 

“Did you wake up just for this?” Jamie wonders, leaning against the little table, and Dani swallows. 

“No.”

“You just waited for me to come back,” Jamie presses. There’s a bit of a smile in her voice, if not on her lips. Dani resists the urge to glance away. 

“I--I knew you were coming back today, but--” Oh, this is going very well. “No. No particular reason.”

She has never been, for all the lies she’s ever told, particularly good at the art. Jamie, judging by the purse of her lips, the nod of her head, can see right through it. 

“So, you just...got up with the sun. And you’re, ah. Tip-toeing around the kitchen making awful coffee by yourself, just to come say hi at six in the morning, for no particular reason.”

There are some moments in a person’s life, Dani thinks, that can be described only as fuck it. There are simply no words big enough, right enough, to match the way she’s gazing at Jamie now, hoping against hope Jamie will see her. 

Jamie, grinning a very small grin, shakes her head. “Poppins. You flirt.”

“Fine.” Dani gives chase, gripping her mug hard enough to hurt. “I-I don’t like the way we left it.”

“And how did we leave it--”

“Wrong.” She knows that. She has to know that. “And I wanted to start doing something right.”

Jamie closes her eyes for a moment, as if centering herself. “Poppins--”

“Look, you didn’t give me a chance to explain,” Dani hurries on. “It’s crazy, I know, but I--I was there when he died. I was there, and I’ve been carrying him ever since, but--” But it’s you, and that matters. “But I’m done with that now. Okay? I’m--”

“You sure about that?” Jamie’s lips are twitching, no humor to be found in her eyes. “Because every time I think you might...I’m not here to push, all right? Not here to play whatever fucked-up game that is. You want to be here, I want it to be your call. Not some dream’s.”

It’s maybe easier, for some. Maybe easier, when people are willing to just tip over into the magic without opening their eyes. Jamie is looking at her like she’s never been less interested in an idea in her whole life. 

“It’s you,” Dani says quietly. “Even without the dream, I think...I think I’d...”

“Careful.” Jamie turns back to her plants, a muscle jumping in her jaw. “Careful where you go next with that, Poppins.”

The wrong kind of love can fuck you up. Make you do some really stupid shit. 

“Well,” says Dani, as though she is not watching this rope being jerked out of her hands length by unstoppable length. “Give me a chance, then. There’s a...there’s a pub in Bly, right?”

Jamie almost does smile now. “There is.”

“Would you want to get a drink? Away from the house. Away from all this.” She licks her lips, feeling as though she’s just stepped one foot off a high-rise, the momentum readying to carry her the rest of the way over. “The real us. No dreams. No magic.”

Jamie raises her eyes. “Maybe some magic.”

Dani is still grinning, unable to fight it down, when Jamie leans almost conspiratorially into her. 

“You know full well there’s a pub, anyway. Told you that, didn’t I? Told you I live above that little pub...”

Dani is all but beaming when her eyes slide to the window, to a tiny pink form standing dazedly on the lawn. 

“Flora?”

***

The dreams are slowing down, the strangeness with the kids seeming to speed up to pull her focus instead. Dani watches Flora sleep, feeling as though there is something she has been too distracted to catch. Some simple, obvious detail she has been too wound up to pluck apart. 

Henry doesn’t pick up the phone. Hannah says that’s normal, with a curl of her lip that suggest it ought to be anything but. Dani, in the tumble of ghosts and exorcisms and dreams that can’t hold a candle to reality, has entirely lost the thread of what normal even looks like. 

It is, evidently, Hannah and Owen sitting at the kitchen table after-hours. 

It is, evidently, Jamie with a flashlight in hand, asking if Dani’d be interested in a spot of magic for the evening. 

It is, evidently, a grove of gorgeous flowers she’s never seen before, and Jamie settling behind her to say people are exhaustive--every last one of them. Even you. Even me. Especially me. 

“So, I thought I’d save you the trouble. Skip to the end. Take a shot. Why not.” She’s speaking with a rhythmic roll, as though trying to make her way through a script she’s terrified to speak aloud. Dani, brushing her fingers across a bloom that reminds her so fiercely of a shop set against the backdrop of unreality, glances over in time to see Jamie gesture for her to take a seat. 

There is a story in Jamie--a long, hard, complicated story she seems to be nudging out one breathless sentence at at time, as though waiting for Dani to cut her off. Dani never does. Dani leans forward, listening, as Jamie says, “Mum was Louise. Dad was Dennis. Dennis met Louise when she was eighteen. He was twenty-four.”

The story spills across a moonlit grove, trailing over a soundtrack of pattering rain. Dennis’ dream was always Louise, from the very start--he’d known before he even understood what it meant. He had been so proud the night he’d told her. So proud, as he’d explained the dreams had stopped while he was still in high school. 

Dani, trying desperately not to think of what that would mean for Louise, for any too-young girl staring into the earnest eyes of an older man, says nothing. Jamie’s mouth twitches. 

“Never had the chance to ask if she’d been dreaming of him back. Assumed she had, maybe, for a while--but things change. Soulmate sounds like such an absolute, but how many people d’you know who make it work?”

Dani thinks of her mother, spitting her father’s name like a curse. Of Henry Wingrave, whose silences stretch over this house like an endless driving rain. Of Eddie snarling, Fuck you as he stepped out onto the street. 

Jamie nods knowingly, hands clasped in her lap. “Exactly. So, the story goes on. Dad gets a job working in a coal mine. S’more money--slightly more--but he’s barely home now, and Louise...well...”

Dani can imagine it too well. Louise, still practically a child, with two kids needing more than she knew how to give. Louise, searching for any face that might match a dream that might have started once again to twist and change in the night.

They like to say it doesn’t work that way. They say it solidifies, and it fades, and it vanishes--and you’ll only start having the dream again when your soulmate, your forever person, is gone. When they’ve passed on, and all you have left is the sparkling hues of them painted across your nights. 

They like to say that’s the only way the dreams ever come back, once they’ve stopped--but it isn’t true for everyone. Life is too complicated. Love is too complicated. Soulmates don’t always match up, and even when they do, forever is too big. Too many threads, woven into a single tapestry. There is no such thing as a perfect fit. 

Jamie goes on, speaking faster. Louise, bolting from the family she’d been locked into. Dennis, vanishing into the tomb of a coal mine. Jamie, trying her best to hold together beneath the weight of cruel words, cruel expectation, a baby, a pot of boiling water. 

With every piece of Jamie spinning out into moonlight, Dani is glad. Glad she didn’t dream any of this--glad she had no chance to temper the emotion of Jamie’s story with the ache of deja vu. Jamie deserves better than to have her story--foster homes, criminal choices, prison time--painted over with too-clean swipes of fate’s brush. This, all of what Jamie is giving her now, is real. It is honest, and it is dangerous, and it hurts Jamie to package it up and hand it to Dani tonight. 

“Started dreaming in the foster homes,” she says wearily. “Thought maybe if I just kept running, it’d all line up. Blue eyes. Dreamt of blue eyes for days and days before anything else filled in.”

She glances up, catches Dani’s gaze, holds it like a single, stubborn flame for a long moment. 

“So, I ran. Out of homes. Into trouble. Details kept on comin’, and I knew the minute I set foot in any one place that it wasn’t right. But...Dennis didn’t know it. Louise, either, really. So I tried, anyway. With women who weren’t...good for me.” She runs her fingers across her lips, as if remembering a kiss long ago repented for. “We talked about this, yeah? The wrong kind of love. And all the while, I knew no matter how many blonde ponytails I buried my hands in, no matter how they smiled, how they picked at their thumbnail, it wasn’t...”

Dani resists the urge to reach to her. This is a purge of sorts, she recognizes. Something Jamie just has to get out before she can go any further into the dark. 

“When I realized you’d be American,” Jamie says, smiling a little. “That’s when I gave up. ‘Cause, see, I wasn’t going to travel. I’d already decided this was as much world as I could stomach. I’d made it out of prison, made it into gardening, gotten this job here. It was going to be enough.”

I was going to make it enough, she doesn’t add, but Dani understands. Understands how desperately Jamie would have needed the stability of something she could choose, rather than something hurtling toward her from a distance she couldn’t cross.

“It felt like home here,” Jamie says. “Immediately. Owen, Hannah, Rebecca--they were home. And if the dreams were still...if I thought maybe...it didn’t matter. I saw the way Peter used the idea against her. Saw the way Rebecca let it pull her under. Saw, too, how everyone for so long has been using the excuse of soulmates to excuse shit that wasn’t right for ‘em. For anyone.”

She pushes to her feet, strides a couple of steps away, turns back. 

“I’m telling you this,” she says, “because I can see you struggling. I know it hasn’t been easy. But life isn’t a dream, Dani. You don’t get to choose the big stuff for another person just because it’s living in your head. We’re organic. We’re meant to live, and to die, and to find beauty in all the in-betweens, and nothing and no one can dictate that for us.”

She looks so tired, standing with hands in her pockets. So tired, as she gestures to the plant with its gorgeous white blossoms. 

“It’s like this moonflower. Bloody hard to grow, harder still to catch sight of while it’s in bloom--but the beauty is in the hard parts. In the life and death. In knowing sometimes...once in a blue goddamn moon, I guess...someone just might be worth the effort you put in.”

There are no ghosts, this time, when Dani kisses her. There is nothing waiting, watching. There is only Jamie, who doesn’t believe in the unreality of dreams, even as she’d found herself searching for Dani’s smile in every crowd. And there is only Dani herself, who should have known earlier--and still, maybe, shouldn’t hold herself to such a standard. How can a person know, she wonders, until it’s right? Until they are meeting a gaze across a room, until they are cradling a face in their hands, until lips meet lips and the world seems at once to atone for every cruelty?

She’s kissing Jamie to a symphony of rain and wind and the rustle of Jamie’s coat under her hands, and it’s not a dream. It’s too solid, too complete. Too endless. 

A dream, you have to wake up from.

Dani’s pretty sure this is the rest of her life, waiting in Jamie’s smile. 

***

There is no sign of the dream in her bedroom that night, no sign of fabrication as Jamie slides into her bed, leans over her, presses her forehead down against Dani’s. There is no dream in the way Jamie moves, coaxing her into courage with every kiss, every exploratory stroke, every rock of her hips and sacred utterance of Dani’s name on her tongue. 

There is no dream when she falls asleep, feeling as though she’s never been so satisfied and so hungry at the same time. No dream as she pulls Jamie close, nuzzles into her shoulder, feels the raise of scar tissue under her lips. 

No dream at all. 

She wakes with the understanding she will never have it again, and finds no sorrow in the idea. No loss. The dream is gone forever now, replaced by quiet and peace and Jamie.

Nothing has ever felt so much like being reborn. 

***

It feels wrong, somehow, to be so content while Flora suffers. Wrong, somehow, to be riding such joy at every brush of Jamie’s skin, every kiss Jamie sneaks onto her lips while no one is looking, every press of Jamie feeling as though they have finally come home to one another--while, all the while, Flora is flushed and frightened and strange

Real, Poppins, Jamie would say. The good with the bad. It’s organic. Natural. Beautiful. 

Still, it worries her. She keeps having terrible thoughts, terrible visions of Flora falling into a sleep from which she can’t be woken. Of Flora vanishing into something Dani is too distracted to rescue her from. 

“I’m gonna call a doctor in the morning,” she says, and Jamie--hair a rumpled mess from Dani’s fingers, clothes precisely the same as the ones she plucked off of Dani’s floor this morning--nods. 

“She needs a psychologist.”

And this, again, is a gift. Jamie, offering more of herself than Dani could ever guess at. Jamie, too, tipping her head in sheepish resolution.

“I'm gonna go.”

Dani wants to tell her to stay--tries, in fact, to do that very thing. There won’t be a dream tonight, she knows, and the idea of spending hours without Jamie is almost a physical pain. A taste, she thinks, is all it took to make absolutely sure. 

“There are other nights,” Jamie says, Dani unable to look away from the shape of the words on her lips, “and there will be other nights.”

“You promise?”

Jamie’s kiss is more than a promise. Jamie’s kiss, the curl of her hand along Dani’s arm, guiding her fingers up across Jamie’s ribs, is a signature. An adjuration. A swearing-in of future state. 

Jamie’s kiss is the first step down a road they’ve both been looking to walk since the very start, and even as she’s walking away, Dani thinks nothing has ever felt holier. 

***

Nothing has ever felt more horrific. 

There is a woman on Flora’s bed. A woman whose face Dani knows from a Polaroid, from stories etched into the lining of this house. A woman, and a man, and neither--as the case somehow is--draws breath even as they coax the kids to tie Dani’s wrists and stuff a gag into her mouth. 

The kids are panicked. The kids don’t want to hurt her. The man, Peter Quint, has other ideas. 

Almost before she knows it, Miles is gone--gone down a rabbit hole where she can’t follow and snatch him back--and Flora is not, somehow, and her head is spinning with Jamie’s certainty. There are other nights, and there will be other nights. Promise. 

Maybe not. Maybe not, now that there are ghosts she can’t blame on her own guilt, and a boy possessed by the soul of a man, and a girl screaming for her brother back. 

Maybe not, with a hand as implacable as a dream, as death’s knell, wound around her throat. 

There are bruises on her skin, a scream choked off inside her throat, a knot swelling where the back of her head smacked hollowly against floorboards as Flora--Flora--offered herself up. She is dragging herself through the house, dragging herself along a path she’d just made with the scrape of her heels through gravel, dragging herself toward the lake, and all Dani Clayton can think is, There is no dream in the world that could prepare me for this. 

No dream in the world that could clarify the rules of a creature like the one carrying Flora now. 

No dream in the world that could solidify into certainty as she plunges into shockingly-cold water and cries out a phrase she’d only just learned. It worked for Miles. It worked for Miles in all the worst ways, so why shouldn’t it--

Magic, after all. Magic always has rules, even if they are incomprehensible to the mortal mind. 

She’s dimly aware of Jamie, splashing in beside her. Dimly aware of Flora, too heavy in her arms. Dimly aware that no dream ever suggested this to her, not in the most abstract sense. 

What good are you? she asks it silently, while her voice repeats it’s us, it’s us, it’s us like a hammer smashing down on her future. What good are you, if you never show us the rest?

“Shh,” Jamie murmurs, her hands true and strong and everything Dani’s ever needed. “Shh, it’s okay. It’s okay. It’s--”

***

There is something in her now. Something that does not belong. Something that does not share her soul, or her dreams, or the good fortune she’s only just found. 

There is something in her now, and it wants to pull at all the threads she’s only just crafted into something she can hold. 

“She’s gonna take me,” she hears herself tell Jamie, and she’s almost too frightened to really cry. Almost too resigned to really process the words, true though they feel. The dreams are gone, replaced by a silence that had, for a single day, felt like relief. 

Now, that silence seems to pulse. That silence is a dark, cold, aching thing, and it will catch up with her someday. She knows it, as clearly as she knew Jamie’s eyes belonged in her world years before she ever could have said why. 

Magic, it would seem, is double-edged in all the worst ways.

“Do you want company?” Jamie asks her, and winds their fingers tight, and kisses her knuckles. Do you want company--and she almost says no. Almost says they were gifted one glorious day together, and sometimes, that’s all the universe will allow. Real, after all, is not dream. The logic is too firm in places. The pieces are not always exact. 

But Jamie is looking at her with eyes that, today, look so green. Jamie, who knows as well as anyone that blind belief can lead down a dead-end path. Jamie, who knows as well as anyone, that it takes more than a dream to make something work. 

Have yours stopped? she doesn’t ask. Jamie will tell her, someday, if and when it happens. She believes in Jamie’s honesty, more than anything else about her. Anyway, it doesn’t matter. Jamie is her match, and she is already so far gone, there is no swimming back to shore. Jamie is her forever, even if Jamie someday tells her different. And she will accept that, should the day come. A dream cannot define reality. 

They pull away from the manor, Jamie’s face alight with excitement, Dani’s smile wooden on her lips. Down deep, somewhere she can’t quite see, something is stretching. Curling away from the light. Turning its face from the lake at last. 

***

Life is, against all odds, quiet. Sweet, even, in ways Dani is not prepared for. The weariness, the wariness, slowly fades like the last vestiges of a dream, and what is left behind is...real. Jamie behind the wheel of a car. Dani taking her hand in a movie theater. The pair of them moving with one purpose in hotel beds, in the backseat of a rental car, in an apartment they’ve only just signed a lease to. 

She waits, for a while, for the dream to return. For the universe to shout into her face with abhorrent laughter, to say you thought you’d found it, but actually, this is your life, Dani Clayton. This is your world. One big falsehood you’re doomed to keep close until you die. The dream never does. If she sees anything in her sleep, it is the natural absurdity of the human mind--silly twisted memories of school and Bly, of friends and family and celebrities from last night’s movie all bound into a single play. 

She doesn’t dream of Jamie anymore, and there is such relief in that fact, she couldn’t put it into words even if pressed. Jamie, the one truth in the world that seems immutable. Jamie, the one facet of reality that will not change. 

Months waltz by, bringing changing leaves and heavy snows, and Dani finds herself counting holidays. Halloween, which Jamie delights in when children come shrieking to their door. Thanksgiving, which Jamie turns up her nose at, neither of them quite sure how to prepare a feast. Christmas, which Jamie rings in with Dani sitting astride her hips, her face lit with desire and the line of gently glowing lights they’ve strung along the headboard. 

The days come, and the days go, and one day, there is a shop. Dani doesn’t put much stock in dreams anymore--but this feels important, somehow, to get right. The sign out front. The plants lining the walls. The small forest of trees, and little blossoms that speak to Jamie’s hard work and affection. 

It’s right, being here. She’s been walking this way all this time, and when Jamie leans in and kisses her warmly before opening day, Dani thinks she’s finally done it. Completed some mighty quest. Appeased some too-powerful god. 

It’s in the shop, that Jamie presents her with a single moonflower. 

It’s in the shop, that Jamie says the words for the first time. 

“I’m actually pretty in love with you, it turns out.” 

Just like that. No dancing around it. No talk of dreams. Maybe Jamie stopped having them just this week; maybe she stopped in a house in Bly, the day she offered company to a drowning woman. Dani doesn’t really care anymore. She cares only, she finds, for the way Jamie is kissing her now, without even an ounce of hesitation. 

***

The years pass, and Dani feels good. Feels warm, and well-formed, and correct in a way she understands very few people are lucky enough to have. The years pass, and there are long days, and little fights over dinner, and big fights over one of them failing to do something around the apartment, and so many kisses, it makes the rest obsolete. Jamie, Dani notes, never once raises her voice. Never once, since that day in the rose garden, and she wonders if the dream knew that would happen--or if it is only Jamie, Jamie’s choice, Jamie’s stubborn refusal to make Dani small for even an instant. 

Dani has grown used to silence. The sounds of home are varied and perfect in their simplicity, in their boring melody as a backdrop to every day. Jamie, humming tunelessly in the shower. A kettle boiling on the stove. Hail rattling the windows. Birdsong in the trees in the summer months. Dani, laughing, groaning, teasing in all the ways a person in love can’t help. 

She grows used to silence, and to boring, and to the lovely wealth that is their life together. Throw pillows and lamps, long rugs and strange knick-knacks for the countertops. A key that always sticks. A TV with an endless stream of old movies. 

The years pass. 

When the dreams come again, they are not anything she understands.

***

She doesn’t tell Jamie, for a while. A long while, in fact--months, years, so much time stacking up behind her eyelids she doesn't even want to think about it. She doesn’t tell Jamie, because it is not the dream. It is not a new set of eyes, a new timbre of laugh, a new pair of hands on her skin. 

When she dreams now, it is in black and white. And it is painful. 

There are women--too similar in bone structure to be anything but sisters--and there is a man, weighted down by grief, and there is a child. Not Flora. Not Miles. Not anyone she’s seen before, but she feels such a rush of love for this little girl, she wakes herself up sobbing. 

Jamie, instantly, touches her face. “Dani. Dani, what--”

“Nightmare,” Dani says, because there’s no other word for it. She’s been having them for almost three years now--long enough to tell her she’s running out of time, long enough to tell her the placid joy of her life with Jamie is not indefinite. There is a gold band on Jamie’s hand now, pressing against her cheek as Jamie strokes her out of her panic. 

“How long?” Jamie asks, when she’s awake enough and restrained enough to answer. “Dani, how long have you been seeing--”

Dani, miserably, shakes her head. “I thought it would...I thought it would go away.” A lie. She doesn’t lie, not to Jamie, but this one time...

“You think it’s...” Jamie is frowning in the warm glow of a bedside lamp, searching Dani’s face. 

“Her,” Dani says. She rubs her eyes, sits back against the pillows, feeling emptied out in a way she can't soon fix. “It’s like...watching her life. In pieces. In...”

The bad parts, she thinks. Only the bad parts. Was there good, once, to the Lady? She thinks there must have been. A woman with a husband, a child, a sister must have found something to cherish in the world. 

“I can feel her,” she says, pressing a hand to her breast. “I can feel her under here. She...feels so much.”

Jamie takes her hand, presses it to her lips. “It’s a dream,” she says--not to dissuade Dani’s belief, she understands, but as a statement against the universe itself. Jamie have never been one to let dreams boss her around. “It’s a dream, and you are real, and we are real, so she can just--”

Dani is kissing her hard, cutting the words off as she pushes into Jamie and searches for a way to believe. Dani, digging her hands in hair that grows less curly with every passing year. Dani, mapping scars and freckles she’d spent years preparing for. Dani, taking one of Jamie’s strong, soft hands and pressing it into herself with reckless need. 

A dream, Jamie groans into her. Just a fucking dream. 

Dani wants so badly to believe. 

***

It grows harder, to tell the difference. There are days she can remind herself she is awake only when she brushes the hot oven by mistake, when she pricks her finger on a pin, when she trips over a coffee table. Days where the only way she can tell she is here, she is awake, she is real is in the hot bloom of pain. 

Or the press, the slide, the reassuring weight of Jamie. Jamie, who is never in her dreams, because Jamie is here. Jamie, who is the most reality-bound thing she’s ever known. 

The worse it gets, the more fervent the dreams of another woman’s life, the harder Dani hangs on. She finds herself pushing Jamie to her knees in the shop’s back room, finds herself dragging Jamie into the shower and making them both late, finds herself rolling to find Jamie in the middle of the night, hands at her hips, pulling Jamie in sharp, desperate thrusts against her body until she can feel nothing else. 

“I love you,” Jamie says each time. With her lips, with her voice, with her hands, she says it, and Dani closes her eyes and hangs on for dear life. 

The dreams are too vivid. The dreams are too much. The months drain away, picking up speed, and there are days Dani forgets she is not sick. Days she forgets she has not locked away all her most precious possessions. Days she forgets there is no child waiting, held just out of reach, in the next room. 

“Keep me here,” she begs Jamie. “Keep me here, please.”

“You’re here,” Jamie says, solid, resolute. “You’re not going anywhere. You are still here.”

***

Dani is still here. Dani is warm, and alive, and perfect in ways only the imperfect human woman can be. Dani is still here, though her dreams are threatening to swallow her whole, though there is something watching from a distant jungle she can’t outrun. Still. Dani is here. 

Dani, with thick blonde hair and eyes that are not quite what Jamie has always dreamed--and Jamie doesn’t mind, Jamie doesn’t care that one is brown, that one was never given its due portent in her dreaming mind. She dreamt of blue eyes her whole life; so what? Her wife has one blue eye. Her wife has one brown. She is Dani, in every way that matters, and Jamie would defy any god who dared demand her back as damaged goods. 

Dani, who still chews her thumb when she’s nervous, who still clenches her fists while they walk, even while she laughs and spins stories of the old days. Dani, whose laugh has grown heavier with time, but which still rings out with surprising clarity when she’s taken aback by a joke, a slip, Jamie’s hand teasing up her dress. Dani, whose every mark, every smile, every vocal inflection lives within Jamie as it was always meant to. 

She stopped dreaming of Dani when they were still at the house. She’s never said as much--never felt the need. It's no one's business. She asked once--not Dani, but Owen--when the dreams had stopped, and he had closed his eyes. A brief show of pain on a man who has, largely, learned the art of acceptance. 

“Stopped two months into knowing her.” Her. Hannah. He doesn’t have to say it. She understands it’s the only love story he’s interested in writing. “Always thought I’d tell her, someday. Always thought I’d whisk her off to Paris, do the thing properly.”

They don’t talk about Hannah as much as they should. Don’t talk about how she’d died long before anyone had ever known. Owen, she knows, feels the guiltiest for that. 

“I started dreaming of her again,” he admits in a low, slurring voice one night--the two of them drinking while Dani sleeps curled against Jamie’s side on the couch. “Same night this one turned up, I started dreaming of her again.”

“And you thought...”

He makes a noise like agony, though he’s trying to laugh. “I thought it was just mad at me for taking so long to tell her. For dragging it out. Thought it...the magic, or God, or whatever--she thought it was God, you know--wanted me to work it out, stop dragging my feet.”

Jamie doesn’t answer. Doesn’t say what they both know of the rules: that the dream only starts again under two circumstances. Either you fall out of love, find a new soulmate...or--

She stopped dreaming of Dani the night they’d spoken of love and possession. She’d fallen asleep on the couch, thinking in some dim way of Dani’s smile on the way down, of Dani, who had--despite speaking of a fiancé back in America--looked at her like she wanted nothing more than to read the whole of Jamie’s story in one sitting. She’d dozed off, remembering the way Dani had held her gaze with such heated interest--

And that was it. Never again. Dani, from that moment on, was no longer an American voice in her head, a pair of pretty blue eyes seeking out all her hidden secrets. Dani, from that moment on, was only Dani Clayton. Real, breathing, wonderful woman. 

Jamie had liked her better that way, she found. Not a scavenger hunt, but a truth. An honest, flawed, frightened, beautiful human being who could have smiled and turned Jamie away. She’d had every right to it. Jamie would have stood back, let her heart crack open, and walked away. 

Dani, imprinting herself on Jamie’s life in all the most solid ways. Dani, a certainty, an absolute, from so early on. 

She stopped dreaming of Dani sooner than she possibly could have expected. 

And Dani is here. Dani, in a pink jumper, with a gold band on her third finger. Dani, her hair tied back with a blue band, her eyes gleaming under a hall light. Dani, with moonflowers scattered behind her, a hand on Jamie’s jaw, her tongue soft as the moan she offers up like the world’s sweetest gift--

Dani is here. 

***

Jamie opens her eyes.