The first thing she notices are her knees. Strange, perhaps, but nothing about this morning isn’t strange. She suspects she can be forgiven for zeroing in on the mundane.
Her knees--don’t ache.
No part of her, in fact, aches the way she’s grown so accustomed to over the past few years. Her neck muscles, wound permanently into knots from seven years sleeping propped in front of an open door, are loose. Her head, so often thrumming with tension headaches, feels clear. Her eyes are bright. Her hands do not howl with pinched nerves.
Her knees bend with ease.
“What,” she whispers, “the fuck?”
It is insane. It is absolutely impossible. She has, officially, after almost a decade of crushing grief, lost her mind.
It doesn’t make it feel any less real, is the thing.
She’s staring blankly into the tiny mirror in a tiny bathroom she hasn’t set foot in since 1987. 1987--the first time. The only time that ever should have been. Time is linear, she has always believed. Time is a set of dominos, the chapters in a book, stacked one right after another.
Time is not repetitious.
Time does not offer do-overs.
And yet: the woman in the mirror is wrong. Or: she is too right. This is Jamie as she sees herself in her mind’s eye, even now, even knowing full-well the truth of her silver hair, the lines around her mouth, the distance in her eyes. Even so, this is her. This is the truth behind reality.
And she’s back again, standing in the little flat above Bly’s only pub. She’s back, in denim and a Blondie t-shirt she’d lost in 1993 on a trip to New York. A trip with--
Her hands, flying to her mouth, are twenty years less--twenty years less lined, lived, loved. Twenty years less memory imprinted into the skin: the callouses are wrong, half the scars missing, and--most important of all...
She’s twisting the skin of her third finger. Twisting the blank space where a gold band should be. Twisting, entirely on a habit that won’t be built for a whole goddamn decade, yet.
“Not fuckin’ possible,” she mumbles, and even that is different. Even the voice rebounding back to her, the accent thicker, the syllables less smoothed out by twenty years living in America. This is the voice she speaks with in her dreams, the one inside her head as she goes about her day. The one she falls back on only when especially drunk, or exhausted, or angry.
Or, once upon a more glorious time, when she’d been with her. Late at night, curled in bed, retelling stories she’d spun a million times. Late at night, curled in bed, murmuring her name. Late at night, when nights had felt the most like home anything ever could, because she’d spent them in her arms.
But that was then.
And this is then.
And it can’t be. It simply can’t. But that fact changes nothing at all of the brown curls, the sharp eyes, the bare finger.
It changes nothing of the rap of her boots across floorboards she hasn’t thought of in years--though she instinctively still steps around the creaky spot in the hall, the small knot near the coffee table that always served as a tripping hazard. It changes nothing of the once-familiar clink of glasses in the pub downstairs, the low murmur of the early staff grumbling over last night’s clean-up crew.
It changes nothing of the smell when she steps outside--the strange crisp of early summer, the deep blue of a sky which insists storms are a thing of the past, though everyone knows rain will be here again next week.
She can’t be here.
She is here.
And if she is here...
“Dani,” she whispers, and takes off for her truck at a sprint.
The house is exactly as she remembers, and nothing like she remembers, all at once. Time, she suspects, is a magician. She’s been dreaming of this house, these grounds, that fucking lake for years and years, and the version in her head has been long-supplanted with a variant just a little left of center. The distance of the drive feels less, somehow; the green is more. The house itself stands tall and proud, and for the first time, Jamie--this Jamie, a Jamie who knows things she has no business knowing in 1987--imagines she can hear it draw rattling breaths.
This house, once so familiar, once so like a home, is watching her now. Regarding her with the certainty of that which has been here many hundreds of years, and will stand hundreds more with no care for the human life growing within its walls.
She stares up at it from behind the wheel, her skin prickling all over, and she thinks, Dream. Must be. There is no other explanation, none at all. She can’t be here.
More important: she can’t be here. Her. The only thing that has ever mattered to Jamie, when it all boils down to the end. She can’t be here the way Jamie craves, because she already is--in the worst possible sense. She’s already here, now and always, sleeping beneath those waves. Jamie knows it. Jamie saw.
And still. Still, if her hand does not bear that ring. Still, if her back stands so much straighter. Still, if she is missing scar and ache and sense memory.
If some magic is true and real, mustn’t that magic mean something?
The date on the newspaper she’d checked before taking to the familiar old road had announced the day before Dani. The day before they’d met, anyway, Jamie strolling into the kitchen, Jamie utterly unprepared for the wind to be knocked from her chest with one glance of blue eyes. If time is, indeed, rolling back on itself, she isn’t meant to meet Dani until tomorrow.
Can’t wait that long, she thinks. Can’t. What if this is temporary? What if it’s only a dream, and she jolts awake in her chair before she can find her again? There is nothing crueler. Nothing more vicious than the idea of having Dani snatched from her again before she can get her arms around a frame she hasn’t held in life since...
The house is empty. She tries to remember this day, tries to pull herself back from this thin thread of near-panicked excitement enough to recall. Where had they all been? She, certainly, had been working. In the greenhouse--or on the rosebushes--or tending to the grounds’ expansive lawn. She, certainly, had been busy. In the aftermath of Rebecca’s death, she’d kept her hands so much busier than before. Never idle. Never wanting for distraction.
Owen, she recalls dimly, had been sent to pick up the new au pair. The kids, then, must be with Hannah.
Her heart is in her throat, the memory crashing home--Hannah Grose, beautiful and strong, brilliant and wise, her eyes seeking out Jamie’s with sparkling good humor over the dinner table. Hannah Grose, a matriarch with no children of her own. Hannah Grose, love of Owen Sharma’s life.
Hannah Grose, at the bottom of a well.
There’s no evidence she can recall of when it happened. No proof. But in telling the story, she’d made a guess. And it had felt right, somehow, the way you just know a thing you have no business understanding. She’d made a guess, made it up, that the last time anyone had seen Hannah Grose alive had been today.
Today, at the well.
She’s sprinting. She hasn’t run like this in years, hasn't been able to coax her legs and hips to operate with this kind of grace in far too long, and it feels good now. Good, and terrifying, and she nearly upends herself in a harried sprawl over a fallen log before it’s all over. She crashes along foliage and muddy puddle, and comes careening out before them all like a rock fired from a slingshot.
Peter Quint, wearing that god-awful smug expression she’d hated so much. She still dreams of Quint sometimes, of finally getting the chance to punch him right in that sleek jaw.
“Oi!” It barrels out of her, that voice, that accent she’s long-since found leveled by American living. It’s a weapon, that voice, gone unused for such a long time, she forgot what power it once held.
Peter, blank-eyed, takes a step back. Miles, so small, jolts in surprise.
Hannah, alive--she’s nearly certain of it--is gaping around at her. “Jamie? What on earth are you--”
Jamie takes a step. Another. Her fists balled at her sides, she raises her chin, snaps, “You keep the fuck clear of them, Quint, or so help me--”
Her knees don’t ache.
Her third finger is bare.
This is her flat. 1987. Blondie t-shirt. Curls in her hair, boots on her feet, no sign of Bly Manor.
“Fuck,” she hisses. “Fuck.”
Something in her head--some cosmic sense of unwinding--insists she’s already done this. Something in her head, whispering, Back again. A glitch? A strange error of the universe?
Either way, she’s still here. It’s still 1987. The date on the paper has not changed, and nor have the voices from the pub, the blue of the sky, the steadiness of her hands. A reset, but not a removal of possibility.
Try again, then. Try again, and see.
“Oi!” She steps more carefully, off the path she’d taken before. Steps around them, her eyes still on Quint, her fists still curled tight. “Keep back.”
“You,” Peter sighs. “Honestly, you all travel in packs.”
“Hannah,” Jamie says, gesturing with her head in unconscious mimicry of how Dani always coaxed her across a room. “To me. Miles. You too.”
They’re moving, she registers with some relief. They’re moving, perplexed, out of his reach. She’s okay, Hannah, she’s okay, she’s going to be--
Her knees don’t ache.
Her third finger is bare.
“Goddammit,” she snarls, slamming a hand down on the bathroom sink.
Right. So. She can’t save Hannah.
There are few things in this world with the power to hurt the way Dani’s death does. Very few things; so few, in fact, Jamie’s never really thought to look at them too closely. Dani’s death is monstrous. Dani’s death is all-consuming. Dani’s death, for a long time, had been the only thing that mattered.
But this. This is a special kind of cruelty.
She doesn’t venture back to the house. There’s a certain terror to the idea, now, that maybe third time is the charm--that, if she goes back where she did not originally belong in the story, she will find herself waking with all the weight of those extra decades back on her bones. This chance, this magical, insane chance, to see Dani again will be gone forever.
But there’s another level, too, undeniable in its strength. She does not go back to the house today, because the idea of seeing Hannah again--of knowing how close she’d been, interrupting that critical moment, to saving Hannah Grose’s life--is agonizing in a way she did not know she could feel for anything but Dani in that lake.
She can’t save Hannah. Why? Because Hannah was already dead by the time she arrived? Because Hannah is somehow outside the purview of this insane magic? Because Hannah is not Dani?
Or, worse: because the past, once set into stone, cannot be changed. Because the past, once written, is a story that must play itself out.
Does she really believe that? In a world of ghosts and time jumps, does she really believe it could all be for so little?
Just Hannah, then. For now, she has to assume it’s only Hannah. And that Dani can be seen. Touched.
It’s too much. Too much, with too little information. She sits, staring at this flat with all its ancient memories stacked up--plants long abandoned, books long forgotten, clothes she hasn’t worn in forever and a day--and tries not to think too hard about it.
Can she even sleep? Would sleep be the thing to push her back to her own time, her usual state of walking a world that no longer has Dani Clayton in it? She finds herself setting about the usual habit--bath, sink, door--before the futility of the thing kicks in. Dani won’t be in those reflections. Dani won’t walk through that door. It is 1987. Dani has never even seen her face.
A second kind of ache, not quite so deep as the first--because if Hannah cannot be saved, that is an ending. That is a period, a chapter break, the end of a domino line.
Dani not yet knowing her?
That’s a second goddamned chance.
She does sleep, eventually; fight it though she does, exhaustion eventually wins out. And, before her eyes are even open, she knows. The sounds are all wrong. The car horns. The birds.
Modernity doesn’t sound like this. This is still, unmistakably, Bly.
Which means this is the day.
She does not recall in detail the morning, which had been like any other, the first time around. She remembers, loosely, throwing on the same shirt from the day before. Remembers, loosely, not much caring to see anyone--she’d been grumpy, as she so often was that year, perhaps fresh off a dream of Rebecca. Or maybe it had just been that kind of day: the kind where people seemed too big a bother, where it was easier just to slouch off to business and not waste the energy. She can’t recall now.
All she knows is, she has to do it the same. No deviating. No experimenting. Later, maybe, she can test those bounds, but first? First, she has to see her. She needs that much. If it’s all she gets, if the world will right itself again in the moments after, she’ll accept it--if only she gets to see Dani Clayton smile one more time.
It’s easy, putting it that way. It erases a little something, putting it that way. Dani is the heart of every decision she’ll make today--but there’s something else, too. The knowledge that, when Hannah smiles, she will only see Peter Quint sneering behind her. The awareness that, when Owen jostles her arm, he will have no idea how close she’d come to fixing everything.
She isn’t avoiding them. She isn’t. She’s only walking the correct path, steering clear of the house, trying to remember exactly how she’d spent her morning.
She almost believes that.
The idea of walking into that kitchen is a marvel.
The idea of walking into that kitchen is a horror.
Her pulse is crashing in her wrists, the blood pumping with a fury through her ears, and she thinks, Heart attack. I’m only thirty, now, technically, but gonna have a fuckin’ heart attack all the same.
Doesn’t matter. It’ll be worth it. One glimpse.
She swings her arms, cracks her neck, bouncing in place. Can do this. Have to do this. It’s her.
One step. Two. Her body, thankfully, is all old habits when it comes to walking--she barely has to think about the slouch of shoulders, the careless easy swing of arm, the stride. Three steps. Four.
It’s out of her mouth before she can stop it. Blue eyes, which have slid instinctively to follow her progress into the room, widen.
“How did you know?” Flora bleats, sounding a little disappointed. “I wanted to introduce you!”
She hadn’t, Jamie remembers--no one had bothered to tell her this woman’s name, not for days, and she’d been forced to grope wildly for a nickname instead--but that doesn’t much matter now. Not with Dani looking at her with a wary interest, her hand still closed around her fork.
Don’t, Jamie warns herself, but all that old muscle memory is slipping away into pure instinct. She is moving, too quickly, across the room. Ignoring, utterly, the surprised way Hannah says her name as she rounds the table, grasping Dani by the arm, dragging her up from the chair.
“God,” she breathes, burying her face in Dani’s neck, “god, I’ve fucking missed you--”
Her knees don’t ache.
Her third finger is bare.
Right. Too much by half.
It takes every ounce of control not to say her name. Every ounce not to run to her, to squeeze her tight, to inhale that familiar clean scent that was always so irresistibly Dani.
She finds herself swaying in place instead, her eyes wide, staring. Still too much, she’s sure; Dani looks perplexed, certainly, holding her gaze. But she is still here. Still in the kitchen.
Still has to do something.
She moves to the sink, autopilot kicking in on a truly enormous delay, feeling Dani’s gaze on her back with every step. You’re here, she wants to cry. You’re fucking here, and you’re fucking real, and nothing has touched you, yet.
Untrue. She knows all too well what lurks behind Dani’s smile, the polite arch of her back. Dani has never been untouched, not in all the time Jamie’s known her, by the dark.
Still. Still. She’s here, and her eyes are so blue, and she is smiling in that well-mannered way she always had in situations she wasn’t quite at home in. And Jamie isn’t supposed to look at her. Jamie isn’t supposed to give her anything at all, not yet. Jamie is supposed to tease the kids, grin up at Owen, eat her meal in peace as though the slide of this young woman’s gaze over her face sparks nothing in her heart.
It did. Even then, it did. It’s so much harder to pretend, now.
She eats without tasting, drinks without paying any mind, her eyes roving desperately over the faces at the table. Dani, each time her gaze lands, looks back with that polite, puzzled surprise--but there’s something else there. Something that reminds Jamie forcefully of that time, so long ago, when Dani had whispered into her neck, Have you ever felt, meeting someone for the first time, that they belonged in your life? That you’d already met them a hundred times before?
She had only been able to nod, her throat tight, and Dani had sounded so hungry when she said, That was you. Minute I saw you. Is that crazy? Am I crazy, for saying that?
She’s thinking it now, Jamie would bet her life. She’s thinking it right now, the corners of her lips turning up as though she can’t help it, and Jamie wants to reach across the table. Wants to grab her hand. Wants to say, It’s not just you, and you’re not crazy, and fuck, nothing has ever mattered more.
If she says it, she’s sure she’ll find herself staring at her own reflection in that tiny bathroom mirror. She keeps her mouth firmly shut, forces her attention back to her plate. Forces herself not to react, when Dani mentions the man on the parapet.
Forces herself to run through something resembling an old script. “Can’t imagine...”
She couldn’t, the first time around. Now, knowing the stories Dani has told her, remembering Peter Quint just yesterday, it’s agony. She glances toward the kids, to the wide-eyed terror passing between them, and thinks, How didn’t we see? How didn’t any of us see?
Isn’t why she’s here, certainly, though it makes it no easier to bear when Hannah--sweet, dear, dead Hannah--writes Dani’s worries off with a smile. Hannah, puncturing Dani’s mood and Jamie’s own ability to keep a handle on herself with a single sentence.
“Oh, you must have imagined it, dear.”
“Possible you didn’t,” Jamie says, before she can stop herself, and braces her knees under the table. Waiting for whatever magic dumped her here to whisk her away again. Instead, she finds herself being stared at by five pairs of confused eyes.
Dani’s had been so blue. So incredibly, beautifully blue--and Jamie is suddenly hyperaware of herself, in her battered work clothes, with dirt smudged into her skin. How, she wonders with the repressed hint of a grin, did she fall for this?
“It’s possible,” she adds, when they all continue staring, “that you saw something else. Not a man, maybe.”
“Not a man,” Dani repeats, her brow furrowing. It’s an expression Jamie doesn’t recognize, at first, realizing too late that this is Dani thinking she is being made fun of. That Jamie is making fun of her.
Jamie, who has teased, who has been playful and charming and silly so many times over the years, has never made fun. Not like this. Not to hurt. That Dani could even imagine her capable is a sharp sting.
“I mean,” she goes on, unable to stop herself, desperate to repair this tiny hurt stretching across the table between them, “it could’ve been something else, couldn't it? Not a man. A ghost, maybe.”
She waits, again, for the magic to wind tight around her. To squeezes her out of place, tossing her back to yesterday. Certainly, the kids are gaping at her with something resembling amazed horror. Certainly, Hannah is narrowing her eyes as though concerned for Jamie’s sanity.
Dani, though. Dani is just gazing at her, utterly unable to work out Jamie’s role in this conversation. And why shouldn’t she? She’s never met Jamie in her life, not on this early summer day in 19-fuckin’-87.
Stupid, Jamie thinks. But some kinds of stupid, once begun, must be seen through. Some lakes, once waded into, must be allowed to take you under.
“There are ghosts,” she says, charging determinedly on despite the noise Owen makes beside her. “At Bly. Everywhere, maybe. There are ghosts here, and even if you don’t see them, they’re real. They’re watching. That man you saw, I’d bet my skin he’s dead. Been dead. Peter fucking Quint, I’d wager--”
“Wait,” says Owen, but she doesn’t. Can’t. She can feel a glittering discomfort in her fingertips, in her ankles, in the pit of her stomach. She’s pushing it. Doesn’t matter. All that matters is getting through.
“Ghosts,” she repeats, staring into Dani’s eyes, willing her to understand. “Whole fuckin’ place is haunted. And I’m here--I’ve been sent back--to make sure you don’t--”
Her knees don’t ache.
Her third finger is bare.
“So, I can’t fuckin’ tell her?” she snaps to an empty bathroom. “Can’t fuckin’ warn her? What the fuck is the point in that?”
Maybe that’s it. Maybe she can’t warn Dani. Or maybe she just can’t warn her like that. Maybe it has to be done a certain way. A subtle way. A gentle way.
Different this time, she thinks, determined and desperate. Do it better.
She makes it through lunch. Lunch is not, she thinks, the place for it, anyway--Dani has always been a private soul, someone who matches Jamie in a desire for the intimate. She would never have taken kindly to someone shouting about ghosts over a family meal, not even on Jamie’s best day.
Private. Secret. Fine enough.
She catches Dani by the wrist on her way out, says in a low voice, “Can we talk?”
Dani nods, glancing over her shoulder. The kids are occupied, Flora bouncing around underfoot as Owen clears dishes, Miles watching with distant eyes. She’d forgotten how sweet they could be. How wonderful. How utterly eerie.
Kids, she thinks with a smile. Run you fuckin’ ragged.
“I’m sorry,” Dani says, her voice pitched toward most polite as Jamie drags her into the hall. “Did I do something to offend you?”
“Offend?” Jamie repeats. “No. Why?”
Dani looks pointedly down at Jamie’s fingers encircling her wrist, a gesture far too personal for not even having been introduced. Jamie drops her hand, fingers burning, warding off a swell of misery at the lost contact. It’ll be okay. Little longer, once this is figured out, it’ll all be okay.
“I wanted to tell you,” she says instead. “That I believe you. About the man.”
Dani’s expression brightens. It squeezes her heart, that simple joy, that simple delight at being believed. She’d forgotten how much it meant to Dani, just earning that much from another person.
“Do you know who he might be?”
“Yes,” Jamie says firmly. “Yes. His name is Peter Quint. Used to work here. He--he died.”
“Died,” Dani repeats blankly. Here it comes again, that little furrowed look that says, You’re making fun. You took me out here just to make fun of me. You’re laughing at my expense, and you don’t even have the decency to be up front about it.
Never, thinks Jamie desperately. Her hand is reaching again for Dani’s, quite outside of her control, her heart in her throat. “Died about a year ago. This house, it’s not like other places. It’s not--not right. And I need to tell you--I need you to know--that ghosts are real, and that is going to matter so very much, and I need--”
Her knees don’t ache.
Her third finger is bare.
“Fine,” she says. “Fine. I fucking get the picture.”
It’s too big, she thinks. Too big to change with words. Too big to explain so easily. Even to Dani, who does believe in ghosts. Even to Dani, who does know already what it is to be haunted.
She can’t tell her with words.
Can’t leave a note, either, she finds--the magic lets her keep walking around, keep moving through her day, until she goes rubber-band-snapping right back to that bathroom in the middle of a conversation with Flora. Dani, she suspects, has read her message.
Can’t write it down. Can’t speak of ghosts. Can’t talk about Peter Quint, either--not unless she’s speaking of him in the still-living tense, like she doesn’t know full-well where his body rots at this very moment. Each time she veers toward the big buzzwords--lake, Lady, ghost, dead--that glittering pull worms its way under her skin again. No matter who she’s talking to.
She tries Hannah--tries to say, “I know he pushed you. Know you were by the well when it happened. Hannah--Hannah, god, I’m so fuckin’ sorry--”
Knees don’t ache.
She tries Owen--tries to say, “It wasn’t just Becca, it was him, too. Dragged off to die alone, and it’s wrong, it’s all wrong, and now--”
Third finger bare.
She tries the kids, even. The kids, who already know, who should believe her even if no one else does. Flora: “I know about the dollhouse, I know about the Lady, I know--”
Miles: “He does this to you, doesn’t he, he hurts you, I’m so sorry, I’m so sorry I never saw it and all I ever did was yell--”
She sags onto the bathroom floor, feeling wrung-out on a bone-deep level. Feeling tired. Feeling, almost, defeated.
You can’t, she thinks dully. You can’t change any of it. It’s too fucking big.
Nothing for it, then, but to live it all again. Live it all, and see what can be done from inside.
She remembers this. Remembers the look on Hannah’s face when she’d said, “The new Miss has put them to it.” Remembers that little pull of absolute glee in her own stomach, how she’d been unable to tamp down a grin.
Remembers, with a flush of sudden anger, what had prompted Dani to put the kids to work in the first place. Remembers, her fists curling at her sides, that she’d been locked in a closet.
Meant well, she tells herself, breathing deeply through her nose in search of calm. They’d meant well. Saved her bloody life, probably. Not that Dani had known, screaming herself hoarse, bruising her shoulder against the door. Not that it had mattered to Dani at the time.
You always feel, she’d confided one night, her head resting in Jamie’s lap, like you’re not made for it, those first couple of days. School, nannying, whatever it is. There’s always a period of adjustment where you feel like you’ll never belong in their eyes.
Sounds like the worst of it, Jamie had said, combing her hair back with fingers that still felt unworthy of the privilege. Dani had closed her eyes, leaning into her touch, smiling.
No. The worst is later. When they’ve let you in, and you see how badly they can be hurt. The worst part is knowing, no matter how good you are, you can’t save them.
But you did, she thinks now, watching Dani pull weeds from afar. You do. You will.
If Jamie doesn’t stop her. If Jamie can’t convince her.
There has to be a way.
In the meantime, there’s something about being back here again. Something about just sitting with Hannah at this table, her feet propped up, the sun warm on her skin. There are things, she thinks, you don’t remember to miss, they’re so goddamned simple. The big stuff sticks with you, cropping up when you aren’t looking, sneaking up to drive a screwdriver between your ribs in the night. It’s the little things you forget, the little beauties so simple and so discreet, you don’t pay them enough mind even to know you’ve lost them.
How many things, she wonders, did she forget, with Dani? How many tiny intricacies of a life together have slipped her notice under all the many agonies of living without? She remembers to miss Dani’s kiss, her arms at night, her skin. She remembers to miss her laugh, the wet of her tears on Jamie’s fingertips, the rhythm of her heartbeat as they’d walked, danced, moved together. She remembers Dani’s voice in the shower, Dani’s scent on the pillowcase, Dani’s presence haunting the very walls of every place they’ve ever stood together.
But what has she forgotten? The specific way Dani sneezes? The passing glance of her hand sliding around Jamie’s hip in the kitchen? The moments just like this one, thousands of them, armed with books or coffee or distracting work, skidding by into oblivion without her notice?
“Are you all right?” Hannah asks, and she realizes she’s gazing at Dani’s back with tears in her eyes. She shakes her head, forces a grin.
“Perfect. Ah--thank god, Owen.” He’s setting down a tray of drinks, his eyes sliding irresistibly to Hannah’s smile, and Jamie remembers this, too. Remembers how keyed-up she’d felt, the rhythm of her words coming just a little too fast, her voice pitched just a little louder than necessary. She’d felt wild with the awareness that Dani was just there, just out of reach, not looking at her. It had been so teenage, that need to be noticed, and she’d filtered it all into this conversation with Hannah and Owen, like she ever spoke like this on a normal day.
They hadn’t noticed--but, then, they’d had their own concerns, hadn’t they?
“On a scale of zero to American,” she says now, unable to tear her eyes from Dani, “how would you rate her?”
“American,” they reply with a mingled laugh, and how good it is, to hear that again. Some sounds are just made to intertwine, she thinks.
She had, the first time, said something stupid here. Something stupid and so obvious, it was a wonder they didn’t call her on it. Bit too pretty. Do you think she’s pretty, Owen?
“Bit too pretty,” she hears herself say, her lips curving into a fond smile, the cigarette in her hand so familiar, she barely even registers it. “Like someone else we know, eh, Owen?”
His eyebrows raise, his gaze nervously tracking the gesture of cigarette as she points. Hannah, catching on, coughs.
“What?” Jamie says, as faux-polite as she can manage. “Best to get it all on the table, isn’t it? Never know how many chances you might get.”
Owen swallows hard. “I, ah. Should be getting back. Enjoy your break, ladies.”
Gonna take a bit more than that, Jamie thinks, with no surprise at all. They’d been dancing ‘round each other too long for a single sidelong comment to undo that tangle of nerves. Even still, if she can’t save Hannah, if she can’t fix it, the least she ought to be able to do is get them to say the words. Just once. Just one goddamned time, to make absolutely sure there can be no mistaking those feelings.
You deserve it, she thinks at them, wishing for the power to make them believe. You fucking well deserve to know.
Her eyes skim back to Dani again, standing with her back to the table, her attention far from Jamie. Hannah, clearing her throat, has moved on to mention that crack in the wall--the one Jamie knows all too well won’t be there when she looks. There’s no need even to check.
Except Dani will be there. Dani, wheeling out of the house with every breath peeling itself from her lungs like agony. Dani, trying to hide from everyone what she thinks of as weakness, and Jamie understands as a gaping wound.
“I’ll get ‘round to it,” she says, and lays a hand over Hannah’s on the table. Dark eyes swing up to hers, a puzzled smile on painted lips.
I miss you, she can’t say--not without risking another wake-up in her bathroom. I’m sorry, she can’t say. I’d have saved you a thousand times over, if it would only let me.
“You’re better’n we deserve sometimes,” she says instead, her voice gruff with a mix of embarrassment and emotion. “Know I tease--well, maybe a bit too much. But I mean that, Hannah. We’re lucky to have you.”
Words she’s never said in her life, not to anyone save for Dani. But she means them now, and she’d have meant them the first time around, if she’d known how easily someone can slip away at a moment’s notice.
Hannah turns her hand over, closing her fingers around Jamie’s in a gentle grip. “See? It’s the gin. Sad drink, as I said.”
Jamie laughs, though it feels a little like heartbreak.
She can’t hold her. Not now, not this first time out, when Dani is still trying so hard to keep anyone from seeing her like this. She can’t drop everything, sprint to Dani’s side, pull her close.
And that hurts so much more than she’d thought it would. Thinking of this moment, planning for a do-over, she hadn’t factored in how powerful instinct can be. How many memories are welling up: of holding Dani over the years, of making her laugh through tears, of going silent and letting her shake against Jamie’s shoulder. Some muscle memory is more powerful than the body. Some, it seems, are ingrained in the fabric of a person.
She jams her hands into her pockets to keep from reaching out, watching the shudder of Dani from behind that shrub, and thinks, This was it. This was the moment. Before, she was just a pretty face. This is when it all began.
There are words here--gentle, carefully-distant words, meant to reassure and relax. There are words, coming to mind with the oldest instinct she has regarding Dani Clayton: Kids. Run you ragged. Well, people, really...
The words she should say. The old script. The one that belongs to these two women, these two versions of a love story unwritten. She should open her mouth, begin now, watch Dani’s shoulders go rigid--slowly relax--her head tilting to catch sight of Jamie’s small smile.
“I love you,” she says instead, and knows it won’t take. It won’t, because that isn’t how the story goes here--and it’s too big, too huge a change for this early on. The magic, whatever it is, won’t let her stay if she keeps going.
She can’t stop.
“I love you,” she repeats, watching Dani’s head swing around, her body held sharply away from Jamie. “You won’t remember that, in a minute. It’ll all just start over again. And you know…I don’t care. It’s been so long, Dani. So fucking long.”
Selfish. She’s never been this selfish with Dani, has never wanted to be this selfish, except once. Except one time, her clothes weighted with lake water, her head pounding for oxygen, at once the most exhausted and most adrenaline-rushed she’s ever felt. One time, when Dani had looked up at her with unseeing eyes, and she’d thought, You. Me. Us. Fucking us. Fucking us, Dani, take me too.
Dani hadn’t then. Dani wouldn’t. And so, the beat passed. The selfish need to give herself up, to surrender the gift Dani had left her--just to live, knowing that Dani had loved her with every piece that remained--had taken longer to dissipate. Sometimes, even now, she thinks it will someday win.
“I love you,” she says a third time, like a spell, like a wish. “And I don't know how, yet, Dani. I don’t. But I’m going to make this right. I’m going to fucking save you, no matter what it has to say about--”
Her knees don’t ache.
Her third finger is bare.
She is grimacing, the pulse of certainty hot under her skin. Dani won’t remember that promise. No one but the magic will remember that promise. Doesn’t matter.
Jamie won’t forget.
She does it right this time. It’s tempting, to just lose herself in an endless loop of I love you-start again-I fucking love you, but there’s no point. That isn’t what this Dani needs from her, not yet. This Dani needs the woman who walked slowly, cocked her head, offered teasing reassurances.
She does it all right, the way she’s meant to, and she keeps her distance. It’s the hardest thing in the world, standing back this way, giving Dani the space she needs to come down. The hardest thing in the world, letting the syllables roll off her tongue like it doesn’t matter, like making Dani smile is just another drop of sunshine in an endlessly clear day.
“You’re doin’ great,” she says, and wills Dani to hear the love in those three words. “You’re doin’ great.”
Dani, with eyes unused to searching Jamie’s face for truth, doesn’t quite smile. It’s the strangest part of the whole thing, going back to a Dani who doesn’t entirely trust what she’s being handed. Dani as she remembers her, Dani who needed reassurances so much bigger than this by the end, couldn’t stop herself from leaning into Jamie’s arms. Couldn’t stop herself from gripping at Jamie’s back, shivers working up under her skin, burying her face in Jamie’s shoulder.
This version, so much younger and sadder than the woman Jamie will eventually marry, looks as though she can’t remember ever being touched by hands she could rely on. This version, watching Jamie walk away, would likely balk if Jamie were to reach out now.
She almost does, anyway. Almost can’t resist, as blue eyes brighten, as the last of the tension slides from Dani’s face. She’s missed this so much, it’s like a punch to the chest. This, the simple triumph of lifting a burden off of Dani and tossing it carelessly aside.
“Chin up, Poppins,” she says, and remembers why she’d done it the first time--back before she even knew Dani’s name, finding herself scrounging for something to offer beyond a smile and a joke. She remembers thinking, It’ll do, when out of the corner of her eye, Dani had beamed.
Dani, who is following her into the house with hopeful eyes now. Dani, who doesn’t even understand why, yet.
I hadn’t felt that, Dani said, in a time both Other and Before. Not ever.
What’s that? Jamie had asked, smoothing a hand down her arm, the comfortable weight of oncoming sleep settling over her like a clean blanket. Dani had been quiet a moment, as if really mulling it over.
Excitement. That feeling that I was going to get to see you again--in an hour or in a day--and it was going to make the whole world shine. I couldn’t get enough of you, even then.
She wants to stay. She wants to stay right here, beside the shrubbery, with Dani. Wants to say fuck it to the wall, to the bizarre run-in with Miles--with Peter, she suspects now, a small rage building in her chest at the notion--and just give Dani a little more sunlight now.
She could, she suspects; it’s not so big a change that the magic would jolt her out of the story in punishment. She could do it.
But this isn’t just a trip down memory lane. This is a do-over. This is a second chance. Push too hard too early, there’s no telling what will happen. Could she make Dani love her sooner? Could she trip up and keep Dani from loving her at all?
Oh, she thinks, memory crashing into place. Oh no.
There’s still one part left of this day.
It isn’t Miles’ fault, is the thing.
It isn’t Miles’ fault at all.
She knows it now, as she didn’t then--with Dani knocking on the door of the greenhouse, a plate of food in hand, the first in a lifetime of tiny offerings to remind Jamie to eat. Back then, the first time, she’d felt the anger seep in, running hot and fast over any kind of logic. She’d felt ten years younger, the rage a hopelessly-powerful current sweeping her away.
It had been Peter, the source of that rage. Peter, who had already done this once before--come charging in where he wasn’t warranted, wasn’t welcome, had no business bringing shears to a home he hadn’t been invited into. Peter, who had cut roses, and patience, and Rebecca out of the peaceful little universe they’d built at the manor.
Peter, again, this time. Jamie knows it now. Jamie knows it, and the anger she’d felt the first time around is not diminished by knowing--it is enhanced.
“Little. Fuckin’. Shit.”
“Hey, he’s just a kid.”
It isn’t Miles’ fault, but Dani doesn’t know that--Dani can’t know that. If she turns now, if she stands and says, “He’s a monster, you know. I knew it, way he haunted this fuckin’ place, way he haunted her”--Dani will think she’s crazy. Dani can’t understand, not yet, even if Jamie had the time to make sense of it for her.
“I’m gonna kill him,” she says, each word imbued with such fury, it’s a wonder Dani doesn’t recoil. “Swear to god--”
Dani’s hand, on her shoulder, and it’s enough to drain every ounce of anger from her body. Dani’s hand, for the first time in seven years.
She stops dead, swaying, barely hearing Dani say, “It’s just a few flowers.” There’s another line here, she knows--oh, sure, well that’s fine then--but her mouth doesn’t care. Her body doesn’t care. All that matters is Dani’s palm on her shoulder, Dani’s fingers curling lightly around as she applies gentle pressure.
How many times, did Dani touch her this way over the years? How many times--to get her attention in public, or to ease her out of the way in the shop, or to simply have that ease of contact between them like a perfect circuit? This, the first of so many, and neither of them had any idea.
There’s concern in Dani’s face, and fine enough--Jamie would be concerned too, if a person who had just been ready to unleash abject fury had frozen in place, jaw slack. She closes her eyes, feels Dani’s hand not slip away, but tighten around her shirt.
“Jamie, are you all right?”
“Fine,” she says, breathing through her nose, though the tears are threatening. She hadn’t cried here. She isn’t supposed to cry here. Dani isn’t supposed to see that in her, not for ages yet, because for all the teasing about bursting into tears to water the plants of Bly, Jamie hadn’t shown her that. Not for a good long while. Dani had needed someone stronger, at the start.
“He’s just a little boy,” Dani goes on, her attention--rightly--still on Jamie’s threat of physical violence. Jamie winces.
“I just--I have a way of doing things, and I don’t like people messin’ about in my garden.” It lacks venom. It lacks punch. It’s a wonder she can give the words voice at all, with how badly her body is beginning to shake.
She remembers this. She remembers feeling out of control, feeling embarrassed and red-hot and unable to rein herself in. She remembers the look in Dani’s eyes most of all, recoiling from the words shouted right into her face like they had anything at all to do with Dani.
Isn’t you, she thinks now, and isn’t him, either. It’s about the control. It’s about the consent. It’s about--
It’s about Peter Quint, and the knowledge that she can do nothing to stop him.
It’s about Hannah Grose, and the awareness that she is already gone.
It’s about Dani, standing here, the perfect image of a woman who should be protected from all the dark the world has to offer.
“You’re right. I’ll talk to him.” Dani’s hand falls from her shoulder, her expression resolute. “I will.”
And she does, Jamie knows. She talks to him, as only Dani ever had: with firm-handed patience, with a demeanor that manages to be empathetic and take-no-shit at exactly the same time. She talks to him, and Jamie can only imagine the confusion in Miles--who quite likely won’t even remember what he’s being scolded for--while she’s doing it. She can’t be certain. Dani never told her that part.
Dani is still watching her now, waiting for the next beat--not, Jamie recognizes as though she expects to be shouted at again, but with the patient interest of a woman who wants to make absolutely sure Jamie is okay before she walks away. Dani was always like that. Steadier than she gave herself credit for. Kind in ways most people can only fake.
“Look, can we just go back to the part where you were acting mental, and I had to talk you down?” she asks, and Dani laughs. Back on track. Back to the way it should go.
She didn’t apologize. She had been wired too hot to even think of it, mortified with herself for losing control like that on this woman, who was already going through enough. She didn’t apologize, before.
“Sorry,” she says now. “For that. You didn’t deserve it.”
“It wasn’t about me,” Dani says, smiling a little, and it’s all Jamie can do not to kiss her breathless.
She’s meant to go home. She did go home. She went home, and she ate alone, sat on her couch, tried not to think about the day. Tried not to think about how a few cut flowers had been enough to turn her from someone who smiled calmly, talked a panicking woman back to breathing, joked with her friends, into a body on the verge of violence.
She went home, and she tried not to think, and when the phone rang--Hannah, anxious and spouting all sorts of crazy about Peter Quint in that terribly-sane way Hannah always had--she’d driven back. Walked through the rain with a gun tucked under her arm. Ran smack into Dani Clayton.
Dani, who has no idea what she’s seeing.
Dani, who is in danger every minute she walks through that house in the dark.
Dani, who doesn’t need Jamie, not yet. Maybe wouldn’t accept her hand if offered. Not with the ghost of her guilt still weighing heavy.
She stays. She can’t talk herself out of it, can’t make herself get into that truck. The best she can do is keep her distance, twisting her mouth into a wry smile when Hannah blinks in surprise after dinner.
“You’re still here?”
Can’t leave her alone. “You know,” she says lightly. “Lots to do.”
“Owen left two hours ago.” Hannah frowns. “You didn’t eat--aren’t you hungry? Plenty left over, I could make you a plate.”
Perhaps yours, Jamie doesn’t say. She’s been watching closely, noting with a heavy heart each time Hannah’s hands lift a cup or a fork to her lips without taking in a single morsel. How did they not see, she wonders. How could they not tell?
She’d been looking at Dani. Simple as that, isn’t it? Her eyes, always, straying to Dani, even in those earliest days. Hannah had seemed so steady, so unshakeable, she had never thought her attention was needed in that direction.
I failed you. We all failed you. And Hannah doesn’t have the first idea.
“I’m all good,” she says, and smiles. It’s getting easier, little by little, to fake her way back to this younger way of thinking. Easier, little by little, to pretend her chest isn’t cracking open with every swell of laughter from Hannah, every gentle avoidance of Owen’s eyes, every time the pair of them have stood in a room as though they’d have all the time in the world to do it.
Tell her, she wants to scream in Owen’s face.
Tell him, she wants to insist, shaking Hannah’s shoulders.
Would the clock turn back, if she did it? Would she have to start over again, if she snapped? Probably. Time does not want to change. Time does not want to be undone. Time wants her to watch, placid as a lamb, and remember, and suffer for it.
Dani. Dani is the number one priority, has to be, has always been. But this--this hurts, too. This hurts in ways she can’t keep turning her head from.
“Jamie?” Dani, coming around the corner after the kids, her hands on her hips. “You’re still here?”
“That’s what I said,” Hannah adds cheerfully, though there’s a cast of uncertainty around her eyes Jamie finds too familiar. Her hand, creeping to press behind her head, seems unattached to the rest of her. Jamie closes her eyes, hating the too-vivid image of this same woman at the bottom of a well.
“Wasn’t up for heading back,” she says, forcing her voice level. “Had a feeling, y’know. About tonight.”
“What kind of feeling?” Dani leans back on her heels, watching Miles and Flora just about trample one another up the stairs. “Ten minutes! I want to see teeth brushed and pajamas on!”
She’s so good with them. Jamie knew it, back then, but it’s striking now to see Dani in her element as she’d never allowed herself again. Dani, who is arguably at her best with these kids, her smile soft, her voice firm. If all goes well, will she go back to kids, after? Will she go back to teaching? Will their life change?
Worth it, she decides. Even if it all changes. Even if Dani chooses everything differently, so long as she is not damned to come back here, to that lake, in less then twenty years’ time. It will be worth everything.
“I’ve got a treat for the kiddos,” Dani is saying--directly to her, she realizes. “If you want to join.”
Hannah is begging off, shaking her head, but Jamie can’t think of anything better to do with her time. The woman she’s meant to be just now wouldn’t care for this, for playing hide and seek in the depths of the manor with a stranger in pastels. The woman she’s meant to be just now ought to say no, but--
“Why not?” she says, and shrugs, like her fingertips aren’t itching to reach for Dani’s hand.
“Really?” The surprise written all over Dani’s face is almost a punch to the gut. This version, Jamie reminds herself. This version of you wouldn’t. That’s all.
“Already here, aren’t I?” She stuffs her hands in her pockets, tries to channel the casual energy of someone not already in love, not already missing Dani so much, she can barely breathe whenever Dani leaves the room. “Anyway, if you could use a hand...”
Dani brightens. “That’d be great. Yeah. And maybe after we could, um, talk? I feel like we...sort of got off on a strange foot, earlier.”
She sets off up the stairs without another glance, her attention fixed on the job ahead, and Jamie hangs back. What had Dani said about this night? There had been hide and seek. There had been Miles, acting strange. There had been, of course, Peter Quint.
Peter Quint. The murderous fucking bastard. Peter Quint, already dead, and still such a blight on this house.
“You’re staring,” Hannah says quietly. Jamie jumps.
“Bit too pretty, was it?” Hannah is grinning, and all at once, Jamie wants to blurt, You should have been there. You should have watched us fall in love, you should have been at his restaurant to congratulate us, you should have known.
“Entirely too pretty,” she says, her voice a bit hoarse. “Entirely too pretty, and entirely too American.”
“Seems to be stopping you dead,” Hannah observes, and Jamie is laughing before she can think better of it.
“Hannah, love, you have no fucking idea.”
The kids want to play hide and seek, and there is a part of Jamie that nearly stops them. A part of Jamie that wants to insist they bundle into their beds, stay safely locked away, never once setting foot onto the path that will--inevitably--lead Dani to that lake.
Try it, something whispers. Try it, I dare you.
It wouldn’t matter. She knows it wouldn’t matter--Dani has told her of these early nights, of her restless roaming. Change the story here, iron out a wrinkle tonight, the fabric will only billow up in another place to make up for it.
“Count,” Flora insists. “Both of you.”
“Team event, is it?” Jamie asks, and Flora nods. Dani looks almost nervous, her smile edged with something twitchier than Jamie is accustomed to.
I, she realizes with startling clarity, make her nervous.
Dani had never said as much. She’d said other things, over the years--that she hadn’t been prepared for Jamie, that she hadn’t expected to feel that force of emotion so quickly for Jamie, that she’d been guilty and ashamed of letting her grief go in abrupt bursts, like a silk scarf running through her hands, when Jamie entered the room. But nervous?
She’d never said that.
“You all right?” she asks when the kids have peeled off down the stairs on the assurance they will not be followed until the count of ten. Dani, watching the door, gives a single jab of a nod. “Hey, if I’m intruding, I can--”
Don’t send me away, she silently pleads. Don’t, please, not after all these years.
Dani, thankfully, smiles. “Of course not. You’re always welcome here. After all, this is your house, too.”
“Well. Not technically.” She feels unbearably fidgety, her hands wanting to seek Dani’s, knowing full-well it isn’t yet time. “Don’t live on the property, you know. Got a little place in town. A flat. Above Bly’s one and only pub.”
I could take you there. Right now. Let’s go, let’s go to my place and never leave again, let’s--
Her skin tingles in warning. She grits her teeth.
“Even so,” Dani is saying. Jamie has blinked, it seems, and missed her striding across the room to the door. Jamie has blinked, and Dani is already halfway into the hall. “This is your home, isn’t it? In a weird way? I think everyone feels it.”
“Never thought about it,” Jamie says, though that’s not precisely true. This version, the one she’s pretending to be, never thought about it. This was a job--a comfortable one, with people she couldn’t help caring for, but a job nonetheless. If ever she’d thought of it as more, if ever she’d let herself grow that soft around the edges, the gates had slammed down the minute she found Rebecca floating facedown in that lake.
Dani gestures with her head, a signal for Jamie to follow into the dark, and Jamie obeys without a second thought. “No lights?” she says quietly. Dani shrugs.
“Bit more fun this way, isn’t it? Sort of spooky.”
“Like being scared, do you?” The Dani she’d known, the Dani she’d loved enough for a dozen lifetimes, hadn’t. That version, the one who knew what it was to carry something too heavy to stomach, had flinched from shadows, insisting on lamps in every corner of their home. By the end, she’d been uneasy in the dark. Uneasy around reflections. Uneasy even just sitting still, afraid she could feel herself fading to nothing even with Jamie’s hand on her knee.
This Dani, so much younger and less aware of what it is to be devoured, grins, and she feels her heart crack.
“It can be nice. Gets the adrenaline pumping. Also, it’ll mean we don’t find them in about ten seconds.”
“Should I...?” Jamie gestures awkwardly in the opposite direction of where Dani is headed. “Cover more ground? Or does divide-and-conquer ruin the spirit of teamwork?”
There is a certain sweet shyness to Dani’s expression, something just a little closer to the way she’d smiled at the first use of Poppins than to how she’d looked in their first hotel room. Just a little more innocent, a little less certain in the best possible way, when she says, “I don’t mind the company. It’s nice, getting to be around other adults.”
Take her hand.
Kiss her now.
Get her the fuck out of here before it’s too late.
“Know what you mean,” Jamie says, nearly dizzy with love for her.
She’d thought--hoped, maybe--that her presence would be enough to rattle the story out of alignment, but no: it goes the same as Dani’s telling, all those years ago. The only difference is, when Miles wraps both arms around Dani’s throat, Jamie is there to yank him bodily off.
“Oi! What the fuck d’you think you’re doing?” He’s heavier than she remembers, a squirming mass of irritated boy, and she nearly drops him. Dani, coughing and rubbing her neck, gropes for her sleeve with her free hand.
Jamie ignores her, gripping Miles as tightly as she can. “You think I don’t know?” she hisses into his ear. “Think I can’t see it?”
“Jamie?” Dani, her hand firm on Jamie’s shoulder now, more assertive than she’d been out by the decimated roses. “Jamie, put him down.”
“I see it,” Jamie goes on in a low, violent tone she hasn’t broken out in decades. She can’t remember the last time she sounded like this, the last time she pointed this cannon at anyone and lit the fuse. This isn’t the Jamie Dani married. This isn’t the Jamie who offered company to a terrified woman. This isn’t the Jamie, even, who faced down Peter Quint armed only with a temper and a pair of garden shears.
This is the old version. The one Dani never met. The one she’d promised herself Dani never would.
“I see you, Quint,” she says, and watches Miles’ blue eyes widen with shock. Her smile is barbed, venomous, merciless. “I see you, and if it’s the last thing I fucking do, I’m going to make you pay for all of it.”
It’s for the best, probably, that she can feel the magic yanking her out of this moment already. For the best, that Dani will never remember this side of her. Dani, looking at her with open bewilderment, dragging Miles out of her arms as though concerned for his safety.
“I’m sorry,” Jamie says, closing her eyes as the world slips sideways. “You wouldn’t understand, anyway.”
Her knees don’t ache.
Her third finger is bare.
If she does nothing else with this time, with this precious gift, she will never again make Dani look at her with such horror. Never. Even doing it once is a memory she will carry like a scar for the rest of her life, though Dani will never know it.
Her head bent, she lets herself weep for the first time.
No hide and seek this time, then, though she still can’t force herself to drive off the property when the sun has vanished over the horizon. She pulls to the end of the drive, settling in the truck cab with arms folded over the steering wheel, and waits.
Inside, Dani is getting the kids ready for bed.
Inside, Flora is choosing the game.
Inside, Miles--not Miles--is pelting down the stairs, away from Dani’s rising anger.
Will I see him? she wonders, staring through the light fall of evening rain, squinting at shadows. Knowing he’s out there. Will I see him?
Jamie has never, not once, seen a ghost just walking around--and not for want of trying. She’s tried harder than maybe anyone of sound mind in history, harder than Owen or Henry or Dani herself will ever know. She’s read books, reached out to so-called specialists, sat in dark rooms with candles lit and shades drawn. She’s spoken into mirrors. She’s begged stagnant bathwater until the grief throttled her silent. And, barring that now-erased moment of futility at the end of Hannah’s life, it has never mattered.
Never. Not once. Has she seen a ghost.
Now that she knows what to look for, will that change?
Maybe it’s the dark giving Quint unearned succor; maybe it’s just the distance. Or, maybe, there is something wrong with Jamie. Something unplugged, something wired to accept only the living, only that which makes sense. Maybe she isn’t meant to see the secrets of the manor.
What she is meant to see is the cop, pulling up beside the truck, glaring at her from his window.
“Got a call about a trespasser. That from you?”
Jamie, who has never quite come around to the idea of policemen, even with all the rehabilitation in the world, smiles tightly. “Mrs. Grose, I reckon. Said she was going to do the deed.”
“And you’re out here...?” He’s irritated, not suspicious. Jamie is aware she does not look the part of anything to this man but a potential victim: too small, too rumpled, too female. If he had any inkling of her history with felony charges and prison cells, he’d probably go clutching his fucking pearls.
“Keeping watch,” she says, cranking the charm in her smile as high as she can manage. “In case he comes down this way.”
He scowls, shaking his head, and even as he’s pulling down the drive, she imagines she can read his mind. Bunch of women, alone in this big house with two strange children. Bunch of women, calling him up, spoiling his mood, over a so-called trespasser on the property. Bunch of women, who will be placated with a stern nod, a stiff upper lip, a solid assertion that there is no one here, never was, and all is fine.
She’s met too many men like this one, too many people who don’t believe. Who don't even see the value in trying to see beyond their own two eyes. Tell him it’s Peter Quint, he’ll shake it right off. Tell him Peter Quint is dead, and...well...
She waits for him to pull away again before sliding from the truck. There’s little need for the gun--frankly, she’s a bit concerned to go welding it in the dark again, keyed up as she is--but if she just goes wandering empty-handed, Dani will think her careless. She settles on a shovel, heavy enough to do damage, not quite deadly enough to accidentally go off if startled.
Even so. Even knowing what she’s walking into and exactly where Dani will appear, she still can’t quite suppress a cry of alarm.
Dani, who has just shrieked, looks almost furious to see her.
“What are you--Hannah just said she was going to call you.”
“Was in the neighborhood,” Jamie says. First time around, she’d stumbled almost at a sprint out of her flat, Hannah’s voice ringing in her head--Peter Quint, she said, and I believe her, Jamie.--and had driven like a demon to get back to the manor. First time around, without fully being able to explain it, she’d been all clamoring heart and wild adrenaline at the very idea of Peter Quint laying hands on anyone in that house. The kids. Hannah.
Dani, who is now looking with some interest at the shovel in her hands. “Gonna brain him?”
Jamie tries to look as nonchalant as one can while wielding a potential murder weapon. “Can’t say I’d be much ashamed. Anyone deserves a good bash on the head, it’s Peter fuckin’ Quint.”
“Not a fan, I take it.” Dani grimaces. She seems rather unaware of the poker in her right hand, like she strides around in the dark with improvised weapons every night. Jamie smiles.
“You’ve got the right idea. Make this a teachable moment for him.”
Dani makes a thin little noise, glancing down at her own hand as though someone else might have grabbed that poker. Reckless, Jamie thinks, as she’d thought on too many nights with Dani’s loss too fresh to manage. Reckless, and wonderful, and it’s going to get you killed.
She leads the way to the chapel, distracted to an almost embarrassing degree by how closely Dani is walking. Had she been this close, the first time? Jamie’s attention had been on the shadows, obsessed with the idea of Peter Quint leaping out, obsessed with the notion of needing at a moment’s notice to step between Quint and the new au pair.
Now, knowing the truth, the world is only Dani.
It shouldn’t be any harder than the rest of this has been, pretending with Dani’s elbow bumping against her own. It shouldn’t be any harder, pretending to focus on the shadows, the rain, the squelch of her boots through the grass. It shouldn’t.
Except there’s something about the way Dani keeps to her heels, like she’s afraid to let Jamie move on ahead. Like she can sense already, so many years before the danger will catch up with them, that there is loss on the horizon--and Dani, selfless, certain Dani, is already hellbent on making sure Jamie doesn’t take that fall.
She glances over her shoulder, reading the familiar tension in Dani’s face, looking quickly away again when Dani’s eyes flick to her own.
“Nothing.” Too sudden, nothing smooth about it. Jamie winces. “You shouldn’t be out here alone, s’all.”
“You’re out here,” Dani points out. Jamie opens her mouth to argue and finds herself laughing instead, the knot around her heart loosening just a little when Dani grins. “Okay, maybe neither of us should be.”
“What’s the alternative?” Jamie snorts. “Owen? Christ, that man wouldn’t know violence if it cracked open his bloody skull.”
The chapel, as Jamie had known it would be, is empty. She watches the flicker of Hannah’s abandoned candlelight, her throat tight. Dani raises her eyebrows.
“She keeps them lit all the time?”
“Place’ll burn down, one day,” Jamie says, without much feeling behind it. Fact is, without Hannah Grose, she thinks all their lives burnt a little lower than was truly sustainable. Without Hannah, they’ve all been just a little more hollow.
I tried, she thinks helplessly. I tried, Hannah.
“Don’t you think we should...?” Dani mimes blowing the candles out, though she’s still standing near the door. Jamie shakes her head.
“It’ll keep for one night. C’mon.”
She hefts the shovel over one shoulder, her free hand dangling dangerously near Dani’s as they pick a careful path back to the house. Dani, cautious as anything, does not allow her fingers to graze Jamie’s hand. Dani, still wound so guiltily tight, seems content with the tiny heat drawn between their swinging arms, a sense of not quite yet that plucks at Jamie’s frayed nerves like an eerie song.
It almost feels like it’d be worth it, to take her hand anyway. Maybe she could jolt this story forward a few steps, start out here in the dark with Dani’s still-blue eyes widening in surprise. Maybe.
Or maybe the magic would pull her out of time, dump her back in that bathroom, hold her hostage a little longer in this purgatory of before. Before Dani ever looked into her eyes and understood. Before Dani ever worked up the courage to reach out. Before Dani was ready.
Dani has to be ready. There’s no shaking that out of place, no building on a hollow foundation. She can feel it in her bones, that bittersweet certainty: there are things that are, that were, that must be. Even if she could change it. Even if she can--must--save Dani Clayton, there are some details that shouldn’t be shifted aside out of impatience. Out of need. Out of desperation.
Dani is not ready to take her hand. Tomorrow. Tomorrow night, standing by the truck, Dani will be someone just a little bit braver. Just a little bit more sure.
Tonight, Jamie lets her arm swing carefully at her side and resists the oldest habit in her body.
There will be a sleepover, and Jamie--as she had the first time--doesn’t announce herself as a participant. Doesn’t feel the need. She has already decided that this is the new normal, the new need to be. So long as this is Dani’s home, it will also be Jamie’s.
She keeps quiet while the others debate phone calls and Peter Quint. There’s an anger in her, directed at him, and at the ghost of the woman she’d once been: bunched carelessly on this couch, a mug in her hand, saying with idle malice, “Well, that doesn’t bode well for anyone. I wouldn’t fancy being there when Peter Quint finds out Rebecca Jessel is dead.”
“He killed her,” she says. Unintentionally. Unhelpfully. It slips out, as caustic as her erased rage spat into Miles’ upturned face. Owen turns his head, eyebrows arched in surprise.
“He killed her,” she repeats. She can’t tear her eyes from Dani, who has been trying to sneak little looks all evening without being noticed. Back then, Jamie hadn’t realized what that could mean. Back then, she’d been so preoccupied with who Dani seemed to be that she’d missed who Dani so clearly was.
“What do you mean?” Dani asks now, leaning forward, a child being offered a particularly unsettling ghost story. Jamie draws in a deep breath. Won’t take. Won’t last. Doesn’t matter.
“I mean he was a possessive little shit with bigger dreams than sense, and it got him into trouble. And it wasn’t enough for him. Had to get her killed, too.”
“We can’t blame him,” Hannah says, frowning. “Jamie. I’ll not speak well of the man, you know it, but Rebecca’s...undoing was her own choice. Her own...I mean, you know it better than anyone.”
There is no glitter under her skin, no unsteady pull back to her flat. A small enough change, she realizes. A small, angry truth that no one fully comprehends.
“Sure,” she says, raising the mug to her lips to prevent worse from slipping out. “Technically. But we all--I mean, she’d never have--if he hadn’t--”
Dani’s brow is creased, her gaze so fervent on Jamie’s face that her skin heats under its weight. Embarrassment, to a point--but memory, more than anything, dancing ‘round this moment with honed blades. Dani always watched her this way when they talked about serious things--after an argument, or with Jamie’s fury blistering after a bad run-in with a stranger, or in the simple case of Jamie talking about her past. Dani always watched her with exactly this expression, caught between concern and curiosity, as though anything Jamie had to say was worth her full attention simply for Jamie saying it.
“She deserved better,” Jamie says now, eyes fixed on Dani’s. “She deserved the world, and the world didn’t fucking care.”
She’s dimly aware of Hannah nodding, of Owen’s grunt of agreement, but Dani--eyes flickering in the firelight as she holds Jamie’s gaze--is the only true reality in the room.
She almost breaks, sitting in the quiet as the fire goes out. Almost breaks, watching Hannah doze off on Owen’s shoulder. Almost breaks, when Dani shifts beside her, stripping away one of the bare inches of space between them without even seeming to realize.
How is this moment supposed to go?
A woman a lifetime away, saying with bitter good humor, Rather that was you curled up there? Dani, laughing softly, giving her nothing more. A conversation about Bonnie and Clyde, about burrowing deep, about twisted visions of love following a person. Dani’s eyes, too close, eager and lovely as she’d said, People do, don’t they? Mix up love and possession?
She can’t. She can’t do it that way. That woman, the one who’d sat back and let the realization of Dani Clayton’s hidden depths wash over her, is too distant for Jamie to reach now. The best she can do is read from an altered script, and pray the changes are small enough to stick.
A woman now, already so in love, she can barely draw breath, saying with exhausted grief, “If only they’d say it all out loud, get it over with.” Dani, looking at her with delighted comprehension.
“I didn’t think I was imagining it.”
No, of course not--because Dani is sharper than anyone realizes, clever and attentive. Because Dani has long trained herself to watch the world for hints as to what comes next, never realizing her own story could veer so dangerously into uncharted territory.
They don’t talk about Peter this time--not quite in the same way. Jamie can’t bring herself to give those thoughts voice again. She’s already come too close to feverish truth: he killed her, he’s dead, and she’s dead, and both of those things are his fucking fault. Instead, she dances around it--not Peter Quint, but the idea of Peter Quint, the idea of ownership imposed by one soul upon another.
“The wrong kind of love,” she pronounced then with such certainty, and says again now, “can fuck you up. Follow you. Make you do some really stupid shit.”
Dani, watching her with unclouded eyes, without any judgment at all. Dani, who had known so little of her then, and still drank in all Jamie had to offer like a woman who had never received the uncomplicated gift of truth in her whole life.
“We’ve all been in the wrong kind of love, for one reason or another,” she says, almost hesitantly. Jamie can see the shadow of Danielle dancing in her eyes, a tired young woman who’d been running for three decades straight.
“Do you want to talk about it?” she asks. A question belonging to Jamie now, not Jamie then. Jamie then had barely been able to see past her rage. Jamie now can’t let a chance Dani might let her in early go.
Dani, however, is shaking her head almost sheepishly. “Why? Do you?” She’s smiling, but there’s a challenge lining the sweet upturn of her lips, and Jamie almost laughs out loud. Dani, so far away from the woman who will be her wife, and already pinning her with a smile that has won a thousand late-night debates.
“Was a girl,” she says, surprising herself. Dani’s smile falters, her expression tilting in a second from teasing to curious. Jamie shrugs. “Long story. Maybe I’ll tell you the whole thing sometime, but the short of it is...a girl. Made some bad decisions. Thought I’d be able to keep her, if I...if I made worse ones.”
Dani is leaning in, the photograph of Rebecca and Peter forgotten in her lap. “You were in love?”
There’s a hunger to the way she asks it, and an underpinning of fear, too. As though she’s never been so daring as to talk about this sort of love before. Jamie smiles wryly, picking an invisible bit of lint off the couch cushion.
“Not the right kind. Thought it was. Thought it was...” That’s enough for me. If it’s enough for you. “Thought it was enough, back then.”
“How do you...know?” Dani is gazing at her with almost painful interest now, her expression too open. The agony in her eyes, the shame, is crushing even to look upon. “When it’s enough? When it’s--because they’re opposites, right? Love and ownership, they’re--”
“Yeah,” Jamie says, before she can run right off the rails. “Yeah, they are.”
“So,” Dani repeats, leaning in a little nearer, so close now Jamie has to clench her mug violently to keep from closing the gap, “how do you know?”
You just do, Jamie thinks wildly, staring into vivid blue eyes.
Because, for the first time, it’s bigger than the fear, Jamie thinks desperately, swallowing hard.
Because loving you is the best thing I’ll ever do, Jamie thinks hopelessly, finding herself leaning in--unable to resist the pull, unable to deny Dani anything even as those blue eyes flick to Jamie’s lips--
“They really ought to be in bed,” Hannah pipes up, exhaustion and just the slightest bit of reprimand in her tone. Dani jerks backwards hard enough to jolt the whole couch.
“Yes. Yes, of course.”
Too close, Jamie thinks, the warning tingle of magic tightening beneath her skin. Too close, but my god, it would have been worth it.
She stretches out on the couch, gazing at the ceiling, and does not sleep.
She paces the living room, trying to forget how close she’d come to kissing Dani, and does not sleep.
She waits for something, anything, to descend upon her in the night--Peter, or Rebecca, or the Lady herself--and does. Not. Sleep.
Save her. But how? How, when the mere act of nearly kissing her had been enough to come inches from a reset?
“What,” she asks the darkness, “do you want from me?”
The dark does not respond. The dark only curls in close, warded off by nothing more than the lamp she had not quite been brave enough to switch off. The dark, it would seem, is uninterested in her determination.
She finds herself, out of habit, looking through the open doorway. Waiting not for Dani this time--Dani, upstairs, fast asleep in a bed Jamie is not yet welcome to--but for a shade all in white.
“Come on,” she mutters. “Come on, you fucker, come pay us a visit.”
The Lady, like Dani herself, does not comply.
Dani is already hard at work by the time she wakes the next morning, feeling stiff and groggy as she sits up. There is, she knows, a doctor on the way to contend with Flora’s increasingly strange mood swings. There is, she knows, a tension to Miles that will ebb and flow as the day trundles on.
There is, she knows, only one chance left for one member of the house to say goodbye.
She stumbles to the kitchen, fingers jammed into the crick in her neck, and finds Owen humming over the stove. He darts her a small smile, inclines his head.
“Not the most comfortable couch.”
“Fit on it a damn sight better than your long legs,” she replies, leaning against the counter and accepting the steaming mug he offers. “Where’d you sleep, anyway?”
“Spare bedroom.” He grins. “Just as you could’ve, if you weren’t so--”
“Chivalrous?” she suggests. “Independent?”
“Stubborn.” He gives the eggs on the stove a quick stir, glances at the sausages with a critical eye. “Couldn't stomach the idea of him creeping in, either, hm?”
Something like that. “No sign, I gather?” She watches him shake his head, sipping her tea. “Didn’t think so. Fuckin’ coward.”
This last, she says in a slightly raised voice. See him or not, she’ll be damned if she lets Peter fucking Quint get away from this second chance without a scratch.
Owen looks amused. “Probably aren’t wrong. All the same, I was thinking of sticking it out today. Just in case he finds a dose of the lion’s courage.”
“He won’t,” Jamie says, too quickly. Owen frowns.
“And how do you reckon that?”
“Coward,” Jamie repeats, grinning. “Anyway, I’m here. Place is perfectly protected.”
“You,” Owen says flatly. “I leave you alone with the potential of Peter Quint, I’ll come back tomorrow to a fresh corpse.”
Bit less fresh than you think. “In the event,” she says, keeping her voice cheerful to prevent him seeing the shadows around her smile, “that Peter Quint turns up, which of us do you really think would be of use? The woman who shoots rats, or the man who squeals and leaps onto chairs to avoid the fuckin’ things?”
The noise Owen makes can be only be described as miffed, as he turns his back to her and resumes studying the breakfast spread. “Just because you can make a point, Jamie, doesn’t mean you must.”
“Go home,” she advises. “See to your mum. Say hello for me, while you’re at it. Been meaning to get over and say it myself, but...”
She trails off, a guilt so old, she’d almost been able to put it to bed closing around her heart. Fact of the matter is, she had meant to see Margaret Sharma--the week she died, and the week before, and the week before that. She’d meant to, but the look in the woman’s eyes, the mischief of an endless youth replaced by blank uncertainty, had been too much for Jamie to bear.
Imagine, then, how her son feels each time Margaret calls him by her brother’s name. Imagine, then, how her son will feel if--did feel when--he misses this final chance to look into those eyes and hope for recognition.
A kindness, this is. A kindness, and an essential one. She can’t give Hannah back. Can’t give Owen another crack at admitting he’s let the love of his life slip through nerveless fingers. Can’t make it all better again.
But this. This one small thing. She can do this.
“I really ought to,” he begins, but she can already see he’s losing the will to fight. It’s cruel, maybe, playing on this intrinsic part of Owen Sharma, that which blinds him to all else. Owen, who gave up everything for his mother, even before he knew it. Owen, whose devotion is too fierce a thing to let him go without the agonizing relief of the end.
I’m sorry, she thinks, swallowing another mouthful of hot tea to keep from saying it. Sorry I ever thought it’d be a good thing, letting go. Sorry I ever felt you were lucky, in some small way, for it.
“Say goodbye, Owen,” she says in an airy voice, pressing on his shoulder as if to send him out of the kitchen. “When breakfast is finished, ‘course. I promise, you’re only missing the usual shenanigans, if you go now.”
He hardly protests, though there’s a full day of work ahead of him, and she knows he’s been worrying in the part of his brain even Owen isn’t aware of. Probably since heading out into the rain last night, driving bumpily back over that familiar old road, caught between two doomed women he’ll love until his dying day.
She can’t fix it, but she can give him this small concession. This small negotiation with the dark.
It is, in its own way, a test.
She half-expects to see him again--strolling in with groceries after lunch, or popping his head in at dinner to say, “You know what, reckon my mum’ll be all right without me for one more night. Might make all the difference, really.”--but the house remains steadfast in its lack of a cook. The day feels natural in every other way, for Bly.
Natural, of course, means Flora’s incomprehensible rage and Miles’ knowing little sneer and Hannah probing at the back of her neck with splayed fingers. Natural, of course, means a thousand little signs of a broken reality.
Natural, too, means Dani. Dani, hair and makeup flawless, sneaking looks at her when she thinks Jamie isn’t looking--and the thing is, Jamie hadn’t seen. The first time, she had barely clocked anything to the way the new au pair glanced in her direction, or how Dani kept settling just out of reach at the table. She’d noticed, maybe, but thought nothing of it. It was just the new au pair, the pleasantly-pretty American, strange and sweet and nothing of Jamie’s business.
She looks at Dani now, at the obvious effort Dani has put into her appearance, and can’t help grinning. Dani, cheeks pink, looks away.
“Nothing. I, uh. I like your hair.” What a small thing. What a juvenile thing. But Dani, thumb pressed to her lips in a nervous gesture Jamie remembers so vividly, is grinning back.
“Just,” Jamie goes on, raising her eyebrows, “felt like looking nice today, mm? For no particular reason?”
Flirting with Dani this brazenly this early is dangerous. Flirting with Dani as she’d flirted for the whole of their relationship, like Dani is ready, is dangerous. Still, even as she eases off and strolls over to chat with Hannah across the lawn, she can feel Dani’s eyes following her. Dani Clayton, as ever, braver than she believes.
“You all right?” she asks Hannah, distracting as best she can from the vibrating need to sprint back to Dani, pull her into a kiss, push the fucking fast-forward button on this whole experience. Hannah, scratching the back of her neck, smiles distantly.
“Really haven’t been sleeping well. It’s made me...rather absent-minded.”
“Hard time,” Jamie says, like she knows the half. “It’s nearly the anniversary, y’know. Of...well, of it happening. Bound to be a bit exhausted.”
Hannah frowns. “It feels...like more than that. Like...have you ever felt as though there was something, just visible from the corner of your eye, but every time you turn to look, it vanishes?”
Jamie says nothing. She doesn’t need the shiver under her skin to tell her this is rocky terrain, that Hannah is nearing something she ought not touch for a week or more yet. But what am I to do about it? Walk away mid-fucking-sentence?
“Silly,” Hannah says with a tired smile. “Probably you’re right. Probably it’s just...I have been thinking of her a lot lately, you know. Rebecca. God. Almost a year gone already.”
Jamie taps out a cigarette, lights it, appreciating the excuse for silence as Hannah gazes across the lawn at Dani and Miles.
“She’s impressive, though,” she adds. “Don’t you think? Wasn’t sure, when first she strode through those doors, but I really believe--”
“She was meant to be?” Jamie says, a bit rueful at an idea which would have made her younger self scoff. Here, now, she can’t imagine anything more true.
Hannah smiles, that beatific, lovely smile she so often used when Jamie was at her grumpiest. “I suppose you don’t believe in that sort of thing. Fate, or angels, or what have you.”
“No,” Jamie says honestly, taking a long drag. “No, can’t say I do. But you’re right. She’s...something.”
“Something...too pretty?” Hannah teases. Jamie rolls her eyes.
“You’re one to talk. Creeping ‘round the house like no one can see the hearts in your eyes.”
“I’m sure I don't know what you mean,” Hannah says primly, though her eyes have developed a bit of a furtive dart. Jamie grins around her cigarette.
“Wastes everyone’s time, pretendin’. Honestly, Hannah, you really ought to tell him. I mean--really ought to.”
Her face is grinning, her skin drawn tight around the rictus expression trying so hard to keep up that showman’s good humor. Her heart feels as though it might crack. Hannah looks somber, her hand creeping once again to the back of her head.
“Doesn’t seem a point, does there?” she says softly, and for a single second, Jamie thinks she knows. She knows already, deep down, that her body is rotting away at the bottom of a well. Then Hannah is saying, briskly, “He’s busy with his mother, and I’ve--I’ve tried it before, haven’t I? And he’s so young.”
“Not too young to know,” Jamie counters. “Not too busy to feel, either. Hannah, we don’t--we don’t always have time, you understand? To keep waffling on without letting people know. Tell him. I promise, it’s only ever going to be a regret, if you don’t.”
She turns from Hannah’s confused expression, her own gaze seeking out Dani’s form crouched in the grass.
“You speak as an authority on the subject,” Hannah says to her back. “Only known the woman a few days.”
“All it takes,” Jamie says, so quietly, she doubts Hannah can hear. “All it took, to start.”
The evening unfolds more or less the same, even with Owen gone. Dinner is an all-hands affair, Dani taking a surprising charge under Hannah’s comfortable supervision. Jamie, who has never been much for cooking under the least insane of circumstances, busies herself with table setting, wine pouring, keeping Miles occupied. Flora, upstairs, sleeps on.
“I’m going to take her a plate,” Dani says while the rest of them sit to a meal simpler than anything Owen would make, but no less promising. Jamie watches her go, feeling as though gravity is drawing her eyes.
“You’re staring,” Miles says in a stage whisper. This is Miles, she senses--he looks a little shy, a little excited, and she realizes she can’t remember the last time she was alone with the real him.
“Don’t see as how it’s any of your business,” she replies, flicking a dash of water from her glass in his direction. He ducks away, grinning.
“You’re staring like Flora used to with--” His voice abruptly cuts off, the good humor fading from his eyes. Jamie softens.
She sees Hannah roll her eyes, but Miles doesn’t notice. He rubs at his nose, picks up his fork.
“You really miss him,” Jamie says after a moment’s silence. “Don’t you?”
Even though he’s right here. Even though he’s imposing himself on you in ways no adult ever should. He’s hurting you, and none of us had the first bloody idea until it was nearly too late.
“Flora misses him,” he says guardedly. “It’s not...I don’t...”
“Doesn’t make you weak,” Jamie says, raising her glass to her lips. Hannah is watching her closely now, surprise evident in her expression, and that’s fair enough--Jamie can’t remember the last time she had a conversation this genuine with one of the kids. Never, probably, if she’s honest with herself.
Explains the way they’re both looking at her, like a stranger has slipped into her skin and is placidly sipping water. In a way, they aren’t wrong.
“Doesn’t make you childish, either,” she adds. “Missing people, it’s what we’re wired to do. You feel bad for missing your parents?”
He slowly shakes his head. Jamie nods.
“Can I tell you a secret?” When he gives a single bob of the head, she says quietly, “I miss them, too. All the time. I see ‘em, walking ‘round this big old house. See Rebecca, too, out of the corner of my eye.”
There’s a steadiness to his expression, too adult for his age, too soft to be Quint in disguise. He’s trying, she can tell, to figure out if he believes her. If he thinks she’s being literal, or merely speaking her peace.
“Missing people,” she says, “isn’t where we go wrong. It’s the part where we forget ourselves. The part where we let that missing eat up too much, make us forget to go on. Human, to do that. Natural. But does the heart very few favors.”
She’s thinking, not of Lord and Lady Wingrave, or Rebecca, or Peter Quint, but of Dani Clayton. Dani, maybe five years before that horror of a morning, when Jamie had finally woken up alone. Dani, who had taken to starting the kinds of conversations Jamie couldn’t stomach, even on comparatively good days.
I’m going to get a will.
Dani, I don’t--
I’m going to, Dani had said, her voice firm, her hands busy working tomatoes and oil and oregano into something resembling pasta sauce. I’ve already made an appointment with a lawyer. I know we can’t--I know we aren’t--but, Jamie, I have to make sure. I have to make sure you’re going to be okay.
She’d gone. She’d come back. She’d already made peace, in her own way, with what was coming, and Jamie hadn’t been able to do the same. Hadn’t been able to look at it. Hadn’t been able to stop fighting long enough to breathe it in.
Hadn’t been able to stop, even seven years after Dani’s eyes had started to fade. Even seven years after her voice became too distant a memory to hold. Even seven years later, when the panic began to set in, thinking of her washing steadily away a little more every week.
She jumps, sloshing water across the table. Dani is standing beside her, head tipped, eyes not quite that of her wife--too blue, not nearly as heavy as in her memory--but all the same: Dani.
Jamie’s hand is halfway to her--halfway to reaching for Dani’s hip, halfway to an old gesture from exhausting days, where Dani would just stand there and let Jamie lean into her torso with eyes wearily closed--when she catches herself. Will have to start all over. Will have to do it all again. Dani has to choose. Dani has to reach out.
She will--won’t she?
Even without Owen here, she will. Won’t she?
“All good,” she says. They’re all staring at her now, with varying degrees of concern. “All good, just--let’s eat.”
Dinner. Clean-up. Story-time. An old journey, walked once more with thin reservation. No Owen, which means no Mr. McQueeny on the other end of the phone. No Owen, which means no interruption to Miles’ swelling rage.
“Stupid puppets,” he snarls, his face screwed up beneath a layer of paint, and it’s Dani who takes him by the wrist. Her fingers are gentle, her expression resolute.
“All right,” she says quietly. “Enough of that, now.”
Jamie waits with baited breath for the phone to ring, for the past to swing up and take a bite out of them anyway--maybe Owen never made it home this time, maybe his mother still died alone, maybe he’s bleeding out in a ditch somewhere--
Nothing. Just Dani, calmly shepherding the kids off to bed, and Hannah helping Jamie move the chairs back into their intended places.
“Haven’t seen you like that,” she says, one hand on her hip, “with Miles in a long time. Far cry from threatening to end him, isn’t it?”
“That isn’t Miles,” Jamie answers without thinking. Hannah’s eyebrows rise, and she grits her teeth, swatting down the rising glitter under her skin. I’m not fucking going there, leave it. “When he’s like that, when he acts like--like--”
“Peter,” Hannah says under her breath, more malice in two syllables than she’s put into anything else. Jamie laughs.
“Exactly. Fucking exactly. It’s not him. It’s just the person he can’t help being, after all of it.” She presses a hand to her mouth, steadying the words against her skin before allowing them free rein. “I remember what it’s like. Being too lost and lonely to get it right. And he’s just a kid.”
“Didn’t stop you saying you’d--”
“Yeah, well. Not perfect with kids, am I?” Jamie grumbles. That’s Dani’s area of expertise, and she’s well left to it.
Will be, when Jamie fixes this. Maybe Dani will want to go back into teaching, after. Maybe it’ll all be different, after.
Not all, though, right? Not everything. She’ll still want--she’ll still love--
“Not leaving yet?” Dani has reappeared on the staircase, a vision in her striped blouse and jeans despite the events of the day slowly deflating her hair. She’s watching Jamie with something like shy delight, as though she’d expected to come down to find Jamie had stolen off into the night without a goodbye.
Jamie shrugs. “Thought it couldn’t hurt. Couch isn’t so bad, and it’s been a long--”
“Oh, you’re not sleeping on the couch again,” Hannah says. “Obstinate woman. Think how many beds are in this house.”
Jamie’s gaze slides without her control toward Dani, who is openly staring again. Her eyes widen, her head turning quickly away.
“Couch,” Jamie says, “is fine, Hannah.”
She’s supposed to leave tonight. Supposed to stand by her truck, with Dani Clayton saying hesitantly, I’m so glad you stayed.
Supposed to look Dani in the eye, barely able to breathe around the unfamiliar hope in her chest, until Dani reaches for her hand.
Instead, she sets up on the couch, her head thrumming with all the supposed to’s of the evening. This is where it gets dangerous, she suspects. This is where the past, if it’s going to, will begin fighting back. This is, maybe, where she sets on the path of properly rescuing Dani from her fate.
Or maybe it’s something else. Maybe this is where she takes Dani off of a different path altogether. Dani, who is not yet aware of her own bravery. Dani, who might not say a word, without that beat of mortality stretched between them on a cool night. Dani, who--
“Do you want to be alone?” Dani asks from the doorway. “I thought maybe you could use the company, but you look...”
She’s almost painfully pretty, a glow of warm foyer light curling gentle fingers around her shoulders and hair. Almost painfully sweet, smiling that way, hefting a bottle of wine and two glasses.
“I look what?” Jamie asks, dry-mouthed. Dani smiles.
She isn’t coming in, Jamie realizes, without permission. As if Jamie has any rights to this room. As if Jamie has any rights to this house.
Jamie gives her a tip of the head, patting the couch once. “C’mon, then.”
She’s trying, Jamie can tell, to look casual as she makes her way into the room. Dani doesn’t yet fully understand what she’s feeling, doesn’t yet understand the magnitude of the thing. Dani is still trying to make sense of her own roiling guilt, her own cacophonous desire mingling with that ancient ingrained shame. Dani, who sets the bottle and glasses on the floor as if not seeing them at all, looking at Jamie now as she’d looked at her outside in another life.
“I’m glad,” she says, hands fisting and releasing awkwardly against her knees, “you stayed last night. Tonight. I’m glad you--”
“I am, too,” Jamie says, too suddenly. It’s the right line, wrong delivery--she’s breathless, her voice just a little too husky, her body tilting instinctively toward Dani.
“I just--” Dani inhales, eyes searching Jamie’s. “I feel--when you’re around, I--”
She shuts her mouth, shakes her head. Can’t find the words. Jamie waits. This, she knows, shouldn’t be rushed. This is Dani’s leap of faith.
“I feel,” Dani says again, and her hand moves. In slow motion, it moves from her lap to Jamie’s, to curl clumsy fingers around the hand Jamie has lain recklessly across her own knee. It’s brief, as it had been the last time--a swipe of thumb, a squeeze of fingers, and then she’s gone--and Dani’s eyes never leave her face.
Don’t, thinks Jamie.
Don’t do it.
Don’t give in yet.
So much easier said than done. So much easier, as she’s leaning in, unable to resist the intoxicating pull of Dani just there, just within reach. Don’t give in yet? After seven years of lonely silence, seven years of begging the mirror to show her Dani’s face for just a second? There’s no stopping it. No controlling the ache in her chest as it bursts open, spills over, shatters whatever resolve she’d had with Dani hovering in that doorway.
She’s kissing Dani. First kiss--millionth kiss--it doesn’t fucking matter. It’s Dani’s lips under her own, Dani gasping against her as she always has when taken by surprise. Dani’s hands, sliding up her chest, gripping the collar of her shirt.
Dani, who has never felt as real, as sure, as certain as she does right here on this couch, with Jamie cradling her face in trembling hands.
Dani, who is kissing her back like she’s been dreaming of this moment almost as long as Jamie has--
Wrong, a voice just a little too like Dani’s seems to ring out in her head.
“No. No, don’t,” Jamie tries to say, trying to hang on to this moment--to Dani’s skin soft under her fingertips, to Dani’s body pushing in toward her own--to Dani wanting her. “No, don’t make me start again, don’t make me lose her again--”
Her knees don’t ache.
Her third finger is bare.
And there, in the mirror, just over her shoulder:
A black-haired shape is waiting.