Chapter 1: Fresh Start
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.
Chapter 2: The Lady in the Glass
Jamie stumbles back from the sink, her heart a detonation beneath her shirt. Her knees do not ache, her third finger is bare, and there is a thing in the mirror, waiting for her.
No. Not a thing.
“What,” she says, her voice ragged with terror. “What are you doing here?”
A cruel joke. A cruel, sick, unacceptable joke. Seven years, she’s bled in front of mirrors, all shape and structure of grief held in shaking hands. Seven years, she’s watched unravel slowly, night after night, praying for even a glimpse of blonde hair, mismatched eyes, sweet smile in that glass. Seven fucking years, and now? Here? This?
Not Dani at all, but the Lady.
The Lady in the Lake.
“You’re not here,” Jamie says, and wonders how many times Dani said the same thing. How many times, when reflections began betraying her, did Dani lean toward the mirror and whisper, No. No, you can’t be here, I need this.
Jamie, now, squints into the glass. The shape is distant--frankly a good deal more distant than her tiny bathroom should allow. If she turns her head, looks over her shoulder, the only thing she can see is the door.
And still, it’s undeniable: white dress, lank hair, long frame. The exact description Dani always gave, once Jamie finally got her to talk about it. The exact description, though Jamie can’t even begin to make out her face.
Or whatever may be there, waiting in lieu of features, anyway.
“You’re not here,” Jamie repeats. Dani. Dani is the only thing that matters. Dani, who kissed her back with such an elated, terrified hunger, Jamie’s going to have that much harder a time not kissing her senseless the first time she strolls into that kitchen.
Again, she thinks. We do it all again. And we do it right.
It all comes again, and Jamie rides it out. It’s getting easier. It’s getting more practiced. She knows each beat, knows each word, knows that Owen will, if pressed, go home to his mother, and Hannah will, if asked, say he’s too young for her, and Dani will, if gazed upon, gaze back and reach for her hand.
They’re on the couch, a bottle of wine forgotten on the floor, and Jamie doesn’t kiss her this time. Jamie only stares at their hands, joined for the first time in a beautifully-clumsy tangle. Jamie stares, until Dani pulls nervously away and says nothing at all.
“Who the hell knew?” Jamie says quietly, a half-smile playing around her lips, and Dani looks so relieved. So relieved, and so ready to step forward into the dark.
She isn’t. Not yet. Jamie knows all too well, knows from Dani’s retelling of this night how it had all gone. She’d left. Drove off with her head buzzing, with her hand tingling, with her heart going wild. And Dani had turned, feeling brave, feeling bright in a way she hadn’t quite known what to do with--
--and he’d been there. Waiting. Not trapped behind glass, not something to turn swiftly away from, but real.
It started with you, Dani said one evening, her hands tracing through Jamie’s hair with restless energy. She had barely been able to sit still, her eyes constantly searching motel mirrors for glimpses of the Lady. Early days, early trials--Dani, thinking this would all play out just as it had with Edmund, not yet understanding how much worse it could be.
I only ever saw him in mirrors, before you. But then you smiled--and you looked me in the eye--and suddenly, he was real. Real, because I was getting so close to...so close to...
Falling in love, she hadn’t said--not quite yet. Still, with her hands tracking Jamie’s skin, with her body pushing close on a motel bed, it had been clear enough what she meant.
Jamie looks around now, half-expecting to see him as Dani had always described: tall, dark-haired, moon-bright glasses. The room, as far as she can tell, is empty.
Dani does not say another word, though the nearness of her seems almost to burn Jamie through her clothes. After a moment, she stands up, shaking her head, her lips upturned in a shy smile.
“Anyway. I should--I should go to bed. Have a good night, Jamie.”
Take me with you. Take me, too. “Sleep well, Poppins.” Will he be waiting for Dani on the stairs? Up in her room? Will he be waiting to make her miserable for daring to take this one small step toward happiness?
Probably. Jamie can’t do anything about it, she understands. This isn’t like the Lady. This is its own kind of burden, one that hurts Dani only where Jamie can’t reach. One that Dani must purge all on her own.
Jamie doesn’t sleep. She finds herself listening for any signal that the house is awake--not its occupants, but the house itself, with all its many secrets. Finds herself saying, quietly, into the dark: “I’m sorry. Sorry I couldn’t see what he was doing, until it was too late. Sorry I couldn’t stop him.You know you deserved more. We all knew it. I’m so sorry.”
She doubts Rebecca is listening--suspects Rebecca will not show herself, not for Jamie, who is not built right to see what needs to be seen--but just in case. Just in case, she says the words, and she stares into the shadows, and she hopes Rebecca understands.
She’s up before the sun, intending to get a jump on the day’s work. Busy hands are good; busy hands will ensure she doesn’t launch herself right into a reset by waiting outside of Dani’s door, waiting for the bleary-edged good nature of her early morning smile. She’s close now, so close to stepping over that borderline between being of interest to Dani and being truly important.
Opening the door, she slides out into the still-clinging shadows, and nearly shouts aloud when she slams directly into a body.
Her, she thinks wildly, it’s her, I’ve walked right into the path of--
“Owen?” She smacks his chest before she can catch herself, the adrenaline pumping hot and wild. He staggers back a step, rubbing the front of his shirt with an almost puzzled expression. “Not even fuckin’ dawn yet, what are you doing here?”
But even as she asks, she thinks she knows. Thinks she can see it in the shellshocked expression on his face, the almost absent way he scratches his head.
“Your mum,” she says. “Isn’t it?”
He nods once. “Last night. I, er--I thought it’d be good, to keep busy. To uh...not to think...’cause she’s with the, um. She’s at the--”
It’s as far as he can get without breaking. Coroner, she thinks. Morgue, she thinks. Memories of another time, of another death, of Owen riding into town with what remained of Hannah Grose flood in against her will, and she shuts her eyes hard against them.
Fine, her memory seems to hiss, fine, you don’t want to think on that? How about the other one? How about Dani, hm? How you had to have her declared missing, not dead, to start. How you had to wait, knowing full well where she was, where she’d never come back from, because there was no way you could explain her body needed to stay at the bottom of a fucking cursed lake? How about that, hm? Want to think about that, instead?
“How’d you know?”
“What?” She takes a step back, brows raised. “How’d I--what?”
“My mum.” There’s a dazed quality to his expression, like he isn’t quite seeing her. “I almost didn’t--I would have stayed another night, here, without going home, and...and I might’ve missed...”
“But you didn’t,” she says, touching his arm. “You were there.”
“Only because you sent me home.” He sways, his hands in the pockets of his jacket. “Say goodbye, Owen, that’s what you said.”
“Yeah, goodbye to the house. I was being--” There’s a thin fuzz of tension under her skin, twitching in warning. Owen is getting too close to the truth. Too close to asking the important question: how could you have known a thing like that?
His jaw works, his eyes blinking. “Right. Right. Cheeky. Of course. ‘Cause it’s you.”
“It’s me,” she assures him, squeezing his shoulder. She pushes up on her toes, wraps him in a one-armed hug only a little less awkward than it had been the first time. “I’m so sorry, Owen. Really. So sorry.”
She wants to send him home, wants to unbind this unexpected variable--her memory of the days between Dani grabbing her hand and Margaret Sharma’s funeral include very few glimpses of Owen, and never at Bly Manor. It feels like bad luck, somehow, having him back here. Feels like every breath he draws on these grounds is testing whatever force put her here to begin with.
“Are you sure?” she asks, back-pedaling with him into the house. “That you want to be here? I’m sure if you called Henry--”
“I need it,” he says, looking at her with bleary exhaustion. “I need the distraction. And to be around--”
“Owen?” Hannah, appearing from the kitchen with a mug of tea in one hand and a perplexed expression on her face. He looks at her, a man caught, his hands flexing uselessly at his sides. “What’s wrong?”
His mouth opens. His mouth shuts. Jamie squeezes his elbow.
“His mum. Passed last night.”
“Oh, Owen.” Hannah moves to him, pressing her mug on Jamie as she passes to free her hands. She wraps him in a tight embrace, all usual decorum forgotten for the moment, and Jamie stands back to allow them space. It felt less wrong, before, when they’d all learned of the loss together. Now, with Owen’s big hands splayed across Hannah’s back, with Hannah’s lips forming inaudible kindnesses against his ear, Jamie only feels intrusive.
“You shouldn’t be working today,” Hannah is saying, leaning back in his arms. “Owen, you should be taking time to yourself.”
“Couldn’t.” He seems unable to let her go; even from this distance, Jamie can see his hands shaking. “Couldn’t be by myself.”
“Right. Of course.” Hannah is trying to piece herself back together, to look steady in the face of this news, in the face of Owen’s discomfiting sobriety. “Come on, dear, let’s get you something to eat. Jamie?”
“M’all right,” she says, not wanting to press in upon Owen’s grief any more than she already has. “Should get to work. Give a shout if you need something.”
She watches them go, watches the way Hannah’s hand hovers just at Owen’s back without quite making contact. She’s still clutching Hannah’s tea, she realizes, and sets it lightly down on the table beside the door.
Tell him, she thinks as the pair round the corner and disappear from view. Tell him, before it’s too late to say any goddamned thing at all.
The most important gifts, she thinks, as she’s thought for years, are the ones you almost forget to grasp hold of in the moment.
There is blissfully little to worry about for the rest of the morning, and Jamie finds herself leaning into the work to keep from venturing back into that big house. There are too many temptations inside, too many tiny errors to make in a fit of emotion. Dani, who so recently took her hand. Hannah, who is running out of time to make her peace. Owen, who looked at her with such blank suspicion when he’d said, “How’d you know?”
These middle bits, she thinks as she works a trowel into the earth, are the hardest part. These middle bits, the beats between story, where she finds herself wanting to forget. Wanting to let go of the awareness that there is a clock ticking steadily down, that there are things that must be and things that cannot be, and only she stands between those two paths. She could, on a day like this one, with clouds scudding gently across a still-unsteady sky, forget entirely that she is displaced. That she belongs here no longer. That she ought, instead, to be in her own time--without Dani--her own hotel room--without Dani--her own life--without--
A gentle clearing of throat interrupts this line of thinking, and Jamie looks up with undisguised relief. The panic, which results every time she remembers the life she’s been leading for seven years, slides gently back into hiding.
Dani isn’t quite smiling. She looks like she wants to, like someone who’s just remembered a joke a moment before a somber affair, and is trying desperately to hang on to the correct expression. She isn’t quite smiling, but she’s looking at Jamie with a light in her eyes Jamie would quite honestly give up the world to keep.
“Sleep all right, Poppins?”
“Sure,” Dani says, that too-casual slide just past yes that means she’s lying. He’d been waiting for her, Jamie is sure--in her room, or in her bed, or in her dreams. She suspects the where matters much less than the fact of him, the fact that Dani’s guilt is on a breakneck journey toward finally growing too heavy to carry.
Not quite there, though. Not yet. “Suppose you’ve seen Owen.”
Dani nods. “Terrible, about his mother. He’s in the kitchen with Hannah, looking like someone just clubbed him over the head.”
“Not surprised. Man hasn’t thought of anyone else in...too long.” Pushing to her feet, Jamie brushes the dirt from her hands. “Funeral won’t be easy.”
It will, in fact, look very much like pantomime. Like inexperience writing a script, filling in the gaps with a parody of sorrow. People will shake hands, embrace, nod soberly to one another, and not a single one will look earnest in their grief. Not a single one will be able to say there was even enough of the woman left to properly mourn.
I’m so tired, Jamie.
It’s getting harder and harder to see me.
What if I’m here, sitting next to you, but I’m really just her?
“Jamie?” Dani’s hand, hesitant, resting on her wrist. Jamie realizes, too abruptly to correct now, there are tears on her cheeks.
“Sorry,” she says brusquely. “Sorry. Just--what’d I tell you? Cry three, four times a day.”
“Five,” Dani says, with the gentle ribbing tone of a woman who is not yet sure she’s earned the right, “if you’re really honest.”
Jamie laughs, and the laugh is half a sob, and she is caught. Caught between thirty, and pragmatic, and steady--and fifty, and hollow, and lost. Caught between the woman who thought loss would be a burden lifted, and the woman who would have sunk to the depths of that lake if she’d thought for a second Dani would allow it.
“Strange morning,” she says, closing her eyes. Strange life. “Sorry, you’ve got, ah. Devils to attend to.”
“Flora won’t leave Owen’s side.” Dani is still holding her wrist, her touch so light, it’s barely there at all. Jamie finds herself holding her breath, standing stock-still, as if Dani’s hand is a butterfly she’s terrified of startling. “Anyway, this doesn’t...”
She hesitates, looking at the hand wound around Jamie’s wrist like she’s only just remembered it belongs to her. Jamie meets her gaze, nodding for her to go on, and she grimaces. “Doesn’t seem like the kind of day where anyone should be alone, is all.”
More memories, piling in, a flurry of voices in her head.
Owen: You should come to Paris for a little while, just to have someone to talk to, Jamie. This isn’t healthy. This isn’t good for you.
Henry: There’s a room here, you know, you wouldn’t be bothered. I’d make certain of it. It’s just--I don’t like the thought of you on your own right now.
Dani: You have to promise me you’ll keep trying, Jamie. When I’m--because I think it’s going to be soon, and I need to know you’ll be all right. I need to know you won’t be alone. Jamie, you shouldn’t be alone--
And what would you have me do? she thinks, as she’d ground her teeth around saying then. Find someone else? Pry myself back open just to keep from being alone? You could come back, Dani. You could come back to me at any--
“I know what it’s like,” Dani is saying, very quietly. “I know how easy it is to slip away into the hurt. I know she was Owen’s mother, not yours, but--I just have a feeling, you know? That something’s...coming.”
Jamie frowns. “How d’you mean?”
Dani had never said anything of the kind before--not until the Lady, not until she found herself moving through a jungle Jamie couldn’t see. Dani had never once said anything quite so alarming, though she’d thought herself plenty crazy as it was.
Now, her brow is furrowed, as though reaching back for a dream fading too fast to catch. “I don’t...know. I can’t explain it. It’s like when you can sense a storm coming. When you can smell it, even though the sky is still blue.”
Because you have less than two weeks of normal left, Jamie thinks, glancing surreptitiously toward the greenhouse windows. No sign of dark hair, white gown, smooth features. Not yet.
Dani raises her eyebrows, and Jamie realizes a beat too late that she’s forgotten herself again. Forgotten that the Jamie of then would have smiled gently, said, “S’just a bad spot, Poppins, it’ll be all right.” The Jamie of then wouldn’t have discounted Dani’s fears--but she would have tried to assuage them as quickly as possible all the same.
The Jamie of now can’t quite bring herself to it. Can’t quite bring herself to tell Dani there’s no such thing as monsters hiding in the dark. Can’t quite bring herself to tell Dani there’s no danger on the air to scent.
Fuck it. “Dani, if I told you...if I said you’re right, what would you do next?”
“What?” Dani shakes her head. “Do? I don’t--”
“If I told you,” Jamie goes on, turning her hand until her fingers can close around Dani’s, her thumb swiping an old arc across Dani’s skin, “that something is coming. Something that’ll change things. Would you go? Would you run?”
“Run from what?” Dani isn’t pulling away, exactly, but a tension is rising up through her body like petrification. Jamie holds on a little tighter.
“If I told you--if I told you there was a way to change it. If you just went away tonight--away from this place, from that lake--would you? Would you go?”
The hand in hers is going slack. Dani, taking a shaky step backward, her face a mask. Jamie exhales.
“If I told you it was the only way, would you run? With me?”
“I--” Dani, shaking her head. Dani, her hand falling away at last. Dani, looking bruised and uncertain, as though Jamie is intentionally trying to confuse her. “I have a job here, Jamie. I have to--I couldn’t just leave the kids--”
“You could,” Jamie says, knowing it’s selfish, knowing it runs counter to everything both of them stand for, and knowing still that she has to try. That she has to know for a certainty it won’t work. “You could go, tonight, and I could--I could go with you, if you wanted. Or stay back, if you didn’t.” That bit hurts to add, but it’s the truth--if losing her now would mean saving her life, Jamie would do it without question. “You could go, Dani. You could be safe.”
“No,” Dani says, more sharply than she’s said anything in thirteen years. “No, I couldn’t. Don’t ask me that, Jamie. Don’t--don’t say things like--”
I don’t want you to be alone, Jamie. I don’t want you to--you’re so young. There’s so much time left, for you. You could find someone else, after a little while, couldn’t you? Someone who’ll be good to you. Someone who can make you smile again.
Got that off your chest, have you? Finished writing fairy-tales? Because, Dani, I couldn’t. Could never. Wouldn’t even want to try. Please. Please, I’ll do anything you ask, anything you need, but please don’t ever ask me that.
I need you to be--
Don’t ever. Don’t say things like that to me again, please.
“Right,” she says, two warring conversations twining in her head as the buzz beneath her skin takes hold. “Right. Too goddamned brave, Dani Clayton. Too goddamned--”
Her knees don’t ache.
Her third finger is bare.
The woman in the mirror is still there, still waiting--gazing at Jamie as if in open mockery. You’re getting stupid. Slipping up. You didn’t really think that would work, did you?
No. No, she hadn’t. But it was worth a fucking try, wasn’t it? Isn’t anything worth a fucking try?
Dani doesn’t say it again, that thing about sensing a storm, and Jamie is careful to move around her as she’s meant to right now. She’s careful to keep her hands busy with work, her attention on Owen’s grief, her smile easy and undemanding.
She’s careful, too, not to be left alone with Dani. Careful, not to say anything that could be processed by the universe as an attempt to wind Dani away from her fate. Subtle, that’s the trick. Subtle, cautious, elegant.
All things Jamie has never felt particularly well-suited to, but there’s a first time for fucking everything, isn’t there?
She’s meant to pick Dani up for the funeral, and though she knows Dani will not be attending, she’s looking forward to the morning all the same. There’s something about this moment, she thinks, that changed it all from a dim maybe to a resolute please.
There’s not much of a difference between the woman who had gotten ready that morning, staring down her reflection with a half-fascinated, half-mortified determination, and the one walking up to Dani’s room now. The nerves humming under her carefully-ordered dignity are exactly the same. The flex of her hand into a trembling fist, the calm before the knock, the prick of her ears for Dani’s soft “come in!”--no difference at all.
Except that woman hadn’t known what she’d be walking into. That woman had been so preoccupied with Owen’s loss, with the funeral preparations of a small town, with her own sweaty-palm, stupid-grin, lost-cause response to this surprising American that she hadn’t even begun to process what Dani might be like on the other side of this door.
This woman, though. This woman knows all too well. Remembers not only Dani in this moment, but Dani in a diner in Maine saying, I didn’t understand how someone could make me feel so fluttery and put me so at ease at the same time.
Remembers Dani saying, I sometimes dream about that day. About how you smiled at me, like you already knew.
Remembers Dani saying, I sometimes wish I’d been...better that day. Less of a...less in my head.
And still, though she remembers it all with an uncanny clarity, she finds herself unprepared for the reality of Dani Clayton, backlit by the glow of a window, smiling at her this way. Smiling at her in a dress that, at the time, had sucker-punched Jamie merely by virtue of Dani being in it. Smiling at her with the gentle surprise of a woman who had expected one thing and been delivered an extremely pleasant curveball of her own.
“Can scrub up, when I need to,” Jamie points out, and remembers so many other nights--anniversaries, birthdays, just-because date nights where Dani had looked up and smiled at her exactly this way. The way, she thinks sometimes--on bad nights, on the worst nights--Dani would have smiled at her from the end of a wedding aisle.
This time, she thinks fiercely. Marry you again, when I can, and god knows that’s a promise I’ll die to keep.
She teases Dani over the dress, not even bothering to pretend to miss the way Dani’s gaze slides over her while she speaks. Dani, who hadn’t quite known she was capable of this feeling, until Jamie. Dani, who had pretended all her life not to feel anything like this sudden comfortable heat between them.
Dani, who is looking at her with eager blue eyes, though her face will lapse into a weary unease as the day goes on.
Which reminds her...
“Here,” she says, pulling the lopsided towels stretched over the mirror into place. Dani watches the sliver of glass disappear beneath a protective sheen of fabric and visibly exhales.
“I don’t--I just do that because--”
“Didn’t ask,” Jamie tells her gently. “Not my business. Anyway...the, ah...funeral.”
She has considered not talking Dani out of it this time, just to see what would happen--just to see what the world would feel like, if Dani stepped off these grounds before leaving them for good. She has considered it, but Dani looks so tense, so hyper-aware that this is the wrong dress, the wrong day, the wrong kind of situation to be stuck in with new people, and she can’t bring herself to do it.
“I promise,” she says, taking Dani’s clasped hands, “I don’t need you to be my date to Owen’s mum’s funeral.”
Dani’s relief is palpable. “Okay. Okay. Then, can you help me get this thing off?”
A joke--not a joke--something beautifully in-between the two concepts. She laughs when Jamie says, in a tone just this side of serious, “Blimey”--but she isn’t laughing when Jamie’s fingers take hold of the zipper. She’s not trembling, either, as Jamie had half-expected the first time; Dani had seemed such an unpredictable bundle of nerves back then, for reasons Jamie hadn’t yet grasped, and she’d thought the woman would balk from her moving in this close.
Had thought, certainly, Dani wouldn’t want her this close. Not in a bedroom. Not with the door shut. Not asking, in a half-amused voice like she’d already known Jamie for years, for help getting undressed.
She’d walked into this room thinking Dani would be the jittery one, and had found herself here, instead: facing Dani’s relaxed shoulders, grasping a zipper, dragging it slowly down as Dani sighed.
Dani, who had turned her face to the mirror and made a sound like glass shattering in her chest.
Now, with that mirror covered, Dani only gazes at the towels as though expecting them to fall away. Dani only shakes her head once, as though embarrassed for even worrying. Dani only sighs again, leaning back into Jamie’s hands.
Leaning back like she’s never for a second not been here, and Jamie suddenly can’t trust herself at all.
“I,” she says very quietly, her skin suddenly too warm, her heartbeat too restless. “I shouldn’t.”
Really shouldn’t. Really should just step back, let her hands drop to her sides, force her attention back to the reality of now instead of the habit of forever. And Dani should be shrinking away from the dead man in the mirror, not shifting gently back until she can turn her head, catch Jamie’s eye, smile like she’s just stepped into the deep end of the pool without warning and found the drop unexpectedly pleasant.
“Shouldn’t,” Jamie repeats, her voice just a little too low, her eyes dipping to the skin of Dani’s back set newly on display. One hand has slid without intent around Dani’s hip, bunching the fabric of her dress. Dani makes a noise like exhilarated terror. “There’s a--”
Funeral, she means to say.
Path to this, she means in her heart.
Dani is kissing her, and that part, at least, is right--Dani leaning that last little bit to close the gap, turning to face her, a hand gripping the collar of her jacket. This part is the same every time, somehow: her own hands skimming Dani’s jaw, her own breath catching in her chest. This part, where she’s sure, and Dani isn’t--can’t be--not yet--
“You sure?” she asks, pulling back, and Dani is nodding. Dani, not looking around this time for the blank eyes of a ghost, is nodding and kissing her again, harder than she had in a greenhouse a lifetime away, and this is dangerous. This is dangerous, with Dani’s arms sliding around her neck, and glorious, with Dani pushing against her body, and everything she’s missed for years.
Shouldn’t, she knows. This isn’t how the story goes, isn’t how the story is meant to go--and maybe that’s the point. Maybe that’s the idea. Maybe, if she just keeps kissing Dani in this room, if she just lets Dani ruin her lipstick, if she just lets Dani’s hands glide up her back, pushing with that familiar gentle force until there is not so much as a breath between them--maybe this is the thing to do it. To change it. To make it into something else.
“You’re sure,” she repeats, even as Dani’s kiss is increasing in fervor, Dani’s hair wild in her own hands. Dani, nodding desperately, making that old familiar sound of want directly into her mouth. Dani, pushing into her until Jamie, finally, with years of gorgeous repetition at the wheel, pushes back.
It’s like something breaks in her, then, something that won’t be so easily put back together. Something like resolve, shattering on impact with Dani’s tongue slipping past her lips. Something like restraint, annihilated a little more by every brush of Dani’s thumb across her cheek, every skid of Dani’s dress coming loose under her hands, every small sound out of Dani too much like Jamie’s own name.
This isn’t where it happens. This isn’t how it needs to go. Dani’s story, first. Then Jamie’s own. Two sets of injury, laid open for the other to see. This isn’t how it’s supposed to--
So take me away, she thinks, daring the universe to fight back as her hand palms the back of Dani’s head. Take me out of her arms, because I can’t--I can’t--
“I’ve never,” Dani is saying, though her hands are insistently tugging Jamie toward the bed. “I’ve never, before, with--well, with--”
“I know.” She waits for Dani to cringe, self-consciousness blooming to interrupt the burn of excitement, but Dani only kisses her again. The oldest way, before either of them had had time to craft familiarity--when they had only been two near-strangers toppling over into something enormous together. It’s not quite the kiss she misses, not quite the one she so often wakes with the memory of tingling against her lips. There’s a raw heat to it, an undisciplined solicitation only of Jamie’s desire, of Jamie’s attention, of Jamie coming to her not as a wife, or even a friend, but as a warm flame against the shadows.
“If you want,” Dani is saying, forehead pressed to her own. “If you want, I--I want--I think I want--”
Think is not good enough, Jamie knows. Think is not sure. She exhales against Dani’s lips, watching her shiver, her dress rumpled in that very specific way that almost always leads to a soft bed. Wrong, she thinks, Dani’s voice from a thousand years ago coming up firm against her own desire. She swallows.
“This isn’t how it goes.”
The kissing isn’t the thing to do it, she sees now. The kissing, or Dani’s hands pushing the jacket from her shoulders, or Dani arching and whimpering as she kisses down her throat. Dani’s hair gripped in her hand, Dani’s breath against her skin, Dani wanting so badly to pull her down among the carefully-arranged blankets and lose herself in whatever Jamie is willing to give, isn’t the thing to break the spell.
It’s talking like this. It’s being certain, and sharing that certainty, a traveler already familiar with this road. She could kiss Dani all morning--could miss the funeral, could miss the rest of the day, could lose everything in Dani’s skin now--and it wouldn’t shake loose the plot.
“This isn’t right,” she says gently, though it’s killing her to do it. Dani, a flush around her cheeks, her eyes dark with that old familiar glaze, slides a hand up the back of her neck. Her nails bite gently into sensitive skin, her nose brushing Jamie’s--and it’s almost enough to change her mind. She nearly gives in, nearly shakes her head and says, Forget it--because Dani could ask almost anything of her right now, anything at all, and she’d give it.
Except this isn’t right.
Except this isn’t what Dani needs.
Except, if she lets them pave this road too quickly, they might not travel it together at all.
“You don’t want me,” she says, and Dani blinks in surprise.
“I--I do, though, I--don’t think I’ve ever wanted anyone more.”
Go on, something in her wheedles. Go on, push her onto the bed, follow her down, lose yourself in her. Lose yourself in all of it. Forget, for a minute, where this is all going--
“You don’t. Not yet. Not this way.” She’s smiling, her fingers tracing Dani’s skin. “This isn’t the story, Dani. This isn’t how it starts.”
“How do you know--”
“Because you’ve still got ghosts to put to bed.” Her hand, cradling Dani’s cheek, is already feeling insubstantial. “And you won’t do it like this.”
She bows her head again, kisses Dani once more--soft this time, almost chaste, a temporary goodbye--and when she next opens her eyes--
Her knees don’t ache.
Her third finger is bare.
The woman in the mirror is, she thinks, a little closer now. Just a little more visible. Just a little more solid.
“No,” she says aloud. “No, you don’t.”
Yes, the Lady seems to reply, though her lips never move and there is no sign of smile on her horrific face. Yes, I do. I did, and I will again, and there’s nothing you can do to stop it.
She just needs to get to the kiss. To that kiss. She just needs to get to Dani in the greenhouse, the Dani who’d heard her ask, “What’s wrong?” and given the truth in return. She just needs to get to that night, and then she can change something. Change everything. Fix it.
Only, Dani has to be able to let him go, first. Dani has to be able to walk free, first. After that, all bets are off, but if Jamie changes it before then--if she doesn’t grant that kindness to Dani first--something worse might happen.
She can’t explain how she knows it. Can’t explain what it is, deep down, that tells her so. Knows only that Dani, to be truly safe, needs to be truly free.
She doesn’t shift the towels. Doesn’t let her hand map Dani’s familiar frame. Only tilts her head as though nothing is wrong and says, with all the confidence she can muster, “If I find you’ve not been relaxing, there will be serious consequences.”
Dani laughs. Dani watches her go with something a little like hunger, a little like fear, and Jamie manages to keep it together until the door is shut behind her.
When it washes over her, that dizzying misery she associates with coming home to an apartment Dani would no longer grace, she nearly folds double in the hall.
The funeral is a somber, distant affair. She hadn’t exactly enjoyed herself the first time around, her attention swinging between a constrained grief of her own and a solid awareness of Owen’s, but this is somehow much worse. This is the first funeral she’s attended since...
Won’t happen, she promises herself, though saying as much can’t stop her hands shaking. Can’t erase the memory of standing by an empty grave, too hazy in her misery to even think of Dominic and Charlotte Wingrave, of other empty caskets lowered into yawning holes a lifetime away. It had just been her, and Owen, and a woman with red hair she’d felt uneasy dialing up--but Dani would have wanted Judy O’Mara to know, in whatever little way Jamie could explain. Dani, who had gone home only once, showing Jamie a small town that could never have contained her, and a mother who could never have understood her, and a woman who--though her chance at truly knowing Dani had come and gone--had taken Dani by the shoulders and said, Love is kind, no matter what form it takes.
This is so different, now, and so much the same. A full grave, true, but these people don’t know Margaret Sharma anymore, and whatever painting they’re trying to slap upon the canvas now is too little, too late, too artificial to count. The details slough away, the truth of her coated over with too-clean colors, and even Owen can’t conjure the reality of his mother this afternoon.
You won’t do it again, she tells herself firmly. Won’t bury her again, empty box or not--and it’s such a pretty thing to think. Such a pretty hope to carry. The truth is, she knows, even if Dani lives all her allotted years, if Dani spends decades by her side, neither of them can guess what shape the end will take. A car accident. A sudden illness. A freak moment, a lightning strike, a lingering wasting away of mental faculties. There’s no way to know for a fact that she won’t be here again, in thirty, fifty, sixty years, saying goodbye all over again.
She squares her shoulders, shakes it off, strides back to the truck. Can’t think that way. Can’t think the way Dani had those first few weeks, when every suggestion Jamie made was met with a terse little smile, a quiet, “We shouldn’t plan. We don’t know--”
One day, she reminds herself on the drive back, fierce in a way she’d never been with Dani until the very end, until the panic had grown like weeds around her rational mind. One fucking day at a time, and that’s all.
The relief spilling into Dani’s face when she walks into that kitchen is almost enough to wipe away the scrim of unease. No one has ever looked at her that way--not before, and certainly not since--but Dani had done it for years. Even in those final weeks, if she’d come home early from work, if she’d woken Dani from an afternoon nap on a bad day, there had always been a beat with this look, this perfectly glorious moment where all Dani could see was her.
“Hey, you lot.” And there’s Dani, looking as though this is the first breath she’s taken all afternoon. Dani, grinning at her with such unrepentant joy, she hadn’t been able to wipe it from her memory for days--even with the heat, the thrill, the guilt of that kiss hot on its trail.
She answers their questions of the funeral, and it’s so much harder this time--so much less orderly, as the words fall from her lips. “I’d be relieved...”
“Really?” Dani asks, and Jamie’s head snaps up. Dani, the first time, hadn’t said a word. Dani had only watched, as though not entirely tethered to her body, her gaze as warm as a sunbeam on Jamie’s face. Now, she’s looking at Jamie with an unreadable expression, her posture tense.
“No,” Jamie says, in exactly the same tone she’d offered Hannah in her memory. “No, doubt it. Be easier, maybe. Be more...fair, maybe. But, no. There’s no relief in that kind of loss at all.”
Dani nods once, and Jamie has a sudden mad thought, rushing in like stale water: Does she know? Can she sense it? For me, this has already happened, but Dani is here, isn’t she? She’s in that lake. She’s gone. Is time really so linear, for the dead? Can she see me, even now, does she know--
She’s staring, she realizes, one hand mindlessly unfastening an earring, and Dani is staring back. There had been carefully-managed intent, before, when she’d smiled across this table; now, she finds her hunger boundless, her ability to rein in her eyes utterly gone. She is staring at Dani like this is the last time she’ll ever see her, and she wants to reach across this table, leap across this table, leap across time itself and snatch Dani out of the jaws of whatever twisted fate decided Jamie could survive without her--
Dani clears her throat, looking embarrassed, though her lips are upturned. She swivels to the sink, her eyes darting back toward Jamie once, twice, as though not quite able to believe Jamie is still sitting there.
She’s looking at Jamie like it’s Jamie who is the ghost, Jamie who is the marvel, and Jamie has just about forgotten how to sit here and look like her whole body isn’t wound to bursting when Dani gives a soft shriek and drops the bowl she’s been holding into the sink.
“Poppins? You all right?”
Dani makes a tittering noise like laughter, though her shoulders are rigid, though she is running away on the pretense of needing a moment to herself. She will run into the hall. She will run to the door. She will grab a fire poker, swing it around, terrify the life out of Owen.
Jamie pushes up from the table. “Back in a sec.”
She catches up with Dani, chest heaving, hand gripping a cabinet for support. “Hey. You, ah--you seem like you could use a...”
A what? A friend? A shoulder? Someone who will look at her and not see abject lunacy in the lines of her nervous breakdown?
Dani turns her head away, closing her eyes. “I’m--I’m fine, Jamie. Just a little...just having a bad...”
She’s facing Henry’s office, her face screwed up in misery. Jamie leans against the cabinet, careful not to touch her, shrugging.
“I understand. Funerals, they...bring up the stuff we don’t like lookin’ at. Even when you don’t know the dead.” She hesitates. “Everyone’s lost someone, right?”
Dani’s mouth tightens like she might cry, her hands fisted at her sides. She nods once, sharply, and Jamie sighs.
“I’m sorry, if I struck a nerve back there.” Do you know? Can you see through me, see the reality of the thing? That I’m not supposed to be here like this? That we’re not supposed to be having this conversation now?
Dani makes that noise again, a wet laugh with no humor at all. “It wasn’t you. It was--I can’t--you’ll think I’m crazy if I--”
“Try me,” Jamie says quietly, and Dani’s eyes flicker open. She’s leaning, almost as though she can’t help doing it, until her shoulder brushes Jamie’s.
“I just--I sometimes see--Peter.”
“What?” Jamie’s head jerks up, her eyes following Dani’s glare. She expects that familiar face, the smirk, the turtleneck and jacket--but all she sees is the bright sunshine beyond. “Dani--”
“He’s there,” Dani says wildly. “Don’t you--don’t you see him?”
Jamie helplessly shakes her head, not wanting to admit it, not knowing what else to do. I believe you, she thinks, I believe in ghosts, I believe in you, so why the fuck can’t I--
Dani takes off, her flats slipping on the polished floor, and Jamie follows at a slower clip. This isn’t right, this isn’t possible. She needs to be able to see him. She needs to be able to see them all. She saw him once, didn’t she? She saw him outside, by the well, when she couldn’t save--
A horrifying thought occurs to her, stopping her dead even as she hears the door open, hears Owen exclaim, “Jesus!” What if she can only see them when a thing is fixed? Too fixed to change. Too fixed to fix. What if the thing in her, the fractured thing that doesn’t allow her to see Dani, doesn’t allow her to pick Rebecca out of the shadows of this great old house, doesn’t allow her to engage with the dead, only releases when the immutable nature of time has already stuck fast?
What if, after all of this, she’s damned to see Dani fall again?
She waits. Waits for them all to go back to the kitchen--Owen and Hannah first, Dani dragging embarrassed at their heels--and then she steps outside. A smoke, she tells herself. Just for a smoke, and nothing more.
“Oi,” she says softly around the lit cigarette. She feels wild, standing out here in stockings and a funeral dress, staring into the distance. “All right, Quint. Come on. Show yourself.”
Nothing. Silence. Had she expected better? Had she expected miracles?
Expected, maybe not, but she needs it. Needs to see someone--him, or Rebecca, or one of the invented souls she’d scrounged from old stories Henry, Miles, Flora had told in that week between the night at the lake and putting Bly in the rearview for good. The plague doctor, perhaps--or the soldier--or the little faceless boy. Any of them. Anything to prove she can.
“Becca,” she says, a little louder. “Come on, chick. Come on, come say hello to an old friend. Please.”
Nothing. Silence. Nothing but the twisting smoke trailing from her fingers, the birds in the trees, the endlessness of a day which is resolutely winding down.
“Please,” she repeats. “Someone. Anyone. I need to know. I need to know I can fix this--”
She whirls, expecting Rebecca, expecting anyone but Hannah. Hannah, who smiles in that indulgent little way, soft and sweet and just a touch too aware of Jamie’s growing panic.
Not what I meant, she thinks in the direction of whatever magic dumped her here without the strength to do what needs doing. Not what I fucking meant--but it is something, isn’t it? Hannah. Hannah is--Hannah is--
“Looking for ghosts, is all,” she says, half-heartedly smiling as she drags the last of the smoke into her lungs. Hannah tips her head. “Seemed like the right...sort of day for it.”
There’s a beat--just one, brief as a snowflake--where Hannah seems to almost waver in place. Her hand rises to the back of her neck, her eyes closing. Jamie swallows.
Don’t, says the magic beneath her skin. Don’t, or you’ll be doing this all again.
“Hannah, can I...can I ask why you haven’t told him? The real answer.”
Hannah opens her mouth, and Jamie knows where this is going already--he’s too young, we’re too busy, I’ve already done this once before. And then, to her surprise, Hannah is saying, “Because I’m afraid.”
She’s smiling when she says it, that same indulgent smile she’d offered Jamie for talking to the trees. Smiling, though it does not reach her eyes, and Jamie nods. Finally. A scrap of truth.
“Fair to be. Smart to be, maybe. But Hannah--if I told you you only had a week to live, would you want to spend it knowing he’ll never know?”
“Taken up as a fortune teller, have you?” Hannah teases gently, and Jamie shrugs, flicking the spent cigarette away.
“Funerals. Make a person think, don’t they?”
Owen got to say goodbye. Owen got to say goodbye, and it doesn’t lessen the sting of his mother’s death--nothing ever could--but it’s something, isn’t it? It matters, doesn’t it?
This, then. This could matter, too. More than anything else.
“Can’t tell you what to do,” Jamie says, trying not to sound desperate. “But I see the way you look at each other. And there’s never any telling, with...everything. So, Hannah, if you love him? Now might be the time, hm?”
She walks into the house without another word. Anything else, and she’s not sure she’ll be able to keep it together.
Dani isn’t quite right, as they sit down to eat. She’s sneaking those little looks at Jamie again, the way she did all throughout the final year of her life--those little looks she thinks go unnoticed, though Jamie sees every one.
“Still here,” she can’t resist murmuring, filling Dani’s wine glass, and she genuinely isn’t sure if she means you’re or I’m. Doesn’t matter, really. All that matters is Dani’s expression loosening a little at the edges, her smile foggy as an early morning.
Owen reminisces, Hannah pokes fun at Dani’s intensity, Flora gives her treatise on death and dying, and Jamie...
Sort of feels like she’s going out of her mind.
Her leg is hammering the floor beneath the table, her hand shaking around her fork. It’s enough to drag focus from everything else, Hannah finally politely saying, “Jamie, are you--”
“Fine,” she says, too quickly, glancing at Dani--and of course Dani is staring, of course Dani is looking at her with concern. Dani, who has more than enough on her plate tonight. Dani, who has no way of knowing what corner they’re about to turn.
Dani, who--in about two hours--will be kissing her like she’s never been so relieved and so terrified at the same time.
The right way. The right path.
The final step off the road and into the black.
“Bit too much, erm. Wine,” Jamie says stupidly, when they all keep staring. “Need more water, I guess.”
“Miss Clayton,” Miles says, back on target, “I think I should be allowed a glass of wine.”
It’s business as usual all over again, Dani transforming before their eyes from weary young woman to capable au pair. Owen shakes his head, swirling his wine, as six reduces in a moment to three.
“You know,” Hannah says, “I do like that young woman.”
“What’s not to like?” Owen raises his eyebrows meaningfully, and though his smile is heavy, there is the usual brotherly mischief dancing in his eyes. “Isn’t that right, Jamie?”
What had she said last time? Piss off, probably. She’d been grinning into her own glass, twitching off their amusement, changing the subject as soon as she’d been able.
“She’s a fucking marvel,” she says now, without a hint of embarrassment shining around the words. Owen’s eyebrows about fly off his face in surprise. She snorts. “What? Life’s short. No point dancing around it, when you find someone like that.”
“That...sounds very unlike you,” Hannah says, as primly as she can manage. Jamie shrugs, knocking back the last of her wine and pushing up from the table.
“Strange day, Hannah, love. Strange fucking life. What d’you say to a lovely bonfire, to send off Margaret right?”
There’s something about a fire that feels right. Felt right, way back when, her head buzzing with the frenetic awareness of Dani beside her. Her tongue had tripped over itself, rushing to explain to the crackling flames just how important this woman was--how important no one else had felt, not like this, not in a long goddamn time. Her skin had been almost too warm despite the chill air, wine curling gently around her rational mind, and all she’d been able to think was, Bone fire. Burn away the shadows. Heading into the dark, and we have to hang on to each other.
I tried, she thinks bleakly now. I tried so fuckin’ hard. She’d tried to hang on to the little family they’d built here, unaware that it was already fractured, and she’d tried to hang on to the future she was building with Dani, and she’d tried so hard to pretend it was all steady enough. Tried so hard to hang on to Dani with both hands, walking into the dark with her, carrying her when Dani grew too fragile to walk at her side.
Her most recent memory of a fire like this one isn’t from the first trip ‘round--not this part of the story, anyway. She remembers Owen building the pyre, yes, but the hands passing him logs hadn’t been brown and slim--they’d been white, broad, shaking with fresh sobriety. Henry, helping in silent agony, letting his heart out onto his sleeve for the first time since returning to the manor.
It had been the four of them--the wrong four, she’d thought then, and thinks again now. Wrong, because Henry, for all the good in him, hadn’t been a part of it. Hadn’t been family. Hadn’t been home. Henry, for all the good he’d done and would put himself to yet, wasn’t her.
They’d drank to her, to Hannah Grose, raising their cups skyward. They’d told stories--how she’d railed against Peter Quint, how she’d mothered Rebecca, how she’d been soft and stern and sarcastic all in one. They’d spoken of her with fond anguish, with affectionate misery. They’d loved her out loud, as they’d never quite been brave enough to do with her standing right there.
And Jamie had decided, then and there, never to hold it back again. Never to play at aloof, never to practice the careful art of detachment. Life is short. Life is pain. Life is cruel, and unbridled, and cares little for your wants and needs and loves. You steal what you can, and cherish what you’re given, and there is no point in pretending tomorrow is certain.
“There are bones,” she says now, watching Dani--in that absurd purple coat, a blanket folded over her lap--from the corner of her eye, “to throw. The nights are growing long. But first...”
She looks to Owen, to Hannah, to Dani. Lingers there, along the pink of her cheeks, the glaze of her stare. Dani, who is so close to putting to bed her first round of unjust haunting--and closer than she can know to the next.
“First,” she says steadily, turning her eyes back to the fire, “a toast to the living.”
A small, pointed lie. A small, pointed necessity. She can’t change it, can’t fix it, can’t put to rights this one horrific wrong--but she can rise to her feet, lifting her bottle toward the sky, and say, “To Hannah Grose.”
Hannah jumps a little, her mouth turning upward, flustered. “I don’t think that’s necessary, dear.”
Jamie ignores this, raising the bottle a little higher. She isn’t nearly as drunk as she’d been the first time, not nearly as drunk as the rest of them. Not tonight. “To Hannah Grose. Who puts so much into we sorry lot, she forgets herself half the bloody time.”
“I don’t,” Hannah begins, but Dani, to everyone’s surprise, clears her throat and pushes upright.
“To Hannah,” she says quietly. “For making sure I felt at home before I’d shown I deserved it.”
“Of course you,” Hannah tries to say, but Owen is standing now, the three of them facing Hannah with bottles raised.
“To Hannah Grose,” he says firmly. “The only woman I’ve ever--well. Suppose I should have said it before. If there’s any time to do it, it’s--”
“You’re drunk,” Hannah tells him gently. “Poor, silly, drunk man.”
“I am,” he agrees with a small smile. “Or gettin’ there. All the same, s’the truth. Hannah Grose. Best and brightest among us, and the only woman I’ve ever--I mean...”
“Go on,” Jamie says, because it’s clear he won’t. Clear he’s floundering, too aware of his audience, too aware of Hannah’s dark eyes on him. But you have to, because life is unbearably short, and if you don’t do it now--
He’s shaking his head, grinning a little. “She knows what I mean, I think. Don’t you?”
Jamie sighs. She can’t force it. Can’t make them see. There will be regrets, later, Owen thinking back to this exact moment and kicking himself--and isn’t that just living? Isn’t that just the way it goes? Hindsight and all that shite, battering in your teeth when you’ve least got the space for it.
“To Hannah,” she says again, and drinks, and adds with all the steadiness she can muster, “We love you, you know. Don’t ever say it enough, but no less truth for it. Wouldn’t be the same without you, not even a little.”
Hannah, she is pleased to note, looks a little misty around the eyes.
It isn’t nothing.
It isn’t hard, coaxing Dani off toward the greenhouse. Wasn’t hard the first time, when all she’d needed was a gentle tip of the head, a quiet, “C’mon”--and Dani had come, with all the terrified eagerness Jamie would come to expect from the first year of their relationship. Dani is all courage, even afraid, even at the worst of times, even with her head full of long-silenced screams. Dani is the bravest person she’s ever met, even when she thinks she’s too frightened to stand up straight.
Jamie has only to place a hand gently on Dani’s wrist now, the one wrapped around a bottle, and Dani is standing. Darting little glances back toward Hannah, who sits comfortably wreathed in shadows, and Owen, who is looking at her with more hope in his eyes than Jamie remembers. Maybe it’ll make a difference, after all. Maybe, without them hovering in the wings, he’ll finally say his peace.
Or she will. Either way, Jamie’s laid the framework as best she can, and anyway--it isn’t why she’s here. Isn’t why the magic, humming beneath her skin even now, set her on this chess board.
Dani keeps her head down as she walks, as though afraid she’ll misstep and take a tumble in the dark. Jamie watches her carefully, feeling this time around as though she is treading dangerous ground herself. Before, she’d felt strangely reckless--that there was a growing sense of certainty on the air, that Dani was going to open up soon, and all she’d need to do was listen. It had been a strange kind of bravery, the kind that stems more from watching dominos get set up than actual faith. That part, the part that was hardest--the part that required her to close her eyes and leap--came much later.
It’s different, now. The air smells sweeter, somehow, the cool brushing her skin more alive. Maybe because she’s less drunk this time; maybe only because she knows the value of a second chance. Or a third. Or a tenth. Either way, where she’d been sure-footed back then, she only feels hope now. Stupid, sterling, glorious hope.
Because this is where it all changed. This, where Dani gripped her jacket and leaned in. This, where Dani told her everything that mattered.
This, where she’d been stupid enough to walk away.
“I’m not gonna ask if you’re all right,” she says, watching Dani sit, grab for the bottle, drink with a faint air of desperation to the act, “because I don’t like being lied to. So, what’s wrong?”
And it spills out, as it must, Dani’s whole miserable tale. It spills out--the fiancé, the break-up, the death, the ghost--and Jamie fights the urge to interrupt. Fights the urge to say, Dani, I know, and it doesn’t matter. Dani, if you want this, we can make it work. Dani, I’d fight every ghost for you, if I thought I could land a fuckin’ punch.
“Is he here now?” And there’s Dani making that face--that little sideways glance that says, You’re making fun. You must be. Jamie waits, placid as she can manage, for Dani to shake her head. “Good. Because, y’know, I’d sort him out for you.”
A joke she’d made once upon a time, just trying to set Dani at ease, but god, how true it had been in the end. She’d tried, hadn’t she? She’d tried as hard as she could, and it still hadn’t been close to enough.
Dani is still glancing around, still not quite trusting herself--not quite trusting him not to turn up where he’s least wanted--and Jamie finds herself looking, too. Finds herself saying, “I believe in them, you know. In ghosts.”
Dani looks at her sharply, eyebrows raised. “You do?”
“Didn’t,” Jamie says. “When I was younger. But now? Yeah. Very much.”
“What changed?” Dani is looking at her with something painfully like hope, and maybe the lines have changed--maybe the cues aren’t quite what they once were--but it doesn’t matter. Dani is still leaning slowly into her space, the wine forgotten on the floor.
What changed? You did. We did. “Got older,” Jamie says. “Maybe not wiser. Maybe not exactly. But you start to see things differently, older you get. Start to...hope for different things. Leave doors open, you might say.”
She tries to imagine what Dani would say if she knew, if she could only see those doors--innumerable, reckless doors, cast open a crack in every room she’s slept in for seven years. What would Dani say, looking in on her bunched in a chair, on a couch, on the goddamned floor if it meant not climbing into a bed without Dani in it?
“Have you ever--” Dani hesitates, looks almost embarrassed. Says it anyway: “Seen one? A ghost, I mean.”
“No,” Jamie says honestly, her heart clenching. “And...yes. In a way. Way I figure, a ghost can be all sorts of things. A fear. Regret. A wish.” She smiles a little, a far sadder smile than suits her thirty-year-old face. “A story.”
“Think I’m crazy,” Dani confides miserably. Jamie shakes her head.
“Think you’re surprisingly sane, considering.”
And Dani had been--even through the end, when she’d felt herself being hollowed out, emptied to little more than her own warped reflection. She’d been a lot of things then, tired and wrung-out and too ready to let go for Jamie to stomach it, but she’d been here. She’d been sane. There had never been anything else, no sign that she was losing her grip on reality.
That had been the worst of it, somehow. How sane Dani had been, staring into her own reflection. How sane she had been, her words even and flat, looking Jamie in the eye as she’d said, Maybe I should just accept that, and go. How sane Dani’s goodbye had been on that page, just a single sentence to encapsulate thirteen years together.
I love you with every piece of me left. If Jamie lives another thirty, fifty, hundred years, she won’t be able to wash away that single sentence. And maybe it’s the worst of the worst part: how, no matter how bleak, no matter how empty the rest of her life without Dani has felt, Jamie never quite felt crazy, either. Never quite felt like she’d lost her hold on the truth of the thing, no matter how much easier it would have been. If only she could convince herself of Dani’s eyes in the mirror. If only she could convince herself of Dani’s perfume on her clothes. If only she could be crazy enough to see Dani there, speak to her again, let go of reality enough to lose herself in the memory of a woman long gone.
She’s never quite been able to manage it. Never been able to coax Dani into appearing, for sanity or for madness.
“Look,” she says grimly, her throat tight, “I know what it feels like. It feels like--”
It feels like the world going gray, like everything left behind is just patches of sickly wrong. It feels like the music stamping out note by note, until all you have left is the memory of a memory of her voice. It feels like--
It feels like Dani’s lips on hers, and she’s never felt quite so alive, never felt quite so like weeping into another person’s skin, never felt so many things at once. There’s another step to this thing, another beat of question--pull back, ask if she’s sure, whisper thank fuck into her smile--but she can’t quite bring herself to it this time. Her hands, once so careful, are almost rough now. She’s gripping at Dani’s hair, pushing in close, inhaling all the tiny noises Dani is making--reckless, and hopeful, and yes, a little bit frightened--and her heart is beating hard enough to hurt.
Dani is pushing into her with all the unreserved delirium of a woman who has finally, finally chosen something for herself, and Jamie is here, Jamie is on the floor of their first apartment, Jamie is pressing her against the naked mattress propped against their bedroom wall, Jamie is everywhere. Dani is breathing her in for the very first time, and Jamie is skidding back through years yet to come like so much confetti tossed into the timeline, and she is want, and she is loss, and she is love--
Dani jerks back, gasping, folding into herself as though burned. Jamie hesitates, a hand going instinctively to her mouth. The crossroads, reached once more--a road forking into two. Walk away with another night, maybe; another time, maybe still hot on her lips? Or stay put. Stay here.
She turns, looks over her shoulder, searching for the young man whose face she saw once upon a time in Judy O’Mara’s living room. No sign of him, and none of the others, either--of lank black hair, of Rebecca’s sweet smile, of Peter’s insouciant smirk. Nothing but the plants, and the dark, and Dani breathing hard beside her.
“S’okay,” she says, though she’s meant to walk away. “S’all right. Him, yeah?”
Dani nods once, a furtive gesture of mingled humiliation and fear. Jamie stands, moving slowly around the greenhouse, half-expecting despite herself to see the shadows unfurl from any given corner.
Dani follows her with wary eyes, shaking her head. “No. No, he’s--Jamie, I’m sorry, I--I don’t know what to say.”
“Don’t say anything,” Jamie suggests. “Don’t have to explain yourself to me, Poppins.”
“You’re not...” Dani looks puzzled. Upset, but in such a different way than what Jamie remembers of this moment. “You’re not mad?”
Wasn’t ever, she thinks with a wrenching sensation in her gut. Wasn’t ever mad, just...hurt. Ashamed. Wrong.
“It’s not you,” Dani presses on, a sort of gently bobbing mania rising to replace the horror in her eyes. “It’s not--I want this. I do. I want--”
You. To be free. Whatever the answer, it doesn’t come to her lips. Her eyes move back toward the shadowed glass, and Jamie tries to see the place as Dani does: one big funhouse, one enormous field of danger. How many times did Dani come visit her out here--even if only for a moment--despite the wall of potential reflections at every turn?
How many times did Dani square her shoulders, lift her chin, come out here anyway--because this was Jamie’s space. Because this was what it took, to catch a glimpse.
“You told me,” Jamie says gently, “you weren’t ready. That’s all right.”
“It’s not--” Dani closes her eyes. “It’s not all right. It’s not the way this is supposed to be.”
“And how’s it supposed to be?” Because, from where she’s standing, Dani is right--in all the wrong ways. Fact is, Jamie isn’t supposed to get it. Not yet. Jamie isn’t supposed to understand how many times Dani had promised herself to press on another night, another time. Jamie is supposed to be stumbling back out into the dark, a blanket over one shoulder, her stomach acidic with shame. She’s supposed to tuck herself under Owen’s gangly arm, loose with too much alcohol, and she’s supposed to drive them both away from this place for a few cartwheeling days of misery.
Can this be the thing to save her? This simple act of trusting Dani to know herself, instead of putting words into her mouth? She hadn’t been trying to do it at the time--had only been hurt and frustrated and miserable to think she’d preyed upon this poor woman without meaning to--but hadn’t that been the case, despite intent? Hadn’t she cut Dani off, for one of the only times ever, and shouldered away from her explanation?
Listening can’t possibly be the thing to ward off the demons of past-present-always, but it’s never steered her wrong with Dani. Not once.
She’s leaning against a table, as far from Dani as she can stand, and even now, her skin is too warm. Her heart thunders in her ears, her hands trembling in the pockets of her coat. She is too much, she is not enough, she is too many memories tucked into too young a mind. She is the desperate fever of kissing Dani for the first time, and the shuddering misery of fearing it’ll be the last. She is everything Dani has ever known of her in one unsteady frame, and if there are tears in the eyes she carefully turns away, Dani needs not know it.
“Dani,” she says again, quietly. “How’s it supposed to be?”
“Turning into a pumpkin?” Hannah asks as they emerge from the shadows. Jamie glances toward the sharp-angled silhouette that is Dani, clutching herself around the ribs, standing just out of reach.
If she sends me, she decides, I’ll go. For a little while, at least. If she says so.
Dani, instead, says, “Found a bone to throw.”
Hannah looks perplexed, though not particularly disheartened to hear as much. Owen, teetering beside her, looks ready to tip over.
“’Bout that time,” he says with a small hiccup. “Hannah, I, erm. Walk with me?”
“You’re not driving like that,” Jamie says, a touch too sharply. Things aren’t slated to go this way, and the last fucking thing she needs is for Owen Sharma to wrap his car around a tree because she’s testing uncertain ground. She’s relieved when he snorts, shakes his head.
“Room up there,” he slurs, “with my name on. Could’ve been yours, if you weren’t so bloody stubborn.”
Jamie nearly risks a glance at Dani, who is gripping herself so tightly, she almost looks ready to burst. If Jamie sets eyes on her now--if Jamie says anything at all--she might well implode on the spot. Best not.
They are, she senses, treading dangerous ground now. The glittering magic is awake, buzzing thin warning under her skin, but it is not yet tugging, not yet trying to hoist her out of the moment. Small steps, then. Small, careful steps, following Dani’s lead.
“G’night, then,” Dani says, polite as ever, and Jamie knows they won’t see it--the tension of her jaw, the iron of her eye--beneath the haze of alcohol. Knows Owen will wake tomorrow with a hammer beating itself against his skull, that Hannah will grow more distant as the days wear on toward an inevitable ending, and that whatever happens now, Dani will have to go it alone.
“Need me to come along?” she asks in a low voice, though the others are too far down the grounds to overhear. Dani hesitates, one hand reaching slowly for Jamie’s sleeve before pulling back.
“No. No, I’ll be right back.”
“Careful,” Jamie says before she can stop herself, remembering all too clearly Flora’s big eyes, her hushed whisper as she’d recounted the occasions Dani had nearly walked into the Lady’s path.
Dani tilts her a strange look, one part confused, one part determined. Jamie shrugs.
“All I’m sayin’ is--I dunno, be quick. Turn on some lights.” She sounds like a crazy person, but the kind of crazy too sane to choose living in such an obnoxiously atmospheric old house. Dani, to her relief, only smiles.
“Be right back.”
She leaves Jamie to the dark, and it takes nearly everything in Jamie’s body not to follow. Little changes, she reminds herself, are acceptable. Little changes are allowed; if they weren’t, she’d be staring herself down in a bathroom mirror, scowling at the Lady in the glass.
Little changes. Dani will be back in no time, and it will be fine, it will be--
She shifts a glance over her shoulder at the popping logs, the remnants of a once-roaring fire working its way down. Burning itself out. She scratches the back of her neck, trying not to think about how easy it is to follow the fire’s path--to burn hot and bright and desperate, only to find one day, all the oxygen goes out of the room. All of that fight, all of that heat, and in the the end, you’re left with empty shirts, unused toothbrushes, a house with all the home drained out.
She’s exhausted. If she’s honest with herself, if she truly looks at it, she can’t deny it. Exhausted--seven years without Dani, seven years of chasing shadows, and she hadn’t been able to keep still for any of it. Not for long. She’d been up and moving around the country, around the world, finding little ways to keep busy simply to prevent herself going mad, and though this body is young and strong, though her knees do not ache and her hands do not tremble, she is tired. More tired than the woman she’d been at thirty could have fathomed.
Around her, the shadows dip and bob. Heavy with animal life? With the push-pull dance of the wind? Or maybe with something else--with a soldier, or a child, or a sister whose bitterness doomed this whole place in its own horrible way. Maybe. She doesn’t bother squinting, trying to pick movement out from the sway of trees. There’s little point.
Anyway, all that matters is Dani, heading back to her at a steady clip. Dani, with a bottle in one hand and a tiny talisman in the other, a reminder of a life cut regrettably short.
Dani, who stops a few steps from her, swaying a little, and says, “Left the kitchen light burning. In case. After.”
Jamie nods once, the invitation filed away. After. In ten minutes, or two hours--it doesn’t much matter to her. Dani would be doing this alone, if she had to; Jamie is only a spectator, a gentle presence to remind her she doesn’t have to carry something this heavy on her own, if she doesn’t want to.
Jamie is only a memory in her own way, and when Dani squares her shoulders, lets the glasses slip into the flames, she isn’t certain what to expect. A glimpse of him, maybe. A glimmer of magic, maybe.
The Lady herself, maybe, come to call early, because Jamie has changed too much, Jamie has been someone she isn’t built to be for another four days, Jamie is cheating.
Dani’s eyes fix on something in the dark, her face implacable, and Jamie turns to follow. Almost completes the shift on her heel, almost moves her head to track Dani’s gaze--but Dani is saying, “Don’t.”
She freezes, her eyes going to Dani’s face, instead. Dani, who is smiling sadly. Dani, whose head is shaking.
“Don’t. This part...I’m sorry, I don’t think this part is for you.”
Her eyes threaten to cut to the side anyway, to play the deadly part of Orpheus in this brutal game--just one look, go on, what’s it going to hurt?--but the way Dani is smiling stops her cold. She's never seen Dani’s smile quite like this. It’s almost...older than it should be. Almost older than it ever earned in real-time, before the lake swallowed up what was left of her potential.
Older, and sharper, and certain. The look a woman gets, perhaps, as she boards her final plane with not a single bag to her name.
“Be over here,” Jamie says, dry-mouthed, and sets off for the house with hands in her pockets.
Dani doesn’t return for nearly an hour. When she does, her face is weary, but the way a person looks when they’ve been swimming all afternoon and finally, finally reach shore. The way a person looks when the climb, all slippery hands and blood-stained stones, finally results in a look over the mountain side.
The way a person looks when one beast is laid to rest, and there is no way yet of seeing another lurking in the trees.
She reaches a hand for Jamie’s, slips her fingers against Jamie’s skin as though it’s been there all along, and smiles. Her hair, when Jamie buries her face in it, smells of woodsmoke.
“Come upstairs?” she says, very quietly, and Jamie feels as though she’s finally breathing again.
Chapter 3: Storyteller
There is a particular care, waking with Dani for the first-millionth time, Jamie had not considered upon falling into her bed. A particular care to the whole thing she truly hadn’t thought about.
In her defense, she also hadn’t planned on Dani’s bed so early. She was relieved, in a very specific way--which felt much like disappointment and gratitude in equal measure--to find Dani uninterested in sex last night. Relieved, because Dani is meant to be coasting for four days toward ill-conceived flirtation by the time she finally makes her way up here, and this--this wasn’t quite how Jamie remembers it going.
Not Dani, holding her hand up the stairs like she was afraid letting go would mean spooling back her courage.
Not Dani, dressing in the privacy of her bathroom, offering Jamie an awkward few minutes staring at herself in the newly-uncovered mirror as she waited.
Not Dani, holding up her spare dressing gown with an expression so bordering on hilarity, Jamie hadn’t been able to resist bursting into laughter.
“No,” she’d said through a wave of giggles, “thank you. Don’t think that color will, ah, bring out my eyes.”
Dani had laughed, brought out a clean t-shirt and a pair of shorts instead. And Jamie had waited--standing in the bathroom for long minutes after she’d bundled up her clothes, looking at herself in a mirror bigger and cleaner than the one waiting back in her flat--for the magic to kick in. To kick her out. To restart the whole goddamn thing.
Nothing. Nothing at all. No glimpse of shadow in the glass, no glimmer under her skin, no sign it was coming. She’d breathed out, bowed her head, nodded. Little changes to the story. Tiny steps in a better direction. Good.
Dani had been sitting on the edge of the bed, looking nervous, and for a single heartbeat, Jamie had wondered if this was the moment, after all. This, with Dani fresh off of an exorcism she hadn’t allowed Jamie to witness. This, with Dani looking at her like she was just a little bit terrified of everything Jamie represented.
Jamie had sat beside her, unconsciously placing herself just a little bit out of reach, and said softly, “Feel better?”
Like a dam breaking, she thought, even as Dani shifted toward her, arms sliding around her neck. Like something too heavy being dropped at last, as Dani wept into her collar, making tiny gasping sounds like there wasn’t enough air in the whole house to make up for what she’d lost tonight.
Jamie’s memory of falling asleep is fairly fuzzy; somewhere along the way, they’d moved under the covers. Somewhere along the way, she’d kissed Dani’s cheeks, tasting salt, and thought too sharply of those final months. Somewhere along the way, Dani’s hand had worked into her hair, cradling the back of her head, and she’d lost herself in the soft brush of Dani’s breath on her lips.
Falling asleep had been easy. Instinctive. Natural.
Waking in Dani’s arms almost breaks her entirely.
For a moment--a long, languorous moment--she has no idea where or when she is. For a moment, eyes shut, this could be their bed, their room, their home. For a moment, eyes shut, she can almost believe those seven years were a dream--a horrible feverish nightmare from which she’s finally waking.
Her right hand moves to Dani’s left, searching instinctively.
“Morning,” Dani murmurs, and she shuts her eyes a little tighter, holds her breath, her fingers tracing the bare space between Dani’s knuckles. Her heart sinks.
“Whatcha doing?” There’s amusement in Dani’s voice, but uncertainty, too. Jamie swallows.
Dani shifts beside her, clearly waiting for Jamie to open her eyes, and Jamie thinks, In a minute. In a minute, I will. But for just a little while longer, I need...I need...
How long has it been, since she truly got what she needs? How long, since the last time she felt whole the way she does right now, eyes shut, letting herself linger in the rapidly-vanishing hope that this is their life together, that they are you-me-us and that Dani--Dani of the first time around, the Dani with whom she built a life--is still here?
“I should probably get the kids up,” Dani says quietly, though her hand is threaded through Jamie’s, squeezing gently. Jamie nods.
“Kids. Right.” It’s all drifting away, morning fog blasted to nothing by the rising sun. Kids means Wingrave family means Bly Manor means 1987. Kids means Dani’s job--Dani’s love for her charges--Dani’s selfless need to put things right--is still at the forefront of her mind.
Kids means she’s still in this thing, and time is ticking rapidly down.
She hears Dani slide from the bed, feels her stand awkwardly beside the frame as though torn between the task at hand and the desperate need to keep holding onto Jamie. “You, uh. You coming?”
“Sure,” Jamie says, squeezing her eyes shut as hard as she can. “Sure. One minute.”
She hears Dani move to pick out clothes, shift toward the bathroom to change, and thinks that is maybe the strongest sign of all that things are still then, and not fixed at all. Dani stopped disappearing to change her clothes barely a week into their road trip, her fascination and delight with Jamie’s inability to look away too strong to fight off.
Hated it, she’d said, laughing as Jamie pressed against her back, kissed her neck, pleased when the blouse in Dani’s hands dropped to the floor again. When Eddie did it. Never gave him the chance, if I could help it.
But? Jamie’d said against her skin, and Dani had let her head fall back, one hand groping around to pull Jamie closer.
Everything is different when it’s you.
“Are you sure you’re all right?” Dani has reappeared. Without opening her eyes, Jamie is sure she’s draped in pastels, her hair as tall as she could coax it in a few spare moments. The old Dani, the one she hadn’t been able to keep herself from falling for in the first place. The one operating on stolen time.
“All good,” she hears herself say, smiling a little. “Just wakin’ up.”
Waking up slowly with Dani used to be the best part of the day. Waking up slowly without her had been...
Not doing it again, she reminds herself sharply. Not going to have to do it again.
“Well,” Dani says, somewhat uncertainly, “I’ll...see you downstairs?”
Jamie opens her eyes at last to find her lingering at the door, her brow furrowed with something like concern, something like uncertainty. You’re being weird, that looks says, and I don’t know why. Because this Dani hasn’t had time to understand her yet. Because this Dani has had only a few days to comprehend her tics and habits, the precise way she bites down on a smile, the way she chain-smokes on a bad day and locks herself away with her plants when they’re the only thing that makes sense.
Her Dani would understand this quiet, closed-eyes approach to the morning as Jamie needing to be held. Needing to be touched. Needing to be reminded, just for a little while, that there is strength in this world outside of her own body.
This Dani, this younger, unwary version, doesn’t know any of that yet.
She opens her mouth--to say she’ll be right there, to say everything’s okay, she’s just a bit sluggish this morning--and before the words can spill out, her eyes are cutting right. Her eyes, so used to gazing into reflective surfaces with the desperate hope of a too-young widow, find the mirror.
There is a woman inside. A woman, too frail, too spindly, too wrong to be Dani or her own reflection. A woman in white. A woman who is, unmistakably, closer than she’s ever been before.
The easy words die in her throat, Jamie sitting bolt upright. Dani, leaning against the doorframe, jolts with surprise.
“What’s wrong? What is it?”
“Nothing,” Jamie says, too quickly, knowing she’s too far away to catch Dani by the arm and prevent her looking. There is nothing to do but watch with helpless horror as Dani, still in the grip of old habit, turns slowly back into the room--tilts slowly toward the mirror--peers with trepidation into the glass--
“I don’t...” Her head gives a minute shake, her face solemn and unsure. “I--what do you see?”
Only you, Jamie thinks, a knee-jerk habit response that very nearly spills from her lips. She swallows hard, turns her gaze from the specter in the glass, smiles.
“Nothing. Trick of the light. Dani?”
There’s a shine in Dani’s eyes each time she hears her name, a particular glimmer of such joy, it’s enough to pull Jamie’s attention from the gravity of the Lady. “Yes?” Even her voice, Jamie notes, sounds brighter today. Held in some part of her mouth less strained, less firmly gripped by should and must.
“Would you--I mean--there’s a pub.” The words are coming too fast, her eyes threatening to dart toward the mirror again. Resisting, she tries to straighten her back, tries to smooth the nerves out of the phrasing. “In Bly.”
“You told me,” Dani affirms, taking a step nearer the bed as though unaware of doing it. “You said you live above it. Little--uh--flat, right?”
“Right.” Don’t look away. Don’t look away from her. Not for a second. “Want to...want to get a drink with--”
“Yes,” Dani says before she can finish. The grin on her face makes her look absurdly young, absurdly light. Jamie can’t help grinning back.
“Tonight? We can ask Hannah to look after the--”
“Tonight,” Dani repeats. She hesitates, looking as though she can’t quite believe herself--and then, before she can think better of it, she’s swooping down, kissing Jamie quick, darting away again.
Tonight, Jamie repeats, allowing herself one final glance at the mirror as she dazedly gets out of bed at last. I’m taking her away, and you can’t do a fucking thing about it.
Who gets nervous about a first date after they’ve already married a woman? Who lets the first time in this timeline map over all the hundreds of dates, and sort-of-dates, and was-gonna-be-a-date-but-let’s-stay-home-and-shut-out-the-worlds two people can build over a lifetime?
Not Jamie, certainly.
No, the anxiety running rampant through her body--so young, so strong, so unnervingly capable of absolute terror--has less to do with the idea of taking Dani out on a date, and more with taking Dani out of this house. How had Dani herself put it, a lifetime ago: away from all this. Away from kids, and the unwitting, too-solid ghost of Jamie’s failures. Away from the future, which marches steadily toward them like a nuclear weapon at the ready.
Hannah is looking at her over the rim of a mug she never quite sips from, amused calculation all over her face. Jamie raises her eyebrows.
“What? What’s this?”
“I am,” Hannah says lightly, “immortalizing in my mind this moment.”
“And what moment would that be?” Her voice is just a little snappish, her eyes cutting yet again toward the kitchen door. Dani’s upstairs, chatting with the kids about the evening expectations--You listen to Mrs. Grose, and no pretending she doesn’t know the bedtime routine--but she’s been upstairs for what feels like ages now. Every moment that ticks by without her reappearance in the doorframe pushes Jamie a little farther into the unreality of the situation, her bones waiting for that ever-encroaching tickle of magic.
“This one,” Hannah says, with the patience of a woman who still believes all the time in the world is laid out before her. “The one where you look, for the first bloody time since setting foot on these grounds, like things aren’t quite going to plan.”
“Have a plan,” Jamie answers automatically, still gazing over Hannah’s shoulder. “Good plan. Kind of plan gets ruined by nosy--” She hesitates, thumbing through her mental catalogue of obscenities for something that would fit around Hannah’s relaxed shoulders. “...old...broads.”
“Oh, well done,” Hannah says, raising her tea in mock salute. Jamie groans.
“Well, at least I’m fuckin’ doing something about it, aren’t I?”
“Who’s to say you’re the only one?”
She sits up straighter, her fist rapping the table in surprise. “Hang on. Hang on, can’t just go sayin’ shit like that without explanation.”
Hannah shrugs. “You were right.”
“Well, I know I was--I was?” Hannah has said many things to her over the years, many of them complimentary, but she’s not sure you were right ever had cause to land among their multitude of conversations. “Right about...?”
“Time,” Hannah says, with a tiny smile--not a joyous one, Jamie can’t help noting, and wonders if Hannah does already understand there is such a beast as too late, lurking in this very room, “is unpredictable. Short. Unkind.”
“It is,” Jamie agrees, leaning slowly back with a nod. Hannah places her lips to the rim of the mug again, sighing against the porcelain.
“Owen and I, we had...time, once. Would have been something fabulous, I’m sure, if we’d known to grab for it while we--well. But now, he’s off to Paris just as soon as his affairs are in order--or Margaret’s, I suppose--and I’m...”
“Going with,” Jamie says in a low, urgent tone despite herself, despite the magic hissing with distaste beneath her skin. “Going with, and exploring all that fine French bread, and the countryside, and--”
“Jamie,” Hannah says, in a tone just a little too like how Dani had always stretched out her name, in the end. Just a little too like a woman with a noose already looped around her neck, gazing out from the gallows, waiting for the moment the floor will inevitably fall out from beneath her boots. Jamie shuts her eyes, feeling fifty all of a sudden, feeling older than that, even. Feeling as though there is no such thing as enough, for the weight of guilt.
“No,” Hannah goes on, and a soft hand curls itself around Jamie’s fist. She does not open her eyes, does not allow herself a sweet inhalation, even as Hannah says, “No, I’ll be staying right here. This is my home. This is where I--but it doesn’t mean we couldn’t talk.”
“Last night?” Jamie is surprised. Owen had been swaying something awful, wine just about oozing up from his pores, and Hannah had looked so tired she was nearly insubstantial in the dark. Hannah squeezes her hand now, laughing.
“Of course not, the man was drunk as a lord, wasn’t he? But this morning. Before any of you woke. He...deserves to know. That I love him. That I’ve loved him longer than any sense would appreciate.”
She says the words so neatly, as though they don’t hurt, as though her hand is not flexing around Jamie’s with an almost convulsive rigidity. Too tight, that grip, pressing the bones of Jamie’s hand until they grind.
Dead women, Jamie thinks distantly, have the tightest grip of all.
“And,” she says, to keep the sob in her throat pushed low where it belongs. She can feel that old familiar jump in her jaw, that muscle which goes absolutely mad every time her emotions seize hold and turn her into a skid. “And what did he have to say?”
“You know Owen.” Hannah sounds fond, more than anything. Fonder still than agonized. It’s something. “Just about fell over himself to tell me--well. Private things, really. But he wants me to go with him. He believes I can...he believes I would...”
You could, the younger version of Jamie might have said with simple urgency. With amusement, even. You could fuck off from this place, head into the sunset, never look back. Have a goddamned adventure, Hannah Grose.
This one, who knows all too well that every adventure must end somewhere, says, “But he loves you.”
“He does,” Hannah says, like a sigh, like the relief of breaking the surface and finding clean evening air in your lungs once more. “He says he does, and I believe him. And maybe that’s enough, isn’t it? Just to know. Just to believe.”
No, Jamie thinks. No, it isn’t enough. Isn’t enough to live it, even. There is no enough, when it’s them. Could never be.
“Yeah,” she says, because a good friend knows there is, eventually, a time where lying is a kindness. “Yeah, guess it is.”
The silence that stretches between them is a little too thick, a little too full of words she’s never going to be able to banish. Ones she’s mulled over while falling asleep, or talking to Dani--or to Owen--or on her worst days. The days where she gazes into the mirror and thinks, Hannah would know. Hannah would have some secret ritual, some mad prayer, and it would set things right. Too easy. Too easy to sanctify a woman in death, turn her into a magician.
She moves to say something else--to ask what else they’d talked about, though it’s none of her business--but there is movement in the doorway at last. Dani, appearing in the wrong color jumper, and a skirt, and a smile.
It’s not quite what it should be, and that feels good to Jamie. Feels like a sign. She was able to stand by Dani’s side last night, as the glasses went into the flames, and she was able to wake in Dani’s bed this morning, and Dani was able to choose something different to wear for their first date, and all of that tastes so much like freedom, she’s terrified to hold it in her mouth.
“Where’s Owen?” Dani asks, crossing to the table and hovering between Hannah and Jamie. “Thought he was going to help out tonight.”
“He had some things to attend to this evening,” Hannah says, too lightly, and though Dani doesn’t notice--Dani is looking at Jamie, her excitement palpable in the lean of her body against the table, the press of her hands against her own sides--Jamie does. There was more to that conversation, she understands. Pleading, perhaps, on Owen’s part. Gentle resilience, on Hannah’s.
Love, she can see, is worth it--but perhaps there are still gaps left in the fabric, even with all the love in the world. Love is only part of the thing.
Timing. Timing is the real trick, and maybe there is kindness to love stretched between two souls, love given voice--but maybe there’s a little bit of cruelty, too, when time gets its say. Maybe.
Did it help? she wonders, even as she rises from the table, takes Dani’s hand. Was it right?
Hannah’s eyes are bright, her smile unshadowed. Enough? It’s never enough. But it was something, and the best Jamie can do with the circumstances.
“Are you all right?” Dani asks, and Jamie realizes she’s frozen, staring at Hannah like this is the last time she’ll see her. She shakes her head, pulling herself back to the present.
“Excited,” she says honestly, and Dani laughs with such sweet apprehension of her own, she can’t help a smile. Hannah looks them both over, appraising.
“Enjoy yourselves,” she says, letting the rest of it lay beneath the words. “Consider the fort manned until your return.”
Jamie believes her. Or, to put it more cleanly, believes that Hannah believes. It’s something, true--though when she turns her head, catches a glimpse of the window above the sink, the outline of white gown and black hair etched into the glass, she can’t deny fact. That some things are just as big as belief. That reality matters, too.
That reality and belief are sisters sharing the same mottled bed, in fact, each twining around the other, each shaping in turn the world she is forced to walk--with or without Dani Clayton’s hand in her own.
“Come on,” she says, loudly enough for the Lady edging ever nearer in the glass to hear. “Place’ll keep for one night.”
In truth, Dani only saw this pub one time--during daylight hours, when she’d accompanied Jamie to pack a bag on the way out of town. Jamie hadn’t been particularly long-suffering about the act; her life until Dani hadn’t overflowed with tactile keepsakes, her belongings restricted to the essential and a couple of small plants. The decision to leave the lot behind hadn’t taken long, and she’d missed it not at all once Bly was in the rearview.
Now, standing outside in the pleasant chill of evening, she feels as though this one scrappy pub represents an entire future. Choices made and reinforced. Loopholes built and slipped through. A whole story rewritten, told fresh.
There was a moment--with Dani sitting beside her in the truck, her hand hesitant as she reached for Jamie’s--which had felt like waking for the first time in that bathroom. That jarring, uncertain rush of energy had overtaken her, and she’d thought, This is it. This is where I wake up back in that room, back in 2007, back when it all matters not at fuckin’ all. Taking Dani out of that place, taking her over that border and into the wider world, had felt like too big a change. Too big a distance between what was and what is meant to be.
She’d blown past the property limits at a truly stupid speed, prompting Dani to laugh and say, “Can’t wait for that drink, huh?” And Jamie, looking at her in the dim glow of the dashboard, looking at the wrong color jumper, the pretty blue eyes, the strength of her smile, had thought, If you steal her from me now, let this be the last thing I ever remember.
She’d blinked, her foot pressing the pedal nearly to the floor, and then--and then they’d been out. Out. Free. A thousand ways to say the same goddamn thing. Bly Manor and all its ghosts, all its unrepentant gravity, sat behind them. Ahead, a world without need for Dani Clayton’s sacrifice.
Keep going, something had whispered in her then, a temptation almost too great. Keep driving forever, until you reach airport or seaside, and then leave this fucking place behind. Go.
She hadn’t felt the glitter of the magic, and that--like the quiet before a devastating storm--more than anything kept her on the road. Kept her voice level as she steered Dani toward the kind of conversations they’d have upon leaving Bly for good. Kept her hands from shaking all the way to the village.
Because the magic does not want her to succeed--not in big, artful, impractical ways. The magic, though responsible for placing her on this path, wants the past to remain as it was. Small steps. Small steps only.
The magic will not accept more than that.
And the Lady wants Dani for good.
She keeps her hands in her pockets as they press into the pub, find a table, as Jamie orders a round. Every step feels like pushing gently against the skin of some invisible bubble. Every word out of her mouth, every drop of beer on her tongue, every tap of her boot against the floor--each one feels like setting both palms against a mirror and waiting to see if she will fall through.
“You’ve never seemed like this before,” Dani points out. Her face is pleasantly flushed--the pub is warm, just loud enough to mask their conversation to others without drumming too hard over their ability to hear one another--and she’s barely touched her drink. She seems more interested in Jamie, draped over this chair as she tries to remember what calm feels like with her heart ricocheting around her ribcage.
“Seemed like...?” She sips her drink, smiling a little when Dani makes a thoughtful face.
“Nervous. Like, actually nervous. I didn’t know you got nervous.”
“Been a minute,” Jamie says, which is true. She hasn’t really felt anything like this--anything strong, anything capable of unwinding her steadiness--since Dani waded into that lake. Not until waking up in 1987 again.
Some part of her has been nervous since that moment--but not merely because of Dani, or the ability to set things right waiting just out of reach. Some part of her, if she’s truly honest with herself, has been nervous since waking up in her old flat in that raggedy old t-shirt because there is a possibility--more distinct, more sane than the belief in magic and second chances--that she never did wake here. That she is, in fact, sprawled on the floor of a hotel room in California. That she has, in fact, slipped into some kind of coma, or a suspended hallucination. That she has, in fact, died.
Purgatory, she thinks with a sudden flare of amusement, would look so much like this. Like a loop of endless repetition, like seeing Dani and never quite being able to save her. Over. And over. And over.
“There are reasons for that,” she says. “Complicated ones. And easy ones. People, ah--they feel...exhaustive, most of the time. Too much to take on. Not much point, being nervous about that.”
“All of them?” Dani is grinning. Dani, seeing through to the heart of her without meaning to, as she always had. Even if Jamie wasn’t always prepared to admit it.
“All of them,” she agrees, watching the light in Dani’s smile dim. “Even you. Even me. Especially me. But, uh, that’s the thing, isn’t it?”
“The thing that makes me nervous.” When Dani doesn’t seem to understand, she shrugs, tips back another swallow. “That even despite that, some things--make you want to take a shot, anyway.”
“Some things,” Dani repeats, her lips still curved upward. Jamie laughs.
“Not gonna make it easy, are you?”
But that had never been true. Dani had made it easy, every step of the way, where she’d been able. Dani had made it easy, talking to her about nothing, and about everything. Dani had made it easy, coming back each day to her smile. Dani had made it easy to fall in love, easy to need her, easy to be needed in return. Not by doing anything in particular. Not by being any fabrication, any too-clean assembly of expectations, but simply by being her, she’d made it the easiest thing in the world.
Even when it wasn’t.
Even when it would have been so much easier, not to.
Not here, Jamie thinks. Here, it’s different. Cleaner. Here, there are no shadows lurking, no women urging closer in the empty glasses on nearby tables, in the windows, in the mirror. Here, they truly can start fresh.
“There’s a story,” she says, leaning over the table. “Not sure this is the place for it, really, but nothing’s perfect. You did show me yours, so...I mean, if you want...”
Skip to the end. Why not? Dani is nodding, and Jamie knows the truth of it in her blood: that there is no perfect, and that doesn’t matter in the least. That the flowers had been wonderful, and it had been right for the moment--but that the moment changes. Each night fits differently around them as they shift, as they grow, as they learn to match one another from untested angles. The story has room enough to wrap around them in new shades. The story, told well enough, can map different roads--different lines of conversation, different color jumpers, different firsts. It’s all right. It’s okay to let it be different this time.
Dani is still Dani. She is still her. They are still you-me-us, now and always, and the set dressing means not a fucking thing, in the end. Maybe that’s the most important part of telling it: knowing the core is all that really counts, when you reach the very end.
She recounts the story, gazing at Dani all the while, and finds it easier now she’s older. Finds it so much easier, now she understands Dani better--what makes her tick, what makes her lean in, how hard she can love Jamie even at her worst. This Dani isn’t there yet, but she can see the shape of the woman she’ll become already: in the tick of a smile, the press of her hands, the steadiness with which she accepts Jamie’s every trauma and mistake and bundles them up like neatly folded clothes, never to be worn again. This Dani isn’t that Dani, not yet, but the bones are the same.
The story over, she hesitates. There’s another set of beats here, another important notion to impart--the organic quality of life, the eventuality of death, the beauty of the thing. It’s true. It was true then, and even now--with Dani’s loss feeling so close to the surface again--it is still true.
Still. She hears herself, a lifetime ago, say, You don’t decide who lives and who doesn’t. I’m sorry, Dani, but you don’t. And Dani, though she had appeared to be listening at the time, had turned that back on her. Had turned it back at the very end of the line, as if to say, I love you enough to decide. Just this once. Just this once, I get to decide after all.
She’d been furious, when the shock had worn down enough to feel anything else. She’d been furious in a way she’d never known with Dani. It had hurt almost more than losing her, in its own way, that anger--how it had roiled through her in hot waves, dragging back the years until she was twenty-five, twenty, sixteen again, and out of control.
That anger, that fire raging deep down, had been the only reason she’d kept walking. She knows that now, understands it on a visceral level--that, sometimes, anger is the only reason a person keeps going, until the agony recedes enough for rational thought to take hold again. She knows that. And still, it seemed so heavy on her chest each morning, that anger. That miserable, hateful feeling of injustice at it all.
You don’t decide who lives and who doesn’t, she’d said once upon a more innocent time, believing it wholly, and looking down at Dani in that lake had felt as though Dani had grabbed her by the chin, forced her eyes to meet bright blue ones, and calmly replied, Watch me.
Just like that. Just like that, Dani--brave, reckless, selfless, stubborn Dani Clayton--had decided. Decided, like it was her place, like she’d had the right to decide for Jamie. Dani had decided, as that miserable Lady Viola Lloyd had decided not to die, not to go, to drag them all into her pain--and maybe Jamie had played that part up, in weaving a narrative for Flora and her friends, maybe she had closed her eyes and groped for details to make it all fit, but it was still not hers. Not her story. Not her choice.
Dani got to decide, and Viola got to decide, and Jamie has to go on living with it. Just another player in the tale.
The anger had been fierce, and fervent, and the only reason she’d survived the first year. The anger, and the simple, almost neat agony of it: why, she remembered thinking, do you get to write it this way?
“Once in a blue goddamn moon,” she says now, pushing it all down and back into a trunk she intends never to unlock again, “someone might be worth the effort. So, yeah. Bit nervous. Been a long time since the last blue moon.”
Dani swallows. “Feels easy, though, doesn’t it?”
Jamie raises her eyebrows. “Does it?”
“Easier than it should.” She almost looks embarrassed, in the best way. It’s an expression Jamie is used to, the one she’d wear whenever she baked something unexpectedly incredible, or made a stranger laugh out loud, or made Jamie’s eyes roll back in bed. All the little carvings of a woman who spent so long living for others that in doing things right--doing them her way, and finding that way best after all--she’d been almost preternaturally sheepish about her own victories.
“Not sure I follow,” Jamie says, though it’s only because she wants Dani to say it. Only because she likes watching Dani begin to work open all those little padlocks, revealing the truth of her within. Dani seems to think for a minute, sipping her drink, her hand cupped over the glass with such uncharacteristic carelessness that Jamie can’t look away.
“With you, I feel like...I don’t have to think about it. Or overthink it. Or question if what I’m feeling, what I’m...” She pauses, thumb slipping up into her mouth with habitual nerves, smiles. “Wanting. Is okay. With you, it feels like it is, even when it never used to be. And it makes me...”
“Happy?” Jamie suggests when she goes quiet again for a long beat. Dani tilts her head from side to side, considering.
“Sad, in a way. That it took this long. That it had to go this way--with him, first, you know? That I feel like I’m doing something wrong, putting away my...guilt. That he’s dead, and it took him dying to be...this.”
“But it didn’t,” Jamie says, leaning across the table. It’s suddenly very, very important that Dani understands this. Suddenly so deathly critical, that she can piece it together the way Jamie has helped her do over months and years of conversation. “It didn’t take him dying. You said it yourself: you broke up. Before he stepped out of that car, before he made that choice, you made yours. You didn’t kill him, Dani.”
“No, I know,” Dani says, in a tone of voice that says knowing and believing are two different things entirely. Jamie casts a quick glance around, lets her hand slide across to press Dani’s into the scarred wood for a moment.
“You didn’t. The universe is random, and it can be shite, and there’s nothing we can do about that. He died. That’s awful. You’re still here. That’s...that’s the best thing that’s ever happened.”
Dani looks at her without an ounce of wariness, her eyes holding too much for her words to catch up with. She opens her mouth, seems to think better of it, twisting her hand under Jamie’s to better line up their fingers.
“Thank you,” she says, “for the drink.”
Jamie blinks. Another new beat, another new line. Not quite right. Not quite familiar. Is this Dani letting her down easy? Dani deciding, as Dani never has, that this is not what she wants, after all?
“I think,” she says, with Jamie starting to slide back into her seat, heart thrashing a fresh and terrible rhythm beneath her shirt, “I’ve seen enough of the little pub.”
“Oh,” says Jamie, almost woodenly. Even if it means losing her, she’d promised. I save her, even if it means she never falls in love with--
“Your flat,” Dani says, a kind of stoic concentration on her face that means she has reached a decision and will not be dissuaded. “It’s, uh. It’s upstairs, you said?”
The relief nearly knocks her from her chair. The relief, sweeping through her, is everything. Jamie’s grin could light this whole fucking establishment.
Standing in this flat again, she thinks the world must right itself now--will start fresh, start anew once more, that she’ll have tripped some unseen wire and rebooted the whole game yet again. That the simple fact of Dani walking in behind her, one hand firmly in Jamie’s, will set it back.
“It’s small,” she warns, her voice as level as she can make it, though she’s shivering all over with a fear she can’t lay out for Dani. “Never needed much--”
“I always wanted to live like this,” Dani says. Jamie raises her eyebrows, surprised.
“Seemed romantic.” Dani is moving slowly around the open living space, her eyes devouring all the tiny intricacies of Jamie’s life alone. “Not having anyone to answer to, not needing to obsess over dusting every corner all the time. This--” She touches a flannel shirt, tossed carelessly over the back of Jamie’s single armchair, looking impressed. “Just being able to have a moment of...of who cares, you know?”
Jamie, who hadn’t even realized she’d left things so absently around the flat--who hasn’t paid attention to a thing in this place except the bathroom mirror in years--is almost embarrassed. Except Dani is grinning her full-force grin, the one Jamie has seen a thousand times over the good days, and could never get enough of. Dani isn’t trying to make her feel better about the plate on the counter, still riddled with toast crumbs, or the light arc of dust on the lampshade Jamie hadn’t gotten around to wiping clean. She’s serious. She’s delighted.
“Didn’t think about company,” Jamie says honestly, “or I would’ve done better.”
But hadn’t this been how their home had looked, too? Dani had never put it quite this way, in quite so many words, but there had always been a comfortable clutter to the places they’d landed together--a few too many pillows on the bed, a shirt almost always left out of the closet, tiny signs of lived-in that had never quite allowed for immaculate. Messy, they had never been, but there had been a sturdy sense of okay about the whole thing. It’s okay if the vacuuming is put off a week. It’s okay if the laundry, folded, sits in the basket. It’s okay to loosen the threads, to not sit pretty, to be comfortable without needing to make a thing of it.
Had that been Jamie’s influence? She hadn’t realized. Hadn’t thought of it that way. But maybe Dani--who had been expected to keep a perfect house in her old life, who had stood straight and dressed in ironed blouses and jumpers without pops of thread at the sleeves--had needed someone like Jamie to show her a home can be a little untidy and still be safe.
“I’ve never lived alone,” Dani is saying quietly now, still running her fingers along the buttons of Jamie’s discarded shirt. “Not in thirty years.”
“Bit less romantic than it seems,” Jamie says, unable to keep the weight of sorrow out of the words. Dani looks at her, brow furrowed.
“Why do you sound so sad?”
I don’t, the younger version of Jamie would have said--scoffed, even, with a laugh, tilting away from the truth. This version, who has not only laid out her past, but grown comfortable with it in a way one only does after years and years of processing, says, “There’s only so much loneliness a person can stand, I guess.”
“You’re lonely?” Dani is moving to her, slowly, an unconscious mirror of the way Jamie had moved toward her in that bedroom before Margaret’s funeral. There’s a look on her face that says she’s never considered Jamie as a lonely figure before now--though there will come a time where she’ll think of little else, obsessed with the need to make Jamie safe even in her own absence.
“Yes,” Jamie says, hearing her voice shake. “Sometimes. Lately.”
It’s not the cool thing to do, not the confident, collected way to handle a date, but she can feel herself folding inward. Can feel herself split down the middle--half standing in this flat, out of her own time, half curling in a hotel chair in California. Knowing, in her bones, in both timelines, that there is an inherent wrongness to being alone. Knowing, in her core, where even the magic can’t reach, that any place Dani isn’t will never feel warm enough.
“You’re not alone,” Dani is saying, and she imagines that voice curling around her sleeping self, that certainty pressing in along the lines of her dreams. “You’re not.”
She’s holding Jamie by the shoulders, looking at her with focused intent, and the old Jamie would have grinned. Would have done something to take the pressure off this moment.
This one, the one carrying Dani’s last hope in her heart, croaks, “You promise?”
“Promise,” Dani says, and leans in, and the place no longer matters. The dishes in the sink, the extra pair of boots tossed under the coffee table, the knowledge that her bed is unmade in the next room matters not in the least. All that counts is Dani kissing her, Dani feeling so real, so solid, so tethered to the world it’s impossible to imagine her sliding out of reach again.
Dani feels like Dani at last, everything else set aside, the road leading to this inevitable burst of joy, and Jamie has done one thing so right. One thing so right, there’s no arguing. All the setbacks, all the repetitions, all the glimpses of the Lady where she’s not meant to lurk--and still, they’re here. Still, Dani is here, a hand curled around her neck, a smile on her lips, kissing like she’s never considered another option.
Dani is here, and maybe the script was wrong, and maybe the setting is new, and maybe they’re bumping into the coffee table, knocking a lamp askew as they back toward the bedroom, Dani’s foot catching on the little knot in the floor and nearly tipping them both down. Maybe the laughter is louder than it was in the stillness of the manor that night, and their clothes are dry even as they are slowly, hesitantly discarded, and the moonflowers have bloomed where no one will take notice tonight. It’s different. It’s different.
But different is not better, and it certainly is not worse, because when all the details wash out, the framework remains the same. Dani, toppling back on unmade sheets with breathless laughter, feels the same under her hands. Dani, laughter twisting into a dizzy groan with Jamie’s lips on her neck, tastes the same. Dani, wrapped around her with legs bare, hair wild, saying her name for the first of so many times in that exact tone of voice, is gloriously, absolutely the same.
And there’s something else to this, too, a strange side-slung gift the magic couldn’t have intended. The first time--the first time, when Dani had wanted so badly and been so nervous at the same time--had been good. Had been wonderful. Had been Jamie in the lead, understanding Dani needed the comfort of someone who knew what she was doing, understanding that the newness of Dani was nothing compared to how new she’d felt to Dani in return. And there had been things to consider: the other occupants of the house, and the mirror over the vanity, and the tiny lingering fear that she’d wake the next morning only to find Dani had changed her mind.
That time had been wonderful, and she’d spent a lifetime with Dani building on it, strengthening what they’d begun in Dani’s borrowed bed--but this time, with thirteen years of memory sunk into her hands, her lips, the rhythm of her hips, she feels no fear at all. No concern that Dani will change her mind. No worry over who might hear, who might care, what might come barging out of the glass to shatter the moment. No fear, even, that the magic will be waiting for them around the corner. They are out. They are free.
This is only now, the most in the moment she’s ever felt with Dani--where neither of them are afraid. Dani carries nothing in her head but a desire to be exactly here, splayed on these exact sheets, panting as she turns her face into Jamie’s pillow. Jamie carries nothing in her head but a need to be exactly here, kissing her way down a body almost more familiar than her own, closing her eyes and sinking into Dani’s hands in her hair, Dani’s hips rolling to meet her mouth, Dani’s voice painting the walls of this place she’s never really gotten to know.
And there’s something about it, she thinks, gently easing Dani’s legs further apart, gently tracing with her tongue until Dani cries out, that is more than magic. Something about Dani’s first time being her thousandth. Something about how powerful the memories are--Dani in that bed at the manor, Dani in a dozen beds scattered in a dozen motels across America, Dani on their couch, Dani in the back room of the shop--now that she’s pressing her face against Dani’s skin here. Memory is so tenuous, so vague, so willing to slip out from clenched fists--but here, as Dani pulls reflexively to guide her in, as her fingers map familiar skin, she feels closer to the entire span of their life together than ever before.
“How,” Dani gasps much later, the sheets sweat-soaked, Jamie laying beside her, “did you do that?”
“Practice?” Jamie suggests, her tone midway between gentle joke and absolute honesty. Dani laughs.
“No, but--how’d you know? What would--what would make me feel--”
Jamie distracts herself from a laugh by pressing her face to Dani’s shoulder, kissing slowly along to her neck. Dani buries a hand in her hair, sighing agreeably. Better to do this again, Jamie thinks, mind and body in perfect agreement--because the alternative to letting her hand slip down Dani’s body is to admit something too near the truth. That she knows Dani perfectly. That she has spent years exploring Dani--when Dani was at her best, when Dani was at her worst, when Dani was everything in between. That it’s all second-nature, even after years apart--the ticklish spot here on her ribs, the place on her neck that makes her swoon, the exact pressure which, applied to the jut of her hip, drags her attention instantly to the bedroom.
How’d you know? She’s been waiting seven years for another chance to map Dani’s body--to kiss Dani with feverish joy--to feel Dani press against her, bare skin and soft breath and a voice she’s terrified to forget. The story changes, but some things don’t. Some things are gloriously, wonderfully familiar in ways she’s been craving for longer than she wants to think about.
Of course, Dani will have to learn her all over again. For Dani, every freckle is uncovered treasure--every scar is a story untold--every time she trails her nails down Jamie’s back, presses a thigh between Jamie’s legs, kisses Jamie’s lips, it is the greatest novelty. For Dani, it’s fresh. Uncharted. Maybe even a little daunting.
I’ll make it easier, she thinks with the mindless giddy excitement of new sex. Anything she needs. And, in her own way, she suspects Dani will continue to find ways to surprise her. Dani, who has still--though the book should be exactly the same for her--managed to squint into the shadows and come up with mysteries. Dani, who looked her in the eye in the greenhouse and told her a storm was coming.
No storm, she thinks now, letting her fingers tease gently until Dani grabs her by the wrist, urging her in. No storm. We’re free. We’re out. I got her out.
It’s so easy, letting herself believe it. So easy, as Dani presses her face into Jamie’s shoulder and unleashes a stream of muddled pleasures and curses and sounds without syllable. Out. She’s out. She’s free of that house, of that hell which will certainly follow, and all there ever needs to be again is this.
She believes it, as they wind down at last into dazed slumber.
She believes it, falling asleep with Dani’s arm around her waist, Dani’s naked skin warm against her back.
She believes it.
Until the phone rings.
It’s nothing. Has to be nothing. Wouldn’t be fair, if it wasn’t nothing.
She’s out, goddammit.
“What’s--who’s--” Dani, groggy, is sitting up. “S’that your phone?”
Jamie can’t quite answer. Can’t quite bring herself to search for words, even as she’s pulling on the first article of clothing her hands find--Dani’s jumper, strangely, too warm and too much sleeve, but smelling so perfectly of Dani she can’t help pulling it over her head anyway.
The phone, sitting on a little table in the living room, is still bleating. She hesitates, hand hovering over the receiver, thinking with the innocence of sleep: If I just don’t answer. If I don’t pick up. We can go back to sleep. We can go back to--
“’Lo?” She hesitates, listening, hoping against hope for silence--but the voice on the other end is Owen’s. Owen, sounding glazed. Owen, aghast.
“Jamie. You have to come back.”
“I don’t understand,” she says, though she thinks she does, actually. Thinks she’s putting it together, actually, even as her eyes move toward the bedroom, toward Dani’s approaching footsteps. The story changes. The story--
“You have to come back,” he repeats. “There’s been a--there’s been--”
No. No, no, no. We’re not doing this. “Been a what, Owen?” And what is he even doing there? He shouldn’t be there. He’d gone home. It had only been Hannah in the house. Hannah, and the kids, and--
“What’s going on?” Dani, in Jamie’s t-shirt, hair rumpled, a mark just above her collar where Jamie had bitten a little too hard. Dani, looking exactly as she should right now--sleepy, and perfectly mussed from hours of good sex, and free.
Dani, at the start of the life they should have lived. Blue eyes. Unhaunted. Beautiful.
“Don’t,” she tells the phone line. “Don’t say it.”
Dani is moving more quickly now, waking faster than either of them would like, pressing her head close to Jamie’s so they both can hear when he ignores this command.
“The kids are gone. There was--there was something--the lake. I don’t know.”
“What about the lake?” Dani asks sharply. Her hand is on Jamie’s back, pressing hard. “Owen.”
“I don’t know,” he says, and his voice is so helpless, Jamie closes her eyes against it. “I don’t know. I had a dream. I came back--thought I was just being silly, that Hannah would--but Hannah isn’t here. I don’t know where she is. She’s not--and the kids. Miles. Something is wrong with Miles.”
“Peter,” Jamie says, almost not caring that this is the magic word to undo it all. Free. She was fucking free.
"Flora,” Dani presses, determined to make sense of this insanity. “Where is--”
“The lake,” Owen repeats. “She took her. Into the lake. She’s--I’m so--there’s nothing to be done. I tried. I tried for almost an hour.”
Owen, paddling in helpless circles in the dark. Owen, thrashing under the waves in a button-down shirt and jeans, the water filling up his shoes, the water combing reckless fingers through his hair. Owen, watching Flora bob under, never to swim back to shore.
Jamie bows her head against the wall, her stomach sick. Wrong day. Wasn’t meant to happen tonight. Was meant to be days from now, was meant to be different, Flora wasn’t--
“What are you talking about?” Dani has pried the phone from her grasp, is speaking into it with the unwavering steadiness Jamie has heard her use with the kids. “Owen. Slow down.”
Jamie, her forehead still pressed to the wall, doesn’t need to hear it. She thinks she can imagine just fine how it all played out without Dani in that house. Thinks she knows all too well how Peter Quint would have jumped at the opportunity to get those kids alone--to take Miles--to press Rebecca into doing the same to Flora.
And Rebecca, who was always so much kinder than Quint could imagine, wouldn’t. Rebecca would have tried to fake it. Tried to help Flora past the beast wearing her brother’s skin. Tried to help Flora--
“Right into her,” she hears Owen’s tinny voice say, apparently for the third or fourth time. He does not seem to be doing well. “Right into her, she walked. I don’t know--what it was--what she was--”
“The Lady,” Jamie says tonelessly to the wall. Dani, hand shaking so badly, the receiver jitters against her cheek, looks to her with perfect uncertainty.
“What? Jamie, who--”
“The Lady,” Jamie repeats. “The one who haunts that fucking house. The one Flora was always so scared of. Took her into the lake, I’d wager. Drowned her.”
“Drowned?” Dani repeats shrilly. “Don’t be--don’t say--no one was drowned--”
But Owen is silent, save for the soft sobs trailing over the line, and Hannah is gone, and it’s all too late. It’s all too wrong.
You can save her, the magic seems to whisper, malicious in its delight. But at what cost, Jamie? What cost is worth paying to keep Dani Clayton alive?
Anything, she’d have said before tonight. Anything at all.
“No,” she says now, aware of how weary she feels, of how broken she sounds. “No. Not this. Dani wouldn’t want this.”
“What wouldn’t--Jamie, what are you talking about?” Dani sounds frustrated. Anguished. There is an image in her head, Jamie knows, Flora’s tiny body in a pink nightgown, floating facedown.
The one in Jamie’s is clearer. More familiar in a tactile way. Not floating facedown, but stretched in eternal repose at the bottom. Weighted. Staring. Permanently.
“My fault,” Jamie says in that same flat voice. Owen is openly sobbing now, no words left to him, and Dani slowly sets the phone down. She turns instead to Jamie, her hands reaching, a brand-new instinct for comfort already worked into her skin.
“Jamie. Don’t say that. You couldn’t have--”
“I came back,” Jamie says. “For you. To save you.”
Dani opens her mouth, perplexed, manages, “That doesn’t make any sense. Jamie, it’s the shock. What are you--”
“I came back,” Jamie repeats exhaustedly, letting herself slide to the floor, letting herself give up. There is no glitter among her bones, not yet, nothing pulling under her skin. If she keeps talking. She has to believe it will reset if she just keeps talking. “From 2007. Seven years after you die.”
Dani says nothing, her eyes wide, though she drops to a crouch with a hand on Jamie’s back. Jamie swallows.
“You’re supposed to be there. She’s--to keep her from taking Flora, you give yourself instead. And we leave Bly, for good. And it’s good, Dani. It’s wonderful. You are...we are so in love. But she’s there. The fucking Lady, she’s there. And one night--one night, when I’m not--”
She closes her eyes, letting it wash over her. How she’d woken before Dani could run that night--how she’d thrown on a brown flannel shirt, half-buttoned as she’d sprinted to the living room, catching Dani with her hand on the doorknob. Dani, who hadn’t been carrying bags, or even a jacket. She’d only stood there in jeans and a red shirt, looking at Jamie with bruised certainty in her eyes.
You’re not even gonna leave a note? Jamie remembers snapping, the exhaustion and the terror and the impending loss too huge to smooth into something sweet, something reassuring. She’d felt dizzy, the adrenaline of the moment almost knocking her flat.
Don’t. Don’t keep saying my name that way. She’d wanted to scream, wanted to throw up, wanted to grab Dani and never let go. This last, she allowed herself, wrapping her arms around Dani with a strength that bordered on panic. You. Me. Us. Right? We do this together, Dani. We always have.
Dani had been silent. Hadn’t fought her. Had, in fact, melted into her arms, face against Jamie’s shivering shoulder. Jamie had held on, teeth gritted against tears.
We do it together. You are still here, Dani. You’re not going anywhere.
How many times? How many times had she said it--believed it--meant it with everything in her. And how many times had Dani nodded? Tried to let Jamie’s belief grow large enough to fold her into its power. Tried to accept Jamie’s truth for her own.
She’d brought Dani back to bed, stretched out on that mattress which only felt right with both of them on it. Dani, who had pressed in close, had kissed her, had cried. They both had, then, though Jamie had tried to ward it off. Crying, she’d felt, seemed too final. Like an admission of how close Dani had come. How close the Lady had come to taking her.
They’d fallen asleep. Jamie had fallen asleep. There is no greater crime, she’s thought every night since, no greater tragedy. Orpheus looked back. Jamie closed her eyes. Both knowing, somewhere deep down, that so doing would mean the end.
But she’d been so tired. And Dani’s arm had been stretched across her chest. Dani’s wrist, Dani’s pulse thudding comfortably away, under her fingers. She’d know, she believed as she lost the battle with her own eyelids, if Dani moved. She’d feel it.
“I can’t,” she says now. “Lose you again. I can’t. I keep--reliving it. I keep going back. Trying to find the right way. To keep what was and what needs to be, and it’s just me, and I’m too--I’m not--I’m not enough--”
Flora. She hadn’t been thinking of Flora. And Miles, too, a tragedy so much worse than anyone will realize--Miles, who will look like a runaway. A boy with all the knowledge of a man, a child with a criminal’s cunning, can vanish so easily. No one will ever know that Miles is as dead as--as dead as--
“She takes you,” Jamie says bleakly, a single tear tracking down her cheek. “She takes you, and I thought if I could only run with you, I could stop it--“
“Can you,” Dani says. Stops. Takes Jamie’s face in her hands. “Can you stop this? Fix this?”
Belief. Reality. Does it even matter which one is bigger, which is more potent, in the end?
“I don’t know,” she says. Yes. Yes, almost certainly. “Dani, you don’t understand. What it’s been like. I--living without you has...”
“But we lived,” Dani says softly. There is the kind of rock-solid certainty in her voice Jamie remembers all too well, the kind that never questions or insults, only accepts. “Didn’t we? You said it’s been seven years since--but almost twenty since this moment. Right?”
“Don’t,” Jamie tries, with little strength behind the word. Dani is right. Dani has always been right about things like this. Belief. Reality. For Dani, they’ve always been one and the same.
Dani gets to decide. Dani gets to write her story.
“That’s years,” Dani says, smiling despite the tears in her eyes. “That’s years, Jamie. With you. With me. With--”
She doesn’t have to say the rest. That Flora is a child. That there is an innocence to those kids that was never protected as it should have been, because none of them had known. That, if Jamie has any power at all to correct this, she is not only obligated, but mandated to do so--by Dani’s nature, and by her own.
You love those kids. You always did.
“Will you go back?” Dani asks, pressing her forehead to Jamie’s. “When you set it right, if it--when she gets me again, the way you said. Will you live it all again with me, or will you go back?”
“I don’t know.” She can’t breathe. Can’t feel anything except Dani’s breath on her lips, Dani’s hands on her face, Dani’s skin sliding against her own. Dani, stubborn, strong, selfless Dani.
You don’t get to decide who lives and who doesn’t.
“I don’t--” Dani hesitates. “I don’t want to say it yet. And ruin it, if you’re still--but we’re happy?”
Jamie nods, not trusting herself. Dani sighs.
“Then I think I ought to thank you. For loving me. For giving me a chance to get it right.”
The magic is coming on strong now, as though it has been gleefully waiting for this moment--for Jamie to sit here, broken, with Dani’s sad smile pressed into one final kiss. The magic is coming on, and when she clenches her eyes shut, sinks into Dani again, she thinks, I tried. I got her out. I got her free, and it doesn’t--it didn’t--I don’t know what to--
Her knees don’t ache.
Her third finger is bare.
The Lady is pressed against the inside of the mirror now, not so much a reflection as someone trapped beneath a sheet of ice. Her hands flex against the glass, the whorls of her fingerprints long worn to nothing by centuries of water. There is a certain silent assertion in the spread of those hands, which grasped--will grasp--are confident in their grip around Dani Clayton’s lifeline. Dani, who gets to decide. Viola, who always has, and always will.
It’s the story, Jamie. You carry it, you tell it, but it is our story, Jamie. Whether you beat yourself against the walls of time until you’re bloody, whether you admit defeat now, that doesn’t change. It’s the story. You’re only the teller.
Jamie reaches out, taps the glass once with the tip of her finger.
“Fuck,” she says succinctly, the words jagged in her throat, “you.”
She rears back, fingers curling, and punches the glass hard enough to crack open her knuckles.
She lets it play out. Every paragraph. Every chapter. She makes the tiniest changes along the way--Owen, urged to say goodbye; Hannah, pressed to admitting her love; a bonfire, with the three of them giving a mostly-unwitting farewell to the housekeeper who deserves so much more--but the rest, she leaves be. The mirrors remain uncovered. Dani’s private exorcism is her own. She even leaves after that first kiss, stays away the requisite days, pretending to feel too much shame to set foot back at Bly.
Dani comes to her, in the greenhouse, armed with terrible coffee and a stubborn need to be heard. Dani comes to her, and they plan a date that will not go quite that way--Jamie will not risk it again, will not risk taking Dani from these grounds before the proper time; there’s no telling how many ways the others might go, if she keeps at it. No telling if the house might burn down this time--if one of the kids might fall from the parapet--if it might be worse each time than before. A hundred deaths on Jamie’s conscience. A hundred selfish decisions leading to gravesites. Her belief, shaping reality in the ugliest of ways.
She lets it play out. Every paragraph. Every chapter. And she tries, she really does, to enjoy it.
Tries not to see the Lady, creeping ever closer.
Tries not to feel the certainty in her bones.
Running out of chances, that certainty says.
Nothing left for it, that certainty says.
Maybe not a do-over at all, then--maybe only the cruel kindness of one final goodbye.
Instead of fighting it, she tries to let it wash over her as it had the first time ‘round. Tries to remember being young and brash, thinking she understood it all--the beauty of death, the value of honesty, the way someone can, every so often, still be worth all the bad the world has to give. She’d thought herself so worldly back then. Thought she believed what she was selling.
The moonflowers bear witness again, as they were always meant to, and she tells her story. Talks to shadows. To Dani. There is no glass out here, no reflection, nowhere for the Lady to lurk, and she lets herself wrap Dani’s kiss around her like a shield.
They are forged in Dani’s bed once more, and Jamie doesn’t fixate on how best to go about it--on how to imbue this new experience of Dani’s with thirteen years of home. She only lets herself love Dani without thought, without pressure, understanding on some too-deep level that it might be the first time--or the very last. Knowing that the only thing that matters is now.
It might, she thinks, as Dani sighs into her mouth, be the first time she truly believes one day at a time. Truly. If it’s all she’s got, she might as well.
The first time, she’d fallen asleep hard--her body satisfied, she’d been able to stay awake only for an hour or so of bleary conversation. Tonight, she does not sleep at all. She reclines, one hand propped under her head, watching Dani’s face as she asks all the questions to which she already knows the answers. Favorite school subject. Favorite food. Worst sound you’ve ever heard. First concert.
It’s like watching a comfort movie, Dani happily answering each in thoughtful turn--and volleying questions back. Favorite color. Ugliest shirt you’ve ever owned. Best birthday present. Worst fear.
“Losing you,” Jamie says honestly. Dani raises her eyebrows.
“Now who’s the flirt? You’ve already charmed the pants off me--the British pants, even.”
Jamie laughs, kisses her quickly--then more slowly, pleased when Dani presses against her thigh, rolling her hips almost languidly in an easy rhythm. It’s so like their life together, in those early days--so like Saturday mornings spent in bed, stumbling out to the kitchen for peanut butter and toast before pulling the blankets back over their heads. It’s so like home, and though Dani has laughed off her phrasing as just another bit of banter, as Jamie hiding the truth beneath something pretty, she thinks Dani feels it already. How well they fit. How much sense they make. How a person can be shaped so much like shelter after so little time, a safe space built of bones and kisses and heartbeats.
Dani may not know, truly, what Jamie has been going through--but Dani is special, all the same. Dani, who is wired in all the right ways for a ghost story. Dani, who is wired in all the right ways to be as magic as a human woman is able.
Too easy, Jamie thinks exhaustedly, to sanctify a woman in death. Dani isn’t a magician. Dani isn’t a spell made flesh. Dani is only the most brilliant, beautiful person Jamie’s ever known, and the universe is so dedicated to punishing those most brilliant, those most beautiful, those most full of belief.
Dani dozes off, eventually, and Jamie watches her sleep. If it’s the epilogue--if this really is the one and only night they will ever get without the burden of a beast in the jungle--she aims to enjoy every last second. It’s only right.
Dani, she thinks, looks so free in sleep. Dani looks as free as she always should have been, in a life made by fair hands.
“I love you,” she says quietly, knowing Dani will not remember, “with every piece of me left.”
It’s hard, living out a day you know to be final. Harder than she had ever imagined. Was this how Dani felt?
Was this what it was like for Dani, waking that morning--knowing she’d already skidded too close to the edge to be saved, knowing Jamie was never going to stop fighting for her until the choice was taken out of her hands? Did she wake and watch Jamie sleep, fingertips tracing brow and nose and lips until Jamie squirmed unconsciously away from the tickle? Did she curl in close, counting the breaths, her palm set between Jamie’s breasts to memorize every slow thud of her heart?
Did the sun feel just a little brighter than it should have? Did the air feel just a little more crisp? Had she looked out the window and thought, Always knew it was green, but this is unreal?
It’s like walking to the edge, she thinks, as Dani stirs. Like walking right up and peering over, letting her stomach turn over on itself.
“You been awake long?” Dani asks--not first thing. First thing was a kiss, and then another, hands roaming soft skin without any rush to an endpoint. First thing was a yawn, and a stretch, letting her limbs fall across Jamie without much care for grace.
“No,” Jamie lies, though she’s watched every phase of the night play across Dani’s face--the moonlight, the fade to dawn, the leisurely drag of daylight beneath the usual gray cloud cover.
Dani moves differently today--a little taller, a little more airy. She smiles sheepishly as Jamie watches her dress, flapping a hand toward the bed.
“Gonna lie there all day?”
“Be boring on my own,” Jamie says, and catches the t-shirt Dani tosses to her. One day. Last day. She’ll be damned if she loses a minute of it.
For her, it’s the end of the line. For Dani, it’s just another day. A good day, bright and cheerful, though the kids are strange, Hannah is barely present, Owen is still fending off the newness of his own grief. For Dani, it’s good, and if it’s good for her, it’s good for--
“Jamie.” Hannah has appeared in the doorway, beckoning to her. Jamie, who has been hovering just out of Dani’s reach, pretending to inspect tile which needs no replacement, frowns.
“Something wrong?” Her mind churns over the last twelve hours, searching for missed shadows. Had Quint slipped in while she was in Dani’s bed? Had she distracted again from the kids’ misery?
No. No, they’re both right there, Flora teasing Miles with a spoonful of oatmeal, Miles cringing away. Everything is just fine.
“I just wanted to say...” Hannah looks a bit puzzled, a bit distant; she has, Jamie suspects, been spending more time off this plane than not. Ghost mechanics are the product of a story told by the living, but there is something undeniably flimsy about Hannah at this moment.
“Yeah?” Jamie prods, her eyes sliding back to Dani, who grins. Hannah smiles.
“I’m proud of you.”
“Of me?” Jamie repeats, brows lifting. “The fuck for?”
“It wasn’t easy,” Hannah says. “After...after Rebecca. I thought for sure you’d shut down. And this young woman, she’s...certainly different. I’ll be honest, I didn’t expect you two to get on.”
Jamie almost laughs. Hannah hadn’t expected it?
“So, yes,” Hannah says. “I’m proud of you. For letting her in. For letting any of us in, after the past two years. Loss can...harden a person. I’m glad to see you haven’t let it consume you.”
Jamie looks at her, uneasy, and that thought comes again--that Hannah is not here, not really, and hasn’t been for weeks. That Hannah, if any of them could, might see through her now--not Jamie-of-’87, but Jamie-of-the-future. Jamie so much more shattered by loss. Jamie so much more consumed.
“Proud,” Hannah repeats, and touches her shoulder softly. “You haven’t given up, and I’m relieved to see it. You’re going to be just fine.”
She says it like goodbye. She says it like she understands. Maybe, Jamie thinks, some small part of her already does.
I’m glad to see you haven’t let it consume you.
You haven’t given up.
Last day. Last night. Last chance.
She can’t take Dani out of this place--the plot will only fill in around their absence, Peter taking what he wants, Rebecca tripping Flora accidentally into tragedy. Those points are fixed on the map, those elements of the story concrete as any tale ever gets. Dani has to be here, has to face the Lady head-on. Dani has to stay.
Maybe not just Dani.
“You could...come back,” Dani says, and the script says don’t. The script says let it breathe. The script says kiss her now, leave her wanting, come back tomorrow.
“Tonight?” Jamie asks. Dani nods.
She imagines driving to the flat at top speed, scrounging for a change of clothes, sprinting back with terror dripping down her spine. Best way to an accident, probably. Best way to ensuring this final chance is missed.
And it is the final chance. Without a doubt.
This is the last stop on this ride.
There was a time, not so many days ago, when Jamie truly believed she had never seen a ghost. That she was wired wrong. That there was something in her that simply did not allow for it, save for in situations of absolute certainty.
This, then, must be certain. Must be. Because the Lady is in every pane of glass, every standing puddle, every polished bit of silver. The Lady is in the bathroom mirror, the windows of Henry Wingrave’s study, the windows of her own truck. She steps into the greenhouse, and the Lady is there, reflected over and over again, leering with that face like putty, and Jamie knows. This is it.
She had seen Peter, before the certainty of Hannah’s death.
She sees the Lady now, before the certainty of tonight.
So, no. No, she will not be coming back.
“Think it’s best,” she says, hands smoothly taking Dani’s, “if I just stay. If you don’t mind the company.”
Dani beams, kisses her, and Jamie lets herself pretend for a moment that it won’t be the last. Lets herself pretend for a long, beautiful stretch--Dani’s hand urgent at the small of her back, Dani’s cheek warm under her palm--that this is the start and not the finish line.
"Here,” Dani says, when the kiss finally breaks--Jamie has let it go on much longer this time, her heart cracking a little as Dani finally pulls away. “Here, come with me.”
She’s pulling Jamie toward the bedroom again, and Jamie thinks, It’s a distraction. It’ll only go badly. It’ll only--
Not that she’ll be able to resist. Not that she’ll be able to deny Dani, if Dani begins pulling the shirt over her head, begins kissing her in earnest again. There are some moments, she senses, she will never be strong enough for.
Instead, Dani is fumbling through her own clothes, pulling out a white t-shirt and a gray hooded sweatshirt. “These,” she says, “should fit you. And, um. Fit you. Unless you’d rather a sweater?”
She holds one up, grinning. Jamie shakes her head.
Good. A fresh set of clothes. A fresh set of armor. It’s such a small thing, such a small concession to the shifting nature of time, but she feels right, pulling Dani’s shirt on. Right, zipping the sweatshirt over it, touching her fingers lightly to the soft cotton. These are new. These are Dani.
Last chance, she thinks. Make it fucking count.
“I’ll be back in a minute,” Dani says, kissing her cheek. They’re at the kitchen table, chatting with Hannah over tea, and Dani has just tipped her eyes toward the ceiling out of nowhere. Jamie frowns.
“Want me to come with?”
“I think it’s Flora,” Dani says. “Sounds like she’s out of bed. I just want to make sure she isn’t sleepwalking again. Stay here, I’ll be right back.”
Jamie hesitates, watching her go. It’s too close a thing, her every nerve insistent that she cannot possibly dare let Dani out of her sight this late in the tale--but when she moves to push her chair back, the glimmer of magic rakes across her bones like fire. She gasps aloud, gripping the edge of the table, dropping back into her seat.
“All right?” Hannah looks alarmed. Jamie shakes her head slowly.
“Just a--splinter, I think.”
Can’t follow yet. Can’t go up and interrupt what’s coming, though she remembers Dani’s telling well--how she’d pushed into Flora’s room and found a dead woman on the bed. How she’d run to the hall to find Peter Quint. How she’d run to the attic, and earned a bash on the back of her head, a gag stuffed into her mouth, a terrifying half hour of ghosts speaking of her like she wasn’t even there for the trouble.
I have to sit here, she realizes with dawning horror, and pretend not to know. Pretend I can’t hear them up there, beating her. Tying her. Scaring her half to death.
I have let him take Miles.
No. No, that isn’t right. There has to be a way. She’s pushing against the table again, more firmly this time, and the magic rakes claws down her back. Digs itself into the joints of her knees, her hips, her fingers. Pain, not merely a tingle, not merely glitter, but genuine pain spikes under her skin.
“Jamie,” Hannah says, eyes wide. “That isn’t a--”
“Can’t,” Jamie gasps. “Explain it. Can’t. Don’t ask, Hannah, please.”
She can’t redo it. Not again. Can’t bear knowing Hannah has died on her watch again, Owen is missing his chance to love her again, Dani is barreling toward this night of terror again. This is the last go. It has to be.
Can’t get up, though. Not without her body remembering all of a sudden that it is fifty, not thirty--except fifty didn’t feel like this, either. Maybe seventy would. Maybe one hundred.
Maybe a woman already dead, already rotting, pushing through the entropy with a steady determination, would feel like this.
She leans back in the chair, closes her eyes. Wait, then. Wait it out.
Upstairs, Dani is running.
Upstairs, ghosts are winning.
Upstairs, time is ticking down.
Jamie sits at this table, staring Hannah Grose in the eye, gritting her teeth.
She doesn’t sit still. She can’t. Every few minutes--what feels like minutes, but might actually only be a second at a time beneath the thrum of rising panic--she shoves against the table. Little by little, the pain becomes bearable enough for her to stand. Eventually, she can even take a step. Then another.
“What is happening?” Hannah asks, hovering at her side, because Hannah is locked into something terrible, but it isn’t this. It isn’t shoving her shoulder against the skin of reality and forcing it open, wrenching through a door that was not meant to be pried from its frame. Hannah is breathing on borrowed time, because Hannah hasn’t yet looked down. The world has not yet solidified around her.
Jamie is, now, at the last minute, trying to rewrite a certainty.
And it hurts. Her knees ache. Her fingers throb. There is a migraine buckling up the back of her head, a burn in her eyes, a tension in her back. Time does not want to be rewritten. The past does not want to let go.
Gravity, it seems, is an enemy only a fool would face.
But something put her here. Something woke her up in that bathroom in 1987, with brown hair, with steady hands, with a Blondie t-shirt and a second chance. Something did--and maybe that something only wanted to point and laugh, watch the pitiful woman stumble toward tragedy all over again, but that isn’t the point. The point is, something did this. And, even if it did it for awful reasons, with no sincerity at all, it did not calculate for this.
For what she’d do for Dani.
There are limits, sure--for other people. For the kids, for Owen, for people whose lives are meant to go on beyond the grip of this house. Limits to what she’ll do, if it means letting them drown.
But for herself? For Jamie once-Taylor, now-Clayton, who dove deep and screamed until her lungs tore beneath the waves? For a woman who has been living the best she can for seven years, knowing it’s a half-life, knowing it will never quite be enough?
A little pain. A little screaming agony. A little reality dragging hot talons down her bones.
It means nothing at all.
She was my anchor, said Owen a lifetime ago, and a few nights ago, and in her mind forever and always. He’d meant it as a double-edged sword--an anchor holds a person down, as much as keeps them steady--but right now, it feels like a boon. It feels like exactly what she needs. Gravity is pulling, but an anchor is firm, even then. Even now.
“Jamie. I really think you should sit. I really think I should call a--”
“Owen,” Jamie says. Hannah freezes. “Call Owen. Tell him he’s needed. Henry will be here, too, soon.”
“Henry.” It’s plain Hannah thinks she’s lost it, but that’s fine. It’s all fine, so long as she can keep inching along, step by painful step.
“Just--call him, Hannah. And...and thank you. For everything.”
There are two paths, she knows, as she fumbles out of the kitchen and stops, leaning heavily on the wall. Upstairs, where Dani is--upstairs, where the play is still running, though she couldn’t guess what stage they’ve reached by now--and she could try. Could force her stiff legs to take the stairs, her head pounding, her body aching in ways she’s never felt in her life.
Or: the quicker path. The wiser path. Not to reach Dani where she will be dropped unceremoniously in the forbidden wing, but to cut off the route she’ll take next. It’ll take a minute, either way--Jamie is in no state to sprint now, as she had that night so long ago, screaming Dani’s name--but if she starts now...if she’s persistent...
And do what? she thinks as she hauls herself out the front door, down the familiar path. What comes next, when you’re swaying in that bloody lake again?
Doesn’t matter. Can’t matter, not until she’s there. The burn is a blister now, though she can see no sign of the damage on her skin--save for bruising around her knuckles, where she struck out at a reflection and succeeded only at shattering a mirror. Nothing more than that, no rash or sore or tattered flesh. No broken bones. No bloody wound.
But it hurts. Oh, it hurts as she limps along, and every step she takes--every step she puts between herself and the house--hurts a little more. She hears herself making a low sound under her breath--a sort of whimper, a sort of curse--and realizes she’s repeating, “Us, us, us” like a metronome.
Us, as she crosses the lawn.
Us, as she catches sight of the lake.
Us, collapsing onto the shoreline.
She is thirty, and she is fifty, and she is ageless, hunched here in Dani’s borrowed clothes and days-worn jeans. She is aching, and she is agony, and time is beating against her with fists, with claws, with knives.
Gravity, unwilling to go quietly.
Time, unwilling to rewrite.
Time, which has always felt linear--like chapters--like dominos--like certainty. Except, hasn’t she learned otherwise? Doesn’t she know full-well that time can be mapped over again? That she can change it in small, important ways--give a man his goodbye, give a woman her words, give a wife a chance at freedom? Time bends around her. Time gives over to her memory, to her devotion, to her obstinate need to fix it.
She doesn’t know what put her here, but she thinks she can guess. Thinks there is more to a story than even she knew, in the telling. She hadn’t planned it. Hadn’t come to California carrying it for Flora, just another wedding gift to set upon a table. It had spilled out of her as though needing to be told, as though something--magic, or a lover’s ghost calling her home, or the simple, sacred agony of seven years alone--had needed her to do it.
Her finger and thumb are clenched around the bare skin of her third finger, squeezing an invisible band. She leans forward, staring into the lake, waiting.
Little longer. Just a little longer, and it’s all going to be--
She expects it to unravel, now. To pull back the curtain, laugh in her face, toss her back to the start--or to the future--or to the bleak obdurate nothing that is after.
You thought, she imagines some faceless god chortling. You really thought I’d let it go.
She expects--but the thunder in her head, though dragging a thin line of blood from her nose, is real. The shiver of her hands, which cramp when she tries to close them into fists, is true. Her knees ache. Her third finger weighs with a ring only she can feel.
And the Lady is coming. Out of the dark. Slowly, achingly slowly, with little cause or care for rush--and there is Flora, yes. Flora, in her arms. Flora, screaming for Uncle Henry, Uncle Henry, help me.
Sorry, Jamie thinks grimly, pushing to her feet as the Lady wades into black waves, just me this time.
There are magic words. There is a spell. Dani said it without thinking, with the selfless need to put things right, and Jamie could do the same now. She feels them heavy on her tongue--it’s you, it’s me, it’s us--and the urge to bridge the gap in the story with her own body is powerful. To put it right by way of changing only one tiny cog in the machine. To start the whole thing fresh with a new sacrifice.
But who’s to say whatever put her here won’t do the same for Dani, in twenty years? Dani, carrying Jamie’s story instead, regaling a room of strangers with love and loss. Dani, building an unwitting door to the past with word and memory. Dani, resting in a hotel room after Flora’s wedding, desperate for another chance to do it all over again.
Couldn’t they just wind up in an endless loop, then? Jamie--Dani--Jamie--a love story haunting in perpetuity, haunting their own past, forever?
A purgatory of their own making, that. Anyway, Jamie isn’t Dani. Jamie doesn’t carry ghosts. Jamie, who has been begging for a haunting of her own for years, is not wired that way.
Jamie is built with a different kind of devotion.
The Lady seems, for a moment, to twitch. Not stop. Just twitch, as though the name Jamie throws--the name Jamie insistsupon, as no one in hundreds of years has--is only a stone tossed at her back. No matter, Jamie imagines the thing pulling her strings saying, no matter, the plot carries on--
“Viola,” she says again, more firmly. Reality, shaped by belief. Belief, shaped by certainty. Flora is staring at her with unblinking horror over a frail shoulder, and the Lady is walking, the Lady is walking, the Lady is--
“Viola Lloyd.” Jamie is in the water, she realizes. Up to her waist already. Her hands tuck into the sleeves of Dani’s sweatshirt, her teeth gritted. “Stop.”
The Lady pauses. Jamie, heart pounding, breath winding tight in her chest, steps forward.
“This,” she says, “is my story now.”
It isn’t magic. Isn’t anything like it. It’s the last desperate hope of a woman who has spent so long chasing ghosts, she’s almost forgotten anything else. But the specter is turning, looking at her with that blank face.
“Didn’t seem like it,” Jamie says. The lank-haired head tips a little, thin, strong arms firm around Flora. Jamie, though doing so spikes agony all the way to the roots of her teeth, grins. “Parts aren’t. Lots of pieces, belonging to lots of people. Lloyd and Wingrave, Sharma and Grose. Her, most of all. So many pieces, for a story this big, and none of it mine.”
The Lady--Viola, whose truth was washed away by time, whose narrative was thin and brittle and desperate for a reason--is gazing at her with perfect, blank unsteadiness. Jamie, every bone in her face aching, nods.
“But that’s not enough, is it? Not the truth of it. Not the story itself. That’s not all that matters.”
Dani is the hero of the story. Dani always was, always will be, if Jamie has her say. But every story needs more than that, more than the black and white of hero and villain. Jamie didn’t see it, at first. Didn’t see, even while spinning the words for young people who will, in the fullness of a month, forget her face.
Dani is the hero of this story, and she’ll take up that mantle every time without being asked, but someone has to carry that story on. Someone has to build a bed for the haunting she can’t fully understand. Someone has to tell the tale.
What is a story, without the teller?
Jamie is grinning. Blood is running thick now, caking onto her lips, trailing down her chin onto Dani’s white shirt. Her head is crushing itself between two hands--past and future, maybe; gods and ghosts, maybe--but she is grinning. And she is sure.
“The story, most of it, is theirs--yours--hers, but this part? The part where it becomes something more--something passed down? This part is mine. She earned that. Earned me giving everything I had to it. To make sure Flora never forgot.”
Flora is gazing at her, bleary, and maybe this part of the story is true, too--maybe it is Rebecca looking back from that tiny, terrified face. Or maybe that’s another bit of lining laid by Jamie herself, to make it all fit, a tiny invention to give root to something unhinged. Impossible to say. Stories, once told with enough faith, have a way of becoming memory.
“Dani saved her,” she says, wading ever deeper, uncertain if she’ll be able to make her way back when it’s over. “Dani saved us all, even you, because there was nothing else. Because sometimes you love hard enough to win the day, even if you lose a little something for it. And you were the same, way I told it. Too stubborn. Too goddamned stubborn.” Both of you, she thinks with a pang like anger, like remorse, like hope, deciding to write it your way.
The copper is in her mouth, running down her throat. Her eyes are beginning to lose focus. She is in it now, weaving the story from inside its walls, making sense of it one word at a time. Telling it as only the dead can.
Can Dani hear her?
Little further. Little more.
“Know what I’ve been hearing my whole fuckin’ life? That same word. Stubborn. Never knew how to let go. Never knew when to say when. Dani was always better at that. Dani was always built to accept it. Me? I’d have kept swimming--kept walking--until it killed me. Wouldn’t have fixed anything, wouldn’t have changed it. Needed something more.”
Viola is drifting nearer. Waiting, Jamie senses, for words that will never come. She’s too goddamned stubborn for that, too.
“So I made it a story. Took all those threads, all that lonely misery, all that loss. Made it solid,” she pants. “Because I needed a reason. Because I needed to believe. What is a ghost? A regret. Fear. A wish.” She’s stumbling. There’s nothing to hold onto. She keeps moving anyway. “A fuckin’ story.”
Viola stares. Eyeless, wordless, she watches Jamie reach toward her. Jamie, who understands gravity, if not ghosts. Jamie, who understands the need to protect a family, no matter how small, no matter how scrounged-together. Jamie, who belongs to none of it quite the same way, who can rewrite it only because she is meant to scoop these bones and choose what can be carried into the dark.
“This story,” she says, more certain than she’s been in her entire life, “is mine to write, for loving her. Mine to edit, for loving them all. She.” A stumble. “Isn’t the only one.” A stagger. “Who can decide the ending.”
She hears Dani, dimly, shouting for her. Hears splashing behind her, before her, all around her trembling body. Feels the ground drop out from under her feet.
“We,” she says, half underwater, as Viola shimmers before her, lightens, seems to grow insubstantial, “decide this time. I do. For her. For all of us. End of--end of--”
And she is gone.
Time doesn’t want to be changed. Time doesn’t want to unravel. Time wants to keep going--not in a straight line, but in a constant arc of always and never and again. The dead know it. The dead know all.
When Jamie opens her eyes, she is not standing in a lake. Not laying in the grass. Not sprawled on Dani Clayton’s bed.
But a bed. Yes. A bed, made with fine sheets, stiff and white and almost unpleasant against her skin as only hotel sheets ever have been.
She closes her eyes again. Breathes out. Reaches blindly for her left hand with the trembling fingers of her right.
A band, worn comfortably by just this motion.
She sinks back against pillows made for any head willing to pay, listening. Outside, birdsong. Beyond these walls, other guests, making their groggy way through the morning.
She’s got a flight to catch. A bag to pack. A mirror to gaze into once more, longingly, the last vestiges of the dream fading. It had felt so true, at the time--the fear of it, the excitement, Dani. The pain. The Lady.
Jamie, down a rabbit hole built of her own desperation. Jamie, shaping belief into reality, as only the storyteller can.
She isn’t the only one who can decide the ending.
A good story, she thinks wearily. Maybe not better than the one she’d imparted to Flora and her friends, but it felt good in its own way. Even the agony of breaking it open. Even the collapse under the weight of all the justice the universe refuses to dole out. It felt--
She is in a bed.
She hasn’t been in a bed in seven years.
She sits up, feeling her back creak in protest at the speed of it. Her hands brush her face, feeling familiar grooves, sweeping down a familiar haircut. Not ‘87. Of course not. That would be--
There is movement, in the bathroom.
She pushes to her feet, registering the clothes--not the blue silk she’d gone to sleep in, but an old t-shirt with Blondie splashed across its front. One she’d lost on a trip to New York in 1993.
Her eyes are frantic, search the room, and there--yes, her suitcase, right where she’d left it. And a brown bomber jacket. And a pair of boots she hadn’t been wearing yesterday. An old look. A look for a woman who hadn’t bought half her clothes trying to will a spirit in.
Strange clothes, and not just one suitcase, but--
She grips the doorframe, the bathroom door ajar, her eyes blurring with some fierce combination of fear and exhilaration. Not real. Can’t be real. Wouldn’t be--
She steps back sharply. The voice has gasped out, a hand flying to the woman’s chest.
“Jesus, you scared me. Didn’t know you were awake. Want to shower?”
Dani’s face never bore these early lines. Dani’s hair never had time to go gray around the temples, the gold standing out in sharp relief in comparison. Dani’s eyes, though, are unforgettable.
And blue. So incredibly blue.
She pushes into the bathroom, arms around a slim frame before she can stop herself--and there is more to Dani, somehow. More years, a few extra pounds, a solidness she hadn’t been able to hang onto in Jamie’s memory. She’d felt so fragile, near the end. Not so now.
Belief makes reality, and reality is solid, Dani is solid, Dani is--
Jamie is laughing, is kissing her, is turning to stare into the mirror--and the faces reflected back are theirs. She reaches out, gripping Dani with one arm, touching her own reflection with the tips of her fingers. Not quite the woman she’d seen in a flat in 1987, but not quite the one she’d left behind in 2007, either. Somewhere in the middle. Someone who had been allowed those extra seven years without the burden of tragedy, without grief etched into her every step.
Her eyes catch on the hand outstretched, the ridges of her knuckles--the thin white splinter scars from a punch thrown at an occupied mirror in a bathroom in Bly. She flexes the hand back against her chest, her heartbeat almost painful.
Dani, arms around her middle, raises her eyebrows at the glass. “You’re being weird.”
“What’s weird?” What isn’t? The last thing she remembers is-- “Had a dream. A really strange...dream. Dani. Did it happen?” Though she knows, doesn’t she, she can’t not know, not with new scars--not with the memory of that night--not with her own much-younger voice still ricocheting back to her. She isn’t the only one--
“I could ask for a little more specificity,” Dani says lightly, reaching for her toothbrush. Jamie rubs a hand beneath her nose, remembering vividly the thick copper rush staining her face.
“That night. With the--with the Lady--you’re--”
Dani raises her eyes to meet Jamie’s, her face pulling into a frown. “What made you think of that?”
“Dream,” Jamie repeats. “But it wasn’t just--I mean--I can’t remember...”
She can’t remember. What came next. What unfolded after sagging into the water, hearing Dani splash in after. There’s...nothing. Nothing at all. Nothing new, anyway, nothing to explain how that branch of the story had forked.
She reels back against the lip of the tub, sinking down, not caring at all as the remnants of Dani’s shower soaks into her pajama bottoms. “I don’t. I can’t--”
“Jamie?” Dani looks worried now. “What’s going on?”
It spills out of her, and with every word, she tightens her shoulders, her fists, expecting agony to buzz down her bones. Nothing comes, not the barest glimmer of magic. There is only Dani, seated beside her on the damp edge of the tub. Dani’s hand in her own. Dani’s ring, bright in the glare of the bathroom light.
“So...you don’t remember any of it?” Dani bites her lip. “Any of it. The last twenty years.”
“I remember,” Jamie says, almost defensively. “I remember twenty years. Just not...maybe not...these twenty years. I mean--I remember the bonfire, for Hannah.”
Dani nods. “And offering to keep me company when I went back to America? You were pretty shaken up, but you were adamant. Stubborn, really.”
Jamie closes her eyes, scrounging back through the years. “We saw...Maine. And...Boston...and Florida...” She presses her face into her hands. What would you give, to save her? What would you give up? “Oh god, did we live two completely different lives?”
“No,” Dani says. “No, that’s right. It seemed silly, to go from Boston to Florida, but you wanted to--”
“See the turtles,” Jamie fills in. Her breath is coming fast, humming through her like jet fuel. Dani presses a hand to her chest, seeking calm, and she breathes out more slowly. “We settled in Vermont. Because I--”
“Always thought snow sounded nice. Ever since you were a kid, and saw White Christmas,” Dani fills in. “We got a place. You opened a flower shop. Remember? The Leafling?”
“Of course I--wait, I opened? We. Didn’t we?”
“Well,” Dani laughs, “in the spirit of marriage, what’s yours is mine, but I don’t have much time to work the counter. What with...teaching and everything. You really don’t remember?”
A sacrifice, Jamie almost says. A sacrifice for a sacrifice. Dani’s life for some of their years together. For some of the memories she might have held most dear. It’s only fair.
But Dani is here. Dani is whole. Dani’s eyes are the brightest blue, and the rings are familiar, and her hands, holding Jamie like they’ve never let go, are strong.
“I said I love you,” she says desperately, “with a moonflower. And you proposed with a half-dead plant. And we--we’re--”
“Married,” Dani confirms. “As married as we can be. We’ll do it right, when we can, but I’ve never really cared. This is enough for me--”
“Yeah. Yes. Right.” Jamie stares at her, stares at the mirror, at the gray flecked through her own hair. Not spun silver now, but more than Dani had ever seen the first time around. “You’re here. You’re here, and she’s...not.”
“Never was,” Dani confirms, and that isn’t true. Time is not a straight line. Time is all-encompassing, is confetti, is impossible to pin down. That all happened--Dani and the Lady, Dani and the lake, Jamie’s many paths to this end. It happened. It was real. She remembers.
A person can change the story--can cheat death--can decide, through the fierce willpower of the truly obstinate, not to let the preordained path win. Viola Lloyd proved it once. Jamie Taylor, once again. But time is not linear. Everything that was is, even if--
“Do they remember?” she asks. “Flora and Miles. Do they remember?”
“Only what you told them last night,” Dani says. “As a ghost story. Quite the ending, too. Sad. I’m glad you changed it, though. Gives the whole thing a little more kick, doesn’t it, when it’s bittersweet?”
“Last night,” Jamie repeats. “Flora’s wedding.”
“Is this afternoon,” Dani says patiently, though there’s still a flicker of genuine worry in her eyes. “If you’re up for it. Jamie, you’re sure you’re--”
“Good,” Jamie says quickly. “Great. Perfect. You’ll, ah, help me through it? If I get details wrong.”
“The groom is Jack,” Dani says, standing and reaching out a hand to pull Jamie to her feet. “Owen is still deeply bad with puns. Henry thinks scarves are his thing now, and we’re not saying a word about it. Anything else, I think we can figure out.”
“You don’t think I’m crazy?” Jamie asks. “For--for telling you I just--
“Think you’re surprisingly sane, considering,” Dani says with a soft smile, kissing her lightly. “You really...remember it the way you told last night? With me--with me--”
She can’t finish, her brow creasing. She looks, for a moment, like the woman who once told Jamie she could feel a storm coming.
Time is not linear. Maybe, in some version of the story, Dani is still in that lake. Maybe, somehow, she can still feel the tiny little movements from that timeline, from that set of choices. Maybe there is a version still-unsaved, a version who watched it all with a loving hand, pressing Jamie forward when time tried so hard to punish her for hope.
But here, her hands are sweet on Jamie’s skin, her laugh bright as Jamie pins her against the counter and kisses her neck. Here, she giggles as Jamie turns on the shower, protesting with very little authenticity as Jamie drags her--in a tank top and underwear--back under the spray. She is real, this Dani--she feels exactly as she should, tastes exactly the same, gasps and sighs and squirms in all the right ways. Jamie won’t ask if she, sometimes, dreams of a plane boarded alone. Jamie won’t ask if she, sometimes, dreams of a single sentence scrawled on folded paper.
The storyteller knows, better than most, that early drafts do not count once the book is bound.
“I love you,” she says into Dani’s wet skin.
“I love you,” she says as she’s zipping Dani into a sleek dress.
“I love you,” she says as they’re making their way down to the wedding hand in hand.
“You say it like I’m going to forget,” Dani says, bending her face gently against Jamie’s shoulder as if happily embarrassed, even all these years later. Jamie kisses the side of her head, her cheek, any spot she can reach.
“Not taking any chances, is all.”
There are years, she knows, unaccounted for in her memory. Thirteen years where the pieces might not all line up the way she recalls, where Dani will have to explain things she ought to already know. Seven more where a life lived missing butts up against a life lived in peace. Seven lost years, a sacrifice made to a gravity well she had invented--and unwritten--and maybe had been true all the while. Maybe.
“Owen,” she says much later, on a dance floor, with Dani tucked neatly against her in unhurried revolution. Owen, dancing with Miles, holding him firmly around the waist as the young man squirms, raises an eyebrow.
“Did she ever tell you?” She swallows. “Hannah. Did she ever--did you ever talk about how you--”
“Should have grown old together, surrounded by adoring grandchildren?” Owen smiles. “We did, once. Not soon enough, but she said...said life was short, and fear was silly, in the end. That love mattered more. The work of loving is worth the pain of losing--her words. May have borrowed them, for a certain speech.”
Dani is looking at her, reading the lines of her smile as only Dani ever has. Jamie shifts her grip, a hand spread along the base of Dani’s spine, and nods.
“She should’ve been here. If I could...if I could do it all again...”
“She is,” Owen says. “Maybe not the way we’d want, but...she is.”
He believes it. She can tell he does, though he has no idea how many variations are tumbling together inside her head. He believes, and maybe someday, that belief will resolve into glitter along his bones, words and love and stubborn faith opening a secret door to a man twenty years younger, gazing into a mirror. Maybe his chance will place him further back on the board, with more openings to explore. Maybe. There is room for more than one storyteller, after all.
Dani is still looking at her, eyes so very blue, and to Jamie, she looks exactly as she had that summer. Beautiful. Perfect. Full of glorious potential. Never, ever to be forgotten.
“I love you,” she says again, kissing her in the middle of all these strangers, and it is, at long last, enough.