Sleep has never come easily to Dani.
She’s always been an anxious person. ‘A silent, haunted-looking child’ was one of her mother’s more bitter descriptions of her in her early youth, and Dani can’t really argue with that. She barely spoke until she was five, had always had wide eyes that gave her a sad, rabbit-in-headlights expression. What her mother failed to take into consideration was her own role in her daughters disposition, but, well, that was typical.
At some point in her teens it translated itself into a persistent insomnia, some manifestation of feeling so disconnected from herself and yet so worried to miss out on any moment. Her thoughts didn’t keep her awake anywhere near as much as her efforts to block them out did. Book after book, record after record, essay after essay, she devoured anything and everything she could, trying to drown out her fears, her feelings. Her mother had always laughed it off, chalking things up to Dani having an overactive imagination, how she chose to keep herself up at night and so she doesn’t have any excuses. Her schoolwork is fine - and really, Karen Clayton wouldn’t have noticed anyway - so there’s no need for concern. apparently.
In her later years, she’d lie awake next to Eddie, trying to figure out why his arm on her felt so uncomfortable, why she felt like she was suffocating under his duvet even in the dead of winter. She’d been seventeen when she had her first dream of a woman, had awoken sweaty and strained and scared, trying to tell herself that it’s normal, that everybody gets these dreams, but she doesn’t ever quite believe it. She screws her eyes shut and thinks of Eddie, trying to force his face into her subconscious and make herself dream of his hands on her, but the picture morphs and twists into curly haired girls instead, into a pretty barista she’d seen that day, or Lucy Carlisle in her high school math class, cycles of faces from her past that make her feel that same grip of fear she did in childhood. When she moves to England, gets herself out of the nightmare she’s been put through and runs, she spends the nights watching the time tick away as job applications are met with rejection, panicking just a little more every day she gets closer to having to pack it all in and go back to the States.
After Eddie, the anxiety morphed into fierce night terrors that left her gasping for air in the early hours, frantically reaching for the light switch and throwing her back against a wall, an attempt to eliminate some fear by at least knowing nothing was waiting behind her. It’s almost always Eddie, her brain forcing her to relive his last moments again and again, churning out guilt and blame until she shakes herself awake. Sometimes her mother appears, and she dreams of their angry conversations. Of the bitter rejection of a woman who never made much of an effort to understand her to begin with.
And when she meets Jamie, the nightmares don’t go, exactly. She just has someone to help her.
When she arrives at Bly, meets Jamie for the first time with nothing but a gut instinct that the gardener is about to become the most important person in her life, things ease. Not consistently, and not frequently, but something in her gives a little, a curiosity for brown curls and dungarees and a full smile making way into her subconscious to be explored in her dreams. She doesn’t feel those same stabs of panic that she did as a teenager when she thinks of Jamie. There is only a sense of peace, a tingle of excitement, feelings that vanish as soon as she wakes, the feeling of guilt and the stare of Eddie’s glasses burned deep behind her eyes. But, if she can make it through the night, she is rewarded with a glimpse of Jamie in the early hours, walking across the grounds to the greenhouse to start her day before the rest of the world awakes, and Dani treasures those moments, holds them close to her chest as she begins to befriend the woman in question.
The first time she sleeps through the night is the night of the bonfire. Eddie is nowhere to be found in her reflection, the reflection in his glasses no longer dancing behind her eyes. Dani stares at the mirror for a long, long time that morning - in a strange, counter-intuitive way, she almost misses him. Almost.
Mainly, she feels relief.
Her dreams that night had been predictably full of Jamie. Full of hands working the earth, of green leaves and wine from the bottle, of how soft Jamie’s hand had been, how right it felt to kiss her and hold her and learn for the first time what romance really is. She’s always just assumed that grand accounts of curling toes and butterflies were an exaggeration that everyone just sort of went along with. She’d never believed the romance novels and films she saw, dismissed the protagonists as nothing more than caricatures made to sell some unrealistic idea. Dani’s entire life has been a series of going through the motions with Eddie in the hope that one day something would click.
She gets it now. It clicks with Jamie.
She wakes early, the day Jamie returns, tiptoeing around the house to try and make amends for her garbled fright on that beautiful, wonderful night, and realises how much lighter the world feels.
When Jamie whisks her away to the moonflower after a difficult day, breaks down her life for her and kisses Dani as if Dani is the last thing keeping her tethered to the earth, Eddie isn’t there to weigh over her. Dani doesn’t look over her shoulder, doesn’t stay ready to pounce. She gives, and she wants, and when Jamie takes her upstairs and turns her entire world inside out she knows that this is it, this is what it feels like to be known, to be understood, to be wanted. It terrifies her in a way that makes her insides fizz with excitement as Jamie’s hands and tongue explore every inch of her, and soon she couldn’t form a coherent thought to save her life, lost to waves of pleasure that her dreams hadn’t quite managed to prepare her for.
She wakes that morning with an arm around Jamie, eyes tracing the scald on her shoulder and mind flooding with memories made the night before. It’s the best she’s ever slept.
For the first time in her life, Dani Clayton is blissfully content.
It’s not a particular surprise that her terrors return after Bly, filling her nights with images of Viola - in fairness, love, you do have a ghost in you now, so I guess we should’ve seen this one coming, Jamie says to her the first time she bolts upright with the feeling of an icy hand around her neck. Dani doesn’t even remember what the nightmares are when she opens her eyes. Only waking up drenched in sweat and nothing but white-hot panic in her mind, unable to register another presence until Jamie reaches for her, eases her back down and whispers long-forgotten phrases, pressing kisses to her hair and smoothing it out.
It’s the contrast, she says to Jamie one night, curled up against her on the sofa with an episode of Golden Girls quietly in the background. Jamie’s arm is around her, hand gently combing through her hair as Dani leans into her shoulder, as has become commonplace of an evening. How good I feel with you, how safe I am, and her. Watching me. Waiting. I think it’s why the nights are so bad, she tries to explain. I fall asleep holding you, and it’s like nothing else matters, it’s just us. So when she comes, tries to claw me away - it’s worse. Worse than if I was doing this alone.
It isn’t every night, for which Dani is grateful. Partly for herself, and partly for Jamie, who is a light sleeper at the best of times, and far too protective of Dani to even consider letting her deal with the bad nights alone. Sometimes she dreams of Viola’s happier moments - dances, weddings, a man and a young girl who Dani presumes to be Viola’s husband and daughter. These nights unsettled her at first, but she’s long since grown used to them now, waking with only a slightly exaggerated awareness of Viola’s presence. Christ knows she’s used to that already.
That’s her spectrum, really. Terror about the inevitability of her future, through to wistfulness for a life that was never hers. Jamie is unendingly patient as she tries to piece things together, never once complaining when Dani is a bit quieter in the mornings, or when she wrenches herself awake in the middle of the night and apologises again and again for it. Jamie sits her up, gets her a sip of water, and wraps Dani up with her head tucked under Jamie’s chin and simply talks about whatever she feels like until Dani feels safe enough to close her eyes, comforted by the warm embrace and soft words being murmured into her hair.
Jamie whispers about places she’s been, old memories, her favourite flowers, anything she can think of to keep Dani focused and tethered to her as she holds her tightly and helps her to breathe again. Dani’s favourite topic is the historical language of flowers, and Jamie, despite knowing nobody but Dani will ever ask, spends hours researching, making sure she’s prepared for those early mornings of walking Dani through exactly how to make a bouquet that says I love you or I miss you terribly or long, drawn-out coded messages between friends and lovers. She talks about queer coding, about how grass and violets became subtle symbols for people like them throughout the years, and when Dani finally calms, burrowing further into her and drifting back off to sleep, Jamie is already thinking about what she can tell her the next night, the night after that.
The weeks turn to months, the months to years, and the nightmares get less frequent. These days, she mainly dreams of Jamie - something that still surprises her, considering they barely spend a second of their lives apart. Can’t say I blame you, Poppins, Jamie says when she considers this out loud, pressing a kiss to her cheek as they sort out the day's delivery. Even that subconscious of yours knows I’m irresistible.
Dani can’t argue with that.
Jamie sets her entire world on fire and burns with her in the embers.
Love is about choice, she thinks. How she and Jamie wake up every day and commit themselves to each other again and again. Jamie loves her and Dani loves her the exact same amount, and if Dani doesn’t get to picture her future, she’s damn well going to make sure she gets to live her present.
At some point, she starts sleeping in Jamie’s clothes. Something about them seems to make the nights a little more bearable. If Dani can’t work out what’s real about her, she at least can surround herself with Jamie, remind herself that Jamie is real, that their relationship and the life they’ve built together is real. It brings her back to herself, ever so slightly, in the way she supposes childhood foods and certain perfumes hold nostalgia for other people. The bits of her missing are filled by Jamie, in the feelings that are getting harder and harder, the feeling of love she has for her wife is the one constant she has to hold onto.
The first time she sees those faceless eyes looking back at her, she can’t explain the emotion she feels. Fear, a little. Disappointment, a little. Hopelessness, mostly. The reflection follows her, chasing her, through water and mirrors and shiny silver jugs, to the window of The Leafling, to the sink and the bath and everywhere in between. As the months drag on, the visions of the Lady becoming more frequent, and she clings tighter to Jamie, who clings just as tightly back. She can’t trust herself, can’t trust her reality most days, but she can trust that Jamie will be there to hold her and catch her, every time.
When she proposes to Jamie, she knows it’s the beginning of the end. She can feel it in her bones, even as she holds Jamie close to her, feels the ring and the promise it bears spinning around her, knows only how glad she is that Jamie is here, the one thing in her life she can really rely on these days. Jamie is endlessly patient, wipes up the water she spills with nothing more than a kiss to her cheek, doesn’t press for explanations when Dani flinches away from any and all reflective surfaces. She just holds her, tells her she’s here, that Dani is here.
When she wakes with her hand on Jamie’s throat, she knows then that she has to go. She can’t risk Jamie for the sake of her selfishness. The idea that she could one day be tucked away in the same way the kids were, forced to watch her own hands as she squeezes the life out of Jamie, unable to do anything to stop the rage of the Lady, helpless against the anger in her as she watches the love of her life die at her hands.
It’s not an option.
She writes her note, takes Jamie’s dress from the wardrobe - if this is it, if this is her dying day, she’s not going without some piece of Jamie to keep with her - and presses one, long, last kiss to Jamie’s forehead.
And she leaves.
She’s drowning, she’s drowning, she’s drowning.
Water, weeds, mud, murk, a rotting chest at the bottom of a lake.
A chest. Broken clasps, scraps of preserved fabric.
Something’s pulling her to it. Someone.
This is it then, Dani thinks. Claim your reward. Her vision is blurring, her lungs are giving out, full of the dark, grimacing water below. She can’t see. Can’t feel. Can’t fight any longer.
She sees those empty eyes, and her mind, her soul, everything she is goes dark.
And then someone else is pulling her away.
She’s not in her body, watching from some drifting point in the water as Jamie, freezing, soaking wet, shouting please and Dani and don’t you dare and I can’t let you go drags her out of the water, collapsing on top of her and pounding on her heart, trying to clear her lungs of the water that fills them and restart her system. Dani absently thinks if this is how Rebecca felt, staring at her floating body face-down in the lake all those years ago, helpless to do anything but watch. She feels like that, but worse, because Jamie’s here, Jamie isn’t meant to be here, she should be thousands of miles away with a note and a flat and a life. She could watch herself, she could deal with the inevitable, she’s known for year after year that this is coming, but she cannot watch Jamie go through this, hunching over her lifeless body, soaked to the bone, heaving sobs tearing as she tries again and again and again.
Dani doesn’t know how long she spends watching - it could be seconds, it could be hours - but she feels the sudden crashing jolt of some bizarre feeling forcing her back to herself, feels the harshness of the gasping breath she takes, the sound of Jamie’s strangled cry as she clutches at her, turning her to her side as Dani chokes out the water. Everything burns, everything hurts, she feels the pain and the crush of hundreds of years being ripped out all at once, as if something inside her has slashed its way through, leaving her exhausted, aching, as Jamie holds her and cries, clutches her tightly and listens to her breathe, as if she can’t believe what she’s seeing. Dani gets it. She can’t either.
She can’t open her eyes, she doesn’t have the strength to do anything but just keep breathing, her lungs burning and the smell of the lake clinging to her. She coughs again, spluttering out what she can - she hadn’t realised how cold she was, how her skin stings every time she moves. She can vaguely feel Jamie’s hand between her shoulder blades, rubbing her back as she chokes out the last of the lake, but the touch itself feels painful, every movement of fabric against her skin scratching at it. “I’m-“ she can barely move her jaw, knows her words are faint. “I’m so sorry.”
She still hasn’t looked up. Jamie’s expression will kill her. Ironic, she thinks. The longer she breathes, the closer to consciousness she gets, the more the feeling of guilt begins to creep in, even as Jamie presses kiss after kiss to her hair, her cheek, whispers of it’s okay and I love you and I’m here repeated like miniature prayers, as if Dani is going to vanish again if she stops talking to her. There’s nothing more harrowing than the pain in Jamie’s voice, and Dani knows she’s going to carry this for the rest of her life.
It takes a long time for her to be able to stand, Jamie clinging to her every step of the way until she’s up, wobbling dangerously as Jamie helps her stagger to the cab - God only knows what the driver thinks, Jamie must have been there for over an hour - and she collapses in the back, shivering still, clutching to Jamie as she closes her eyes again. They barely speak on the journey home, exhausted and overwhelmed and anticipating the difficult conversation when they get back to Vermont, but Jamie absolutely does not let go of her. Not in the taxi, not in the airport. The plane, the cab home, fumbling with the key, leading Dani upstairs. It’s as if she’s scared that if she stops, even for a hairline of a second, that the Lady will decide that she’s not quite done trying yet. That she’ll whisk Dani away. And Jamie absolutely cannot go through this night twice.
(She would, though. She’d do anything for Dani.)
Jamie opens her mouth to talk, still not quite looking at her, and Dani squeezes her eyes shut. Not yet, she thinks. She knows Jamie deserves more than silence, especially after she’d woken up to an empty bed and a suicide note and not even a goodbye, but she can still feel the lake surrounding her, the murky water dried in her hair, and she just can’t do it yet.
Jamie acquiesces, leads her to their shower, giving Dani the help her tired body aches for. She allows herself to be stripped off, supported with a strong arm around her waist, stands as Jamie gently massages shampoo into her hair and soap on her skin. Jamie’s careful not to let her head go under the water, can feel instinctively just how fragile Dani is, can’t risk putting her through any more distress. She works in silence, turning the faucet off and gently towelling Dani dry, sitting her down on the closed toilet seat and combing through her hair until the tangles are out, when she can run her fingers through with no resistance. Presses a long, lingering kiss to the top of Dani’s head. Smells the gentle peach of her shampoo and stills herself for just a second. She’s here, she’s real, she’s okay. You’re okay.
And when Dani stands, catches a glimpse of herself in the mirror, Jamie’s hands resting either side of her waist, they pause, staring at their own reflection.
Both of Dani’s eyes are blue again.
The initial shock and relief of Viola’s apparent absence takes priority over any conversation. Dani can’t tear her eyes away from the mirror, even to register Jamie’s half-delighted, half-exhausted sobs into her shoulder, her arms strong around Dani’s middle as they stand. She just stares at it, scared to let herself wonder if it means what she thinks it does. At some point, she notices tears running down her cheeks, unable to remember when she started crying. She’s shaking again, though whether it’s the cold, the exhaustion, or the realisation, she doesn’t know. Jamie lets out a deep, shuddering breath, kissing Dani’s shoulder and meeting her eyes on the mirror. “Alright then,” she says softly. “Let’s go to bed.”
Dani all but collapses in Jamie’s threadbare old Blondie t-shirt, the one she’d been wearing that very first day in the Manor. It’s crumpled and worn-out after years of wear and tear, but Dani has never been able to bring herself to throw it out, and Jamie hands it to her wordlessly, letting Dani bury herself in the fabric as they climb back into bed. It’s late, approaching the early hours, but even though Dani vaguely registers they should check on The Leafling, there’s no question of either of them venturing down to check the shop today. The journey and the shower have taken every remaining ounce of energy Dani had left, and she has to force her eyes to stay open, refusing to let Jamie have to sit through another second with no explanation.
The mattress dips as Jamie sits on the end of the bed, looking at her. “So,” she says, evidently not sure where to start. Dani recognises the note in her hand, her final scrawl of I love you with every piece of me left, the words seeming somehow profound and inadequate at the same time. Jamie’s eyes meet hers, and Dani can see the exhaustion in them, the worry that she’s created tinged with the love Jamie always has for her.
“She tried to...she tried to get you. Last night.”
Jamie doesn’t move, but something in her face softens, turning towards Dani and waiting for her to continue.
“One minute I was asleep with you, the next I had my hand around your neck. She had my hand around you. I could do this to myself, I knew she’d come for me. But you, you’re too important,” she’s crying again now, pleading with Jamie to understand, to forgive her. “You’re my entire world. I couldn’t let her get to you.”
Jamie’s own eyes are shining. “You wouldn’t have, Dani. You’d never have. You’d have stopped her.”
She shakes her head, her hand coming up to wipe her eyes. “I couldn’t. I didn’t even know what was happening until I woke up, until whatever grip she had on me stopped for a second.”
She expects Jamie to fight her on this, to keep pushing and keep pressing, but she should know better by now, really. Jamie moves from the end of the bed to sit next to her, pulling Dani close and letting her relax on her. “Okay.”
Dani feels Jamie’s hand in her hair, combing her fingers through still-wet strands, a soothing motion she does when Dani tears her awake in the middle of a nightmare, and Dani buries her head under Jamie’s chin, her face in her neck and her collarbones. “Okay?”
Jamie sighs deeply, her other arm winding around Dani’s waist. “I love you. I’ve loved you for a long time, and I’ll love you for the rest of it. And it’s difficult, because I’ve gone through hell today, but so have you. A hundred times more. I got so used to borrowed time that I’d managed to forget we’d have to give it back someday.”
“I didn’t want to go.”
“I know you didn’t.” Jamie pauses, kissing her head. “And honestly, it’s the most selfless thing you could have done. That’s who you are, Poppins. I’d destroy the world to keep you here, and you’d destroy the world to keep me safe. I get it.”
“You’re not selfish, though.”
Jamie presses another kiss to her hair. “Maybe not. And if I were you, maybe I’d have done the same thing. Probably would, if I’m being honest. Because I’d have done it for you, even if it didn’t feel like it. So I know why you did it for me.”
Dani’s tears are back again, soaking gently through her shirt. “Remember what we said at Bly? About love and possession?”
“Could never forget.”
“That’s what it is, isn’t it. I love you, and you love me, but we’d always put the other first. In everything.”
Jamie shifts them both down, pulling the duvet up and over them, and Dani realises she feels warmth, for the first time in weeks of fighting off the cold that had burrowed into her bones. “I’m sorry,” she says quietly, again.
“You’re forgiven. Always.”
She feels her eyes closing again, exhaustion claiming her again as she settles herself. Usually she’s the one holding Jamie, but tonight she knows Jamie needs to be the one to hold her, to be able to put this nightmare behind them and know that Dani is here, that she’s safe and tangible in her arms. Jamie tangles their legs together, presses them closer together in their bed. “We’ll keep the shop closed this week,” she says quietly. “You need to rest.”
“So do you.”
She feels Jamie nodding, burying her face in the top of Dani’s head. “Yeah,” she says shakily, a hand running up and down Dani’s back. “Think I need you here, too. Take care of you. I mean, you died, Dani. Technically. Can’t blame a girl for wanting to keep an eye on you.”
That familiar teasing in Jamie’s voice is what gets her. The way she knows Jamie isn’t harbouring anything, that she’s listened to Dani’s words, and time and time again Dani is reminded of the difference between being listened to and being understood, in a way that nobody else in her life has ever quite been able to do. “What do we think this means?” she asks, afraid to even linger on the question too long, a fear of breaking whatever it is that could possibly have granted her another chance.
Jamie takes a deep breath, pausing. “Can you feel her? Your beast in the jungle?”
Dani goes quiet for a bit, thinking. Her head is buzzing and whirring in a way that’s almost painful, but for the first time in years it feels like it’s just her. Her thoughts, her memories, her feelings, not the forgotten wanderings of the woman she’s been sharing her life with. She knows now what Peter Quint had meant when he called Miles a tickle back in that attic, the feeling of the Lady tucked back in her mind, moving just enough to make sure Dani knows she’s there.
She doesn’t feel like that anymore.
“I think,” she pauses, giving herself a second to be sure. “I think she’s gone.”
Jamie moves her head, tilts Dani’s chin up, looking into her eyes with such love, such hope, that Dani feels herself trembling again. Jamie’s as scared to believe it as she is, she knows it. So many years of one day at a time are so firmly imprinted on them that Dani feels like she can’t even begin to conceptualise a future where they don’t have to wake up every day wondering if it’s the last. All she knows is that Jamie is here, and Jamie will be there, whatever else might get thrown their way. It doesn’t matter how their story ends now - she could die next week in a freak accident for all they know. But for the first time Dani truly feels as if she’s in control of them again, of herself, of their shared future together. There’s nobody pulling the strings or reminding her how close she is to the end.
Jamie gives her the beginning of a smile, leaning in to kiss her deeply, Dani’s hand drifting up to her jaw to trace the familiar outline there. “Okay then,” Jamie says, resting their foreheads together. “Okay.”
“We’re gonna be, aren’t we?” Dani says quietly, biting her lip.
“Yeah,” Jamie says, kissing her again. “We’re gonna make it, you and me. Together. She can't touch you anymore.” Dani begins to feel the first inkling of relief finally flood through her system, moving her hand to the back of Jamie's head, working her fingers into that beautiful blend of brunette and grey. "We're gonna be okay," Jamie murmurs between kisses. "Promise."
We’re gonna be okay.
Years down the line, as they dance together on the floor of Flora's wedding, every bit as in love as they were leaving that eight-year-old in the hallway of Bly, Dani rests their foreheads together, smiling warmly as Jamie kisses her. All the love of the last twenty years engulfs and surrounds them, and Dani looks at her wife with her two blue eyes and thinks yeah.
We made it.