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You test the knot you’ve made with apprehensive fingers as Dani twists pale wrists, tendons flexing against the new restraint. It is not professional by any means, consisting of a pink and blue patterned scarf, the softest you could find in Dani’s collection, and a firm enough slip knot woven between headboard slats. 

Dani lies between your straddled legs, vulnerable and nearly naked and gazing up at you in anticipatory glee. Her bare chest rises and falls with the strained effort of steadying her breathing, and it is always satisfying, seeing the effect you have on her. The way you can press your nose to the spot just below her ear and cause her knees to buckle. Even now, the way her lingering stare travels your body sends a rush of heat dancing across your skin.

It isn’t as though the effect is one-sided. Seeing her like this, laid bare before you, her lithe frame twitching with her efforts to keep from moving—you’ve told her not to move, after all, and she is trying so very hard not to disobey you—you gaze in wonder and run conciliatory hands along her ribs. Nimble fingers glance teasingly along the shallow indents left by her bra, and Dani huffs through her nose. 

This is a game you’ve decided to play, just the two of you, unbeknownst to the rest of the world. You noticed the way Dani’s breath catches when you murmur against her neck the honeyed words that bubble from your chest. You’ve seen the flush that spans her breast when you praise her, the way she ducks her head as if you could be anything but delighted at the discovery.

Gentle prodding during a warm post-coital conversation had resulted in Dani’s whispered admission into the front of your sleep-shirt, and you had rewarded her courage with a shower of kisses to the top of her head, her nose, her eyelids. Across the following days, you discussed options for potential experimentation between blushes and reassurances, and settled on a set of rules to be implemented from time to time, when the mood is right and the desire profound. 

You’ve done this before, prohibited Dani from touching you, but never with a physical manifestation in the form of the scarf. Dani had, at first, proposed garden twine, at which you balked. No, you wouldn’t run the risk of Dani rubbing her wrists raw. You’d rummaged through your shared closet and emerged with a swath of fabric gentle enough to mitigate potential chafing. Dani had raised an eyebrow with a light, inquisitive chuckle, but her laughter dropped into a low hum when you adopted a sly grin and said you wanted something she could really pull against without injury.

Dani’s hands rest on a pillow above her head, bound together with a length of the scarf, and she tugs experimentally. You watch, enthralled by the way the muscles in her forearms flex against the tie. 

“You’re alright?” You ask, because you need to know. You are testing boundaries tonight; this is new terrain for you, too, and you cannot go on if Dani isn’t certain.

She nods. “Are you?”

“Yeah,” you grin, and she offers a shy smile of her own. She’s nervous, you know by the way her skin jumps beneath your touch and her eyes flick to the wall, but so are you. You know she wants this, she’s said as much a handful of times, but now it’s real and you’re here and you want this, too. “Tell me if you want to stop. Raise a leg, send a smoke signal, anything to even suggest you want to stop, and we stop, yeah?” She laughs at that, but you need her to know that you are deathly serious. The last thing you ever want to do is hurt her, particularly during this. You know better than most the damage that can be done in an intimate setting. 

“I know,” Dani says with reassuring confidence, “I trust you.” 

Your heart soars, and you can’t help bending to brush a firm kiss to waiting lips. Dani rises to meet you before sinking back to the mattress, and you can’t find it within you to chide her for breaking your rule. 

“I need you,” she says, softer than a breeze, and you raise an eyebrow. 

“Didn’t quite catch that,” you say, though you both know perfectly well that you heard her. It’s part of the game, you think, to chase Dani, to tease, to poke just a little, to find the balancing point where Dani gives in to her desires. 

Dani whines, short and high, then says, slightly louder, “I need you. Please.” 

And perhaps you’re feeling lenient tonight, perhaps it’s the addition of a new variable, but you give a crooked grin and slide down until you can comfortably nuzzle the underside of Dani’s jaw. “Good, that’s good. Ask for what you want, love.” 

Dani sighs and tilts her head to grant you better access to the sensitive column of her throat. You trail hot, open-mouthed kisses from her ear to her collarbones, sucking gently from time to time and soothing any sting with a few tender strokes of your tongue when she twitches away from you. 

You’ve just reached the hollow between her breasts when her hips give a subtle jerk that must be against her will because she inhales sharply. You simply smile into her chest and hum against her skin as you use one hand to press her firmly into the mattress. 

“Careful,” you coo, giving a quick nip with your teeth and easing away the bite before continuing to lavish her left breast with your tongue. It’s not a real warning—you both know it isn’t—but your tone causes a quiet whimper to escape and travel straight to your core. 

“Sorry,” she breathes, and you feel her thigh shift slightly beneath your leg to rest lightly against your center. You pause your ministrations long enough to meet Dani’s eyes with a quirked brow. She’s tempting you, giving you the chance to satisfy yourself in the hope you’ll lessen her torment, though that is, perhaps, a strong word, you think, as you take her right nipple into your mouth. You planned on taking your time tonight, easing Dani through with praise and promise, and you will not be deterred so easily. 

“You’re being so good for me,” you say, choosing to ignore the thigh pressed against your need, “so good, baby.”

“Jamie…” she says, a little breathless. Her head is thrown back, and you can feel the tension in the muscles beneath your hand. 

“Hm?” You reach up to cup a warm breast and give a gentle squeeze. 

“I… I need…”

“What d’you need, doll?” 

Dani groans. “You… I need…God,” she tries, and you take great pleasure in the way she grips the fabric of the scarf between white knuckles. 

You chuckle into the hemline of her panties, toying with the cotton between your fingers. “Don’t think he’s what you need, but I might remember the Hail Mary if you—”

“Asshole,” Dani grumbles through gritted teeth, and you laugh, tapping the inside of her thigh playfully. She jumps and shoots you a glare that you meet head-on with a self-satisfied smirk. 

“Come on, sweetheart,” you urge sweetly, dusting kisses along the crest of her hipbone in the places you know will provoke a reaction, “I want to help you, I do. Just need to hear you say it.”

“Jamie, please…”

“You can do it,” you croon, laying your lips along the curve of her stomach, dipping a fingertip below her waistband, a taste of what is to come if only Dani will give up that last bit of control. It will only take a little push, you know, and you can give it, so you say softly, “Be good for me, come on. Come on, sweet girl, tell me what you need.” 

And Dani breaks. 

“Touch me,” she whimpers, “God, use your fingers, your tongue, just touch me, please.” The words come out in a rush, and the headboard jerks as she pulls at the restraints. She would be reaching for you if she could, her hands tangling in your brown curls, guiding you to where she needs you the most. As it stands, though, her hands are still bound, and her legs are trembling. 

“There we go.” You pull black cotton panties down pale legs and toss them aside. At last, Dani is completely bare before your hungry eyes, and you take her in, a sight that never fails to render you stunned and speechless. A blanket of simple adoration settles over you until a mewl from somewhere above you demands your attention.

You part her thighs with firm but compassionate hands, drawing a finger along her entrance, which pulls a moan from Dani’s throat. You love when she’s like this, when she relaxes and allows herself a looser rein to vocalize her pleasure. You rub the inside of her thighs with tender thumbs to banish any lingering tension and glance up to meet her eyes once more.

“Keep going?” You ask again. You need to be sure. 

“Yes,” Dani hisses, fists clenching, “God, yes.”

You lap her entrance with the flat of your tongue, lightly at first, then with long, broad strokes until you settle into a rhythm that pulls the sweetest sounds from Dani’s parted lips. With one hand, you brace yourself against her leg while the other reaches up between her breasts. You feel the rapid beating of her heart against your palm, the heaving of her chest.

You begin to narrow the path of your tongue to concentrate around the sensitive parts you know will make her writhe. You’ve attuned yourself to Dani’s body. You have dedicated hours, months, over a year to studying her inflections, her hiccoughs, the squeaks she makes when she’s discovered a twist in a novel. You can distinguish a pained wince from a pleasured gasp and a moment of rapture from a cry of distress, so you notice immediately when the pitch of Dani’s whine changes from bliss to fear. 

“Dani?” you look up and meet eyes gone wide. Ice courses through your veins. Dani is straining against the headboard and her breathing is staggered and you don’t remember the last time you’ve seen her this afraid. You immediately remove your hand from her chest and sit up abruptly. “Okay, hey, you’re okay, let me get you down.” 

Without touching her any more than necessary, you quickly undo the restraints. The moment the line goes slack, Dani scrambles back from the headboard and brings her knees to her chest with her arms wrapped around her and her fists clenched. Her breathing is labored, and she is visibly trembling. You can see gooseflesh rising on her cooling skin from where you sit warily across the bed. 

“Dani?” you repeat, a worried crease forming at your brow. Her eyes are closed, and one hand is splayed across the base of her neck. “Baby, you’re shivering,” you try, “do you want to get into bed?”

When her eyes open, Dani’s gaze is distant, but she nods ever so slightly.

“Can I help you?”

Another slight nod. You cross the room slowly so as not to startle her and pull a clean sleep-shirt from the drawer. It’s a worn red t-shirt from the school where Dani used to teach. 

“Can I touch you?” 

Dani nods once, and you gingerly unwrap her arms enough to slip the shirt over her head and down her sternum. It bunches around her hips. You guide her with featherlight touches to nestle against down pillows and pull the duvet up until it swaddles the both of you in its embrace. You extend your arm to welcome her into you, and she tucks herself into your warmth, shoulders still shaking. 

Blonde tresses are silky between your fingers as you bring a hand up to loosely cup the back of Dani’s head against your chest. She fists a hand in the shirt you pulled on somewhere along the way. 

Slowly, slowly, her ragged breathing subsides, and her grip on you loosens the tiniest bit. You wait, your desperately worried heart beating so loudly you’re certain Dani can hear it, but you remain silent and still. You cannot risk shattering the security of your touch until Dani is ready. You are prepared to wait hours, your hand stroking circles along Dani’s back. 

“God, I’m sorry.” Dani’s voice is barely a whisper against your chest, weary and laden with unshed tears. 

“Are you okay?” The profound need to confirm, to evaluate Dani’s wellbeing, supersedes your utter bewilderment at her statement. 

Dani is silent again, and you fear you overstepped too soon. 

“I think so,” Dani says, timid and so, so small. You hate this. You hate to see her like this, hurting in a way you don’t know how to fix and you cannot tell if you caused. You don’t know if it would be worse to know. You allow the slightest relieved exhale to ruffle the hair at the crown of Dani’s head.

“Why,” you begin, and pause to consider your words. You feel Dani tense in your arms and strive to offer some measure of comfort, rubbing her shoulder and murmuring, “You’re alright, love. Why… why are you sorry?”

Dani swallows, opens her mouth to speak, then thinks better of it. 

You offer, cautiously, as if gauging the temperature of the ocean before diving in, “Was it... is it… is it because we had to stop?” 

The shuddering inhale answers your question, and you fight back the surge of emotions that rises within you like an inky wave, confusion, frustration, and concern chief among them. Concern that Dani did not feel safe enough with you to stop the encounter herself. Frustration with yourself, wondering which signals you misread, if you could have prevented this. Confusion because Dani is still hurting and you don’t know why. Her guilt is palpable without any identifiable cause.

“It’s not— I wasn’t. It isn’t that exactly.” She sighs, and you wait. “I couldn’t,” she says, and you note the tremor in her voice, “I couldn’t speak. The words. The words wouldn’t come out. I tried, but—” she chokes. “I couldn’t move. It was like… it was like I was back there…” 

Your mind spins, leaping back to Bly, to those last few days spent at the manor. 

“The attic,” Dani says numbly, quietly, and your skin crawls. “The attic,” she repeats, “I was here, with you, and suddenly… I was there. On the floor, watching them die, and your hand, I know it wasn’t intentional, but—” She breaks into a shallow sob.

Your hand. Your hand. Her chest. Your hand was on her chest but near—

Her throat. 

Jesus

Hands bound. Pressure on her chest, a hand at her throat. Unable to speak. 

An accidental perfect storm of duplication. 

“How could you have known?” Dani pulls back to look up at you sadly. “I thought it would be fine. That I would be fine,” she says, her voice a monotone. She gives a wet, sardonic laugh.

“You thought of it before?” you ask.

“I thought I could do it,” she says, then softly, “I didn’t want to disappoint you.” 

You reel. “You could never—”

“This was my idea,” Dani cuts in, “I couldn’t just… it felt wrong. To back down.” 

“Dani…” You trail off, and something in you aches profoundly. 

“Told you about what… what happened? That night?” 

She has. Sparing you of what you assume must be the worst parts, eyes darting away from you as if you might bolt any moment, she spoke of that night once in minimal detail. Said enough to explain the dark bruises along the column of her throat, the red stains marring her wrists and mouth that you had tended with practiced hands bearing balms and gentle touches. She wore turtleneck jumpers and jackets buttoned to the top for a month, waiting until the discoloration could be mistaken for a trick of the light. You’d done your best to kiss away her hurt, but the scars remain. 

You nod.

She takes a shuddering breath. “The kids. Or, not the kids. Miles, I think, Peter, I guess. Hit me. With something. And when I woke up, I couldn’t… I couldn’t move.” Dani’s voice drops impossibly lower, and something pulls in your stomach. “I—I hate being trapped. The car in Iowa. The closet. Literal, not, you know.” She’s trying to make you laugh, to deflect the pain she feels and tuck it away before it can get too big, become too much, but you are not laughing. You want to hear this again, though it feels like a knife between your ribs. A part of you needs to know. Needs to understand.

“My hands. And they gagged me,” she continues, fingers detangling from your shirt to brush absentmindedly against her lips. “I couldn’t do anything. I had to watch and do nothing.” A sob erupts from her chest. “They almost died, Jamie. And I did nothing.” 

It’s not your fault, you want to say. Because it isn’t, not really. Dani knows this, you think, at her core, but she cannot reach the knowledge now.

“You’re so brave,” you say softly instead, holding her closer as if the words might seep into her skin where you touch. “So brave, love.”

She shakes against you, and she feels so, so small. Her voice is despondent. You know this story, but you need to hear her say it. 

“The thing in the lake. We got out, Flora and I. Rebecca, she let us go, I think? But Flora wouldn’t leave without Miles, and that thing grabbed me, and Flora was screaming. So loud. She was so loud, but I couldn’t hear her. It dragged me. Inside and up the stairs to the old wing. And then she had Flora, and my throat was burning. It was like I’d swallowed acid, but I could breathe.” She pauses, exhaling shallowly, and you run your hand up her spine. “I couldn’t fail her, too, and I couldn’t...” 

There’s something here, a reason she’s told you this again when you’ve been skirting around that night for months. You offer a tentative push, vividly and grimly aware of the situational parallels to earlier in the evening. 

“Couldn’t what, sweetheart?” 

“I couldn’t fail you, too.” 

Your hand freezes where it has been lightly scratching Dani’s scalp. 

Oh. 

A yawning pit forms in your chest, full of ache and insecurity and worry, but what strikes you the most is the desire to run. To flee. To escape. To protect the softest pieces of yourself from the pain of heartache even after all these years. You hate that part of you. The part that yearns to leave when hearts are bared and on display. An instinct left over from a lifetime of distrust, it bites with razor canines and does not let go. So, you fight. You fight to stay, cling to Dani and the life you did not think you could have with all your might, and you say,

“You couldn’t.” 

“You don’t know that,” Dani challenges. 

“I know that nothing you could do could make me love you any less.” It’s a new feeling, this love, only recently expressed in so many words for the first time. You swallow. There is a question on your tongue that you fear the answer to. A question of trust and lies and wants and needs. Instead, you plead. “Especially when you speak up for your needs. Especially then. Please, Dani, promise me. Promise you’ll tell me what you need.”

Your words transcend this moment, this night, expanding to fill the room, the entirety of your tiny flat with the weight of their meaning. You could not live your life if Dani lives hers abiding by your whims out of fear or misguided determination to please you. She speaks, sometimes, of the resentment she harbored toward Edmund at the end. A man who unwittingly spent his life dictating hers. You refuse to do the same. Dani is and forever will be an equal in this game you play. You refuse to have it any other way. 

“Promise,” she murmurs, tucking her face into the curve of your shoulder.

You remain silent for a long while, stroking the back of Dani’s head. You do not know how much time passes, but the puffs of warm air against your neck even out to a steady rhythm, and tension you had not realized you carried drains from your limbs. 

You’ll talk more in the morning, you think. But, for now, Dani rests quietly in the safety of your arms.

You allow that to be enough.