Actions

Work Header

The Masquerade Ball

Chapter Text

Rushing around the halls of Button House, desperately tidying up and clearing space for the evening’s event, Alison can’t help but feel like she’s forgotten to do something. She throws open a closet and coughs as clouds of dust tumble out of it. Who knew dust could gather like that behind a closed door? Not dwelling on it too much (and sadly used to this kind of thing, having lived in a crumbling mansion for several years now), Alison starts pushing stray boxes into the closet.

She groans at the sound of several vans pulling up on the gravel out the front. She strides over to the window and – yep, there they are, a full sound and light system are already being unpacked from the back of one of the vans.

‘Another half an hour would have been nice,’ she murmurs, backing away from the window. She shoves a broken old chair into the corner of the room – she thinks this is Robin’s preferred bedroom if there’s no fire lit in the common room – and heads out towards the stairs.

She’s still searching through her memory banks trying to figure out what it is she’s forgotten when someone starts to pound on the front door. Great, now she’s totally lost track of her train of thought.

‘I’m coming, I’m coming!’ she says, hurrying down the last few steps.

She wipes her dusty hands on her jeans – a mistake, given they’re black and now coated in very visible dirt – and swings the door open.

‘Hi, sorry, I was just -,’ she starts, but the gruff, bearded man on the other side interrupts her.

‘Are you ready for us?’

Alison is thrown off by his abruptness, and the fact that she can’t make proper eye contact with him through his wraparound sunglasses and wiry beard.

‘Uh, sure, you can -,’

He brushes past her, pushing his way into the house. He shouts back to one of his colleagues at the van that they need to get a move on. He turns back to her, expression still impenetrable through his sunglasses-beard combo.

‘Which way?’ he asks.

‘Uh-um, just past the stairs there, and along the corridor.’

He gives her a curt nod and disappears in the direction Alison had just indicated.

‘Nice to meet you too…’ she mutters, only seconds before having to leap out of the way as two more burly men begin lugging boxes into her home.

All of this commotion has drawn Alison’s ghostly housemates down into the entrance hallway.

And she suddenly remembers what she forgot to do.

‘Alison, just what is going on here?’ Fanny demands, clearly perturbed.

‘There’s no indication of any manoeuvres on the schedule for today,’ the Captain adds, referring to the calendar Alison had pinned up in the library to track what they had going on at the house. Alison had put it there for her own use, to manage bookings, but the ghosts seem to think it’s her way of keeping them all informed so they can change their own arrangements if needed. As this serves to minimise complaints and disruptions, Alison doesn’t mind at all that they believe the calendar to be solely for their use. She thinks at least Pat and Humphrey understand what it’s really there for.

‘I’m sorry, guys,’ Alison says, after quickly checking around to see if anyone would see her apparently conversing with thin air. ‘This was all last minute, the venue the ball was at -,’

Alison’s sentence is cut short by one of the loudest squeals she’s ever heard.

‘A ball!’ Kitty cries, brimming with joy. ‘There is to be a ball here?’

‘Yes, a masquerade ball, for Valentine’s Day.’

Kitty claps her hands together.

‘A masquerade ball, eh?’ muses Julian. ‘Oh, the larks one can get up to under such a disguise. We’ll see some things tonight, lads, mark my words.’

He nudges Pat with his elbow. Pat steps away from him in disdain.

‘I do not like the sound of this, Alison, not at all, you won’t be turning this house into a place of debauchery, not on my watch,’ Fanny insists through her usual pursed lips.

‘You not got a watch,’ Robin reminds her. Fanny scowls at him.

‘It’s a charity ball,’ Alison tells her. ‘All the ticket costs are going to a charity that researches heart disease. Surely you can’t have a problem with that?’

Fanny pouts, but says no more.

Alison hears another car pulling up on the driveway, and pokes her head out. She smiles and waves at the driver as they park up.

‘We’re doing this as a favour too,’ says Alison. ‘The Fundraising Manager from the charity is a repeat client.’

She gestures out of the door, and the ghosts scramble to see what she’s pointing at.

‘It be one of the brides,’ says Mary.

‘It’s Clare!’ says Kitty, still absolutely giddy.

Clare locks her car and walks over to meet Alison at the door, arms wrapped around a laptop and several binders, hair slightly wild. She looks as harried as Alison feels.

‘You’re a lifesaver, Alison, you really are,’ she says as she approaches. ‘When we got the call to say the ceiling had caved in at the town hall, I thought there was no chance we could pull this off. Calling you was Sam’s idea actually.’

‘You’ve got a smart one there,’ Alison says with a smile. ‘We’re happy to help. The whole ground floor is yours, and the garden.’

‘Amazing, thank you so much! Is there somewhere I can sit with my laptop for a bit? I need to get the email out to the guest list so they all come to the right place tonight!’

‘Sure, I’ll show you to the library.’

‘Good lord,’ says the Captain, watching as Alison leads Clare to the library. ‘A ball here, tonight? With so little time to prepare? We are going to have to run this as a military operation, a real tight ship, none of the usual nonsense. I -,’

He turns around to see that the crowd of eager listeners he’d expected to see are actually all making their way back upstairs. Only Pat remains.

‘It’s not like we can actually do much to help,’ Pat says with a shrug, stepping back to allow a living person wheeling a tall speaker through the door.

‘But I – it – it’s the principle of the thing,’ the Captain stammers, his usual rigid posture deflating.

Pat claps his fellow ghost on the back.

‘I know, mate, I know. Let’s go upstairs and formulate our plan of attack, yeah?’

The Captain snaps back to his straight-backed self.

‘Very good, Patrick,’ he says. ‘You’re learning.’

Pat rolls his eyes as the Captain marches towards the stairs.

 

 

*~*

 

‘I hadn’t realised it was St Valentine’s Day,’ Thomas sighs, collapsing onto the sofa in the common room. ‘Of all people, how could I, one who loves love so ardently, forget the day we set aside to celebrate it?’

Fanny shoots him a look and he shuffles, removing his feet from the furniture and making space for her to sit beside him.

‘Hallmark nonsense,’ says Julian. ‘Although, I have to admit, a card from the petrol station often proved to be a very cheap way to get a quick shag.’

‘Oh, stop it, Julian!’ Kitty berates him. ‘This is a day for love and romance, can you try not to spoil it?’

‘Romance is just a con-cont-co -,’ Robin starts.

‘A construct!’ Julian supplies for him with swagger, and Robin nods sagely. ‘Yes, bang on, Robin. Romance, love, it’s all just a construct. At the heart of it all, we’re all just chemicals and instincts, it’s all lust.’

‘Your poor wife,’ Fanny says, to which Julian raises his eyebrows.

‘You’re one to talk,’ he says. ‘Marriage end well for you, did it?’

Fanny scoffs and bristles.

‘No happy ending for marriage,’ says Mary from by the window. ‘Tils death do’s us part, that’s what we says. And that be how it ends. In death.’

‘Or divorce,’ Julian chimes in. ‘That was really taking off in my day.’

Mary’s words have struck a chord, and it’s a melancholic atmosphere that Pat and the Captain find themselves walking in on.

‘Who died?’ Pat blurts out, the old turn of phrase escaping his lips before he can really think it through. ‘What I mean to say is -,’

‘All love becomes death,’ Thomas intones, sinking back into the sofa again.

‘What? No, guys, come on! It’s Valentine’s Day! Kitty, aren’t you excited that there’s going to be a ball?’

Kitty perks up once again at the mention of the ball.

‘And Thomas, surely you’ll be greatly inspired by tonight? And Lady B, isn’t it wonderful to know that this old place is back on the social scene again?’

‘Very true, Patrick,’ says Fanny.

‘I can feel the beginnings of an epic love ballad taking seed in my mind already,’ says Thomas, his voice slipping into recital mode as he rises slowly to his feet, eyes alight. ‘It shall be called…’ He raises his arm grandly, pausing for effect. ‘…Nope, no, it’s gone, funny how that happens, isn’t it?’

He wrinkles his nose, hands on hips, and drops back down onto the seat once again, rocking Lady Button.

‘Actually, I’ve got my own announcement to make too, actually,’ says Pat. All eyes follow him as he takes position in the middle of the room, where he can be seen by those on the sofa and armchairs. ‘I think I’m ready to move on.’

Kitty gasps. ‘You’re leaving us?’

‘You wishes to be sucked off?’ Mary asks.

‘You only just get here!’ Robin protests.

‘No, no, no! Nothing like that!’ Pat says, waving his arms around to calm the room. ‘I’m ready to move on from Carol. It’s been long enough. Lord knows she didn’t wait long after me.’

‘I seem to recall she didn’t wait at all,’ says Julian.

Pat wheels around to him.

‘Why’ve you got to be like that, eh?’ he blusters.

‘Something to do, innit,’ Julian replies, picking non-existent lint from his lapel.

‘Well, could you not?’

‘Yes, Julian, could you please not be like that?’ says Kitty. ‘For today, at the very least.’

From his usual station behind the sofa, the Captain clears his throat.

‘Sounds like a gentleman’s wager to me,’ he says. His moustache twitches.

‘Good idea, Cap,’ says Pat, squaring up to Julian. ‘I bet you my next four Film Night choices that you can’t stop with all the cynicism and all your shady, little innuendos, just for today.’

He offers the taller man his hand to shake. Julian draws himself up to his full height, considers Pat’s extended palm for a moment, and then takes it, grinning.

‘Piece of cake,’ he says. ‘I hope you like Tootsie.’

‘Me does have question,’ says Robin as the two more modern men end their handshake. ‘How you move on? Not so many ladies here.’

Pat looks around the room. Fanny eyes him warily, Mary smiles as if she doesn’t quite understand, and the Captain moves protectively closer to Kitty. Pat frowns at him and shakes his head. Surely he knows that Pat would never see Kitty that way? Cap clears his throat and steps back again.

‘The ladies of this house are family to me,’ he reaffirms. ‘In all honesty, I haven’t quite figured out what it will mean for me to move on. Let’s just say… my heart is open.’

Julian’s mouth opens in readiness to supply a scathing comment, but he snaps it quickly shut when he remembers the bet. Pat’s sure that for Julian it’s not so much that he cares about winning the Film Night choices, and more that he just hates losing.

‘I think you are very brave, Pat,’ says Thomas. ‘To open one’s heart up to new love in circumstances such as ours… Yes, I will have to immortalise you in my new saga.’

‘It’s a saga now, is it?’ Pat asks.

Thomas shrugs. ‘I’ve got the time. And now, the inspiration! I shall be in my sighing place composing, do call upon me when the ball begins.’

 

 

Chapter Text

The Captain needn’t have worried about the organisation of the event. Clare spends the day dashing about, keeping a close eye on everything her team is doing, giving instructions as needed. The Captain follows after her, admiring the way her precise orders are followed without question – she’s even managed to get Alison and Mike in line, something he only wishes he could do. The young couple could certainly use more structure.

‘That’s not how Clare told you to do it,’ he intones over Alison’s shoulder as she repositions a large flower arch made up of red and white roses. ‘Pull it out from the doorway, so people have the chance to experience it as they both enter and leave.’

‘Alright, alright,’ Alison says under her breath, but does as he says, struggling with the weight of the thing.

‘Excellent,’ he says, stepping back to appreciate his work, rocking on the balls of his feet. ‘Just excellent.’

Seconds later, he’s doubled over groaning as Clare has passed right through him.

‘Gah, taken unawares at the rear,’ he moans, hands on his thighs, heaving.

‘Just finishing the last few touches,’ she says, straightening a few drooping flowerheads. ‘Thanks for being so hands on, Alison.’

‘All part of the Button House service,’ Alison says with a smile, casting a sideways glance at Cap, who’s still recovering and mumbling about a brutal assault from behind.

Clare steps back to take in Alison’s handiwork.

‘Did Mike manage to get those kegs set up alright in the kitchen?’ she asks.

Alison falters. She’s not quite sure what Clare means by ‘set up’, but rolls with it.

‘They’re definitely in the kitchen,’ she says brightly, not letting her client know how much Mike had struggled with the barrels, the Captain leaning over his shoulder, his advice on how to avoid a hernia falling on deaf ears.

‘And you managed to get those signs I gave you up on the gate and along the drive?’ Clare continues.

Ah, that had been a fun task too, what with Thomas traipsing after her down the driveway the whole time, musing out loud, searching for the “narrative essence” of his Valentine’s poem, whatever that meant. Alison had almost been relieved when Fanny had appeared and disrupted him with a rant about the appropriate means of affixing signage to antique railings.

‘All done,’ Alison replies. ‘The guests should be able to find us, no problem.’

Clare claps her hands together.

‘Amazing! I think we’re done. Time to get ready.’

A sudden scream causes Alison to wince in surprise. She doesn’t need to look around to know who produced such a high-pitched, high-volumed sound.

Clare frowns and reaches out to her.

‘Are you feeling ok?’ she asks.

‘I, uh, it’s just – toothache,’ Alison says, holding a hand up to her cheek and prodding gently. ‘Oh, ouch. Wisdom teeth, y’know?’

‘I’ve been there,’ Clare says, squeezing Alison’s arm. ‘Right, well, I better go get changed.’

‘Uh-huh, good idea,’ Alison says, still poking at her false tooth pain.

As Clare heads up the stairs, Alison finally has a good reason to turn around and look up them to find Kitty, beaming. She steps aside to avoid Clare walking through her.

‘Are you quite alright, Katherine?’ the Captain asks, heading towards the young Georgian.

‘I’m just so excited, I had to let it out,’ Kitty says. ‘It’s time to get ready! For the Valentine’s ball! Oh, Alison, please can I help with your outfit?’

‘Sure,’ Alison agrees, knowing that Kitty’s help usually comes in the form of cooing over every item in Alison’s wardrobe and suggesting which shoes pair best with them. She hasn’t quite got the hang of twenty-first century fashion, but she’s an enthusiastic student who’s just waiting for mismatched shoes to become the style of the moment.

‘Now, Alison,’ says Cap, falling in line behind Alison and Kitty as they head up the stairs and towards the common room. ‘Just what is the dress code for this evening?’

‘Sort of smart, wedding guest-y – black tie? Is that black tie? Or does that mean tuxedoes? Maybe that’s too fancy. It’s all about the masks, anyway,’ Alison says.

‘They – they won’t be scary masks, will they?’ Kitty asks. ‘Not like Freddie Kreuger’s?’

‘I don’t think Freddie wore a mask, Kitty, I think that was just his skin.’

Kitty gasps.

‘It was just make-up! Movie make-up!’ Alison tells her, back-tracking. ‘But no, they won’t be scary masks. They’re supposed to be sexy.’

Kitty giggles.

‘Sexy,’ she repeats.

‘S-sexy,’ the Captain also repeats, looking far less thrilled than Kitty. ‘Just how can something that covers one’s face be considered… you know.’

‘That’s sort of the point, isn’t it? It hides your face, adds a sense of mystery. You can be someone else for a night. You can dance with someone all night and not know who they are, get up close and personal with them… It’s hot.’

Kitty fans herself.

‘Good lord, Julian was right,’ Cap manages to get out after a moment.

‘Yeah, well, sometimes, really annoyingly, he is,’ Alison says, glossing over the impact her words have had on the pair as she walks into the common room.

‘We’re going to get ready!’ Kitty announces as she follows Alison into the room. ‘Everyone, time to get ready!’

Her words have little impact on the assembled ghosts, other than Pat who leaps to his feet.

‘Are the guests arriving?’ he asks. ‘Any ladies?’

He wiggles his eyebrows in what Alison assumes is meant to be a seductive manner, but his moustache goes along for the ride too, which somewhat kills the vibe he’s going for. The Scoutmaster’s uniform, the arrow through his neck, and the fact that he’s, well, Pat, also make the ladykiller image hard for Alison to pick out.

‘Guests will be here in…’ she checks her watch. ‘Shit, half an hour! I need to get a move on. Have any of you seen Mike?’

‘Follow the snoring and I’m sure you’ll find him,’ Thomas says. ‘What you see in him…’

‘Thomas,’ Alison warns him. She checks her watch again, as if it’s magically going to give time back to her.

‘You are all going to behave yourself, aren’t you?’ she says. ‘Robin, that means leave the lights alone – there’s a new crossword book in it for you if you do. And Julian, just… don’t touch anything, ok? Or anyone, for that matter.’

‘Julian has to be on his best behaviour,’ Pat says, pushing his glasses up his nose. ‘We have a bet.’

‘Eh, the terms of the bet don’t refer to my ability to touch things, actually,’ Julian says, raising a hand.

‘I’d say not touching anything and therefore not ruining the Valentine’s Day event falls under the bracket of not being cynical about romance,’ Pat says.

‘Whatever. I’m probably just going to hide in a dark corner anyway and wait for some drunken fumbling to make it’s way over to me anyway.’

‘Julian!’ Fanny scolds.

‘What?! It’s a physical celebration of love, I think you’ll find I’m very much getting on board with the spirit of the day.’

Another glance at her watch reminds Alison that she doesn’t have time for this. She heads for her bedroom, Kitty on her tail, Thomas shouting after her that his masterpiece is ready for her to hear if she has but twenty minutes to spare.

 

~*~

 

Kitty hasn’t had this much fun since they’d last hosted a wedding at Button House. The house is full to bursting, there’s music booming through the downstairs hall, reverberating through the walls, and people are dancing as if their lives depend on it. All of the masks had been intimidating at first, but now she’s enjoying taking them all in – so many feathers and sequins, in all of the shades of the rainbow, from red to very light blue!

The dancefloor is so crowded that it’s not possible for her to dance there without being passed through, but she, Pat, Thomas, Mary and Robin have found a space for themselves behind the DJ booth. The Captain joins them from time-to-time, dancing in his stiff way, but is otherwise pre-occupied with looking out for miscreants, and Fanny has removed herself from the spectacle entirely. Julian, as promised, is lingering in the darker corners of the room, occasionally lit up by the white strobes as they flash across the dancers.

‘Show us your sprinkler, Kitty!’ Pat calls over the booming music.

‘I beg your pardon, sirrah?’ Thomas says, holding a hand out to him.

Pat swats his hand away.

‘It’s a dance move, you pillock. Go on, show him, Kitty.’

Kitty laughs and energetically performs the move that she and Pat had rehearsed earlier. She doesn’t like the song that’s playing quite as much as Saturday Night but she finds and matches the rhythm in it. Pat applauds her and joins in, jostled by Robin’s enthusiastic bouncing.

‘Have you seen any ladies you like the look of, Pat?’ Kitty asks him as they dance, their hips swaying in time.

‘S’hard to tell what’s going on under all these masks,’ Pat says. ‘It was her smile I noticed first. Carol’s, that is.’

‘You must stop think about old lady if you want find new one,’ Robin tells him, adding a spin to his jumping. ‘Only way.’

‘Although, I must warn you not to get too attached to any fair women here, Patrick,’ Thomas says. ‘I wouldn’t want you to be like myself and Alison, struck lovelorn by the impenetrable veil of death.’

His sad words land hard in a break in the music, a red flash of light falling across Thomas’s face as he looks across the dancefloor to Alison dancing in Mike’s arms. With a swooping beat – something Pat has heard Mike refer to as the drop - the music starts back up faster and Pat is able to ignore his companion’s words.

He doesn’t know what he’s looking for in love in this strange afterlife, but he knows he won’t find it if he’s not willing to look.

The track ends and the DJ’s voice comes silky-smooth through the speakers.

‘And now, since it’s Valentine’s Day, it’s time for a slow dance. Find the one you love and get up in their grill.’

Mellow synth echoes through the room. Pat knows this one – it’s Only You, by Yazoo. Carol had worn their cassette player out by listening to it so many times.

‘Woah, old school,’ a young lad near Pat says as he reaches out to his dance partner and draws them in closer.

‘Everyone has someone…’ a quiet voice says next to Pat, who detects a faint trembling in the words.

He turns to Kitty and offers her his hand.

‘Would you care for this dance?’ he says.

Kitty giggles and accepts. Beside them, Mary attempts to get Robin to dance with her with at least one of his feet on the ground. Thomas stamps his feet, bemoans being spurned once again, and disappears through the nearest wall.

As they sway in a gentle circle, Pat catches sight of Alison and Mike in the centre of the dancefloor, foreheads pressed together as they dance. He spots Kitty watching them too.

‘What’s it like?’ she asks.

Pat blinks.

‘What’s what like?’

‘To be in love?’

‘Oh, I don’t know, it’s hard to put into words really. It’s just… it’s the best. To have someone, and they have you, and they’re your person and your theirs. At least, you think they are…’

‘I think I should have liked that.’

‘I think it would have suited you very much.’

Kitty lets go of his hands.

‘Thank you for dancing with me, Pat. I think I’d like to sit down now.’

Pat can’t bear the downcast look on her face or the way she won’t meet his eyes.

‘Are you sure you won’t stay for another? I’m sure things will pick up again soon, there’ll be more for us singletons to have fun with. You could look out for some eligible men.’

As he says this, the soft strings of the Dire Straits’ track Romeo & Juliet resound through the speakers. He bites his lip as the familiar lyrics start up. Seriously, had Alison paid this DJ to break his 1980s heart?!

Kitty shakes her head and takes slow steps through the wall Thomas had not long deserted them through.

Pat is still watching after her when Cap appears at his shoulder.

‘What have you done to young Katherine?’ he demands. ‘Did you stand on her feet?’

‘Uh, I was a regional dance finalist, mate, I’ll have you know!’ Pat reminds him, hackles rising. Honestly, the gall of this man.

‘Then why is she so downtrodden?’

‘I’s go and find her,’ Mary says, extracting herself from Robin and heading through the wall. Robin tries to find a way to bounce to Mark Knopfler’s dulcet tones – it doesn’t work in Pat’s eyes, but the caveman seems happy enough.

‘I should go and find her too,’ Cap says. ‘It doesn’t do to have low morale in camp, that attitude will spread and then we’re all doomed for.’

‘You’re telling me…’ Pat says, casting one last look back at all the dancing couples before he follows his fellow ghosts through the wall.

 

*~*

 

Kitty finds her way to the common room. The fire is lit, and Alison has laid the armchairs and dining chairs out in a large circle as a free space for the event staff to use if they need it. They’re all busy downstairs, however, and only Fanny and Thomas are here. He lies prone on the sofa, one arm thrown over his face, and she looks out at the grounds through the misty window.

‘Ah, good, Kitty, have you seen Alison?’ Fanny says, prodding a finger at the glass. ‘I’ve seen three – no, four – couples heading off into the grounds, canoodling, and it won’t do, she has to stop this at once.’

‘She’s downstairs dancing and being in love with Mike,’ Kitty says, drifting towards the armchair nearest the fire. She sits down in it and stares into the flames.

Fanny clears her throat and comes to sit beside Kitty.

‘Are you not having a pleasant evening, Kitty?’ she asks.

Kitty sighs. She’d been having a perfectly lovely time until…

‘I wish -,’ she starts, but is interrupted by Mary, the Captain, and Pat all appearing through the wall.

‘There you are!’ cries the Captain.

‘Don’t be’s sad,’ says Mary, coming to sit on Kitty’s other side.

Fanny straightens and shifts in her seat.

‘Just what is going on down there?’ the older woman asks.

‘It’s nothing, I just got a little sad, that’s all,’ says Kitty.

‘But whatever is there to be sad about? There’s a ball happening below our feet at this very moment.’

‘This is where the fun is at then, is it?’ Julian says, striding into the room with Robin. He pauses. ‘Or not. What’s with the buzzkill in here?’

‘Can’t a man grieve a broken heart in peace around here?’ Thomas asks, flinging himself upwards on the sofa. ‘Honestly.’

‘Music made Kitty sad,’ Robin tells him, taking a seat at the circle.

‘It wasn’t the music, Robin,’ Kitty says. ‘It was the love.’

‘But you love love,’ Thomas says, leaning forwards, forgetting his own woes. ‘You and I, we are of one mind on this.’

‘But I’ve never been in love, Thomas. I would love to be in love. Pat says it’s the best.’

‘Oh, what do I know?’ says Pat. ‘I know I loved Carol, but can I be sure she ever really loved me?’

‘Come now, man,’ says the Captain. ‘Would she and young Daley come here every year if she had never loved you?’

‘Yeah, but she brings her new husband every time, doesn’t she? I’m here, still in love with her, and she’s strutting around out there with bloody Morris.’

‘I thought you were ready to move on from her?’ Thomas asks.

Pat stamps his foot.

‘I’m bloody well not! I was kidding myself, I can’t just move on like that, it’s only been -,’

‘Nearly forty years,’ Julian says, grinning.

‘You don’t have to act so smug you know,’ Pat tells him. ‘Just because you’ve never loved anyone but your own damn reflection-,’

‘Eh, eh, eh!’ Julian gets to his feet, jabbing his fingers in Pat’s direction. ‘I have been in love, I’ll have you know.’

‘Thought you no believe in love,’ Robin says.

‘Well, sometimes, Robin, these things catch up with you and catch you with your trousers down, so to speak. I loved my wife. I treated her… Not as well as I should have… but I loved her. At one point or other.’

He returns to his seat.

‘There you are, Kitty,’ he says. ‘All this love malarkey, it’s not worth it, I told you.’

‘I could have loved George,’ Fanny says. ‘If he’d have let me.’

Julian snorts. ‘Yeah, good luck with that.’

Robin punches him in the arm and Fanny nods her thanks to him as Julian rubs the offended limb.

‘I did loves my husband,’ says Mary with a sad smile. ‘For what short times we had.’

Kitty takes her hand.

‘That’s nice to hear, Mary.’

‘Have any of us had any luck with love?’ Thomas says. ‘First, my dear Isabel, and then, fair Alison…’

‘I’m sorry to have made everyone so melancholy,’ Kitty says, squeezing Mary’s hand. ‘Surely someone here must have a tale of real love? Captain, you haven’t –,’

Kitty isn’t sure what it is she’s said, but she feels Fanny take a sharp intake of breath beside her, sees Pat waving his hands at her frantically, hears even Julian start to mumble ‘I wouldn’t go there’. She frowns at them all before looking back to the Captain. He grips the swagger stick on his lap tightly.

‘I, uh, you know – perhaps I was in love once, Katherine,’ he says. ‘It’s hard to know now, it was so long ago. I believe I did my bally best to fight it and pretend it was something else. I managed to fool myself but I… I don’t know that I managed to fool hi - them.’

Kitty gets a sudden inkling of why the others hadn’t wanted her to turn her question on the Captain, but she still doesn’t fully understand.

‘But why would you do that? What if they loved you back?’

The Captain clears his throat and gets to his feet.

‘I should return to my patrols, I’ve left the perimeter unmanned for too long.’

Ignoring Kitty’s protests, he strides out of the room.

‘Sometimes, Kitty, the heart wants what it cannot have,’ Thomas says.

A murmur of agreement goes around the room. For a while, nobody speaks, there is only the crackling of the fire.

A burst of laughter cuts through the silence. Alison appears in the doorway, shouting back over her shoulder.

‘Get me another JD and coke! Mike? Mike! Oh, he can’t hear me…’

She takes the Captain’s vacated seat, grinning around at them all. No one smiles back. Her own expression falls as she takes in the sombre faces surrounding her.

‘What the hell happened in here?’

 

Chapter Text

At first, Alison is grateful for the quiet the following morning. Her brain is wrung out - she woke up several times during the night to the sensation that the bed was spinning. She knows by now that mixing spirits and wine doesn’t end well for her, but she’d been having too much fun to care. Last night, that one more glass of wine before bed had felt like an amazing idea.

A little peace for a lie-in is very welcome.

By the time she finally manages to drag herself out of bed and into a steaming, hot shower, it’s already gone lunchtime. Now starving, and pepped up by the sensation of the hot water on her skin, Alison makes her way down to the kitchen. Mike isn’t feeling quite up to making his way out from under the duvet yet, but she knows some cold orange juice and toast will cure him.

Given the time of day, the ongoing silence in the house is starting to unsettle Alison. She licks buttery toast crumbs off her fingers, frowning. She hasn’t come across a single ghost yet today, and no one had come to shout at her for sleeping in. On the rare occasions that she’s slept past nine in the past, she’d woken up to Fanny accusing her of falling behind on the duties that come with being the lady of the house.

Alison remembers the strange mood she’d found them all in upstairs the night before. The memory is hazy, and trying to dig it out hurts her head, but she doesn’t think any of them had told her what was going on anyway. They’d told her it was nothing and then Mike had turned up with her JD and coke, and that was that, she’d gone back to dancing. They were all adults after all, they should be able to sort themselves out.

Should be able to, Alison thinks, biting into her toast, but all the evidence she’s seen before tells her that isn’t actually the case. So where are they, and what’s wrong?

‘Hello?’ she croaks out, throat scratchy from all of last night’s shouting.

‘Hello, Alison,’ a male voice replies, muffled, but Alison still can’t see anyone.

Her heart jumps into her throat. Oh god, is there some randomer in her house that didn’t leave last night?

‘Open the oven,’ the voice says again, and Alison catches on to just who’s speaking to her.

She puts her plate of toast down and steps over to the oven, flipping the door down.

‘Who put you in here, Humphrey?’ she asks the disembodied head within. She instinctively goes to pick him up and remove him from this entirely inappropriate resting place, but then remembers she can’t touch him.

At least he’s facing outwards and can make eye contact with her.

‘I was on the DJ booth for a while but people kept putting their drinks in me, so Kitty thought I’d be safer in here,’ he explains. ‘She was supposed to tell you.’

‘She didn’t,’ Alison says, switching from her squatting position to sit properly on the cold flagstones, crossing her legs. She takes another bite of toast. ‘I didn’t see much of any of them last night and when I did, things were weird.’

‘I got the sense myself that something was amiss,’ Humphrey says. ‘Kitty seemed rather distraught, she thought that she had upset everyone. I wasn’t there myself and I couldn’t quite understand what she was saying she had done, but she kept talking about broken hearts.’

‘Broken hearts? But I thought they were all having a good time?’

Even though he’s just a head, Humphrey somehow manages to convey to Alison that he’s shrugging.

‘Valentine’s Day, holidays, special occasions… Days like that can be hard when you exist as we do. They get people thinking about missed opportunities, and there’s not much you can do to fix those and take chances again when you’re a ghost.’

Alison bites her lip.

‘I’m sorry, Humphrey. I’m not always very good at remembering what it must be like for all of you,’ she says.

‘Don’t trouble yourself over it, Alison, we get over these things. We’ve got plenty of time, but you, you need to be busy living. That you think of us at all is more than many of us have had in hundreds of years.’

He smiles at her and she smiles back.

‘Still,’ Alison says, getting to her feet. ‘I’d like to do something to try and fix things today, or everyone will miss Film Night.’

‘They’ll all come around, I’m sure – but perhaps a gentle nudge from you will help.’

 

~*~

 

Having left a note on the open oven door to explain to Mike just why it’s open (“Humphrey (head) in here. Don’t use, I’ll get one of them to move him later”), Alison sets out to look for the others.

As the house itself is so quiet, Alison heads out into the garden. She’s slightly unnerved not to have come across any of the others yet, and Mary’s talk of people being ‘sucked off’ starts to echo round her head. She hates to think any of them might have disappeared, especially without the chance to say goodbye. They’re pains in the arse, sure, but they’re her pains in the arse. Just like a family is supposed to be, if she’s learnt anything from spending time with Mike and his teasing sisters.

She’s just starting to admit to herself that she’s maybe, just maybe, panicking a bit, when she sees a familiar straight-backed figure loitering at the gatepost.

The Captain is stood with his back to the house, staring out down the driveway, hands behind his back.

‘You missed your morning run,’ Alison says as she approaches, feet crunching on the gravel, breath puffing out in front of her. It’s freezing, and she hadn’t thought to put a coat on. She wraps her arms around herself as she comes to a stop just behind him.

Her words startle him and he does a poor job of hiding it, as usual. He clears his throat and attempts to play off his jumpy reaction.

‘One rather suspected that you wouldn’t be up to the task of timekeeping this morning,’ he says, about-turning to face her. ‘A bally shame really, I could certainly shave a second or two off in this cold air.’

‘I’m sure you could,’ she says, indulging him. ‘I- uh… It’s dead quiet up at the house. Is everything alright? Are – are you alright?’

‘I’m first class, Alison, I assure you, just as an officer should be.’

‘What’re you doing out here then?’

‘I was… inspecting. You know, checking. Just checking my usual checks,’ he brushes his hand against the gatepost and it phases through the chipped bricks.

‘Oh, ok, good. Have you seen any of the others? Everyone seems to be hiding.’

‘I’d have thought you’d rather like that.’

‘I would if it wasn’t so concerning. Everyone was acting so strange last night, although, actually – you weren’t there, were you? In the common room, when everyone else was so down?’

The Captain clears his throat.

‘I had to leave on my patrols. Lots of strangers about last night, someone had to keep an eye on them.’

‘So, what happened? Humphrey says Kitty thought she’d upset everyone.’

The Captain avoids her eyes and looks down at his swagger stick. He adjusts his fastidiously buttoned jacket.

‘Katherine wished to indulge in talk of love. This was something of a… misfire.’

‘I can see why,’ Alison says.

‘Quite.’

Alison brushes her hair out of her face and decides to nudge, just slightly. She knows the Captain can and will bore them all to tears with talk on all things tanks and military tactics, but she knows very little about the man himself.

‘And that’s why you left, is it? They were talking about love and -,’

‘It doesn’t do for an officer to indulge in such talk, quite frankly, Alison. The rank and file can’t be allowed to see that you have a heart.’

‘Ah, so you do have one?’ she teases.

‘That’s classified,’ he says shortly, turning away from her, looking back down the driveway again.

‘Who’re you waiting for then?’ she asks, nodding her head in the direction of the driveway, trees swaying over the road. ‘Why are you out here staring down the drive like it might disappear?’

‘Because, young lady, sometimes people do just disappear out of your life, and there’s nothing you can do about it.’ His words have the rhythm of anger, but the sadness in them is inescapable.

‘I’m sorry, Captain, I didn’t mean -,’

‘I told you it doesn’t do to indulge in such talk. A fellow has to keep these things close to his chest.’

He’s avoiding her eyes again.

‘Ok, I get it. But,’ she says, slowly, ‘if you ever do want to,’ she searches for the right words, ‘… keep things a little less close to your chest, I don’t mind listening.’

The Captain sighs.

‘There really isn’t anything to say. Nothing can be changed now. We have to keep calm and carry on.’

‘But if you ever do…’

The Captain glances at her, and relaxes from his post, tearing his eyes away from the driveway.

‘Perhaps one day, Alison, since you and your generation are so insistent on all of this bally talking. However, I think you and I have enough on our plates today trying to boost the morale in camp. I take it that’s why you sought me out?’

Alison can sense that it would sting him to know that she wasn’t looking for him in particular, just any one of them would have done, so she nods.

‘Of course, I haven’t been able to find anyone else other than Humphrey. His head, anyway.’

‘Then you certainly do need my help. A Captain must always know his men’s hiding places.’

 

*~*

 

For once, the Captain isn’t exaggerating his abilities – he really does seem to know where to find everyone.

Pat, as it turns out, isn’t too far away. They find him hanging around the remains of the campsite that he’d helped Alison create in the woods not so long ago, lying where the tent had been. The Captain attempts to enlist him in the mission, but he really isn’t interested.

‘Not today, Cap,’ he says, drawing his knees up to his chest.

‘Now, see here, Patrick, you can’t just lay about here all day, there’s work to be done, order to be maintained,’ the Captain says, gesturing firmly with his swagger stick.

‘I think what the Captain is trying to say,’ Alison says, taking a more gentle tone, ‘is that we really could do with your help. There’s a whole house up there feeling out of sorts and I can’t fix that by myself.’

‘I don’t know, Alison…’ Pat says.

‘You’re the best man for the job, Patrick, why do you think I sought you out first?’ the Captain says.

‘Because I was easiest to find?’

‘Not at all, I know exactly where everyone will be at a moment such as this. I came to you first because a good Captain knows when he needs his second-in-command, and you’re one of the very best.’

Pat immediately perks up. He gets clumsily to his feet and pushes his glasses up his nose.

‘Ok! Reporting for duty!’

He salutes, once at Cap and once at Alison.

‘I need you to find Thomas, Robin, and Mary, and pick up Humphrey on your way. Thomas is almost certainly in the lake, Robin will be down in the cellar with the villagers, and Mary will be in the kitchen garden, just beyond the rose garden.’

‘Humphrey’s in the oven, the door’s open,’ Alison adds.

‘What do I do once I’ve got them?’

The Captain turns to Alison expectantly. She hesitates, having not come up with a plan beyond ‘find everyone’.

‘Bring them to the common room. We’ll meet you there with the others soon.’

‘Got it.’

Pat salutes once again, and heads off in the direction of the lake.

‘That was good, what you did with Pat there,’ Alison says to the Captain, as they both watch the Scout leader disappear from sight. ‘I didn’t know you had it in you.’

‘As you may have gathered today already, Alison, I’m not a man entirely without feeling,’ he replies, setting off at pace. ‘Now, can I trust you to find Katherine by yourself?’

 

*~*

 

Following the Captain’s instructions, Alison makes her way to the second floor of the East Wing – one of the least done up parts of the house – and finds Kitty in what had apparently once been a nursery.

The young Georgian woman sits on a rocking chair, although it doesn’t rock beneath her. A crib with a missing side is tucked up under the window beside her. Alison carefully steps over a rocking horse with a tangled tail that’s lying on its side so she can stand at the window beside Kitty.

‘What’re you doing up here, Kitty?’ Alison asks, trying desperately not to sneeze as the thick dust in the room tickles her nose.

‘I just like to come here sometimes,’ Kitty says. ‘It used to be nice when there were babies and small children here, they were so lovely to watch laugh and play. This room hasn’t been used since Lady Heather was young.’

‘A long time ago then.’

‘Yes, I suppose that was a long time ago now.’

‘I hear you didn’t have the best time last night. I’m sorry, Kitty.’

‘That’s alright. It’s my own fault.’

‘Oh, Kitty, don’t say that,’ Alison says, crouching down beside the rocking chair.

‘Everyone was having such a wonderful time before I asked them all about love. I just wanted to know what it was like to be in love, but it turns out none of us here have had the best time of it.’

‘No, I don’t think anyone has.’

‘It makes me sad sometimes, knowing that I missed out on that. True love, a relationship. I so love to hear about it and read my stories. Perhaps it’s for the best that I didn't.’

Alison desperately wishes she could hug Kitty right now. She makes do with resting her hand next to Kitty’s on the arm of the rocking chair, careful not to actually touch her but close enough that Kitty knows she would touch her hand if she could.

‘I’m so sorry, Kitty, that you didn’t get to experience all that when you were alive, and that none of the others had love they wanted either. Everyone deserves that. But there are so many different kinds of love, aren’t there? Love between friends, and between family. I know they’re an odd bunch here but surely there’s still a chance for love like that? Or – or the love we have, me and you, like sisters.’

‘Like sisters?’

‘Of course. I know I don’t have any other siblings to compare it to, but you’re the best sister I could ask for.’

‘You too, Alison!’

With these words, Kitty transforms back into her usual, beaming self. She launches herself from the rocking chair.

‘I know Eleanor was mean to me that one time and made me miss the ball, but even if she hadn’t done that, you would still be my very favourite sister,’ she says.

‘Thanks, Kitty,’ Alison says with a smile. ‘Do you think you can help me out then? The others are still feeling a bit down, I think.’

‘I know exactly what I’m going to say,’ Kitty tells her. ‘I’m going to tell them all about what you just told me.’

 

*~*

 

True to her word, once all of the ghosts had assembled in the common room, Kitty tells them what Alison had said. How she would always be sad to have missed out on a true love, but that maybe there were all kinds of other love to be had here instead.

Alison isn’t surprised to see this message go down better with some of the group than with the others.

As Pat congratulates Kitty for her new perspective, Julian scoffs.

‘Remember our wager, Julian,’ Pat reminds him.

‘That was just for yesterday, surely?’ Julian says.

‘Wouldn’t hurt to make it last a bit longer though, eh? Maybe open your mind up to something new.’

Julian waves a hand dismissively.

‘I think you’re totally right, Kitty,’ Pat says. ‘It’s important to focus on what we do have. Even if some of that is Julian.’

‘Uh, right here, you know,’ Julian says.

‘Can be new ghosts here sometimes too,’ says Robin. ‘Lots of chance for kiss and cuddle and more.’

He waggles his layers of eyebrow.

Alison is taken aback.

‘What?’ she says. ‘You’re telling me some of you have, y’know, with each other?’

‘Absolutely not!’ cries Fanny.

‘What’re you talking about? You had a fling with Humphrey’s lower half only a few months ago!’ Julian crows.

‘What?!’ Alison finds herself on her feet.

‘Oh, did we not tell you?’ Pat says.

‘T’is true,’ Thomas adds. ‘The strangest romance I’ve ever seen, but a real one nonetheless.’

Alison is left reeling by this information – partly due to who’s involved, but also due to some questions that instantly spring to mind around the logistics of it all.

‘But Fanny, how did you -?’ she starts.

‘It’s over now, Alison, I’d rather not speak of it,’ Fanny says curtly.

‘See, what I say?’ says Robin. ‘Me have girlfriends here too. Nice Roman girl, but she sucked off after not long. Then, I see lady from village, she ghost here long time with me. Sucked off when Humphrey was young boy.’

Alison doesn’t like the smile that comes over Thomas’s face at Robin’s story.

‘Our chance could still come, fair Alison,’ he says.

‘Leave her alone, mate,’ Pat says. ‘Could be plenty of other girls here for you in time.’

‘One can only dream…’

‘Don’t go getting any funny ideas, Thorne,’ the Captain says sternly. ‘We keep things proper around here.’

‘I don’t think what Fanny and Humphrey’s body were up to can be described as proper,’ Thomas says.

The Captain hems and haws at Thomas’s implication. If ghosts could blush, Alison is sure he’d be bright pink right now.

‘I said I didn’t wish to speak of it anymore,’ says Fanny.

‘That’s very true, let us all be respectful of Fanny’s desires,’ says the Captain.

‘And let’s all agree,’ says Kitty, ‘that maybe someone will come along for us, or maybe we’ll move on before they do. But we aren’t without love, not at all.’

‘Here, here,’ says Pat, raising an invisible toast. ‘We have each other and, most importantly, we have Alison. It wouldn’t be Button House without her.’

As one, the others join Pat in his toast, raising their imaginary glasses.

‘To Alison,’ they say as one.

Alison smiles, and clinks her own invisible glass against all of theirs.