Florence can feel the exhaustion seeping into her bones, the result of yet another supernatural myth-busting, as her assistant insists on calling it. She can feel the phone in her pocket ringing, probably that same assistant again, but all she wants is a cup of tea and a hug from her mother. She shoulders the kitchen door of their home open, and calls out, "I'm home!" to anyone who might be there. She's rewarded by the sound of hurried footsteps descending the stairs.
"Florence!" Harriet rushes towards her daughter, uncaring of what a sight she must make as she throws her arms around Florence's weary frame.
"Hi, Harry," she whispers, sagging into the hug. She's grateful for many things in her life, but mostly for the two people who decided to adopt her at the age of eight. Though she required a great deal of love and patience at the beginning, Harriet and Alexander have loved her through all of it, often eschewing their rich aristocratic friends to defend their adoptive daughter.
Harriet pulls back with a sad smile, brushing the tendrils of hair out of Florence's eyes. "Why don't I make you a cup of tea, love? You look like you could use it."
"That sounds lovely, Harry. Is Alex in the study?" she asks as she sets down her briefcase on the raised island and takes a seat on a stool.
Just before her mother can answer, the doorbell rings. Florence moves to answer it, but is stopped by Harriet's hand on her arm. "Oh, let Alex get it, dear. You look like you need a rest." Her bright blue eyes search her daughter's face. "Are you quite alright, Florence?"
Before Florence can respond, Alexander's voice booms through the house. "It's for you, Flo!"
Florence can only guess it's her assistant, come to track her down since she can't reach her over the phone. That girl terrifies her more than the thought of any ghost. Harriet follows her to the door, as she stops short of Alexander and a strange looking man. "What is it?"
"Florence Cathcart?" the man, who can't be much older than herself, asks. "I'm Robert Mallory, and I've -"
She interrupts him when she sees it's her book he's got clutched in his hands. "Good Lord, this is my home you know." He looks bewildered as she takes the book from him, looking around for a pen. "But I'll humor you, I suppose. I'm glad you've enjoyed the book."
It dawns on him what she's going to do. "As a matter of fact, I didn't."
That gives Florence pause. "Excuse me?"
"I didn't much enjoy your b-book," he continues. "I found it too certain, too sure," he pauses, and meets her gaze, "though perhaps that makes sense, given how rude you are to strangers."
Alexander clears his throat, frowning at the two of them. "Florence, this man has an issue."
"Oh, I'm terribly sorry, but she's not taking any new requests right now." Harriet steps up, wrapping her arm around her daughter's waist. "She's only just come back."
"I think you should hear what he has to say, dear." Alexander's voice is warm but firm.
"Harry's right, I'm afraid," Florence says, handing the book back, refusing the be embarrassed. "I'm not taking up any new work at the moment."
The man eyes her suspiciously. "You are a ghost hunter, though, aren't you? As well as a writer."
"You can't hunt what doesn't exist," she tells him.
"I'm a history teacher at a b-boy's prep school up north." He pauses for a moment, looking like he's searching for the right words, or perhaps trying to control his slight stutter. "We think we've found evidence that one does."
There's something about him that is compelling, Florence decides. That, and the fact that she feels a little guilty about how she's treated him, causes her to sigh and step lightly out of Harriet's grasp. "Alex will show you to my study. I just need to change."
Harriet follows her up the stairs and into her bedroom, watching her try and untangle her hair, dusty from the walk home. "Here, let me."
Florence sighs and sits down on the chair in front of her desk, letting Harriet work the knots out with deft, delicate fingers. "Sorry, Mum."
Harriet presses a kiss to the top of her head. "Are you sure you want to hear what this man has to say?"
"It's the least I can do, after being so rude to him." Florence sighs, and leans back against her mother.
Harriet's arm wrap around Florence's shoulders. "You know your father and I have always supported you through this, because we know how you blame yourself for Chris' death," Florence feels her eyes prick with tears, her cheeks becoming wet as Harriet continues, "but it's tearing you apart, love. You need to stop."
"I know," Florence turns around in the seat into her mother's arms. "I know it's not fair to you and Dad. I'm sorry."
They sit like that for a moment, but eventually Harriet leaves to give her some privacy. Finally, after getting dressed and making sure her eyes aren't red from crying, she joins Mallory in her study. He's examining the stacks of hate mail she has scattered about the room, but looks up when she enters. "Some of these are quite graphic. 'May your skin be flayed from your b-body in the lowest depths of Hell'," he reads her.
"An elderly woman in Dorset, if I remember correctly." She sighs as she pulls Chris' cigarette case out of her pocket, picking one and lighting it up. She takes a drag and eyes him. "So, what can I do for you, Mr. Mallory?"
He walks around the stacks of paper throughout the room. "The school's nurse is a big fan of your b-book, and has told the headmaster about the work you do." His lips twitch in a small smile. "She's assured him you're quite well respected, and that your b-book sits alongside the B-Bible on many b-bookshelves."
Florence smiles at him, and gestures for him to sit, as she takes the arm of her couch. "Well, I'm glad someone liked it."
A muscle in his jaw jumps, the smile dropping from his face as he continues to stand. "Ms. Cathcart, I need to be assured that what I tell you will not leave this room."
She takes another drag before answering. "I can assure you, Mr. Mallory, that everything said to me in this room is confidential, especially when I end up not taking the case."
He nods once before taking a large envelope out of the inside of his jacket pocket. From inside it, he hands he a letter. "Our school is called Rookford, in western Cumbria. It's a relatively new school, in a large property that once was a private residence." He pauses as she eyes the letter from the headmaster, requesting her help. "Some years before we purchased the b-building, a child was said to have been murdered there."
"Well, who?" she asks, setting down the letter. "Did they manage to catch the killer?"
Mallory shakes his head. "There's no public record of it happening. The family was said to have been wealthy, and paid to have it hushed up."
"In this day and age?" Florence takes another drag. "I find that to be highly unlikely."
"Mind you, this was supposed to be before the internet b-boom," he says. "It's entirely possible someone was murdered there."
She frowns at him, blowing smoke out of her nostrils. "Mr. Mallory, let me get this straight. You're here about a murder that may or may not have happened quite a few years ago?"
The muscle in his jaw jumps again. "No. I'm here about another death." He hands her another paper from the envelope, a newspaper article this time. "A pupil died last week, named Walter Portman." Florence slides so she's sitting on the couch properly, listening to him as she reads the clipping. "The day before he died, he had gone to the headmaster, shaking with fear, claiming to have seen a ghost, the ghost of the murdered child."
Florence sets the clipping on top of the letter, and takes a final drag from her cigarette before stubbing it out. "How did he know it was the ghost of the child?"
He pulls out a stack of photos. "We have pictures," he says, laying them down one on top of the other. "In every class picture, you can see him."
Florence eyes the photos, tapping her finger on the image of the blurry, faint boy. "Mr. Mallory, this could be caused by Photoshop, or overexposure, or -"
"Any number of things, I know," he interrupts her. "But this is last year's, and I was present for it. I saw no tampering of any kind, and developed the film myself. This image was never made digital."
Florence gets up and roots around in one of the piles she knows holds a similar photographic blur. "This is from a woman in Milford, and the 'ghost' looks exactly the same. It's overexposure, Mr. Mallory."
Mallory squares his jaw. "Look, Ms. Cathcart, it's summer break in three days. We'll be lucky to get any of the children back next year, and -"
She interrupts, "I'm not interested in the commercial success of your school, Mr. -"
"- there have been other sightings, and the b-boys believe -"
"Boys believe in anything from aliens to Santa Claus! I'm sure some of them even believe in God." She sighs, walking back to where he's standing. "If ghosts exist, don't you think your school would be haunted by more than just one? With the recent wars in the Middle East and -"
"Rookford is also b-boarding school, Ms. Cathcart." His voice is steel as he stares her down. "Most of the b-boys are as good as orphans." She freezes, but he continues on, "I don't say that just because of your past -"
"Then why say it at all?" she demands.
He sighs, and picks up the book he dropped on the coffee table. "Fear is all I remember of my childhood," he reads to her, and she closes her eyes and grits her teeth as he continues, "I have glimpses of my parents' deaths, but nothing of our life in Kenya, nor coming to London. Nothing but a feeling of perpetual horrifying terror."
She opens her eyes, hates that a tear escapes. She had never wanted to share that part of her, but her publisher had demanded it. "How dare you -"
He continues over her, "Fear swallows children and the adults we b-become." He snaps the book shut. "These b-boys aren't afraid of bumps in the night, or a monster under their beds. They are being frightened to death."
Florence storms over to the door and throws it open. "Get out," she demands, "please," she adds, trying to remain polite, though she's sure it's already too late.
He gathers his papers, and leaves his card on the coffee table. "I was sent to ask for your help, and I've done that." He looks up at her. "You seem like the type of person who won't do anything she doesn't want to do. I'll be in town until tomorrow." He pauses by her on his way out. "Thank you for your time."
She refuses to even look at him, let alone acknowledge him, and slams the door shut behind him. She takes a deep breath, and reaches for another cigarette, replaying their conversation in her mind. She may not like him, but she still knows she'll call him in a few hours, and agree to come.
He meets her just as he said he would, bright and early at eight o'clock, on the platform for the train headed towards Cumbria. She's only packed a duffle bag, on top of her usual 'ghost-busting' kit, as Harriet calls it. She doesn't expect the trip to last very long.
"Ms. Cathcart," he greets her, all politeness.
She bites back a small smile. "Mr. Mallory. I hope you slept well."
"As well as one can in London, I suppose. Are you all ready? I've reserved us two seats." He gestures towards the train.
"Thank you very much. Please, lead the way." She watches him walk towards the train, following him at a slow pace. She's amused to find he walks with a slight limp, probably made worse by the fact he keeps his back ramrod straight. By the way he talks, she figures he was probably a military man. She finds she's interested to learn more about him, intrigued by the way he talked to her in her study, his rudeness juxtaposed with his obvious care for his students.
The ride to Cumbria is quiet, as he tells her he has some grading to do. She lets him work in peace as she listens to her music, idly flipping through her notes from past cases as she tries to decide if she wants to write another book. More often than not, however, she finds herself watching him, studying the way the light from the window hits the brown in his hair, turning it gold. His hands are graceful as they move across the page, marking incorrect answers. In another life, she might have pursued him romantically, and learned the sound of his laugh. She's willing to bet it doesn't come easy to him, but she might've been able to provoke it, had they not gotten off on such a wrong foot.
They're picked up at the station by the groundskeeper for the school, who's a quiet, watery-eyed man. By the way Mallory's jaw clicks when he greets the man, Florence guesses there's some bad blood between them.
The school's not far, she's assured, and she enjoys the country side as they drive by it in the meantime. Once they pass the gates to the estate the school sits on, Florence reopens the letter. "Semper veritas," she reads, tracing the words of the school's crest.
"The headmaster decided Latin would give the school an air of respectability," Mallory informs her, "to attract non-scholarship students."
"And I suppose a bona fide ghost scares them back away as soon as soon as they come," she tosses back.
Mallory grins for the first time she's seen. "Latin puns, what fun," he jokes.
"Always the truth," she quips. "I suppose we'll see."
"You seem almost excited," he says as he turns to her. "You want that much for people to believe in nothing?"
"No, without science, people don't believe in nothing. They believe in anything," she pulls out her cigarette case and opens it up, "even ghosts."
"So we need them, but you don't."
She huffs, drawing a cigarette out and sticking it behind her ear, to smoke when they exit the car. "I believe in evidence. Need has nothing to do with it."
He eyes the case still clasped in her hand. "And yet you carry someone else's cigarette case."
She feels a small twist in her heart, but shakes her head and smiles anyway, stuffing the cigarette case back into her pocket. "Touche."
There's a pause, and then, "I'm sorry," he says, genuinely regretful, as he looks away.
It's quite different from the gruff man she's grown used to. If anything, the more time she spends with him, the less she understands him. She watches him for the rest of the car ride, wondering if she'll ever be able to truly figure him out.
The school's nurse meets them at the gates of the beautiful building, all quiet excitement in front of Florence. After Mallory makes the introductions, she walks away, herding the boys towards the lunch room.
"Maud's taken this very hard," he tells her as they walk into the courtyard, bags slung over their shoulders, "but I have to admit she's strange most of the time. She liked your b-book, for starters."
She shakes her head at him with a wide smile. "You are really something else, Mallory."
The backs of his ears turn red. "Come on, I'll introduce you to the headmaster."
The headmaster, a Reverend, is curt and brief with her, dismissing her with barely two sentences out of her mouth, letting her know she's only there to make the school nurse feel better. It obviously doesn't sit well with Mallory, whose muscle in his jaw is jumping again. Though that may just be annoyance that he's stuck with her for longer, since the headmaster designates him as the tour guide. She snorts once they're out of earshot. "Well, at least I know where I stand with you lot."
Mallory rolls his eyes and ignores her. "I'll show you where Walter was found."
She grins to herself, and suddenly finds she's actually enjoying talking to him. "Please, lead the way."
He takes her to the classroom where the most sightings have happened, where Maud joins them. "Walter was actually found just outside of this room, on the terrace. Most of the boys are afraid to come in here now," he tells her.
"Mr. Mallory, please be quiet. She can't concentrate!" Maud admonishes him.
He gives Florence an exasperated look, and she bites the inside of her cheek to keep from laughing. She looks around the room, and reads the graffiti on the desks before tapping on one in particular. "Ego contemno Latin," she reads. "I hate Latin. That you, Mallory?"
She feels triumphant at the twitch of his lips. "Come on, let me show you the terrace."
Outside, after she's instructed Maud to get her Walter's bear, she turns to him again, and sees him glaring angrily at the groundskeeper. She looks between the two of them, before deciding to ask, "So, you hate him. Why?"
He takes the cigarette from behind her ear, lighting it up and puffing on it before she can protest. "I have my reasons. I don't know if it would be appropriate to share them with you."
She rolls her eyes, snatching the cigarette back. "Suit yourself."
He snorts, taking the cigarette from her fingers. "He said some things, about soldiers who fought in this last war."
She nods, and opens her mouth to say something when Maud returns. As she chats with Maud about the bear, she notices Mallory stiffen and turn away. Maud notices, too, and turns to him. "Mr. Mallory?"
"Perhaps I can leave this to you?" he asks, stifled, before he leaves without waiting for an answer.
She watches him walk away, his limp more pronounced, and finds herself more baffled than ever.
After chatting with most of the boys, and some of the other teachers, Florence starts setting up her equipment. Mallory reappears somewhere in the middle of her running around, asking what he can do to help. She gives him instructions, but then finds herself explaining her methods to him, and what exactly each piece of equipment does. It makes her feel enthusiasm she hasn't felt in years.
He snorts at some point, causing her to stop what she's doing and look at him. "What?"
"They must hate you," he says.
"Who, religious people?"
"No," he smirks, "the ghosts."
She shakes her head at him as he leaves, presumably to get ready for bed. The day has disappeared, and before she knows it, she's alone in Walter's old dormitory, waiting for something to happen. She already has an idea of what caused Walter's death, after talking with the boys and looking around the building. The police ruled it accidental, but there's something about it that irks her.
She's just about to give up on the night when she hears splashing come from next door, louder than it should be. She looks over and sees a hole in the wall and, knowing she shouldn't, peeks through it.
She can just make out Mallory in one of the tubs, laying back and not doing anything except staring at the ceiling. She bites her lip as she considers his prone figure. She's gone from absolutely detesting him to liking him within a matter of twenty-four hours, and it worries her. There hasn't been anyone since Chris, and that ended so horribly. But still, she supposes, as she watches Mallory finally climb out of the bathtub, there isn't any harm in looking.
He's beautifully toned, and if Florence were an artist she'd definitely request to draw him. Warmth pools low in her belly as she takes in the expanse of skin, marked here and there by pale scars. Her thoughts come to a halt, however, when she sees the large wound on his thigh, probably from shrapnel during the war. The weird thing about it, however, is that it looks like it's still healing. It's only a question for a moment, though, because she then sees Mallory pick up a razor from the chair beside the bath, and dig it into the wound. She flinches as she sees the blood, and has to close her eyes as she witnesses him pour isopropyl alcohol over it. He has to bite down on a towel to quiet his moans of pain.
It shocks her, but then she hears the sound of one of her contraptions going off, so she doesn't have any time to dwell on it.
Then she's lost in the flurry of activity that she forgets his existence altogether, which is embarrassing when he manages to scare the shit out of her when he rounds a corner as she's trying to chase down the boy who's doing this to her.
She props herself up against a wall as she tries to catch her breath, with him looking at her with concern in his eyes. "Are you alright? I heard one of your machines go off."
"I'm fine," she pants, avoiding his eyes. "I think I caught him, but we need to test the boys' feet."
He still looks concerned, and slowly offers her his arm, as if he's afraid she'll spook like a wild horse. "But in the morning, right?"
She takes his arm and sags against him, equal parts tired and relieved. "Right."
After the admittedly dramatic reveal where she also manages to get the headmaster to agree to get the teacher suffering from PTSD to get help, she feels an emptiness she hasn't felt in a long while. Harriet was right, she's killing herself in order to prove to herself again and again that Chris is gone, and it isn't fair to any one, especially her parents, who go through pain themselves watching her try and patch herself back together again after proving herself right.
She slips out of the building while everyone else is eating breakfast, and finds Mallory perched on a rock outside of the courtyard gates, smoking a cigarette. She sighs heavily and joins him in looking out over the grounds in the morning light.
He considers her before saying, "There was a man in my command, who used to tell me he felt the most alive during this time of morning, when the sun has barely risen, and the sky is still pink." He takes a drag on his cigarette. "It's strange, trying to separate the past and the present." She feels too empty to respond, so she merely looks at him, prompting to go on. He raises an eyebrow. "The boys have done a complete 180. You should be happy you managed to help."
She hums, and nods her head. "Of course."
He gives her a small smile. "Semper veritas. The truth comes at a price."
She thinks back to the poor teacher, sent off to a hospital for treatment, and looks out on the estate. "Ruined a damaged man."
"I'm not thinking about Malcolm," he tells her. "And I don't think you are either. I saw you," she looks back to him, eyes wide, "after you proved the ghost wasn't real. Something happened to you. You were suddenly -"
She can't take it, can't stand and talk to him about it, so she cuts him off. "Please, Robert," she says, voice thick with emotion, using his first name for the first time. "I did what you asked me to, and proved there was nothing to fear." She pauses and meets his gaze. "Nothing."
He lets her walk away without another word, but she's too upset to go back inside. She can't face people right now, so she walks along the lake, after having a strange conversation with the groundskeeper. She hears the students leaving in cars with their parents or other relatives, as she stands on a small dock. She wishes briefly her own parents were coming to get her, but she's an adult, so she pulls out her cigarette case instead, and picks one out.
A gunshot shocks her out of her reverie, and she drops her cigarette case. There are cigarettes everywhere and she bends over to try and pick as many of them up as she can, when she hears a splash. In a panic she turns around, and realizes she can't see the case with Chris' initials on it. She puts her hand in the water to see if it's near the surface, but can't feel anything.
A hand shoots up towards her, however, and it's the last straw. Convinced her mind is playing ticks on her, she closes her eyes and realizes how laughably easy it would be to end it all now. To never feel this pain again, for time to stop. It sounds so good, she can't resist, so she lets herself slip into the water. For a few moments, she feels herself drift towards the bottom, and thinks everything's going to be alright soon. Until an arm around her waist propels her to the surface, and she feels herself start gasping for air.
Mallory's voice is in her ear, soothing her, "You're alright, you'll be okay."
She wishes that were true.
After being chastised by Maud, she goes to the bath room, where Mallory has drawn her a hot bath. She smiles at him. "You didn't have to do this. Thank you." When he simply nods at her, she bites her lip. "I'll be gone in an hour."
He sighs and leans over the counter. "Alright."
"I fell," she insists, not really knowing why it's so important Mallory believes her. "I fell."
He leaves without saying anything else, and she supposes she deserves it.
She tries to relax as she finally eases herself into the hot water, exhaling as she considers what she'd just attempted to do. Harriet and Alexander would be destroyed, she knows, but it's hard continuing to live when she knows there's nothing after this. Still, she should've thought about them before she let herself drift. She thinks about Mallory, too, and how angry he'd seemed with her. She imagines it, being his lover, his partner, his wife. She's only known him for two days, but she knows she likes him, in spite of his rudeness and blunt nature. Or maybe because of it.
Then she hears clattering on the other side of the wall, and hopes it's him. Thinks it's him, until she sees it isn't.
Clad in only a bathrobe she has the shock of her life, faced with the possibility that there still might actually be something supernatural at play.
She bursts into the dining room where Maud, Mallory, and the boy Tom are after getting hurriedly dressed. She manages to persuade Mallory to follow her out of the room, but as soon as the doors swing shut behind them he demands, "Florence, what are you doing?"
"You asked me here to explain something supernatural, and I don't think I've done that," she explains in a rush, climbing the stairs in a hurry. "There has been a, a collective delusion here, a boy who can move through the house as if the walls and floors don't exist." She turns to him. "You said a child was murdered here. What if that was caused by the same delusion?"
"You're doing this because of a feeling?" he asks incredulously. "This morning you were -"
"This is not a feeling," she snaps. "This is a thesis, it's science. So, please, tell me about the original murder."
"There's no record of it," he snaps back. "You can't even be sure there was one."
She huffs. "Something is causing this."
"Two hours ago you -" he stops himself, takes a breath. "Florence, why are you even doing this?"
She's saved from having to answer him by Maud calling her attention to one of the thermometers going crazy. She discovers the hidden compartment in the wall, and the toy. "We have to work. Robert, lock the house."
He looks at her with concern, as if he's afraid she's going to break down. "Florence-"
"Robert, lock the house," she repeats, eyes snapping up to his, brooking for no argument.
He holds his hands up in surrender, and walks away. She doesn't want to think about why it hurts to see him leave.
She doesn't know Mallory's overheard her confession to Tom about Chris until she sees his face at the bottom of the stairs.
"You're torturing yourself," he accuses her. "Is that what you're doing here, proving again and again that he's really gone, that he's not coming back?" She tries to move past him, but he continues, "Twisting the blade deeper."
"You tell me," she snaps, turning the corner.
He follows her. "Why? Is it guilt?"
She whirls around. "I can't believe you're preaching to me when you rip your leg to shreds, as if that will help with the survivor's guilt!" She's so mad, she's practically spitting.
The shocked look on his face makes her realize she went too far, but she can't find it in herself to apologize, so she walks away instead.
She's almost at the other end of the hallway when she hears him whisper, "You don't know what you're talking about."
Guilt flares in her stomach, and she makes herself walk back to him. "Robert, I'm frightened." She searches his face. "I can't live with that." She takes a deep breath, forcing herself to be honest. "You're right, what I do eats away at me. I hate myself more and more every time I prove there's no such thing as ghosts, but I refuse to live with fear. I'd rather be dead." Her voice cracks on the last word, but she doesn't cry. At least, not until she's safely far enough away.
She half expects him to follow her, so she's not surprised when she feels his hand on her shoulder as she starts plugging in cables. She leans into his touch and presses a kiss to his hand, because it feels like the right thing to do, before going back to what she was doing. He squeezes her shoulder before walking away.
With one touch he managed to calm her, and it frightens her that he has the ability to do that after only a few days.
She doesn't have much time to dwell on it, however, not when she's faced with the panic that comes from nearly being shot at. She screams at Tom and Maud, and then hates herself for it. She seeks out Mallory, for help, but also for company. She doesn't want to be alone with her thoughts where they are right now.
"He had a shotgun, and he was there," she explains as he watches her pour the right chemicals into the different bins. "This will prove it." He's been quiet since he agreed to help her, watching her with soft eyes that make her tremble and hate herself a little less. She doesn't want to make things worse, so she forces herself to ask, "I can um, I can leave an infrared light on, but will you -"
He smiles at her. "I'll be fine. I'm not afraid of the dark."
"That's not what I meant, and you know it," she says lightly.
"I know." He's still smiling, and she's finding it hard to concentrate, especially since they're in such close quarters.
She instructs him what to do as she moves the film around in the make-shift developing room they've cobbled together. "Thank you."
"The dark used to b-bother me," he confesses suddenly. "But then I realized it meant safety. No one can shoot at you if they can't see you, you know?"
She nods, not wanting to speak and ruin the moment.
"When I was young, I'd hide in my b-bed, wanting to see what was in the dark, but being too afraid to open my eyes." He looks at her as he says this last part, and she knows it means something, but she doesn't know what yet. "Of course, it's never darker than when we close our eyes, but for some reason we want them to stay shut." He pauses and makes sure she's looking at him. "Why is that?"
She looks away quickly. "The photos should be done now." She puts them in the developing fluid one by one. "He has to be in one of these."
"Why do you keep your eyes closed, Florence?" he asks gently.
Her heart is pounding as she tries to ignore his question, looking through the photographs frantically. "Where is he?" Until she reaches the last one, which shows the hallway in front of her prone figure, empty. "Oh, God." She can't believe it, but there's irrefutable proof in front of her eyes. She came face to face with a ghost. She starts shaking her head, trying to clear it, and realizes Mallory hasn't said anything. Her gaze snaps up to his, and he's still looking at her with those soft eyes, completely unsurprised. Things finally click into place about why he disliked her so much when he first met her, why he thought she was too certain and too sure. Her heart feels full to brimming, with this infuriating man who knew but let her figure it out on her own.
She reaches up to him, meeting his lips in a hungry kiss. He pulls away briefly, in shock, like he didn't think he'd get this. But she smiles at him and nods, too full of emotion to say anything. He kisses her this time, and it's needy and desperate. She clings to him, trying to assure herself of his realness. She doesn't even realize she's moving until the back of her knees hit the bed she's been sleeping on since she arrived. He's devouring her, and she doesn't mind one bit.
Her hands are shaking as she tries to unbutton his shirt, so he helps her with it as his weight presses her into the mattress. She gives up before she reaches the last button, however, cupping his face between her hands before sliding her fingers into his hair. He pulls back briefly to rid himself of his shirt, and she runs her fingers down his chest, before resting at the waistband of his trousers. In retaliation, he slides his hands under her shirt and up her sides before cupping her breasts as he leans back down for another kiss.
She arches into his touch, moaning at the feeling of his hands on her chest. It's been years since she allowed herself this pleasure.
Finally, they manage to strip off the rest of their clothing, never being able to stop kissing each other for very long. The first press of him into her causes her to cry out into his mouth, fingernails desperately digging into his shoulders as she urges him to move. He seems to be trying to last as long as possible, to make the moment extend, as if he's afraid she'll disappear afterwards. She slides her hands down his back pushing on his ass to get him to go faster. He shudders under her touch, and soon his hips are snapping against her with fervor.
She's been on such an emotional rollercoaster the past few days it seems like she's coming in no time at all. He isn't far behind, though, and after she comes back to herself, she smiles up at him, panting. He rests his forehead against hers and returns it. She half-laughs, speaking for the first time since she developed the photos and asking, "Are you real?"
He's still breathing pretty heavily, so he attempts to nod, making her giggle. "Yes," he finally manages.
She shakes her head. "Why are these things here? What do they want from me?"
He rolls his eyes as he manages to shift so he's lying next to her. "You know, maybe they aren't here for you." He snorts. "I can see you thinking."
She shakes her head again, before bursting out laughing. "I'm glad I'm on the pill."
He pales quickly, and buries his face in the crook of her neck. "Shit."
"It's okay," she says, still laughing. "We'll remember next time."
He hums, before pressing kisses to her throat, causing her to shiver. They're snapped out of it by the ringing of a bell, one she doesn't recognize. "The old servants' bells, in the teacher's wing," he explains when he sees her confused expression. He kisses her chastely. "I'll be right back."
But he's not.
After telling the wild tale of her childhood, and her subsequent realization of it, she sighs, leaning back in the bar chair at the kitchen island. "I can't believe I've forgotten everything." She snorts, and amends her statement, "Well, not everything. 'Eaten by lions'. I can't believe they let me tell that story."'
Robert chuckles. "Well, all memories are a hoax of some sort. You can't blame your parents for letting you believe a less painful version of events." He taps something on the table, sliding it over to her. Chris' cigarette case sparkles on the wood. "You won't have to worry about anyone ever finding Judd's body. I've b-buried b-better men than him."
She takes the case thoughtfully, another piece of the puzzle that is Robert Mallory snapping into place. "You see your own ghosts, too?" she asks softly. He nods, almost imperceptibly, so she presses, "Are they with us right now?" His eyes start welling up with tears, and she feels her heart break for him. "Your friends."
He gives a watery laugh. "They look like my friends."
She leans forward and takes his hand. "They don't have the right," she says firmly, almost angrily. "The pain you inflict on yourself, you don't deserve that."
He leans back in his chair, refusing to look at her. "They died, I lived."
"No, you didn't," she insists, making him look at her. "A life haunted isn't life at all." She sighs, squeezing his hand. "We might as well be ghosts ourselves." He nods, but she still presses. "I need you to believe me."
He turns his hand over in hers and laces their fingers together. "I do."
Maud enters the room then, bustling around, getting glasses together for sherry. Florence laughs, and Robert smiles at her, his eyes less watery. She presses a quick kiss to his lips. "I'll see you later, yeah?"
He squeezes her hand one last time before letting go.
She's worried it'll be the last time after she's learned Maud's poisoned her. She can't die, not with the promise of love and warmth from a man just as damaged as she is. Tom saves her, but barely, and she's so close to death that for a few days she thinks she's died. It's a hazy 48 hours, but she's so glad she's alive when she opens her eyes and sees Robert in a chair beside her bed, her hand in his. She must be in a hospital, because the lights are so bright it's painful. She moans, and he startles awake, leaning over her. "Florence."
He looks so relieved she starts crying, weakly grabbing for him until he climbs into bed next to her and holds her. She fists her hands in his shirt, whispering, "I was so afraid that I would die."
"You didn't," he murmurs, voice soft. "You're alive, and I'm here."
She dozes off like that, with Robert wrapped around her, reminding her she's alive and with him.
When she next wakes up, she feels like she's been hit by a truck. Robert is back in a chair beside her bed, hand in hers. She rubs at her eyes, before pressing the nurse's call button. A woman she doesn't recognize comes in with a chart. "Good morning," she says cheerily, causing Robert to stir.
"Shh. Please don't wake him," she hushes her. "I was just wondering what was going on with me."
"You two are so lovely together. Your boyfriend has not left your side once in the past three days, did you know? Wish mine were that attentive," the nurse says, before flipping through her chart. "Well, looks like the poison did a number on your system. You're not allowed to eat anything more complex than apple sauce right now."
"So I'm assuming I can't leave any time soon, then?" she asks.
"I'll send the doctor in when he gets here later, but I shouldn't think for a few days at least, no." She smiles down at Florence. "Anything you need, dear?"
She looks over at Robert. "No, I can't think of anything."
The nurse leaves with a smile, and leaves Florence to study his sleeping form. He looks years younger as he sleeps, his chest rising and falling steadily. She knows it's irrational, but she never wants to spend another minute away from him. Though she does suppose, with a startling thought, that she should at least let her mother, her wonderful patient mother, know she is, in fact, alive.
Unfortunately, she's not entirely sure she knows where her phone is, so she'll need to wake up Robert.
She shakes his arm gently. "Robert."
He startles awake, eyes wide until he realizes where he is. "Florence. How long have you been awake?"
She smiles at him. "Long enough to realize I need my phone. Harry must be worried sick."
"Right." He roots around in his jacket pocket, until he finds her phone, handing it over to her.
With a few quick taps she's quickly connected with Harriet. "Mum?"
"Oh, Florence!" Harriet's voice always sounds tinny on the phone, but it's still a relief. "Alex and I have been so worried. Where are you? Are you alright?"
She sniffles a little. "I'm in a hospital, near the school in Cumbria. Don't worry, I'm quite alright. I'll tell you about it when I come home."
"Nonsense! Alex, get the car, sweetie -"
Florence panics. "No, Mum, I'm fine, really. Robert, er, Mr. Mallory is here with me. I promise I'll keep you updated, but there's really no reason for you to come up here right now."
Harriet sighs, long suffering into the phone. "Florence, please promise me, this is the last one, okay?"
"We'll talk about it when I get home, I promise." She smiles at Robert, who squeezes the hand he's still holding. "Listen, I'll call you later, okay? When I have more news."
"If you're sure." Harriet pauses. "I love you very much, dear."
"Love you, too. Give my love to Alex as well."
She can almost hear her smile."Of course. Take care."
"I will. Bye." Florence hands her phone back to Robert with a laugh. "Poor Harry. She's better off not knowing all the details of this one, I think."
"It's certainly taken a few years off of my life," Robert tells her, with a stretch.
"You can go home, you know," she says suddenly. "The nurse told me you've been here for three days straight. I'm sure you'd like to have a hot bath and a proper cup of tea."
"Florence," he says softly, "there's no place I'd rather be."
She squeezes her hand and will later pick that moment as the point in time she knew she was going to marry him someday.
Florence finishes packing what little she had and throws the bag over her shoulder, picking up the case of her equipment as she shuts the door to Robert's room. She meanders through the house, walking through her memories at the same time. The experience is bittersweet, knowing that this is likely the last time she'll roam these halls like this. Any future visits to the house will be brief, either picking up or dropping off Robert.
She finally sees him outside, after sidestepping wayward boys and the headmaster, who is loudly complaining about her to one of the other teachers. Neither of them see her, and she finds the situation so absurd she can't help but laugh once she's out of earshot. She walks up quietly to Robert, waiting until he notices her.
"I know you're there, you know," he tells her almost immediately, making her smile.
"That's more than your headmaster does," she says, stepping up to him and taking the cigarette out of his fingers. She leans against him as she takes a drag, and he takes the opportunity to wrap his arm around her waist. She looks out at the view of the garden, and finds memories coming back. "I used to play out here. Hide and seek," she smiles sadly, "with Maud watching from that bench over there."
"I'm still a little surprised that there wasn't any publicity on the murders that went on here," Robert admits softly.
"I assume it was both my father's estate and Harry and Alex who made that happen." She takes another drag. "I remember them. They used to be my parents' best friends." It's quiet between them for a few moments, and Florence knows she'll miss the easiness she and Robert have found in each other. The way they can be silent with one another, and the way they still squabble. She smiles to herself, before taking another drag. "I'm thinking of writing another book." She pauses for dramatic effect. "The Interpretation of Ghosts."
He snorts, and snatches the cigarette as he starts to turn away. "Oh, God help us all."
She laughs, and follows him up the stairs, stopping to say hello to Victor. She hopes he'll be okay. Finally, she catches up with Robert, and spies a black cab idling. "The taxi here already?"
"Afraid so, love." He takes one of her bags and helps bundle her into the car. "We still have plans for next Saturday, right?"
She presses a chaste kiss to his lips. "Next Saturday," she promises. She's just about to shut the door when a though occurs to her, and she looks back up at Robert. "You know, not seeing them isn't the same as forgetting."
Robert smiles down at her, and helps her close the door. "It isn't," he confirms, and she waves goodbye to him for as long as she can still see him.