I step through the door to find my flat practically frozen over and a ghost babbling in my head.
“Well, there you are,” complains a disembodied voice. “Enjoy your shower, did you? Good of you to walk out on me in the middle of a most reasonable upbraiding! I can’t even look at you. Look, this is me turning the other way.”
“Well, do go on,” I say, shutting the door behind me and laying my keys on top of an unopened salt bag. “I can’t wait to hear what abuse you’ve yet to throw at Mr. Bunchurch.”
“I was just elaborating on where the man can stick that decorative rapier he barely knows how to hold. I was getting to the really pictorial part, too.”
It’s a frosty afternoon in mid-January; not the time of the dead quite yet, but the city’s still aching from the freezing claws of the Black Winter. Everyone will be scurrying to their houses, hands deep in their pockets, eyes fixed on the path home, long before nightfall. That is, of course, everyone not carrying a rapier and wearing ectoplasm-proof work boots. Usually, I belong in the second category, but I’ve given myself the day off.
Outside, the snow powders everything and softens the outlines of my window. A silver-glass jar sits on the sill, painting the white a ghoulish green. The haunted skull inside looks out upon Tooting High Street like a wicked king enthroned before his subjects. A king trapped in his castle, of course—and only I can hear his proclamations. Lucky me.
“Listen,” I say, “I don’t like Bunchurch either. He’s incompetent and lewd and a bit too smug. But it’s been two days since we took out those Floating Brides for him, and he paid. You plan on moving on anytime soon?”
“We are not working with that half-witted clown again. I didn’t like the way he talked about those Brides. Not to mention the staggering diversity of the team he stuck you with—three skinny blondes!”
“Three skinny blondes who handled themselves well.” The case wasn’t super challenging, but despite my initial scepticism, those Bunchurch girls showed themselves to be very capable field agents. I suspect they weren’t too cowed by their leader, the hapless Adam Bunchurch. Unlike many agents I’ve worked with, they showed an admirable streak of autonomy that I’d been missing. “And since when are you sympathetic to other ghosts?”
“Given that those particular ones were holding their severed heads aloft, can you blame me for feeling a bit of kinship? Put it down to shared MET—Missing Extremity Trauma.”
“Can we debate ghostly microaggressions later? I’m freezing.”
I’ve just come in from the bathroom on the other side of the landing (and I did enjoy my shower very much—thank you, skull). I’m wearing a black singlet and the skirt with fewest ectoplasm burns; my leggings and jumpers, singed or otherwise, are all in the wash, and the floor is chillier than a Spectre’s behind. I scuttle my way to the dresser in search of socks. My legs will have to go bare for now.
Since I badly needed to be warmed up, I allowed myself a few extra minutes under the hot water. I even took the time to shave my legs. That’s how you know there’s serious time to kill. It’s been a slow few days in the freelancing business, and I’ve had some extra hours to myself while the outside world’s been gradually blanketed by snow. With the skull for questionable company, of course. Not that I need it to talk to, but it’s there, which is nice.
Socks retrieved, I reach for the blue plastic hairbrush on top of my dresser and begin running it through my hair. “What are you even doing up?” I ask the skull. “I thought you’d taken to not manifesting during the day.”
“Felt like it. Ooh, it gets dark and drab and lonely on my own. You don’t even know.” A green finger of ectoplasm trails around the glass like some kind of incorporeal slug. “Or perhaps you do?”
I pause mid-stroke, then brush faster. “Do you want me to turn your lever and stash you away? Because I will.”
“Please. You like talking to me.”
“Admittedly, yes,” says the spectral voice. “It amuses me. Especially now that you’re in an even darker place than me, a captured ghost teetering on the edge of nothingness. We have so much in common now, Lucy.”
My mouth goes dry. “We do not. First of all, I don’t fancy replacing my bed with a person-sized glass jar. Second of all, I’m not lonely, I’m independent. And I like it that way, thank you.”
“So you keep saying. But hey, a family can be a highly strung teenager and the evil haunted skull she keeps in a jar.”
I frown—but really, I’m grateful to the skull. It’s kind of a nice thing to say. “You can relax, you know. No jobs tonight.”
“Not much room to kick back and stretch my ectoplasm in here. And since when are you relaxed? You don’t exactly look tranquil.”
“I am,” I say matter-of-factly. “It’s my day off, the place is nice and clean. I’m content.”
“Could have fooled me. You’re about as restful as an unfed wolf on a tether.” The ectoplasm inside the jar swells and tightens, putting on a frightful parody of a smirk. “Except a wolf would at least admit to being hungry.”
“Yes, well. I’ve got nothing to admit to.”
“I’m happy where I am! And I’m certainly not… hungry for anything.”
“Right. Cool as a cucumber, you are. Perhaps because you don’t have to put up with all the sighing and heaving L. Carlyle does in her sleep. If I had ears, I’d have plugged them with beeswax the night we moved in.”
“So not true,” I huff. I brush through my hair once more, letting it bounce in front of my face. “Uh, I know I don’t make noises like that. Do I really?”
“No, Lucy, I’m just saying that because I like seeing you wheeze and squirm. I think your snorts of incredulity are adorable.” The skull peers at me through corpse-black eye sockets. “Yes, you do. Please, pine away if you must, but try to do it with some consideration.”
I chuck the brush onto my dresser, resisting the urge to snort incredulously. “So I haven’t been sleeping well. Big whoop. What are you moaning about, anyway? No one’s forcing you to hang out with feeble-minded humans.”
“Human. Singular. What are you doing down there?”
What I’m doing is kneeling by the iron radiator under the windowsill, my hand on the thermostat. “You may not have noticed,” I say, looking up at the ghost-jar, “but it’s bloody freezing. I don’t want to catch a cold.”
“No chance of that, I reckon. I’m feeling rather warm in here, myself—and I’ve been dead for over a century.”
I twist the plug on the thermostat, jacking it up a notch. “You are the worst thing ever.”
“I am unbearably insightful, yes.”
I scowl at the face in the jar, challenging it to go on. Whenever the skull gives me grief—which is regularly—I try to tune out its phantom voice. But, as usual, its acerbic comments have an effect on me. I know I’m flushed, and not because I’ve just come from a hot shower.
“I don’t know what you’re thinking right now,” I snap, “but you might as well drop it. You’re so sleazy, I can’t believe it.”
“You should talk! You’re like a randy spring chicken.” The spirit flashes a skeletal grin. “So you’re keeping the cold at bay. Hey—you’re mortal. And ever since you left one A.J. Lockwood all by his lonesome…”
“Okay, we are officially not having this conversation.”
“You really should drink more water, you know. You look absolutely parched.” I watch as the ghost puffs out its ectoplasmic cheeks.“It’s desire, love—you can’t fight it!”
And that’s the last I hear before twisting the lever on the jar shut, muzzling the skull. I’ve had more than my share of its insight for the day.
Once the ghost-jar is stashed away behind the dresser, I lie back against the headboard of my bed, trying to ignore how dry my mouth is.
I didn’t lie to the skull, at least not fully. I do like being independent. Being my own boss, paying for and living in own space, developing my Talent as I see fit. Growing on my own. Sure, not living in a bustling house with two boys took some getting used to, but I scarcely notice the solitude anymore. Of course, if I think about it for too long, if I get in my own head—well, I have the skull. Its uncanny voice takes up a great amount of headspace, at least the psychic bit.
There is a difference between being alone and being lonely. I’ve lived here for two months, and I’m doing alright on my own. Still… I certainly wouldn’t mind hearing a human voice that is neither issuing nor following orders. One that isn’t selling work equipment or take-out food, and isn’t receiving Sources at the Furnaces. I wouldn’t mind companionable silence either, or touching something that’ll touch me back. Something, someone, whatever. I wouldn’t mind at all.
These are the thoughts flurrying around my mind while I mellow out on the warm bed, listening to the ultra-soft pats of snowflakes against my window. Behind the dresser, well out of sight, the skull rests mutely in its jar. The invisible clockwork of the afternoon ticks and tocks, and I’m drifting off when someone knocks on my door, and my body’s getting heavier…
Hold up. Someone’s knocking on my door?
My eyes pop open. That’s a surprise. I’m certainly not expecting anyone. A client? No, they don’t come here. My rent is covered for the month; they’re probably not coming to take me away. And the laundry girl’s not due until tomorrow. I wonder…
Hopping out of bed, I give my still-damp hair a shake and look down at myself. My skin is still slightly flushed from the hot shower. I suppose I’m properly dressed, if a bit unseasonal—I did locate a pair of woollen socks for traversing the icy linoleum, at least—but who’s going to see me? They probably won’t be staying long anyway.
I shuffle to the door, glancing behind me to check that the skull jar is well out of sight. You never know—even if it’s just a neighbour asking for a cup of sugar, curiosity can be a dangerous thing.
I undo the lock and swing the door open.
And it’s not a neighbour. But it’s no stranger, either.
It’s someone from far away, yet very close to me indeed.
Anthony Lockwood is standing at my doorstep.
Two months apart. Two blasted months apart, and here he is.
Lockwood, in the flesh.
I briefly wonder if I actually slept through the afternoon to nightfall and I need to fetch my rapier and scrounge up a Source. I blink. No—the sun is still up, and I’m feeling far too warm in his presence. He’s definitely not a ghost.
During the split second it takes my brain to loop around the fact that he’s really there, I take in the sight of him. He looks just as I remember, except with a flush of winter to his cheeks and ears. Snowflakes speckle his dark flop of hair and melt down the shoulders of his long, claw-marked coat. An elegant woollen scarf that I recognise from last winter is draped about his neck.
My eyes glide back to those rosy cheeks, his elegant features; the face that I’ve so often imagined for a bit of comfort on stressful nights. The tip of his nose is aflush, too. So are his lips. All pink like peaches and plums and nothing wintry at all, really.
Shut the hell up. Lockwood. Lockwood… Lockwood is here!
Why is he here?
“Hi, Lucy,” he says, as if his presence isn’t ripping apart the fabric of all sense and reason. I find that I’m clutching my chest with the same hand that turned the doorknob. I suddenly feel a great deal more exposed in my tiny singlet and skirt.
“Lockwood,” I say, breathless. “Hi.”
A silent moment passes in which it becomes clear that neither of us has fully processed the other’s being there. It’s Lockwood who finally breaks the spell.
“Can I come in for a minute?” He glances into the room behind me.
“Of course.” I step aside with mechanical movements, still unsure of his realness.
“Might leave my coat out here, on the doorknob. I’m a bit drippy. The snow got me.” An awkward smile.
“So this is your new place, is it?”
My masterful command of English vocabulary aside, I’m shocked to see him—even more so when the coat and scarf come off. Underneath them, he’s wearing his usual white shirt, but uncharacteristically rumpled and with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows. No jacket, no tie. Just an unironed shirt and dark trousers. He pulls it off, of course, better than most people pull off their Sunday best, but still. Getting dressed in a rush? Looking something close to bedraggled? A foreign concept to Lockwood. I do hope nothing’s wrong.
In he walks, snow-dusted and winter-flushed and looking like a postcard from a faraway place. Best regards, the life you gave up. I shut the door while he looks around the place, quietly taking it in. Thank God I cleaned up and emptied the bin this morning.
“So, Luce…” Lockwood takes a deep breath, turning to face me.
“Yes?” If I feel slightly giddy at being called Luce for the first time in ages, I try not to let it show. I’m cool. I’ve got this.
“I came here today to talk,” he says. “I wanted to check up on you, see how you were doing. I hear fine things about you, of course.”
“Oh. Well,” I say, tucking my hair behind my ears. “I’m good, yes. I’m doing quite well. With the Black Winter and all, the freelance thing took off fast.”
“Fortuitous timing, then. Nice.” Lockwood flicks a glance at me. “You look great, too. Really great—well, that is. You look well…” He peers out the window overlooking Tooting High Street, where nervous souls will be hurrying to reach their homes before dusk.
“So do you.” I shuffle a bit, hands gathering behind my back. “Yeah, business is good. When agencies book me, though, I get to deal with all their supervisors and authority figures. They can be a right bore, I’m telling you. It’s not exactly like—” I bite my lip hard, my voice breaking off.
Lockwood scratches his ear. “No. Well. That’s how most agencies are, I’m sure… You’ve really made a name for yourself, though. It’s impressive, especially within such a short timeframe. Took me ages to get off the ground, you know, when I started out.” He looks back at me and smiles in earnest. “You’re quite the entrepreneur these days, Luce.”
Blimey. During our time apart, I almost forgot how good it felt to be praised by Lockwood. My cheeks grow warm. “Thanks. And hey, Lockwood & Co.—you’ve been making headlines.”
“Right, yeah. Things have been good on that front.”
We smile at each other. For a moment, I can pretend we’re just two friendly business owners chatting about each other’s enterprising ways. If only it were that simple. Instead, our shared past trails behind us like a comet’s tail. Too bright to overlook, too big to ignore, and stretching across a vast mass of black. Now I wonder where that comet is going to land.
“Of course,” Lockwood goes on, “things aren’t always the same behind the scenes. We have been struggling a bit. Since you chose to leave.”
“Okay, well,” I say flatly. “I’m sure you felt the change. Small company and all.”
Something about Lockwood’s countenance is different. I see it now, in the folds and shadows of his face. When he meets my gaze, his eyes look even darker than usual. “Yes. That’s what I wanted to talk about, actually.”
“Is that right?” My voice is scarcely my own. I have a faint idea what’s coming.
“First of all, Luce, I apologise for storming out of that café. Attacking you like that for a choice you had every right to make… I lost my nerve, and I feel terrible.”
The memory of the day I resigned from Lockwood & Co. is one of my worst. Considering the number of times I’ve been a) nearly murdered, b) besieged by ghosts, and c) a witness to George’s morning yoga sessions, that’s quite impressive. I look at Lockwood and wince at the thought that I was willing to let that distressing café conversation be our last. “Thanks,” I say. “We didn’t part on the best of terms, I know. I’m sorry, too.”
He gives me a sad smile. “It was an emotional day for all of us. Sorry if I made you feel like you couldn’t talk to me, that I wouldn’t listen.”
“That’s alright, Lockwood.”
Sorry, sorry, sorry. We’re both very sorry for a great many things. The whole damned situation is sorry. But sorry is not what Lockwood came to say.
“The truth is,” he says, his voice going dry, “we’re not doing great. We go out, we do the jobs, and something’s just missing. We get publicity, sure, but… I don’t know. Teamwork’s not up to scratch. Morale is low. George snaps at me all the time. Things aren’t as good as before, Luce. Not like they were.”
I shuffle my feet. “You haven’t hired another agent?”
“No. The idea was brought up, but…” He trails off.
“But what? We were overworked when there were three of us.”
“We didn’t know where to start. We didn’t know how to find—well, a new you.”
“What about Holly Munro?” I say, crossing my arms and studying the windowsill. “Figured you and George would be getting on just fine with her on board.”
“I’m not talking about Holly.” Lockwood’s jaw tightens. “She does desk work and helps out. Luce, she’s not half the agent you are. You know this.”
“Actually, I don’t. You seemed quite happy to replace me two months ago.”
“You’re irreplaceable! Utterly without equal! There’s only ever been you, Lucy, and there can be no one else!”
Silence. Lockwood rakes a hand through his hair, contemplating the floor.
“I—I think I know your answer already, Lucy, and the question is probably stupid anyway, but…” He meets my gaze and speaks his next words with rehearsed formality. “Will you please—please—consider rejoining Lockwood & Company?”
“No,” I say, and the warm pain of it pierces my heart.
Lockwood nods his head with anticipated disappointment, then smiles. Far from the happy grin I used to know, this smile is small and somber. Behind his eyes, something is irreparably broken. “I see. I’m sorry. I know how strong you are—you’re not easily swayed. I’ve always admired you for that.”
I lean against the wall, doors slamming in my mind. Damn him for looking so wretched and so apologetic, and so adorable all the while. “Lockwood,” I say, avoiding his gaze, “I’m sorry, but this is how it has to be right now. We both need space.”
“I understand,” he says, his voice so soft it’s barely there. “Do you want me to go?”
Do I? The question should be simple, but I’m taken aback by it. “I… I don’t know. I’m confused. Lockwood, why are you here? You know my reasons for leaving.”
“I know a reason. And it’s honestly not even that clear to me.”
“I don’t know what else to tell you,” I say, my voice rising a bit higher than I’d like. “I’m a liability. Whatever I contribute, it’s not worth the risk. You don’t need me around—”
“Lucy, you are not a liability,” he says, taking sharp strides to where I’m stood against the wall. “You don’t put me in danger. In fact, it’s the opposite. Do you think I need some sort of recompense for being around you? I don’t! You’re enough. For me and the team and everyone. We’re all pretending to be doing fine without you, but that’s not real, is it? I’m anxious, and I miss you, and I came here because I couldn’t go another day not hearing your voice, and I want you back.”
I stare up at Lockwood. His words hang in the air, silently drifting between us. He’s standing very close. My top suddenly feels uncomfortably tight; I resist the urge to go turn the thermostat back down.
And then he does something that surprises and overwhelms me all at once. Something I never thought I would see my stalwart leader—former leader—do.
He kneels before me.
Folding his long legs underneath himself, Lockwood places his hands on my bare calves. The moment he touches me, it’s like my whole being exhales.
“Come back, Lucy,” he says, his voice soft as snow. “I’m begging you.”
He looks up at me with childlike submission, and my heart beats faster. Suddenly, intrusively, I remember my vision of Jessica Lockwood’s death. That dark and mournful day at 35 Portland Row. I remember the bright-eyed little boy pattering up the stairs at his sister’s call, not realising he had come too late. Not knowing she was gone, forever.
I wonder now if that same boy, the morning of my departure, walked up the stairs once again—to find my attic room empty.
Everybody leaves. Without so much as a chance to say goodbye.
I sigh and lean back against the wall. Part of me wants us to sit down and talk, truly talk, even if I have to force him. To pour ourselves over each other and spill every secret held inside; here it is, here is all of me, all that I am. Let’s share it. Leave nothing unsaid.
The other part really wants to do something about that pool of liquid heat that’s rising in the pit of my stomach, bubbling when Lockwood’s eyes fix on me. They seem to be pleading. Shining with… what?
Now I’m seriously glad the skull jar is sealed up and hidden away.
His hands tighten around my legs—my heart is beating so hard he can probably feel it in the hollows of my knees—and he presses his forehead against my skin. “Lucy, I need you.” His breath brushes my inner thigh as he repeats, “I need you.”
The bubbling wins.
My hands find the sides of his face, and he lifts his eyes. His skin is soft as a fawn’s hide. “I don’t believe you,” I say.
Anthony Lockwood actually whimpers. “Please,”—his black eyes glisten beneath his lashes—“come back to me. You’re the only one who makes me feel like I know what I’m doing.”
His words steal the breath from my lungs. And when he takes my hands and kisses them, softly peppering my knuckles and palms, I want to cave. Badly. I want to collapse into his arms and fall to the floor and let my kisses tell him Yes and You should have come by sooner and Please, take me home.
But I have to be strong. Stand by my principles. There was a reason I left, wasn’t there? There was a reason…
You see, Lockwood, I like you something awful and I think I might end up killing you. What would he say to that, I wonder?
Lockwood’s lips graze my skin; adoring butterfly kisses land on my wrists and forearms. Warm affection, shot straight into my longing heart. It’s so fierce and lovely and crushing, and it’s so, so much. So much I can hardly bear it. Did my absence do this to him? Drive him to such desperation that he would seek me out to say he needs me? My chest rises and falls, my heart swelling itself raw.
Lockwood bows his head as if in defeat, then touches his lips to my knee.
There was a reason.
I say his name. I sob it. “Lockwood…”
When he draws away, it’s like being tossed from a fire into a snowbank. There’s adoration in his eyes, and it rakes at my heart. I tug at his hands—maybe a bit harder than necessary—and pull him back to his feet.
“Can’t you see you’re devastating me?”
I clutch at my chest; I barely recognised my own voice right then. We stare silently at each other. There seems to be the slightest tremor in the air.
And when I reach up and put my arms about him and pull him close, hot tears trickle down my neck. Some are mine.
All of a sudden, I’m overwhelmed with how much I’ve missed him. It opens a flood inside me and pushes me with it. As Lockwood and I lean into each other, a fleeting beating of hearts, I find that I can’t fight the current. It was always going to be too strong. He sighs into my neck and hugs me a little harder, and it carries me back to that night, over a year ago, at Combe Carey Hall. Me, ghost-locked, about to step into bottomless black; Lockwood’s hands clutching at me, grabbing me from behind and hugging me close until I’m back in the real world. Safe in his arms. That was the first time he saved my life.
It feels like wars have passed since then. In some ways, a war is still going on. I wonder how something that’s absent can weigh so heavily, like a shadow you’re forced to carry on your back.
All at once, it gets to be too much, and I pull away from Lockwood.
“Luce?” he says, his reddened eyes full of worry. He’s still holding me, far too tenderly. “Are you okay?”
No, I am not.
I look into his eyes, and the truth digs its claws into me. It’s colder than any ghostly chill, icier than a graveyard at night; it’s what I imagine it feels like to pass directly through an apparition. Hollow and piercing and ruinous. Lockwood’s not carrying his rapier, yet he’s cut me in two. He’s sliced me up and taken half to keep with him at Portland Row, leaving the rest of me untethered and broken.
I just wanted to find peace and independence. I just wanted to keep him safe. How did this happen? I can’t go with him. Can’t go back.
My palms rest against the hollow of Lockwood’s chest, and I wonder. I wonder at him, at what he might say—what he might do—if I answer his question honestly. If I say, I’m alone. If I say, I’m lonely. I’m so, so lonely. Screw this. Touch me, hold me, kiss me. Fuck me. Anything, please.
“Go home, Lockwood,” is what I say instead. I wriggle in his arms and stare at the snow-blotted window, trying to pretend my heart isn’t lying crushed on the floor. Crushed and uselessly pumping for old blood.
Lockwood pulls away as if I’ve said You’re burning me. There are scorch marks where his hands were. “I shouldn’t have come,” he says with a sigh. “I shouldn’t have sought out your address. I’m sorry, Lucy. I just—couldn’t—I had to see you.”
I look away. “You knew, though. You knew I wouldn’t just happily agree to rejoin you, and we’d be on our merry way to Portland Row. You knew I wouldn’t do that.”
“Yes, I did,” he admits. ”Because I know you. I’m the one that… couldn’t help myself.”
That gets my heart speeding up again. Couldn’t help himself? “It’s not that I’m not happy to see you," I say. "I am.”
“I’m happy to see you, too. More than you know.”
“And I’ve missed you, too. Really bad.”
“Lockwood, I don’t want to live my life in fear of the things I can’t control. And I dearly wish it wasn’t necessary.” I blink away tears, taking a deep breath. “But it’s the way things have to be.”
“Is it? Really?” says Lockwood, his voice quivering. “I’m… lost. The house feels empty without you. Hollow. What do I do now? What do you want me to do, Lucy?”
Ideally, unspeakable things to me. I clear my throat, shaking the thought. “I don’t know.”
We fall silent, shuffling our feet. Outside, snowflakes come to rest on the icy ground. I swear I can hear the impact of them.
Finally, Lockwood breaks the tension. “Remember at Aickmere’s,” he says, “when I said I didn’t trust myself to be with you? That I’d been distancing myself because I was too anxious about what might happen?”
I give a joyless smile. I remember critically embarrassing myself by mistaking his confidences for something more than they were. Of course, those weren’t the most damning words said that night… “In a professional sense, yes,” I say. “In another operative situation where our lives would be in danger. I remember.”
“That was a lie.” He pauses, then takes a quickened breath. His Adam's apple bobs once in his throat. “Or rather, not the full truth. I meant what I said about looking after you, Luce. And that other thing...”
That other thing. I swallow. What, does he think I’ve forgotten what he said in that chamber under Aickmere’s department store? It’s what brought me to breaking point. It’s what pushed me over the edge.
It’s what led me to leave him.
“… But I left something out,” Lockwood goes on. “Something rather important. I was also afraid of losing control of my feelings. My… affections. For you.”
His bright-black eyes meet mine, and I’m gone. Where? I don’t know—but it’s wherever he is. And that’s a place I can’t be.
“I still am.” Lockwood’s voice cracks, and my heart follows. “I’m afraid, Lucy. And not of your Talent.”
My whole being seems to tip forward, though I’m standing quite firmly against the wall. All of a sudden, the room is flooded with warmth; everything is illuminated with a surreal tinge.
Nothing is what it used to be.
I can’t find words. I’ve forgotten how to speak. As I struggle to remember, an unseen magnetism pulls me closer to Lockwood, closer still, until we’re united and my fingers are combing through his snow-dripped hair and his hands are running down my arms, and then—
Something ignites within me, something that’s been waiting impatiently for two sordid months and probably long before that. I’m too close now, too close to fight it. Too close to want to. Screw it.
I reach up to kiss him, closing the final gap between us.
Blood rushes to my ears, my fingertips, the very edge of my being. My body takes a few moments to process what it just did. And now, there’s Lockwood. Kissing me back. Putting his hands around my waist and kissing me back. Kissing me with all he has. I arch my back against him, pressing our hips together, and everything in me sighs with relief. His lips are just as soft and perfect as I imagined them to be. We kiss and kiss and kiss and kiss, and it’s sweet and miraculous and hard up against the wall, and I almost tear up again. The second we part, he dips toward my neck. Slowly, so his meaning is clear; so I can stop him if I want. He’s very sweet—but now that he’s on me, I don’t ever want him off. In fact, I’d be willingly ghost-touched if it meant keeping him where he is. Unable to hold back a gasp, I throw my head the other way as Lockwood trails kisses along my jaw. My eyes flutter closed, shutting out the world around us.
He comes up for air with my name on his lips.
I want to open every bit of myself to him.
Bad idea? Probably. But it’s not so much a matter of deciding as accepting the inevitability of it. He’s on my collarbone, my pulse, the muscle that stretches down the side of my neck—and I can’t find it in me to be rational. In that moment, the fire inside me becomes its own kind of rationality. My breath hitches as strong hands graze my hips, familiarising themselves with my body. The pull of him is gravitational, and I’m falling, falling, falling… Stop thinking, Lucy. Stop, for the love of God.
It’s not my Talent he’s afraid of.
Lockwood’s lips move back to mine, and then breaths are intermingling and tongues are pressing, and gosh, kissing is more fun than I could have ever imagined. It’s just the two of us, moving together in perfect unison, the world around us blurry and irrelevant—like that magical moment at the carnival two months ago. Everything is just as it should be. And this time, there are no Visitors, no shady assassins, no rogue helium balloons to break the spell. This time, I’m going to make the feeling last.
In my happy, delirious daze, I stumble against him; he catches me by the waist and, with the grace of a magician, manoeuvres that grip into twirling me around. I’m thunderstruck at his smoothness; it’s a wonder I don’t lose my balance again.
Lockwood’s long arms encircle me from behind, nose nuzzling into the crook of my neck. The sensation sizzles up my spine and hits a tingly spot; I go up like a newspaper held to a burning match. I’m laughing, then gasping against him as my hips fall back and back and forth again, and I’m gripping his left hand, and—bloody hell, I’ve needed this—his right rakes hard up my thigh, kneading its way up my hip bone and drawing up my skirt with it. My top crumples up as well. The elastic of my knickers bounces back against a particularly sensitive curve; it draws a low-pitched groan from my throat that surprises even me. I coil an arm back around Lockwood’s neck, he presses a kiss to my palm—and then… there’s a peculiar hardness growing against my backside. A tiny noise escapes me.
I kind of know how he feels. I’m so swollen there it hurts to walk. Not yet, says an inner voice. Save it.
I spin around in Lockwood’s arms, and he’s preciously flushed and smiling at me. It’s my old favourite grin. The joy on his face is probably mirrored tenfold in mine. Our fingers twine and I nuzzle my nose to his; then I bring one of our linked hands down on his waist, and we’re collapsing into each other again. Seconds or minutes or possibly hours later, my hands end up under his shirt. Time is a blurry and insignificant thing—even more so with my fingers slipping against Lockwood’s perfect skin and his slim frame taking form in my hands. My legs feel like those of a newborn calf; how I’m still standing, I genuinely don’t know.
Together, we shuck off his shirt and toss it aside. The sight of him elicits a downright shameful sound from me. I take a moment to marvel at the elegant ridges of his torso and arms, the curve of his shoulders where that gorgeous neck connects. His hair is mussed and slightly static from the fabric gliding over his head, and mercy me, he is beautiful. Implausibly so. Looking at him makes me miss his touch like I’ve been starved of it forever.
I suppose I have been.
When I reach out to put my longing hands on him, Lockwood grabs hold of my waist, pulling me firmly into him. For a few seconds, we stare into each other's eyes, and it's almost more intense than kissing was. Then he presses me against the wall and, in one swooping motion, hoists me up with my legs around his waist. For once, I get to lean down for him; I relish in catching his lips from above. My top has now completely disengaged with the waistband of my skirt, and I can feel it rumpling up around my rib cage. I find that I don’t care if he sees. In fact, I want him to. He holds me up by the thighs—but all I think of is the lovely way his fingers dig into my flesh. I’m light as feathers in his arms, hang-ups and insecurities forgotten, shyness cast aside. Why should I worry about such maudlin and unimportant things when it’s Lockwood holding me? I smile into the kiss, tightening my arms around him. He hefts me up once more to steady his grip, and I make a little jump in his arms; his eyes find mine as if asking for permission before he takes the necessary steps back toward my bed. My words still aren’t quite functioning, but if they were, I’d only need one: Yes. Yes, yes, yes, for the rest of time.
We fall back, me on top of him, into rumpled sheets and blankets. He sits us up with little effort, and then I’m actually straddling him. Good God. In my time, I’ve conjured up more than a few daydreams involving Lockwood and me, his armchair in the library at Portland Row, and this exact position. If I strung them all together, I could probably write a three-act opera.
It’s desire, love—you can’t fight it.
Once again, the whispered words of the skull in the jar have proven annoyingly accurate. Was I ever going to fight it? I can’t remember. The idea that I’d be able to resist is laughable now. I feel like a starving creature that’s been handed a crumb of what it craves. Truly, profoundly hungry. I half consider apologising to the skull later; I can already hear its voice creeping into my mind, gleefully cackling. “I told you so!”
My wobbly legs finally catch a break, relaxed as they are around Lockwood’s hips. And then it’s his bare skin against me, and it’s his hands under my skirt, and it’s back to kissing. We part only once, to shrug my top the rest of the way off. On its way to freedom, the fabric gets caught underneath my breasts; somewhat inelegantly, I pull it up and over, my breasts dropping back down upon release.
Lockwood cracks open like a steaming crater before my eyes.
The sight undoes me, and I know I’m flushed all over. His chest rises and falls, gaze showering me with pure reverence. Guess he didn’t mind the inelegance. I peel off him and lie back against the headboard, my eyes locked to his. And I wonder. I wonder at all this. The window by the opposite wall has been fully blotted out by snow crystals. That strange light from before grows stronger. My little studio seems to be enveloped in a soft glow, all my things blurred around the edges.
Only Lockwood is real. His smile could cure blindness.
I reach out for him with both arms; he slides into my embrace, slowly, and traces his long fingers along my ribs. How elegant his wrists are, how striking the precision of them when he puts his hands on me. His touch is so gentle I could cry. I’m holding him close as he brushes the underside of my breasts, and God, it’s like he’s feeling me from deep within. Pressing a kiss to my sternum, he rests his head above my heart and takes me in two hands. I can almost feel what he feels; everywhere our bodies touch, I’m stepping further into him. It’s not unlike a psychic connection, except Lockwood is here and safe and alive.
He’s not a ghost. I can touch him.
Tears push at my eyes again, and not the unhappy sort.
Here we are. Half-dressed, but fully bared. For each other. I look at him and think about the justice of it all. Lockwood, Lockwood coming to see me because he couldn’t help himself. Lockwood on his knees, begging me to come back to him. Lockwood touching me, revealing himself to me. Lockwood wanting this too, as badly as I do. It’s a wicked thought, and it’s all I’ve ever wanted. Lockwood… I’ve seen him hide everything from me. I’ve seen him bent and broken down, all to bury his past and his feelings. And I’ve nearly lost my mind trying to know him, to draw out that pain that lives inside him. To help him break from the grooves he’s worn into his heart.
He comes up to kiss me, and there’s an ache behind his eyes. He hides nothing from me now.
Come off it, you know I’d die for you.
Images. Images in my head, flickering past my vision. Memories—of Combe Carey Hall, of Kensal Green Cemetery, of Miss Wintergarden’s town house. Of Aickmere’s department store. And then… 35 Portland Row, that wonderfully weird house, the quiet domesticity of it. My friends. My family, rather.
The only place I can truly call home.
And Lockwood is there, in my mind, always present. Everywhere I go, I carry him in me. Because nothing, nothing makes sense without him. Now, as I stare into his dark eyes, the loneliness in them sears away at my heart. It blights and withers and wrecks me.
Come off it, you know I’d die for you.
I clutch at Lockwood’s hands, desperately pulling him closer, closer still. Everywhere I’m not touching him is an incomplete part of me. I want to feel him all over. I want to do away with those last layers of clothing, for us to see each other as we are when we’re alone. Touch each other where only water and sunlight have before. I want him to part my legs and sink into me and take away the hurt, until our hearts share a beat and he’s all that’s left inside me. That’s what I want. But somehow, suddenly, I know it’s impossible. Lockwood touches my face, his hands warm and doting...
And then he looks at me. Looks at me like I’m a transient thing, like I’m going to be snatched away from him. Like he’s never going to see me again.
I suddenly feel unsound, insubstantial.
Come off it, you know I’d die for you.
My hands clamp hard around Lockwood’s waist, and then he’s on top of me, fingers running through my hair as I steady my breathing—in, out, in, out—and he grabs me and rolls us over, and—
The next time I hit the mattress, I’m alone.
The first thing I register when I jolt awake is the pumping of my heart. A tiny mechanism, throbbing against a noiseless room.
Something feels dewy and clammy and awful, and I realise it’s my skin. My singlet clings to my body like flypaper. When did I put it back on? And how am I scorching hot and freezing cold at the same time? Lost and disoriented, I reach for the other side of the bed… and find it empty.
It takes exactly one sleepy second for my brain to register the truth, and that truth is that Lockwood isn’t next to me.
He never was.
Quietly, hopelessly, I slip into the real world. Though it’s only late afternoon, my flat feels as dark and desolate as a haunted house, that dreamy glow long gone. Outside, snowflakes fall onto freezing hard ground. There’s nobody here but me and my shadow and a skull in a jar.
Of course. As if he would ever come here. Lockwood, suddenly showing up at my doorstep? What a stupid fantasy. Stupid and starry-eyed and useless. As for all the other things we said and did…
I’m finding my bearings among crumpled sheets when my hand brushes my inner thigh; it’s slick to the point of stickiness, the fabric of my knickers soaked through.
Shame. Shame is a tangible thing, and it’s boiling through my veins. When I try to recall an image of him, that loving gaze and radiant smile, it’s accompanied by a jagged sting of guilt. The warmth of him, the closeness, all those lovely feelings? Replaced with raw grief and hunger pangs. I shake the thought, touching my temple against a growing headache.
I feel like a ghost. Dim and yearning and selfish. Unsafe to touch.
Slowly, I rise from the bed, letting my dream be swallowed up forever. The absence of it leaves me cold and shaking. I let that happen, too.
But I wait until the blinds are closed and my clothes are off and I’m back in bed, blankets drawn about me, to let the tears come.