Susan closed the door of the children's bedroom behind her, then leaned against it with a sigh.
ARE THEY UPSET?
"Very. But they'll get over it."
THEY ALWAYS DO.
Death absent-mindedly reached down to stroke the faint cat-shaped thing that was winding around his legs.
REMIND ME WHAT THEY CALLED HER?
HERE, MOGGIE. GOOD CAT.
Moggie stepped forward, and promptly vanished.
YOU MUST COME AND VISIT ME AGAIN SUSAN. IT WOULD BE NICE TO TALK TO YOU WHEN I AM NOT ON AN OFFICIAL VISIT.
Susan smiled. "I will Grandfather. I have a day off this Sunday. I'll visit then."
Susan stepped into the dark hall, pulling the front door of the cottage shut behind her. The umbrella stand was empty, she noticed. Grandfather must be out on duty. She could hear the strains of Albert's snoring from further down the corridor.
She deposited her hat and boots in her bedroom (an untouched shrine to her messy teenage self) before heading for the library, hoping to pass the time with a nice biography until Grandfather's return.
It didn't take her long to find one. It was from about two hundred years or so ago, about a young girl called Helka Hogtrott from Sto Lat, who had been killed in the first (and only) peasant uprising. It was an interesting story, and suitably morbid for Susan's somewhat unusual literary tastes.
She had just got to a juicy bit (Helka's 18th birthday) when she heard a sound, or rather, a sudden absence of sound, like somebody making no noise whatsoever. She looked up, and froze.
Jonathon Teatime was standing in front of her, looking resolutely solid and anything but dead. He was looking down on her with his head on one side and an odd smile quirking the corners of his mouth.
"Good evening madam," he said.
"You're dead," Susan whispered, putting the book down and rising slowly to her feet. "I killed you. They don't have ghosts here. You can't be here. I should know, dead people don't just-"
"Shhhhh," he whispered. A silver-bladed knife materialised in his hand, and he pressed it against her lips. Susan felt the skin of her lip break under the gentle pressure. "Your babbling is getting you nowhere at all. All this logic is really so very…tedious. You can reason and reason to your little heart's content, but I'll still be here- won't I?"
She stared at him, and he took the knife away, concealing it somewhere in his recesses of black cloth.
"How do you have that knife?"
He ignored her, turning instead to run his thumb gently along the spine of one of the books behind him.
"It's very boring, being dead. People tend to lose most of their mental capacities in the process. They don't seem to realise that it's all a matter of willpower. It's almost as if they want to lose their minds."
He turned back again, his mismatched eyes focusing on her.
"There's nobody to talk to. No form of entertainment. So when I realised that you were going to be here I decided to arrange a little rendezvous. For old times sake."
He laughed. It sounded high and childish and much louder than it should have in the busy quiet of the library. Susan shuddered.
"Oh," he murmured suddenly, taking a step closer to her (closer, close, much too close). "How silly of me. You're bleeding."
And without giving her time to think, he had placed his mouth over hers, running his tongue over her bottom lip, taking her drop of blood with it.
She gasped, and felt Teatime's lips curve against hers in a smirk. Anger flared up inside her. Who did he think he was dealing with? And she bit down, hard, on his tongue. He reacted with lightning speed, pinning her arms to her sides and forcing her back against the bookshelves in one fluid movement. Too late, Susan realised how deceptively strong he was. The warm weight of his body was pressed against her, immovable as rock and much more solid than any ghost.
Susan didn't scare easily, but she was terrified now. Not of Teatime, not of her powerlessness, not of what he might do to her (although none of those thoughts were exactly reassuring) but of herself. Because even as she realised with horrible certainty that she couldn't escape, she realised that another part of her didn't want to escape. And that was worse.
His smell was everywhere, sweet and musky and intoxicating. His hot breath tickled her ear. She was drowning…
"Just think of the fun we could have together Susan. We could be best friends."
Susan jerked herself forcefully out of her trance.
"What are you trying to achieve?"
Her voice was hoarse. She wasn't sure why.
"You always fascinated me. Like a little puzzle. So pointless and so complicated, but just itching to be solved."
Teatime noticed her hesitation, and took advantage of her lapse in concentration to kiss her again, more forcefully this time, but drawing away almost instantly.
"I think I can solve you Susan. I don't think you're so complicated after all."
"Well in that case Mr. Puzzle-Solver, I wonder would you expect…this?"
She struck out this time, deepening the kiss from the first instant, taking advantage of his brief surprise to free her hands and cup his jaw, pulling him in to her. He recovered quickly though, kissing her back just as hard, his fingers moving deftly over her shoulders and neck, undoing the clasp of her cloak, exposing the snowy skin beneath.
Keep focused Susan, she told herself urgently, don't lose control. You want to win this don't you?
But his mouth had left her lips now, and was leaving a blazing trail along her jaw, down her neck, bruising and biting her collarbone.
Win what? A different voice asked. You've already lost. You can't pretend to be in control any more. You're like clay in his hands. His pawn. His solvable little puzzle.
But what can I do? I'm powerless. Like you said.
You've already lost, but that doesn't mean that he has to win.
She reached out and swiftly undid the fastenings on his coat, pushing it backwards off his shoulders. His jerkin was next to go, and she revelled in his sudden tension when her fingers brushed the bare skin of his torso. Despite herself, she found herself noticing his muscle tone and vicious scars.
And Susan smiled again.
Just because I've already lost doesn't mean you can't lose as well.
The silence of the library was shattered. It never fully repaired, after that. The quietness became more aware, like nosy neighbours behind twitching net curtains.
Susan and Teatime, both clad from neck to ankle in black once more, faced each other.
"Well, Mr. Teatime. Did you solve the puzzle?"
"I'm getting there."
"And that's meant to scare me. I have a puzzle of my own now."
"Every bit as pointless and complicated as yours, I suspect."
"I'll race you? First one to the solution. Winner takes it all."