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Save Me

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Save Me


Upstate New York was beautiful in the spring, when everything turned green and full of life. The streams ran swiftly with water from the recent rains and the tree frogs – colloquially known as peepers – started their mating song as soon as it turned dusk. On a clear night such as this the sky was full of stars, twinkling above dairy farms and small towns.

The beauty of the scenery was lost on Rodney McKay, who slammed on the brakes of his rental car to avoid yet another deer. He’d programmed the address into his GPS, which was dragging him over every seasonal road between Scarsdale and his ultimate destination. He was glad he’d paid for the extra insurance because surely these rutted almost-roads had scraped off half the underside of the Chevy sedan. He’d have to upgrade to an SUV if he stayed for any length of time.

In three hundred yards, turn right.

“Fuck you,” Rodney snarled. He hated driving at night, particularly when he was unfamiliar with the area. If the stupid GPS hadn’t taken him the long way he’d have reached his uncle’s house when the sun was still up. Still, it was all he had and so he turned right when he was told, narrowly avoiding a lumpy, lumbering creature he couldn’t identify.

The road he was on was hemmed in on both sides by trees, blocking out what little light was coming from the half-moon. Rodney slowed down even more, annoyed at having to crawl along at such a slow pace, but his fear of hitting a wayward animal was greater than his need to get to the house. He only hoped this was all worth his time. If it turned out that Uncle Gunn lived in some kind of backwoods shack or something, he was going to be seriously pissed.

Finally, after one more turn he was back on a road that was at least paved and it was only another three miles until he’d reached what he could only hope was the driveway. It was long enough that Rodney wondered if someone came to plow it out during the winter, though he had every intention of being long gone by then.

The house, what little of it he could see in the headlights, was substantially more than a shack in the woods and a great deal more imposing. It looked like an abandoned set from a gothic film, all rough stone and dark wood, jutting angles interspersed with curved walls and arches. Most of the windows were dark, save one on the first floor that emitted a feeble yellow glow.

Rodney put the car in park at the bend of the driveway, where it looped around and joined back up with itself at the far edge of the house. He sat there for a few minutes, waiting – for what, he didn’t know – before he finally sighed and turned the car off. He left his bags in the backseat as he went in search of the caretaker, who was supposed to be here to meet him and give him the keys.

“Hello?” he called, then winced when he heard how far his voice carried. Aside from the peeping frogs and the sound of running water, the night was silent. The caretaker – what was his name? Shemp? Sharpe? – was probably passed out in the carriage house, which presumably was that dark shape shrouded in shadows at the edge of the driveway.

“Great. Wonderful.” Rodney started making for the carriage house, eyes wide as he tried to see in the dark. “I’ll probably get eaten by a mountain lion or something.”

“We don’t get a lot of those around here,” a voice said. Rodney jumped and barely suppressed an undignified scream as one shadow moved out of the others and formed the shape of a man.

“Oh, my God! Are you insane?” He pressed his hand over his heart, which was pounding frantically. “You could’ve given me a heart attack! Wait, who are you? Are you some kind of hillbilly serial killer? Cause I’ve got to warn you, I’m armed. With…uh…armaments.”

“Armaments?” The masculine voice sounded amused. For every step he took forward, Rodney took one back until he bumped against the car.

“I have 911 on speed dial!”

“No cell service here, Dr. McKay.”

“What do you…hey. How do you know my name?” Rodney squinted at the man in front of him, getting a vague impression of lean and tall and crazily spiky hair. “Are you Shemp?”

“Is that a Three Stooges joke?”

“What?”

The man clicked on a flashlight and pointed it off to the side. Now Rodney could see his face – jaw line darkened by stubble, nose well-shaped if just a bit crooked. There wasn’t light enough to make out his eye color, but his dark brown hair was definitely defying gravity.

“John Sheppard,” the guy said.

“Rodney McKay.” He held out his hand but John just looked at him without offering his in return. After an awkward few seconds Rodney lowered his hand and rubbed his palm on the leg of his pants. “You’re the caretaker?”

“Yeah.”

“Oh. Well, good. I’d like the keys to the house, please. I’ve had a very long drive, so we can skip the grand tour and I’ll just find a bed and call it a night.”

John – much easier to remember than Sheppard – nodded and walked towards the house. Rodney grabbed his suitcase from the backseat and followed along, paying close attention as he was shown how to use the surprisingly advanced alarm system.

“When were you here last?”

Rodney shook his head. “Never been. In fact, I only met Uncle Gunn once at a family reunion, and he wasn’t an actual relative anyway. More like a courtesy uncle. When I got the letter from his estate lawyer I had to call my sister and ask who he even was.”

He followed John inside and then stood there gaping. The only light on in the place was in the foyer and it wasn’t sufficient to illuminate the cathedral ceiling that soared far above his head. There was more stone in here, interspersed with dark wood and stuccoed walls painted a very light green. There was an open staircase on the right side of the foyer that led up to a landing dominated by a large stained glass window in an abstract pattern, and a rounded balcony. There were boxes piled along the left wall, and along the side of the stairs.

“Have you started packing already?” Rodney asked, annoyed. He didn’t want some caretaker pawing through things until he’d gotten a chance to take a look himself. Before he could start on a good rant, though, John cut him off with a look.

“I haven’t touched anything.”

“Oh. Well, who…”

“Take a look.” John pointed to a room off the foyer and Rodney headed there after setting his suitcase down. The room was some kind of parlor, he supposed, though all he could really see of it was a large fireplace with a wooden mantle and exposed beams in the ceiling. He fumbled for the light switch on the wall and then immediately wished he hadn’t when he got a better look at the room. The entirety of the space was filled with boxes, furniture, and plastic bins of varying size and color. Rodney could make out a long oak dining table, with matching chairs stacked on top, and the arm of what might have been a brown leather couch piled high with a jumble of cloth that he couldn’t begin to guess the use of. Table clothes maybe? Or curtains? The contents of the boxes were a mystery, but some of the clear bins showed books, magazines, and what were either fur coats or stuffed animals.

“Please tell me the whole house isn’t like this,” Rodney begged. “Was he one of those hoarders? I’ve seen that on TV.”

“He was a…collector.” John leaned against the door jamb. “There’s some good stuff in with the junk.”

Rodney ran a hand through his hair. “Well, that’s even worse. It means I can’t just dump it wholesale. Was he crazy or something?”

The caretaker seemed to take offense at that, his body language changing abruptly from boneless slouching to very tense standing. “Gunn wasn’t crazy. He was a nice guy.”

“Sorry, sorry. I didn’t mean anything by that. You knew him better than I did.” Rodney seemed to recall the lawyer saying something about John working for Uncle Gunn for a few years. The old guy hadn’t had any family of his own, so it was probably good that he wasn’t completely alone in his declining years. “This is going to take longer than I thought.”

His hand twitched towards his cell phone before he remembered what John had said about the cell tower. Presumably there was a land line on the premises, and he made a mental note to call Laura first thing in the morning and get her up here to help him. There was no way he could manage this on his own.

“How many rooms?”

“Six bedrooms, three and a half bathrooms. Full basement and attic. Utility room, music room, living room, parlor, library, dining room, kitchen, study.”

Rodney nodded wearily. “And they’re all full like this?”

“Most of them. Also, there’s a storage shed out back and the part of the carriage house I don’t live in.” John had lost some of his angry posture but his hands were still clenched into tight fists.

They should probably talk about the future of John’s employment but Rodney was honestly just too tired. And now that it wouldn’t be a quick dump and sell, he’d need to reevaluate his time table.

“I’m not dealing with anything else today. Is there a bed in this place I can sleep in or should I just find an empty spot on the floor?”

“I cleared some space for you in the first bedroom at the top of the stairs. Clean sheets and everything.”

“Thank God for that.” Rodney went back to the foyer to retrieve his suitcase. He cast an eye at the stairs and the darkened upper hall. “Uh…lights?”

John showed him where the switch was, which operated both the huge chandelier hanging from the high ceiling and the electric wall sconces. “There’s another switch at the top of the stairs that turns them off.”

“Well, that does it for me. Uh…key?” Rodney held out his hand expectantly. John looked at him for a long moment, then dug into the pocket of his jeans and pulled out several keys on a plain silver ring.

“Front door, back door, outside basement door.” He dropped them into Rodney’s hand. “See you in the morning, Dr. McKay.”

Rodney raised his hand in an awkward little wave, but John was already out the door. With a sigh he reset the alarm and carried his suitcase up the stairs. The wooden railing was in need of a good polishing and he added that to the mental list he was compiling. That list would need to be considerably more substantial, he thought, once he got to the top of the stairs and saw that the hallway was barely passable: more boxes, more random pieces of furniture, and even a fully assembled artificial Christmas tree.

“You’ve got to be kidding me.” Rodney rubbed a hand over his eyes, suddenly exhausted beyond measure, and pushed his way into the first door at the top of the stairs, as instructed.

The bedroom was large, sporting floor to ceiling windows and grey wallpaper with a flocked swirl design. There was more junk in there, though it had been stacked neatly against the far wall; John’s doing, supposedly. Rodney had to admit he was grateful when he caught sight of the queen-sized bed and the door connecting to one of the three and a half bathrooms.

It didn’t take him long to get ready for bed. His teeth got only a cursory brushing, after he promised to make it up to himself in the morning. He was so tired he could barely stand without holding on to something to steady himself. Despite the strange bed and even stranger circumstance, he was asleep almost as soon as his head hit the pillow.

*o*o*o*

Rodney woke up disoriented the next morning, blinking in confusion at the stack of boxes until he recalled where he was and why. It took him longer to place the source of the incessant buzzing, which eventually revealed itself to be a lawn mower. He had no idea what time it was, but surely it was too early for that kind of noisy physical activity.

If not for the pressure on his bladder he didn’t think he could work up the ambition to get out of bed. Getting the house ready to sell seemed like such a huge project now that he’d seen a bit of it and he cursed Uncle Gunn for having left the mess to him to deal with. Were there no other McKays worthy enough?

With a sigh, Rodney got up and shuffled to the bathroom. His desire for a shower was only slightly dimmed by the fact that it took an eternity for the water to heat up. He’d have to take a look at the hot water heater, which was probably just as old as this pseudo-castle. He made yet another mental note, this one to have the plumbing and electric thoroughly checked out. He’d hate to put a lot of work in only to have the place get flooded out or burn to the ground.

In anticipation of starting a general inventory, and probably not staying very clean in the process, Rodney put on an old pair of jeans and an even older t-shirt emblazoned with a faded picture of a penguin sitting on top of a 1980s-era television set. He considered poking around some of the upstairs rooms, just to see, but decided that would be a foolish endeavor before he had his coffee. Which then led him to panic – what if there was no coffee?

Rodney hurried down the stairs and went in search of the kitchen. He passed the fancy glass doors that led to the dining room and winced at the pile of junk that was stuffed into that room, completely hiding whatever table and chairs might be inside. Or maybe that was the table that had been in the parlor, there was no way to be certain.

Thankfully the kitchen was devoid of boxes, though the sight of decrepit appliances did little to lighten his spirit. It looked as if the last update had happened in the 70s – the electric stove and the fridge were both avocado green and the wallpaper was a hideous orange flower pattern that was difficult to look at. Rodney started going through the dark wood cabinets, and was pleasantly surprised to find that they were fully stocked with foodstuffs, all of which looked brand new and unopened.

“Oh, thank God!” He clutched the can of Folgers to his chest. Normally he preferred a higher quality of coffee, but beggars couldn’t be choosers and he’d been terrified that he’d have to make do with instant. It took a little longer to find the coffee maker, which had duct tape wrapped around the cord. The threat of electrocution wasn’t enough to dissuade him from hooking it up and getting a pot of coffee started.

While he waited he poked around looking for the phone, unsuccessfully. He found a pantry closet stocked with canned goods, a utility room which was home to countless hanging garment bags and heaps of old shoes, and the door to the back porch. Through the window he could see John tooling around on the riding mower, wearing shorts, a tank top and a baseball cap. Surely it wasn’t warm enough out there to be dressed so lightly.

He drank his first cup of coffee black, barely letting it cool enough to keep from burning his tongue. Thus bolstered by caffeine he poured a second cup and then spent a minute wondering if he should offer some to John. In the end he decided against it. The man was already up and doing menial labor, so presumably he’d already had some coffee. Still, it didn’t stop him from venturing outside.

The smell of fresh-cut grass hung heavily in the air and made Rodney sneeze. He leaned against the porch railing and watched as John circled around the far edge of the lawn. It occurred to him that he had no idea how much property came with the house. The swath currently being mowed had to be at least an acre, and unlike the inside of the house the grounds were meticulous. The shrubs were neatly trimmed, the flower beds mulched, and the bench under the red maple looked as if it had been freshly painted white. Rodney thought perhaps John was more industrious than he’d first surmised.

John eventually caught sight of him and rode the mower over to the porch. He turned it off and tipped his cap back, rubbing his arm across his forehead. Rodney had no idea sitting on a mower was such hot work, but the sweat-stained tank top said otherwise.

“Hey.”

“Do you always work this early?” Rodney asked.

“No. Sometimes I go jogging first thing.”

“Out here in the wilderness? Aren’t you afraid of getting eaten by coyotes or something?” Where the nicely maintained lawn ended forest began, and he could only imagine what kind of man-eating creatures living in there. John just smirked.

“We do have paved roads here.”

“Without sidewalks. Don’t think I didn’t notice that. If someone wasn’t paying attention they could hit you with their car and then where would you be?”

“Hospital?”

“That’s not funny.” Rodney waved a hand at the house. “Where’s the phone? Please tell me you have one, because I can’t be cut off from civilization this way. It’s a safety issue.”

“I’ll show you.” John swung one leg completely over the front of the mower in a move that would’ve had Rodney in a painful heap on the lawn if he’d tried it. Maybe he was double-jointed or had some kind of boneless condition that also necessitated all the leaning in doorways he’d done the night before.

Rodney trailed after him, back through the kitchen and down a short hall to a door that he’d presumed led to a closet. Instead it turned out to be something like a phone booth, with a padded bench and a little table holding a corded phone and a notepad. He’d half expected it would be a rotary dial, but it was a touch tone phone. The cord, though…that would take some getting used to.

“This is practically prehistoric,” he grumbled. John shrugged.

“You need anything else? I have to get back to work.”

Rodney waved him off. “I can take it from here.” He sat down on the bench, sneezing again at the dust that puffed up when he did so. Clearly Uncle Gunn hadn’t spent much time in there. Rodney had to pull out his cell phone to look up Laura’s number. He kept her on speed dial out of necessity.

Hello, Rodney.

“Laura, I need you up here as soon as possible. You won’t believe what that old man stuffed into this place. Which, by the way, looks like something from a Dracula movie.” He picked up the pen next to the pad and started to doodle. “I’m going to start an inventory today but there’s too much. I need help.”

Take a breath. How soon do you want me up there? Because I…

“Now. I need you here right now. Word of warning, if you use your GPS you’ll wind up on every goat trail along the way and it’ll take you forever. My rental car bottomed out several times.”

I can’t get there before tomorrow, Rodney.

“But –”

No buts! I still have to reschedule your speaking engagements, and there’s the little matter of what you want me to do with Mr. Pibb. Should I call the kennel?

“No, no. Bring him with you. I can’t leave him in the kennel that long, he’d never forgive me.” The cat had been a rescue from a kill shelter and Rodney had tried to change his name to no avail. The furry monster would only answer to Mr. Pibb.

Okay, but I’m not cleaning out his carrier this time if he pukes in it.

“I’ll give you a bonus,” Rodney said hastily. Laura sighed.

That’s what you always say.

“Yes, well, I mean it this time. And bring the coffee maker, the one here is a death trap. Call me before you leave. Oh, wait. I don’t know the number here and there’s no cell service.”

I have the caretaker’s number. Will he give you the message?

“I don’t know. Probably. He seems mostly normal.”

Yeah? Is he young? He sounded young the last time I talked to him.

“This isn’t Love Connection. You’re coming up here to work, not to get in John’s pants.” He didn’t think it was worth mentioning how good John looked in the aforementioned pants.

Ooh, you’re on a first name basis already?

“Laura…” Rodney tried to sound as threatening as he could, though Laura had been working for him long enough now not to be intimidated by anything he did.

Chill out, Rodney. I’ll be good, I promise. Can I go and get some actual work done now? Please?

“I’ll see you tomorrow.” He hung up the phone and added a few more constellations to the night sky he’d been doodling. Laura had been with him for about three years now, working as his business manager and personal assistant. She was hopefully the last in a long line of incompetent idiots. Unlike her predecessors she could successfully juggle everything Rodney threw at her without getting bitter or turning into a simpering sycophant.

Well, there was no putting it off. Time to get to work. Rodney left the pseudo-phone booth and went in search of his tablet. The inventory wasn’t going to do itself.

*o*o*o*

Four hours later Rodney was sitting in the upstairs hallway, completely wrung out and exhausted and covered in dust. He’d only made it through one room, heaving around boxes and manhandling furniture so that he could get to everything. And there was so very much of it. In that one room alone there’d been a highboy, two wooden filing cabinets filled with old magazines and newspapers, a steamer trunk full of moth-eaten coats, three different end tables, a barrister bookcase, two televisions, and fifteen boxes filled with everything from old license plates to video tapes to silverware. There was no rhyme or reason to any of it.

He looked down at his tablet, which needed to be charged. He was keeping a comprehensive inventory on there, room by room, as well as lists of things that needed to be done to fix up the house for sale and things that needed to be done to make it more habitable while he was staying there. Wi-Fi was tops on that list. Rodney appreciated the appeal of quiet country living, but that was no excuse to be cut off from civilization.

“Dr. McKay?” John called from somewhere downstairs.

Rodney tried to stand up, then plunked back down when everything started to spin. It belatedly occurred to him that he’d neglected to eat breakfast. He clumsily patted down his pockets to see if he had anything on him and was pleased to find a butterscotch candy. He unwrapped it as fast as he could and popped it in his mouth, sucking hard to get the sugar flowing.

“Hey. Everything okay?” John stood a couple feet away, looking ill at ease. He still wore the shorts and tank top combo from that morning, and his sneakers were liberally sprinkled with cut grass.

“Hypoglycemia,” Rodney said. “Give me a couple minutes. I’ll be fine.”

“Uh…I could make you some lunch?”

“Yeah. That would be helpful. Nothing with citrus, though. I’m deathly allergic.”

Without another word John clumped back down the stairs, no doubt leaving a trail of grass in his wake. Rodney wondered if he could hire someone to come in and clean. He knew how to run a vacuum, of course, but he already had plenty of work to do and the thought of asking Laura to do it was laughable. She’d have his head for a request like that.

The candy soon had Rodney regaining his equilibrium, and he was able to grab his tablet and make it down to the kitchen without incident. He found John making sandwiches in the most frantic way possible. He was practically a cartoon, with the way lunch meat was flying.

“Hey, relax. I’m not going to slip into a coma or anything.” Rodney opened the fridge and bypassed the carton of orange juice for the apple, chugging it right from the bottle.

“Are you okay?” John asked, a slice of turkey in one hand and cheese in the other.

“Fine, fine. I just forgot about breakfast this morning, that’s all.” Rodney grabbed one of the finished sandwiches and took it to the glass-topped table. “Don’t worry. Laura’s coming tomorrow and she keeps track of stuff like that.”

John brought the rest of the sandwiches to the table and sat down across from Rodney. “Is that your girlfriend?”

Rodney snorted. “God, no! And don’t tell her you thought that or I’ll never hear the end of it. She’s my business manager and part-time babysitter. She has some kind of spidey sense about my eating habits. It’s probably tingling right now and she doesn’t know why.”

John’s lips twitched up in an almost-grin at that, and he turned his attention to his own lunch. They ate in companionable silence for a while, until Rodney really was feeling better.

“Thanks for the sandwiches.”

“No problem.”

Rodney waited for more, but clearly this guy wasn’t much of a talker. Which was fine, because Rodney could talk enough for four people without even breaking a sweat.

“Inventory is going slow. I can’t believe some of the stuff Uncle Gunn has packed up in boxes. License plates! What the hell am I supposed to do with those?” He shook his head. “I mean, I know people will collect just about anything, but this is ridiculous.”

“Almost forgot.” John tipped up on one hip and fished something out of the back pocket of his shorts. The action drew Rodney’s attention to places he was better off not looking at. The something turned out to be two business cards, which were tossed in the center of the table. Rodney picked them up.

“Athos Antiques?”

“Call Teyla. She’ll schedule a time to come out and have a look around. She can tell you what’s worth selling and what you can give to goodwill.”

“And this one?” Rodney waved the card advertising Ronevan Contracting.

“Home repairs, electric work. He can rent you a dumpster at a good price.”

“Hmmm.” He looked at both cards again. It was good, having local contacts. If they were friends of John’s that hopefully meant they wouldn’t gouge him on prices for services rendered. It would be particularly helpful to have someone come and evaluate any possible antiques, since weeding through all the chaff was proving to be a thankless job.

“I have to get back to work.” John carried the now empty plate to the sink and gave it a quick wash. “Will you be okay?”

Rodney scowled. “I’m perfectly capable of taking care of myself, thanks. Go weed some flower beds or whatever it is you do out there.”

That merely earned him a smirk and a wave, and he was once again alone in the house.

*o*o*o*

Rodney quit for the day at four o’clock and washed up before cooking himself some dinner. He hadn’t thought to take anything out of the freezer, so he just threw some frozen hot dogs in a pot of water and boiled them up. He wondered about inviting John over to eat, but thought it might make the other man uncomfortable. He didn’t seem overly appreciative of human companionship, and was possibly angry that Rodney was there taking over and selling off the house.

Besides, if he was going to invite someone for dinner he planned on serving more than just boiled hot dogs. To that end, he took another look through the freezer and pulled out some pork chops to thaw. Laura would expect something a little gourmet and that might be a better time to invite John over. Laura would insist on meeting him anyway.

Before dinner Rodney had done a walk-through of all the remaining rooms upstairs, which were many, and set up inventory sheets for each one. After dinner he did the same for the downstairs rooms, popping his head in each one to determine what it was and get a general idea of the scope of work he’d be facing. It was disheartening. The library, which should have been – and was – full of books, was also home to piles of quilts in various states of decay, a whole stack of framed cross-stitch samplers, and an army of mismatched chairs.

The only room Rodney didn’t venture into was the study, though upon opening the door he immediately made a note on the tablet to talk to the contractor about checking the thermostat. It was freezing in there, almost see-your-breath cold. It was also the only room he’d come across that seemed untouched by Uncle Gunn’s hoarding: just a desk, a couple of chairs, and some empty built-in bookshelves. Rodney might have wondered why this room had escaped unscathed, but he started to feel a little sick. Probably undercooked hotdogs.

He passed the rest of the evening refining his many lists, making new ones, and wondering what had to go wrong in a person’s brain chemistry to make them collect random bits of trash that had no purpose. Then his thoughts turned to John, who was presumably holed up in the carriage house doing whatever it was he did when the sun went down. Hopefully he had a plan for when the house sold and he needed to move on, as it was highly unlikely that new owners would want to keep him on. It was no concern of Rodney’s, yet he couldn’t help feeling a little guilty. Maybe he’d talk to Laura tomorrow and see if she had any ideas on how to help him.

Rodney finally gave in to boredom around ten and went to bed, only to be awakened a couple of hours later by the sound of…crying? He was still fuzzy from sleep, but had the errant thought that maybe Laura had come early, and if she was crying there was probably some horrible emergency because she never did girly stuff like that. Suddenly worried that something had happened to his sister Jeannie, Rodney slipped out of bed and went out in the hall.

“Laura?” The house was dark and he wasn’t familiar enough with it to be sure of his footing, so he did a shuffling-slide step towards the stairs. The crying seemed to be coming from the first floor and he kept one hand tight on the banister as he descended. Mental note: keep a flashlight next to the bed. The thought of actually turning on the lights didn’t even occur to him.

Rodney followed the sound of crying to the study. “Laura, is that you?” She sounded absolutely heartbroken and he didn’t hesitate to open the door and step into the room. His eyes had adjusted to the dark by then, but this room seemed to have gathered shadows to it, making it much darker than the hall. He fumbled for the switch but couldn’t find it.

“Laura?” Rodney wasn’t so sure now. It didn’t feel like there was anyone else in the room, and the crying was already tapering off until it was little more than an echo of grief sifting through the air. It settled on his shoulders, which bowed under the weight of it.

Finding Laura, or whoever had been crying, ceased to be important. Rodney leaned back against the wall and slid down it until he was sitting on the floor, arms wrapped around himself because it was cold, bone chillingly cold. He could see the white puffs of his breath hanging in the air.

What was he even doing? He could’ve let someone else take care of the house, it wasn’t like he couldn’t afford to pay for that kind of service. Denial, the little voice in his head sneered. You’re a has-been who doesn’t have the common sense to stop living in the past.

“I know,” Rodney moaned. He was messing around with Uncle Gunn’s house because he quite simply had nothing better to do. His father had been right after all and wasn’t it a pity that he’d died and wouldn’t be able to rub Rodney’s face in it.

You’re a disappointment. Everyone knows it but you.

He hid his face in his hands, shivering with cold and misery and the certainty that he had absolutely nothing to offer anyone. He was no better than Uncle Gunn, holed up all alone in his great big house, surrounding himself with things that didn’t matter. Nothing mattered.

“Rodney!”

He jerked away from the hands that were suddenly clutching at him and tried to roll up in a protective ball.

“Snap out of it, buddy, come on!”

Rodney shook his head, teeth chattering. “No. It’s not worth it. Ten years. Ten fucking years!” He tried to dredge up some anger but none was forthcoming.

“I know. It’s okay. Let me help you.”

It was like a switch had suddenly been flipped and Rodney gave himself up to John, who dragged him out of the study by hooking his arms under Rodney’s and pulling. As soon as he was back in the hall, which was now blazing with light, he felt momentarily dizzy and was glad he was already on the floor.

“Are you okay?” John stood opposite him, bent at the waist and panting as if he’d run a mile uphill. He was wearing a pair of thin cotton pants and a matching gray t-shirt, and his hair was laughably mussed up. Rodney didn’t feel like laughing.

“I’m a flash in the pan,” he said morosely.

“You’re a genius,” John countered. He looked steadily at Rodney, who noted inanely that his eyes were hazel green. “I read your book. It was amazing.”

“Ten years of writer’s block says otherwise.” It was humiliating to admit it out loud. “All I had was that one book. There’s nothing else in me.”

John straightened up, rubbing his hands on his pants. “So what?”

“What do you mean, so what? So…everything!” Rodney flung his arms wide and winced when his left hand smacked painfully against the wall. “Ow!”

“Your one book won’t ever be forgotten, Rodney. That’s more than most people can ask for.” With that John started heading toward the door. “Stay out of the study.”

Before Rodney could even begin to form a question or complaint, John was gone.

*o*o*o*

The next morning dawned overcast and windy, the air heavy with the promise of rain. Rodney had slept poorly. Whatever happened in the study was a hazy, confused jumble of emotions but the events in the hallway were regrettably clear in his memory. He’d never been a believer in supernatural events, and wasn’t planning on starting now, but that feeling in the study…it wasn’t natural. He would’ve written the whole episode off as sleepwalking but he couldn’t explain John’s presence in the house at that hour of night.

Rodney was a man who needed answers to his questions, no matter what the circumstances, and so as soon as he got dressed he marched over to the carriage house and pounded on John’s door. If he’d been hoping to catch the man asleep he was sorely disappointed. John opened the door wearing the fresh-scrubbed look of a man just out of the shower. He was dressed in a pair of sweatpants and a faded USAF t-shirt.

“Was there something you needed, Dr. McKay?”

Not in the mood for slouchy good humor, Rodney pushed past him and into the space that John called home. To say it was spartan was an understatement – it was one step up from a college dorm, the furniture basic and utilitarian and the walls completely empty save for a poster of Johnny Cash.

“I like what you’ve done with the place,” Rodney said, hands on his hips. “Homey.”

John didn’t look amused. He stood by the door with his arms crossed tightly and glowered. “What do you want?”

“I want to know what the hell that was last night.”

“Look, I’m sorry –”

“Don’t apologize, for God’s sake, just explain!” Rodney huffed out a breath. “If you know something tell me. I don’t like surprises, and I don’t like hinky things going on around me, waiting to spring out in the middle of the night when I least expect it!”

John’s glower softened and took on a hint of guilt, but he kept his defensive posture. “You’re right, I should’ve told you. But the study doesn’t affect everyone. It was likely you wouldn’t have noticed anything was wrong.”

“That’s all well and good, but what is it?” Rodney was getting frustrated. He took a few steps towards John but stopped when the other man moved backwards, keeping space between them. Surely he wasn’t intimidated by Rodney?

“It’s nothing, really. Just…that one room is kind of…bad.” John’s shoulders came up and Rodney frowned. He wasn’t always great at reading body language but clearly John found even the thought of the study distasteful. He remembered how John had been gasping for breath in the hall, and perhaps it hadn’t been physical exertion at all.

“Are you telling me that Uncle Gunn’s house is haunted? That’s ridiculous!”

“That’s not what I’m saying, McKay. Just…haven’t you ever been anywhere that felt off in a way you couldn’t explain?”

“There’s a logical explanation for that kind of phenomenon. Aural frequencies below human hearing can cause any number of physical reactions. Electromagnetic field fluctuations can affect our sense of the environment.” Rodney paced, hands gesturing. “There’s no scientific proof that ghosts exist.”

John’s lips twitched. “Electromagnetic field fluctuations?”

“Just one of many reasons for a room or a house being perceived as haunted.”

“Fine. It doesn’t change the fact that the study isn’t a healthy place so just stay out of it, okay?”

“Well, uh…there’s nothing to be inventoried in there, really. I guess it can wait.”

John looked surprisingly relieved, which perversely made Rodney feel out of sorts. He stormed out the same way he’d stormed in, intent on turning his attentions towards breakfast. He had another long day ahead of him and it wouldn’t do to get light-headed again. He put the ludicrous idea of ghosts out of his head, in favor of more mundane issues, and wondered when Laura would get there.

*o*o*o*

By lunchtime a storm had rolled in, battering at the house with wind and rain and peals of thunder. Rodney had only gotten partway through one of the other bedrooms and was nursing his thumb, which he’d sliced on broken glass. He was in the middle of making himself a grilled cheese sandwich when the back door blew open, ushering in blowing rain and John with a raincoat held over his head.

“Close the door!” Rodney shouted, and it was so windy that John really had to push back on it to get it closed.

“It’s nasty out there,” he said, shaking out the coat and hanging it on a hook by the door. It hadn’t done anything to keep him dry.

“Well, don’t move. You’ll get everything wet.” Rodney turned off the burner and moved the frying pan before he ducked into the laundry room for a clean towel, which he threw at John’s head with a little more force than was probably necessary. “Dry off.”

“Something smells good.”

“That would be my lunch.”

“Grilled cheese?”

Rodney sighed a world-weary sigh and handed his plate off to John. He went to the fridge to pull out more cheese so he could make another one.

“Thanks.” He must’ve been starving, because the sandwich was gone before Rodney had even gotten the next one put together. He ended up making four more and pulling a bag of potato chips out of the pantry closet as a side dish.

“Do you have any soup? This would be great with soup.”

“Knock yourself out.”

While Rodney ate John pulled out a couple cans of tomato soup and heated them up on the stove, which ended up being the second course of their lunch.

“So what brings you over, aside from the free food?” Rodney asked once he’d eaten his fill. The soup had been a nice addition, John was right about that.

“Your business manager called. She’s delayed till tomorrow and said not to call her because no amount of yelling will get her here any quicker.”

Rodney frowned. “Delayed? Well, that’s just perfect. She’s supposed to be here helping me and she knows it! She can forget the bonus, that’s for damn sure.”

“Well,” John said almost apologetically. “I can’t do any yard work with all this rain, so I could give you a hand.”

“Oh. Well. That would be good. There’s some really heavy furniture in the blue bedroom.” Rodney didn’t show it but he was pleased at the offer. The work would go much faster if he had someone to help him do the heavy lifting.

“Jack not name. Jack job,” John quipped.

“Great. Muppet quotes. That’ll make the day go faster.”

“What happened to your thumb?”

Rodney looked at it, the yards of gauze he’d wrapped around it now slightly stained with butter and tomato soup. “I cut myself on a broken snowglobe. It’s nothing.”

“Doesn’t look like nothing.”

“Yes, well, I may have gotten a bit carried away with the gauze.” He finished off the rest of his soup and let out a satisfied belch. John ducked his head but Rodney could see the grin on his face. “My compliments to the chef.”

John washed the lunch dishes, in deference to Rodney’s injury, and they went upstairs to finish in the bedroom Rodney had started that morning. The so-called Blue Room was painted Wedgewood blue with white trim and a tray ceiling. The little bits of carpeting visible were also blue.

“So, I started at the front and just kind of keep shifting things around to get to the stuff at the back,” Rodney explained. He retrieved his tablet from the box he’d left it on. “So far we have a box filled with pot holders and oven mitts, another with alarm clocks, and the snow globes that tried to kill me.”

That particular box had a gruesome streak of blood on it that turned his stomach, and he hoped he hadn’t dripped any on the carpet. John nodded, moving easily through the narrow pathway Rodney had created.

“This armoire looks like an antique.”

Everything around here looks like an antique,” Rodney said with a frown. “Which means we’ll really need that woman to come up here and take a look around. A lot of this crap is just old and junky, and I could probably sort some of it out, but I don’t really have the eye for that kind of thing.”

In addition to the bulky armoire there was a roll top desk, head and footboards for at least three beds, a deacon’s bench, a double-sided full-length oak mirror on a stand, and a hope chest. Cataloguing the furniture and the boxes would’ve been a big enough job, but Uncle Gunn had stuffed things inside drawers and cabinets as well, so all the furniture had to be gone through.

John lifted the seat of the deacon’s bench. The storage area inside was filled with board games. “Wow. Do you suppose these have all the pieces?”

“I wouldn’t count on it. Something tells me he wasn’t too particular about that kind of thing.”

John rooted around and then pulled out a cheap plastic chess set. “Do you play?” he asked, looking hopeful.

“It’s been a while,” Rodney admitted. “Of course, I used to be quite good. I have a genius IQ you know.”

“So I’ve heard. I’m gonna set this out in the hall. Maybe we can play later.”

Rodney only nodded, clambering gracelessly over a box to get to the ones behind it. While he opened up the one on top and looked inside, John started shifting things around for better access.

“Doorknobs,” Rodney said morosely. “A whole box of them.”

“Maybe you should consider opening up a thrift shop,” John remarked. “Hey, I’ve got record albums here. 45s and 78s.”

“Anything to play them on?”

“Not that I’ve seen so far. Wow. Herb Alpert and Tijuana Brass. That’s an oldie.” He flipped through a stack of albums. “Bread. Bing Crosby. Chuck Berry. Rolling Stones. Someone sure had eclectic tastes.”

Rodney leaned over the boxes and pulled another stack of records out of John’s box. “Dionne Warwick. Grease soundtrack. Children’s Christmas Classics. At least these make more sense than doorknobs, for goodness sake. Ooh, Anne Murray.”

“No Johnny Cash,” John sighed.

“Yeah. Real shame.” Rodney dumped the albums back in the box, hesitating a moment over Anne Murray until he reminded himself that he didn’t have anything that even remotely resembled a record player.

They worked in silence for a little while, John keeping his own inventory list on a piece of scrap paper. It was actually nice to have someone else in the room, even if they didn’t talk much, and Rodney found himself humming under his breath. While he dug through a box filled with partially used office supplies, he wondered about John.

He seemed like a reasonably intelligent guy, yet he was working as a caretaker for a guy who collected other people’s castoffs. And Rodney hadn’t missed the way John very carefully kept space between them at all times. It was entirely possible that he had some sort of touch phobia, something Rodney was sure he’d seen on a television documentary at one time or another.

“Did you really read my book?” he blurted out when the silence began to weigh too heavily.

John just raised an eyebrow at him and nodded.

“I thought that’s what I was supposed to do with my life,” Rodney found himself admitting. He looked down at the crocheted doily in his hand, one of several he’d just uncovered. “But then…the words just stopped coming.”

It had been at once his greatest achievement and his biggest failure. He’d left a high-paying job with a prestigious scientific research corporation to pursue what was supposed to be his dream, his hitherto untapped literary creativity. Rodney had worked on the book for three years and it was an immediate success, both critically and financially. He’d attained instant stardom, and of course everyone wanted more, more, more. He hadn’t been able to give it to them.

“The book touched a lot of people, McKay,” John said seriously. “And maybe…that’s what you were supposed to do. Just that.”

Rodney sighed. “That’s very poetic and everything, but that doesn’t help me figure out what I’m supposed to do now. Ten years I’ve been trying to write something, anything. I need to move on. I just don’t know to what.”

John closed up the lid on the box he was looking through and set it aside. “You know what? I think we’ve sorted through enough stuff for one day. Let’s play some chess.”

“What? No! We have so much –”

“It’s not going anywhere. Come on. I’ll let you win.”

Rodney snorted. “As if I can’t beat you on my own.”

“Challenge accepted.”

With his eyes narrowed at John’s blatant smugness, Rodney abandoned the work and led the way back downstairs, scooping up the chess game as he went.

*o*o*o*

Four hours later dinner had been eaten and Rodney had beaten John in three out of four games of chess. The set was missing a white knight and so they’d substituted a salt shaker. It had been a surprisingly pleasant way to spend the evening. It turned out they had similar interests in pop culture and had spent a long time debating the relative merits of original Battlestar Galactica versus the remake.

“I should get going,” John said after a while.

“Yeah, well…uh…thanks. For the game.” Rodney felt unaccountably awkward. He was probably making an idiot of himself, but John only nodded.

“We’ll have to do that again.”

Rodney trailed after John to the back door. The rain had tapered off to a light drizzle and he wondered if there’d be any flooding as a result of the all-day soaking.

John hesitated at the door, one hand on the knob. “You’re not afraid to stay alone, are you? After last night, I mean.”

Rodney tried not to take that as an affront to his manhood, but it was a close thing. “I’m afraid of heart disease, not strange noises,” he snapped. “Good night.”

“Night.” John grabbed his rain coat on the way out and promptly disappeared into the darkness.

Motion lights went on the mental list of things the house needed to be livable. Or maybe those safety lights that stayed on all night long, those would be good too. Rodney reminded himself that he wasn’t going to be living there. Once he had everything cleared out and cleaned up he could get back to the city and…continue pretending he was a writer.

Shaking off that depressing line of thought, he went around the first floor locking up and setting the alarm. Just in case, he grabbed a flashlight out of the utility drawer in the kitchen, checking it first to make sure the batteries were still good. He had no intention of wandering around in the dark again, no matter what the reason.

Once he’d stripped down to his boxers and brushed his teeth, Rodney settled in bed with his tablet and made a few more additions to his shopping list. He decided he’d make a run into town tomorrow, which would serve the dual purpose of enabling him to get some things he needed for the house and also let him visit the antique woman to negotiate a fair price for her services. Surely out here in the boondocks it would be a fraction of the cost he’d pay back home.

It was only just after eleven when Rodney turned out the light and snuggled up under the blankets. Normally he didn’t go to bed so early, but he’d been working hard and something about the country air just seemed to tire him out. It felt like he’d only just dropped off to sleep when a noise woke him abruptly. Not crying, which he’d half expected, but the sound of footsteps downstairs.

Rodney’s eyes narrowed as he slipped out of bed. There was only one person who could be creeping around down there and that was John, because he knew the code to the alarm. He grabbed his flannel robe off the end of the bed, shoving his arms in as he went, and barely remembered the flashlight.

He thought about calling out but decided that catching John in the act would be far more satisfying. Rodney made his way down the stairs, the carpeted treads scratchy against his bare feet. The way he saw it now, last night’s ridiculous escapade was a hoax. John was clearly trying to scare him off so that he could stay on as caretaker. Or else he wanted something of value in the house and the only way he could get to it was to get Rodney on the run. Well, he was sadly mistaken if he thought Rodney would give up that easily. Haunted house. Please. It was nothing more than a poorly written Scooby Doo episode, which was beyond insulting.

When he got to the first floor he palmed the flashlight as much as possible, not wanting to give himself away. He paused, listening, and then heard footsteps in the hall off the kitchen. Full of grim resolve, Rodney slowly followed the sound to an open door. He hesitated at the threshold, pointing the flashlight down the flight of stairs that greeted him. Whatever John was looking for must be in the basement.

“You’re gonna be sorry you messed with me, pal,” Rodney muttered under his breath.

There was no banister for the basement stairs, so he kept one hand on the wall as he made his way down. The air was cool and clammy, and he was unsurprised to see shallow pools of water on the concrete below. The foundation was made of fieldstone and some parts had been patched with concrete, but it was clearly wet and even mossy in some spots. Rodney was almost to the bottom of the stairs when the basement door slammed shut behind him. He whirled around and almost lost his footing, heart racing. He pounded back up the stairs but when he tried the door it was locked.

“Open this door, you asshole!” He smacked his hand on the door, and tried the knob again, to no avail. He put his ear against it, trying to hear if John was laughing at his expense on the other side, but there was only silence.

“I’m having you arrested when I get out of here!” Rodney shouted his promise. He couldn’t help feeling a little betrayed. He and John had been getting along well, he thought. Well, he always was crap at reading people.

He put his shoulder against the door a few times but like everything else in this ridiculous house it was built solidly. There’d be no getting out that way unless John unlocked it. As the reality of his situation sank in, the flesh on the back of his neck began to crawl. He spun around, shining the flashlight in a wide arc, suddenly sure that someone was watching him. All he could see was the aged hot water heater and the rusty furnace.

“Great. Just great.” Rodney belted his robe a bit more tightly against the basement chill and tried to decide what to do. Surely John wouldn’t leave him down there all night, but could he really take that chance? It seemed his best shot was to look for another exit. He seemed to recall that there was outside access, he just needed to find it.

Even with the flashlight the darkness seemed to crowd him, the shadows deep enough to hide, say, a crazed lunatic with a hatchet. It took him several minutes to work up the courage to go back down the stairs and further into the basement. Only his anger at being made a fool of kept him moving forward.

The basement turned out to be comprised of several adjoining rooms, and the going was wetter and mustier the further Rodney went. Only the first room had a concrete floor, and he shuddered from more than just the cold when he had to traverse the damp earthen floors of the connected rooms in bare feet.

There was surprisingly little being stored down there, though it made sense given the extreme damp and the likelihood that anything left down there too long would be quickly overtaken with bloat and mold. In the second room Rodney found shelves built in between support posts, full of food in canning jars. A closer inspection showed that most of them had become vile looking chemistry experiments, and no wonder why – they all bore handwritten labels with dates like 1978 and 1980 on them. Disgusting. He wondered if they’d come with the house when Uncle Gunn bought it or if they were part of his so-called collections. That room also boasted several stacks of Styrofoam egg containers and a disassembled crib that was half rotted and swollen with moisture.

Rodney was getting discouraged, and his feet felt like grubby blocks of ice. He wished he’d thought to put slippers on, since his attempt at stealth had gotten him nowhere. He moved into the third room, which was much smaller than the first two, and shrieked when something ran over his feet.

“Shit! Holy shit!” He swung the flashlight around wildly, and thought he caught sight of a very large mouse – Jesus was that a rat? – scurrying away. “Fuck!”

He forced himself to take deep breaths before he passed out, hampered by the knowledge that if he did he’d likely become some sort of rodent buffet. He wanted nothing more than to turn back and head for the relative safety of the stairs, but he was sure the outside exit was nearby. In the last room, maybe. Aside from vermin, the only things in this room were wooden pallets that had seen better days and a rusted toolbox.

“Please.” Rodney knelt down in front of it, hoping for some sort of tool that would help him get through the basement door. He pried open the lid and then hastily shut it again. The thing was empty, save for some very large spiders that hadn’t looked at all friendly.

“I hate this fucking house,” he said bitterly. He clenched his jaw in frustration. Only one way to go and that was forward.

The fourth and final basement room was a horror show. It was small, little more than a closet, and there were shelves completely covering one wall. Ranged across the shelves were countless dolls, their wide, unseeing eyes so creepy that Rodney found himself holding his breath. They were in a bad state – mold crawled up frilly dresses and petticoats, spiders had spun webs in their nylon hair and between their bodies, and several of them had cracked faces. For added terror, there were several ventriloquist dummies among them, looking especially malevolent.

It was almost enough to distract Rodney from the fact that he’d found the door. He was reluctant to turn his back on the wall of dolls, but desperate times called for desperate measures. His skin crawled the entire time he pushed against the metal door that would take him out of the basement but, like the door at the top of the stairs, this one was sealed up tight. He was well and truly trapped in the basement.

Rodney turned back to face the dolls, flushing with fear when he was certain he’d seen movement out of the corner of his eye. He was reminded of a movie he saw when he was a kid, called Magic, about a psychotic ventriloquist dummy, and that was all the push he needed to flee back to the first room with the reassuring concrete floor.

He was panting with exertion and fear by the time he got back to the stairs. He tried the door again, but it was still locked. He decided to take up a defensive position there, sitting down on the top step and keeping the door to his back. He pulled his knees up and covered as much of himself as he could with the robe.

With every passing moment Rodney grew more and more paranoid, certain he heard rodent feet nearby, or the distinctive shuffle step of a homicidal doll coming to end him. He spent the rest of the night there, huddled miserably at the top of the stairs, remaining ever vigilant against threats both domestic and otherworldly.

Chapter Text

Rodney woke slowly, feeling unaccountably sluggish. He could hear the distant sound of his own name being called, but it took him several long minutes to make any sense of it. His entire body was one large cramp from being curled up in the same position for so many hours, and he was shivering uncontrollably from the chill in the air. He looked dumbly at the flashlight in his hands, a feeble light still shining out of it, and then remembered about the dolls and the spiders and the rats.

The sound of his name was louder, and he realized it was John calling for him. He seemed to recall being mad at John for something, but right now all he wanted was to get out of the basement. Biting back a moan at the stiffness in his shoulder he reached back and rapped his knuckles against the door.

“Rodney? Are you here?”

Closer still, and Rodney knocked again. He tried to drum up some saliva, and managed to squawk out a John, but he doubted it was loud enough to hear. His synapses finally started to wake up and he realized he had a better chance of being found if he transferred the flashlight from one hand to the other and used that to pound against the door.

“What the hell?” he heard John say, and then the door was unlocked and wrenched open, toppling Rodney onto his back in the hall. His cramped muscles started screaming at him, his appendages pricking with pins and needles as blood flow resumed after so long in one position.

“Jesus, Rodney! What the hell are you doing in the basement?” John hovered over him, concern plain on his face, but he didn’t get too close. “Are you okay?”

Rodney remembered why he was mad. “You…locked me…in.” It lacked any bite, since he was shivering too much to rant properly.

John frowned. “What? No, I didn’t. I’ve been looking for you.”

“Call…cops…”

“Whoa, wait a minute!” John looked angry and scared, which was laughable from Rodney’s turtle-on-its-back position. “I didn’t do that!”

Rodney blinked up at him. He was feeling admittedly slow and muddled, but John looked completely sincere. Was he that good an actor? He had no way of knowing, but he didn’t think so. Or maybe he just didn’t want to think John was lying.

“Help me up.” Rodney held his hand out and after a minute John reached out and grabbed it, hauling him to his feet. “I need coffee. Vats of coffee.”

“I’ll make it.” John fled to the kitchen while Rodney shuffled toward the stairs. He needed to put on clothes, warm clothes, especially socks; his feet were numb. The climb up to his room was slow as he worked the stiffness out of his joints. By the time he’d changed into sweats, socks, and slippers, he was almost feeling human again.

As soon as Rodney got to the kitchen John thrust a coffee mug in his hands and then backed away, keeping the kitchen table between them as if he was afraid there might be some physical violence. Rodney just sighed and sat down, not caring if he burned his tongue on the hot coffee. It felt like heaven going down and he drained three quarters of the mug before he fixed his gaze on the nervous caretaker.

“You didn’t lock me in the basement last night?” he asked, trying to keep any accusation out of his voice.

John’s expression hardened but he shook his head. “I swear, McKay, I wasn’t in the house at all after I left. I wouldn’t do that.”

Rodney studied him, putting all his observational skills to use. John was steadily meeting his gaze, no fidgeting, no uncertainty, and he was forced to agree. John looked absolutely sincere, and even a little aggravated to be a suspect.

“Okay.”

“What?”

“Okay. You didn’t do it. But someone did. Who else has access to the alarm code?” Rodney finished his coffee and got up for a refill. “Say what you want about haunted houses, but someone locked that door and I’m not buying ghostly intervention.”

John dropped into a chair, looking wary. “You believe me?”

“Shouldn’t I?”

“Well, yeah. But –”

Rodney returned to his seat. “Look, either someone locked me in the basement as some kind of practical joke, or they wanted me out of the way while they did something else. You’ve had plenty of time to go through the mess in this house and find anything of actual value, and I’d be none the wiser. Logically, there must be someone else.”

“Logically,” John parroted. Rodney was starting to doubt his previous assessment of the man’s intelligence, since he didn’t seem to have anything useful to add to the conversation.

“Why were down in the basement to start with?”

Ah, finally. A good question. “I heard footsteps, and thought maybe it was you.”

John gave him an incredulous look. “And you went to investigate? Haven’t you ever seen a slasher movie?”

Rodney waved that away. “Please. That only applies to dumb blondes with big boobs. Have you been down there, by the way?”

“Yeah, I know. The dolls.”

“They’re getting incinerated at the first available opportunity.” The thought of those dead, glassy eyes made him shudder. “Also, we need to call an exterminator.”

“I’ll take care of it.”

“Great. While you’re at it you might try and think about who’d be breaking in.” Rodney got up for a third cup of coffee, and then poked around in the fridge. “Do you want some breakfast? I make pretty good omelets.”

“I can’t keep mooching off you for meals, McKay. I have my own food.”

“Fine. You can cook me dinner. But you’re already here, you may as well stay.” Rodney pulled out what ingredients he’d need, noting in passing that the carton of orange juice had disappeared. “You can make yourself useful by writing down directions to town. I need to do some shopping.”

“You sure you’re up to that, after last night?”

Was that a hint of concern he heard in John’s voice? Rodney suppressed a grin. “I’ll manage. Oh, and if Laura calls again tell her she better be en route or else I’m cancelling all her credit cards.”

“Sure. So what are you looking to pick up today?”

While Rodney cooked he gave John a rundown of his list, to which the caretaker added a few more items that Rodney hadn’t even thought of. He really hoped that he wasn’t being a complete dupe, because he honestly enjoyed John’s company and if he turned out to be some kind of villain Rodney was going to be sorely disappointed.

*o*o*o*

John’s directions were laughable. Go down the road about a mile and a half, until you see the old tractor. Make a left. When you pass the old McKenzie farm make the next right on to Route 10. It was like something from a Jeff Foxworthy routine. Rodney was used to gauging everything by blocks, which seemed like a much more logical method for getting around, but even with the backwoods directions he still found his way to town.

Harper’s Hill was a college town, though Rodney hadn’t yet seen the campus. The town itself was an anachronism, full of mom and pop stores, quaint sidewalks festooned with brightly colored flowers in rustic wooden tubs, and there wasn’t a stoplight to be seen along the main drag. There wasn’t a McDonald’s or Walmart either, and he wondered if those were outside of town, nearer to St. Christopher’s.

He got a little turned around trying to find Athos Antiques, but there were plenty of helpful residents who were more than happy to direct him. It made him feel vaguely uneasy and he wished he’d brought John along.

The antique shop was just off Main Street on Maple. The building itself looked like a residence, with a pleasant display in the big bay window that faced the sidewalk. Rodney parked the rental car and went inside, the little bell over the door tinkling as he walked in.

“Be right with you!” a voice called from somewhere inside the house.

Rodney wandered around, impressed by the layout. He’d expected more of a junk shop, but this was nicely organized and not at all cluttered. Three of the rooms held a variety of antiques, from furniture to old books to glass cases full of jewelry and brick-a-brack. He found himself distracted by a pair of Royal typewriters, marveling at the thought of having to muck around with ribbons and corrective tape. He was grateful to live in the era of computers.

“Good morning, may I be of service?”

Rodney turned and found himself face-to-face with a woman who looked far too exotic for this small, Podunk town. She had caramel colored skin, pretty brown eyes that were slightly almond-shaped, and honey brown hair that was pulled back from her face.

“Yes. Uh, good morning.” Rodney stuck out his hand. “Dr. Rodney McKay.”

“Of course, Dr. McKay. John said I should be expecting you. Teyla Emmagan.”

They shook hands and Teyla directed him back through the room they were in, and through a door to her office. More antiques in there, though these were clearly not for sale.

“Please have a seat. Can I get you some tea?”

Rodney sat in one of the two fancy arm chairs. “No, thanks.”

Teyla took a seat in the other chair and re-arranged the sparkly, swirly skirt she wore. “John indicated that you might have use of my expertise.”

“My Uncle Gunn collected, well, everything. I’m sure most of it’s junk, but some of it might be legitimate antiques. If you can help me determine which those are I’d give you first shot at them.” Rodney wasn’t certain how things like this normally were done, but it only seemed fair. It wasn’t like he was hurting for money, so he could afford to be generous to the local populace.

“To be honest, I have been wanting to see the inside of Milburn Castle for some time.” Teyla smiled prettily at him, but he only gave her a confused look in return.

“Milburn what now?”

“The house is called Milburn Castle, after the man who had it built – Donald Milburn. It has since had many owners, but locally it has always been known by that name.”

Rodney turned that over in his head for a moment, secretly pleased that Uncle Gunn’s house had a fancy name. He wondered how much more he could ask Teyla without giving anything away; he wasn’t ready to share the strange occurrences in the house with anyone but John.

“Ms. Emmagan…”

“Teyla. Please.”

“Uh, right. Teyla. Do you know if there are any…um…stories about the house?” He felt himself flushing with embarrassment for even asking. Rodney always liked to think of himself as a relatively open-minded guy, all things considered, but this ghost business was really pushing his limits.

Teyla gave him a shrewd look. “The town was founded in 1788, and many of the original structures are still here. As a society full of disposable convenience, something with great age is often held in special regard. A symbol, if you will, of how the past can stay alive in the present.”

Rodney nodded. Teyla didn’t come right out and say the word ghost, but he felt that’s what she was getting at. He got it, he did; proof of the afterlife, proof that there was something more. He understood the methodology even if he didn’t personally believe in it. Rodney hadn’t believed in God since he was a kid. No God, no Heaven. Simple logic.

“I would recommend talking to Mary Shelby over at The Pig’s Eye. She collects local stories of hauntings, and would know of any associated with Milburn Castle.”

“The Pig’s Eye?”

“A restaurant, at the eastern end of Main Street. I would recommend it for lunch as well, the food is quite good.”

“I’ll keep that in mind, thank you.”

Teyla looked thoughtful. “There is also a used bookstore, across the street from the bindery on Fergus Fraser Road. A book was written about Milburn Castle and Radek may have a copy on hand.”

“Is this a small town thing?” Rodney asked. “You’re being very helpful.”

She smiled. “I suppose it is. You might offer Radek the same deal you have given to me, for your uncle’s books. He would be most interested.”

“Sure. I mean, I’ll think about it, definitely. So, when do you think you could come by?”

Teyla produced a smart phone from some hidden pocket on her person and pulled up her calendar. Rodney found it amusing that someone surrounded by antiques all day used modern technology; he’d half expected her to have a ledger or day planner.

“I can come by to take a preliminary look first thing tomorrow morning,” she said. “But I will not have any real free time until Saturday afternoon, and what you want me to do sounds like it will be time consuming.”

“No, no, that’s fine. Uh, how early tomorrow?”

Teyla looked amused. “Is seven thirty too early?”

It absolutely was, but Rodney needed her help more than he needed sleep. They shook on it, and then Teyla directed Rodney to both the bookstore and the hardware store.

“I look forward to seeing you tomorrow,” she said at the door.

“Right. Thank you.” Rodney walked down the well-maintained sidewalk and back to his car. The hardware store was on Main Street, and he found a municipal parking lot not far from it.

Another tinkling bell as he went in. He turned on his tablet and called up his list, heading directly for the counter with the cash register and the bored-looking young kid standing behind it wearing a red vest that said Ace Hardware on it.

“Can I help you?”

“I can only assume so. You have a pen and some paper? You might want to write this down.” Rodney rattled off his list, including the items John had suggested, and the boy quickly became flustered. He had to repeat it a total of three times before the boy had it down right and went rushing off to collect all the things he wanted.

While he waited, Rodney wandered through the paint section and found himself looking at chips. He wondered if he should repaint the interior of the house – castle, he reminded himself with a grin – and if so what colors would be appropriate. The room most in need of a makeover was the kitchen, hands down; he thought that if the wallpaper was stripped, a nice, light shade of paint would be a good replacement. Green, maybe, or a nice neutral beige. He collected some paint chips for that, and others for the bedroom he was sleeping in. Grey flocked wallpaper? That had gone out in the seventies, just like the avocado colored appliances in the kitchen.

It took the kid a good twenty minutes to collect up everything on Rodney’s list, and he was pleased to see that this little store carried what he needed. He was rung up and his purchases placed in a cardboard box which he carried out to his car. He almost got back behind the wheel to drive over to the bookstore when he caught sight of a bakery with the quaint name of Cookie Jar.

The woman behind the display case was very effusive, handing him several samples of what were very fine baked goods. It was as if she inherently recognized a fellow epicurean, and Rodney certainly wasn’t complaining. The woman was an excellent baker and he thought this town might have more to offer than he’d originally thought.

Once fortified with a citrus-free apple fritter and a cup of coffee that wasn’t horrible, he drove to the bookstore. It had a ridiculous name – Czech Books – and didn’t look like much more than a long, low shed from the outside. Directly across the street was the Armadillo Book Bindery, which was a massive-looking facility and probably the second largest local employer after the university.

The inside of the bookstore was exceedingly pleasant. There were several rooms, all of them crammed full of books. The scent of musty paper hung in the air and Rodney breathed in deeply; he’d always loved the scent of books, even before he knew he wanted to write them.

The shelves were roughly arranged by genre, and each genre was more or less laid out alphabetically by author. There were several other people inside browsing the offerings, one woman sitting cross-legged on the floor paging through a coffee table book about national parks. The room farthest from the door had a nice sitting area, with two long, moth-eaten couches and several easy chairs arranged in a loose circle around a Persian rug that was faded and singed on one end.

Rodney took his time looking around, pulling out random books that caught his eye. They were a mix of hardcover and paperback, some in brand-new condition and others missing covers or damaged in some way. Some had a library binding, the inside covers stamped with the book bindery’s armadillo logo and a notation that it was a second, a damaged book. The prices were written on the title pages in pencil. There were a few books he would have liked to purchase, but he couldn’t justify bringing more into Uncle Gunn’s house when there was so much to get out first.

Eventually he wound back around to the front room, and the register. Behind the counter was a tall bookcase with glass doors and a big lock; clearly all the really expensive books were kept there, and Rodney saw a Mark Twain that had to be a first edition. There was a man sitting on a tall stool behind the counter, his nose buried in something that didn’t look like it was written in English. His hair stood out from his head, giving the impression he’d just stuck his finger in a light socket, and he was wearing wire-rimmed glasses that were perched on the end of his nose.

“Hello. Excuse me.” Rodney waited impatiently to be acknowledged.

“Yes. Hello. Can I help you?” The man set aside his book. He didn’t look much older than Rodney, and he had a noticeable accent; clearly he was the Czech of Czech Books.

“I’m looking for a book about Milburn Castle. The woman at the antique shop said you might have one.”

“Ah! You are Dr. McKay? Of course!” The man hopped off the stool and came around the front of the counter. He was short and slight, and enthusiastically shook Rodney’s hand. “I am big fan of your book! Is so exciting to have you here in my store!”

“Yes, well. Excited to be here and all that. Do you have it? The book?”

“Of course. Not original, but I have reprints made every year at bindery. I am Radek Zelenka.”

Rodney pulled his hand from Radek’s vice-like grip and followed him into the second room, where there was a whole shelf just on local history. There were several copies of Milburn Castle: A Lasting Legacy, with a photo of the house right on the cover. It was foolish, but it gave him a little thrill seeing it.

He flipped through the pages and saw that it was sparsely illustrated with black and white photos that he would take the time to study in greater depth at a later time; there was no question that he was buying the book. Except, of course, that Radek wouldn’t hear of it and insisted he keep it free of charge.

“You are celebrity! You take book, maybe you come back for signing one day.” There was an avaricious gleam in the little Czech’s eye, but Rodney couldn’t fault him for wanting to take advantage. In a town this small he mustn’t get all that much business.

“I’ll certainly consider it, but I’m very busy trying to get the house in order.”

Radek was quick to nod. “Yes, yes, of course. But you will remember me, yes?”

“Sure. Oh, that reminds me. My uncle has quite a collection of books. Once I get it all put together, maybe you’d like to –”

“Of course! He must have many old books there.”

Rodney scowled. He didn’t like being interrupted. He’d been prepared to offer the books for free, but now he thought maybe he’d charge the presumptuous little guy.

“I’ll let you know when they’re ready,” he said. “If you’ll excuse me.”

“Yes, yes. You will be back. Dr. McKay, in my little shop! Best bookstore in three counties!”

Rodney wondered if there’d be a plaque on the door the next time he came back – Dr. Rodney McKay Shopped Here - and he knew the obsequious proprietor was right. He would eventually be back because the lure of a bookstore was too great for him to ignore.

“Small towns,” he muttered to himself, and got back in his car to drive home.

*o*o*o*

Driving back to the house while the sun still shone was a much more pleasant experience. There were a lot of empty fields, and some that had been plowed for some future crop or were full of cows, but the closer he got to home the more the road became crowded in by trees. There was a house set back on the left, before his own turnoff, and Rodney figured that must be his closest neighbor. It was a nice house, large but not as big as Milburn Castle. There was no small amount of pride that came along with that thought.

The front lawn of the house was as well maintained as the back; John really was a very fine yardman. There were several red maples, and one very large willow tree. As he pulled up the driveway Rodney could hear the sound of running water again, and saw that the source of it was a little brook that cut across the lower end of the property, with a wooden footbridge spanning it.

A black Mustang was parked in the driveway and Rodney could only assume that Laura had finally arrived. Trust her to get something completely inappropriate for these country roads despite his warnings. He parked and carried his box up the porch to the front door, which he was only able to open by wedging the box against the side of the house and holding it there with one knee.

Rodney dumped the box in the foyer and headed for the kitchen, where he could hear Laura’s hearty laugh. He felt a surprising amount of relief just knowing she was in the house. While he didn’t exactly distrust John, Laura was a known quantity and he felt for the first time since he’d arrived that he had someone on his side.

“It’s about time you got here,” he said as he entered the kitchen. “I was getting ready to interview replacements for your job.”

“Good luck with that,” Laura shot back with a grin. She was sitting at the table with John and a man Rodney didn’t know. The new guy was dressed in khaki trousers and a peach colored polo shirt, and his dark hair was gelled into a strange almost-spiky-but-not configuration on his head.

“Did you pick up a hitchhiker on your way through town?” Rodney made a detour to the coffee pot, pleased to see his own far superior machine had replaced the broken down coffee maker he’d been forced to use. He was somehow unsurprised to see that John had a lap full of orange fur, since Mr. Pibb was always very free with his affections.

John’s lips quirked up in a grin. “Rodney, this is your neighbor. Dr. Carson Beckett.”

“Pleased to meet you.” Dr. Beckett leaned across the table to shake Rodney’s hand. “Ms. Cadman got a wee bit lost and I was happy see her safely to her destination.”

He had a slight Scottish accent and a pleasant demeanor; Rodney didn’t like him. “Doctor of what?”

“He’s a medical doctor,” John said.

“Aye. I split my time between the clinic in town and the university. I’ve treated enough alcohol poisoning to last a lifetime, I can tell you that.”

Laura laughed again, and Rodney was more than familiar with the slightly predatory look on her face; she was interested in this guy, and that never boded well. She was an excellent assistant but usually proved to be a bit too dominant in her romantic relationships, as Rodney understood from countless angry tirades after each breakup.

“Stop that,” he told her, wagging a finger in her face. “I see what you’re doing and the answer is no. Not this time.”

Laura narrowed her brown eyes at Rodney, and he was familiar with that particular expression as well. He narrowed his in response, because with her it was important not to show fear. She flared her nostrils, he glowered, and for a change he won when Laura shrugged and looked away. Rodney turned to find John staring at him, eyes wide.

“What?”

“I’ve never seen an argument like that before,” John said.

“Nor I.” Dr. Beckett looked both impressed and concerned. “How long’ve you two worked together?”

“Three of the longest years of my life,” Laura quipped, shooting Rodney a saccharine grin.

“I can easily replace you with a chimp,” Rodney shot back.

“I dare you.”

Dr. Beckett held his hands up. “Okay, children, that’ll do. How on earth do the two of you get any work done?”

Laura flipped her long, strawberry blonde hair over one shoulder and favored the good doctor with one of her flirty smiles. “Oh, we’re completely professional about work.”

It was the truth. When dealing with the publishers and the press and the countless requests for speaking engagements, Laura was like a machine. She always knew what to accept, what to decline, and how to politely blow people off. She made sure Rodney ate regular meals, scheduled his doctor appointments, made sure he took his pills, and looked after Mr. Pibb.

When they were interacting in a non-work-related capacity, though, all bets were off and they bickered like siblings. Actually, Laura and Jeannie had gotten together once and that had been a disaster; they’d ganged up on Rodney until he’d been forced to flee the safety of his own home and hide out in a local coffee shop for the better part of a day.

He kicked Laura under the table to stop her from batting her eyes at Dr. Beckett. She kicked him back, square in the shin, and he had to bite back an exclamation.

“Dr. Carson was just telling us that he knew your uncle.” The tone was pleasant, even though Laura was saying them through clenched teeth. “Can you believe you can still get house calls out here in the country?”

Rodney swallowed the biting comment that was on the tip of his tongue. Dr. Carson, indeed. Did he pander to small children on public access television in addition to his other duties? But the mention of house calls caught his attention and he caught John’s eye, tipping his head in the doctor’s direction. John just stared back at him, eyebrows raised. Clearly he had a lot to learn about non-verbal communication.

“Aye, it’s true. Your uncle was an eccentric fellow, I never could get him to come to the clinic.” Dr. Beckett smiled. “Always had to show me his new treasures before he’d deign to be examined.”

A-ha! Rodney thought. John leaned over to murmur in his ear.

“Are you okay? You look like you’re having a seizure or something.”

“I was just thinking it was time to get to work,” he replied loudly. Laura glared at him and he glared right back.

“I suppose I should be getting on,” Dr. Beckett said apologetically.

“I can give you a ride.” John’s offer was waved away.

“It’s a pleasant day. I believe I’ll walk.” He stood and smiled at Laura. “It was a pleasure meeting you, Ms. Cadman.”

“Likewise. I’m sure I’ll see you around, Dr. Carson.”

“Yes, yes. Everyone had a great time meeting everyone else. Out you go.” Rodney shooed the doctor out the door, and then turned to see John looking at him expectantly; his shorts were covered in orange and white cat hairs. “What? I’m sure you have caretaker things to do.”

“You and Laura coming for dinner tonight? I’m cooking my specialty.” John asked.

“That’s fine. One less thing I’ll have to do later. Uh, thanks for entertaining Laura. While I was gone.”

“I don’t need babysitting,” Laura complained.

“And you don’t need to be flirting with the neighbors, either.” Rodney grabbed hold of John’s elbow and propelled him towards the back door. “I’ll walk you out.”

John immediately shook him off and moved away, his jaw clenching, but Rodney didn’t pay him any mind, just used his hands to mime getting a move on. Once they were outside he closed the door and waited till he could catch John’s eye.

“Your doctor neighbor? Totally a suspect.”

“What are you talking about?”

Rodney sighed. “You heard what he said. He used to make house calls.”

“Um. Okay. Is that some kind of double entendre?”

“Seriously? I’d appreciate it if you’d pay attention. Beckett had access to the house. He could’ve been the one who locked me in the basement.” Rodney’s voice had dropped down into a whisper. “I’m sure he’s guilty of something. Dr. Carson, for God’s sake.”

John shook his head. “You’re barking up the wrong tree, McKay. I’ve known Carson for years, he’s a good guy.”

“Well, I don’t know him and he stays on the suspect list until I have more information.” Rodney looked through the window and saw Laura making hurry up gestures at him. “I do actually have to get to work, though. The box from the hardware store is in the foyer. You know. If you wanted to do anything with that stuff.”

“You’re the boss,” John replied wrly. He walked away, leaving Rodney pondering the exact nature of their relationship. Yes, he was technically John’s boss until he settled Uncle Gunn’s estate, but then why did he feel so weird ordering him around? He’d never had that problem with subordinates in the past – Laura excluded, naturally – but he found he didn’t want to be John’s boss. Since he wasn’t sure exactly what he wanted from the man he decided it was easiest just not to think about it and went back in the house.

“All finished with your illicit rendezvous?” Laura asked with a smirk.

“Shut up, you. Work time.” Rodney snapped his fingers and walked off. He expected Laura to follow and he wasn’t disappointed. He showed her where everything was, pausing momentarily at the basement door; there were dark holes in the wood where John had removed the sliding bolt lock. Rodney honestly appreciated the sentiment, but having that door locked was kind of comforting in that it kept all the vermin and…other things…contained.

By the time he’d finished contemplating the basement door Laura had vanished. Rodney sighed. They had a lot to get through and hadn’t even made it upstairs yet.

“Laura! Where are you?”

“In the study!” she shouted back.

Rodney flushed with fear, and while he didn’t quite break out in a run it was a close thing. He stopped abruptly on the threshold of the room, unwilling to step back inside. Laura was poking around like there was nothing wrong, but Rodney could feel the cold prickling against his skin and there was an echo of the depression he’d felt the last time he’d been in there.

“Get out of there!” he snapped. Laura looked at him, startled.

“What?”

“Rules! There are rules, and the first one is stay out of the study.”

Laura frowned at him but complied. As soon as she was close enough Rodney yanked her out of the room and closed the door.

“What the hell, Rodney? What do you…are you okay?”

He just nodded, aware that he probably looked ridiculous, shaking with the tremors of a near miss; or not, since Laura clearly hadn’t noticed anything awry. John had said not everyone was affected by the atmosphere of the room, and that certainly seemed to be true.

“It’s nothing. Just…stay out of there. Okay? Please?”

Laura looked unsettled by the uncharacteristic please, and nodded. “Off limits. I get it.”

Rodney was thankful that she didn’t ask any questions. Instead, Laura slipped back into professional mode and he was able to show her the rest of the house. She asked intelligent questions, made even more intelligent observations, and easily commiserated with him over the sad state of affairs in the house. She took a look at his inventory lists and tweaked them a bit.

“We need a staging area,” she said finally. “It’s good to know what’s here, but it’ll be easier later on if we can separate it out in one common area.”

“That’s going to be a problem,” Rodney pointed out. “This junk is everywhere. If we clear out a couple of rooms, where do we put the stuff already in them?”

“Hmmm.” Laura wandered through the hall, occasionally reaching out to run her fingers along the edges of a box or to tap on the ornaments hanging off the Christmas tree. “You said the Blue Room is almost finished being inventoried. We need to finish that up. Then we can shift out anything you think is valuable, put it in the hall temporarily, and leave the junk in the room. If we go through the hallway stuff after that, we can make more room for the real antiques there.”

Rodney nodded. “Yeah, okay, that makes sense. Good stuff in the hall, bad stuff in the Blue Room.”

“I added a column to the inventory so we can indicate where we placed each box or piece of furniture.”

“Thank God you’re here,” he said with complete sincerity.

Laura grinned at him. “That’s why you pay me the big bucks. So…tell me about John.”

“What? No. Why are you asking?” Rodney felt flustered by the question, though he didn’t know why. It only made sense for Laura to ask about him, since she’d be staying there too. Staying… “Oh, no. I don’t have a room cleared out for you.”

“Relax. I have a room at the B&B in town. We work together pretty well, Rodney, let’s not ruin it by sleeping under the same roof.”

“Ha ha, very funny. I suppose that makes sense. You can always check out the nightlife here in East Bumblefuck. I’m pretty sure possums might be involved.”

Laura laughed. “Don’t quit your day job, Rodney. Seriously, though, dish. What’s the scoop? What branch of the military was John in?”

Rodney just stared at her. “Why would you assume he was military? Have you seen his posture? His hair?”

“Ex-military knows ex-military,” she replied curtly.

“Please. A brief stint in the Marine Corps doesn’t make you some sort of expert. I suppose there’s some kind of military version of gaydar?”

“Like you know anything about gaydar. Trust me, he’s military. Or was.”

Rodney thought back to the morning he’d stormed into John’s apartment in the carriage house. His t-shirt. He tried to recall the letters on the front of it. Damn. It was possible Laura was right. He hated when she was right.

“He had an Air Force shirt on the other day,” he grudgingly admitted.

“Ah. Flyboy. I should’ve guessed.”

“What bearing does that have on anything we’re doing here?” Rodney groused. “Whether or not he was a pilot doesn’t change the fact that we have a ridiculous amount of work ahead of us.”

Laura shrugged. “I like to know who I’m working with. I wonder if the no-touching thing has anything to do with the reason he’s not still in the Air Force.”

“You noticed that too?” Rodney hissed, looking guiltily over his shoulder like John might be there, angry that they were talking about him.

“Hard not to. I’ll give you this, Rodney. You make the most interesting friends.”

“He’s not my friend, he’s my employee. And once I sell the house he won’t be anything at all to me.” That felt even worse to say out loud. “Uh, do you think you can find something for him to do? After? I don’t want to leave the guy hanging, you know?”

Laura gave him a shrewd look. “Are you expressing actual human feelings?”

“Shut up and let’s get to work before I do something drastic, like volunteer you for an IRS audit.”

“You’re all talk.” But she dropped the subject and together they got working on finishing the inventory in the Blue Room.

*o*o*o*

John’s apartment may have been very sparely furnished and not at all decorated, but apparently his fridge was full of wonders. He’d prepared chicken marsala for dinner, with fresh mushrooms – not canned – and roasted potatoes on the side. Rodney had been suitably impressed, and was now sufficiently stuffed.

The three of them sat out on the little deck that someone, maybe John, had added to the side of the carriage house. It was a nice night, clear and just this side of cool. Laura was nursing a glass of wine, while Rodney and John enjoyed the more plebian pleasures of Yuengling lager.

“Where are you staying?” John asked Laura, his head back as he looked up at the stars.

“Sunshine B&B. I have to admit, I chose it because of the restaurant.” Laura swirled the wine around in the glass.

“The Pig’s Eye is a good place,” John agreed. “You should try the Shepherd’s pie. No relation.”

Laura giggled and Rodney rolled his eyes, but something about that name pricked at his memory.

“Wait. Pig’s Eye. Who runs that?”

“Mary Shelby. That’s an interesting story, actually. She and her husband bought it back in –”

“Yes, yes, very interesting,” Rodney interrupted. “Teyla mentioned that Mary person to me today. Said she had a story about Uncle Gunn’s house, or something like that.”

John looked over at him, interested. “Yeah? That might be good to know, actually.”

“I know. I didn’t have time to stop today, but we’ll definitely have to add that to our to-do list.” Rodney waggled his eyebrows, hoping John was catching the drift this time; it was hard to judge by the smirk he got in response.

Laura looked between the two of them. “Why do I get the feeling you two are talking about something I know nothing about?”

“Because you’re far more intelligent than you let on.” Rodney looked at the darkening sky, and the deep shadows that stretched across the yard. “Maybe you should get going. Do you know where it is? Can you find it in the dark?”

John snorted. “It’s painted bright yellow. I think you can see it from space.”

“Oh, well, okay then.”

Laura gave him an affectionate look. “I’ll be fine, Rodney, don’t worry. You want me to call you when I get there?”

“No. Yes.”

“Well, I’ll just be off then. It’s been a long day and I could definitely use some sleep.” She finished off the rest of her wine and set the empty glass on the little wooden table next to her chair. “Thank you, John. Dinner was delicious.”

“Next time you might want to plan a dessert, too,” Rodney suggested helpfully. Laura cuffed him on the arm but John just grinned.

“Don’t worry, I won’t forget next time.”

Rodney walked Laura to her car. The floodlights kicked on as soon as they hit the driveway, much to his pleasure. John had installed them earlier.

“Watch out for animals. The deer especially seem to appear out of nowhere for the express purpose of throwing themselves at moving vehicles.”

“I know how to drive in the country, Rodney. I didn’t always live in the city, you know.”

Rodney wasn’t sure he did know but he didn’t think it was important anyway. Country driving was fraught with peril – furry animals with death wishes, roads with the line markings so faded as to be non-existent, and a significant lack of street lights all conspired to make night driving ridiculously difficult.

“How early you want me here tomorrow?”

“You can sleep in a little. One of us should get to, anyway. The antique lady is coming first thing to take a look around.”

“Call me if you need me sooner,” Laura said, covering a yawn with her hand.

“Go, before I have to worry about you falling asleep behind the wheel.”

“I’m going, I’m going. Here’s your hat, what’s your hurry? You just want some time alone with John. I’m not fooled.” Laura got behind the wheel and put one hand on the door.

“Yes, I’m planning to ravage him as soon as you’re gone. Weren’t you the one who told me romance was dead?” He was glad she couldn’t see him blushing.

“That was last week. This week it’s back on.”

“Doesn’t matter. There will be no romance here. Let’s be clear about that, shall we? No romancing the doctor. I mean it.”

“Good night, Rodney,” Laura said, pulling the door shut with a definitive thunk. He watched her drive away, a bit too fast as far as he was concerned, and almost jumped out of his skin when he turned around to find John standing there.

“You didn’t tell her about the ghost?”

Rodney scowled. “There’s nothing to tell her. And don’t you start spouting off about spooks, or your next job will be cleaning up after camels in Abu Dhabi.”

“If she’s going to be spending time here, you should let her know,” John insisted. “You don’t want her caught by surprise.”

With a sigh, Rodney informed him that Laura had survived the study unscathed. “I told her to stay out of there, but that probably only piqued her interest.”

“Probably. Listen, tomorrow you should call the alarm company and change the code. Just to be on the safe side.”

Rodney nodded. That was a nice, sensible suggestion. “Good idea. And maybe this weekend we can put in the motion sensors.”

Those had been John’s idea. That would be a good secondary alarm system for the first floor, which was more vulnerable to break-in than the second floor. They’d take extra care to set the sensors at a height that wouldn’t be triggered by Mr. Pibb’s nocturnal wanderings. It was nice to have a concrete plan in place because it just reinforced Rodney’s certainty that the problems were of human origin.

“I should turn in,” Rodney said after a few minutes of just standing there with John. “Teyla’s coming at seven thirty and I need to try and be presentable.”

“I’ll come over at seven and start the coffee,” John promised.

“You just got yourself a raise, my friend.”

John grinned at him, and Rodney grinned back before turning and heading into the house. He went through the usual routine of checking the doors and windows, and tried not to feel too embarrassed when he pushed several heavy boxes in front of the basement door. John would surely comment on them when he came in the morning, but Rodney couldn’t help himself; the basement had really freaked him out, more than he’d realized.

He nearly tripped over Mr. Pibb, who seemed intent on racing him to the bedroom. “Stupid cat,” he said affectionately. Five minutes after using the bathroom and brushing his teeth Rodney was sound asleep on the bed with his cat curled up on his legs.

*o*o*o*

Rodney blinked awake, feeling a little fuzzy. It was still dark and he tried to bring the numbers on the clock into focus to no avail. When he finally registered the sound of crying he wasn’t at all surprised; he’d been expecting something to happen and now that it had he just felt…numb.

He slid out from between the sheets, making sure to grab his flashlight and put his slippers on. He shuffled out the door and down the stairs, not even realizing he had no need for the flashlight; his steps were slow but sure, and the fact that he seemed to be moving through air thick as molasses didn’t penetrate his sleepy brain at all.

Rodney made his way unerringly towards the study and even before he made it to the doorway he could feel the pull like icy fingers wrapped around his arms, drawing him inexorably forward. Self-doubt was trying to insinuate itself in his mind again, battering him with his failures. Writing career. Failure. Personal relationships. Failure. Scientific career. Failure.

He was reaching for the doorknob, ready to absorb the full brunt of the room, when the floor shifted under his foot and Mr. Pibb yowled, swiping his claws against Rodney’s ankle.

“Shit!” he cursed, hopping on one foot. He must’ve stepped on the stupid cat’s tail or something, but the furry beast didn’t stick around long enough for him to check and make sure he was still in one piece.

It took him another minute to realize where he was and what he’d been about to do, and he scurried back as quickly as he could until he was plastered against the opposite wall, breath coming fast. What the hell had just happened? He’d been like some kind of damn zombie, ready to walk into…well, into a room afflicted with electromagnetic field fluctuations. He refused to believe there was anything otherworldly happening, but clearly environmental issues were putting his health at risk.

“Scientific reasons. There’s perfectly normal, scientific reasons,” he muttered to himself. Still, he hugged the wall as he made his way back to the foyer and the stairs, thinking only of crawling into his bed and possibly pulling the blankets over his head. After first cleaning out the scratches on his ankle, of course; no sense escaping the inexplicable only to succumb to cat scratch fever.

Rodney switched on the flashlight once he’d made it out of the hall, covering the empty foyer space as quickly as possible. The slap of his hard-soled slippers against the floor seemed too loud in the dark, echoing off the high ceiling. The meager light from the flashlight only seemed to make the shadows darker, more pressing, and Rodney felt vaguely claustrophobic.

He let out a sigh of relief when he saw the stairs. He clutched the banister perhaps a bit harder than necessary, and narrowly avoided tripping over his own feet as he hurried up to his room; thank goodness there wasn’t anyone there to see him. He spared a thought for John, wondering why he’d shown up that first time in the study but not this time, and then all his forward movement came to an abrupt halt.

Rodney forgot how to breathe, forgot how to move. His skin alternately flushed hot and cold, and while he was aware that he was gaping like an imbecile he couldn’t find it in himself to care.

Sitting on the second riser from the top of the stairs was one of the moldy, rotten dolls from the basement. It’s dead, shiny eyes seemed to stare straight into Rodney’s and he was forced to bite back a sound that was very nearly a whimper. A crack ran diagonally across its face like a scar, and its hair was matted and filthy and covered in cobwebs.

Some trick of light and shadow gave the illusion of movement, as if the doll would suddenly lurch forward, and Rodney’s paralysis broke. He backed down the stairs slowly, keeping the flashlight on the doll. It was slow going but he was physically incapable of turning his back on the thing.

As soon as he was out of flashlight range, Rodney turned and flew down the rest of the stairs. He nearly went right out the front door, his first thought to get to John. At the last minute he went in the opposite direction and barricaded himself in the parlor; better to make a valiant last stand than to play the damsel in distress again.

He pushed junk off the couch until he’d cleared about a quarter of it. There was enough space for him to huddle beneath one of the thick pieces of fabric – curtains, he was pretty sure now – and keep his flashlight trained on the glass doors. As the dark slowly gave way to the twilight of very early morning Rodney lost the battle against unconsciousness and dropped into a fitful sleep with the flashlight clutched in his hand.

Chapter Text

For the second morning in a row Rodney awoke to the sound of his own name on John’s lips. For the second morning in a row he woke up somewhere other than his bed and he was getting damn tired of that already. Once he was fully caffeinated he’d need to start working on a solution to this problem.

“Why are you sleeping in here?” John was slouched against the doorframe, his relaxed posture belying the intensity in his gaze. Rodney was able to read that loud and clear, even sleep-deprived as he was.

“You don’t want to know, trust me.” Rodney tossed aside the heavy brocade curtain he’d been using as a blanket and stretched. The couch had definitely been more comfortable than the basement stairs, but he was still exhausted and stiff. “What time is it?”

“Seven. And don’t change the subject.”

In the light of day Rodney was feeling more than a little idiotic over his scare in the night. Sure, the doll was creepy, but he ascribed no supernatural force to it.

“Someone was in the house again last night,” he replied testily. He was tired and cranky and sick of being scared, and when he moved past John he deliberately placed himself inside the other man’s safety bubble, taking perverse pleasure in watching him scramble out of the way.

“McKay…”

“Later. Teyla will be here in half an hour and I need to clean up.” Rodney went up the stairs, side-stepping the doll with a barely repressed shudder. “Can you start the coffee? And get rid of this…thing?”

“Yeah. Sure.”

Rodney went right into the shower, not bothering to wait for the water to heat up enough first. Two nights of broken sleep and less-than-optimal sleeping arrangements were taking their toll. He wished he had cell service so he could call Laura and have her buy up all the Red Bull she could find; in a college town it shouldn’t be too difficult. He’d just have to make do with the Folgers.

He almost dropped to his knees and wept when he got to the kitchen and found Laura waiting for him with an extra-large Styrofoam cup in her hand. “Is that...?”

“French roast, two shots of espresso.” Laura handed it over and Rodney accepted it with all the reverence it was due, pointedly ignoring John’s grimace.

“I’m giving you a raise.” He took a sip and moaned in pleasure. Laura had superpowers, he was certain of it. Not only had she managed to procure his favorite morning beverage in the backwoods of Upstate New York, but she had the knack of delivering it to him at just the right temperature so he didn’t burn his mouth.

“I’ll take it,” Laura replied with a grin. “I’ve definitely earned it.”

“Send a reminder to my tablet,” Rodney replied. “You may have just saved my life.”

“Teyla’s here,” John said, his voice a little choked. Rodney stared at his retreating back as he went to get the door.

“That guy is wound too tight,” Laura commented. She shared a look with Rodney, who nodded his agreement. He added figuring out John Sheppard to his to-do list.

The next hour passed in a blur as Teyla buzzed from room to room, making cursory evaluations on the furniture. Rodney trailed after her, making notes on his inventory while Laura took pictures with her smart phone of the pieces that were definitely valuable antiques. Names were tossed around that meant little or nothing to Rodney – Duncan Phyfe, Stickley, Sheraton. Teyla spoke them in a particularly gleeful tone. By the time she had to leave there was a long list of pieces to save, and another list of pieces that she needed to do more research on. And they hadn’t even touched on anything in the boxes and bins. Rodney was more concerned with the things that had no intrinsic value, because they could be moved out of the house as soon as possible.

“This is a lovely home,” Teyla said as they descended the stairs. “Once you have cleared it out I am certain it will be easy to find a buyer.”

“Yes, well, that’s the plan.” Otherworldly crying and creepy dolls weren’t exactly rolling out the red carpet and making him want to stay. Not that it had ever been an option, he reminded himself.

Rodney opened the front door and then immediately stumbled back when he found a behemoth of a man standing on the front porch with his arm raised menacingly.

“John!” Rodney shouted. “He’s here!”

He assumed what he hoped was a defensive stance, fists up and determined to keep from embarrassing himself too much. He was confused when John appeared from the kitchen, grinning.

“I see you’ve met Ronon.”

“Who?”

The man at the door lowered his hand and raised his eyebrows; it didn’t make him look any less imposing. Neither did his voice when he spoke, the tones deep and rumbling.

“Dr. McKay? Ronon Dex, Ronevan Contracting. Sheppard said you might need a dumpster.” He nodded at John, who tipped his head back in return; clearly the two of them were already acquainted.

“Stand down, Chuck Norris,” John said, looking amused. “I asked him to stop by and talk to you.”

“It is good to see you, Ronon,” Teyla said pleasantly.

Rodney lowered his arms and tried to look more relaxed than he was feeling. “Why am I not surprised that you know each other. I assume that’s a small town thing.”

“We go to the same gym.”

That seemed highly plausible. Ronon looked like a solid wall of muscle and Teyla was extremely toned.

“Let’s go outside,” Rodney suggested. Just because John knew the big guy didn’t mean he felt comfortable having him looming in his foyer. Not to mention he didn’t want Mr. Pibb getting out because they left the door open too long. They reconvened in the driveway, where Teyla said her goodbyes. There was a white utility van parked off to one side emblazoned with the name of Ronon’s company. Laura pulled on Rodney’s arm before he could join the others, looking suspicious.

“Something’s going on,” she hissed. “What is it?”

“Later,” he replied. “Promise.”

“Fine. I’ll be inside shifting boxes. Come up when you’re done.”

“Yeah, yeah. Oh, hey, don’t forget we have dinner at the doctor’s tonight.” As Rodney had hoped, Laura blushed and hurried off without further comment. He wondered how long he could use the handsome neighbor to keep her in check; he suspected not long.

“You’re gonna need a fifteen yard dumpster, minimum,” Ronon said when Rodney joined them. His hair fell in impressive-looking dreadlocks, held back with a black bandanna.

“I’d go for twenty,” John suggested. “Especially if you plan to do any remodeling.”

“Whatever. Twenty is fine.” Rodney had no problem deferring to John, who seemed to know what he was talking about. “I want to redo the kitchen. John, you can work with, uh…”

“Ronon,” the man himself supplied helpfully.

“Right. Work it out with Ronon. It all has to go.”

John looked surprised, but Ronon only nodded. “We can do the renovation for you. I’ll put my partner on it. Evan Lorne. He can get you an estimate once he’s come out and taken a look.”

“Are you sure, McKay?” John asked. Rodney didn’t understand why he was so surprised to be trusted with a fairly simple task.

“You’re the caretaker, right? This should fall under your purview.” Rodney gave him a hard look. “Unless you don’t feel like you’re capable.”

That seemed to firm up John’s resolve. “I’m on it. I assume you don’t want to save any of the appliances?”

“Absolutely not. Oh, speaking of aged appliances, do you handle water heaters?”

Ronon shook his head. “We don’t do plumbing, but we subcontract with a good one. Evan can put you in touch with him.”

“Thanks, that would be…”

Rodney was interrupted by the arrival of a car up the long driveway. From the way John tensed up he deduced it wasn’t one of his many acquaintances.

“Oh, what now?” he grumbled.

The car was a junker, missing what sounded like vital muffler parts and possibly brake pads; it was a relief when it finally came to a stop. The guy who got out looked pretty young, very early twenties if Rodney was any judge. He approached them with a pleasant smile on his boyish face.

“Hi there!”

“What do you want?” Rodney asked impatiently. Whatever this guy was selling he wasn’t buying. His abruptness didn’t dim that smile a bit.

“You must be Dr. McKay. My name’s Geoff Fletcher, it’s a pleasure to meet you.” He held his hand out and Rodney reluctantly shook it. “Everyone in town’s been talking about you.”

“Please don’t make me repeat myself,” Rodney said tersely, earning a smirk from John. “As you can see I’m very busy.”

Because he was watching, Rodney saw the way Geoff’s eyes hardened even though his smile never wavered. He had no tolerance for sycophants or glad-handers and this guy didn’t seem to have much else to offer.

“I’ll get right to the point then. My family lived here at the Castle in the mid-nineties. We had to move away but now I’m back, going to school at St. Christopher’s, and I was hoping I could take a look around.”

Geoff looked both sincere and a little nostalgic, though in Rodney’s opinion he was trying too hard. John gave a tiny shake of his head, which Rodney took to mean he didn’t think that was a good idea either. Nice to know they were on the same page.

“I’m sorry,” he said, not sounding sorry at all. “We’re in the middle of cleaning the place out and I don’t have the time to take you on a tour.”

“Oh, I know my way around.” Now Geoff tried for trustworthy but his clenched jaw ruined the effect.

“I don’t know you,” Rodney pointed out. “And I’m not going to let a stranger run around my house unsupervised.”

“But…”

“I suggest you head back to school, or wherever it is you go, because I need to get back to work and so do my two associates.” Rodney crossed his arms in front of his chest. “If you want to take a look around I suggest you come back in six months or so, when things aren’t so hectic.”

Geoff nodded like he understood but Rodney got the impression that the kid was furious. Well, he could stay that way as far as Rodney was concerned. He couldn’t have lookie-loos running around the place, not now while he was still trying to sort through his so-called legacy.

“I understand. Sorry to have bothered you.”

“Bye now.” Rodney watched him get back in his deathtrap of a car and drive away. As soon as he was out of sight Ronon let out a booming laugh, startling Rodney.

“You’re alright, McKay,” he chuckled.

“I’m so glad you approve. John, give him whatever he needs. I better get upstairs before Laura has my head.”

“Sure thing,” John replied. With Geoff gone he’d returned to his previous relaxed, slouchy posture. “Later we need to talk about changing the alarm code.”

“I’ll add you to my list,” Rodney replied, already walking away. By the time he got back into heaving boxes and furniture around he’d forgotten about Geoff, Ronon and everything else but the task at hand.

*o*o*o*

Carson Beckett’s house was full of homespun touches and earthy colors. Rodney wasn’t a fan of American Rustic as a design aesthetic, but somehow even the large rooms felt warm and homey in a way Milburn Castle certainly didn’t. There could have been a few less photographs of Mother Beckett, though.

“This is nice and cozy,” Laura gushed as they sat down to dinner. She’d been too busy getting ready for dinner to bug Rodney about his behavior earlier with Ronon, though he didn’t delude himself into thinking she’d dropped it altogether.

“Thank you.” Carson set out a platter of roast beef next to a large bowl of roasted veggies and a gravy boat. Rodney’s mouth was watering; he’d been missing his usual take-out and dine-in places back home, and his cooking was nowhere near this level.

“Nice spread,” John remarked from his seat beside Rodney.

“A doctor who cooks?” Laura propped her chin on her hand and batted her eyelashes. Rodney kept from throwing his napkin at her but it was a close thing.

“Well, a single man needs to learn his way round the kitchen,” Carson replied with a self-deprecating shrug.

Rodney shared a disgusted glance with John. Carson and Laura couldn’t be more obvious if they tried and he wasn’t looking forward to a whole meal punctuated by ridiculous innuendo.

“I don’t suppose we could eat?” he asked testily.

“Play nice, Rodney, or you can go back and eat ravioli out of a can.” Laura’s sweet smile was in direct counterpoint to her steely words.

He opened his mouth with a nasty reply at the ready but one look at John’s smirking face shut him up. Laughing with him was one thing, but he didn’t need anyone laughing at him.

The food was passed around family style and conversation was limited as everyone applied themselves to Carson’s fine cooking. Rodney had no problems going back for seconds, and just barely held himself back from thirds. He didn’t miss the fact that John, despite longing looks at the meat platter, denied himself more than one smallish serving. It wasn’t like he couldn’t afford to put on a few pounds, so Rodney snatched his plate and loaded it up with more of everything.

“Hey!” John protested, scowling. “What do you –”

“You don’t eat enough to keep a bird alive.” Rodney dumped gravy over everything and slid the plate back in front of John. “Carson didn’t cook all this just for you to stare at it.”

“He’s right,” Carson agreed unexpectedly. “You can save me the trouble of cleaning up leftovers.”

Rodney nodded, ignored the flush on John’s cheeks, and went after another helping himself. He was only helping Carson out, after all.

“Everything was delicious,” Laura said. She pushed her plate away, finished. “Thank you so much for having us over.”

Carson beamed. “Well, and it’s my pleasure. Not often I get to entertain such a group as yourselves.”

“A handyman, a business manager, and a best-selling author,” Rodney said, wiping a smear of gravy off his chin with his thumb. “Sounds like the makings of one of those stupid jokes.”

“Have you lived here long?” Laura asked, ignoring the man who paid her a very handsome salary. Much to his annoyance.

“Oh, about five years now. I came here to give a wee speech at the university and loved it so much I had to come back.”

“It’s a lovely town.” Laura rested her elbows on the table and leaned closer to Carson. “I can see the appeal.”

“Full of charm,” Rodney agreed, sopping up the last of the gravy on his place with a dinner roll. “It says something when the cemetery is the focal point. Morbid bunch of settlers.”

“Oh, I don’t know about that,” Carson said with a shrug. “There are plenty of hills around, I’m sure the town’s not named for that one in particular.”

The hill in question was visible from almost any spot in town, creating a backdrop of terraced burial plots surmounted by a statue of Colonel Harper himself, resplendent in marbleized Revolutionary attire atop his noble steed. It was quite the monument to vanity, and coming from Rodney that was really saying something.

Laura rolled her eyes. “If you think that’s morbid you should hear some of the ghost stories.”

That got Rodney’s attention. He cut a glance at John, amused to see that the full plate was now nearly empty. “What kind of stories?”

“You’ve been talking with Mary,” Carson said. He waved a dismissive hand. “Every place has its share of unfounded spook stories. Harper’s Hill is no different.”

“You’re a skeptic?” John asked. “That surprises me.”

“Why? Because I’m Scotch and we all believe in boggarts and wee brownies?” Carson laughed good-naturedly. “It’s the twenty-first century, John. Ghost stories belong to bygone times.”

Laura frowned and Rodney mentally cheered; perhaps she wasn’t quite so blindly infatuated with the handsome doctor as he’d thought. “I don’t know. There are plenty of unexplainable things out there, Carson. Some of Mary’s stories were genuinely creepy, and they all seemed to have a grain of truth to them.”

The good doctor apparently saw the error of his ways and attempted to backpedal. “What I mean to say is…science has taken much of the mystery out of the world. I’m sure there’s plenty we still don’t know.”

“Was there something about Uncle Gunn’s house?” Rodney asked Laura, trying to get her back on track. “Or are we going to sit around debating the validity of the supernatural in the modern world?”

John leaned surprisingly close, speaking so only he could hear. “What happened to atmospheric anomalies?”

Rodney gave him a dirty look. “I want to know what people are saying,” he hissed. “Your lack of curiosity is appalling.”

“You experienced it, too. Does it matter why?” John’s voice dropped even further and Rodney was forced to shift closer; their foreheads were almost touching and he felt a perverse thrill at being allowed past John’s personal space boundaries.

“Of course it matters! If we can determine the cause, maybe we can fix it.”

John huffed out a breath that Rodney could feel on his cheek. “Like how? An exorcism? Some chanting while you burn sage?”

“Ahem.” Laura noisily cleared her throat, and Rodney jerked back in his chair, feeling unaccountably guilty even though he was sure his whispered conversation with John hadn’t been heard by the other two people at the table. Laura and Carson were watching them expectantly, and Rodney waved his hand at them while John made an intense study of his plate.

“Stories. What did you hear?”

“Well, according to Mary this whole area is a kind of supernatural hot spot. There are lots of ghost stories, some of them dating back centuries.”

John mouthed hellmouth at Rodney, who ignored that Buffy reference with only a slight quirk of his lips to give himself away.

“I don’t care about the world at large,” he complained. “Did she say anything about Milburn Castle?”

“Something you want to tell me?” Laura countered, eyes narrowed in a way that meant she was connecting dots she shouldn’t be. He did his best to distract her.

“It’ll matter when it’s time to sell. People might pay more if there’s a good story.”

“Could backfire on you as well,” Carson said, completely oblivious to the byplay.

“Depends on the story,” John put in. There was an expression on his face that Rodney was hard-pressed to attach an emotion to. It was, in part, thoughtful, curious and…well, haunted. Rodney barely refrained from rolling his eyes at himself.

Carson nodded. “I can tell you something I heard when I first moved here. There was a rumor Gunn was hiding a bit of treasure in the house. The way I heard tell, it was common knowledge.”

Rodney snorted. “Treasure? Clearly none of those gossip mongers ever went inside the house. Unless you count treasure in swizzle sticks and doilies there’s nothing of any real value in there.”

“I don’t know about that. Could be the old gaffer found some sparkle amongst the trash. A wee treasure hunt could be fun.”

Rodney stared at him, his earlier suspicions returning in full force. The doctor sounded a little too enthusiastic about treasure hunting in the house. How far would he go to get a shot at it?

“Back off, Belloch,” he said. “There’s nothing –”

Rodney was startled when John started laughing, and looked over at him with wide, horrified eyes. He’d never heard anything on two legs make that kind of noise, which was like a cross between barking and braying. It was really and truly awful, but for some reason it made Rodney want to laugh right back and he suppressed his own mirth with some difficulty.

“What the hell are you talking about?” Laura asked. Both she and Carson wore similar expressions of confusion and consternation, and Rodney realized they hadn’t gotten the reference. He waved his hand at them.

“Nothing. It’s an Indiana Jones thing. What I was trying to say, before Donkey Boy interrupted me, is that there will be no treasure hunting. Trust me, I’ve been in every room of that house and the only things of value are some old pieces of furniture. No gold doubloons, no chest full of precious gems.”

John snorted but got himself under control. “I have to agree with McKay. I’ve never seen anything to indicate that Gunn was hoarding anything besides thrift stop leftovers.”

“Jeez, Rodney,” Laura complained. “It’s not like Carson’s going to sneak in and dig up the basement.”

“Not if he knows what’s good for him,” he replied threateningly.

“So, Laura,” John interjected brightly. “You were saying something about ghost stories?”

Rodney didn’t say anything more about the so-called treasure, but he added Carson to his suspect list. He certainly seemed nice, and he cooked a hell of a meal, but Rodney didn’t really know him. Sure, he didn’t really know John either but somehow he just felt that John was one of the good guys.

Laura sighed, stopped shooting daggers at Rodney with her eyes, and finally got to the story; Rodney was under no delusion that she’d have plenty to say to him later.

“Mary said that Milburn Castle is haunted by a woman who was jilted by her lover. Apparently she was so forlorn over his very public betrayal that she killed herself.”

Rodney looked over at John, wanting to communicate his disappointment, but the words died in his throat. John had gone stock still, and seemed to somehow have drawn into himself until he was less present. It was another clue, an important one, but Rodney knew he couldn’t ask. Instead he turned a half-hearted scowl on Laura.

“That’s it? That’s a terrible story! How can I work with that?”

“You can add some romance to it.” Laura looked thoughtful. “Maybe she haunts the house to make sure no-one else suffers her same fate.”

Rodney snorted in derision, keeping John in his peripheral vision; he was relaxing in increments and so Rodney kept talking.

“That’s romantic? I suppose she floats around in white robes, wailing.” He almost wished that were the case, because a frontal assault seemed easier to deal with than whatever sneaky business was happening in the study. “A crime of passion would sell better.”

“Probably best to leave it out, then,” Carson suggested.

“So what other campfire stories did you hear while you were out making new friends? Any phantom trains or black dogs of doom?”

“Did she tell you of Wilds Willa?” Carson asked with a grin. “She’s a wee popular haunt.”

Rodney tuned out most of that conversation; the only ghost he was interested in was his own. More pressing, though, was his concern for John. He’d slouched back in his chair, looking like he didn’t have a care in the world, but Rodney could see the tightness around his eyes and how he kept his hands clenched into fists on his lap.

Something was definitely going on, a connection between the Milburn Castle ghost and John Sheppard. Rodney hated ignorance, especially his own, and he firmed his resolve to get to the bottom of things. Whatever was wrong he’d fix it. Especially if it was John that was broken.

*o*o*o*

Laura stayed at Carson’s for getting-to-know-you-better cocktails, but Rodney was more than ready to get back to the house. John had been mostly silent, muttering half-hearted thanks as they were on their way out the door, and he looked tired. Rodney found himself uncharacteristically concerned for John’s welfare, and wondered if that should worry him; he decided not to think about it.

Rodney drove, trying to ignore the oppressive silence in the car as they headed up the long driveway. He was so focused on John that he wasn’t aware that something was wrong until the man tensed up and leaned forward, one hand on the dashboard to brace himself.

“What? What’s wrong?” Rodney parked the car and turned it off, letting more silence settle around them.

“Lights are out,” John replied tersely.

Rodney peered through the windshield. “Is that bad?” He remembered leaving at least one inside light on, and the new motion sensors should’ve turned on when the car had pulled up, but shadows puddled around the house like deep, dark wells.

“Could just be the breaker. The system gets overloaded sometimes.” John got out of the car. “I can get them turned back on. Stay here.”

Rodney scrambled out of his seat, only just remembering to unbuckle his seatbelt before he strangled himself. “Hold on! I’m not some swooning damsel, you know. I’m coming.”

“Watch your step,” was all John said in response.

Rodney kept close on his heels, eyes straining to see into the dark around the front door. He made a mental note to start keeping a flashlight in the car. Or maybe he should just invest in a utility belt like Batman.

John unlocked the front door and reset the alarm, which was operating off of battery power. The little glowing green light seemed very bright in the darkness, and left an after-image in Rodney’s vision.

“Fuse box is in the basement,” John said, his voice hushed.

“The basement?” In his mind’s eye he could see those shelves full of dolls, and shuddered. “I have a flashlight in my room. Wait here.”

He couldn’t send John down there in the dark with nothing. Still, it took him a long moment to gather up the courage to climb the stairs. He only hoped it was dark enough that he wouldn’t see if something had been left there for him to find. Or worse, a hand snaking out to grab his ankle and yank him down to…

“Hurry up,” John said, raising his voice just a little.

“Don’t rush me!” Rodney shot back, and it was too loud in the darkness. He winced and moved quicker, holding on to the bannister as he went. Luckily the stairs were clear of malevolent booby traps and he felt his way along the wall to the door of his room. Had he left it closed? He didn’t remember.

He ran into the bed and hissed, rubbing his knee; that would leave a bruise. He stayed pressed against the side of the mattress and followed it around to the night stand, where his fumbling hand found the flashlight. He flipped it on with a sigh of relief and turned, shining the light over the bed. And froze in place, eyes wide and heart hammering in his chest.

There was a knife, one of the big ones from the kitchen, sticking out of his pillow in a decidedly unfriendly way; the bit of blade that was visible gleamed in the flashlight’s beam. He was back. The intruder was back and Rodney couldn’t help but wonder if he was still somewhere in the house, waiting with more of the kitchen cutlery.

“Rodney?” John called from the bottom of the stairs. “Everything okay?”

Jesus, some crazy homicidal maniac was roaming around the house and John was down there making himself a target. Rodney was torn. His initial instinct was to shut himself in the bedroom, where the lunatic clearly wasn’t, and wait for daylight. But he couldn’t abandon John.

He slid out of the bedroom, keeping his back to the wall and shining the flashlight in wide, nervous arcs across the hallway and the top of the stairs. The intruder could be hiding in any of the bedrooms, or amongst the boxes and bins cluttering up the hall. The only room that seemed safe was the one he just left.

“Rodney?”

“Shut up!” he hissed. “Get your skinny ass up here, John. Now!”

It was to his benefit that John didn’t argue or question, he just came, loping up the stairs like a mountain goat. As soon as he was close enough Rodney eased back into the bedroom, waving at John to follow him.

“Rodney, what the hell…shit.”

“You can say that again.” Rodney shut the bedroom door and leaned against it for a minute until he remembered that scene in every slasher movie ever made, with the crazy lunatic hacking his way through a closed door, and he hastily moved himself.

“Hold the light steady,” John instructed. He used the edge of the sheet to grab hold of the knife handle and tug it out of the pillow; presumably he was trying to keep from contaminating any fingerprints that might be on the hilt, a sensibility that Rodney firmly approved of.

“This guy is escalating.” John set the knife on the nightstand. “It went all the way through the top of the mattress.”

“Do you think he’s still in the house?” Rodney asked. As if in response, the lights came on suddenly and he knew for a fact he hadn’t left the bathroom light or the bedroom light on when he’d left earlier.

Before he could protest, John was out the door and racing down the stairs. Rodney hesitated before following, noting that every single light in the house was on and blazing away. He heard John slam open the basement door and thump down the stairs, but he was unwilling to follow. Instead, he hovered at the top of the stairs after making sure the door was propped open. He listened for sounds of a fight, or a stabbing, not that he’d know what that sounded like. All he heard were John’s curses.

“He’s gone.” John reappeared at the foot of the stairs. “I don’t know how he’s getting in and out of here so fast.”

“Well, come up out of there. I’m sure he’s finished with his little terror spree for the night.” Rodney realized he was still clutching the flashlight and turned it off.

“Tomorrow we’re calling the sheriff,” John said when he’d reached the top of the stairs. “We’ll give him the knife, see if he can get any prints off it.”

“Okay,” Rodney said agreeably. “That’s a good idea. I can give him my suspect list.”

“Am I still on it?” John closed the door and pushed the boxes back in front of it.

“Yes, well, I suppose it could be anyone in town who thinks there’s treasure hidden in here. Not you, though,” Rodney hastened to add. John had been with him all night, there was no way he’d have had a chance to stick the knife in his pillow.

“Thanks.” John smirked at him, but Rodney could see the hard set to his jaw and knew this latest intrusion was really troubling him. “Listen, McKay. I don’t want to argue with you about this, but you can’t stay here alone. In the house. It’s not safe.”

Rodney immediately bristled at the implication that he wasn’t a manly enough man to take care of himself, but the understanding look on John’s face took the wind out of his sails. The truth was he was uneasy; the thought of someone roaming around in his house laying little traps for him was unsettling.

“Yeah. Okay.”

John raised an eyebrow, likely surprised by the quick and easy capitulation, but he made no comment on it. “Good. I’ll clear off the bed in the room across the hall from you. We’ll keep the doors open, and if you hear anything, anything at all, you let me know.”

“And if he comes after you?”

“I won’t be sleeping,” John replied darkly.

*o*o*o*

Rodney woke surprisingly refreshed the next morning, Mr. Pibb curled up on his stomach. He hadn’t expected to get any sleep, even after removing the slashed pillow, and he refused to give any credence to the idea that John’s mere presence across the hall facilitated his rest. It made him a bit snappish, until he took in John’s bleary red eyes and lines of exhaustion on his face. He really hadn’t slept all night.

“Okay, that’s it,” Rodney said over a breakfast of cold Pop Tarts. “We need to focus on finding our after-hours trespasser. Laura can keep going with the sorting and cleaning, but this needs to stop right now.”

“I agree.” John propped his chin up on his hand, looking like he was already half asleep. “First, we need to call the sheriff out here and report what’s been happening.”

“Right. I want to look through that book about the house, too, see if there are any clues in there.”

“Clues?”

“Yes, clues,” Rodney grumped. “There might be something about the house we don’t know, something important that would make someone want to break in. Or maybe there’s info on the…other thing.”

John shrugged. “Maybe. You gonna read Laura in or keep her in the dark?”

“I guess I’ll have to tell her. I don’t want her to get caught off guard, especially since someone is running around with sharp objects.” Rodney broke one of his Pop Tarts into smaller pieces, keeping his gaze focused on the paper plate. “Uh…can I ask you a question?”

“You can ask,” John replied. I won’t necessarily answer, was the unspoken addition.

Rodney was sure that coming right out and asking was a bad idea, but he hadn’t forgotten the way John had shrunken in on himself the night before when Laura was telling her ghost story. He could’ve searched around online, hacked into whatever servers he needed access to and probably gotten an idea of what had happened, but it felt sneaky and not in a good way like it usually did. Once upon a time he’d have gone that route, but with John it felt wrong.

“Yesterday. You seemed…when Laura told that story about our alleged ghost, it seemed like you might’ve…”

And once again John shut down, all the previous animation gone from his face until he looked like a cleverly crafted robot. Rodney sighed.

“Let me be clear,” John said, every word sharpened to a knife’s edge. “You can research the house and the damn ghost, but my life is off limits.”

With that he left, slipping out the kitchen door, and Rodney dropped his head back and stared up at the ceiling. “Well, that couldn’t have gone worse.”

“What couldn’t have gone worse?” Laura asked, appearing suddenly in his field of vision. Rodney jerked forward in his chair with an undignified shriek and glowered at her when she sat down at the table.

“Thanks for the heart attack.”

“Here’s your coffee.” She slid the Styrofoam cup over. “You can drink it while you tell me what the hell is going on.”

Rodney took a long swallow, feeling some of his jagged edges smooth over thanks to the balm of caffeine, and proceeded to fill Laura in on the break-ins. He left out his run-ins with the…whatever lingered in the study; it didn’t affect her anyway, no sense in muddying the waters.

“So John is calling the cops? It’s about time one of you thought of it.” Laura shook her head. “Idiots.”

“Well, it was mostly just annoying at first,” Rodney said in his own defense. “Now that he’s progressed to armed assault, well…I just want you to be careful when you’re here in the house.”

Laura grinned. “Aww, Rodney, I didn’t know you cared.”

“And now I don’t, thank you very much for that. Don’t you have work to do?” He flapped his hands at her, shooing her away. On her way past Laura pressed a quick kiss to his forehead, making him flinch away. “Stop that!”

“You be careful too, Rodney.”

“Don’t get mushy on me, Cadman, or you’re fired.”

Laura just patted him on the head as she walked past. “When you have a minute later on, we’re going to talk more about this. I don’t want you staying here alone, Rodney, it’s not safe.”

“Yeah, well, John’s on it.” Or was. Rodney had no idea if he’d changed his mind; he felt honest regret for having broached the subject, which was unusual for him. “He’s camped out in one of the bedrooms.”

“Oh. That’s good, then.” Laura gave him a look that could only be interpreted as a leer.

“Get to work!” Rodney barked at her, feeling himself flush. “Further insubordination will not be tolerated.”

Laura gave that all the consideration it was due, which was none, and left for the upper regions of the house. Rodney sat a few minutes longer before dumping what was left of his breakfast in the garbage and going off in search of the book he’d gotten on Milburn Castle. It was time to get some answers.

*o*o*o*


Excerpt from Milburn Castle: A Lasting Legacy, by Lem Grancy

Senator Milburn, for all the material successes he achieved over the course of his life, was a man haunted by tragedy. After the death of his wife, his daughter Lilianna became the focus of his affections. She was doted upon, though by all accounts she never behaved spoiled or entitled. She was the woman of the house from the time she was seven years old, and there was nothing her father would not give her.

The Milburns, father and daughter, traveled extensively throughout the United States and abroad. They were frequents guests of foreign diplomats and President Cleveland; in fact, Lili was a flower girl at the President’s wedding in 1886. Lili Milburn was living a fairy tale life of wealth and privilege, until she came of age.

There were many suitors for the senator’s daughter, and Milburn himself vetted each and every one of them. There were many parties held at Milburn Castle during this time as young men came from near and far for a chance to woo Lili. In the end, Milburn turned them all down as not suitable enough for his daughter; one wonders if there ever would have been someone he found acceptable.

Fate stepped in and Lili fell for a young accountant named Frederick VanAllen, recently hired by her father to look after his personal accounts. Family friends at the time reported several bitter arguments between Senator Milburn and his daughter regarding her infatuation; the once loving relationship they’d had quickly degenerated.

In the end it was not to be. One day VanAllen simply disappeared, leaving no forwarding address and without a word to Lili. Senator Milburn denounced him publically for a cad, saying the young man had come to him and admitted dalliances with several other women and decided to leave Harper’s Hill to be with one of them. No-one ever came forward to substantiate this accusation, but the effects were devastating to Lili.

She hired an investigator to find Frederick, but as week after week passed with no information her hope of finding the man diminished. The investigator determined that VanAllen must have changed his name and quite possibly fled the country, possibly in fear of retaliation by Senator Milburn who was known to have a fearsome temper.

The once bright-eyed, friendly girl became reclusive, rarely if ever leaving the Castle. She never recovered the betrayal of VanAllen against her and eventually became sickly. Two years after the shocking event Lilianna Milburn passed away and Senator Milburn never got over the loss of the other love of his life.

In the spring of 1904 Senator Milburn took his own life at Milburn Castle. He left a rambling note that made little sense. The house passed to his brother Charles, who wanted nothing to do with the black cloud that seemingly hung over the home and quickly sold it.

*o*o*o*

John came breezing through the kitchen shortly before lunch, interrupting Rodney as he flipped through the book looking at old pictures of Milburn Castle. The writing had been a bit pretentious, but now he had a name for the…thing in the study. Lilianna Milburn. He wasn’t quite so sure about the spurned lover angle; something about it seemed off in a way he couldn’t pinpoint.

“Sheriff’s here,” John said. He didn’t meet Rodney’s eyes, so clearly the cold shoulder was still in effect.

Rodney sighed and set the book aside, wondering how long he was going to keep up the silent treatment. It was a pretty juvenile way of dealing with conflict. He trailed after John through the house and out the front door. A shiny black Ford pickup, one of the newer models, was just cruising to a stop at the bend in the driveway. Emblazoned across the passenger side door was Harper’s Hill Town Sheriff in white letters. There weren’t any lights across the top, so Rodney could only assume he had the kind that flashed from the dashboard.

“No law enforcement vehicle should look that pretty,” he muttered.

The Sheriff, when he finally emerged, wore a dark green uniform shirt with a shiny badge attached and a pair of faded blue jeans. Rodney had been expecting some kind of big cop belt, with gun and cuffs and all the other accoutrements of law and order, but he wore a plain shoulder holster. There was no hat to spare his bald head from the sun.

“Sheriff Caldwell, thanks for coming.”

“You sounded pretty serious on the phone, Sheppard.” The two men nodded at each other, and then the sheriff was holding out his hand in Rodney’s direction. “You must be Dr. McKay.”

Rodney shook his hand, finding it interesting that even he knew better than to try and touch John. “Yes. I must admit, we probably should have contacted you before now. It’s just that the trespasser was more of a nuisance than anything else.”

“Why don’t you walk me through it from the beginning,” Caldwell suggested.

Rodney took him inside, and let him poke around down in the basement after explaining how he was locked down there his second night in the house; Caldwell agreed that the dolls were creepy. That led to the story of the next night, and finding a doll on the stairs.

“It was disconcerting, to say the least,” he said. “I may have gotten a tad bit freaked out by it, but I assure you there is a human being at work here. I’m not jumping at shadows or ghost stories, Sheriff.”

“No doubt.”

John led the way upstairs, producing the knife and the slashed pillow while Rodney explained coming home to find all the lights off. “Just like that the lights came back on, but the guy had turned on every light in the house. John ran pretty quickly down to the fuse box, but there was no sign of anyone.”

“And you set your alarm whenever you go out, and before you turn in for the night.”

“Yes. I even changed the code. And John installed motion lights outside and everything.”

“Is that right?” Caldwell took possession of the knife, but Rodney didn’t like the look he was giving John. Which, yes, he’d suspected him at first too, but that was different.

“Trust me, Sheriff. John’s not the culprit here. My uncle trusted him and so do I. He’s been nothing but helpful since I got here. It was his suggestion to call you, by the way.” Rodney couldn’t help but jump to John’s defense. “What we need to be looking for is motive. Dr. Goodbody next door mentioned some drabble about a treasure, but I can assure you there’s nothing like that here. Just piles of yard sale crap.”

“I’ll take that under advisement,” the sheriff said, sounding amused. Rodney didn’t know what was so funny. He had a serious problem and he imagined it was only going to get worse.

“Look Sheriff. I’m all for backwoods, homespun cop charm, but this is no laughing matter!”

Caldwell’s expression immediately hardened. “I assure you, Dr. McKay, I’m taking this very seriously. I’ll send the knife to the county lab, see if they can pull prints off it. In the meantime, I suggest you practice vigilance.”

Rodney opened him mouth, ready to tell him what he thought of vigilance, when John put a heavy hand on his shoulder and squeezed hard.

“Thanks for taking the time to come out, Sheriff. We’ll let you know if there are any more incidents.”

“Please do. Gentlemen.” Caldwell and his evidence got back in the truck and drove away. Rodney pulled out of John’s grasp, sputtering his indignation.

“Vigilance, for God’s sake! What the hell does he think we’re doing? Laying out tea and cakes and inviting the bastard over?”

“He’s a good guy. Let him do his thing.” John shoved his hands in the pockets of his baggy cargo shorts. “Listen, about earlier. I was maybe too…abrupt.”

Rodney nodded his agreement, glad for the sort-of apology and the fact that John was actually talking to him again. “I shouldn’t have asked, it’s none of my business. John, you have to know I won’t go poking around in your personal life.”

“Thanks for that.” He looked sincerely earnest and Rodney couldn’t stay mad at him. But he also felt he couldn’t talk to him about what he’d learned in the book because he didn’t want John to think he was being pushy about things.

“So what’s our next step, now that the long arm of the law is involved?”

John shrugged. “We stay alert. We can take shifts sleeping tonight, so we’re ready for anything that might happen.”

“Okay, I can do that.” When the time came, Rodney was going to insist that John take the first sleep; he looked like he was barely able to stand upright. “Maybe we can lay some traps of our own, at the likely points of entry. I’m not buying that he knows the alarm code, so he must be getting in some other way.”

“Agreed. I’m going to put the bolt lock back on the basement door just in case, but he was already in the house when he locked you down there so I don’t think he’s getting in that way.”

“We should check all the windows, make sure they’re locked, and secure the kitchen door. We need to step up installation of the motion detectors.”

John nodded. “Let’s get to it then.”

*o*o*o*

By the time dinner rolled around the motion detectors had been put in place and tested, and Rodney’d had time to spare helping Laura shift boxes in the upstairs hall. She’d since gone out with Carson for a night on the town, and he couldn’t begin to imagine what that might entail in such a small town. Cow tipping? Painting her name on the side of a barn? Square dancing? Each idea seemed equally plausible and horrifying.

“Or maybe just dinner and a movie?” John suggested, his lips twitching up in an almost-smile.

“Oh! Snipe hunting!” Rodney replied triumphantly.

“You know you’re ridiculous, right?”

“And yet here you are, cooking me dinner.” He considered that a win in his column. John had poked around in his freezer earlier in the day and taken some things out. Those frozen blocks, wrapped in white butcher paper, turned out to be strip steaks that John was grilling out in the backyard. It was a very manly pursuit, cooking food over an open flame, and Rodney enjoyed watching John move with practiced ease, spatula in one hand.

“Clearly I have mental problems.”

“Knowing is half the battle,” Rodney said sympathetically, which earned him a half-hearted glare. “How much longer do those have?”

“One more minute on this side, then five on the other. Plenty of time for you to fix the salad.”

“I’m going, I’m going.”

It was actually kind of nice, puttering around his ugly kitchen while the smell of cooking meat wafted in through the open window. John was humming something, Rodney couldn’t make it out, but he found himself bobbing his head in time to the unknown song while he tore lettuce and peeled a cucumber. It occurred to him that they made quite a domestic little scene, something somehow intimate and warm.

They ate out on the porch, but only after John lit several citronella candles to keep the bugs at bay. It was a warm night, and they each enjoyed a beer with their dinner; only one a piece, though, if they were going to stay alert through the night. It was a shame, really, because it was the kind of night that Rodney felt could turn him fairly mellow.

“Bet you don’t get to do this too often in the city,” John said, leaning back in his chair.

“What? Grill and eat outdoors? That’s what bistros are for.”

“Not the same.”

“Yes, well, I suppose this isn’t half bad,” Rodney grudgingly agreed. John saluted him with his beer bottle before draining the last of the liquid out of it.

“As promised, I even have dessert this time.” John collected up the dirty dishes and took them inside, returning a few minutes later with a Twinkie wrapped in plastic, which he dropped in Rodney’s lap.

“You went all out, I see.”

“Hey, who doesn’t love a Twinkie?”

“Uh, anyone over the age of five?” Of course, that didn’t stop Rodney from eating it. Sugar was sugar, regardless of the form it came in, and beggars couldn’t be choosers.

“Thanks for humoring me,” John said, rolling his eyes.

Since he was eating kid food Rodney stuck his tongue out in response, which got a crumpled napkin thrown at his head. “So what do you normally do for fun around here? Besides hunting snipe?”

“Me? Not much. I read. Play the guitar a little. Do Sudoku puzzles.”

“Wow. A real wild man.”

“Yeah? So what did you do, Mr. Famous Author? Fancy parties? Lots of schmoozing?”

Rodney laughed, honestly amused. “Schmoozing? You have met me, right?”

“Valid point,” John said with a grin.

“I like going to hear the symphony, and seeing shows on Broadway. I’ve always liked music, might’ve been a pianist once upon a time.”

“But you turned that over for science?”

“Something like that. I’d always loved science. Numbers, equations…that makes sense to me. I understand it in a way I never really understood people.” Rodney started to peel the label from his beer bottle. “I like knowing how things work, taking them apart and then putting them back together into something greater than before.”

John leaned forward, elbows on the glass-topped table. “But you gave that all up to write. How come?”

“I had a story to tell. It sounds trite, but it’s true. They were just there one day, the words. And it was a different kind of deconstruction, like I was taking myself apart and seeing how all the different elements fit together. Except I don’t think I put myself back together properly.” Rodney pulled the label free and tried to fold it up like origami, which was something he’d never gotten the hang of.

Base Code was a really great book,” John said softly and with such clear honesty that Rodney flushed. “You took a very specific character and somehow made him a universal figure. That’s why so many people love it.”

“They teach it, you know. At a few colleges around the country. Which is ridiculous.” Rodney himself still didn’t understand the universal appeal of his book. Yes, he was glad it was so well received and he loved the accolades, but that wasn’t what he’d written it for. It had been a semi-autobiographical accounting of his life as both a bisexual man and a scientist, which on the surface didn’t sound like it would appeal to very many people at all. If he believed in such things he’d say the words themselves were magical, the way they’d flayed his life open and somehow made his experiences relatable on a global level.

“Do you get a lot of requests for a follow-up?”

“Just a few thousand a year, it seems.” Rodney crumpled up the label and dropped it on the table. He still didn’t understand it. All the words had dried up after he finished Base Code. He’d tried to write something after, but even the smallest piece refused to come together. It had been – and still was – incredibly frustrating.

By this time John had dropped his chin on his arms, looking up at Rodney through his lashes; he’d be asleep before long at the rate he was going. “So why not go back to science?”

“Because I’m a stubborn idiot who can’t admit defeat even after ten years. I still keep a hand in the world of Astrophysics; I’d never be able to fully leave it, not really. But I guess…I guess I keep hoping that I’ll suddenly be inspired to write something new and I don’t want to give up.” He felt stupid saying it, because it was stupid. Ten years spent clinging to a wish that clearly wasn’t ever going to come true again; he really needed to move on.

And he really needed to get John to bed. The other man was asleep with his head on the table, huffing out little breaths in a very endearing fashion. Rodney finished cleaning up, even did the dishes, and had everything put away before he poked John in the shoulder.

“Hey. Flyboy. Time for bed.”

John snorted awake. “Wha…?”

“Bed. Come on, help me shut the house up and then I’ll take the first watch.” Rodney held his hand up to forestall the argument he could see forming on John’s face. “You need to sleep. I’m good for a while, and I’ll wake you up when I’m not. Promise.”

“Fine,” John replied irritably. He ran one hand through his messy hair. “Let’s lock it up.”

They went around checking windows and doors, and Rodney set the front door alarm. Once they were upstairs John activated the motion detectors, which would sound an alarm in John’s room if they were tripped. There was a little electronic screen that showed the location of each sensor and would let them know which one had gone off.

Rodney stood in the doorway of John’s room, watching the man sway on his feet next to the bed. “Well. Good night. I’ll wake you in a few hours.”

“Stay alert, McKay.”

“Vigilance. Yeah, I got it. Get in bed before you keel over and I have to call Dr. Carson over here.”

“Your heartwarming concern over my well-being is touching.”

“Idiot,” Rodney said. It came out sounding far too affectionate, and he quickly beat a retreat to his own room. He settled in with the latest Astrophysics journal and his red pen; nothing kept him awake like the incompetence of others. It was going to be a long night.

*o*o*o*

Rodney jerked awake, heart pounding in his chest. He thought at first that John had woken him for the second shift, but then he heard the faint sound of crying coming from the first floor. He flipped on his light and swung out of bed, reaching automatically for his robe and slippers. In all the planning they’d done for the trespasser Rodney hadn’t considered a different kind of wake up call.

“John,” he hissed. “She’s at it again.”

There was no sound from across the hall, though that light was on too. Rodney snatched up his flashlight – merely a precaution – and crossed the hall. John’s bed was mussed but empty.

“Oh, no.”

Rodney didn’t even think, he just flew down the stairs. In the back of his mind he registered the fact that the alarm hadn’t sounded, which meant John had deactivated the motion detectors. Which, duh. If he was following the sound of crying himself he would have made sure not to wake Rodney. Because he was a damn fool and an idiot, and completely irresponsible for making Rodney this worried.

The crying swelled in volume, and Rodney swore he could feel the cold press of depression even before he hit the hallway. His thoughts weren’t for his own safety at all, but for that of the man who lay slumped outside the study, looking entirely too still in the wavering beam of the flashlight.

“John!” he cried.

Chapter Text

Chapter Four

John looked awful. He was pale and his eyes were red; if Rodney didn’t know better he’d say the man had been crying not long ago. The hallway was oppressive in a way it never had been before, the air almost thick enough to chew.

“Knock it off, Lili!” Rodney shouted, hands on his hips. “That’s enough for one night!”

He didn’t know whether to be relieved or alarmed when the atmosphere almost immediately started to lighten until the hall was just a hall again. There was a sense of intelligence behind the presence in the study now, which he decided was actually quite terrifying.

“John? You okay?” Rodney sat beside him and tugged him up so that he was leaning against Rodney’s shoulder instead of the floor. John took a deep, shuddering breath and mumbled an apology.

“Oh, please. I totally owed you. You should’ve woken me, though, especially with a knife-wielding maniac on the loose.”

“Sorry.” John dropped his head on Rodney’s shoulder with a sigh. “You called her Lili.”

Rodney tried to ignore John’s blatant disregard for personal space, or the way it made his skin flush. “Her name is Lilianna Milburn. The ghost in the study. It was in the book.”

“What happened to her?” John whispered.

“The man she loved ditched her and ran off. Well, that’s the party line anyway. Something about it doesn’t smell right to me.” Rodney thought back over what he’d read. “Lili hired a PI, or whatever they called them back in the day, but he never found the boyfriend. Like he fell off the face of the Earth, which is ridiculous.”

Of course, that was before the dawn of the internet and the inability of anyone to truly drop off the grid. He’d have to call Miko, his occasional researcher. If anyone could find a trace of some guy from over a hundred years ago, it was Miko. Frederick VanAllen had to have left a trail, and maybe if they found out what happened to him Lili would stop haunting the study. He was about to say as much when John started talking in quiet monotone.

“I was in a relationship. We had to be careful about it but I thought it was solid. I thought…well, it doesn’t matter now.” He fell silent but moved just a little closer to Rodney.

Rodney wanted to put an arm around him but was afraid of upsetting the delicate mood. “He broke it off?” It wasn’t difficult to deduce that this so-called relationship had taken place while John was in the Air Force.

“Yeah.”

Rodney didn’t push for more, though he had so many questions. For John to have had the reaction he did when he heard the ghost story, the breakup must’ve been public or at the very least humiliating to John.

“Not to cut this short or anything, but my ass is going numb.” Truth was that Rodney wouldn’t have minded more time there, so close to John, but he wasn’t young enough to just sit around on the floor all night.

“Yeah. Okay.” John pushed himself up and held out a hand for Rodney, who accepted it gratefully.

“I think our creeper is a no-show tonight. Let’s take advantage and get some sleep.” Rodney steadied John with one hand and then reluctantly let him go. “You good?”

“As much as I ever am,” John replied with a self-deprecating half-smile.

Rodney led the way back upstairs by virtue of having the flashlight. There were no surprises on the stairs, or in either bedroom; he made a thorough search. He waited for John to reset the motion detectors before heading across the hall to his own room.

Rodney had to move Mr. Pibb off his pillow before he could lay down. The impromptu bull session outside the study had been incredibly illuminating. John had revealed a lot about himself, had really let his guard down.

He made a mental list of what he’d learned. John was gay. John had been involved in a disastrous, clandestine relationship while in the military. And the no touching thing was seemingly by choice, and not the result of some sort of mental disorder. Rodney would love to know the details of the collapse of the relationship, which no doubt was the reason John was hiding out in East Podunk.

“Rodney?” John called from across the hall.

“Yeah?”

“Thanks.”

Rodney grinned into his pillow as he fell asleep.

*o*o*o*

John and Laura conspired together to let Rodney sleep in the following morning, which would’ve been a nice gesture if the house hadn’t been full of people when he finally rolled out of bed.

Teyla was examining furniture in the hall; she gave him a cheery greeting as he stumbled bleary-eyed towards the stairs. Laura and Dr. Carson were having a cozy chat in the foyer, and they mostly ignored him. A racket out front indicated that Ronon was delivering the dumpster, and a quick peek confirmed that John was outside overseeing the operation.

“Coffee,” Rodney groaned. But even the kitchen wasn’t free from interlopers. There was a cheerful-looking man wearing blue Dickies taking measurements of the counter tops and cabinets. More importantly, he was blocking the full pot of coffee.

“Who the hell are you and why are you in my kitchen?”

The man jerked in surprise before turning a full wattage, all-American grin in his direction. “You must be Dr. McKay. I’m Evan Lorne. Ronon’s partner?”

Rodney’s caffeine deprived synapses fired. “Right. Estimate on the remodel.”

“That’s right! I think you’ve made the right choice, Dr. McKay. It’s a wonder some of these old appliances are even still working. I had this one job –”

“Yes, I’m sure it’s a wonderful story and I promise to be delighted by it later, but if you don’t move away from the coffee pot bad things are going to happen to you.”

The bright smile dimmed as Evan hastily retreated. Rodney filled a mug with Folgers, a poor substitute for the rich French roast Laura had been bringing him, but it was better than nothing and the first few sips went down nice and hot.

“Look who’s finally up!” John strolled into the kitchen looking annoyingly chipper. It was probably wishful thinking but Rodney was sure John gave him an especially warm smile. It heated him up more than the coffee.

“Thanks for waking me before the circus came to town,” Rodney griped.

“That’s gratitude for you,” John shot back unrepentantly.

“I’ll leave it to you, Ringmaster. I have a call to make.” Rodney pushed past him, pleased when John didn’t automatically back away. “Evan here has a fascinating story I’m sure you’ll love.”

He made for the phone closet, calling up Miko’s number on his cell phone as he went. He didn’t care what time it was, or that it was Saturday and she might have something to do; Rodney was accustomed to getting what he wanted when he wanted it.

You’ve reached Miko Kusanagi. Please leave a message at the beep.

“Pick up. It’s Rodney and I need you.”

There was a click, a hum, and then Miko’s sleepy-sounding voice. Rodney?

He imagined her slipping on the ridiculously oversized glasses she wore, the kind that had been popular back in the 80s. “I need some research, priority one. You’re not busy, are you?”

Well actually…

“Great. Do you have a pen? Write this down. Frederick VanAllen. Lived in Harper’s Hill at the turn of the last century, disappeared around that same time. Youngish, I’m guessing early twenties. Worked for Senator Donald Milburn, also of Harper’s Hill.”

Got it. What do you want me to find?

“See if you can track down his whereabouts after he left here. He was an accountant, if that helps.” He loved that Miko got right down to business, which was the main reason he kept her on retainer.

How soon do you need this?

“It’s urgent, and I don’t say that lightly. This time,” he appended.

Whatever you say, Rodney. I’ll call when I have something.

“Thanks. I really appreciate this.”

Say that when you get my bill, she replied with a chuckle before hanging up.

Rodney did likewise and then sat there pondering his next move. The trespasser issue was being dealt with, and wouldn’t become a priority until nightfall. And the key to the ghost problem, at least in Rodney’s mind, was information. If they could uncover the true story of what happened, maybe Lili could…move on, or whatever ghosts did when they stopped being ghosts.

“I need to know more,” Rodney muttered to himself. Miko would track down VanAllen, but there had to be a source closer to home that could shed some light on the whole affair.

He snapped his fingers. “Of course!”

It took him ten minutes to find Teyla, who had ventured up into the attic. Rodney hadn’t yet been there himself and he was glad now for it; a veritable forest of furniture stretched out before him, covered in layers of dust so thick that in places it masqueraded as slipcovers. He could follow Teyla’s trail by the handprints she left behind.

“Miss Emmagan? You up here?”

“Back here, Dr. McKay,” she called.

Rodney followed her voice and the trail of clean smudges through the maze, encountering everything from a huge dining table with eight matching chairs to an endless parade of trunks, boxes and racks of hanging garment bags. When he finally located Teyla she was squatting in front of a brightly painted wooden box, cobwebs in her hair.

“Do you know what this is?” she asked, her eyes alight with excitement.

“Uh…hope chest?”

“That is true. It is also a very fine example of early Pennsylvania Dutch artistry.” She ran one hand lightly over the tulip design painted on the front. “It is in exceptionally excellent condition.”

“If you say so.” Rodney’s knowledge of Pennsylvania Dutch culture was limited to decorative hex signs and a hearty dinner he once had in Lancaster County that had included locally made apple butter on thick slabs of bread and the best bova shankel he’d ever had. More importantly it had no bearing on the ghost case.

“Was there something you needed?” Teyla got to her feet and rubbed her hands on her jeans, setting even more dust puffing the air.

“Is there a historical society in town? I’d like to talk to someone about the history of the house.”

“Of course. It is housed in the Community Center.” She gave him the directions. “I do not know who will be there this weekend but all of the volunteers are very helpful.”

“Yes, I’m sure of that,” Rodney muttered. “A whole town of helpful Stepford citizens.”

Teyla just smiled at him and got back to work. Rodney back-tracked his way to the stairs, liberally smearing himself with dust in the process. He went to his room to change before going in search of either Laura or John; they were both in the kitchen being entertained by…Ewan…Ethan…whoever.

“Am I paying any of you to sit around trading home improvement stories?” he asked. The threesome was sitting around the table, drinking coffee and wasting time, although he was actually glad to see John taking it easy. Laura, however, had no good reason to be lounging around and Rodney scowled at her.

“Sheppard has some good ideas for the remodel,” Egon…Evan!...said brightly.

“I’m sure he does. Listen, I have to run into town. I won’t be long.”

“Everything okay?” John asked.

“Just a few errands to run,” Rodney replied in a way he hoped conveyed that he didn’t want to discuss his reasons, not in front of Laura and construction boy. John seemed to understand because he didn’t press the issue.

“Call if you need anything.”

“Will do.” Rodney turned on Laura, one finger wagging in her direction. “You will get back to work before I send you on the next bus back to Michigan, or wherever the hell you’re from.”

Laura just rolled her eyes but Evan looked alarmed. John chuckled.

“Everyone back to work!” Rodney barked on his way out the door.

*o*o*o*

Rodney had no trouble finding the Community Center, which was on a street bordering a pleasant-looking public park. It was a nice day and there were plenty of people out and about. The nearby ice cream parlor looked promising and he made a mental note to check it out afterwards.

The Community Center was bustling with activity. He heard the tell-tale thumps and squeaks that indicated a game of basketball was being played, and he passed a room full of kids acting out a scene from Our Town. None of the people he passed in the hall paid him the slightest bit of attention.

There were clearly marked signs leading to the basement, which in addition to housing the Historical Society also contained a swimming pool, a music room, and records storage. The door he needed was unlocked so he walked right in.

A small office greeted him, pretty standard in every way: there was a metal desk, two filing cabinets, a little table in the corner next to a water cooler, and a large New York flag covering a large part of the far wall. Sitting behind the desk was a slim woman with dark hair, wearing a deep red shirt.

“May I help you?”

“Rodney McKay. I’m looking for some information on the original owners of my house.”

The woman stood, tall and graceful. “Dr. McKay, of course. Elizabeth Weir.”

They shook hands, Rodney resigned to the fact that everyone in town seemed to know him. He looked around the office, his hopes of finding any worthwhile information dwindling; there wasn’t even a single display.

“This is the Historical Society?”

Elizabeth nodded knowingly. “You were expecting more?” She moved towards the flag, which Rodney realized was attached to a rod of some kind. The whole thing slid easily to the side, revealing a door with a keypad entry.

“Impressive,” he said.

Elizabeth punched in a five digit code and there was a buzz before the door popped open an inch or two. “Unlike most rural Societies we’re very well-funded. The founders of our town were well-known public figures and we’re lucky to have so many of their personal affects.”

Behind the door was a long, temperature-controlled room lined with rows of metal shelves. In the center of the room was a rectangular table with several chairs. Along the front wall were a series of heavy-duty fire resistant filing cabinets as well as a computer station and a microfiche reader.

“People still use microfiche?” Rodney asked. “How archaic.”

“We’re in the process of converting all the older files. I’m hoping that by next summer we can get rid of it.”

Rodney browsed the nearest shelves, admiring how neatly everything was organized. There was a section of general documents, including large hard-bound tomes holding back issues of the local newspaper, and the rest was set up alphabetically by family name. As expected there was a very large section devoted to Colonel Harper and his descendants.

“Is there anything in particular you’d like to know about Senator Milburn?” Elizabeth asked, leading the way to the M section. “He wasn’t one of the original founders but his contributions to both the town and the State are innumerable. He was a very honorable man.”

Rodney doubted that very much. Politics hadn’t changed all that much since Milburn’s time; politicians were still a bunch of shady, immoral power mongers who only ever served their own best interests. He’d bet his fortune on the fact that Milburn had at least one skeleton in his closet.

“Actually I’d like to know more about his daughter. I picked up a book about Milburn Castle and it painted a very tragic picture.”

He was intrigued when Elizabeth’s face scrunched up in distaste. “That book. It glosses over the facts, romanticizes them. I wouldn’t put much stock in it.”

“So what’s the real story?” Rodney asked as they finally reached the Milburn collection. There were several books, a glass display case containing some jewelry and an ornate silver pocket watch, and several museum quality archival storage boxes. Elizabeth selected one of the latter.

“The real story is about a girl pushing the limits of her relationship with her father. Just like every other girl in the history of the world. Yes, she died young and that’s always tragic, but it certainly wasn’t because she was broken-hearted.” Elizabeth handed the box to Rodney along with a pair of latex gloves she pulled from her pants pocket.

“What’s this?”

“Pages from Lilianna’s personal journal and letters she saved. They’ll give you a better understanding of her situation.”

Rodney couldn’t believe his luck. Lili’s actual journal! He wished he could call John. Instead he followed Elizabeth back to the table.

“There’s a buzzer beside the door,” she said. “Just let me know when you’re done, or if you need anything.”

“Thank you.” Rodney wasn’t thrilled about being locked in a windowless room, but it was large enough to keep his claustrophobia from kicking in. He put the gloves on and opened the box.

The loose papers were housed in acid-free sheet protectors, another line of defense against destructive skin oils. Lili had a swooping handwriting style that was difficult to read until Rodney familiarized himself with it. The journal entries were in chronological order, though there were several gaps, some of them months long; he wondered what happened to the missing sections.

He waded through several girlish accounts of parties, which were mostly focused on what people were wearing and who they were seen with, before he came across an entry related to VanAllen.

Freddy came to see me again. He assures me once more that he has no designs on that cow Margaret St. Paul, though she has made her interest quite clear. He says I am being foolish and perhaps I am. It is only that I worry; Margaret is an Andersen and they always seem to get what they want. Freddy says he’s interested only in my heart, not my family name.

Father insists he is unsuitable for me, being merely an accountant. I sometimes think he sees me as his wife and not his daughter. Surely he enjoys having his house so well run, particularly with all the trips he must make to the Capitol, but why can he not see that I would like a home of my own to run?

I love Freddy with all my heart, and I know he feels the same. I am ready to start my life, if only Father would stop holding me back. Freddy says he will find a way to win him over to our side. I truly hope he can.

That journal entry was the only one in which Lili expressed any doubt about VanAllen. There were several others that rambled gushingly over his many virtues. Rodney wondered if all young women that age were so banal. He didn’t, however, get the sense Elizabeth had that Lili was just trying to stick it to her father.

VanAllen’s letters, of which there were only three, were clearly written by someone a bit older with a little more life experience. Even so, he was clearly a man in love and just as clearly not someone that would up and leave with the first loose woman that came around. Or perhaps that was just Rodney projecting.

Dearest Lili,

I hope this letter finds you well. I have missed you these last few weeks. Thoughts of your beautiful smile carry me through and imbue me with the courage to confront your father. Surely he cannot keep us apart much longer.

Please know that I would never seek to destroy the relationship between you and the Senator. The familial bond is very important to me, more so because I am lacking one myself. I will endeavor to convince him that there is room for us both in your affections and in your life.

You know, dearest Lili, that I would never do anything to hurt you. But I have discovered some information that may help our cause. I am hesitant to use it, as it may alter my relationship with both you and your father in a possibly negative way. If the Senator does not come around after my heart-felt plea I regret that I will have to resort to more underhanded tactics.

I love you, Lili, and I will not allow anyone to keep us apart. Keep me in your thoughts as you are always in mine. You remain, as always, my one true love.

All my love,

Freddy

Rodney set the letter down on the table, feeling more than ever that the official story about Lili and VanAllen’s romance was wrong. For all her vapid reporting on clothes and gossip, Lili seemed to have honest feelings for VanAllen. And he clearly reciprocated. So what had gone wrong?

There were only a few journal entries left, most of them increasingly pining for VanAllen and expressing confusion and frustration with her father’s behavior. Rodney wondered about Senator Milburn. It seemed unusual that he wouldn’t have remarried, particularly when he held such an important political position. Rodney didn’t think much of psychology generally speaking but he was sure there was a classification somewhere for Milburn’s behavior. Transference or something.

Lili’s final journal entry was the most telling, and the most mature.

I have hired an investigator to find Freddy. Father is adamantly against this enterprise but for once I am standing up for what I want. I do not believe the lies he tells about Freddy, and I will not rest until I have uncovered the truth.

My life has dimmed since he has gone, as if all the color has leeched out of it. I cannot go into town without having to suffer pitying looks and condescending endearments. I think I shall stop going. I can no longer face those that were Freddy’s friends and now believe the worst of him.

He haunts my dreams most nights and I wake with such a sense of loss. In the dark hours I fear I shall never see him again, and should I not what will become of me?

Rodney put the pages back in order and back in the box. He felt a bit melancholy, which he attributed to the personal stake he had in Lili’s story. He was certain that hers was the presence in the study, that crushing depression. Lili had never found out what happened to Freddy and it had changed her, twisted her up.

Drawing correlations between Lili’s experience and John’s wasn’t hard. Actually, it was fairly alarming because surely John would feel the effects more deeply. Rodney remembered suddenly how John had been there that night he’d gone into the study; how had he known?

Rodney shook himself, and put the lid on the box. He couldn’t afford to get maudlin, someone had to keep their head and as far as the haunting went he couldn’t trust John to be that person. Through no fault of his own, of course.

He carried the box back to the Milburn shelf. While he was there he took a closer look at the glass display case. There was a very small portrait of the Senator and Lili, the kind that could easily be transported with him during his frequent trips. There had been pictures of them in the book, of course, but they hadn’t been in color.

The Senator had an altogether forgettable appearance, dour and unsmiling. Lili clearly took after her mother. While she wasn’t stunningly beautiful she had a very pretty face and a lot of dark, curly hair. There had been no photos of VanAllen but surely an accountant would have been very lucky to win the heart of a girl like Lili.

Rodney went back to the door and hit the buzzer; he was more than ready to get back to the house. Elizabeth let him out and double checked to make sure he wasn’t trying to sneak anything out.

“Did you find what you were looking for?” she asked.

“I think so. If I need to dig any deeper I’ll be back.”

“You know where to find us,” she replied cheerily. “Take a magnet, it has our hours and contact information on it.”

Rodney accepted the circular magnet, which he slipped into his pocket as he made his exit. When he stepped out of the Community Center he took a deep breath, glad of the unfiltered air. Hopefully Miko would turn up something soon, and then he could start putting together the puzzle of VanAllen’s disappearance. In the meantime he was getting hungry.

He abandoned the ice cream shop after spending too long wondering what kind of ice cream John liked and then realizing he’d have to bring some back for everyone. Instead he returned to the Cookie Jar and had the woman behind the counter fill two boxes with assorted cookies and pastries. He got them with John in mind but no-one needed to know that.

*o*o*o*

“I’m dead.” John lay on his back on the lawn, arms flung over his head. “Give me a nice eulogy.”

“Jeez, what a drama king you are.” Rodney sat on the front steps, legs stretched out. He’d made the mistake of not staying in town longer, and Teyla had put him to work as soon as he’d come back. He and John had hauled several boxes out to the dumpster, and a lot of heavy furniture down the stairs to the moving van Teyla had brought along. And once some of the furniture had been moved out, it made room for more sorting. Rodney was pretty sure he now hated all heavy objects made of wood. His muscles were the sorest they’d ever been.

“Like you’re feeling any better than me.” John cracked open an eye and rolled it in Rodney’s direction. “You look like crap.”

“Thanks so much for that kind assessment; you really know how to turn a guy’s head.” Rodney rolled his neck, wincing when it cracked. “We’re going out to eat tonight, there’s no way either of us is in any shape to cook.”

“Oh, well…I’m sure I could whip something up.”

He could hear the unease in John’s voice and wondered for the first time if John ever even went into town. Surely he had to, right? If just to get groceries. Well, he needed to stop being a hermit.

“Come on, Jeremiah Johnson. You can stand a trip to town with me. My treat and everything.” Rodney pulled at his t-shirt, which was beyond dirty and sweat stained. “Although we might want to wash up first. I don’t know about you, but I’m pretty disgusting.”

“Yeah, I can smell you from here.”

He snorted at that, but was glad to hear the hesitancy was gone from John’s voice. “Thanks a lot. You’re not exactly a rosebush yourself.”

John sighed. “Okay. Half an hour? Assuming I can get up.”

“Good luck with that. Hunger is an excellent motivator for me, so I’m heading in.” Standing up was trickier than it should’ve been, every muscle screaming in protest. He bit back a groan and hoped John wasn’t laughing at him as he hobbled back inside the house.

A hot shower helped, and Rodney coaxed as much heat out of the old water heater as possible. It was lucky for John that the carriage house had its own, or he’d have been suffering through a cold shower. Which naturally led to thoughts of John in the shower and Rodney had to finish up with some cold water just to snap himself out of those inconvenient thoughts.

He met back up with John in the foyer. “I see you survived after all.”

“I guess I was hungry too,” was the smirky reply.

They’d both dressed casually; Rodney was fairly sure there weren’t any fancy restaurants in town. So far he’d only seen the usual places he’d expect in a college town – pizza place, diner, sub shop. There was also the Colonial cuisine at Pig’s Eye, which Laura kept saying she was going to try but hadn’t yet.

“So where are we going?”

“Smith’s. You know where it is?”

“No but I assume you do. Am I driving?” Rodney set the alarm and shut the front door. “Do you even own a car? Because I’ve never seen one.”

“I have a bike,” John said. “Yamaha Virago. We could take that if you’d rather not drive.”

Rodney wasn’t surprised. John was a former pilot and probably liked doing dangerous things at high speeds. “You can spare me a ride on the death machine, thanks anyway.”

He hit the button to unlock the rental car. He’d have to do something about that soon. Bring it back, maybe lease something to use for the remainder of his time at the Castle. He’d deal with that on Monday. Assuming he wasn’t stabbed to death in his sleep over the weekend.

As soon as they were underway John started to fiddle with the radio buttons. Rodney slapped his hand away and turned the CD player on; Trans-Siberian Orchestra came roaring out of the speakers.

“What the heck is this?” John asked.

“Flight of the Bumblebee.”

“On electric guitar?”

“Broaden your horizons, Sheppard,” Rodney advised. He cast a glance in John’s direction and saw he looked contemplative. He had no idea what music the man usually listened to but he’d bet anything that classical wasn’t in his oeuvre.

“I suppose it’s not bad,” John conceded. “I play a little, you know.”

“Oh, yeah? Electric guitar?”

“Yeah. Nothing as good as this, though.”

The song changed to Für Elise and Rodney’s fingers twitched with muscle memory. He’d had an aptitude for piano once upon a time, had enjoyed playing. There was something powerful about taking a construct of wood and ivory and strings and making something beautiful come out of it. At least he’d thought it was beautiful; his music teacher had nothing but disdain for his efforts, had told him he lacked the passion to play properly.

He’d all but given it up then, but it turned out he couldn’t let go of the music altogether. He’d dabble sometimes, picking out a bit of Beethoven or Grieg. In fact, the piano had helped him through several bouts of writer’s block back when he was working on Base Code. He’d never be a virtuoso, but he’d long ago come to terms with that.

“It’s there on the left,” John said, pointing. They’d passed through town headed East on Route 10 towards the college.

Rodney made the turn John indicated, pulling into the parking lot of a building that looked more like a farmhouse than a restaurant, particularly with a backdrop that included a half-collapsed silo and an old red barn.

“Is this an actual restaurant, or are we eating with friends of yours?”

“It’s an actual restaurant,” John assured him. “With menus and everything.”

The Smith Family Restaurant, as the sign out front proclaimed, was actually a very nice little place that Rodney approved of as soon as they stepped inside and he got a whiff of home cooking. Instead of one big dining area, there were several smaller rooms which leant an intimate air, particularly with the low lighting and candles on the tables. He was happy to see there were no animal heads on the walls.

“Mr. Sheppard! Welcome back.” A young, pony-tailed blonde girl appeared in front of them, carrying an armload of menus and wearing a slightly ridiculous red gingham dress. “Two?”

“Yeah. Thanks, Jenny.”

Clearly Rodney had been wrong about that as well. John wasn’t quite the hermit on the mountain, not if this girl knew him by name. So why had he sounded weird about coming into town for dinner?

The underage hostess took them to a table for two in a room dominated by a large fieldstone fireplace, which had been converted to gas sometime in the house’s past. It was warm and inviting, and Rodney tried to convince himself that it was in no way romantic and oh! Was that why John hadn’t wanted to come? Was he worried that after what he’d revealed Rodney would think it was a date?

“I’m not an idiot, you know,” he snapped. The girl looked at him, startled, but John only raised his eyebrows.

“Okay.”

“Just so we’re clear.”

“Crystal.”

Rodney sat down, grumbling, and snatched the menu that the girl held out to him. “Thanks,” he remembered to say.

Honestly, is that what John thought of him? That he’d find out the man was gay and then assume he could make a move? It was degrading. Besides which, Rodney had long ago learned not to get his hopes up when it came to relationships; they never worked out for him. People liked to joke that being bisexual doubled your chances but that was a load of crap.

“What’s the matter with you?” John hissed as the girl made a quick getaway.

“Nothing. I’m just hungry. Low blood sugar, remember?” And then of course he felt guilty when John’s expression morphed into one of concern. He opened the menu. “Anything you recommend?”

“It’s all good here, really. Everything is homemade and they use local produce and meat whenever they can.”

Rodney nodded absently. Everything on the menu sounded good, though a lot would depend on portion size. The waitress came fairly quickly, also dressed in red gingham, and took out her pad.

“Mr. Sheppard, it’s nice to see you.”

“Thanks, Jessie. This is Rodney McKay.”

“Nice to meet you, Mr. McKay.” Jessie nodded her head politely.

“Listen, Jessie. Rodney has a pretty severe citrus allergy. Whatever he orders, can you make sure it’s safe?”

Rodney felt like an even bigger jerk for being so snappish. He was absurdly touched that John had remembered about his allergy. It was frighteningly common to have people dismiss his concerns, like he was making up death by anaphylaxis.

The waitress nodded and wrote No Citrus across the top of her pad in big letters. “Are you ready to order?”

“Sure are. I’ll have the chicken and biscuits, and Italian dressing on my salad. Hey, can I get a scoop of mashed potatoes in with the chicken too?” John handed over his menu.

“Of course you can. What to drink?”

“Sweet tea. No lemon.”

“And for you, Mr. McKay?” The waitress turned an expectant look at Rodney. He gave the menu another quick scan before making his decision.

“I’ll have the blooming onion starter, the stew, and you can skip the salad and just bring extra rolls.”

“Sure thing. And to drink?”

“Coffee, and a large rootbeer.”

The waitress finished writing in her pad and walked off with their menus. John fiddled with his silverware, unwrapping it from the linen napkin and then moving it from one side of his place setting to the other and back again.

“So how did it go today?” he finally asked. “Your mysterious errand?”

The strain of manual labor had almost put it right out of Rodney’s head; he hadn’t had a chance to get John alone all day to tell him what he’d found out. He leaned forward, keeping his voice down.

“Something definitely isn’t right with the story,” he said conspiratorially, as if anyone seated nearby would be interested. “The Historical Society has some pages from Lili’s journal and a couple of letters from VanAllen. If he left, I don’t think he did it willingly.”

John leaned forward as well, elbows on the table, looking interested. “You think someone coerced him into leaving? But why?”

“I think the Senator had a hand in it. I also think he had a decidedly unnatural interest in his daughter.” Rodney frowned. “I mean, think about it. He never remarried, he was resistant to Lili hooking up –”

“Hooking up?”

“You know what I mean.” He waved John’s question away. “In any case, my researcher is working on the VanAllen thing, trying to find a trail for where he went after he left here.”

The waitress returned with their drinks and Rodney’s onion, which he’d ordered not only because they were delicious, but also because he could make John share with him. They both pulled off pieces of hot, fried onion and dipped them in the accompanying ranch sauce.

“You have a researcher?” John asked after he’d eaten a few pieces. “How does that work?”

“Her name’s Miko and she’s a wizard. She can find anything. You want to know the most popular eatery in Timbuktu? She’s your girl.” Rodney licked some dip from his finger. “I started working with her when I was writing my book. It seemed more time efficient to have someone doing the hunting while I did the gathering, so to speak. I’ve kept her on retainer ever since.”

“You think she’ll find him?”

“If anyone can, it’s Miko.” Although Rodney couldn’t help but think that she might not find anything at all. If the Senator made him leave, it was possible VanAllen had changed his identity; if that was the case, it would be next to impossible to know for sure what happened to him. He’d intimated, in one of his letters, that he had no family. Or at least family he wasn’t close to. That certainly wouldn’t help things.

“Okay,” John said thoughtfully. “So we wait for Miko to find something, or not. What do we do about the intruder?”

Rodney huffed out a breath, and ate more of the onion to give himself time to think. While he was thinking the waitress brought John’s salad and their beverages; he filched a tomato.

“The only thing that makes sense to me is finding where the guy is getting into the house. If we can do that, we can at least stop him from coming in and killing me in new and inventive ways.”

John made a face. “Why are you the target? I’m sleeping there too.”

Rodney waved that comment away. “He’s had plenty of time to kill you. There weren’t any shenanigans happening till I moved in. Unless Uncle Gunn complained of strange things around the house?”

“Not that he ever mentioned to me.”

“Did you spend a lot of time with him?” Rodney asked, honestly curious.

John shook his head. “Not really. Gunn liked to keep to himself.”

“I’ll just bet. Two hermits in a pod.”

“I’m not a hermit,” John said, frowning.

Rodney nodded. “Of course not. Lots of normal people live in carriage houses in the middle of nowhere with shut-in hoarders.”

Whatever comment John may have had against that bit of slander was lost when Jessie returned with their entrees. She cleared the salad plate but Rodney wouldn’t let her take the remains of the onion; he wasn’t sure he was done with it yet.

The bowl of stew was larger than he was expecting, and smelled heavenly. Rodney leaned over it and breathed in deep, making a little noise of pleasure in the back of his throat. Someone had once accused him of being a food whore, and he supposed that was true in the sense that he took the time to enjoy what he ate. Especially homemade beef stew that came with a slab of freshly baked bread slathered with butter.

He looked up at John, frowning at the flushed expression on his face. “Are you okay? You’re not coming down with something, are you?”

John shook his head and immediately turned his focus on his own meal, eating so fast Rodney wasn’t sure he was even tasting it. It made Rodney want to eat even more slowly than he normally did, so he did. It was worth taking the time. The chunks of beef were tender, the baby carrots just firm enough, and the thick brown gravy wasn’t tomato-based, which he approved of.

“Do you have to make those noises when you eat?” John asked irritably.

“What noises?” John flushed again, and Rodney raised his eyebrows. “What’s the matter with you?”

“Nothing.”

“Maybe you should try actually chewing your food instead of swallowing it whole. What are you, a snake? That’s a choking hazard, you know.”

They glared at each other, and then John’s mouth twitched like he was fighting a smile. In the end they both ended up laughing at each other, and whatever strange tension had been there evaporated. John stopped shoveling his food in and Rodney tried to make sure he wasn’t making noises.

“So what do you do?” John asked after a while. “I mean, I know you’re not writing.”

“Of course I’m writing,” Rodney replied. “It’s all crap, but until I came up here I was writing a little every day. Creativity is like a muscle, and I don’t want mine to atrophy. I mean, maybe I’ll get inspired to write another fabulous piece of literature. You never know.”

“Makes sense,” John agreed. “I’m sure it’s not all bad.”

“No, some of it is even worse.” He grinned at his own joke, but it really wasn’t that funny. No matter what Rodney tried to write, in any genre, nothing came out that was even partially useable. He honestly didn’t know why he kept trying. After ten years it seemed fairly obvious that he was washed up as an author. He supposed it was lucky that Base Code did so well; he’d be living off it for the rest of his life.

“Don’t sell yourself short, Rodney,” John said earnestly. “Once you hit on the right idea I bet the words will just flow.”

Now Rodney was the one flushing. He thought maybe he’d been wrong after all when he’d overreacted to the idea that John might think of dinner as a date, because it was certainly starting to feel like one for him. For the remainder of the meal he endeavored not to do anything to tip John off to how he was feeling, since he was sure that would be incredibly disastrous. He was both relieved and a little disappointed when it was time to leave.

*o*o*o*

The drive back home was nerve-wracking. Rodney’s hands were white-knuckled on the steering wheel and he drove more slowly than usual. A storm had whipped up while he and John lingered over warm apple crisp, and the wind was blowing a lot of small branches and leaves into the road. So far there wasn’t any rain, but occasional flickers of lightning left no doubt that some would be coming and Rodney really wanted to get back to the house before it got started.

John had offered to drive but Rodney absurdly felt the need to prove he could handle the inclement weather, even though he normally didn’t do a whole lot of driving. He regretted his decision now, as he hastily swerved around a largish tree branch that was half in his lane.

“Nice and easy,” John advised from the passenger seat. He sounded perfectly at ease but Rodney wasn’t tearing his eyes away from the road to find out if that was true.

There was movement on the left side of the road and Rodney caught a glimpse of something furry before it disappeared into the undergrowth. Great. All he needed was some kind of woodland creature to jump in front of the car. Wind buffeted them and he cursed under his breath.

“You’re doing fine. There’s the turn.”

Rodney breathed a sigh of relief when he saw it. He relaxed a little as they got closer to the house, and when he finally put the car in park and turned off the engine he rested his head on the steering wheel. John chuckled.

“Great job, buddy.”

“And you wanted to take a motorcycle,” Rodney scoffed. “We’d have been blown right into a ditch.”

“Well, we’re home safe and sound.” John peered through the window at the house. The outside floodlight was on, and there was only one other light shining in the house. “Just like we left it.”

“I sure wouldn’t mind another break from home invasion tonight,” Rodney said as he got out of the car. “Maybe the guy got bored and he’s moved on to better targets now.”

“Keep the hope alive,” John muttered in response.

Fat drops of rain started to fall just as they reached the front door, which was lucky. Rodney unlocked the door and it hadn’t even gotten all the way open when a flash of orange went shooting out across the porch and down the steps.

“Mr. Pibb!” Rodney cried in dismay. “He can’t be out! He’s not equipped to fight for his life! What if he runs into a porcupine or something?”

“Calm down!” John stepped inside and disarmed the alarm. “We’ll look for him, I just want to check the house first.”

There was a flicker of lightning and Rodney saw Mr. Pibb heading across the lawn towards the treeline. “Check the house, I’ll get the cat,” he shouted at John as he took off in pursuit.

The rain started coming down harder and it wasn’t long until he was soaked to the skin. Thunder rumbled, rolling with a weird echo, and he hunched in on himself. He wondered what his chances were of getting hit by lightning and cursed his stupid cat.

“Mr. Pibb!” Rodney slid on the wet grass, his arms pinwheeling; he managed to keep on his feet but it was a near thing. “Damn stupid feline! Where are you?”

The rain was blowing against his back, the wind pushing him along as he ran. He hoped, for his own sake as well as Mr. Pibb’s, that there were no wild animals out on the prowl; being attacked by a bear or a coyote or something equally large and scary would be just the ending he needed to the day.

Rodney reached the tree line, and ineffectually wiped the rain from his eyes as he strained to see a tell-tale blob of orange. “Mr. Pibb!” Just before a large clap of thunder he swore he heard the cat yowling.

“Stop running, you moron!” he shouted back. He looked over his shoulder at the hulking dark shape that was the house. He couldn’t see any lights on at all now, and his heart lurched. Had the storm knocked the power out, or was the intruder back? And if he wasn’t, where the hell was John?

“Shit!” he shouted in frustration. He was about to turn back when he saw movement out of the corner of his eye. Finally!

Rodney moved between the trees until he reached Mr. Pibb, who was scratching at the dirt and looked comically waterlogged. He scooped the cat up, dirty paws and all, and chastised him even as he held him close.

“You stupid cat. Are you trying to drown out here? You have a perfectly good litter box, you don’t have to…”

More lightning revealed the spot where Mr. Pibb had been digging and Rodney found himself incapable of further speech. The cat had found something buried in the dirt and even though it was only partially uncovered Rodney could easily recognize the lower half of a skull. A human skull. He squeezed the cat tighter and received a yowl in return.

“This is bad. Very, very bad.” Rodney turned and ran, not the easiest proposition with an armful of wet, agitated cat. He was running into the rain now, and even squinting it was almost impossible to see where he was going. When he got close to the house he started yelling for John, but if there was a response he couldn’t hear it over the noise of the storm.

He staggered up the front steps, finding the door closed but not locked. He pushed inside, relieved to finally be out of the rain, and let Mr. Pibb wriggle out of his arms, presumably to sulk somewhere while he licked himself dry. The alarm was still off, as were the lights.

“John? Where are you?”

There was no response, although Rodney wasn’t sure he would’ve heard one over the pounding of his heart in his ears. He’d have to check the house, in the dark, while possibly fending off both a bitter ghost and a potentially homicidal intruder. The lightning helped a little, and he found himself only moving forward after a flash showed him the way was clear.

“John! Don’t be a dick! Tell me where you are!”

Rodney checked the hall by the study, but it was empty and the study door was closed. He shuffled around the corner into the kitchen and then almost fell when his foot caught on something.

“Son of a…” More lightning and then he could see a very large lump sprawled out across the tiled floor. “John!”

Heedless of his knees Rodney dropped down to the floor and ran his hands over John, looking for an injury, checking for a pulse; he found both. There was a bloody gash over John’s right ear, gushing in that annoyingly terrifying way that head wounds had.

“Jesus. John? Can you hear me?” He was lying face down on the floor and Rodney was afraid to move him, fearful of exacerbating whatever brain trauma he might already have. John moaned, softly, but otherwise didn’t rouse.

“Hang tight, John. I’ll be right back.” Rodney surged back to his feet, and bounced off the wall in his rush to get to the phone closet. He hoped Laura had left Carson’s phone number there, or he didn’t know what he’d do. Try to get John in the car and drive him over, maybe.

He found the closet and yanked the door open, immediately banging his knee on the bench and cursing loudly as he hopped around on one foot. “Stupid fucking closet…buying a cell tower…ridiculous…”

Rodney felt along the wall until he found the paper Laura had taped there with some local phone numbers. He yanked it down and then carried it to the closest window so he could read the number. He repeated it over and over in his head until he got back to the phone and dialed what he hoped was the right number, waiting impatiently as it rang.

Hello?

“Carson! You need to get over here right away!”

Who is this?

“Rodney. Rodney McKay from across the street. Listen, John’s been injured, he’s bleeding and unconscious and we need you to come right now!”

Calm down, Rodney. What happened?

“Someone hit him on the head, are you listening to me? Get over here! The front door is unlocked. We’re in the kitchen.” Rodney hung up before the doctor could ask him any more inane questions, and hurried as fast as he could back to the kitchen. John was awake, if not completely coherent, and had pushed himself up on his hands.

“No! Stop that! You’re going to hurt yourself worse.” Rodney knelt beside him and pushed him back down as gently as he could.

“Greg?” John said, slurring the name slightly.

“It’s Rodney, John. Stay down. I called Dr. Carson and he’ll be here soon to take care of you.” Belatedly he wondered if the intruder was still in the house and quickly got back up. He felt along the countertop until he got to the drawer he wanted, rummaging mostly by feel for something he could use as a weapon. His hand closed around something that felt like a hammer and he pulled that out. A flash of lightning revealed it to be a stainless steel meat tenderizer, the square head flat on one side and dotted with rounded nubs on the other. Rodney nodded, deciding it was better than a knife which he’d probably end up cutting himself with.

He quickly returned to John, sitting beside him and keeping the meat tenderizer handy.

“Hurts.”

“I know it does. Here. Come here.” Rodney shifted his position and moved John a little, until he had his bloody head in Rodney’s lap. “Be quiet, and wait for the doctor to get here, okay?”

He ran his fingers through the parts of John’s hair that weren’t wet and matted to his head. John trembled under his hand, or maybe Rodney was the one trembling, he wasn’t sure. His nerves were shot, between Mr. Pibb and a dead body in the woods and now this attack on John.

John moaned again and wrapped one hand around Rodney’s ankle. “Thought…loved me…”

Rodney froze, for a minute afraid to even breathe. And then he realized John must not know where he was. Was he talking to Greg? Was Greg the ex from the horrible breakup? John sounded so bewildered and hurt that Rodney felt compelled, for possibly the first time in his life, to punch another human being in the face hard enough to break bones.

“It’s okay, John. It’s Rodney.”

There was a flash of lightning so bright it had to have hit right outside, the accompanying clap of thunder immediate and loud enough to rattle the windows. John whimpered and curled up around Rodney’s legs, but Rodney was left with an after-image of a hulking, misshapen figure in the kitchen doorway. The intruder was back to finish the job.

As quickly as he could Rodney slid out from under John, who groaned. He clutched the meat tenderizer in one hand and slowly got to his feet, heart pounding and skin flushed with fear.

“You stay away from him, asshole,” he said, sounding fiercer than he felt. “This is my house!”

Rodney raised the meat tenderizer, which he hoped looked more menacing than it felt. He sure hoped this guy didn’t have a gun. “Let’s dance!”

Chapter Text

“I’m really sorry,” Rodney said for the third time. He was hovering by the bed, trying not to get in the way while Carson gave John a careful once-over. His head wound had stopped bleeding, thank goodness, and was now held together with a series of butterfly bandages and liquid skin.

“It’s fine, Rodney,” Carson said again, sounding exasperated.

Once more Rodney had embarrassed himself. He’d been so sure that the asshole that had struck John in the head had come back to finish them both off. It had turned out to be Carson in a long raincoat and one of those silly hats that fisherman wore. He’d been initially taken aback by Rodney’s crazy behavior, but they’d quickly worked things out. The power had flickered back on a few minutes ago; the doctor confirmed that the storm had knocked his out too.

“How’re you feeling, John?” Carson asked, looking at his eyes. “Any double vision?”

“A little.” John was still groggy but he finally knew where he was, and that was a huge improvement in Rodney’s mind.

“You’ve definitely got a concussion. I know you must have a whopper of a headache, lad, but I canna give you more than a Tylenol.” He produced a bottle from his medical bag. “As for you, Rodney. Would you care to tell me what’s going on here?”

“Not particularly.” Rodney was pretty sure he’d looked like an idiot, though for a moment he’d felt a little like an action hero in a movie.

“Just tell him,” John said. He sounded exhausted and Rodney immediately started to fuss with the blankets until his hand was slapped away. “McKay.”

“But what about…you know. The list?” Rodney lowered his voice, but he was pretty sure Carson could hear him anyway. John just gave him a long look. “Okay. Fine. You’re right. He couldn’t have hit you and made it back to his house in time for me to call him. Not without me seeing him outside.”

“What?” Carson exclaimed. “You think I did this?”

“No, weren’t you listening?” Rodney leaned against the bedroom wall. “Okay, pay attention. This is complicated.”

He laid out the whole tale, starting with the creepy basement and leading up to finding John knocked out on the kitchen floor. Once again he left out the part about the study and Lili. He was feeling very proprietary about that whole business, like it belonged only to him and John. And since John didn’t butt in with any of it, Rodney could only assume he felt the same. Or possibly he didn’t want to sound ridiculous talking about ghosts.

Carson listened, looking more concerned as every bit of the story was revealed, and Rodney started playing a bit to his audience, adding embellishments and descriptors that had John’s lips twitching in amusement.

“And so,” Rodney said, wrapping things up. “When you appeared in that ridiculous outfit I naturally thought you were the intruder. I valiantly offered up my own life for John’s, which I think we can all agree was pretty damn heroic.”

“You threatened me with a meat tenderizer,” Carson said disdainfully.

“‘Let’s dance’,” John said, snorting and then holding his head.

“Easy there.” Carson pulled a gel pack out of his bag and activated it. “Keep this over your wound, it’ll help with swelling and some of the headache.”

John did so, looking miserable and tired and in pain. Rodney wanted to do something for him but he didn’t have the slightest idea what that would even be, besides something stupid like giving him a hug or another girly move that would probably be vehemently unappreciated.

“You’ll need to call the sheriff,” Carson said. “Before the crime scene gets any further contaminated.”

“Crap. I don’t like him.”

“Like or no, John’s been assaulted.”

Rodney scowled. “Thanks for the reminder. I’d almost forgotten, since it’s been at least fifteen minutes.”

“Rodney,” John said softly. “Call the sheriff.”

He really didn’t want to go back downstairs, where he might still encounter a homicidal maniac. What if he’d been hoping for Rodney and clocked John by mistake? Still, if he could face off against Carson with a kitchen utensil he could probably survive a trip to the phone closet.

He very quickly made the call and then practically ran back upstairs, uneasy at being left alone. He dropped down on the edge of John’s bed and let out a breath.

“I see you survived,” Carson said with a grin.

“Yeah, well. The sheriff will be out as soon as he can. The weather has him tied up with some accidents and things. I stressed the severity of John’s injury, and told him about the body, so –”

“Whoa.” John held up the hand that wasn’t keeping the gel pack pressed to his head. “What body?”

“Mr. Pibb uncovered some skeletal remains in the woods. I saw it when I chased after him.” Rodney shuddered at the memory of that partially buried skull.

Carson looked relieved. “Skeletal remains? Well, then, that’s nothing to do with your current troubles at least.”

“Yeah, thank goodness for that.” Rodney rolled his eyes and looked at John, trying to convey his thoughts without having to actually say the words, but clearly the concussion was dampening his thought processes because he just stared back and shrugged.

Rodney huffed out an annoyed breath. “Okay. Uh…Carson? Could you get Laura out here? When the law descends I don’t want John left alone in the house.”

“I’m not an invalid,” John protested with a pained scowl.

“Yes you are. Shut up and be still.”

Carson eyed the both of them suspiciously. “What are you not telling me?”

“Everything.” Rodney had to hold himself back from actually shoving the doctor out the door. It shouldn’t have been so difficult to get a few minutes alone with John. “You’ll probably want to take a look at the bones, right? And I’ll have to show you where it is, which leaves John alone in the house. So call Laura. Please.”

It almost killed him to add the please, but desperate times and all that. He pointedly ignored John, who was practically staring a hole through his head. Carson looked annoyed but just shook his head.

“I’ll make the call, and keep an eye out for the sheriff. You two can keep your secrets.” He closed up his medical bag and left the room, grumbling all the way.

“You want to tell me what’s going on?” John asked, sounding aggravated.

Rodney shifted on the bed so they could look at each other. “Listen, I know your otherwise intelligent brain is muddled right now, but you have to try and get with the program, okay?”

“McKay…”

He held his hands up. “Sorry. But don’t you realize what the body in the woods means? It’s VanAllen! Has to be!”

John closed his eyes and sighed, shifting the gel pack a little. “Why does it have to be? He left town. It could be a vagrant or a caveman or something, you don’t know.”

“A caveman?” Rodney snorted. “Maybe we should take you for x-rays after all. Are you sure you don’t have a fractured skull?”

John made a hurry-up motion with his free hand but he kept his eyes closed. Rodney decided to take pity on him, given his injury and how haggard he looked; he’d been working hard and sleeping poorly and this crack on the head certainly wasn’t doing him any favors.

“It would explain why the PI couldn’t find any trace of him. Plus, in one of his letters VanAllen told Lili he had something he could use against the Senator. What if he tried to blackmail him and the guy killed him and buried the body? It was only his word that VanAllen left town.” Rodney nodded as he laid it out. It made sense, it was logical, and it certainly solidified his impression of the senator as a grade-A whacko.

“Okay, I guess I can see that. I still think we should wait and see what Miko says.”

“Yeah, sure. Independent corroboration makes sense.” But Rodney knew he was right. He could feel it.

John made a sleepy sound of agreement that filled Rodney with the compulsion to tuck him in and maybe kiss his forehead, like he was a toddler instead of a grown man. He was really crap at doing the comforting thing, though, because the next words out of his mouth made John’s eyes pop open and his face pale even more than it already was.

“Who’s Greg?”

“What?” Surprise quickly morphed to anger. “I told you not to pry, McKay!”

“No! I didn’t!” Rodney cursed himself and his stupid, uncontrollable mouth. “In the kitchen…you were still woozy and you didn’t know where you were. You called me Greg.”

John shut down, which was becoming a familiar and frustrating occurrence. Rodney hated it, hated that John couldn’t talk to him about it, which was foolish on his part considering they hadn’t known each other very long and just because he felt an attraction towards John didn’t mean it went both ways.

“I just wanted to say that I’m sorry for whatever he did to you. You’re a good guy, as far as I can tell, and whatever happened I’m sure you didn’t deserve it.” Rodney looked down at his hands. “You read Base Code, so you know I suck at relationships. Really, I have issues with even basic human interaction most of the time. I’ve never had a long-term thing, and so even though yours obviously ended horribly, at least you had one. So…uh. You know.”

He had no idea what he was even saying. How could he presume to know anything about John’s relationship with Greg, besides the fact that it ended badly? He didn’t know how long they were together and he didn’t know why he felt the need to make himself look even more pathetic than he already was.

Rodney hazarded a look at John, who had closed his eyes again and seemed to be breathing a bit quicker than he should have been. “John? Are you okay? I’m sorry. I shouldn’t have said anything. Sometimes my mouth runs away with me, you know? I start babbling and saying things that are none of my business, and I don’t need to know anything about Greg or why he was such a dick, no matter how much I want to punch him in the face. I’m not generally like that, you know, and –”

“Rodney.”

He pressed his lips together, flushing in embarrassment. Why couldn’t he stop talking? Maybe it was because he couldn’t get the image of John bleeding all over the kitchen floor out of his head.

“Hey.” John pushed against Rodney’s leg with his foot. “It’s okay. I’m sorry I snapped at you. It’s just…I don’t like thinking about it.”

“Well, that’s certainly understandable.”

“Why don’t you go check in with Carson? I’ll be fine.”

Rodney hastily removed himself from the bed, trying to smooth down his clothes before he realized it didn’t matter – they were trashed, covered in mud, cat hair and blood. He felt a little sick looking down at himself.

“I guess I should get changed.” He planned on throwing the whole outfit straight into the trash, glad that it wasn’t one of his favorites.

John murmured something garbled; he’d fallen asleep. Rodney wanted to wake him up again, even though Carson had said that wouldn’t be necessary because the lump from being hit in the head was on the outside, and not pressing dangerously into his brain. Still, a little part of Rodney couldn’t help worrying. He allowed himself to linger for just a moment, giving in to the impulse to smooth the blankets and make sure John was covered before heading across the hall.

It was nearly two in the morning before Rodney was able to drag himself off to bed. Sheriff Caldwell had come with two deputies to secure the scene and the county coroner to examine the remains in the woods before having the skeleton bagged and tagged for more in-depth study elsewhere. Carson had dogged the coroner’s heels the whole time, making a nuisance of himself.

Rodney had given his statement to the sheriff, and they went over it enough times for him to get snappish and aggravated. Having to wake up John to do the same hadn’t put him in any better of a mood. He sagged against the front door of the house with relief and exhaustion when the last pair of taillights disappeared down the driveway.

The house needed to be cleaned. Mud had been tracked all over the downstairs when Caldwell and his men examined the kitchen and all the exits. Rodney had refused to let them upstairs to muck around up there, and had helped John down the stairs when it was his turn to talk to the sheriff. Well, he certainly wasn’t going to worry about it now.

Rodney locked the front door and engaged the alarm, though he wondered why he continued to bother since it certainly wasn’t deterring their intruder. Laura was sitting at the bottom of the stairs looking just as tired as he felt. She’d come as soon as Carson called her and had unceremoniously moved herself into the Blue Room, citing safety in numbers and the need for someone in the house to actually use their brains instead of just bumbling around like cartoon characters.

“They’re all gone?” Laura asked, hiding a yawn behind her hand.

“Finally.” Rodney braced himself with one hand on the newel post; without it he thought he might just fall over. “I could sleep for a year.”

“You probably should. It’s been a stressful day.”

He just nodded. His dinner with John seemed like it was days ago instead of merely hours, and he was angry at having a nice evening ruined. He would’ve directed some of that anger at Mr. Pibb, if the cat wasn’t making himself scarce. When he was more awake he’d take the time to wonder how the infuriating feline had found the body, because that had to be more than mere coincidence.

“Come on, Rodney. There’s nothing more we need to do tonight.” Laura got up and stretched, then held out her hand. Rodney took hold and let himself be led up the stairs, shutting off the lights when they got to the top.

“I’m just…” He waved his hand at John’s room. He couldn’t go to sleep until he’d checked on the man one last time. Laura gave him a knowing look and squeezed his hand before letting go.

Rodney waited until Laura had disappeared into her room before going into John’s. The bedside lamp, which had adjustable settings, was on the lowest to afford some dim lighting without being bright enough to keep John awake. He was sleeping peacefully, sprawled on his back with his head turned in such a way that the bandage on his head was readily visible. Carson had given him some pain pills before leaving earlier, which seemed to be helping.

It was harder than Rodney thought to turn and go back to his room. What he really wanted to do was crawl into bed with John and take a bit of comfort in the face of so much uncertainty. He couldn’t help thinking how things might’ve been so much worse. If the intruder had hit him harder, for instance, or if he’d had a gun or a knife. The thought of John dying alone on the kitchen floor while Rodney was outside chasing down his wayward cat was almost too much to bear.

Despite the level of exhaustion he was dealing with it was another hour before Rodney could get to sleep. Every noise in the house made him jump and he cursed his vivid imagination for giving him countless plausible scenarios that ended with all three of them dead by morning’s first light. When he finally did drift off to sleep not even the faint sound of crying coming from the study could keep him awake.

*o*o*o*

By the time Rodney woke the following day it was nearly noon, and Laura had cleaned up the mess made by Sheriff Caldwell and his deputies the night before. Even the kitchen, which he approached with some trepidation, had been cleared of all traces of John’s blood. He definitely owed her a raise. Rodney grabbed himself a cup of coffee and then went in search of his housemates.

He found them ensconced in the library. John was napping in one of the plush leather armchairs, legs stretched out, snoring softly. Rodney fought down the affection that bubbled up at the sight of him and focused his attention on Laura. A little too late, as it turned out. She was sitting at the small round table in the center of the room, boxes of junk stacked high behind her, engrossed in a book. Several books, actually, some of which lay open in a pile and others scattered haphazardly on the edges of the table. From what Rodney could see they were all books about ghosts and hauntings. Oh, no.

“What are you doing?” he asked, pleased when Laura jerked, startled.

“I could ask you the same question,” she countered. She held up the book Rodney had gotten about the house. “Why didn’t you tell me you really had a ghost?”

Rodney was going to ask how she found out but one look at John made that perfectly clear. “You asked him?”

Laura had the good sense to flush and look guilty. “The pain meds made him chatty.”

He took a deep breath, mentally counting to ten to keep from exploding. He was outraged that Laura had taken advantage of John; there was no way he’d have discussed Lili if he was in his right mind. And even though it was stupid he felt a little hurt as well. Lili had belonged solely to the two of them and the idea of sharing her with someone else, someone who hadn’t even been affected by Lili’s presence in the study, was unacceptable.

“Rodney.” Laura got up and stood in front of him. “I’m sorry. I really am. But you were keeping this from me, and it’s important. I need to know what’s going on if I’m going to be able to help you.”

“Do you have ghost busting skills I don’t know about?” he snapped. “Because we’ve got this under control.”

“No you don’t!” Laura argued. She had a steely look in her eye that Rodney had long ago learned to dread. “Maybe you’re too close to see it, but you don’t have anything here under control. You have an intruder that’s bypassing all your locked doors and your alarm. And John said the ghost is just as dangerous.”

“We’re working on a plan,” Rodney insisted. “And I’ll thank you to keep your nose out of it. When I want your help, you’ll know.”

“You’re too stupid to ask for help!

“Stop arguing.”

Rodney whirled around and saw that John was awake, if not still a little high judging by the slightly unfocused gaze that was currently fixed on him. “John. Sorry. How are you feeling?”

“Hungry.”

“Oh. You want some lunch? I can make you a sandwich.”

John nodded and got to his feet, only slightly unsteady. Rodney didn’t hesitate to offer him assistance, grasping his elbow. He was almost sure he didn’t imagine that John leaned into the touch, brief though it may have been.

“John, I’m sorry that –”

He waved Laura’s apology off. “It’s okay. You’re right. We need some help.”

The three of them went to the kitchen, where Rodney pushed John into a chair and not-so-subtly indicated to Laura that she should help him make sandwiches. The tension between them only increased as they pulled out deli meat and condiments; they were quite possibly the most angry sandwiches Rodney had ever constructed. He was still fuming, alternating between anger at Laura for butting in and disappointment in John for sharing Lili’s story.

When the sandwiches were done Rodney slapped the paper plates on the table and went in search of some potato chips. He heard John ask Laura to go to his room and get his pain pills, which she did meekly enough; guilt was good for something, anyway. As soon as she was gone, and Rodney got close enough to the table, John grabbed hold of him to keep him from getting away.

“Rodney. Stop.”

“She overstepped,” Rodney insisted. He looked down at John’s hand, his thin fingers wrapped loosely around Rodney’s wrist. He could feel the callouses that spoke of John’s current profession as a laborer, rough against his sensitive skin.

“That doesn’t mean she was wrong. I know we were keeping Lili to ourselves, but another perspective might be what we need.”

He looked up, caught in John’s intense gaze. His eyes were still a little glazed, but just the act of walking down the hall must’ve cleared his head a bit. The man looked truly sorry, and Rodney found some of the tension rolling off his shoulders.

“Okay,” he said after a lengthy pause. It earned him a quick but toothy grin as John released his wrist and turned his attention to his sandwich. Rodney keenly felt the loss of that small bit of heat and shared connection, and cursed himself for reacting like an adolescent girl instead of the jaded man he was supposed to be.

Laura returned with the pills, but John only set them aside and Rodney hid a pleased grin when he realized it had been a ruse so that John could talk to him alone for a few minutes. It made him feel more magnanimous, and he attacked his own sandwich with gusto.

“So did you have any useful thoughts on the ghost business?” Rodney asked around a mouthful of salami and ham. If Laura was confused by the sudden change in his mood she was wise enough not to mention it.

“I do, but you’re going to hate it.” She crunched on a potato chip.

“Well, how bad is it? Exorcism? Burning of bones?”

“I was thinking of something a little less drastic,” Laura said. “I think we’d get more reliable information if, you know…we went right to the source.”

She shrugged, like it was no big deal, but Rodney just gaped at her, horrified. “You want to have a séance? Are you out of your mind? Parlor tricks!”

“If this was a movie we’d have already had one,” Laura pointed out. “And it’s not all parlor tricks. I was reading a book this morning –”

“Because no stupid ideas ever came from books.” Rodney rolled his eyes.

“It’s worth trying,” John said. Both Laura and Rodney stared at him in surprise. “What? If it doesn’t work, no harm no foul. If it does…well, that would be good too.”

Rodney couldn’t believe what he was hearing. John couldn’t be serious, but there was no outward sign that he was kidding around either. It was a ludicrous idea. He imagined some thin, pale medium presiding over the event, asking for signs of Lili’s presence and expecting them to believe in a series of knocks and thumps.

“This is ridiculous. We’re not inviting more people into this.”

“We don’t have to,” Laura insisted. “The four of us should be able to run the whole thing. I mean, all we’re really doing is asking Lili to communicate with us, you don’t need a professional for that kind of thing.”

“Since when do you…four? What four?” Rodney asked suspiciously.

“Dr. Carson.” Laura flushed. “Just in case, I think it would be good to have a physician on hand. Right?”

John shot Rodney an amused look. “You already told him, didn’t you?”

“He’s skeptical. But he said he’d help out.”

Rodney snorted. “Of course he’ll help out, if it means being the big hero. You two are disgusting.”

“So how does it work? Do we get a Ouija board or something?” John picked at his sandwich. He’d eaten less than half of it, and Rodney wondered if it was just nerves or the concussion that was affecting his appetite.

Laura nodded. “I think I’ll be able to find one in town, college kids are always using those things. We can move a table into the study –”

“No!” Rodney didn’t mean to shout, but any mention of the study drew a knee-jerk reaction out of him. John seemed to share his reservations, having gone just a bit pale and tight around the mouth. Laura looked at both of them imploringly.

“But we have to. That’s where her spirit is the strongest, right?”

Rodney shook his head in negation. There was no way he was going to let John go into the study, especially in his weakened state. That was just begging for trouble.

“Okay,” Laura said after a while in thought. “What if we had it early, before she really gets going? It’s not like we have to have it at midnight.”

It was clear to Rodney that she wanted to, though. He wondered what kind of pretty picture she had in her head, of the four of them holding hands around a table as the clock struck twelve. Did she envision Lili as a benevolent floating mist? She had no idea about the cold and the crushing doubt.

“That might be okay,” John said hesitantly, looking at Rodney as if to get his assent.

“We can’t willingly go in there! Are you suicidal as well as mentally deficient?”

John scowled at him. “Look, Laura never felt anything in there. Chances are that Dr. Skeptic won’t either. If things get hairy they can get us out of there before it gets too bad.”

Rodney bit back the scathing remark that was on the tip of his tongue. John was too interested in the idea of the séance and he wondered why. Was he merely hoping to set Lili’s spirit to rest, or was he searching for deeper understanding of his own ruined romance? He was starting to think he’d do just about anything for John, but someone had to keep a level head.

“It’s a bad idea. And I don’t want any part of it,” he said with finality.

“We don’t need you for it to work,” Laura said.

John’s expression had shut down again, blanked out, and Rodney sighed. He didn’t appreciate being manipulated, particularly when he only had John’s best interests in mind. If it was a movie, they’d have the séance and something would go horribly wrong; horror movie wrong. He’d have to play the dick card, but if it kept John out of the study he was willing to be the bad guy.

“Find some other way. I’m not putting myself or anyone else at risk in the damned study.” He glared at Laura, willing her to remember that she worked for him without having to make him actually say it out loud and sound like even more of an asshole.

Laura’s face was flushed red, and Rodney could see she was more than angry; she was furious. But he didn’t care. She wouldn’t push it, wouldn’t push him, because for all their banter she was well aware of how their relationship worked. Rodney didn’t assert himself seriously very often, didn’t have to because it was usually easy enough to get his way, but when he did he was unmovable.

John looked between the two of them, clearly suspicious, but he made no further protest. Neither did Laura. Satisfied for the moment Rodney finished his sandwich and did a quick mental run-through of his day. He wanted to go to town, but he wasn’t sure he could trust leaving his two compatriots to their own devices.

“I have to go into town for a while,” he said finally. He pointed to John. “You. Promise me there’ll be research only. No ghost busting while I’m gone.”

“I’m not a ten year old,” John grumbled in reply.

“Then act like it and behave yourself.” Rodney got up from the table, tossing his paper plate in the trash and putting his coffee cup in the sink. “Find me something safer than a séance, preferably without any grave digging or body paint.”

Laura scowled at him but kept her lips pressed tightly together. Rodney was reasonably certain she’d do as he asked, and that John would keep his promise if Rodney could get him to say the words.

“John,” he said. He didn’t know if it was the tone of his voice, or whatever expression might’ve been on his face, but he could see when John gave up.

“Fine. I promise.”

“Thanks. You need anything from town?”

“You could try buying a clue,” Laura muttered.

Rodney chose to ignore that as he headed out of the kitchen. Laura would get over it, she and Rodney had done this dance before, but John was a different story. He didn’t know the man well enough to anticipate how he’d react but at this point Rodney didn’t mind too much having to play the heavy. If the cost of keeping John safe was losing whatever tentative friendship they’d developed he’d gladly pay it.

*o*o*o*

Rodney sat outside the ice cream shop, indulging in a brownie sundae with extra hot fudge. He always turned to sweets when he was having an excess of emotion, and that was certainly the case at the moment. The combination of frozen dairy products and the gut-churning mixture of anger and anxiety probably wasn’t wise, but he kept shoveling it in anyway.

Laura bore the brunt of his anger. She’d poked and she’d pried and now she’d ruined everything. Rodney was sure he’d felt a vibe with John, an indication that maybe his interest wasn’t one-sided, but now he had no idea how things would change between them. John was a grown man and he likely wouldn’t take too well to being told what to do; Rodney wasn’t a fan of that himself. He wondered if John would stay on, now, or leave. Assuming he even had anywhere to go. He hated the thought of it, but at the same time it would surely be safer for John to be anywhere else but at the Castle. Between the emotional vampire in the study and the intruder, none of them were really safe there.

He was pulled from his unhappy thoughts by his cell phone, which vibrated in his pocket. He pulled it out with some trepidation, and then relaxed when he saw it was only Miko.

“What did you find out?” Rodney asked without preamble.

Not a damn thing. Are you sure this guy left town? There’s no trace of him anywhere else.

“That doesn’t surprise me. I think I found his skeleton last night.”

Creepy. And plausible. I checked death announcements, wedding announcements, real estate transactions, census data…I came up empty at every turn. Miko sounded annoyed.

“If there was something to find you would’ve. The lack of information fits my theory, though.”

I can do a deeper search, Miko offered.

“Not necessary. Unless…maybe you could look into Donald Milburn, former US Senator. He was around the same time as VanAllen. Look for anything shady.”

Shady. Got it. I’ll be in touch.

Miko hung up and Rodney tapped his phone against his chin. If she couldn’t find anything on VanAllen then there wasn’t anything to be found. Add that to what Rodney already knew about both VanAllen and Milburn and it was almost impossible for that skeleton to belong to anyone else. He wondered idly if the young accountant’s ghost was haunting the woods.

“Is this seat taken?”

He was pulled from his morbid thoughts by Teyla, who sat down opposite him at the little table. She had a cup of something that looked like frozen yogurt.

“It is a lovely day,” she said, smiling.

“Every day is a good day when there’s ice cream,” Rodney replied. He poked at the remains of his sundae.

“How is John today? I heard you had some excitement last night.”

“What? Oh. The small town grapevine is alive and well I see.” He sighed. “John’s fine.”

“I am pleased to hear that.” Teyla ate her frozen yogurt with ridiculous delicacy, and Rodney was glad he was done with his own ice cream so he wouldn’t look like an animal in comparison. “Sheriff Caldwell will get to the bottom of things, he is very good at his job. Despite certain…flaws in his personality.”

She flushed, as if she’d just called the man an ass to his face, and Rodney couldn’t help but chuckle. Despite her tendency for formal speech and her uncanny ability to boss around grown men he was starting to like Teyla.

“We certainly haven’t seen eye to eye,” he admitted. “But if he can find this intruder, sooner rather than later, I’d never say another mean thing about the man.”

“And your other problem?” Teyla asked. “Are you making any inroads there?”

Surely she couldn’t be talking about the ghost. Unless Laura had been on the phone as soon as she’d pumped John for the information, there was no way she could know; they hadn’t told a soul.

“Uh…”

“Dr. McKay, I have been in your house. I have felt the presence there.”

“What? You a psychic or something?” He knew how he sounded but surely that was pushing credulity. “Do you talk to dead people?”

“You have a lot of hostility,” Teyla replied mildly.

Hostility?” Rodney choked. He opened his mouth, angry words set to tumble out at high volume, but at the last minute he remembered where he was. He certainly didn’t want to make a scene or attract undue attention. He settled for muttering, “I think I’ve earned the right.”

Teyla nodded. “You have certainly been under a lot of strain.”

“Strain. Right.” Rodney dropped his voice down and leaned forward over the table. “They want to have a séance.”

“That may be a good idea.”

“Oh, not you too!”

“If you are able to help the spirit in your home move on that could be a very positive experience for John. Perhaps he would be encouraged to do the same.”

Teyla ate more of her frozen yogurt while Rodney just stared at her. If she wasn’t psychic then she was freakishly perceptive. He’d already observed that John had an unhealthy tie to Lili, or at least her twisted feelings of betrayal. It wasn’t that far of a stretch to see him as a ghost as well, caught between two worlds and unable to move on.

“Wait. How do you know we can get the ghost to move on?”

“Everyone has heard of your skeleton, Dr. McKay. Either it is the body of the spirit, who can now be laid to a proper rest, or has a significant tie to the spirit.” Teyla reached across the table and put her hand over his. “I feel very strongly that you can resolve this.”

Rodney was forced to reconsider the validity of having the séance, and that didn’t exactly make him happy. He still thought it was exceedingly dangerous for John, and he wasn’t sure he could pull off what Teyla thought he could. He hated feeling so indecisive.

“Do you think you could come? I mean, I’m not sure anything will happen. Or that if something does it’ll be what you think. But you seem to know a little about these things.” He moved his free hand in a circle, encompassing all things otherworldly. “If it’ll help John then we should do it. But…”

“But you are nervous. It is understandable. A supernatural presence can be very disconcerting, and the one in your home comes with a great deal of bitter emotion.”

“You could say that.” With a sigh, Rodney told Teyla Lili’s story, everything he’d learned from the book and his own personal experience, as well as the documents at the Historical Society. He hated having to bring another person in, but if she was going to help she needed the facts. By the time he was done Teyla had finished her frozen yogurt and was looking thoughtful.

“That is a very tragic story. I think you are right, that the body is that of Lili’s love. It is very fortunate that your cat uncovered it.”

Rodney didn’t know how fortunate it was, but even he couldn’t argue that knowing the final whereabouts of VanAllen could only help convince Lili to move along. “Will you help us?”

“I will need to meditate upon this first. Can you put them off until tomorrow night?”

He felt unexpectedly relieved that Teyla had agreed to help. “That shouldn’t be a problem. Laura will be all superior about getting her way, but they’ll wait if they want to do it at all.”

“If I am able to be of assistance I will let you know by tomorrow afternoon. I have a very old talking board I can bring with me. It has been purified and should work well for your purposes.”

“Talking…oh. You mean a Ouija board?” Rodney nodded. “That would be great, actually. I really didn’t want to have to buy one. You know –”

“Dr. McKay.” Someone came over to the table, and while he looked vaguely familiar Rodney couldn’t place his name or how he might know him.

“What is it?” he snapped, irritated at being interrupted.

“I was out at the Castle the other day. Geoff? Geoff Fletcher?”

Rodney narrowed his eyes. “Right. The one with the noisy car. What do you want?”

“I saw you sitting over here and thought I’d see how things are going out at the house.” He smiled, looking pleasantly bland, but again there was something off about him that Rodney just couldn’t put his finger on.

“It’s coming along, thanks. If you don’t mind, I’m kind of in the middle of a conversation here.” He inclined his head at Teyla, who was studying Geoff with an unusual amount of intensity.

“Sorry to disturb you. Have a nice day!” Geoff nodded at both of them and strolled off with his hands in his pockets.

“He is very angry,” Teyla commented.

“He wanted to poke around my house and I said no,” Rodney explained. Even as he dismissed Geoff. “I just…I want to say thank you. Even if you can’t help us with Lili, I appreciate you not laughing at me.”

“I would never laugh at you,” Teyla assured him solemnly. “You have John’s best interests at heart, and I can find no fault with that. Unfortunately, I must get going. I will call you tomorrow.”

Rodney watched her go, a little bemused. The people in this town were surprising, in more ways than one, and for the first time he wondered what it would be like to live there, be one of them. He’d be known in a way he never had been in Scarsdale, although he didn’t know if that was a pro or a con. In any case, it was ridiculous to even contemplate when things were so incredibly bizarre in his life right now.

He got up and grabbed his mostly-empty Styrofoam container, intent on putting it in the trash before he headed back to the house. He was almost to the wire mesh garbage receptacle when he was waylaid by yet another local denizen, the little Czech from the bookstore. He was grinning widely.

“Ah, Dr. McKay! Is good to see you again!”

“Right. Uh…you too, Radish.” Rodney tried to move around him but the little guy was quick and was soon blocking his way.

“Radek. Radek Zelenka. I would like to discuss book signing with you.” He looked very earnest behind his little round glasses but Rodney wasn’t interested in doing a book signing; he had bigger fish to fry.

“Now’s not a good…”

“It would be quite the coup for my little shop. Richard believes we can partner, have big event. Whole town would come!” Radek’s eyes were shining and his color was high, and Rodney almost took pity on the guy. Almost.

“Who’s Richard?”

“Richard Woolsey, Superintendent of school. Meeting you would be big thing for local students.”

Damn. Why’d he have to go and bring kids into it? Rodney was notorious for canceling even the biggest Base Code-centric events; if he changed his mind at the last minute or if he suddenly found something better to do or if someone in charge of the event had pissed him off, he’d take his books and go home. Kids, though. He’d never been able to cancel on kids.

“What did you have in mind?” he asked, resigned.

“Come. Sit. I will explain everything.”

Rodney tossed his cup in the garbage and went back inside the ice cream shop. If he was going to have to sit here and endure broken English and over-enthusiasm, he may as well get another ice cream.

*o*o*o*

Teyla was better than her word. She called Rodney after dinner and expressed her intention of attending the séance. She just needed time to prepare herself, mentally and spiritually, and so they’d set the time for ten o’clock the following night. Rodney relayed the information to John, since Laura was dining out with the good doctor.

“What made you change your mind?” John asked. He’d improved over the course of the day, napping less and getting around more, but he’d been fairly tight-lipped since Rodney had returned from town.

“Teyla thinks it’ll help. I just want this done and over with.”

“And?”

“And what?” Rodney scowled at the chess board, which sat between them on the kitchen table; he was losing.

“For a guy who’s experienced the supernatural you’re pretty down on the whole séance idea.” John shrugged one narrow shoulder and moved the salt shaker that served as his knight. “Why one but not the other?”

Rodney pondered both his next chess move and how to best answer John’s question. It wasn’t that he was afraid to reveal more of himself but he wasn’t sure if he could talk about his mother. Of course, if he was going to open up, he wouldn’t be the only one.

“Quid pro quo,” he said after a lengthy silence. His bishop captured the salt shaker. “It’s a…personal story. If I tell you, I want something in return.”

John narrowed his eyes. “Like what.”

“I don’t know anything about you. You have to tell me something, I don’t care what.” Which was a lie, of course. He wanted to know more about Greg, and the big breakup, and why John wasn’t in the Air Force any more.

“This better be good,” John grumbled.

“No, it isn’t. It isn’t good at all.” Rodney sat back in his chair and picked up one of John’s captured pawns, turning it over and over in his hands. “My mother…she’s not a strong person. Not like sickly or anything, just no good at saying no to other people. My dad ran roughshod over her for a lot of years before he died.”

It had been years, so many, but thinking of his father still filled him a kind of unfocused anger and a sick swirl of hate and fear and disappointment that churned in his belly. He’d touched on that a little in his book, because his father had been so vehemently against the idea that his son could be anything ‘abnormal’ or ‘unnatural,’ but he’d been that way with his wife too, and Jeannie to a lesser extent.

John nodded, and Rodney knew he was thinking about the book. Which saved him having to go into humiliating detail. “When my dad died, my mom was lost. She was used to having someone tell her what to do and when and how to do it.” She’d mourned her husband deeply, though Rodney never thought she needed to waste a single tear on the man. They’d gotten into more than one argument about it.

“So what happened?” John prompted, pulling Rodney from his thoughts.

“What? Oh. One of her so-called friends started taking her to see this professional psychic, which was how the guy billed himself. He was a big deal up in Toronto for a while, kind of like John Edward but with way more personality.”

“I think I remember hearing about that guy. He had a weird name.”

“Yorick Hallup,” Rodney supplied, his mouth twisting as he said the name. “He told my mother he could communicate with my dad. He was psychic enough to know that he could easily part her from her money. She started attending regular séances at his office. Whatever messages Hallup said came from my dad, she took them as gospel.”

“How much did he take her for?”

Rodney looked up at John, saw the understanding in his eyes, and found himself relaxing just a little. People had laughed derisively at his mother, but really the blame belonged on Hallup for taking advantage of the weak-willed.

“Almost everything. I intervened in time to save the house, but she’d given him all her savings, her car, everything of value she had. By the time I got done with Hallup he had even less.” Rodney grinned wickedly. “He’s on a government watch list now, his reputation was destroyed, and he had to pay back everyone he’d bilked out of their life savings, and that was no small chump change.”

“And your mom?”

“She’s got a live-in caretaker who handles all the finances, with my approval.” They’d fought bitterly about that, too, but Rodney had persevered. He kept hoping that his mother would step up, finally take control of her life and be a stronger, more responsible woman. It was hard to give up hoping for it, though Jeannie had always seen and accepted their mother for who she was, flaws and all. At least his mother had been more understanding of his bisexuality; if she’d adopted her husband’s cruel opinions on the subject it was unlikely they’d have been able to maintain any kind of relationship.

“So, there’s the whole sordid story. Séances are a load of crap and I don’t think we’ll really get any results out of having one.”

“You worried I’ll start speaking in tongues?” John joked, though there was a look in his eye that Rodney couldn’t quite place.

“I just…” Once more he was at a loss for words. He couldn’t tell John that he was worried about him, that John’s experience was too close to Lili’s even if he didn’t know the details. “I have a bad feeling, that’s all.”

While he’d been talking John had taken his queen, and then reset the board. Rodney handed him back his pawn, letting the silence spill out between them. He wanted to take back what he’d said, about John reciprocating with a story from his own life; that had been unfair. Before he could say anything, though, John started his own, hesitant story.

“I was married once. Briefly. It was an attempt to appease my father, and a huge mistake. She was nice, really sweet, but just…it wasn’t right for me and we both knew it.”

“I’m sorry,” Rodney said softly. John just shrugged, moving his pieces randomly around the chess board. Rodney watched his hands, his long fingers deftly plucking pieces up and dropping them back down again.

“When I met Greg…it felt like everything was finally right. It was the first time I ever really felt like myself, and not what someone else wanted me to be.” There was an ugly expression on John’s face now, one that screamed his hurt and rejection, and he started knocking down the chess pieces one by one.

“We got caught kissing. By one of the other guys in our unit. And Greg…” He couldn’t finish but Rodney had a fair idea of what must’ve happened.

“He put it all on you, didn’t he?”

“Said I came on to him. Told them all how disgusted he was to have a dirty fag stick their tongue in his mouth.”

Rodney wanted to make him stop, didn’t want to hear anymore. He couldn’t help wondering if John had ever told this story to anyone else. Did he keep it all locked up inside his head, festering, while he hid out in the backwoods and made himself physically and emotionally unavailable? Now more than ever, he wanted to find this Greg and smash his face in. Repeatedly.

“Do you know what a blanket party is?” John asked. He held the white king in his hand, fingers wrapped tight around it.

“Jesus, John.” Rodney could imagine it all too well. The evil Greg helping to hold John down while the others beat him, just to save face. No wonder John had left the service. How did someone recover from a betrayal of that magnitude?

“I’m going to bed,” John said abruptly, pushing back from the table and tossing the king back on the board with a little more force than necessary; it bounced a couple of times and rolled off on to the floor.

“John, wait.” Rodney slid out of his chair and blocked the doorway.

“Don’t.” John’s voice was choked with emotion, his eyes watery and pleading, and Rodney couldn’t bear to see it. He stood aside and let John pass, wishing there was some way he could make things right for the other man.

*o*o*o*

Everyone was subdued the day of the séance. Despite her earlier vehemence on the subject, even Laura was keeping things mellow. She made one of Rodney’s favorite comfort foods for dinner, despite numerous complaints about the uselessness of the aged kitchen appliances. Rodney appreciated the gesture but he felt a little like a man having his last meal.

Carson joined them, of course, and he and Laura set up a table in the study while John and Rodney cleaned up the kitchen. Rodney wasn’t looking forward to the evening’s festivities. The thought of purposefully going into the study made his skin crawl, and he couldn’t help but wonder how John really felt about it.

“I can’t wait to start renovating in here,” Rodney griped. He had the hot water cranked all the way up on the faucet, but it was just a little warmer than tepid. “You need to call the big contractor and get the number for the plumbing guy. I want a new hot water heater installed ASAP.”

“You gonna stick with electric for the stove, or switch up to gas?” John asked, drying dishes and stacking them back in the cabinet.

“I only know how to cook on electric. But I want one of those glass top ones, those are much easier to clean.”

John hummed in agreement. “I’d recommend not going with a side-by-side fridge and freezer. I’ve had some experience with those and there never seems to be enough space.”

“Whatever you think is best,” Rodney replied. He finished washing the last dish and then wiped down the countertops and kitchen table. It was kind of nice, being domestic with John. Working together in the kitchen, doing such a mundane job; it made him want things he wasn’t sure were even possible, things he hadn’t wanted in a very long time.

“You know, you don’t have to do this. The four of us can handle things.”

Rodney snorted. “Right. Someone has to keep an eye on you and that woman I pay way too much money.” He turned to wring out the sponge but John put a hand on his arm, stopping him.

“Thanks.”

They stared at each other for a long moment and then John squeezed his arm and let go. Rodney turned away, needing some time to compose himself. He’d only known John for ten days but he felt like they had a connection, even more so now that John had shared his painful breakup story.

“You should take something for your headache,” Rodney said finally, though he kept his back turned to John. “Before things get started.”

“Sure.”

He heard John walk out of the kitchen and allowed himself to relax. He didn’t know what to expect. Despite his mother’s familiarization with the process, Rodney had never attended a séance himself. Were they supposed to hold hands? If Teyla was bringing a Ouija board then probably not, since they had to touch the planchette. A series of random scenes from horror movies passed through his mind, which did nothing to calm his nerves.

“We’re all set up,” Carson said, hovering in the doorway.

Rodney dried his hands on a dish towel and turned around to study the doctor. He knew the man was still skeptical, and was probably only involved because of Laura, but if he’d been puttering around in the study with no ill effects that was all Rodney needed to know.

“Listen up, Doc. I know you don’t believe in ghosts, you’re a modern guy, blah blah blah. But if you see the slightest thing go wrong with John, I want you to take him out of there. Carry him if you have to.” Rodney poked him in the chest. “As his physician I’m counting on you to keep a close watch.”

Carson’s eyes were wide but he nodded. “Aye, of course I wouldn’t let anything happen to John.”

“Good. Now get out of my way, I still have some work to do.” Rodney pushed past him. He wanted to double check that all entrances and first floor windows were secure; with everyone in the study there’d be no-one to keep an eye on things. Of course, everyone in the study also meant that no-one would be taken by surprise because they’d all be together. He’d be interested to see if they had a visit from the intruder.

Rodney, John and Carson were in the middle of a game of dice – the doctor was winning with rather a bit more glee than necessary – when Teyla showed up a half hour early. She had a large portfolio bag slung over her shoulder and politely greeted everyone.

“Teyla, thanks so much for convincing Rodney to go through with this.” Laura set aside the Castle book.

Rodney opened up his mouth but Teyla beat him to the punch. “He is right to be concerned. A séance should not be treated as a parlor game.”

Everyone nodded like school children being reprimanded by the teacher, and Rodney hid a grin. His amusement didn’t last long, because Teyla wanted to see the setup in the study. Everyone trailed along behind her, but John and Rodney were the only ones that didn’t go into the study once they got there.

Laura and Carson had set up a round table in the middle of the room, pushing the desk back against the wall. Somewhere Laura had found a dark blue tablecloth, and a variety of candles that were waiting to be lit – tea candles, pillar candles, votives. Rodney was gratified to catch sight of Carson’s doctor bag stowed near the door; John’s safety was his utmost concern.

Teyla did a circuit of the whole room, pausing from time to time to with her eyes closed and her head tilted, as if she were listening for something. Rodney tried to block the doorway as much as possible, keeping John behind him. Even this early the cold was coming out of the study in waves, like an AC unit had been turned on. He could feel John shudder against this back and looked at him over his shoulder.

“Can you grab us a couple of sweatshirts?”

John nodded and walked off down the hall. Rodney turned back around to see Laura looking at him oddly. “What?”

“You’re cold?”

“Yeah, I’m cold. You really don’t feel that? It’s freezing.”

Teyla nodded. “The presence in this room is very strong. Energy is being pulled out, which makes it feel cold to those sensitive enough to feel it.”

Rodney stuck his tongue out at Laura, who rolled her eyes and asked Teyla what was in her bag. In response, Teyla unzipped it and pulled out her spirit board. It was round, which Rodney hadn’t been experiencing. The alphabet ran around the outside edge, and a line of numbers zero through nine cut across the middle. At the top was the word no, and yes was on the bottom. The whole thing was made of polished wood, and the words and numbers looked like they’d been burnt in.

“That’s lovely,” Carson commented, running a finger over the surface. “An antique is it?”

“Yes. It belonged to several generations of women in my family.” Teyla put the case aside. “It has been purified for our activities tonight. Dr. Beckett, would you please light the candles?”

By the time Carson finished with the candles John had returned with sweatshirts. They were both Rodney’s, which meant the one that John put on was a bit oversized, but he looked ridiculously good in it anyway. Rodney averted his gaze and shrugged his own on, feeling a little better in the face of the cold.

“Come and take a seat,” Teyla said.

Rodney jostled everyone until he made sure John got the chair closest to the door, in case he had to be removed quickly once things got underway. No-one mentioned it, but John gave Rodney a look that said he wasn’t at all fooled.

Once everyone was seated around the table, and the overhead light had been turned off, Teyla pulled out a small notepad from her bag and handed it to Rodney, along with a pen. “I would like you to make note of any communication we receive from the other side. You are our impartial observer.”

Rodney nodded, glad he didn’t have to participate more actively. It would make keeping an eye on John a whole lot easier though, to be honest, the thought of having to put his hand on the planchette had been a bit distasteful to him. The whole atmosphere of the room already had him on edge. There was an expectant air, a sense of something waiting, and the jittery shadows created by the candle flames was making him jumpy.

“We sit in a circle of protection, prepared to listen and understand. We wish no harm.” Teyla put a finger on the planchette, and the others followed suit so they were all touching it. Rodney’s grip on the pen tightened as he waited for disaster to strike.

“We beseech the presence in this room to come forth and speak with us. Make yourself known.”

Rodney held his breath, but nothing happened. The shadows jumped and danced, and he met John’s eyes across the table. He gave him a little half shrug. Maybe all his worries had been for nothing.

“Lilianna Milburn, we ask you to come forth and speak with us. We wish only understanding.” Teyla had her eyes closed, and Rodney wondered what she could sense around them.

Suddenly the planchette jerked to the side, drawing a startled gasp out of Laura. It hovered over the yes, and Rodney scrawled a note as instructed. Teyla nodded, eyes still closed.

“We want to understand, Lilianna. Can you tell us why you linger in this place?”

The planchette dodged again, moving jerkily across the smooth finish of the spirit board.

“Bloody hell,” Carson muttered.

Rodney wrote down each letter that was indicated, his feeling of dread increasing with each one. D…E…A…D. Was it a warning? A threat? Was Lili merely commenting on her own state of affairs?

The pen continued to move across the page, seemingly of its own volition, while everything around Rodney seemed to get incredibly dense – the dark, the quiet, the cold. For just a minute he thought he saw the ghostly figure of Lili standing behind John, her form amorphous and wavering, her expression bleak. He opened his mouth to call out a warning but it was like his vocal cords were frozen.

Dead. Dead. Dead.

It was as if he could hear her voice in his head, full of grief and despair. He shook his head, more to dislodge the horrible monologue than in denial of what was happening. The darkness closed in around him, swaddling him tight, and he was only vaguely aware that his hand was still moving the pen across the pad. The cold was cutting him like a knife, sharp and deep.

My fault. Dead. My fault. Dead.

The litany repeated over and over, getting louder and more forceful with each iteration until Rodney was sure his head was going to explode. He tried to tell her to stop, to shut up, to leave him alone, but her words just came faster, moving together into one long expression of pain.

Myfaultdeadmyfaultdeadmyfaultdead

It built up into a crescendo, the words screaming at him, in him, from him, until silence finally descended so quickly it was almost shocking. There was pain in Rodney’s head, pain all up his arm, and before he slipped into the all-encompassing darkness his only thought was of John.

Chapter Text

Rodney woke slowly, enjoying the warmth that surrounded him. He had a hazy memory of being cold, painfully cold, but this reality was much more pleasant. When he began to hear actual words, when his higher brain function finally got moving, he groaned and tried to curl up deeper into the warmth.

“Rodney? Hey, buddy. You okay?”

John’s voice, sounding so worried, and that was wrong because John was the one at the most risk, the one that Lili had been targeting. Rodney forced his eyes open and his entire field of vision was filled with John’s anxious, pale face.

“There you are, now,” Carson said from somewhere nearby. John pulled back and Rodney had a moment of disorientation before he realized he was lying on the couch in the parlor under a pile of blankets, his head in Laura’s lap.

“What the fuck…?”

“Yeah, he’s feeling better.” Laura sounded relieved. She helped Rodney sit up and the room dipped for just a second before everything righted itself. He felt hungover, and his whole body was sore.

“Well, that sucked,” he said, pulling the blankets tight around himself. He was reluctant to give up the warmth, not when the memory of that paralyzing cold was so fresh in his mind.

“That was most unexpected,” Teyla said. She was sitting in a tattered wingback chair that had been drawn up beside the couch.

“No kidding.” Rodney looked over at John, who hovered near the door, clearly anxious and upset. He wished there was an unobtrusive way to get the man to come and sit beside him. “Are you okay, John? Did she…are you okay?”

John just stared at him. “Jesus, Rodney.”

“Does anyone want to tell me what happened?”

Laura nodded at him, eyes wide. “You were doing automatic writing. I didn’t even know that was a real thing! And it was like…like you were talking but no sounds were coming out. It was…freaky.”

“Aye,” Caron put in. “You passed out, and your body temperature was dangerously low. John and I carried you in here.”

The irony of the situation wasn’t lost on Rodney. He’d been so sure something would happen to John, but he turned out to be the weak link. Why had Lili chosen him to communicate with, out of everyone? He felt…used.

“I want to see it,” he said. He held one hand out from the nest of blankets and snapped his fingers. A ghost of a smile skipped over John’s face, and he pulled a crumpled piece of paper out of the pocket of his jeans.

It was creepy. The first part was his own handwriting, where he’d been noting the letters spelled out by the planchette, but the rest was definitely not written in his hand. The swooping handwriting was rough but still horribly familiar.

“So what does it mean?” Laura asked, taking the paper out of Rodney’s trembling grip.

“She knew,” he replied. “Before she died, she knew.”

“She knew Frederick was dead,” John said softly. “She felt responsible.”

Rodney nodded, and for a moment it was as if they were the only two in the room. Had John heard her as clearly, or had he just picked up the residuals of what she was projecting at Rodney? He met John’s gaze.

“I could…hear her in my head. She was devestated.”

“Do you think it was her father?” John asked.

“Who else could it have been, if that was VanAllen’s body out in the woods? It makes logical sense.” Rodney could imagine it all too well. The Senator was too enamored with his own daughter to allow her any other suitor. Whatever VanAllen had on him, whatever method he was going to use to get Milburn to agree to him marrying Lili, it was damaging enough that the Senator killed him for it. It was sick and twisted, and had ruined any chance for any of them to have happy lives. Rodney wouldn’t have been surprised to learn that Lili hadn’t died of an illness at all, but rather had taken her own life in despair over what her father had done.

“Perhaps once the body is laid to rest the presence in the house will be appeased.” Teyla stood, her movements graceful, and picked up the bag that held her spirit board. “If you are certain you are well, Dr. McKay, I will be going.”

“Are you sure?” Laura asked nervously. “Maybe you should stay. I mean, what if the ghost gets angry again?”

“She is not angry,” Teyla replied. “She is full of despair, desperate to communicate with us.”

“But she tried to kill Rodney!”

Rodney shook his head. “No, it wasn’t…that’s not what happened.”

Teyla put her hand on Rodney’s shoulder, but addressed Laura. “It is difficult for Lili to communicate from her plane of existence. She draws energy from the room, and those within it. She meant no harm to Rodney.”

John was clenched from jaw to fists, and it was clear he didn’t believe what Teyla was saying despite the fact that he’d caught the edge of the experience, enough to feel some of what Lili felt. Before he could call the man on it Teyla was bending down and touching her forehead to his.

“Be well, Rodney. Call me if you need anything.”

“Oh. Right. Thanks for coming and everything.” Rodney wasn’t sure what the protocol was, but John saved him by offering to see her to her car.

Silence filled the room and Rodney closed his eyes, thankful for the respite. He was still a little shaky from his encounter, and freaked out didn’t even begin to cover how he was feeling about the whole thing. A small, selfish part of him wished that Lili had gone for John instead, because somehow that felt like it would’ve been easier to deal with.

A noise suddenly penetrated the silence – a muffled, otherworldly howling – and he frowned as he listened to it.

“Oh, come on!” he complained loudly, eyes popping open. “Haven’t we had enough of this for one night?”

“Rodney?” Laura, who had been whispering Carson, turned to look at him.

“Don’t you hear that?”

“I don’t…maybe?”

Rodney snorted. He tossed off the blankets and went through the french doors. He followed the sound to its source, which not surprisingly was coming from the study. Because every God-awful manifestation happened there.

He hesitated only slightly before crossing the threshold into the room, though the waves of cold had gone and it was only just nominally chilly. He wasn’t about to let anyone – or anything – make him cower, not in his own house.

“What now?” Carson grumbled, though he was clearly just as on edge as everyone else. More so, maybe, since he’d come in a skeptic.

The howling came again, only now it had a familiar timbre to it and Rodney put one hand on the far wall, confused. “Mr. Pibb?”

“Sounds like he’s stuck in the wall.”

“Yes, thank you for that completely obvious observation,” Rodney snapped at the doctor. It was possibly more snappish than it needed to be, but he thought he’d be forgiven all things considered. Plus, how did that damn cat keep ending up in places he shouldn’t be?

“Rodney?” John called from the front of the house.

“Back here!” he shouted in reply. John wasted no time getting there, though he looked pretty angry when he arrived.

“What the hell are you doing? You shouldn’t be in here! What if –”

“What does it look like I’m doing?” Rodney interrupted. He thumped his knuckles on the wall, moving down the length of the room until he got to the built-in bookshelves. “Did Gunn ever mention anything about hidden passageways?”

“No. Do we have to do this now?” John looked ready to haul Rodney out of the room but then Mr. Pibb yowled again and his eyes widended almost comically. “What the hell is that?”

“It’s my cat.” Rodney fought back a smirk. “Apparently he’s on a quest of discovery. First the body in the woods, and now a secret passage.”

The shelves were annoyingly empty, which meant the trigger wasn’t a book that could be pulled out like in the movies. Still, Rodney was nothing if not thorough and so he felt along all the shelf joints until he found what he was looking for. Just a small metal tab, but when he pushed it there was a click and a portion of the bookshelf swung in, forming a door. Mr. Pibb came racing out of the opening, careening off Rodney’s leg on his way out of the room.

“Who are you people?” Carson asked.

Rodney pointedly ignored him. “Laura. Get some flashlights.”

“I’m on it.”

“You canna mean –”

“Yes, I can.” Rodney turned to the doctor, arms crossed over his chest. “I’m tired of ghosts and intruders and everything else that’s keeping me from getting things done. I’m perfectly capable of taking care of this.”

Carson grumbled something that sounded impenetrably Scottish before he ducked out to get his medical bag. And perhaps to waylay Laura and beg her to talk some sense into her boss. Like that ever worked.

Once they were alone John got up in Rodney’s personal space, which went a long way towards dispelling any residual chill he might’ve been feeling.

“Maybe you should sit this one out, McKay.”

“No.” Rodney held up his hand when John opened his mouth again. “If you’re going to say I’ve already been through enough today, I’m in total agreement with you. But I’ll remind you that you suffered a serious head injury so out of the two of us you’re the one who should be sitting this out.”

They glared at each other for a long moment, and then John’s lips quirked up in a smile.

“Well, you sound normal anyway.”

Rodney grinned back, and the urge to kiss him was almost overwhelming, especially since they were standing so close. John’s expression changed, growing more solemn.

“You scared me,” he said softly.

Rodney could see the truth of it in his face and bit back the apology that was on the tip of his tongue. “So did you,” he replied instead.

John reached out and squeezed his wrist, one firm hold before he let go. Rodney’s throat had suddenly gone dry and he swallowed painfully. It had been a long time since he wanted anything as much as he wanted John but even he could see the potential train wreck it could be. John had ridiculous amounts of emotional baggage and Rodney had never figured out how to make even a short-term relationship work. It didn’t make the wanting any easier.

“Okay, here we go.” Laura bustled back in the room, all business now. She had three flashlights, two of which she gave to John and Rodney. Carson trailed in after her, medical bag in hand.

“You stay here, Doc,” John said. “Just in case this thing closes behind us. We’ll give a shout if we need you.”

“See that you do. If the air gets stale, or you have the slightest trouble breathing, you turn right round and come back.”

“Don’t worry,” Laura said. She gave Carson a quick kiss on the cheek. “We’ll be okay.”

John took point, Rodney following close behind. The space between the walls was narrow and the air, while not precisely bad, was full of dust. Rodney sneezed several times into his elbow.

“Great. Just what I need.”

“Just keep it off the back of my neck,” John said over his shoulder.

“Very funny.” Rodney tried to keep focused on John’s back and not on the tight space around him. He suffered from mild claustrophobia but getting stuck between the walls would probably ratchet that up to crippling in no time.

“Look at the floor. We’re not the first ones to come through here recently.”

Rodney obediently tippd his flashlight down and saw that yes, the dust had been disturbed. No need to wonder who else had been using the passageway.

“So that’s how he’s been getting in,” Laura said. “Where do you think this comes out?”

“My guess?” John said. “Basement.”

He was only half right. There was basement access behind the shelves of canned botulism but the passageway extended beyond that. John looked at Rodney, who merely nodded. Of couse they’d keep going.

“You’re uncle must’ve really hated you,” Laura said behind Rodney as they made their way along what was now a tunnel fashioned from natural rock. “He really saddled you with a lemon.”

“I doubt he knew any of this was going to happen.” Besides, there were compensations. Rodney certainly wasn’t bored, and meeting John…well, that hadn’t been horrible. Jesus, he was getting sentimental in his old age.

“What do you think this was used for?” John asked. “Bootlegging? Underground Railroad?”

“The Underground Railroad didn’t come anywhere near here.” Rodney trained his light on the walls, which were wet and a little mossy but devoid of any markings. “Maybe the original owner was just a wacko.”

The passageway ended in another hidden door, and beyond that was a room that Rodney was completely unfamiliar with. It was full of boxes and bins and furniture – a clear sign that Gunn, at least, had been there. And judging by the distance they’d walked, there was only one place they could be.

“Carriage house,” he said, shining his flashlight around. “That’s how he bypassed the alarm.”

John looked pissed, and he kicked at one of the boxes. “Bastard’s been right under my nose all this time.”

“There’s a bigger picture you’re missing. As usual.” Laura sat on one of the plastic bins and put her flashlight under her chin as if she was telling a ghost story. “Who else knows about the passageway?”

That stopped Rodney in his tracks and he cursed his own short-sightedness. Laura was right. How many people on the suspect list possessed that much knowledge about the house?

“We need to find blueprints,” he said. “If the passage is on them, then anyone who took the time to do some research would have known.”

“In the meantime, we block off all the access points and lock the house down.” John looked fierce and Rodney could see the shadow of the military man he’d once been. “If he wants to get in again, the bastard will have to come through the front fucking door.”

If they’d been alone it was very probable that Rodney would have jumped him, right there amongst the dusty boxes. Well, it would be good fantasy fodder at any rate.

“Let’s secure the house,” John said. “And then I’d very much like to go to bed. It’s been a long day.”

“I’ll second that.” Rodney had never felt quite so exhausted. “You, uh. You still bunking at the big house?”

He felt more than saw Laura roll her eyes at him, since he didn’t look away from John. It wasn’t that he felt safer having the man across the hall, though that was undeniably part of it. But he wanted John to be safe, and that was maybe even more of a priority. And a rarity, for Rodney to put someone else so much further ahead of himself.

“Until we catch this guy, yeah.”

“Oh. Alright then.”

Laura brushed past him on her way back to the passage. “Get a room,” she muttered for Rodney’s ears only.

*o*o*o*

Rodney almost decided to stay in bed the next day. He’d slept fitfully, plagued with nightmares he couldn’t quite recall upon waking, and the idea of just pulling the blankets over his head and ignoring everything else was tempting. If John hadn’t been slouching against the doorframe holding a cup of the good coffee from town he might’ve just done it.

“Give it,” he said, sitting up and holding out his hands.

John huffed out something that was almost a laugh and handed over the styrofoam container. The first swallow went down nice and smooth, and Rodney sagged back against his pillows.

“This almost makes up for you loitering in my doorway.”

“Only almost?”

“Next time bring bacon.”

John smirked. “I’ll keep that in mind.”

Rodney drank half the coffee and still John leaned in the doorway, hands in the pockets of his cargo shorts. The silence between them was comfortable, but Rodney could only tolerate that for so long.

“Do you enjoy watching me consume caffeine or was there some other reason you’re here?”

“I thought maybe I’d come with you to town today. If you don’t mind.”

Rodney didn’t recall making any plans to go to town, and then he remembered about the blueprints. The prospect of spending some time with John would certainly make that task more enjoyable, and he focused his gaze on the cup in his hand to hide the flush of pleasure he could feel on his face.

“I don’t mind. I figure we can start at the Historical Society. It’s pretty well organized all things considered.”

“I’d like to take a look at the diary pages, too.” John sounded faintly embarrassed but Rodney just nodded. He felt like he really knew Lili by now and it only stood to reason that John felt that way too. Getting to see her written words, the few things of hers in the display case…Rodney couldn’t fault John with wanting that.

“Sure. We can take all day, if we want. I’ve got nothing else scheduled.” In his head Rodney was already planning a place to go for lunch. Having John to himself was an opportunity he wanted to take full advantage of, only without the skeletons and head injuries this time.

“Sounds good,” John said agreeably. “Breakfast will be ready by the time you come downstairs.”

Rodney watched him go, pleased. A whole day with John? It seemed too good to be true. After the events of the last few days they both could use a break, and while they wouldn’t exactly be out sightseeing it would still be more relaxing than sitting around the house waiting for the next catastrophe.

He showered and dressed in record time, and true to his word John was just sliding an omelet onto a plate when he reached the kitchen. Rodney was surprised not to have run into anyone else on his way through the house and said as much as he grabbed the plate eagerly.

“I gave everyone the day off,” John said, sitting across from him. “I figured we weren’t the only ones who could use time away from the house.”

“Sound thinking. It’s not like the work won’t keep.” Rodney tried not to think how behind schedule all the ghost and break-in nonsense had put the real work of cleaning out the house. It wasn’t that he had better things to be doing back home, but he really wanted to be done with the clutter. Besides, the house was growing on him despite the gothic-novel insanity.

John fiddled with the napkin holder in the middle of the table and Rodney watched him as unobtrusively as possible, taking note of the dark circles under his eyes and the little bit of blood spotting the bandage on his head. John clearly still wasn’t sleeping well and Rodney felt a little pang at that, like he should be able to fix things for him.

“I was thinking,” John said, looking at the napkins and not at Rodney. “Since we’re kind of on a fact-finding mission today, maybe we should have lunch at the Pig’s Eye. See if we can learn anything else from Mary Shelby.”

Rodney snorted. “I’m starting to feel like I’m in a Hardy Boys book.”

John looked up at that, grinning. “The Mystery of the Mysterious Tunnel?”

“Secret of the Secret Passage.”

They both laughed, even though it wasn’t all that funny. For two people with such different backgrounds Rodney thought it was amazing how similar their senses of humor were. As if he needed another reason to want to jump John’s bones.

“Well, if we’re the Hardy Boys I’m clearly Frank,” Rodney said. “He was the brains behind the operation. That means you’re Joe, the athletic young hot head.”

“I’m not a hot head!”

“Right.” Rodney finished off his omelet and dumped his plate in the sink. “Let’s go.”

He drove, despite John’s assertions that the weather was perfect for taking out the motorcycle. They bickered over what to listen on the radio all the way to town, Rodney repeatedly slapping John’s hands away from the dials.

They parked at the municipal lot because John insisted it was a nice enough day to walk. Rodney argued for the sake of form, and because he wasn’t normally inclined towards physical exercise, but strolling through town with John was…nice. Normal, after so many days of things being weird and dangerous.

“They did a major revitalization here in the sixties,” John said as they walked along Main Street. “Relocated a bunch of families, including the trailer park, and put in nice, orderly residential streets.”

“I had no idea you were a town historian,” Rodney said dryly. His companion shrugged.

“It’s an interesting town.”

“You really like it here in the boonies? There’s no culture! Or Tai food.”

John laughed. “There’s community, McKay. People helping other people. Life is different in a small town.”

“Yeah, the whole ghost thing tipped me off to that,” Rodney replied. “I never had any of this kind of trouble in Scarsdale.”

“Well, what self-respecting small town wouldn’t have a haunted house?” John’s attempt at humor fell a little flat. The events of the previous night were still too clear in their minds.

They walked in silence for a minute or two and then Rodney asked a question that had been on his mind. “How long have you known there was something in the study?”

“From the first moment I stepped foot in it.” John sounded almost apologetic. “It’s never been as strong as it is right now. And Gunn never sensed anything. He’d sit in there sometimes and do crosswords.”

Rodney shook his head. “He must’ve been aware of something. Why else did he keep his junk collection out of there?”

“Oh. Never thought about that.”

“Yes, well. Genius here.”

That seemed to lighten the mood. John continued to point out landmarks and show off his knowledge of town history, but Rodney only listened with half an ear. He couldn’t ask the other question, namely how John had known he was in trouble that first time in the study. Regardless of what had happened at the séance he still felt that Lili had a stronger connection with John. Perhaps it was the shared history of betrayal at the hands of a loved one.

“…and then aliens probed everyone in town and harvested their livers.”

“What?” Rodney snapped his attention back to John with a feeling of dismay. “That’s ludicrous! If aliens did exist they’d hardly waste their time doing invasive medical procedures and mutilating cows. With the level of technology they’d have to have just to get here –”

“McKay,” John chuckled. “You weren’t listening. I was just trying to get your attention.”

“Oh. Sorry. I have a lot on my mind.”

“Yeah, 'cause I have no idea what that’s like.”

They’d come to the park, which was fairly empty. It took Rodney a minute to realize that it was Tuesday and all the kids were presumably at school. He could admit, though he’d never say it aloud, that there was something to be said for country living. The air quality was better, the people were almost frighteningly friendly, and there was very little traffic. And of course there was John, looking slouchy and gorgeous in a t-shirt and jeans, the ensemble topped with a green flannel shirt with the sleeves rolled up.

When the Community Center came in sight Rodney was relieved. He needed to focus on solving the homicidal maniac problem before he could devote quality time to the John Sheppard problem.

*o*o*o*

“Found it!” Rodney crowed. The blueprints to the Castle had been in the third drawer of the lateral file, and he really needed to talk to Elizabeth about organizing that better. Right now it was a hodge-podge, and whoever had been in it last hadn’t done a very good job of putting things back neatly.

John cleared space on the table. He’d been solemnly studying Lili’s journal pages while Rodney searched the cabinet, and his mouth had a pinched look to it that Rodney didn’t care for. Maybe deepening his connection to Lili had been inadvisable. Well, too late to worry about that now.

There were four pages of blueprints, one for each level of the house. Rodney set aside the pages for the attic and second floor, and scanned the remaining pages with a practiced eye for signs of the tunnel and access points. There were none.

“I don’t know if this is good or bad,” he said with a sigh. He dropped his head into his hands. “I mean, it’s good that everyone in town doesn’t have access but how the hell do we narrow down the focus? You’ve lived there how long without knowing about the tunnel? This isn’t helpful.”

He shoved the blueprints away. His hope had been to find the tunnel clearly marked and then get a list of recent visitors from Elizabeth. Maybe she’d even remember someone asking about the blueprints specifically. Now he was back to square one, which meant his life was still in danger, as was anyone’s who stayed in that house.

“We’ll figure it out,” John said consolingly.

“When?” Rodney snapped. “When he takes your head off this time? When he stabs me in my sleep?”

“We’ve cut him off, he can’t use the tunnel anymore. If he wants to make a move he’ll have to be more direct.”

“Like assassinating us through the windows with a sniper rifle? I feel safer already.” Rodney gathered up the blueprints and dumped them back in the file drawer. He hated feeling powerless, had vowed long ago when his father died that he’d never feel that way again. He wished he knew how to combat it, but how could he fight someone he couldn’t even see?

Rodney started when he felt John’s hands on his shoulders and then he held himself very still so as not to lose that casual touch. Though their point of contact was small Rodney could feel the heat of John’s body behind him and he had to fight to keep from pressing himself back against the other man.

“I won’t let anything happen to you,” John promised softly. Rodney knew it was a promise that couldn’t possibly be kept but he appreciated the thought just the same.

“I came out here to unload a house, not get murdered.” And not to get anyone murdered on my behalf.

John’s hands tightened on his shoulder and then let go. “Are you done?”

“Yes. But if you aren’t finished –”

“I’ve seen everything I need to see,” John said shortly. “Just give me a second to put it all away.”

Rodney just nodded, afraid to turn around until he had better control of himself and what might be showing on his face. He wanted John, there was no denying that, but it wasn’t just physical attraction. He wanted it all – the sex as well as the everyday mundane things like washing dishes together and playing chess and laughing over stupid pop culture references.

It had been a long time since Rodney felt like opening himself up to that kind of relationship, but the bigger problem was that he didn’t know what John wanted, or what he’d even be able to give considering the disaster of his previous relationship. What if John was never ready to take that step? Or didn’t want to take it with Rodney?

“As if my life isn’t complicated enough,” Rodney grumbled.

“What’s that?” John asked, returning from the storage shelves.

“Nothing. I’m starving. You ready for lunch?” He turned around, offering John a patently false smile.

“I could eat,” John replied. His brow was furrowed. “You okay?”

“Fine, fine. Let’s go.” Rodney had the sudden urge to get back outside for some fresh air. It was going to be a long day.

*o*o*o*

Lunch had to wait. After they’d said their goodbyes to Elizabeth and headed back outside Rodney’s phone had rung. Sheriff Caldwell asked if they could stop by his office, so a detour had to be made.

The Sheriff’s Department was located at the edge of Main Street not far from the Community Center, in a prefab construction of metal and vinyl that was at odds with the quaint facades that surrounded it. Rodney grumbled all the way there. He sincerely hoped that Caldwell wasn’t going to harass John any further about his alleged involvement with the break-ins.

Rodney wasn’t sure what he’d been expecting from small-town law enforcement – maybe a bunch of rednecks sitting around picking their teeth – but everyone in the office looked both normal and busy.

The dispatcher/receptionist was on the phone and waved them to a couple of chairs set in the corner. Rodney eyeballed the bullpen, noting that three of the four desks were occupied, and all the deputies emulated the sheriff in their uniform shirts and jeans. At the back of the room was Caldwell’s office, his name etched across the glass door.

“One step up from Mayberry,” Rodney muttered.

“Keep a lid on the Barney Fife jokes,” John murmured in return.

“Believe me, I have no interest in spending time in a backwoods jail.” He could only imagine what that would be like, and assumed the cells were behind the only other visible door in the place. Which begged the question, where was the restroom? Back in the holding area? That seemed like a design flaw.

“Dr. McKay? Mr. Sheppard?” A bright-eyed, dark-skinned deputy called them over. He looked entirely too young to be wearing a badge, and he wasn’t one of the deputies that had been through the house after the storm.

“Deputy.” John led the way and Rodney followed, surprised that the officer and John didn’t know each other. He’d thought John knew everyone in this town.

The deputy, whose nametag said Ford, led them to Caldwell’s office. He rapped twice on the door and then held it open for them. The office wasn’t very big but it was very masculine – dark wood, leather chairs, and a deer head mounted on the wall. Rodney was a little disappointed that there wasn’t a lamp made out of a rifle to complete the look.

“Gentlemen. Have a seat.” Caldwell didn’t stand, just stayed behind the desk leaning back in his chair.

“What’s this all about?” Rodney asked, taking a seat next to John. “Did you find some evidence?”

Caldwell didn’t seem to mind skipping the pleasantries. “The lab processed the knife, and they were able to pull off some useable prints. We ran them against AFIS, no hits.”

There was a significant look in John’s direction, which Rodney took to mean that the prints were run against John’s as well; as former military his prints would be in the system. Rodney was annoyed that Caldwell felt the need to check but at least that meant John was off the suspect list.

“So another dead end,” John said with a scowl.

Caldwell may have been a small town sheriff but he wasn’t an idiot. “Something else happen I should know about?”

Rodney and John exchanged a look, and Rodney read the approval on his face. “We found a hidden tunnel, from the carriage house to the study. We figure that’s how he’s getting in.”

“I see. And who else knows about this tunnel?” The sheriff leaned forward, elbows on the desk.

“It’s not on the blue prints.” Rodney leaned forward himself, unable to keep the challenge out of his voice. “I assume you know what that means.”

“I’m actually quite good at my job, Dr. McKay.”

“John has a head injury that says otherwise.” Rodney narrowed his eyes. “You might want to expend a little time looking into the background of the house, find out who’s spent time enough there to find out about the tunnel.”

A tic in Caldwell’s jaw started jumping. “Don’t tell me how to do my job, Doctor.”

“If you’d start doing it I wouldn’t have to.”

“Rodney!” John hissed.

“Or are you just waiting for us to get murdered in our beds before you start doing any active investigating?” Rodney knew he shouldn’t be pushing things but he was just so aggravated and unnerved by the whole situation at the house. Hadn’t he already done enough leg work?

“I think we’re finished here,” Caldwell said coldly. “I trust you’ll keep me apprised of any developments.”

“Yeah. You’ll be my first call,” Rodney snapped in reply. He got up and left the office, John making apologies for him with the sheriff. It was clear that law enforcement was going to be of little help.

“Rodney, wait!” John caught up with him out on the sidewalk, grabbing hold of his arm and pulling him to a stop.

“What the hell are we supposed to do? Just wait for this asshole to show up again?”

“Look, I know it’s frustrating. Believe me, I get it.” John’s hand tightened. “Getting mad at the sheriff won’t help. We have to keep our heads.”

Rodney bit back the sharp reply that was on the tip of his tongue. There was no reason to take his anger out on John, because none of this was his fault.

“I’m just…tired. Of all of it.” He sighed. He didn’t want to spoil his day out with John, though, so he swallowed everything else that he wanted to say and rubbed his stomach. “Lunch?”

He could see that John also had things he wanted to say but he took his cue from Rodney and held back. “Yeah. Lunch would be good. You still want to go to the Pig’s Eye?”

“Sure.”

John got them pointed in the right direction and they set off down the sidewalk, John chatting mindlessly about the Founder’s Day celebration while Rodney made all the right noises without really listening.

*o*o*o*

The Pig’s Eye Café specialized in Colonial cuisine, which seemed fitting since it was housed in the former Pig’s Eye Tavern which had been built in the late 1700s. The history of the café was printed on the reverse side of the menu.

“Wow. Succotash?”

“Bet you can’t get that in the city,” John said with a smirk.

“Not at these prices,” Rodney admitted. There was a lot to be said for the atmosphere as well. Rough-hewn stone walls, darkly stained timbers, and a massive brick fireplace that was clearly meant to be used for cooking.

The waitress, who thankfully wasn’t wearing a hokey costume of any kind, took their orders, delivered their very modern sodas, and then left them to their own devices until their meals were ready.

John fiddled with his silverware, rolling it and unrolling it in the linen napkin. Rodney could tell he had something on his mind and waited him out. If there was one thing he’d learned it was not to push John Sheppard.

“So I guess you’re still planning to sell the house?”

Rodney shrugged. “I don’t know what to do with it, to be honest. I can’t sell it in good conscious without clearing up all this other business first.”

“Right.”

“Let me ask you something,” he countered. “Do you have any plans for your future? You can’t be a caretaker forever.”

“Nothing wrong with it,” John said defensively.

Rodney decided he had nothing to lose by being honest. “Look, I get why you’re here. You needed a quiet place to get your head together after what happened. But you’re wasting yourself, John. Your brain is going to turn to mush while you sit around mowing other people’s lawns.”

He knew John was smart, though for some reason he liked to cultivate an image contrary to that. There was no greater crime than wasted intelligence, as far as Rodney was concerned, and John was certainly wasting his.

“What if you don’t sell the house?”

“I can’t keep you on. That’s a job any bumpkin can do. You could be doing so much more.” Rodney braced himself, expecting John to get angry, or do that thing where he locked himself down. He was surprised to see him grinning instead.

“Gee, McKay, I didn’t know you cared.”

“Oh, please. If you want to stay out here and atrophy, that’s your business. But I’m not going to pay you to do it, so you’ll have to find a new gig.”

John looked thoughtful. “I suppose I could go into the moonshine business.”

Rodney was saved from having to reply by the arrival of their meals. He sniffed appreciatively at the mixture of vegetables, chicken and corned beef on his plate. “This looks really good.”

“I knew you’d like it,” was the smug reply.

He hadn’t been wrong, the succotash was delicious. But it was going to take more than excellently prepared food to distract Rodney. “Seriously, don’t you have any marketable skills? I thought the military was supposed to help with that sort of thing.”

“I have plenty of marketable skills,” John assured him. “It’s just kind of nice not having to use them right now.”

“What are you going to do, wait until all your stuff is sitting out on the lawn in a box before you make a plan?” Rodney shook his head. “What are these so-called skills of yours? Maybe I can help you find something.”

“I have a couple Masters degrees.” John shrugged, like it was no big deal. It took a long moment for Rodney to pick his jaw up off the table.

“A couple? In what?”

“Applied Mathematics and Aeronautical Engineering.”

“Oh, my God. That’s the sexiest thing I’ve ever heard.” John flushed, the tips of his ears turning endearingly pink. “Why the hell are you weeding flower beds when you could be doing something important? I knew you were being wasted out here but really, this is ridiculous even for you.”

“Give me a break, okay?” John scowled at his bowl of corn chowder. “I think we have bigger things to worry about right now.”

“You’re deflecting, but I suppose you’re right.” Rodney shook his fork at John. “This doesn’t mean you’re off the hook. We’re totally coming back to this.”

“Sure.”

They ate in silence for a few minutes while Rodney forced himself to stop thinking about the kind of job he could help John get and instead turned back to the problem of the intruder, which definitely trumped the ghost for the moment.

“Okay,” he said finally. “Who do we put on the list? Who would have enough knowledge about the house?”

John tapped his spoon against the side of the bowl. “I’m guessing anyone who grew up around here might know about the tunnels. Kids always find out about stuff like that.”

“I wonder if Elizabeth is a native.”

“From the Historical Society?”

Rodney nodded. “She had some unexpectedly strong feelings about Lili and the senator.”

“What does that have to do with anything?”

“I don’t know! I’m just saying, it’s suspicious. Maybe it’s not the hypothetical treasure she’s after, maybe she had a ghostly encounter or something. People can get weird about that stuff.”

John snorted. “Well, we’d certainly know about that.”

“We’re not weird about it!” Rodney protested. “We’re…pragmatic.”

“That’s not the word I’d use. What about that guy, the one who wanted the tour?” John rolled his eyes at Rodney’s blank look. “The one who came by the house the first day Ronon came.”

“Oh!” Rodney nodded. “Yeah, he was hot to get inside, wasn’t he? He said he lived there before Gunn bought the place. He might know something.”

He couldn’t remember the guy’s name, just how angry he’d seemed. Teyla had mentioned it too, the day they’d had ice cream together and the guy had pestered him again about the house.

“At the very least,” John said. “He could probably give us names of anyone he knew that spent a lot of time at the house. If he had friends over and they played around down there, maybe the friends are still in town.”

“So what do we do? Go to the university and leave this guy a message tacked to a random corkboard? I don’t even remember his name, do you?”

John shook his head. “But I remember that beater car he drove. At the very least we should give his description to the sheriff. He could find out something much easier than we can.”

Rodney scowled. “That yahoo? I’m not leaving my continued survival in his hands.”

“You need to give him a break, McKay. He’s not a bad guy and if we give him something to work with I guarantee you he’ll be able to make something happen.”

“Fine. You deal with him.” Rodney turned his attention back to his lunch. He’d wanted to have a day with John where they could just hang out, where the intruder and the ghost and the indecisive future wasn’t hanging over their heads, but he could see that was a foolish hope. There was no getting away from what was happening to them, not until it had all been resolved. If it even could be.

“John! How nice to see you!” A middle-aged woman came to their table, hair pulled back in a messy ponytail and smudges of flour on her face and clothes.

“Mary. The food is delicious, as always.”

“Flatterer.” She turned to Rodney. “You must be Dr. McKay. Mary Shelby. This is my place.”

Rodney swallowed his mouthful of food and shook the offered hand. “Nice to meet you. This succotash is amazing.”

“Thanks. Ms. Cadman speaks highly of you.”

“All lies. Would you care to join us?”

“Well…maybe just a minute.” Mary pulled out a chair and joined them, elbows on the table. “I’ve been on my feet all morning.”

“Do you do the cooking?” Rodney asked.

“Oh, no. I have a very talented chef for that. But I do the baking, breads and desserts.” She winked at John. “You’ll be wanting the Apple Tansey?”

“Don’t I always?” John grinned back at her. “Are all the desserts citrus free? Rodney has an allergy.”

Once again John took him by surprise with his thoughtfulness. Rodney had to force himself not to make cow eyes at the man. He couldn’t help wondering if it would be like that if they were a couple. Would John always look out for him that way? The strength of his desire for that was staggering.

“I can certify that they’re completely citrus free, as is everything on the menu,” Mary said amiably. “May I suggest the maple nut cake? It’s delicious.”

“Sounds good.” Rodney set his fork aside. “Laura said you collect ghost stories.”

“I’m compiling them into a book, actually,” she replied enthusiastically. “It won’t be a runaway best seller like your book, of course, but for local interest it should do well. We have some really excellent local legends and that includes Milburn Castle.”

“Yes, I’ve read about our supposed ghost,” Rodney said, trying to sound disdainful. Enough people already knew about his ghost without getting an actual enthusiast on board.

“It’s a sad story. Lost love. My ghost is much more persnickety. And he absolutely does not get along with technology.”

Rodney cast an eye around the room, nervous despite himself. He’d learned the hard way that things could exist even if you didn’t believe in them. “He?”

“The locals say the original owner, Solomon Prameter, haunts the tavern. When he doesn’t approve of how things are going he breaks glasses and plates.”

“Sounds expensive.”

“Well, he’s settled down some in the last decade or so. I take it as a sign I’m doing things to his liking.” Mary grinned and got back to her feet. “The kitchen calls. It was a pleasure to meet you, Dr. McKay.”

“Likewise.”

“Desserts are on the house today. You boys enjoy!”

“Is it the water?” Rodney asked John. “Is there something in the water that makes everyone here to personable?”

John rolled his eyes. “Is it so hard to believe that most people are nice?”

Rodney shrugged. “It’s not been my experience. Eat your soup.”

“It’s corn chowder.”

“Same thing. Don’t be argumentative.”

“It’s not the same thing and stop being wrong,” John said with a smirk.

Rodney flipped him off. “You’re the one who’s wrong. Anyone who thinks Babylon 5 has any real value is clearly brain-damaged.”

As a conversational gambit it was successful in taking the focus off of current events and settling them into an argument that was becoming reassuringly familiar.

“Oh, come on,” John said, looking aggrieved. And maybe it was all put-on, but at least he was playing along. “Captain Sheridan –”

“Please. Boxleitner? Scarecrow?”

And with that they were off and running. Rodney let John’s words wash over him, and finally – finally! – he was able to carve out a little time without the Castle hanging over their heads like a big black cloud. He counted it as a win.

*o*o*o*

Despite everything Rodney had an enjoyable day. The problems at the house faded for a while as he and John walked around town, visiting a hobby shop and window shopping the numerous quaint storefronts that lined Main Street. He’d had a lot to say about that and John hadn’t seemed to mind his many criticisms. It was a nice feeling, having an easy give-and-take with someone.

Eventually, though, they had to go back to the house. The drive was made in comfortable silence, Rodney replaying all the missed opportunities he’d had to put the moves on John. If he did return to Scarsdale after everything got wrapped up he knew it would be with a belly full of regret.

“You really like living here?” Rodney asked. “So far from civilization?”

John snorted. “It’s not like we’re in Antarctica, McKay. This is all the civilization I need.”

“But…you don’t even have a proper orchestra!”

“No, but the people here.” John shrugged, and sounded vaguely embarrassed. “They treat me like a regular person.”

“As opposed to a Sleestak?”

“As opposed to where I grew up.” John’s voice grew quiet as he turned towards the window. “My father is wealthy and has a lot of influence. People were always too nice to me. They let me get away with murder.”

“Sycophants,” Rodney said knowingly. “I’ve dealt with plenty of them, believe me.”

“Everyone wanted something from us. Here…I just get to be me.”

Rodney could certainly see the appeal, especially after everything John had been through. The denizens of Harper’s Hill were respectful of his personal boundaries – he’d yet to see anyone try to touch John – and seemed to genuinely like him. It made Rodney anxious, not having the anonymity he generally enjoyed on his own home turf.

“So you’re going to stay here forever, put down roots? Settle down?” He tried to sound casual about it, and thought he was mostly successful.

John shot him a guarded look, the gathering dusk outside throwing shadows across his face. “Maybe.”

“Oh. Well…thanks. For telling me that, about your family. You didn’t have to.” Rodney fully appreciated what it must have cost John to reveal even that little bit about himself.

John didn’t offer up any further tidbits, and it wasn’t much longer before they arrived back at the house. Everything looked normal. The outside flood lights came on as they walked to the front door, and the alarm was set. It wasn’t until they were inside that Rodney realized all was not as he’d left it.

Though there were no cars in the driveway the parlor was full of people. The large table had been cleared off, the area around it devoid of boxes and other debris. Scattered across the top of the table were a variety of take-out food offerings, including a two foot sub.

“What the hell is this?” Rodney demanded. “I don’t remember scheduling a dinner party.”

“And how was your day?” Laura asked. She was sitting between Ronon and Carson on one side of the table, and Ronon’s partner Evan sat on the opposite side.

“You’re so fired this time!” he replied, pointing his finger in her direction. “No severance package.”

“Hey guys,” John said. He sat down and grabbed a chicken wing. “What’s up?”

“Don’t encourage them!” Rodney protested. His happy buzz was gone, replaced with annoyance at having his home invaded. Didn’t he have enough to worry about without throwing a whole houseful of people into the mix?

“We’re here to keep watch,” Ronon said in his deep voice.

“I may have told him…everything,” Laura said apologetically.

“We’ll stop anyone who tries to break in, Dr. McKay.” Evan smiled, looking ridiculously earnest. Rodney wouldn’t have been surprised to see him pull out a red cape and tights.

“Look, I appreciate the sentiment...” He was going to ask them all to leave but then he looked at John. Took in the bandage behind his ear and the circles under his eyes, and realized that extra bodies meant John wouldn’t feel he had to handle everything on his own.

“Okay, fine,” Rodney amended. “Just clean up whatever mess you make. I need coffee.”

He walked away, chatter and laughter at his back. He was glad that John had such good friends, and felt a little wistful that he couldn’t say the same. It had never really bothered him before. He had plenty of acquaintances, plenty of people clamoring to be close to him for all the wrong reasons. The closest thing he had to a friend was Laura and he wasn’t sure he could count her since she was paid to spend time with him.

With John, though, Rodney thought maybe that could change. Even if nothing physical ever developed between them he thought that friendship would be just as satisfying.

He made a pot of coffee and looked out the window into the deepening gloom, wishing he could skip ahead and see how it was all going to work out: soul-sucking ghosts, murderous mystery man, broken flyboy, and a one-hit wonder in self-imposed exile. If his life was a book he’d skip right to the last page and see…see…

“That’s it!” Rodney snapped his fingers. “Laura! I need my laptop!”

Homicidal maniacs, ghosts and interpersonal relations took an immediate backseat to the idea that was blooming in his mind’s eye. After ten long, frustrating years, Rodney thought he just might have a new story to tell. And it couldn’t have come at a more inconvenient time.

Chapter Text

The hours until midnight passed quickly for Rodney. He occupied a chair in the corner of the parlor, laptop balanced on his thighs and feet up on a box. It was a heady feeling having his mind so full of words again after such a long dry spell. His fingers flew across the keyboard as he typed up page after page of notes, little bits of dialogue and characterization, and a rough outline.

The feeling of euphoria was incredible and he was only vaguely aware of what the others were doing. He thought he heard a game of Roshambo being played at one point, and later on John complaining bitterly about Ronon’s impenetrable poker face. Luckily everyone left him alone, because interruptions would not have been appreciated.

When Rodney finally surfaced, bleary-eyed but still buzzing with ideas, it was because he needed some caffeine to keep from faceplanting on the laptop. The room was dim, just one light on presumably to give the illusion that everyone in the house had gone to bed. And in fact Laura and Carson were asleep on the couch, cuddled together at one end. Ronon, Evan and John were still grazing on food and playing something with dice.

“Do you smell that?” he asked.

He had John’s attention immediately, and even with the poor lighting Rodney could see how tired he was. “It lives.”

“Do you have the grill on?” Rodney asked. He set aside the laptop and stood up, his spine popping as he stretched.

“Smoke,” Ronon said. He was out of his chair so fast he sent it clattering over backwards. The noise woke Laura and the good doctor.

“What’s going on?” Laura asked, rubbing her eyes.

“Fire,” Ronon said tersely. He left the room at a run, John and Evan on his heels.

Rodney’s eyes widened. “The house is on fire?”

“Call 911!” Carson snapped at him.

“Take this and get out,” Rodney said to Laura, thrusting the laptop into her hands. He wasn’t about to lose all the words he’d finally gotten.

He ran to the phone closet, wrenching the door open so hard the knob left a hole in the drywall when it slammed open. He tried to call 911 but the line was dead, and he spent a moment staring dumbly at the phone before slamming it back in the cradle, now in full panic mode. The house was on fire!

“Mr. Pibb!” Rodney ran for the stairs, flipping on lights as he went. The cat spent most of his time on the second floor and was hopefully curled up on the bed. Rodney wasn’t about to let the furball burn up.

“Where are you, stupid cat?” He wasn’t on the bed or under it, and the smell of smoke was getting much stronger. “Mr. Pibb!”

Rodney checked John’s room, and then the Blue Room. Still no sign of the cat but through the window he could see that it wasn’t the Castle that was on fire at all: it was the carriage house that was engulfed in flames. All thoughts of his recalcitrant cat flew out of his head.

“John!” Rodney clattered back down the stairs, nearly falling when he stumbled over his own feet in his haste. He hoped John wasn’t doing something foolhardy like trying to rescue his things, or Uncle Gunn’s.

Just as he reached the foyer there was an explosion from outside. It froze Rodney in place for a moment, his first thought that a bomb had gone off until his higher brain functions got back on track. It was most likely the gas tank on the motorcycle that blew. Jesus.

Before Rodney could get to the front door all the lights he’d turned on in his mad dash for Mr. Pibb went off, plunging the house into darkness. He was so frazzled he thought it was because of the fire until someone started chuckling in the dark. Oh, shit.

“Did you really think I’d fall for that?” The voice was male and vaguely familiar. “Do you think I haven’t been watching?”

“Did you think we wouldn’t find the tunnel?” Rodney countered. He inched his way towards the door, eyes straining to see where the intruder was.

“This is my house!” the guy shouted. “You should’ve left when you had the chance!”

Just like that it all clicked together in Rodney’s mind. “The idiot with the noisy car? Josh? No, uh…George.”

“My name is Geoff, you asshole!”

Rodney winced at the sheer amount of vitriol in the guy’s voice. He backed up some more, until he bounced off the front door. He immediately fumbled for the knob but it wouldn’t turn.

“I took the liberty of locking us in,” Geoff said smugly. Rodney had no idea when he’d had the time to do that, it hadn’t been that long since everyone else had run outside.

He was momentarily blinded when a flashlight suddenly clicked on, pointed directly at his face. He threw his arm over his eyes and blinked furiously to clear his vision.

“Are you afraid, Dr. McKay?”

Rodney blinked the last of the spots out of his eyes. Geoff, the kid who’d been angling to get in the house, stood just a few feet away with the flashlight in one hand and a revolver in the other. Rodney moved quickly from nervous to outright terrified – why couldn’t he have used another of the kitchen knives, which was a lot easier to dodge than bullets? –but he was also tired of being scared in his own house. And he owed this guy some payback for almost killing John.

Rodney’s hands curled into fists. “This is my house. And you don’t scare me.”

Geoff snarled and raised the gun, aiming it right at Rodney’s face. Rodney pressed back against the door, his heart hammering in his chest. The barrel of the gun seemed enormous from his perspective and he kept himself as still as possible.

“We’re going to re-open the tunnel and then you’re gonna help me find the treasure.”

“Oh, for the…there’s no treasure!”

“Yes there is!” Geoff’s hand visibly trembled and Rodney sucked in a breath. He didn’t want to get the guy all worked up so that he accidentally pulled the trigger and splattered Rodney’s brains all over the wall.

“Rodney!” John was outside but close by. However well Geoff thought he’d secured the house it was only a momentary defense. Rodney knew John would have no qualms about breaking a window, just as he’d do himself if their roles were reversed.

Geoff must’ve seen something in his expression because he lowered the gun and moved forward so he could shove Rodney away from the door. “Let’s go. Into the study.” He poked Rodney in the side with the revolver and got him moving.

They’d sealed off the carriage house and basement tunnel access but the study entrance was still viable. Rodney wasn’t sure what was supposed to happen once they were in the tunnel – it only ran in one direction and when he’d gone through it again with John one last time he hadn’t seen anything remotely treasure-like, or even a likely hiding place.

“There’s nothing in the tunnel,” Rodney said, following the shine of the flashlight that Geoff aimed over his shoulder. “You’ve been in there.”

“It’s here, I know it is,” Geoff insisted. “My dad lost the house before he could find it but he knew it was here. He knew.”

The crazy seemed to be an inherited problem. There was no point in trying to discredit Geoff’s father, he wouldn’t believe it and it would probably just make him angrier than he already was. Rodney was also under no illusion as to what would happen if he got into the tunnel with his captor. In that narrow space there’d be nowhere for him to go to get away, and he’d be dead before John could get to him.

Rodney entered the study ahead of Geoff. It was still set up from the séance but that was the furthest thing from his mind. Instead he tried to estimate the number of steps it would take to get to the hidden door and how he could keep that from happening.

The sirens from approaching fire trucks – someone had managed to call 911, it seemed – did little to distract Geoff. He gave Rodney a shove, and Rodney stumbled into one of the chairs at the table. It was a straight-backed chair with faded floral cushions tied to the back and the seat, and he tightened his hands on it.

“Come on, get moving!” Geoff waved the gun in the direction of the bookshelves and Rodney didn’t waste the opportunity.

With an inarticulate yell he swung the chair up and over, slamming it into Geoff’s torso and knocking him to the floor. It would have been ideal, except that as he fell he dropped the flashlight and grabbed hold of Rodney’s leg. They landed in a heap – Rodney, Geoff and the chair – while the flashlight spun, throwing crazy shadows over everything.

“Son of a bitch!” Geoff knocked the chair aside and grappled with Rodney, each of them trying to gain a dominant position. Rodney only had eyes for the gun, and ended up on his back, both hands wrapped around Geoff’s wrist to keep the barrel pointed away from him.

He was aware of the sound of breaking glass, though most of his focus was narrowed in on his combatant and the weapon he stubbornly refused to relinquish. Rodney outweighed Geoff but the younger man had the strength of mania on his side and the barrel of the gun was getting closer to his face by the second. When he felt the temperature in the room plummet Rodney was more than happy to take advantage of another possible ally.

“Get him, Lili!” he cried out.

The cold intensified, the door slammed shut, and Rodney watched in horrified fascination as a misty, vaguely humanoid form coalesced behind Geoff. It glowed with an inner light, and reached out for him with tendrils that might have been arms. The worst of it, though, were the two points of light in the area that might have been the head: otherworldly eyes burning with rage.

Geoff screamed and fired the gun at the apparition, bullets punching into the desk and the wall and doing no damage whatsoever to the malevolent mist. Rodney’s ears were ringing but he couldn’t lift his arms to cover them. Lili was literally sucking the life out of the room, leaving him sluggish and chilled to the bone; he shivered violently, teeth rattling. Geoff flailed above him, still pulling the trigger even though the gun was clicking empty. One of his legs jerked and kicked a glancing blow to the side of Rodney’s head. Everything went a little hazy after that. It was all frosty plumes of breath and shivering and Geoff making incoherent noises as he tipped over and lay twitching beside Rodney.

“Thanks,” Rodney mumbled, so cold now that his teeth had stopped chattering. He was too out of it to even care.

Rodney. His name, spoken in a lilting, feminine voice, seemed to fill the room or maybe it was only in his head. He couldn’t tell. There was pounding and shouting and silence from Geoff, and Rodney’s vision dimmed as everything just floated away.

*o*o*o*

Rodney moved through the house slowly, everything hazy around the edges. It was different, both the colors on the walls and the furniture. He instinctively knew it was from before, when the house was new. He made his way inexorably to the study, following a sound at the very edge of his hearing. There was no worry, no fear, only anticipation.

The study door was open and he walked in. Rodney had a vague thought that there should be cold, that there was something very bad in that room, but it seemed perfectly normal. The shelves were full of leather-bound books and trinkets. A brightly-colored oriental rug covered the floor. And standing in front of the polished cherry desk was a woman.

She wore a long dress with a tightly fitted bodice, her curly black hair tied back with a dark blue ribbon. She beckoned to Rodney, who thought nothing of pulling her into an embrace, her body warm and pliant against his. Real, in a way he knew it shouldn’t be.

“Thank you,” she said softly.

“I didn’t do anything.”

“You gave me a chance to right a wrong. I can never repay you for that act of kindness.”

She moved back, the bright smile transforming her pretty face to something almost stunning. Rodney felt an unexpected pain in the vicinity of his heart. It was important, what was happening, though he didn’t know why.

“You’re leaving,” he guessed.

“It is well past my time.” She pressed a kiss to Rodney’s cheek. “Take care of him. He needs you.”

“I need him too.”

The shadows shifted, and Rodney turned to see a man standing in the doorway. He had a soft expression on his face, his eyes only for the woman.

“Lili.”

“I’m ready,” she replied. She gave Rodney’s hand a squeeze and then she was moving into Frederick’s embrace. They left together, their footsteps growing faint as they walked down the hall and out of the house. Rodney was left alone in the study, feeling a mixture of loss and determination. Lilianna Milburn had finally moved on, and it was time for him to do the same.

*o*o*o*

Rodney woke, disoriented. The bed was all wrong, the smells too. There was a beeping it took him a moment to identify as a heart monitor, and then it clicked into place. He was in a hospital. He kept his eyes closed, trying to remember what had happened. The events of the night were jumbled in his mind. He remembered the fire, and something about a book. And Geoff – a name he would never, ever forget again – coming after him, gun in hand.

That got his heart racing with remembered terror, and he blinked his eyes open, gasping. He saw a bland green privacy curtain, and then there was only John, leaning over the bed with wide eyes and concern written all over his face.

“Hey, buddy. It’s okay. Relax.”

Rodney stared up at him, taking in the soot on his face and the bruised-looking skin under his eyes. The hand that hovered uncertainly over the top of Rodney’s blanket was bandaged at the wrist, the white gauze stark against John’s tanned skin. He zeroed in on that, everything else momentarily forgotten.

“What did you do to yourself now?”

John’s face broke out into a relieved grin and he dropped back down in the chair beside the bed. “You need to stop doing this to me.”

“I’d love to, believe me. Did you get him?”

“We got him. He’s at the hospital, under police guard.” John scowled. “He’s going away for a long time. You won’t have to worry about him again.”

“Why is he in the hospital? Wait. Isn’t that where we are?” Rodney was confused. He remembered the cold, the study. Geoff had a gun, but something happened. What was it?

“We’re at Carson’s clinic,” John obligingly explained. “He didn’t want to have to explain why you were hypothermic.”

“What happened?”

“Geoff had a heart attack.”

Rodney bit his bottom lip, thinking. Heart attack? And then he remembered it, all of it. “Lili! Holy shit, it was Lili!”

John nodded. “Yeah. I figured. I recognized her handiwork.” His hand rested on the edge of the bed, twitching like he wanted to reach out and touch. Rodney obliged him by covering John’s hand in his own, fingers tangling together. He half expected John to pull back, but all he did was duck his head. It was ridiculously endearing.

“I think she’s gone,” Rodney said. It seemed like she’d spoken to him, or maybe he only imagined it, but the words felt right. “The Castle isn’t haunted anymore.”

“Nothing to stop you from selling it now,” John replied softly.

That was the moment, the chance for Rodney to tell John that he didn’t want to leave, that maybe he could try out small town life for a little while. But before he could catch John’s eye, and possibly embarrass himself, Carson was there pulling the curtain aside. John snapped his hand back as if he’d burnt it and Rodney sighed.

“Back with us I see,” Carson said cheerily.

“That’s the rumor.” Rodney thought about the soot on John’s face. “Was anyone hurt in the fire?”

“Everyone’s fine,” Carson assured him. “A wee bit of smoke inhalation, and John –”

“Is fine,” John interrupted. He glared at the doctor, who shook his head and got back to checking Rodney’s vitals.

“Your temperature is up and everything looks fine across the board. How do you feel?”

“Tired. A little achy.” Rodney pushed himself into a sitting position and rolled his shoulders. His muscles were a little sore but overall he felt fine. “Can I get out of here now? I’d much rather sleep in my own bed, if you don’t mind.”

He had no idea what time it was, though he suspected it was fairly late. Or early, depending on how he looked at it. John and Carson both looked exhausted, and the idea of going home and being able to sleep without worrying about creepy dolls, crying ghosts or imminent slaughter was almost enough to make him weep for wanting.

“I see no reason why not,” Carson said agreeably. “I’m only a call away if you need anything.”

“Thanks, Doc. I’ll see he gets home in one piece.”

“I think I can manage,” Rodney said dryly. “Where’d everyone else get off to?”

“Ronon and Evan went home,” John said. He brought Rodney his shoes. “And Laura’s bunking at Carson’s tonight.”

Rodney narrowed his eye at the doctor, who was blushing. “I trust you’ll be on your best behavior.”

“Geez, McKay. We’re all adults.” John helped him out of bed, hovering as if he was afraid Rodney might topple over. Rodney appreciated the sentiment but he shouldered John out of the way; he wasn’t an invalid, for goodness sake.

“I’ll just leave you to it, then,” Carson said, wisely fleeing the immediate vicinity.

“You should cut the guy a break,” John said. He took up a position against the wall, arms crossed. “He’s not so bad.”

“And I’ve just gotten Laura broken in. I can’t have her running off with the first cute country doctor that comes along.” Rodney got his shoes on, thankful that no-one had felt the need to put him into a hospital gown or something equally embarrassing. “Can we get out of here please? I think I may just spend the next week in bed.”

“Sure.” John stayed close to Rodney’s side as they passed through the examination area and into the waiting room out front. It was still dark out, Main Street closed down for the night, and Rodney’s rental car was parked right in front of the clinic. He made for the driver’s side only to have John hip check him back to the passenger door.

“I’m perfectly capable of driving my car.”

“You were unconscious for over an hour. I’ll drive.” John’s tone brooked no arguments, but Rodney was incapable of submitting meekly.

“There’s nothing wrong with me now.”

“I’d rather not take a chance. Just get in the car.”

“But –”

“Rodney, I will leave you here and make you walk home, so help me.” John’s expression was turning dark, and Rodney decided not to press his luck. He slid into the passenger seat without any further comment, and then waited for John to adjust the driver’s seat to his satisfaction.

The ride back was a quiet one; no conversation, no radio. That was fine with Rodney. He needed to make a plan, now that he knew what he wanted to do. The first part of it wouldn’t be much of a problem, not with the way Laura was practically in Carson’s back pocket already. The rest, though…that was going to require a delicate hand. Dealing with John was sometimes akin to what Rodney imagined it was like working with skittish animals. He had to be careful or he might get himself bitten. And not in the good way.

Before they reached the edge of the service area Rodney’s cell phone rang. He fished it out of his pocket, and saw that someone had already programmed Carson’s home number into it.

“What?”

Well, that answers my question, Laura said. You’re feeling better.

“Almost home. Are you okay? Carson said something about smoke inhalation.”

That was Evan and he’s fine. We all are.

“Do you have my laptop? You didn’t drop it or leave it anywhere, did you? Because I have a lot of notes on there.”

Rodney.

“And I can’t afford to lose them. Do you know what this means, Laura? Another book! You might finally be able to earn the exorbitant salary I pay you.”

Rodney!

“I’m not ready to tell you the plot or anything, but I have a good feeling about it. It’s totally different from Base Code. Really different. But it has potential. Wait till I call my editor! She won’t believe it!”

Meredith! Laura yelled into the phone.

Rodney scowled. “I told you not to call me that!”

Then stop babbling. I have your laptop and I’ll bring it over tomorrow, after you’ve had some decent sleep.

“I have to get my notes down!” he protested, even as he yawned widely.

No. Call me tomorrow, and not before noon.

“But –”

No buts.

“Fine.” Rodney ended the call and glowered at the phone. She was supposed to do what he told her to do, not the other way around.

“So. New book?” John asked.

“Yeah. Maybe. I feel like I’ve got something good but I don’t want to say anything yet and jinx it.” Which was foolish, he knew, but after ten years he wasn’t taking any chances.

“It’ll be great.”

“That remains to be seen.” Rodney yawned again, which set John yawning as well.

When they came to the house there were a few lights blazing in the windows, and a fire truck was still parked in the driveway. John explained that they’d be there through the next few hours in case the fire reignited.

There was nothing left of the carriage house but a pile of charred wood and ashes. Rodney stood staring at it for a long moment, a mix of emotions rolling over him – anger at such wanton destruction, gratitude that no-one had been hurt, and regret on John’s behalf for the loss of the few personal belongings he had.

“I’m sorry. About your bike and everything else.”

“Just things, Rodney. It doesn’t matter.”

They stood shoulder to shoulder, illuminated by the fire engine’s headlights, and Rodney silently agreed. Things were replaceable, it could have been much worse. Without even thinking about it his hand sought out John’s and held on tightly, and he was so happy that the other man didn’t pull away that it put a lump in his throat. Maybe the rest of his plan wouldn’t be that hard after all.

“Come on, buddy. We could both use some sleep.” John gave his hand a tight squeeze before letting go. Rodney followed him up to the house, pausing just inside the front door to see if it felt any different. Then he chided himself for thinking he was some sort of sensitive and let John set the alarm while he climbed the stairs to his room.

Mr. Pibb was curled up in the middle of the bed, and he raised his head and gave a plaintive meow when he saw Rodney.

“Nice to see you too, furball.” Rodney scratched him behind the ears and under the chin before casting around for the t-shirt he liked to sleep in.

John knocked on the door jamb and stuck his head in. “If you need anything, or if you feel like you’re gonna be sick or something, just give me a shout.”

“I’ll be fine,” Rodney said. “Get some sleep. You look like you need it more than I do.”

“Goodnight, Rodney.” John disappeared into his own room, leaving the door open. Rodney did the same. A quick change and trip to the bathroom and then he stretched out in bed, knees hitting the warm spot left behind by Mr. Pibb. The cat sniffed around his head, rubbed his cheek against Rodney’s, and then jumped to the floor.

“Hey, Pibby,” he heard John say from across the hall a minute later.

“Fickle feline,” Rodney grumbled. As he fell asleep he tried not to be jealous of his cat, who got to sleep curled up next to John.

*o*o*o*

“I have an announcement to make.”

Rodney was holding court at the kitchen table, freshly-brewed cup of coffee in his hands. It was well past lunch, but he’d slept in. So had John, who ‘d actually gotten up after Rodney for a change. As promised, Laura had come when he’d called, laptop in hand and Carson following closely behind like a lovesick puppy.

“This ought to be good,” Laura muttered.

“Do not make me deport you,” Rodney said, glowering at her.

“Back to Michigan? I’m shaking.”

“So what’s the big news, McKay?” John asked. He was tipped back in his chair looking incredibly nonchalant, but Rodney could see the tension in his shoulders and on his face. He was expecting bad news.

“I’m not selling the Castle.” Rodney wasn’t sure what kind of reaction he’d been expecting but he felt a bit let down. Carson nodded, as if that made all the sense in the world, and John looked even more tense if that was possible.

“And?” Laura asked.

“What do you mean, and? And I’m staying! Here. To write my book.”

Laura and Carson exchanged a look, and Rodney could’ve sworn she mouthed ‘I told you so’ to him. John, meanwhile, looked so relaxed his bones might have melted and he favored Rodney with a bright grin.

“That’s great news! I knew you weren’t done writing.”

“Yeah, well, thank you Kreskin. That still remains to be seen. So far it’s just notes.”

“I always knew you had more in you,” Laura said warmly.

Rodney waggled a finger at her. “Just so you know, this means you’re moving here too. No long-distance managing. I need you on site. When Carol finds out I’ve got something in the works she’s going to be haranguing me for pages.”

“Might be nice, spending some time in the country.” Laura leaned back against Carson’s arm, which was stretched out on the back of her chair.

“Aye, it might be nice at that.”

“You two are disgusting, which brings me to my second announcement.”

That got Laura’s back up. “If you so much as suggest that I can’t –”

“Not everything’s about you. Shut up.” Rodney turned all his attention on John, who didn’t look the least bit concerned. “John. You’re fired.”

There was a moment of utter silence, broken only when John’s chair clattered back to the floor on all four legs. There were a mix of emotions on his face, the primary one being hurt.

“Rodney!” Laura sounded ready to jump to John’s defense.

“I just want to be clear,” Rodney said, leaning in close. “I don’t fraternize with employees.”

He had just enough time to see John’s eyes widen before he moved in, pressing their lips together. John made a desperate noise in the back of his throat and Rodney had to fight not to put a hand on the back of his neck to keep him in place when he jerked backwards.

John’s face had gone pale, his eyes wide as saucers, but all he did was dart his gaze between Rodney and Laura. Rodney could guess what he was thinking, but that was precisely why he’d done this in front of an audience. He didn’t want there to be any doubt that he was serious.

“John,” he said softly. “You have to trust me, okay? What happened in the past is just that – in the past. I don’t want the way I feel about you to be a secret. Which is why I’m kissing you in my kitchen in the middle of the day in front of dubious witnesses.”

Rodney waited to see what John was going to do. Rabbit? Or stick around and see if maybe he was ready to restart his life? It was a fraught seventy-three seconds, and Rodney’s heart was pounding in his chest as he counted off each one. But then there was a change in John’s expression, a softening in his eyes that was as good as a yes.

“I really like you,” Rodney whispered.

“I like you too,” John whispered back. His mouth twisted up into a grin, one that Rodney couldn’t help answering.

“We’ll just leave you two alone,” Laura said, her chair scraping against the linoleum as she pushed back from the table. “And just so you know, John, he’s going to be impossible to live with while he’s writing. I have that on good authority.”

“Run along and play,” Rodney said without turning his head. “Before I fire you too.”

“Good luck, John!” Laura called on her way out. “You’re gonna need it!”

“I don’t suppose we could get back to the kissing part,” Rodney said. “Because I’m pretty good at that, if I do say so myself, but if this is too fast for mmph…”

John moved first this time, darting in for a quick, chaste kiss. And then another, and another, until there was nothing chaste about them. He clutched Rodney’s shoulders tightly, and made little needy noises that had Rodney’s chest tightening so he almost couldn’t breathe. John was like a man who’d been crawling through the desert, parched and near death, and finally found an oasis; he kissed Rodney almost frantically, as if he could swallow his very essence. Rodney gave it to him, willingly.

Finally, after what seemed like hours, John pulled back enough to rest his head on Rodney’s shoulder. He was panting, they both were, and it was almost enough to hide the hitch in his breath. Almost.

“Shit,” John muttered against his neck.

“What?”

“I need to get a job.”

Rodney snorted, and then they were both laughing and hanging on to each other. He didn’t delude himself – things weren’t going to be all puppies and rainbows just because John had decided to give things a go. It could all still go horribly wrong. But they’d survived a knife-wielding crazy person, a soul-sucking ghost, a fire, and their first kiss. Rodney was pretty confident they could handle whatever else life, and Milburn Castle, could throw at them.

*o*o*o*

2 Years Later

Book Review: Atlantis, by Dr. Rodney McKay

Over a decade ago McKay wrote the critically-acclaimed Base Code, a semi-autobiographical novel that took the world by storm. It’s been reprinted in over twenty different languages and is part of the curriculum at several colleges and universities across the nation. McKay has famously denied movie rights despite being courted by every major movie studio since Base Code hit the bestseller list.

Aside from speaking engagements and the occasional interview McKay has kept to himself, guarding his privacy jealously. There has been a lot of speculation through the years about his ability – or lack of the same – to write another book. Many hailed him a one-hit wonder but they are about to eat their words. McKay has written a new novel which will be out on shelves and available electronically on August 3rd.

Atlantis is a taut, tightly paced examination of betrayal, redemption and love in a science fiction setting. Through the eyes of Major Joseph Flanigan the reader is first-hand witness to his troubled past, his self-sacrificing present, and his deep desire for something lasting and permanent in his future. McKay weaves Flanigan’s past with his present, creating a richly realized and flawed character whose last chance to make a difference happens to be in another universe as part of an exploratory expedition.

The descriptions of the city of Atlantis and native denizens of the Pegasus galaxy are textured and deep: there are no cardboard characters here, no tentacled aliens, just people struggling to survive in a dangerous world. McKay uses the setting and characters to condemn the US government’s policies regarding gays in the military, as well as hundreds of years of ham-handed colonization and social injustice.

The scope is incredibly large but McKay grounds it all in a solid foundation of science and Flanigan’s honest perspective. He is at times childlike in the small things that bring him pleasure, but at the same time cannot fight the hero complex that leads him into mortal peril again and again until he is finally able to realize his worth as an individual and as part of a larger team and community.

Twelve years is a long time to wait between novels, but I daresay it was worth it. McKay has shown maturity as a writer, and a sensitivity to nuance that was less obvious in his first book. It certainly won’t be long before he’ll be in the public eye once more, and he absolutely deserves any acclaim that comes to Atlantis. Here’s hoping he won’t make us wait as long for his next masterpiece.

*o*o*o*

“That’s a good one,” John said, tapping the screen of the tablet. “Whoever wrote it really got your book.”

“Amazon pre-sales are through the roof,” Rodney replied. He ran his fingers through John’s hair, easy to do since John had his head in Rodney’s lap.

“Does that mean you’ll officially be a gazillionaire?”

“I’m not buying you another bike,” Rodney said. He’d replaced the one lost in the fire though he still refused to take a ride on it. It didn’t stop John from asking him each time he took it out. “And I don’t know what the hell we’re going to do with more money. I might have to start giving it away.”

“I know a few charities you could throw some at.” John dropped the tablet to his chest and pushed his head into Rodney’s touch, eyes drifting shut.

Rodney looked down at him, unable to stop the dopey grin he knew was on his face. Two years ago John had studiously avoided all physical contact with other human beings, but now he couldn’t seem to get enough of touching and being touched. There was no such thing as personal space in Rodney’s life anymore; he didn’t mind.

“Did you see Kavanagh’s review? He called me an incompetent hack.”

“He’s an asshole,” John said dismissively. “If he ever shows up at one of your signings I’m going to punch him in the face.”

“Such a badass. I was just thinking that my book signings were singularly lacking in violence.” Rodney rubbed John’s scalp with his fingers until the man was fairly purring in his lap.

The late afternoon sun filled the library with warm, golden light. It was Rodney’s favorite time of day, especially with John a heavy weight across his thighs. John had become home to him, as much as the Gothic nightmare house and the friends who would be arriving soon for a casual barbeque. Eventually they’d have to get up and start preparing dinner, but until then Rodney was going to enjoy every quiet moment he and John had together. It was something he never took for granted.

His press junket would be starting up soon and he wasn’t looking forward to being away from home. John, who usually had summers off, had agreed last minute to teach during the first summer school session at St. Christopher’s. Rodney tried not to begrudge his dedication to the kids, since he was the one who’d encouraged John to take the job when an opening in the mathematics department had opened up, but it wasn’t easy.

“How come you never wanted a movie?” John sounded half asleep.

“The book was too personal,” Rodney explained. “Even if I stayed on to write the screenplay they’d have screwed it up.”

“Mmmm.”

“Hey, don’t think falling asleep gets you out of having to cook.” Rodney gave John’s hair a tug. “You know I can’t grill worth a damn.”

“Ow! Stop that.” John batted ineffectually at Rodney’s hand, but at least he sounded more awake. Rodney would never admit it to anyone, but some of his favorite moments were puttering around in the kitchen with John. It epitomized a level of comfort and domesticity that he’d never thought would be possible for him.

John pushed the tablet into Rodney’s hand. “Did you read this one?”

Pride Blog: Has the world’s most famous bisexual finally found love?

Ever since Base Code took over the world Dr. Rodney McKay has become the public face not only of bisexuality, but the LGBT movement as a whole. And yet at the end of his biographical novel he was still alone, still looking for love. In the intervening years Dr. McKay has become something of a legendary bachelor, never settling down or even appearing in public with anyone other than his business manager, Laura Cadman, on his arm.

Now it seems that love has finally found Dr. McKay, in the form of a man known to us only as John. We don’t know how the two met, or if John is even his real name, but they’ve been domestic partners for at least two years. Dr. McKay, after laying his life bare in Base Code, has kept his relationship very hush-hush.

Why the sudden secrecy? For those of us who feel we know Dr. McKay well after having read his book this comes as a blow. I for one would love to know more about the man who finally captured his heart, and perhaps inspired his new novel. Come on, Dr. McKay! Don’t hold out on us now!

“Semi-autobiographical,” Rodney muttered. He dropped the tablet on the side table. John pushed himself up so he could look at Rodney properly.

“I don’t mind. Giving an interview, I mean.”

Rodney shook his head. “No, no and just no. John, if they find out who you are –”

“What happened in the past is in the past,” John said. His voice was full of affection and Rodney flushed in response; some things never changed. Still, there was a reason he hadn’t wanted John’s identity released to the press, why he’d refused to discuss his relationship except to say he was in one. John had been able to move past what had happened to him all those years ago, but what if it all got dredged up because some industrious reporter dug deep enough? Greg was dead – Miko said he’d died in Iraq a little over three years ago – but that didn’t mean he couldn’t still hurt John.

“Life is good, Rodney. I don’t care if people know it.” John tangled their hands together and leaned over to rest his head on Rodney’s shoulder. “There’s one thing that bothers me.”

“What?”

“Domestic partners? That’s a terrible phrase.”

Rodney snorted. “Yeah. But what am I supposed to call you? My boyfriend? My significant other? That sounds even worse.”

“I don’t know. I think ‘husband’ has a nice ring to it.”

“I…what? Are you kidding me right now?” Rodney’s skin flushed with heat. Surely John was just joking around. He didn’t normally have fun at Rodney’s expense but there was always a first time, wasn’t there? And then John slithered off the couch in that boneless way he often had, till he was on his knees looking up at Rodney with those bright hazel eyes and all the air went out of the room. “John?”

“I waited patiently for you to finish the book, McKay.” John wrapped a hand around Rodney’s leg. “You owe me.”

“And you think getting married is suitable recompense? That’s worth a weekend trip at best.” Rodney had to clench his hands to keep them from shaking. “It’s not like I wasn’t here every single day. You were hardly neglected.”

“Marry me, Rodney. I’ll make it worth your while.” John waggled his eyebrows and Rodney couldn’t help but laugh. He had to admit the idea was appealing. Legalizing their relationship would provide them each with a measure of security, but more than that it was a promise that no matter what happened they were committed to facing life together. And in the end he couldn’t fight that puppy dog expression.

“After everything else we’ve been through, I suppose I could survive vows.”

John surged up, capturing Rodney’s face between his hands and kissing him, deep and dirty. Everything else just fell away: every worry, every fear, every bit of self doubt. Rodney loved John, and was loved in return. The rest would sort itself out.