It kind of started with the steam disappearing from his coffee mug.
John had rented the apartment only a few weeks ago; a low rent for such a spacious place, he had thought, and then he'd shrugged and signed the contract. It was fully furnished, too, and decorated in a way that made the place feel homely, but not stuffed. He'd liked it right away, and moved in the day after he'd signed.
One of the few things that were his own was a state of the art coffee maker, because if there was one thing a romance novel author needed in order to deal with the crap he was writing, it was a never-ending supply of coffee. The good stuff, for long nights spent in a world filled with heaving bosoms, milky thighs, and malevolent step-uncles. John had set the machine up in the large kitchen, put down his typewriter on the dinner table in front of the window, and he'd been ready to start. A new chapter, a new book, something that didn't remind him of how his thing with Elizabeth had ended so badly when she'd caught him sleeping with his editor. His male editor.
So there he was, in a rented apartment in downtown L.A., alternating between typing furiously and staring out the windows across the city. Or, like now, staring at his coffee cup. Which wasn't steaming.
Experimentally, he placed his fingers against the ceramic. It was hot, so hot he couldn't touch it for more than a few seconds. And yet, it looked like it might as well have been standing on that table for a few hours.
John frowned at the mug, but then he shrugged.
Probably weird thermodynamics.
His kiss was silencing and fevered. It intoxicated with his passion.
It filled her with a warmth and tingling that hadn't been there before. She
"Let me guess: 'she took a deep breath, her bosom heaving with excitement as his gentle yet passionate hands cupped her derrière, filling her with a lust she'd never known before'. Only you're obviously no fan of the common comma."
Hearing a voice right next to his ear, John started, knocking his chair over as he jumped to his feet. Spinning around, he discovered a man he'd never seen before, standing right there in his living room wearing jeans and a yellow 'The Honeymen' t-shirt. He had short brown hair and bright blue eyes, the latter watching him with a mildly curious expression.
"How the hell did you get in here?" John demanded, his voice a little shaky from shock and fury.
Weirdly enough, the stranger turned to look over his own shoulder, as if expecting to see somebody else behind him. When he didn't spot anyone, he turned his attention back to John with a puzzled frown.
"Who are you talking to?"
"Who am I- I'm talking to you! Now, tell me who you are, and how you got in here, or I'll call the police."
But his intruder didn't seem to be really listening, instead gaping at him with wide-eyed disbelief written all over his face.
"Wait, what? You can see me?"
Great, a lunatic burglar, just what he needed.
"All right, that's enough. Get the fuck out of my apartment!" John took two determined steps forward, and reached for the stranger's arm to yank him out of the room.
His hand went right through.
"Oh, yes, like violence is going to help," the man snapped, but he was bouncing on his feet, looking irrationally happy for someone who was… dead.
John stared, pulled his arm back very slowly, and retreated a few steps just to be on the safe side.
"I don't believe in ghosts," he said stupidly.
"Well, neither did I," the ghost replied, impatiently waving its hand in what was probably supposed to be a meaningful gesture. "Yet here I am."
"Get out of my apartment." John's voice was flat, toneless. He didn't care. He just wanted that… that… thing gone.
"What? But… No, wait-"
"Out of my fucking apartment!" John yelled, his calm façade finally cracking.
"Fine. Be that way."
Looking deeply insulted, the ghost crossed its arms over its chest with a glare, and vanished. John was left to stand alone in his living room, heart pounding, wondering what the hell had just happened there.
His coffee wasn't steaming.
John stared at the offending beverage for a long moment.
"It's you, isn't it?" he finally asked, feeling incredibly stupid when the air gave no answer. Still, he was convinced he hadn't imagined that scene the previous afternoon, and so he tried again. "Look, I know you're here. What are you doing, inhaling the stuff? You're not even breathing."
The ghost appeared right next to the table, sniffing haughtily as it stared down at John, who had reflexively flinched away.
"I can at least take in the scent. On that note: congratulations on your taste. Although I don't know how you can afford that brand with the crap you're writing."
"You're still here," John said slowly, uncertain why that was surprising him so much. He just knew that the ghost's presence offended him more than its careless words.
"Of course I'm still here, you just called me," the ghost gave back in irritation.
"Well, get out!"
"I miss coffee!"
"Let's see how much more you'll miss it when I start drinking herbal tea!"
"This is the only good thing I have left!"
"I don't care! I want you gone!"
The ghost folded its arms over its chest and glared. "I don't see how that's my problem."
"You don't-" John sputtered, outraged. "You leave this house, and my life, right now! And you won't come back, or-"
"Or what? Who're you gonna call? Ghostbusters?" The ghost mocked him by reciting some stupid 80s song, sending John far beyond the bounds of fury and into a calm anger that wasn't like anything he'd ever felt before.
"Right. Good point."
John pushed his chair back, got up, and marched straight into the kitchen.
"Uh, what are you doing?"
The ghost had followed him, hovering uncertainly in the doorway between kitchen and living room. John paid it no heed, making a beeline to the chromed streamline monstrosity that was his coffeemaker, picked the heavy machine up, and threw it to the floor with all the force he could muster. It hit the tiles with a loud crash; buttons, protrusions and indefinable mechanic innards skidded across the ground, a few of them bumping against John's shoes. Almost five hundred dollars worth of technology spread like the definition of destructive temper before him, a few of the tiles cracked and splintered.
Strangely enough, it made him feel better.
"Um." The ghost blinked at the mess on the floor. "I think I'll leave you alone now."
"You do that."
"I'm Rodney, by the way."
The ghost – Rodney, apparently – nodded, like it had expected the sullen answer, and vanished into a bookshelf. John ignored it.
A few days later, Rodney was back.
"It sounds mysterious yet trustworthy," John defended his pseudonym.
"It sounds like a Swedish dessert," Rodney shot back, one corner of his mouth turned down in a condescending sneer.
"Look. Don't you have somewhere else to be? Haunt a playground, scare the kids, that kind of thing?" Having resigned himself to sharing his apartment with a ghost didn't mean he couldn't keep trying to get rid of him.
"Oh, ha ha, it's amazing how funny you aren't. Do you think I want to be here?" Rodney started to pace, his hands drawing agitated patterns into the air. "One minute I'm sitting at my desk in Toronto, unsuspectingly correcting the minions' horrid mistakes, next thing I know I'm standing in some empty apartment in the middle of nowhere-"
"L.A.," John injected helpfully, only to be glared at.
"-unable to get further than the corridor, which, I'm not so happy to discover, I can only reach by walking through the door! And you've got the nerve to complain?" Rodney yelled the last word, gesturing wildly in his agitation.
"Well, excuse me if I'm having a little trouble with the idea of living with a ghost," John snapped, but without real heat.
"Move out if I bother you that much! You can go wherever you want to!"
"I like this place!"
"Fine, then you'll just have to live with me!"
They stared at each other for a long moment, calming down after that brisk consent. Then John cleared his throat.
"So, uh. This wasn't your apartment?"
"No," Rodney replied flatly.
"You don't know why you're here?"
"I'm dead. There isn't exactly someone I can ask." Rodney's answer was calm, but his lips were pressed together to form a thin line, and his hands were clenched into fists. "I'm dead," he repeated, a hint of bitterness in his voice, and just like that, he disappeared.
But the ghost was gone.
John stared into space for a long time, until the afternoon sun sent long rays of light through the window, illuminating the dust hovering in the air. Then he got up and grabbed his jacket.
He had to get a new coffeemaker.
It had been almost a month since John had agreed to living with a ghost who kept sniffing away at his coffee, and oddly enough, John was getting used to it. They had fallen into a kind of routine, with John drinking the coffee Rodney wanted and willing to talk to the ghost, Rodney staying out of the bathroom and leaving when John asked him to. It was a crude arrangement, but it worked.
Rodney, as it not so surprisingly turned out, was starved for human contact, and although it seemed that scathing sarcasm was pretty much his default setting, he readily toned it down so they could actually talk. Pretty soon John knew all about Rodney's not-so-sheltered childhood with a family who just wouldn't get that he was a genius, his job as a theoretical astrophysicist at a private research company in Toronto, and the idiots he was forced to work with. In turn, John killed half a bottle of whiskey one evening and told Rodney about how he had wanted to become a pilot as a kid and the accident that had ended that dream by hurting his left eye, about his relationship with Elizabeth and how he had felt increasingly trapped, about writing romance novels and how it was a sure-fire way to make money, even though it sucked.
"Why are you doing it if you don't like it?"
"It's a job. I know how to do it."
It was a weird friendship they had started to build, two people thrown together by fate who never would have given the other the time of day under normal circumstances, but a friendship nevertheless.
There was one thing Rodney never talked about, though, and finally, John asked.
"How did you die?"
Rodney looked up from his contemplation of the chessboard – John had organised it for them and was happily moving the pieces as Rodney ordered him – to meet John's eyes with a level gaze.
"I don't know," he said flatly.
The inflectionless voice rang several alarms in John's mind, but he kept pushing.
"You must have some inkling," he said, and Rodney snorted.
"Heart attack, brain aneurysm, blood clot, terrorists blowing up the building, jealous minion poisoning my coffee with lemon extract, I don't know."
"I was, and hello? Not the point."
"Aren't you the least bit curious?"
"I'm dead, okay?" Rodney yelled, waving his hand through the chess pieces and glaring at John with a furious expression. "I'm dead, I'm stuck, in some kind of limbo, in a place I never wanted to be, and I really don't see how knowing how I died could be any kind of improvement!"
There was a moment of silence after that outbreak, both of them not knowing what to say.
"I don't know what happened," Rodney said finally. "I don't know how I got here, and I don't know what happened to my… my body."
"I could google it for you. Or call your family," John offered hesitantly, but Rodney shook his head.
"I'd rather you didn't."
And like always when he was upset over something, the ghost vanished, leaving John alone with his thoughts.
It had to be frustrating, not knowing why you were in a place you'd never been to before, not knowing what you had died of, the only certainty the fact that you were dead. John shuddered. He couldn't even begin to imagine Rodney's shock, his panic, when the man had suddenly found himself in an unfamiliar place where no one could see him, and where he had fallen through the couch when he had tried to sit down. The only thing holding him on the floor was probably the same thing that kept him from going further than three steps down the corridor before he simply couldn't move any more. It was like hell, only… only lonelier.
John looked over to the rarely used notebook that was sitting on the edge of his desk. He'd have to admit, at least to himself, that he was curious. And knowing how he had died might give Rodney some kind of, however unwanted, closure.
There was a hockey game on TV. John tried to pretend he was interested.
"Their mouths met in a desperate kiss, Jack's tongue delving into the moist cavern behind her lips, drawing out an involuntary moan. Too long they had been separated, too terrible was the punishment that awaited him if the Duke's men should discover him in her chambers. But their desperate love had brought him back to her, and Samantha could feel it burning in her chest as he-"
"Would you mind slowing down a little?" John complained, shaking his fingers to make the joints stop aching. He'd been furiously typing for at least an hour, trying to keep up with Rodney's rapid-fire dictating, and wished not for the first time that he'd used his notebook instead of his old-fashioned typewriter.
"The creative process should not be curbed," Rodney huffed patronizingly, "and if I'm doing your work, the least you could do is keep up."
Still, he took a few steps back and watched John massage his hands. The ghost had taken to the writing of sappy romance novels with an almost manic glee once he'd gotten over his initial condescension, discovering inside himself a melodramatic streak he happily used to come up with scenario after improbable scenario. John readily complied by writing them down, not only because he suspected that Rodney's command over the English language was better than his own, but also because it kept his friend out of boredom-induced depression.
And collaborating with Rodney was fun. They even had a working title: 'Grace Under a Scarlet Moon'. It was exactly the right kind of crappy.
"You know an awful lot about the workings of historical romance," John commented casually when his fingers no longer creaked with each movement.
"Please. My sister Jeannie owns dozens of these things. If it's reading a harlequin book or dealing with her snot nosed brats, I prefer brain death to homicide, thank you very much."
John grinned and stood up to get them some coffee.
"Sounds very… you." Before Rodney could decide if he should take that as an insult or a compliment, John had made it into the kitchen.
"So what happens next?" he called back.
"Well, after three pages of passionate lovemaking, Duke Kinsey catches Jack, of course," Rodney answered from the doorway, critically watching John load the coffeemaker. "Though I'm undecided whether or not we should continue with angst and torture. Perhaps Jack could escape by taking advantage of Kinsey's dim-witted wife."
"Or maybe he could have some knives hidden away somewhere in the untamed mass of Samantha's golden tresses," John suggested.
Rodney laughed, a surprisingly pleasant sound, and John felt his heart miss a beat. He hid his sudden flush by concentrating on the coffeemaker.
It had been three months since Rodney had scared the shit out of him by simply appearing in his living room. Three months, during which John had somehow gone from grudgingly accepting the ghost's presence to feeling strangely uneasy when he wasn't around.
John pondered that puzzling development while he was in the shower, his Rodney-free zone. He hadn't planned to get into a new relationship after that last one had gone so spectacularly wrong. He certainly hadn't planned on adding necrophilia to his list of kinks. Yet here he was, pining not only after a friend, which hardly ever led to something good, but also pining after a dead guy.
John Sheppard was one messed up human, he decided, vigorously scrubbing his scalp before rinsing off the shampoo. Messed up and pathetic. He turned off the water, opened the shower doors, and made to get out.
His skull met the wall with a sickening crack, bright yellow spots exploding in front of his eyes as his butt met the shower floor with a resounding thud. A sharp pain shot through the back of his head when he fell back against the tiled wall, and he groaned.
Suddenly Rodney was there, thoughtlessly reaching out for him and then cringing back, obviously remembering that he couldn't be of much help either way. The panic on his friend's face made John try to get his act together, though.
"'s okay," he slurred, pressing his fists against his eyes for a moment to clear his head. Looking up into Rodney's worried face, he tried again.
"Really. I'm good. See?" He smiled weakly.
John blinked, reaching up slowly and gingerly touching the back of his head. Sure enough, his hair was warm, wet, and sticky, and his fingers came back coated in red. But as he shook his head experimentally, there was no dizziness. No concussion, then.
"Just a scratch. I'm okay."
Rodney nodded stupidly, swallowing as his eyes left John's to travel lower. Belatedly, John realized that he was naked.
The ghost looked up then, hopeless hunger in his eyes, and it was John's turn to swallow.
"Bad timing, huh?" he croaked feebly. Rodney flinched, and disappeared.
John closed his eyes, resting against the cool wall, his head throbbing.
At least he wasn't alone in this mess.
Falling in love with a ghost had been a really stupid idea.
There would be the age thing eventually, of course, Rodney staying eternally young while John kept growing old and older, but that wasn't really an issue yet. Far worse was the… the corporeality thing. It was driving John crazy.
He wanted to touch Rodney, wanted to run his thumb along that crooked line of his lips, wanted to learn the inside of his mouth with his tongue, wanted to map his body with his hands. He wanted to have sex, make love, whatever they'd call it, and afterwards he wanted to drift off tangled up in Rodney. He wanted to wake up in the morning with a numb arm because Rodney had been sleeping on it, Rodney's morning breath in his nose.
All of these things, and he wanted them so bad it made his fingertips twitch. But when he reached out for Rodney, into Rodney, he didn't feel anything, not even a slight prickle or a colder current. Only air.
Rodney had been watching John's experiment with a bitterness poorly concealed as amusement.
"Well. This is the very definition of platonic," he said lightly, but his voice held little humour.
"We can do other things," John replied and smiled in an attempt to hide his disappointment. Rodney just snorted.
"Yes, yes, we can have deeply satisfying… talks," he declared offhandedly, and John finally got it. He must have been blind not to anticipate this.
"It's enough. Rodney, it's… you're enough," he promised helplessly, trying for reassurance and probably missing by a mile.
"Is it? Because I don't see how it could be, I mean, you can't even touch me."
Rodney looked so deeply unhappy that John longed for a way to pull him into a hug, aching for the dejected man. As it was, words had to be enough, and he sucked at them if they weren't on paper.
"But… it's… you're here. That's more than I expected in the first place. And I'm… you're here," John concluded lamely, hoping like hell that Rodney understood was he was trying to say. And the ghost nodded, mouth widening in a crooked smile that wasn't overly broad, but genuine. John let his breath out in a relieved sigh, smiling back.
"You're here," he repeated, meaning something else altogether.
Rodney leaned forward, until there was only the space of a breath between them.
"I'm here," he whispered.
It was enough. It had to be.
The book became their refuge of sorts after that, barely concealed foreplay that could never lead to anything, but was satisfying in itself. Rodney liked to lose himself in the words, teasing John with the wildest ideas before dictating a slightly more reasonable solution to whatever problem he had come up with for Lady Samantha and her lover.
It made them laugh. It made them happy.
"Samantha shuddered in desperation as she realised that he would not only murder her, but also her unborn child! She looked around, knowing there had to be a way to stop him, if only she could find it. Her gaze fell onto the wine bottle. If she could reach it… if-"
Rodney broke off.
The ghost looked even paler than usual, but he smiled quickly at John. It ended in a frown.
"I don't feel so good."
"You're a ghost. I don't see how feeling good would even be an option."
"No, I… I really don't feel so good." With an expression of dawning fear, Rodney raised his hand. It was translucent, almost invisible.
John stood up slowly, staring at Rodney's hand. Watching the translucency spread up the ghost's arm.
"Rodney?" He swallowed. "What's happening here?"
"I don't know. I think I… I think I'm disappearing."
"But you can't," John insisted stupidly. "You said you couldn't leave, remember?"
"Perhaps it's because I'm happy," Rodney whispered, looking at him with wide, anxious eyes. "Perhaps they think that I can move on now."
"'They'? Who is 'they'?" John demanded, but Rodney shook his head.
"I don't know."
He was almost gone now, barely more than a shape in the air, and John realised he hadn't ever been so afraid in his life.
"Rodney!" He reached out although he knew it wouldn't change anything, suppressing a scream of impotent fury as his hand passed right through the ghost. "I'll see you again, right? Rodney!"
"I don't know," Rodney said sadly.
Three weeks later, John moved out of the apartment.
For the first few days, he'd been hoping that Rodney might return, although deep inside he'd known that he was fooling himself. And while just a few months ago, he would have been happy about some peace and quiet, now the apartment just felt empty.
He ended up somewhere in the general vicinity of San Francisco, in a quiet little town by the sea. Renting a house took him all of five minutes, then the owner left him alone and John holed up to sulk for a week, only leaving his new accommodation to buy groceries and a few appropriately depressing books from the house owner's store.
Then he pulled himself out of his funk, unpacked his typewriter, and set to finish the book. They had already been near the end, and writing those last few pages felt like a catharsis. John gave the story a schmaltzy happy ending that would have made Rodney proud and called his agent, agreeing on a trip to New York later that week to finish the deal.
The next weeks and months were busy, with editing the book twice and getting it published in record time. John didn't mind the stress, on the contrary: he used it to keep himself from falling apart. Once the book was out, he'd gladly forget about it and the way it had been written, but for now, he needed it like a lifeline, hating himself for feeling so helpless.
During the day, he told himself to move on, like Rodney had done. Like he had done, before, with Elizabeth. To simply start something new, somewhere else, and just get over it. During the day, he decided he didn't care.
At night, he dreamed about the four months spent with a snarky, opinionated ghost, and how that was the happiest he'd ever been.
'Grace Under a Scarlet Moon' was his greatest success to date, even though nobody knew it. Following a sappy whim, John had had the book published under his own name instead of making it one of Teyla Emmagan's, dedicating it to Rodney as his co-author. The women obviously loved the thought of a gay couple writing romance together as much as they loved the actual story, so now he was selling the thing like crazy and going on well-visited signature tours. It kept him occupied, and he gladly accepted each invitation. If the stress kept him from over thinking his private life, all the better.
John was busy packing his things away when someone cleared their throat behind him.
"Sorry, signature hour's over," he said without looking up.
"Yes, well, that's, uh, not exactly what I'm here for," an all too familiar voice stated behind him, and John spun around. Rodney was standing a few feet away, looking different with longish hair and a pale green 'Wormhole X-treme!' t-shirt. Looking good.
"Rodney," John breathed, his heart slamming almost painfully against his ribcage. Then his eyes fell on the book Rodney was holding.
Was holding. John started, staring at Rodney like one would at an apparition. Which actually wasn't too far off the mark.
"Not dead," Rodney said, and smiled feebly. "Turns out it was just a coma. Clichéd, huh?"
"Not dead," John parroted, trying to get his head around it. "Not dead?" he said again, making it a question and frowning at the implications.
"Uh, no." Rodney had started fidgeting, nervously waving the book around as he spoke. "I mean, technically, yes, I died of a heart attack, but they, uh, managed to resuscitate me, and then I was in the aforementioned coma."
"But you woke up. Half a year ago." It was a shot in the dark, but the only explanation for Rodney's sudden disappearance. Sure enough, Rodney cringed.
"And you remembered me?" Remembered us, was what John really meant to ask, but he managed to restrain himself. He didn't want to sound like one of his harlequin heroines.
"Ah, yes, apparently my sister read to me from one of your books while I was… asleep. I thought I had imagined the whole thing, but then this," Rodney half-heartedly raised 'Grace Under a Scarlet Moon', "came out."
"It came out three months ago!" John snapped, caught between anger at Rodney's perceived carelessness and pure delight that the man was alive. That he was there.
"I, um, I didn't want to burden you with, I mean, you said you loved me, kind of, but perhaps it was only because you knew it could never, uh, lead to anything, and there I was recovering from a stroke and half paralysed, how could you possibly love something like thmmph-"
John had grabbed Rodney's shoulders and silenced his blabbering with a kiss, trying to convey how much he'd missed him. It was every bit and yet nothing like he'd imagined. He could smell Rodney's scent, warm and male and overlaid by the smells of the street caught in his clothes, a little smoke, a trace of perfume, something that seemed to be grease from one of the many fast food carts. He could feel the soft fabric of Rodney's shirt under his hands, the underlying warmth of the man's skin seeping through. As if of its own volition, his right hand crept up to find Rodney's neck, smooth skin, moving further to bury itself in fine, silky hair. Rodney's lips were soft and pliant under his own, readily opening when John lightly pushed his tongue against them.
John thought he had died and gone to heaven when his tongue was allowed into Rodney's mouth. Slick, wet, no trace of coffee or lunch or anything else, just pure, warm Rodney. Then a tongue met his, and he lost himself in that kiss, exploring texture and taste and answering Rodney's soft sigh with one of his own. After what seemed like an eternity, John pulled back to look into Rodney's glazed eyes.
Then he slapped him across the head.
"That's for being an idiot and not calling me."
John swept back in, starved for contact, feeling himself getting drunk on Rodney and not giving a shit. He took his time, feeling Rodney's body press against his own, revelling in the fact that they could finally touch and pulling back only a little bit when they finally broke apart. Savouring the feel of Rodney's body heat warming not only his skin.
"What was that for?" Rodney asked breathlessly.
John clasped Rodney's hand and squeezed lightly, finding it warm and a little sweaty in his own. It felt perfect, and he wondered if he would ever get enough of touching Rodney.
"For coming back."
Rodney laughed in delight; John could feel his breath as warm puffs against his own lips. Alive.
"You're here," he said softly, trying to say what he couldn't, and Rodney smiled.
This time, it really was enough.
"I still don't know why L.A."
"Maybe it was fate's way of bringing us together?"
"I don't believe in any of that superstitious nonsense."
"You didn't believe in ghost's, either."
"How do you feel about spreading your milky thighs to allow my throbbing manhood access to the hidden flower that is-"
"I swear, if you say anything like 'the entrance to your grotto of love' or 'your dark, moist treasure cove', I will strangulate you with this condom."
"Come on, Rodney, don't be like that. Hey, I know some cool other thing you could do with that."
"What? What are you-"
And John pounced.