“They’re here!” Charlie shouted, flinging herself at Jack just as he turned. A broad grin lit up her face as she repeated herself, breathless. Despite his perpetual melancholy, Jack couldn’t suppress the smile tugging at his lips. Charlie had always been like a little sister to him, and her antics never failed to lift his mood.
Strode appeared from the misty shroud that blanketed the morning forest, followed by Briggs. “Who’s here?” he asked, lacing his fingers with Briggs' as they approached.
Arms still around Jack’s waist, Charlie turned toward them. “Top and Ty are here!”
Charlie huffed and rolled her eyes. “I’m dead, Briggs, not blind.” She gave Jack another squeeze and looked up at him with hopeful eyes. “Do you think they’ll be able to see us?”
Returning the hug, Jack offered her a smile. “Let’s go find out.”
Charlie led them to where she’d last seen Top and Tyler, and the four of them fell into step with their friends.
Jack’s heart clenched at the sight of the two men. It had been a year since they’d been torn apart, though it felt infinitely longer to Jack. Ghosts didn’t have a concept of time; didn’t need one. Day and night bled together into a single stream of longing. But what had become of their friends who’d survived?
“Did it just get colder?” Tyler asked, flipping up the collar of his coat as he glanced at the woods around them. At that, Briggs snorted and waved a hand through Tyler, earning a swat from Strode. Tyler shivered again, but kept walking along the dirt path, oblivious to the source of his discomfort even as Briggs and Strode bickered beside him.
Jack’s heart sank with the realization that his brother couldn’t see or hear them. They weren’t blood brothers but surely theirs was a bond that could somehow survive even death, right? Jack moved to Top’s side. Maybe he’d have better luck with the man he loved more than life itself.
“They did say the woods were haunted,” Top muttered, stuffing his hands into his pockets.
“Yeah, but you don’t believe that in that kind of stuff, do you?”
Silence stretched between them, filled only by their muffled footsteps on the packed dirt path, before Top finally answered. “No, but…” He stopped suddenly and stared straight at Jack, pain still clouding his eyes even after all this time. Jack had expected Top to move on by now, but maybe that hadn’t happened after all. To Jack’s surprise, though, Top’s eyes didn’t stray. Top gave no indication he could see Jack, but something was clearly off to him.
Tyler stopped as well. “What’s up?”
Tyler barked a laugh that echoed through the quiet forest. Birds cawed at the disruption and scattered in search of new perches sans noisy humans. “That’s just from breakfast, man.”
“No, it’s Jack’s coffee–that fancy stuff he liked, remember?–I’d know that smell anywhere.” Tears welled in his eyes.
Jack reached out to touch Top’s cheek like he once used to, but froze when his hand rested against solid flesh. Well, that was new. They rarely encountered the living in these parts, and Jack avoided them anyway, letting Charlie and Briggs have all the fun of testing their other-worldly abilities on the strangers. He couldn’t find it in himself to care about anyone who wasn’t part of their now broken family.
“You okay?” Tyler gave Top a nudge and looked between him and the rows of narrow tree trunks it looked like he was staring at. His brows furrowed. “It’s just a memory,” Tyler said softly. “He’s not here.”
A tear slid down Top’s cheek as he reached for Jack. “Yeah, he is.” Jack leaned into the familiar touch. It was hardly more than pressure–no warmth or chill–but it was enough for him to conjure memories of hot breaths on skin and warm bodies wrapped around one another. He had none of that now; nothing but the memories of the life they’d shared.
Smiling, Top brushed a tear from Jack’s face, which only made more fall. “I’ve missed you so badly, Jack, you have no idea.”
Oh, how he did. It was lonely being trapped between life and the beyond. He was happy that Briggs and Strode finally got together–like they should have been all along, in his opinion–but their joy only magnified his ache for Top. Charlie kept them all occupied, at least, needing nothing but her brothers and a little mischief to keep her going.
He'd always thought souls were sent wherever they deserved to be, yet nothing had happened for any of them. He remembered burning and pain, and then he was in this forest, friends–family–waiting for him. There was no light, nothing else. Just waiting. For what, he didn’t know, though he'd begun to wonder if they were all waiting for the rest of their crew to join them so they could go to the afterlife together. So until then, they waited.
When their lips met, Jack was aware of how odd it must look to Tyler that Top was embracing thin air. He didn’t expect to glance over and see his brother’s eyes wide with shock…as though he’d seen a ghost.
“Holy shit,” Tyler whispered, the only words he could manage as he finally saw the rest of their team.
“I love you,” Jack said, unsure if he even had a voice in the world of the living. If he didn’t, Top must have read his lips because his boyfriend smiled back at him and nodded.
“I love you, too, Jack. Forever.”
Before Jack could reply, Tyler drew their attention away. “Guys?” he called out, looking lost as he scanned the empty air for the other three. Jack clutched Top’s hand. The others didn’t have the ability to linger as well as he did–Charlie still only appeared from the knees up as it was–but he could feel the energy draining from his own form. He could fight it, but only for a minute or two longer before he disappeared into the ether to recharge. After using this much energy it would be days before he returned.
Jack felt himself being pulled apart, though, and panicked when the comforting grip of Top’s hands disappeared. A heavy fog was rolling in now, dark and cold, dropping like a curtain between them. Top called out to him, begging him not to leave, but it was like he was miles away and growing more distant with each second. Jack clawed at the fog, grasping at what wasn’t really there. He didn’t want to go back to the darkness; didn’t want to be alone again.
* * *
“I feel strange.”
Jack gave Top’s arm a squeeze. “You get used to it, just try it again." The ghost gig took some time adjusting to, but Top had done well so far.
"You’re sure he’s here?” Tyler teased, shifting on his log perch.
It had only been a handful of years, Top recounted, before he’d joined them following a car accident that'd taken his life. After his passing, Tyler gave up living in the States and moved to Romania. People had apparently told him it was unhealthy to still be holding on, but he'd never been one to care what others thought of him or his decisions. Everyone Tyler cared about was here, and he found no sense living so far from them. Besides, it wasn’t like he could tell those naysayers that ghosts were real.
“Relax,” Briggs drawled as he draped himself over Strode’s shoulders. “The baby ghost just needs a sec to get the hang of it.”
Shooting Briggs a glare, Top huffed in frustration. Jack gave Top’s arm another squeeze and then reached for his hand. “Just focus and don’t worry about it if it doesn’t happen today,” he murmured. “Got all the time in the world.”
Top gave him a crooked smile that made Jack’s heart flutter. The years apart hadn’t been so bad after all. Both Top and Tyler visited regularly, the former more so than the latter. But while he enjoyed the company and Top’s reassurances there was no one else for him, Jack always felt like he was partially to blame for Top not moving on and enjoying the rest of his life. Had they left the two alone that first time in the forest he was sure things would be different. Top might not have come back to him, but at least he wouldn’t have spent those years pining over a dead boyfriend.
Tyler let out a whoop, wide grin splitting his face as he threw an arm around Charlie, who was cheering right along with him. “You guys are gonna show me how to do that, right?” he asked.
Nodding, Jack slipped an arm around Top’s waist and pulled him close. Of course they would. But hopefully not for a very long time.