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is this heaven? (or armageddon)

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being dead isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.

at least in the movies, ghosts can haunt people, give them nightmares and be the thing that goes bump in the night—in reality, all jae can do is float. and knock some things over, but that takes concentration that he doesn’t have. maybe he’ll work on that. plenty of time for meditation when you’re dead.

still. totally not worth dying for.

not that he had much choice in the matter. being born with bum lungs and a bum heart and a shitty immune system meant it was only a matter of time—his doctors were shocked he even made it to 26. so he knows he should be grateful for all the years he got but honestly? he’s still mad.

he’s still mad because dying sucks. being stuck in a hospital bed for months on end sucks, having your family hover around and wait for the end sucks, and being able to do jack shit and fuck all about it sucks.

anyway. nothing to do about it now.

the hospital hasn’t changed (why would it?), but he’s gotten to see a lot more of it now that he isn’t confined to a bed. the cafeteria is big and open, probably in an attempt to counteract how shit the food is with a nice environment. there are pops of color in the floor tiles and pretty artwork lines the halls; the hospital is not an ugly place, for all that goes on inside of it.

day after day he tries to visit someplace new, but the places he stays away from are always the same. the ward where he died is priority one, avoid at all costs. he visited once, not long after the whole becoming a ghost thing, and watching the nurses and staff turn his room over and sanitize it for the next poor, unfortunate occupant made his stomach flip. if ghosts could throw up, he would have, but as the universe would have it all he could do was dry heave in the corner.

the second place is the pediatric floor. he never visited that floor in this hospital while he was alive, but he didn’t have to; most of Jae’s younger years were spent in and out of pediatrics wards for his myriad issues, and he figured they’re all the same. he has no more desire to see sick kids now that he’s dead than he did when he was alive.

anyway. other than those two places, Jae has the run of the hospital now and he does his best to take advantage of it. spying on the doctors and nurses is a personal favorite pastime of his; he had no idea hospitals had this much interpersonal workplace drama. it’s almost as good as the daytime television that’s always on, playing it’s always sunny in philadelphia or days of our lives. seriously, why is it only ever those two shows?

there’s not always a lot to do, but jae’s become comfortable with his current situation. he was alone a lot when he was alive, so adjusting to the solitude as a ghost has been pretty easy. he sees others, but never for very long—brief flashes, confused faces as someone recently deceased flickers out of this world and into the next one. well at least that’s where he assumes they go. he wouldn’t really know.

all this to say he’s finally okay with how things are playing out when it all gets turned upside down.

“hey.”

that’s the first thing that’s weird. no one has spoken to jae since he died, or at least spoken to him knowing that he can hear them. this though, this is a purposeful greeting, and it catches him off guard.

he’s hanging around the nurses station again, and he whirls around to find the source of the voice. on the other side of the counter is another person like him— not a flicker of a spirit, but a real, stable ghost, a young guy with the same glowing blue cast that jae knows surrounds himself.

“haven’t seen you around here before,” the ghost continues. “how long ago did you pass?”

jae wrinkles his nose. “you mean when did i die? three weeks ago.”

“oh good, you’re not easily freaked out,” the stranger says, drifting a little closer. if jae focuses, he can see where the shape of the ghost’s legs starts to become ambiguous, fading out to just faint light a few inches off the tiled floor.

“yeah, i’ve had some time to adjust,” jae replies. not to this, seeing another ghost, but that’s nothing this guy needs to know. “you got a name?” jae asks (for the first time in a while).

“brian,” the ghost answers, snapping off a lazy two finger salute. “been dead a lot longer than three weeks, so i guess i’m kind of an expert. what about you, what do you go by these days?”

“i’ve always been jae,” jae replies smoothly. “if you’ve been dead so long, why am i just now seeing you?”

brian shrugs. “i had things to do.”

it’s annoyingly cryptic, but coming from a guy he just met jae supposes it’ll have to do, at least for now.

“so are you usually here? does that mean you can leave the hospital? wait. can i leave the hospital?” the more he speaks, the more jae feels the questions building, tugging at his tongue now that there’s finally a way to get some answers. though he’s not entirely sure of this guy’s credentials, he’s got to know more than jae. not that that’s ever really been hard to do.

“i can, but only to go to other places that i went to when i was alive. took me a year to be able to get out the door though, so i doubt you’ll be able to,” brian answers honestly, and jae tries not to let the disappointment show on his face. brian’s face and voice are both soft, gentle, like he’s trying to let jae down gently. “got any more questions?”

“dozens,” jae answers. “how much time do you have?”

“well, i’m dead so. plenty.”

brian must not be lying about the whole being dead for a while thing, because he nearly has more answers than jae has questions. yes he can pass through walls, no he can’t really touch things but he can create a little bit of force to knock things over, almost like wind. no people can’t hear him, yes he can pass through humans if he tries, yes they’ll feel it.

interestingly enough, they can choose to sit on surfaces that they can also pass right through, so jae watches brian perch himself cross legged on top of the nurses station counter and then follows suit. he lets his feet dangle, kicking them back and forth to watch them disappear into the wood siding before appearing again.

eventually his questions peter off because there’s only so much that can be asked at one time, and he’s left with just a tinge of curiosity about how brian got here. jae’s not well versed in ghost etiquette, but it feels like common sense to not ask how brian died. he’s curious, of course, but if he asks and brian answers then he’s practically obligated to tell brian how he died, which is still something jae would very much like to avoid.

he must be onto something, though, because for all the time they sit together, brian doesn’t ask him either. maybe it really is an etiquette thing.

“well,” brian says finally, voice low and musical as he slides to hover over the tile floor again. “it’s been fun, but i got some business to attend to.”

“outside the hospital?” jae asks, and brian nods.

“it won’t take me long though, i should be back in a few days. can i trust i’ll see you then?” he asks, and jae is maybe a little too quick to nod an affirmative.

“see you,” he echoes, and then brian is gone and jae is totally, helplessly alone again. he hates it more than before.

//

the next time brian shows up, jae is drifting aimlessly through the cafeteria at—he looks at the clock—9 p.m., enjoying the relative emptiness of such a large space. brian seems to materialize at the edge of his view, a lopsided smile on his face as he sidles up to jae.

“told you i wouldn’t be long,” he says.

“it’s been a week,” jae retorts, trying to not sound too bitter.

“five days,” brian replies with a wave of his hand. “that’s nothing.”

“it’s almost a week,” jae amends, but with brian smiling at him he can’t bring himself to be irritated.

“think of any more questions for me while i was gone?” brian asks, and jae actually has to stop and think for a moment.

“could i eat? like if i tried hard enough?”

brian shakes his head forlornly. “trust me, i’ve tried hard enough for the both of us.”

“damn.”

after a beat, brian asks, “you wanna take the grand tour? bet i can show you all the cool places you haven’t found yet.”

jae’s eyes narrow. “try me.”

as it turns out, brian really does know some cool places; hidden spots under stairwells where someone left a stray couch, the closets where the nurses stash all their personals, and the cramped concrete stairway that leads up to the helipad. that’s one place that jae really wants to go, so brian scrunches his nose and wrinkles his eyebrows as he forces the door open.

“cool,” jae breathes. well. if he could.

the helipad itself is just a round expanse of concrete with black railings on the side, but from it’s surface jae thinks he can see the whole city spread out beneath him.

being outside is a little weird because jae thinks he can feel the wind actually moving through him, but he gets over it pretty quickly, following brian to the edge where they sit, feet dangling over the edge. jae feels like he should be scared, but that’s just another relic of the terrifying experience of being alive. not too much is scary when you’re already dead.

“i have a personal question,” jae says, and brian snorts.

“like everything you’ve already asked isn’t?”

if jae still had blood flowing, he’s sure he would have blushed. “more personal, then.”

“go for it.”

“what are you scared of?” jae asks, already trying to think about his own answer to the question. “it just seems like there aren’t a whole lot of options now, when there’s not really a worst case scenario anymore.”

brian hums. “i’m still scared of lots of things, i think. my parents and friends getting hurt. that they’ll never move on. that the world will end.” he pauses, looking out to the skyline in front of them. “i don’t know if i’m more scared of being a ghost forever or moving on to whatever’s next. but either way, there’s still plenty to be scared of.”

“you think there’s something after this?” jae asks, and brian nods.

“there has to be, right? think about it. people die here all the time and they only hang around for seconds. there’s got to be somewhere else to go. the real question is why the two of us are stuck here.”

“well it makes sense for there to be something after this, but it makes no sense for us to be stuck here. what makes us different?” jae asks, and brian laughs.

“i’ve been asking myself that for years.”

they sit there for a while after that, comfortable silence between them as they watch life go on in the city below. then, jae thinks of another question.

“brian.”

“yeah?”

“i have another question.”

“shoot.”

“can we—can we touch each other?”

brian frowns. “i guess i don’t know. i’ve never had another ghost to touch before.”

and this—this breaks jae’s heart. he got used to being alone, before brian, but that was a matter of weeks. brian has been alone, with no one who can see him or hear him or possibly touch him for years.

jae doesn’t know if he could have made it that long, if brian hadn’t shown up.

“can we try?” he asks, and brian nods. he makes the first move, like he knows jae is afraid it won’t work, placing his hand palm up on the concrete between them.

if jae was still someone who breathed, he would have inhaled deeply, but that’s not something he needs to do anymore so he just goes for it, placing his hand on top of brian’s and lacing their fingers together.

it doesn’t feel like touching did when he was alive. the warmth he feels is not that of skin, of life. it feels like electricity under his palm, like it’s buzzing, thrumming with energy. it feels like nothing and like everything all at once, and jae feels heat well behind his eyes, his brain remembering what it feels like to cry even though there’s no body to make tears anymore.

brian tightens his grip on jae’s hand, and jae feels it—he lets his head fall to brian’s shoulder as a choked noise forces it’s way unbidden from his mouth.

“hey, hey jae. It’s okay. it’s okay. i’m here, it’s okay,” brian says, and his voice is thick too, like he’s trying to hold back tears he can’t cry anymore. it makes jae want to sob even more. jesus, when did jae start to miss the feeling of crying?

the space between them is gone now, and jae can feel the beautiful thrum all the way up the side of his not-quite body. brian is still speaking, hushed, low tones that make jae feel just a little more grounded. he’s not listening to the words but he’s sure they’re sweet, comforting—brian is good like that.

jae doesn’t know how long they stay up there, pressed close together with their legs dangling off the edge of the helipad. he’s not sure it matters anyway.

//

brian doesn’t leave again after that day. it’s nice, the constant companionship—jae thinks he gets closer to brian than he was to some of his old friends. shared experiences and all that. brian tells him about his life when jae asks, too. he studied in canada, he played the guitar, he was in college for a business degree. brian doesn’t say if he ever finished, and jae doesn’t ask.

he tells jae lots of other things—there’s no point in asking for more.

“i wanna visit my favorite place today,” brian says as they’re perched up on the roof again, watching the cars below go by in slow motion.

“okay,” jae says.

“will you come with me?” brian asks, and jae nods.

“always.”

jae starts to regret his answer when brian starts to lead him through the children’s ward, all the bright colors and artwork bringing him back to all the time he spent in the hospital as a kid. still, he said he’d go, so he toughs it out until they reach their destination.

when they get there, jae can’t help but laugh. of course this is brian’s favorite place in the hospital.

the babies in the nursery are wrapped in pastel colored blankets, tiny fists waving in the air as the nurses flit between them, checking vitals and administering eye drops.

“it makes me happy,” brian defends without jae even needing to say anything. “you know, new life and all that. plus i’ve always loved babies. they’re just so cute.”

“you seem like the type,” jae agrees, and brian bumps his shoulder in retaliation, a smile on his face.

they stay long enough to see three new babies come in and four go home with their parents, and it’s then that jae decides to talk about it.

“can we talk about how we died? or is that off limits forever?” he asks, and brian laughs, eyes crinkling up at the corners.

“we can talk about it,” he answers finally. “we can talk about whatever you want, jae.”

“okay,” jae says, and when he doesn’t continue brian catches on way too fast.

“i can go first,” he offers. “i don’t mind.”

if jae still had lungs, he would have breathed a sigh of relief. “that’s—thank you,” he says. “thank you.”

they settle in an abandoned on call room—not that they need the privacy, but pretending they do is kind of nice. almost as soon as they sit, brian begins.

“i was in a motorcycle accident,” he says, voice steady and even. jae’s eyes must widen, because brian snorts. “i know, i don’t look like the type, do i? that’s what everyone used to say. maybe i should have listened.”

“well if you spent your whole life listening to what people thought you should do then it would have been a waste,” jae points out, and brian laughs softly.

“yeah, you’re right,” he agrees. “even with the whole dying thing, i guess i don’t really regret living how i wanted to. anyway. there’s not really much more to the story. the guy in the car was drunk, and i’m pretty sure he got arrested so it’s not like i need to avenge anything. i’ve just been stuck here ever since.”

jae doesn’t really know what to say to that. ‘i’m sorry’ feels too trite, but what else is there? he settles for another question instead. “can i ask you something else?”

“always.”

“where do you go when you leave the hospital?”

brian sighs, even though jae knows it’s for show. “i visit my family,” he replies, easier than jae would have thought. “they live in incheon, so sometimes i go check on them. they don’t—they don’t know i’m there, but it makes me feel better if i know they’re doing okay.”

“do you wish they knew you’re still around?” jae asks. It’s something he’s thought a lot about—how even if he could, he probably still wouldn’t tell his parents and sister that he’s not really gone.

“no,” brian says with a shake of his head. “i used to. then the first anniversary came around—” jae doesn’t have to ask of what “—and i realized that it’s harder on them. at least i can still see that they’re okay, be around them even if they don’t know i’m there. i think if they knew, it would break their hearts.”

“and perhaps it is the greater grief, after all, to be left on earth when another is gone,” jae quotes, remembering one of the books he’d read over and over while he was stuck in a hospital bed.

“exactly,” brian agrees. “exactly.”

there’s a beat of silence, and then jae speaks. “i want to tell you,” he confesses. brian looks at him, eyes widening.

“you still don’t have to—” he starts, but jae shakes his head.

“i want to,” he stressed. “but i just. can’t. not yet.”

“okay,” brian says. “okay. take as much time as you need. i can wait. i’m good at that.”

and that’s that.

//

it takes a few days for jae to get ready. without brian, he goes back to the wing he hasn’t visited since he was alive, steels himself until he can look at the rooms and the equipment without feeling non-existent adrenaline in his non-existent veins.

brian finds him when he’s ready. brian always knows.

it takes nothing more than a raised eyebrow from brian and a nod from jae to determine that it’s the right time, and they settle on a freshly turned over bed in the hallway where jae vowed to never return to.

“i was sick for a long time,” he starts, staring down at his legs, where they fade out to a faint blue glow. “they didn’t think i’d make it to my first birthday. then they didn’t think i’d turn two. every birthday after that was a goddamn miracle, i guess.” his voice starts to shake, and brian must notice because he offers his hand. jae takes it.

“anyway,” he continues. “it got really bad when i turned twenty, with heart issues and a bunch of other nasty shit. my shit immune system meant i wasn’t a good candidate for a transplant, ‘cause the drugs would probably kill me. after that it was just a matter of time.”

“shit,” brian says. “that sucks.” it’s so simple, so straightforward that jae can’t help the laugh that bursts from his mouth, loud and unbidden in the otherwise silent room. He doesn’t know what he was expecting—‘i’m sorry’ maybe, or ‘that must have been so hard on you growing up’ or ‘you were so strong’. he doesn’t want to hear any of that bullshit, though. brian tells it like it is, and jae couldn’t be more grateful.

“i’m sorry,” he tries to apologize through his laughter. “i’m sorry, it’s not funny. i’m sorry.”

“stop apologizing.” a smile spreads across brian’s face as he knocks jae in the shoulder. “if you’re laughing it means i didn’t say anything wrong, right?”

“no,” jae shakes his head, still fighting back giggles. “no, you said everything right.”

jae can’t tell if it’s the act of telling someone or if it’s the smile brian gives him after, but he feels like bonds he didn’t know were there have been loosed. he’s finally free.

//

it’s the day after that when brian starts to flicker. it’s never lasts long, but those few seconds when the outline of his form flickers and his voice fades in and out are terrifying for the both of them. the worst part is that brian gets this look on his face, like he knows what’s happening but won’t tell jae.

as the flickers get closer and closer together, jae tries to wheedle it out of him.

“it’s nothing,” brian lies, rolling his eyes when jae gives him a look. “fine. i think i know what’s happening, but i’m not sure about any of it so stop asking.”

“brian,” jae says, and it sounds more pleading than he intends.

“jae,” brian answers, but he gives in. “just give me some time to check it out, okay? i’ll tell you when i know for sure, i promise.”

“if you’re lying, i’ll end you,” jae jokes, but it falls flat. he doesn’t fail to see why.

//

the panic that takes over jae when he realizes he hasn’t seen brian in two days is visceral—his brain remembers all the things he thought he needed a body for, like the racing in his chest and the vice grip in his gut. jae doesn’t know when he got so attached, but the mental image of brian flickering out alone, with no one to say goodbye, brings him a soul-deep sadness that he just can’t shake.

then brian’s face appears as jae rounds a corner on his daily meanderings, and jae almost dies again. the smile on his face is choked with emotion, and he socks brian in the shoulder, relishing the tingle of electricity that travels up the ghost of his arm.

“asshole,” he says, and brian smiles sadly. “i thought you left for good.”

“not yet,” brian replies, and jae frowns.

“the hell does that mean?”

brian sighs. “i think i figured out why i’m flickering, and it only got worse.”

jae rolls his eyes. “well don’t keep it to yourself.”

“it started after our talk, right? i think—i think i got held up in the in between because i needed to be here when you died. you needed someone to help you come to terms with dying, and now that i’ve been that person i can move on,” brian explains with kind eyes, and the thought makes jae feels sick.

“so what you’re saying is that you’re going to leave soon? and i’ll be alone again? who the fuck decided i needed a ghost soulmate and that it was necessary for him to leave as sooon as the important stuff happened?” jae asks, not to brian in particular.

“i know,” brian answers. “it’s fucked.”

jae huffs in agreement.

“you really think we’re soulmates?” brian asks.

jae would blush if he could. “i mean it would make sense, right? if you got stuck waiting for me because i needed you. sorry about that, by the way.”

brian bumps jae’s shoulder with his own. “i don’t mind.”

“are you scared to go?” jae asks.

“yes,” brian answers honestly. “i didn’t have any time to be scared before i died, so i think that just makes me more terrified of leaving this to move on to whatever is next. if there is something next.”

“i always believed in heaven,” jae says, not entirely sure where it’s coming from. he runs with it anyway. “I think i maybe stopped, for a little while. but heaven can’t be here, because it’s just us and you’re leaving, so there’s got to be something more. something greater.”

“yeah,” brian says, and he reaches a hand out. jae takes it. “something greater. i like the sound of that.”

“so we can’t be too scared,” jae says, unsure of who exactly he’s trying to convince more: brian or himself. “because when you go, it’ll just be for a while and then i’ll go too. then we won’t have to be alone ever again.”

“i like the sound of that,” brian repeats.

it’s a matter of hours after that. each time brian flickers, it’s for longer and longer—his figure dims with each time, and his voice grows fainter, more distant sounding. jae cracks jokes, tries to keep brian smiling through it so they’ll both forget to be sad. when the time comes though, neither of them is prepared.

“jae,” brian says, and jae knows that this is it.

he squeezes brian’s hand as tight as he can, ignoring the pulses of energy as brian fades in and out. “don’t be scared, okay?” he says, and brian nods, though he’s gone for half of the motion.

“i’m not,” he says, voice tinny and distant. “i’ll see you soon, okay?”

“yes,” jae answers, trying to hide the choke of his voice. “i’ll come as soon as i can.”

“jae,” brian says again. “i’m glad i stayed for you.”

“yeah,” jae starts as he watches brian start to go for what he knows will be the last time. “me too.”

there’s no movie soundtrack, no dramatic swell of strings, not even a sound out of brian: one moment he’s there, and the next he isn’t. this time, he doesn’t come back.

jae wishes he wasn’t so familiar with the sensations of crying, the physical heat and tug in his gut that he just can’t shake. he lets his chest rise and fall to give him something to focus on, a rhythm of his own creation that does little to ground him in this situation. the tugging sensation continues, and when he looks down at his hands in his lap, he sees it. a flicker.

it’s short. just barely a flash, shorter even than when brian started to flicker a few days ago. it’s short but it’s there, and jae can’t help the smile that crosses his face. he squeezes his eyes shut, and lets himself fall back to sprawl out on the tiled floor. people will pass over him, through him as they go about their lives, but jae doesn’t care. he’s waiting.

he doesn’t know how long it will take, but he knows that when it’s all over he’ll be seeing brian again, and that? that will always be worth waiting for.