Warnings/Spoliers: this fic starts in 1982 and continues through "The Siege"
Disclaimer: Title 17 of the US Code, § 107, aka the Fair Use Doctrine.
Summary: In which John is haunted by the ghost of his grandmother.
Notes: There is probably a genesis to this story, but I do not know what it is. All I know is I sat down 9 hours ago to write this, and here it is.
Life You Love
A Stargate: Atlantis story
"IT DOESN'T MATTER WHERE YOU LEARNED IT – IT'S A GIFT. IF YOU CARE ABOUT SOMETHING, YOU HAVE TO PROTECT IT – IF YOU'RE LUCKY ENOUGH TO FIND A WAY OF LIFE YOU LOVE, YOU HAVE TO FIND THE COURAGE TO LIVE IT."
John Irving A Prayer for Owen Meany
"Death," says the old woman, flicking ash off the end of her cigarette, "is transformation. Don't you forget that, mon chouchou."
John blinks for a bit before joining her on the stone bench. He'd come out here, to the gazebo down by the lake, to get away from all the well-wishers at the funeral, and certainly hadn't expected to find one of them down here. No one ever comes down to the gazebo, not even the gardeners, it is so overgrown. He'd thought he was the only one who knew about it.
Well, he certainly can't leave now. "Who are you? One of Mom's relatives?" John thinks she might be one of Mom's aunts, one of the ones from France with the weird names and the silvery blonde hair.
"You could say that," she says, grinding the butt of her cigarette into the bench. Hardly pausing, she pulls a silver case from her purse and withdraws another before offering it to John, who, after a long moment, takes one.
He is twelve. His mother is dead and her funeral seems like little more than an excuse for the adults to get dressed up and drink a lot durning the day. Of course he takes one.
The old woman snaps the case closed and drops it back in her purse, pulling out a sleek silver lighter. "What's your name, mon chouchou?"
"John. What's yours?"
She laughs as she flicks the lighter open. "People call me a lot of things, mon chouchou."
"What did Mom call you?"
"Ah, there's a question isn't it?" she holds the flame under the end of her cigarette until it glows and breathes deep. "You can call me Mélusine."
John tries out the word as Mélusine lights his. It doesn't go so well.
"How about just Auntie Mel then?"
"That works," he agrees and takes a puff of his own before coughing the foul smoke right back up.
Auntie Mel laughs. The sound bubbles like water in a stream and, when he can breathe again, it is all of her that remains.
He's smoking behind the church a year later when he sees Auntie Mel next.
John's suit is different - shot up like a weed Anna, Dad's former secretary and newest wife, keeps on saying - but the tie hanging loosely around his neck is the same. The whole wedding party had worn black and white and all the flowers and decorations had been black and white as well; the only color in the whole church had been Anna's unnaturally red hair. The effect is more horrific than storybook.
Auntie Mel looks exactly the same, though. Same blue-grey pantsuit, same tightly-woven bun; same heavy silver necklace with the same elaborate Celtic knot pendant. The only thing about her that's changed as far as John can tell is the kind of cigarettes she's smoking now - menthols, by the smell.
"Smoking can kill you," she says, prodding him until he scoots over enough for her to join him on the stoop.
"So can life," John says, flicking his cigarette into the parking lot.
Auntie Mel snorts and offers him another. Definitely menthols. "You're awfully young to be so cynical."
"What are you doing here anyway? I thought you were from Mom's side of the family."
"Do I need an excuse to visit you, mon chouchou?"
"What does that even mean?"
"It means I like you. You've got potential."
Dad tells him the same thing - you've got potential, Johnny; I'll be damned if I know why you don't use any of it - all the time. He's got John's whole life planned out for him too. Next fall he'll start at Brooks, this snotty school up in Massachusetts that every Sheppard has gone to since the beginning of time, and he'll take Chinese and play lacrosse in the spring and squash in the winter and football in the fall if he can put on some muscle. Then he'll go on to Yale and major in something suitably dull, like economics or international relations, and after that he'll get his MBA and go to work at one of Sheppard Industries' smaller offices with a six-figure salary and fancy title he hasn't earned.
He's being groomed to take over the company and John hates every minute of it.
"Fuck off," John tells her.
Auntie Mel breathes out slowly, smoke curling from her nose like a dragon's. "You should take French. You've got the spirit for it."
John takes French instead of Chinese, plays football because he wants to, and doesn't even try for squash or lacrosse. He goes to Stanford instead of Yale, majors in mathematics instead of political science, and fights Dad every step of the way.
Auntie Mel shows up exactly twice during this time - on the day of his half-brother's christening, when John's fifteen, and the day Dad marries wife number three, two weeks before John turns twenty, - each time wearing the exact same suit and looking not a day older.
John might not be living up to his potential, but even he can tell when something strange is going on.
It's Christmas 1991 and John's at home for his final holiday before he graduates. He's got a glass of scotch older than he is in one hand, a Cuban cigar in the other, and Dad's droning on about the position in Boston he wants John to take up after gets his MBA.
He tries concentrating on the cigar, but it's oily and foul and bits of leaf keep on getting into his mouth - it's absolutely disgusting and making him seriously consider giving up smoking forever. So he tries concentrating on the scotch instead, but John never liked scotch and would much rather just have beer, but beer is too low-brow for Dad and it had been a struggle even to get a splash of water for his drink to dull its taste.
It suddenly occurs to John with overwhelming, violent clarity that this is a snapshot of what his life is going to be like from now to the end of time and he just can't take it anymore. (The thought should make him want to scream - and part of him wants to do just that - but instead he feels cooly, serenely calm, as if everything's just clicked into place for the first time in twenty-one-and-a-half years.)
John sets glass down on the side table and snuffs the cigar in the scotch. "I'm not going to Boston," he says when Dad finally pauses his droning to breathe.
"Well, I can't say I blame you, Johnny. It's too yuppie for my tastes. The plant in Phoenix should be finished about the time you graduate. It'll be a little more difficult-" Dad continues, as if John's personal preferences mean nothing, as always.
"I'm not going to Phoenix either," he says a little more firmly.
"I'm not going to business school, Dad."
"What?" Patrick Sheppard balks, looking up from his glass for the first time. It might be the first time in hours he's actually looked at John. "Of course you are."
"I don't want to go to business school."
"You need an MBA if you're going to be taking over the company one day."
"I don't want to take over the company, Dad. I never have."
"Don't be ridiculous, Johnny. Sheppard Industries has always been run by a Sheppard. Your great-grandfather-" built this company out of nothing, John mentally supplies. He left Ireland with nothing in his pocket but five dollars and a dream. He made a million dollars before he died, and your grandfather made it a billion. I've worked my ass off to make Sheppard Industries the largest public utilities provider east of the Mississippi, and you're going to bring SI to the west coast, Johnny boy, so your son can take us international. John's heard the plan so many times now he can recite it in his sleep.
"Then let Dave have it."
"Dave's six, Johnny."
"He won't be six forever."
"You're my oldest son, my heir."
"Maybe I don't want to be your heir, Dad."
"Well tough luck, son. You are a Sheppard. We all have duties. This one is yours."
"Actually, Dad, I don't think it is."
"What then? What do you think you'll do with that sissy degree of yours? Become an accountant? Teach?" he scoffs into his scotch. "You think teaching a bunch of snotty-nosed public school brats algebra is what you want to do for the rest of your life?"
John, to his surprise, barely has to think to come up with an answer. "I thought I might be a pilot." He's had a license ever since he was old enough - though he had to fight Dad about that too - and there's even a nice little four-seater down at the private airstrip that dad bought him the day he graduated Brooks. John's never felt so alive as when he's up in the air. He'd rather spend the rest of his life doing something he enjoys than sitting in places like Dad's den, smoking oily cigars and pretending to care about the plan that's been made for his life.
Dad laughs into his drink this time. "I think the scotch has gone to your head, Johnny. Go, pour yourself into bed, and when you get up we'll just forget this whole conversation ever happened."
"I'm not drunk, Dad."
"Sure seems like it to me."
John sighs and stands. "Y'know what? Forget it. I'm just going to go, see if I can't fly back to Palo Alto tonight. You've got my number at the dorm if you want to talk like adults about this."
"Running away's not going to change anything," Dad says.
"Good thing I'm not running away then," John tells him and goes upstairs to pack his bags.
He doesn't know it then, but this is the last time John will ever see his father alive.
John's halfway across Ohio and jonesing for a smoke like nobody's business when Auntie Mel appears in the copilot's seat, her silver cigarette case already open. "They're lights," she says by way of explanation.
John almost drops the plane out of the sky.
"You're not real," he tells her as soon as he's regained control of the aircraft.
"I am many things, mon chouchou, but not real is not any of them."
"We're at forty-five thousand feet, Mel. People don't just appear in airplanes when they're eight-and-a-half miles off the ground."
"So young, so naive," Auntie Mel sighs, sticking a cigarette in the corner of her mouth. She waves the case in his direction. "Are you going to take one or not?"
"I gave it up."
"Good. These thing will kill you, you know," she says, lighting hers. "And good for you, finally standing up to Patrick like that. The man is an idiot. I don't know what Emeline ever saw in him."
"I'm sorry," he snaps, "can we get back to the business of who the hell are you for a moment and save your critiques of my parents' marriage for later?"
"Isn't it obvious?" she takes a long drag. "I'm your grandmother."
Yes. It's obvious now. John must have gone crazy the day of Mom's funeral and just not realized it. It explains a lot, now that he thinks about it. "You're the ghost of my grandmother?"
"Not ghost, mon chouchou."
"My grandmother has been dead for over twenty years. And her name certainly wasn't Mélusine - it was Melisande Delacroix." She'd been a French singer during the war, conceived John's mother towards the end of it, and raised her daughter by herself when her soldier didn't return for her. She'd died shortly after Mom married Dad and, as such, John had never met her. Or so he'd thought.
"A necessary charade."
"Humanity's not yet ready to understand what I am," Auntie Mel shrugs.
"Humanity?" John repeats. "What, it's not enough that you're claiming to be the ghost of my grandmother, you have to be the ghost of my dead, alien grandmother?"
"Like I said, mon chouchou, it's complicated. You'll understand one day. But enough about me. This is about you."
"Yes, you. Tell me, have you given any thought - anything specific thought - as to what you're going to do now that you've escaped Patrick's clutches."
"I thought I might start by ignoring the ghost in the seat next to me and concentrating on flying for a while."
John stares fixedly at the windscreen for several minutes, determined to ignore her protests. But the protests never come and, when he finally turns his head, Auntie Mel is gone, though the smell of her cigarette smoke remains.
"I'm so fucked," he tells the empty cabin, but it, thankfully, doesn't respond.
He goes to the Air Force recruiter as soon as the holidays are over. It seems like the perfect way to get to fly as well as get his act together - because, obviously, there is something seriously wrong with John if he thinks he's being haunted by his chain-smoking grandmother's ghost. Obviously.
And it works for a while. Years, even. And then he meets Nancy Lehman.
Auntie Mel doesn't like Nancy, and she makes sure to tell him this the very first time he asks her out.
"She's wrong for you, mon chouchou."
Nancy is smart and young and beautiful and working her way through law school as a waitress because her - quite wealthy - parents cut her off when she told them she wanted more from life than an Mrs.
"Her parents will forgive her the moment you two get married, and then it's back to the world of after-dinner cigars and hard liquor for the both of you. That's not what you want."
"Shut up," John hisses at her from the relative safety of his car, where no one can see his latest dissent into madness. "Just shut up and leave me the hell alone."
Auntie Mel is also completely right about Nancy, and on the day he signs the divorce papers they sit together at the seediest bar in town and drink long into the night.
John has no idea if anyone else can see her, the strange, older French woman he's sharing a booth with, but they keep bringing him glasses of what's on tap in pairs and change out the ashtray twice, so something beyond normal madness is afoot.
"So, not a ghost?"
"Not a ghost," she confirms, lighting yet another cigarette. She must be on her second carton by now, but her silver case never seems to empty.
"Then what are you?"
"I'm on a higher plane of existence."
"I see," John says, though he really doesn't. He's on his fifth beer, or maybe his seventh, but he doubts he'd understand any better if he were sober.
"No you don't," Auntie Mel (who may or may not actually be Grandma Melisande) laughs hoarsely, "but you will. One day."
She's with him when he hears about Holland's chopper going down. She doesn't tell him not to go, only to pack extra ammunition, and John loves her for it.
She's with John when they drag him in for courtmarshal too, telling him to stand tall, that he did the right thing. She also encourages him to take the transfer to McMurdo - but John would've done that even without Auntie Mel's urging. Antarctica sounds absolutely nothing like Afghanistan, which pretty much makes it perfect in his book.
It's summer 2004 and John's in the Lost City of Atlantis. He's sitting on the edge of the bed in the quarters he assigned himself, surrounded by packing crates containing enough munitions to wage a medium-sized war, with his head buried in both his hands.
John is tired beyond all belief, but he doesn't think sleep is going to come any time soon. He knows that shooting Colonel Sumner was the right thing to do, the merciful thing to do, but hell if it doesn't make him feel sick all over. He knows he can't save everybody, but he's a PJ - he can't leave anyone behind. Other men lose people, it's his job to bring them back safe. That is the sole purpose of his specialty - to save lives and aide the injured - and if he can't do that, what good is he?
(Plus, there's the gnawing, niggling fear deep in his chest that he could have saved Sumner if he'd tried a little bit harder, but hadn't because Sumner's death meant that he, John, could be military commander of the Expedition. He knows it's not true, but the fear's still there.)
He has to find a way to keep eighty-eight people alive in a strange galaxy with little-to-no hope of reinforcements and a hostile force at their door. Of course sleep eludes him.
"It's nice to be back home," Auntie Mel says, choosing this moment to appear, perched on a nearby packing crate with a cigarette already dangling from her lips.
"That's nice, Mel. Really, I'm happy for you, but could you please-" What she said suddenly hits him, and John lifts his head. "What d'you mean, home?"
"I'm saying, mon chouchou, that I'd missed Atlantis. I had worried that she wouldn't survive all those years underwater, but Janus must have found a way to avoid that. Minimal water damage too. Well," she flicks ash onto the floor, "on this level, at least."
He pinches the bridge of his nose. "Are you trying to tell me that you are an Ancient?"
"I'd told you you'd get it one day."
"You cannot be an Ancient. They're all dead."
"Ascended to a higher plane of existence, but close enough."
"What about Mom then?"
"What about her?"
"You claim to be an Ascended being. You also claim to be my grandmother. How, exactly, does someone on a different plane of existence have a daughter on this one?"
"That's not an answer. It's an excuse."
Auntie Mel tosses her cigarette butt onto the floor and reaches for her ever-present silver case. "Let me tell you something, mon chouchou, the higher planes get boring after a couple of millennia. Everything's stagnant. There's nothing to do but sit around and watch the lower planes because they're the only things that remain unknown. So I slummed it for a bit on Earth and fell in love with a man I knew - knew in every way it's possible to know anything- could never love me back. Not in the way I wanted, at least." She opens the case and slides out a cigarette. "The rest is simple, really. I got knocked up, Emeline was born, and I stuck around long enough to raise her. End of story, really."
"Then why are you still here, haunting me?"
Her hand, unbidden, goes to her necklace. "Well that's my punishment, isn't it?"
"For intervening. We're not supposed to, and as a result I was made powerless to keep my own own daughter from dying a premature death, but have the leeway to keep her son alive by whatever means necessary."
"Oh." Well fuck.
Auntie Mel's eyes - Grandma Mélusine's eyes - flash back to him. "Don't take it personally. They others are legacy-builders, just like Patrick, and you're one-quarter Ancient. They've got visions of their empire reborn dancing in their incorporeal eyes, the hypocritical bastards. You know what I say?"
She lights her cigarette. "Fuck them all. You want to create an empire, go right ahead. You want to raze Atlantis into the ocean, you do it. Whatever the hell you want, so long as it's what you want to do. 'Cause that's all that matters in the end, isn't it? If you're happy."
John glances at her. Mélusine is sitting there, looking as she always has with that blue-grey pantsuit and her silvery blonde hair in a tight bun at the nape of her neck. There is nothing about her that screams Ancient and a lot about her that screams deranged imaginings of a sick mind, but he believes her. He can honestly believe that she is his grandmother and, like any grandmother, just wants her grandchild to be happy.
It's thirty-four years too late, of course, but it's better than anything he ever got from Dad.
"Don't mention it - no, really, don't. You never know when the others might be listening in."
John finds himself able to grin at her. "So no tips on how to defeat the Wraith?"
Mel snorts. "After my time, I'm afraid. Besides, I should go. You've got company, mon chouchou."
And sure enough, a second later the chime on his door goes off. Doctor McKay turns out to be on the other side, and whatever he intended to say is derailed by the question, "Major, do you smoke?"
"Not for twelve-and-a-half years," John says, clapping him on the back and leading him back out into the hall. Not all in his head indeed.
John likes Doctor McKay. It's kind of hard not to.
Okay, well sure there's the gruffness, and the rudeness, and the temper, and the ego, but once he manages to get past that, Rodney's actually a great guy. Sure, there's no excuse for the attitude, but when he says he's the smartest man in two galaxies, he actually is the smartest man in two galaxies, and that's something John can respect.
Plus, the man had the foresight to bring every episode of Star Trek ever made with him on his laptop, and that's something John can really appreciate now that his life has become it's own science-fiction adventure. It's nice to see other people struggling against worse odds than they are and coming out of it alive, even if it's only television.
And that's not forgetting the time he got to throw him over a balcony. Or the way he's saved his life half-a-dozen times already, or-
"Don't be stupid, mon chouchou," Mel says, blowing smoke in his face. "Knocking boots with this Chaya character isn't going to prove anything to anyone."
He waves a hand in front of his face, trying to dispel the smell. She's hanging around often enough now that it's starting to cling to everything, enough so that the smokers are starting to speak covetously of his stash. That and the fact that, after all this time without, he's come to hate the stench. "What am I suppose to be trying to prove?"
"That you're a man. And let me tell you what," she jabs her cigarette in his direction. Ash falls freely onto the floor, "being homosexual doesn't make you any less of a man."
"Who said anything about homosexuality?"
"No I didn't."
"Yes, you did. Last week, when you went on for an hour about how glad you were that the nanovirus didn't kill Rodney. And the week before that, when you went on for twice as long about how glad you were that Rodney at least made it off the planet, even if you couldn't save the other two. And after the Storm-"
Feeling himself flushing all the way to the roots of his hair, "Rodney's my best friend, Mel. Forgive me if I'm happy that he didn't die."
"Still so young, so naive," she says wistfully.
"Well, you've got to admit we'd be lost without-"
"Oh, not this again, mon chouchou." Mel snuffs her cigarette on one of the packing crates still crowding his room. "Go on your date. Make a fool of yourself. But don't come crying to me when it ends badly."
So, okay, maybe John's just a little bit in love with Rodney. But, really, aren't they all? The job's high-stress and there's limited opportunity to unwind, so naturally the emotions get built up and confused and-
-and who is he kidding? He's been in war before, but he's never felt anything like this. Rodney is the one solid thing he can rely on in Atlantis, his rock, and maybe he's a middle-aged scientist with thinning hair and deportment that would have gotten him shot at Brooks, but he's got these brilliant blue eyes and expressive hands and John wouldn't trade him for anything. Not even a ZPM.
"You know, when I said I wanted you to be happy, I wasn't being rhetorical."
John rolls his eyes and continues to fold his laundry. The Wraith will reach Atlantis in less than ten days and the world may very much come to an end at that time, but until then clothes must be washed and put away with some semblance of order. "I am happy. Except for the whole Wraith wanting to destroy Atlantis thing. That I could do without."
Mel watches him fold with clear contempt. For the first time that he can recall, she's not smoking and the withdrawal seems to be making her more irritable than usual. "You're pining. He's pining. It's painful to watch, and I've seen this show a thousand times before."
"I'm not pining."
His grandmother fixes him with a cold, hard stare.
"Okay, so maybe I am. But Rodney, I assure you, is not." He considers this statement. "Not for anything not caffeine related, anyway."
"How are you even my grandchild? I risked everything for love, mon chouchou, and you can't even work up the nerve to tell him how you feel. It's like the universe's worst joke - and let me tell you what, it's got some bad ones."
"I'll tell you what," he sighs. "If Rodney and I both make it through the battle that's coming, I'll tell him."
"That could take ages and, besides, there is no sex like for tomorrow we may die sex."
"It's my life, Grandma. Let me do it my way. Now pass me those socks, will you?"
It's summer 2005 and John's five hundred miles above the surface of Lantea. He's piloting a jumper into the side of a hive ship with a twenty megaton nuclear bomb in the backseat, and there are only two thoughts running through his head.
The first is the Creed: It is my duty as a Pararescueman to save lives and aide the injured. I will be prepared at all times to preform my duties quickly and efficiently, placing these desires before personal desires and comforts. These things I do, that others may live.
The second is the same thought, over and over again: I wish I'd taken the chance and kissed Rodney, just once.
They alternate, like a broken record, back and forth and with painful intensity as the hive ship grows in his viewscreen.
"I'm going in," he says and brings the drive pods up to eleven. There is a burst of light-
-and then he's standing in the center of the Control Room, a dozen faces staring at him in open shock, Grandma Mélusine standing at his side.
"There," she says, pulling her silver cigarette case out of nowhere. She's wearing something white and flowing for once and her hair is loose about her shoulders. For the first time since John met her, she looks like a proper Ascended being. "It's done."
"Major?" Elizabeth asks curiously, as if she cannot quite believe what she is seeing. "How? Who?"
Definitely not all in his head now. "This is Mélusine," he tells her. "She's an Ancient. And what," he turns back to Mel, "do you mean it's done?"
"My punishment. They said I could use any means... but apparently this is a bridge too far, mon chouchou." She slides a cigarette out of the case and makes to put it to her lips, but pauses halfway. Instead, Mel sticks it into the corner of John's mouth and tucks the silver case and lighter into the V of his TAC vest. "I won't be bothering you any longer."
"Believe it or not, I actually think I'll miss you."
"Of course you will, mon petit-fils. But I'll be watching," she starts to glow with a pure, white light, "and remember, you made a promise."
And then she is gone.
"John, my French is a bit rusty, but did she...?"
"Yeah," John grins at her, removing the cigarette from his mouth and sliding it back into it's case. "That was my grandmother. But it's a long story and we've got another hive in orbit. Think it can wait until we take care of it?"
"Of course, but-"
Chuck interrupts. "Doctor Weir, I'm picking up another ship."
"Another hive ship?"
"Negative. I'm picking up an IFF."
Then a voice comes on over speaker. "This is Colonel Steven Caldwell, commander of the Daedalus. We are ready to assist you."
In the excitement that follows, John looks over at Rodney. Their eyes meet, and in them John can read the same want, the same desperation he felt in the puddle jumper just minutes ago. He crosses the room before he makes the conscious decision to do so and, once there, places a hand on Rodney's shoulder. Then, leaning close enough that his lips all but brush Rodney's ear, he whispers, "I love you."
Then John pulls back, and there's a second where Rodney can do nothing but gape at him. And then he licks his lower lip and says, "I know," and it's a promise of everything wonderful that is to come.