Still, she should be grateful that everything had gone according to plan; with her and Ronon, Teyla and Carson, and McKay and John each taking responsibility for specific shield generators, they had managed to access all ten generators responsible for maintaining Atlantis's shield before they were discovered, as well as planting a fake trail for the Asurans to discover.
John had disliked being separated from her- he'd taken care not to make it obvious, but Elizabeth had been around him long enough to understand his more subtle moods, and he hadn't been happy when she'd assigned teams-, but he had accepted her reasoning for the team allocation to create a good impression on the Asurans; if the city's resident scientific genius and the legendary Phantom of Atlantis had attempted and failed to rescue the two prisoners, then the rescue team was clearly serious about trying to save them. Claiming that they intended to destroy Atlantis with C4 in the shield generators might have been a basic plan, but that was its main advantage; the C4 was so obvious as a threat that the Asurans probably wouldn't look too closely to spot what they'd really done.
On a brighter note, she'd noticed during their hurried progress through the city that the central tower had been repaired from the damage it had sustained during their arrival last night, without running into any Asurans until they were ready for them. The Asurans' attempt to activate the city's stardrive had almost been a problem, but Doctor Beckett had managed to get to the control chair and launch a few drones in time to disable the drive without damaging the city any more than necessary. Seeing Ronon taken down so easily when they were captured had been disconcerting, but Elizabeth was still confident in the plan's potential for success; they just needed to get the Asurans to take the right action now…
"Is everyone all right?" John asked, looking around at the rest of the team as they stood in their current cell, apparently awaiting the arrival of their fellow prisoners; Elizabeth was surprised to see that John was still wearing his cloak, considering all the weapons she'd seen him remove from it, but guessed that the Asurans simply hadn't thought it worth searching or removing.
"So far," Elizabeth confirmed.
"I'll be fine," Carson said.
"Why aren't we dead yet?" Ronon asked, his tone grim as he asked the question everyone else had been trying not to think about.
"They probably want to see what else we have to tell them," John said casually, before looking between the others with a slight apprehension in his eyes. "On that topic…"
"We did everything we had to do," Teyla confirmed.
"So did we… in the nick of time," Elizabeth said, recalling how the Asurans had arrived just as she was putting the last touches in place; she might have given the plan away if Ronon hadn't brought her time by engaging the Asurans in a fight.
"Me too," John said grimly. "So, all we need now is-"
He abruptly stopped himself as the cell door opened again and the Asurans walked back in, this time accompanied by General O'Neill and Mr Woolsey, who walked off into a corner of their cell.
"Did you really think you'd be able to stop us?" one of the Asurans said, looking firmly at John.
"Naturally," John said, looking at the Asuran with a slight smirk as he folded his arms. "I'm the guy who's been kicking Wraith ass for the last two decades, and you're the losers who've been sulking in your city for ten thousand years because your parents liked the other kids better."
"Excuse me?" the Asuran said, looking pointedly at John.
"You may talk about how you're so smart, but in the end you've been on your own so long that you're out of practise at doing anything other than coming in and blowing stuff up," John said, his tone becoming increasingly mocking as he looked at the Asuran; Elizabeth didn't know if she should admire John's approach or fear for his life. "Yeah, you took out the Ancients who'd settled here because you had changed your base code, but given that they weren't prepared for a fight, all you had to do was show up and start firing; you're still completely stupid-"
A powerful punch to John's face was followed almost immediately by the sound of metal hitting metal, but it took Elizabeth a moment to realise that the source of that sound was John's mask, lying on the ground virtually in front of her, apparently knocked off his face by the Asuran's last blow as John lay on the ground in a daze.
He wasn't wearing his mask…
If this had happened earlier in their… relationship… Elizabeth would have been grateful for the chance to finally learn what John looked like under that mask that had been a constant part of him ever since she'd first met him, but now she was just stricken by a sudden sense of panic at the thought; John should have been free to reveal his true appearance on his own terms, rather than the Asurans forcing him into that position…
"Regardless of your opinion of our abilities," the Asuran said, glaring down at the injured man, "your plan has been discovered and dealt with, Phantom."
As though on some silent signal, Elizabeth joined the rest of the humans in the cell in looking pointedly at Woolsey, the one most likely to have disclosed the pertinent information about the plan.
"He put his hand in my forehead," the IOA representative said indignantly. "How can you resist that?"
"Well," General O'Neill said with a casual shrug, "I like to close my eyes and think of England."
"Mr Woolsey informed us of everything we need to know," the Asuran said, as one of the other Asurans opened a bag and revealed one of the blocks of C4 they'd previously planted. "All of your C4 has been removed from the emitters."
"Sure about that?" John muttered from the floor, still bent over with his face pressed against the ground, apparently unwilling to get back up just yet.
"All generators have been accounted for, Phantom," the Asuran said, an edge of what could almost be called disdain in his voice despite the Asurans' normally emotionless approach. "They won't be destroyed when Daedalus arrives, which should be in any moment. Your plan has failed."
"Talus," a voice said over a radio. "The Daedalus is approaching the planet."
"As expected," the Asuran that was apparently called Talus said. "Activate the shield."
With that command, the room was briefly filled with the glowing blue energy of Atlantis's shield before the Asurans around them all collapsed into nanite piles; the plan to replace shield control crystals with the crystals from the ARGs had been a risk, but it had evidently paid off, particularly with John and McKay's fake rescue attempt to feed the Asurans additional misinformation via O'Neill and Woolsey.
"Ha!" McKay said, grinning as he looked at the piles of atomised Asurans. "It worked! I can't believe it worked!"
"What?" Woolsey said, looking at the team around him. "What just happened?"
"We turned the city shield into a giant Replicator weapon," McKay explained, looking at the two original prisoners with a grin. "They just killed themselves!"
"I knew it!" O'Neill said, pointing firmly at McKay.
"You knew?" Woolsey said, looking at the general indignantly.
"Well, I've seen Carter crack enough codes to know that McKay was faking the door thing," the general said with a shrug. "Add in the fact that you were accompanied by a guy who's meant to have been here for over two decades-"
"Jo- Phantom!" Elizabeth said, repeating his code name to herself as she turned to look at the masked man, still lying on the ground in a daze at the Asurans' attack…
Then John turned to look at them, responding automatically to his name being used in a friendly tone of voice, and Elizabeth was unable to stop a brief gasp of horror escaping her lips.
She'd always known that he had his reasons for not wanting her to see his face, of course- after knowing him for the better part of the last two years, and even learning his full name after Rod's visit, the idea that he had a 'secret identity' that he wanted to maintain by wearing that thing was almost too ridiculous to even think about; he'd only keep wearing the mask if there was something else prompting him to wear it- but still, it was one thing to imagine what was under there and another to actually see it.
Underneath the mask, John Sheppard's face, in the most polite term that she could think of, was a mess. The right corner of his mouth was twisted upwards in an expression that evoked mental images of a snarl, made even worse by the fact that the skin around and above his left eye pressed down on the eye slightly, leaving it with a narrow glare that she'd never fully registered when he was wearing the mask; the shadow created by the eyehole made it harder to see that eye when the mask was on. His right eye, by contrast, had the skin pulled back significantly around it, giving it an impression of being perpetually widened in surprise or fear, combined with a slightly skull-like look as the eye-socket was rendered obvious to outsiders; as with his left eye, the shadow created by the mask hid the full scale of the eye from view.
The skull-like visual effect around the eye was continued by the sight of his right cheek, where the skin was so tightly pressed against the bone beneath it that she could almost swear she could see his teeth where his cheek pressed against his inner jaw. A part of the cheekbone was actually visible on the left side of his face, giving the impression that the skin had been torn off or burnt away in some accident and never had the chance to grow back. The idea that the damage had been caused in a fight of some kind was reinforced by the reddish appearance of the skin on the left side of his face, giving the skin a rough, raw appearance like it had been burnt in some past accident, the smooth lines of the Phantom's mask replaced by rough, uneven lumps of skin covering the skull.
Now that she could see his face, Elizabeth wasn't entirely sure why he'd covered it up; it wasn't exactly pleasant, but-
"WRAITHSPAWN!" Ronon and Teyla suddenly yelled, grabbing their weapons from where the Asurans had dropped them and aiming their guns at John as he lay on the ground before Elizabeth could even have the chance to speak.
The reaction from John was almost as instantaneous; before Elizabeth had even realised what he was doing, the formerly disorientated man had leapt to his feet and knocked Teyla and Ronon's weapons out of their hands with a powerful kick, subsequently grabbing them by the throats and pinning them to the wall before either of them could react.
"NEVER CALL ME THAT AGAIN!" John roared, glaring at Teyla and Ronon with a cold glare that Elizabeth had only seen him assume when he was facing Kolya during the Genii invasion.
It was only after a moment's silence that John released his grip on the two Pegasus natives, stepping back to stare at his hands in horror as Teyla and Ronon fell to the ground while the other five people in the cell looked apprehensively at him.
"Oh God…" he whispered; Elizabeth could have sworn that his eyes briefly flickered in her direction as he spoke. "No…"
Even as Elizabeth moved forward, a hand raised in an attempt to comfort him, John grabbed his mask, leapt to his feet and ran from the room, one arm pressed over his eyes while the other hand held his mask, the hero who had saved Atlantis so many times clearly too shaken to waste time putting it on.
"John, wait!" Elizabeth yelled, her feet sending her hurrying after John before she'd even made a conscious decision to pursue him, thoughts of keeping his name secret forgotten; she didn't know what had set John off like that, but she knew that she couldn't leave him alone…
As the head of Atlantis ran out of the cell after the man with the messed-up face, Jack made a mental note to talk with Woolsey about keeping quiet about this part of the proceedings in the aftermath (After everything that the Phantom- who appeared to be named John- and Elizabeth had just done, they both deserved some time to themselves) before he turned to look at the two Pegasus natives.
"OK," he said firmly, hoping that age would give him some authority in the absence of anyone here he officially had rank over, "while we're on our way to the control room to stop ourselves being bombed by our own guys, care to explain what just happened there?"
"He is a Wraithspawn-!" Teyla began, eyes wide with horror.
"Which means what exactly?" McKay asked, looking sharply at her; he was so unused to the idea of Teyla being prejudiced against something that he just wanted her to stop it so that he could focus on what really mattered.
"Wraithspawn," Ronon said grimly, even as the group began to move as quickly as possible towards the control room. "They're what happen when Wraith feed on women when they're with child; the resulting children are generally born disfigured and almost always dangerous."
Jack might not have been a science whiz, but he'd read about what happened to people who were high on the enzyme, and he knew that children whose parents were on drugs could have problems later on in life; put the two images together and he could see why people might be anxious about the results of Wraith enzyme used on pregnant women…
"And you think that the Phantom's like that?" Doctor Beckett said, looking at Ronon in surprise. "He's saved our lives more than once-"
"Wraithspawn always snap," Ronon said firmly. "We've been lucky so far at best; maybe he's not even the Phantom-"
"Well, if he's not the Phantom, I'd like to know who the hell is the Phantom!" McKay pointed out as they hurried around a corner. "I mean, I've been here for three years and that guy's the only guy we've seen who even might be the Phantom I've heard so much about; unless he upped stakes and left this city some time before we got here and let this guy start wearing the mask, I think we can assume he's the real deal!"
"Is anyone else… wondering… why Doctor Weir… called him John?" Woolsey asked, panting as they ran; of everyone present, he was the one in the worst shape, considering that Teyla, Ronon and Jack had all been trained soldiers (Even if Jack acknowledged he didn't get out of the office much these days) and McKay and Doctor Beckett went through a fair amount of training in Atlantis, and was therefore lagging behind the others.
"Actually… well, I noticed it, but maybe it's-" McKay began, taken aback at the simplicity of the question.
"It's because that's his name…" Doctor Beckett said, with a tone of realisation in his voice despite the fatigue as he continued to run. "He's John Sheppard!"
"He's who?" Jack asked, looking at the doctor in confusion.
"Well… you were told about our encounter with an alternate universe a month before we found the Tria, right?" Beckett asked, looking curiously at the colonel as they began to hurry up the stairs towards the control room.
"You mean when the other McKay came through because what we were doing was screwing things up on his end?" Jack said, briefly indicating the Canadian in question for confirmation. "Yeah, I got that."
"Well, while he was here, Rod mentioned a Colonel John Sheppard who possessed the strongest Ancient gene in the expedition in his world," Doctor Beckett explained, a slight smile on his face as he ran. "I tried to look for information about him when I got back to Earth- I thought that it might be useful to find him and bring him in-, but discounting any John Sheppards who were too old or too young to have achieved that rank by now, and a few other possibilities, the best candidate I found was a John Sheppard who'd vanished from Earth about twenty years ago on a family holiday."
"And you think this is him?" McKay said, looking at the city's chief physician in surprise. "You think this… Phantom guy is that John Sheppard?"
"Then… he is from Earth?" Teyla said in surprise. "But… his face-"
"Yeah, yeah, that's fascinating and all, and it's probably a good guess, but can we just focus on the fact that we're going to get hit with a large load of nuclear bombs if we don't get to that control room?" Jack asked, trying to pick up the pace as they ran.
He had to admit that he found Beckett's theory interesting, even if there were still several questions that needed answering before he'd consider it a definite possibility, but right now Jack had to deal with the more immediate concern of telling Colonel Caldwell that they were back in control of the city; they'd worry about the guy in the mask with the messed-up face later.
Even as she ran, Elizabeth wasn't sure what she intended to accomplish; if John was serious about getting away, she knew that he knew enough about Atlantis to make it virtually impossible for her to find him if he didn't want to be found.
All she could do at this point was keep on hurrying after him and hope that John's obvious shock would be enough to stop him doing anything too complicated to get away from her. As she ran around a corner, she saw John's cloak hurrying towards a transporter, but managed to put on an extra burst of speed and dive through the transporter doors before they could close, leaving John staring at her in shock, his disfigured face still obvious as his mask was clutched in his hand.
"What-?" he began.
"John," Elizabeth interrupted, staring firmly at him- he appeared to be calmer now, but his earlier anger wasn't something she'd forget; she had to keep him focused on the situation at hand-, "I know that Teyla and Ronon's reaction to you was extreme, but-"
"Actually, it wasn't," John said, staring solemnly at her. "Compared to some of the reactions I've received, that was relatively tame."
"Tame?" Elizabeth repeated incredulously; with John acting so much calmer now, it was easier to forget what he'd done to Teyla and Ronon just moments ago and focus on him as the man she'd come to know over the years, even with his new, twisted face. "John, they tried to attack you-!"
"I spent months dealing with that kind of reaction from entire villages before I got the mask together back when I started hunting Wraith," John said with a grim smile. "After a while, I was so used to the idea that people would start attacking me when they saw my face that it was easier to wear that mask all the time than get screamed at again; two people about to shoot me doesn't count as extreme…"
Elizabeth couldn't believe it; John had experienced worse than what she'd just seen from people when he'd done nothing but try and help them… and he considered that all right?
"But… why?" she asked, looking at him in confusion, suddenly stuck for what she should do next when faced with an unmasked John who was actually answering personal questions about his pre-Phantom life; everything she'd known seemed to have been rendered useless since he took that mask off. "I mean, I admire what you did, but if you were getting that reaction… why do it in the first place? Why not just… well…?"
"Leave them to their fate after the first few planets I visited started screaming at me?" John finished for her, his smile still grim as he looked at her. "Someone very important made me promise that I'd never abandon the innocent to their fate like that, and I had to keep that promise."
"What promise?" Elizabeth asked; if the idea of John talking about his past was a surprise, the idea that someone else had inspired him to become the Phantom was even more of a shock. "Who could mean that much to you?"
For a moment, John stared thoughtfully at her, his expression contemplative, before he sighed and nodded.
"After everything else we've been through," he said, nodding grimly at her, "it's time you learned the truth."
With that statement, he turned to the transporter's control panel and pressed a button on a section of the city that Elizabeth had never known possessed a transporter, the doors opening to reveal a darkened corridor. Before Elizabeth could ask what he was doing, John walked out of the transporter and headed towards a door further down the corridor, opening it as Elizabeth caught up with him. Inside the room, she was surprised to find nothing more than a glass chamber in one corner with a woman inside it. The woman was wearing a simple long white dress and had hair so white it was almost silver reaching down past her shoulders, her face surprisingly smooth despite the lines of age, her eyes closed in a peaceful manner that left it unclear if she was sleeping or… something else.
"Who is she?" Elizabeth asked, staring at the old woman in surprise, not realising that she'd spoken in a whisper until she'd done so; something about this whole room gave the impression that she was in a shrine…
"She was my guardian angel," John said, a smile on his face the only sign that the term he'd just used was a slight joke even to himself as he reached out to stroke the glass chamber, staring wistfully at the woman within it. "She taught me all that she could about the history of Atlantis, the technology it possessed, where I could find the first of the ZPMs I'd need, how to use the database, how to read it…"
His smile became more solemn as he reached out to place his hand on the glass, looking at the woman lying within the stasis tube with a tenderness that clearly showed how much this woman meant to him. "She gave my life meaning and believed in me when nobody else ever did, and I couldn't save her…"
"Who was she?" Elizabeth asked again, looking curiously at the figure in the tube.
"Oh, you know her," John said, looking back at her with a smile. "Her name was Doctor Elizabeth Weir."
Coming up next, I answer the question of how John got here and what happened to his face in the first place, as well as looking at his first meeting with the time-displaced Elizabeth Weir, as he began the journey that would turn him into the Phantom…