"John?" Elizabeth asked, prompting him to turn and look at her as she walked up to join him at the balcony. "What are you doing here?"
"Just thinking," John shrugged.
"When you could be down there celebrating the completion of one of the greatest feats we've accomplished over here?" Elizabeth asked, her expression half-teasing and half-serious as she indicated the Orion. "John, the only reason that ship's survived long enough to get this kind of refit is because of you-"
"And who do I appear as?" John countered, regretting his bitter tone even if he felt obligated to make his point. "The Taranians don't know that I'm the Phantom, remember?"
"Just because they don't know that you're the one in the mask doesn't mean you can't go down there in it," Elizabeth said, even as her sympathetic smile made it clear that she understood what was troubling him. It had been a difficult decision, but it had been decided that, like with the Athosians, only a few key Taranians would be told the truth about the Phantom's history once they'd determined who they could trust with such knowledge, to prevent the Pegasus natives accusing him of aiding them only to aid Earth; John didn't want to get bogged down in the task of reassuring everyone that he had been defending them for their own sake as much as protecting his own world. "Look, enough people in Atlantis appreciate the challenges of your position not to question you if you go down there as the Phantom; Colonel Dixon worked with SG-1 on enough occasions to understand when it's time to bend the rules."
Looking down at the grounded spaceship for a moment, John finally smiled in approval of Elizabeth's assessment. Even if he had agreed with the decision to keep his origins secret from most of Pegasus, there was no harm in confirming that he approved of what the Taranians had done with the Orion since he met them.
Besides, on a practical level, he had to acknowledge that Elizabeth had made a deeper point than she realised; he might not want too many people to know that he was the Phantom, but that shouldn't stop him from going down to mingle with the general population of Atlantis and any visitors to the city as John.
He'd been an official part of the expedition for months; he needed to start using that for more than just issuing orders and knowing they'd be obeyed. He wasn't ready to go out in the mask for purely leisurely pursuits yet, but maybe he could stop in for a little chat…
It had never been a position he'd aspired to, but the more time he spent on the Orion, the more Colonel Dixon found himself enjoying the role. Once the Ancient gene therapy had been introduced to the SGC after they regained contact with Atlantis, all SG teams had been given priority in case they encountered any more Ancient technology, and while Dixon knew he wasn't up there with General O'Neill or John Sheppard in terms of the degree of control he had, he wasn't exactly a slouch either.
Getting the assignment to take the Orion had been a surprise, but Dixon had appreciated the reasons given for the decision quickly enough; they needed someone experienced with the kind of things that were out in the wider galaxy, without too many preconceptions about spaceship combat considering the unique nature of the ship. Once the finer details had been straightened out, he'd managed to convince most of the original Taranian crew to stay on board, and a few members of the Atlantis expedition had actually made a permanent transfer to the Orion, and he was proud to say that they'd all come together well, incorporating their contrasting experiences with the ship to create a very efficient system.
It was a bit difficult for him to find the time to make it all work while also spending time with his wife and kids, but he was looking into getting permission for his wife to be read into the program to let him talk with her more often when he was 'on duty'. He'd helped out SG-1 enough times over the years to have earned some favours from General O'Neill, and there was precedent for letting spouses know about the Stargate in exceptional circumstances, but it was still taking time for the fine details to get straightened out.
Still, for the moment, as he sat in one of the smaller buildings overlooking the pier that had become Orion's unofficial 'dock' when it was at Atlantis, watching as his crew chatted with the Atlantis expedition, Dixon found it easy to forget about his own troubles in favour of appreciating why so many people had become so attached to this city since its discovery. The commute out to Atlantis in particular and Pegasus in general might be a long way, no matter what resources they acquired to improve their ability to travel via wormhole or upgrade their hyperdrives, but it was unquestionably worth it to take in all the sights at the other end.
The one thing none of the Earth members of the crew were happy about was the decision to maintain the illusion that John Sheppard and the Phantom were separate people, but even if Dixon wanted to believe that Norina and some of the Taranians would understand, he privately had to admit that it was best to keep something that big under wraps for the moment. With the Genii's response as an example of the most extreme possible results, Captain Alyssa Satterfield's tactical analysis had led her to express her concerns about how the Taranians might react at even a hint that the Phantom had helped them repair the Orion just for the expedition, rather than acting in his public role as the hero of the Pegasus Galaxy, so it had been concluded that it was easier to keep the secret.
Dixon wanted to believe that a few of the Taranians could be trusted with that knowledge, but it was better to wait and be sure than screw up and ruin their future relationships with some of their best allies.
That question aside, relations with the Taranians were progressing well, as they assisted the crew in understanding the ship while the SGC provided the Taranians' colony with support. A few geologists and biologists from the SGC had even moved to the planet to better study how the formations and life-forms they were familiar with from Earth had adapted to conditions in Pegasus since the Ancients came here. Relationships had been awkward at first, but Dixon was pleased at how few of the Taranian crew had asked to leave Orion for the colony. Most of them took their leave with their families, naturally, but for the most part, they were all settling comfortably into their new routines as part of the crew, offering some suggestions for where Orion might go on their next survey mission based on what they'd translated from the ship's database. They had taken to trying to search Atlantis's database using some of the access codes salvaged from the Orion's old control crystals, but the codes only made it easier to refine their search parameters rather than making it easier for them to find everything. Most of the technology and resources that had been left in Atlantis had been identified by the man formerly known as the Phantom since he first arrived in the city, but Doctor Weir had confirmed that he'd only searched a certain area of the city around the central tower before concluding that he knew enough.
Actually, Dixon was surprised at how easily he'd accepted the idea of the Phantom's existence. Even before General O'Neill had spoken in his defence, he'd been intrigued at the very idea of Atlantis having its own masked vigilante, and the discovery that the Phantom had started out when he was a teenager from Earth with no prior knowledge of the Stargate program or the Ancients just made it all more impressive.
OK, so the Phantom had a leg-up from Elizabeth Weir through that bizarre time-travel paradox thing he'd heard so much about, but that didn't mean he hadn't come a long way however you looked at it.
Maybe I'm just a bigger Batman fan than I thought, Dixon mused, as he picked up another drink from the makeshift bar that had been established in this area, but that guy really makes you admire him.
"Colonel Dixon?" Norina asked, his new chief scientist walking up to him with a smile, wearing her new outfit of loose trousers and a long coat as opposed to her original floor-length dress. "Is everything well?"
"It's fine; just taking in the group," Dixon said, nodding reassuringly at Norina as he indicated the gathering around them. "I was just… you know, I'm not sure I've ever told you or your people how much we appreciate your willingness to adapt whatever plans you had for the Orion once we showed up."
"On the contrary, we're the ones who should be thanking you, colonel," Norina smiled back at him. "The Phantom helped us get the Orion back into working condition, but your own expedition has given us all we need to ensure that it can make a true difference in this galaxy, and we are proud to assist in that goal in any way we can."
"No hard feelings about not owning the ship in full?"
"We may have repaired it, but we always knew that we weren't experienced enough at conflict on this kind of scale to use it against the Wraith to make a real impact," Norina said dismissively. "Believe me, we're all grateful for your decision to take charge on that issue."
"So long as you always remember that your input is just as valued as anyone else's," Dixon countered.
"Always a good thing to keep in mind," a voice said from a nearby corridor.
"Pard-?" Dixon began, his eyes widening as he turned to look at the corridor and realised that the Phantom was standing there, positioned just to the side of the door so that he couldn't be seen by the rest of the room even as Dixon and Norina could see him clearly.
"Phantom?" Norina said, her voice low but excited as she looked at him. "You're here?"
"Always have been," the masked man smiled, as Dixon and Norina walked over to join him in the corridor. "I just… prefer to take a back seat for the moment now that people are starting to step up on their own."
"Really?" Dixon asked, confused about what John Sheppard was doing showing up to something like this in his Phantom outfit rather than his military uniform. "So… why are you even here?"
"Well," the masked man chuckled slightly, "let's just say it's… been a while since I went anywhere to do more than kill Wraith and keep people safe." He turned to look directly at Norina. "I just thought that, after everything you helped me with in terms of getting the Orion into working order, your people deserved to know that I can't guarantee I'll be around a lot, but you should know that I'm still here; you just… don't need me around on a regular basis."
"We owe you a great deal-"
"And I appreciate that, but my main reason for helping you was always to help you; you don't need to think of yourselves as owing me anything," John said reassuringly. "All I ask is that you continue doing what you can to help the people of Atlantis and the rest of this galaxy deal with the Wraith; I'll still be there to help out when I'm really needed, but I think this galaxy's reaching a point where I'm not needed full-time."
Norina looked uncertainly at the masked man for a moment, but finally smiled and nodded at him in understanding.
"Well… it's not like we didn't manage without you before…"
"And you're not losing me now; I'm just not stepping in as much as I used to," John said, smiling back at her before he turned to Dixon. "Keep it up with the Orion, Colonel Dixon; I expect great things from her."
"I'll do what I can," Dixon nodded in response, smiling slightly as the Phantom turned and vanished back into the darkened corridor behind him.
Nobody had ever been able to work out how the man did that, but these days it was just a neat trick and a useful edge if they had another incident like that time with the Genii and the storm; Dixon, for one, wasn't going to complain about Atlantis's military leader knowing things about the city that nobody else did.
He just hoped things reached the point where Norina and a few others could be told the truth about John's real history sooner rather than later…
Anyway, next chapter we move to the new assault on the Asuran homeworld, which will set off a chain of events that culminate in a moment I'm sure everyone has been waiting for…