Granted, Elizabeth had spent the entire flight glaring at him in a manner that somehow discouraged even McKay from asking what he'd done that could have been so terrible, but John could cope with Elizabeth's anger if it meant that she was alive to express it in the first place. The fact that McKay had picked up on the tension between them had provoked a few questioning stares that had frankly surprised John, since he didn't expect the scientist to have that kind of insight into human psychology, but the man had at least remained quiet about it until they were safely in hyperspace.
"OK," the Canadian scientist said, turning to look at the man in the mask after Ellis confirmed that they were back in hyperspace, "what happened down there that's got you all so steamed?"
"Oberoth almost captured me and John risked his life to get me to safety," Elizabeth said, looking coolly at her military leader.
"What?" McKay said, looking at her with a new sense of urgency. "You were nearly captured? How did you-?"
"This," John answered, a grim smirk on his face as he reached under his cloak to show his Ancient shield device to the rest of the team. "I re-tuned this thing to generate an anti-Replicator energy frequency that disrupts their nanites whenever they make physical contact with it; how's that for a secret weapon?"
"You… re-tuned a shield device… to an anti-Replicator frequency," McKay said, his words carefully chosen as he looked at John. "How?"
"I memories the frequency you were using for the jumper's shield and told the shield device to generate a slight variation of that frequency," John explained. "Bit of a risk, I know, but I-"
"You took a risk."
"OK," John looked back at Elizabeth, already prepared for her disapproving expression, "I get that you don't approve, but I was trying to save your life-"
"By putting yours at risk; what if that hadn't worked and Oberoth had captured you as well?" Elizabeth said, getting up to glare at him in a pointed manner. "You're meant to be responsible for the security of Atlantis, John; what kind of example does it set if you put one person's safety over your duty?"
"He didn't," Ronon cut in. "You're the leader of Atlantis; he was thinking about all of us."
"And you think the SGC wouldn't appoint a replacement if I died?" Elizabeth asked sharply.
"Not one we would trust," Ronon said simply.
"Uh… he does make a good point," McKay noted, indicating Ronon as he looked awkwardly at Elizabeth. "I mean, we're all still working on adjusting to the new dynamic of John being in an official position in the city; do you really think anyone else is going to be that keen on leaving a man with no official training or qualifications in one of the most important positions in the city?"
"There are options-"
"That would satisfy everyone in a position to have some kind of impact on the final choice?" McKay countered. "I can get why you're angry, but-"
"I did what I did because I won't leave anyone behind," John cut in, looking firmly at Elizabeth. "McKay and Ronon are right about the problems we might face with a new leader, but in the end, I made that call because I won't leave someone to die if I can do anything to stop it. If you have a problem with that, we'll talk back in Atlantis; right now, let's just get home."
The glare Elizabeth shot in his direction was enough to 'assure' McKay and Ronon that this discussion had only been tabled rather than ended, but for the moment, that was enough for all of them.
Once they returned to the city, things had gone by comparatively quickly; their power supplies were still good, but with the situation with the Asurans in a state of potential limbo it was better to get the city back to a planet as soon as possible. The city's existing ZPMs had still had more than enough power to keep up the ship's engines, so John had just gone back to the control chair and piloted the city directly for the nearest suitable planet. Based on scans taken by the Apollo, they'd changed from their original destination to go to a different world from the one they were originally aiming for, in case Oberoth had managed to access anything from Elizabeth's mind about their first planned destination. The landing had been a little shaky, considering John's relative inexperience with actually piloting Atlantis as a ship and the need to keep track of the angle and speed to limit friction on something this size, but John liked to think he had pulled it off smoothly enough, touching down in a suitable part of its vast ocean, even if McKay had criticised the whole procedure after the fact.
With the SGC updated via Stargate on the current situation, and the long-range scanners suggesting that the Asurans were already turning on the Wraith, it seemed that the mission to Asuras had been a success in more ways than one, which meant that the only thing John had to worry about now was the reason he was waiting on the balcony like this. The planet apparently had five moons as opposed to the single moon from the last one, but the two he could see from here were still impressive; the Orion had been assigned to conduct a more detailed assessment of the planet from orbit once it arrived at the new world.
In the end, the mission had been a close call, but looking around the ocean spread out before his usual balcony, the view changed even as the primary location felt the same, John felt that the effort had been worth it. They'd managed to outmanoeuvre a high-stakes plan from an exceptionally dangerous adversary, turn the Asurans into a potential asset against their bigger and more long-term enemy, and even gained a new ZPM out of the deal. They had made arrangements to send the new ZPM back to Earth to give the SGC a chance to maintain regular access with Atlantis outside the necessity for the Inter-Galactic Bridge, and now-Colonel Samantha Carter had expressed her pride at their efforts in turning the tables on the Asurans.
On a personal note, it had been nice to see one of his old instructors from SG-1 was doing well, considering that Sam Carter was now a full colonel rather than just a lieutenant colonel (although he did have to wonder why people didn't come up with a more distinctive title for that kind of rank) but right now, John had to face far more personal matters than congratulating an acquaintance…
"Where else would I be?" John smiled awkwardly back at Elizabeth as she walked onto the balcony, suddenly wishing that his mask showed more of his face than it did; with something like this, he felt increasingly aware of just how limited his mask was in terms of his ability to express himself, just when he really wanted to make his feelings clear. "And you're here-"
"Because you saved my life by taking a stupid risk," Elizabeth cut him off, glaring firmly at him. "Argue that it worked all you want, John, but what you did on Asuras was foolish to the point of being reckless; what were you thinking?"
"I was thinking about saving your life-"
"While putting your own on the line; putting aside the fact that just creating the chance that we would both get captured was stupid, Atlantis needs you more than it needs me, John!" Elizabeth countered, stepping forward to glare at him directly.
"Atlantis needs a leader who knows how things work here-"
"This expedition needs your expertise in this galaxy; we would be in serious trouble if you hadn't done so much work for us!"
"And I'm only here because you accept me for what I am; can you honestly say anybody else from Earth would be as willing as you are to let a guy with no official qualifications-"
"And you have SG-1 and General O'Neill willing to vouch for you with any replacement; it's hardly a good reason to put yourself at risk! You've saved this city so many times, you're the reason we even have the Orion in Earth's fleet, and you think you can put all that at risk just for me?"
"It wasn't a risk; I had a clear plan-"
"Relying on something you'd never even tested before then, from what you've told us; why did you do something so stupid-?"
"BECAUSE I LOVE YOU!"
As soon as she heard those words, Elizabeth froze, her eyes widening as she stared incredulously at the man before her, only vaguely registering that he was looking back at her with an equally stunned gaze, unable to believe what he'd just said.
Damnit… I just wanted to make it clear I respected her; why did I have to say that?
After a moment's silence, John swallowed slightly and stepped forward, reaching out to take one of her hands in his as he stared at her; if he was going to make a clean break of this, he had to get it all out there before he lost his nerve.
"Atlantis could last without both of us," he said, his voice suddenly lower as he looked at her, expressing a tenderness and uncertainty that Elizabeth didn't think she'd ever seen in him before. "But I... I couldn't last without you."
Stunned into silence, Elizabeth could only look back at her military commander, unable to think of a clear reply.
She'd been aware of a certain… interest… in John ever since she'd met him during the Genii invasion, but she'd tried to put that aside as just a childish crush since those first days after they'd begun to develop their unconventional working relationship; the idea that he actually had real feelings for her…
John broke the silence with a sigh.
"I know... look, I don't expect anything from you because of this," he said at last, only the slightest gleam in his eyes underneath his mask indicating how much this was hurting him to say. "I know you can't... care for me... the way I do for you, but that's... that's fine; I've known that since the Genii invasion, and I've... grown used to it. It's just... even if it means you hate me, I couldn't let you go like that…"
He sighed again. "Look, if this means you... don't feel comfortable around me any more, I can deal with that; I'll... back off, and-"
"How long?" Elizabeth asked.
"Huh?" John said, caught off-guard by her question.
"How long have you... felt that way about me?" she repeated, not sure how she felt about what she was asking but wanting to know the truth anyway.
"Since..." John began, pausing for a moment as though trying to find the right words, before he spoke again. "Since I met you, really."
"What?" Elizabeth asked, her mind latching on to an inconsistency in that phrase. "But... you said you knew I couldn't feel that way about you since the Genii invasion; we only met then-"
"I don't think you understood me, Elizabeth," John interjected, a slight smile on his face that belied the pain in his eyes. "I said that I've felt that way since I met you..."
His voice trailed off, leaving Elizabeth to stare at him in confusion for a moment before her eyes widened.
"Hold on; you mean... when you met the other me?" she said, looking at him incredulously. "But... but she was… you were fifteen!"
"Tell me about it..." John said, shaking his head slightly at the memory. "I only thought of her as a friend at first- maybe a mentor, really-, but then there was this woman I met when I was stuck behind that temporal dilation field, and even when she expressed an interest in me, I realised that I couldn't even kiss her without feeling like I was… betraying your memory… she was nice enough, but she didn't have your strength…"
He sighed wistfully, turning around to look out at the sea beyond the balcony. "Add in the fact that I couldn't exactly… do anything with anyone else over here without disrupting the image of a mysterious guardian, and I spent the next few years focusing more on building up my rep until you came here…"
"John…" Elizabeth said.
"I get it," John said, stepping back from the balcony and holding up his hands defensively. "I'm the guy who's spent years training to kill life-draining monsters with my bare hands, you respect me as a military leader but there's no way you could love a monster-"
"John, you're not-"
"You wouldn't say that, but you'd be thinking something on those lines," John said, looking more ashamed than she'd ever seen him. "I've known since the Genii that I'm… look, I'm a monster, and I accept that, but if you can just… we can still work together-"
Refusing to keep him hanging any longer, Elizabeth reached up, practically yanked off John's mask, and pulled his face down, her lips meeting his in an impulsive kiss. It was sloppy at first, John's lips frozen underneath her in shock, but then his mouth opened and she felt his tongue meet hers, wrapping her arms around him to deepen the kiss. For a moment, Elizabeth simply revelled in the feeling before her, as something she had never seriously thought about suddenly became the thing she'd always wanted without realising it, but then the moment ended as John pulled back, his twisted face now marred by confusion rather than its 'simple' disfigured state.
"Why…?" John asked, looking at her in a daze.
"Because," Elizabeth looked solemnly at him, holding up the mask to make her point clear, "if that was our first kiss, I didn't want this to be there when I remembered it."
"First?" John repeated, his initial daze replaced by incredulity as he looked at her. "You mean… you-?"
"I mean," Elizabeth said, reaching over to take his hand, a slight smile on her face as she looked at him, "that, if you're interested in taking this further… and you think you can remain professional when we're dealing with a crisis rather than doing something that stupid when you know it's me or Atlantis…"
She smiled. "Well, I think we can give this a shot."
John could only smile incredulously as he pulled Elizabeth back towards him for another kiss, each movement of his mouth against hers only leaving Elizabeth wondering how she had earned this kind of affection from the most dedicated and fascinating man she had ever known.
She knew that this wasn't going to be easy, but after John had spent years trying to live up to the last words of her other self to protect a galaxy that would have lashed out at him the second he so much as took off his mask, if the only thing he'd never expected but always wanted was the chance to be with her, the only thing she was worried about right now was if she would live up to the image he'd formed of her.