"You two are close, aren't you?" Col. Caldwell spoke hesitantly, as if broaching a delicate subject yet his tone offered consolation rather than judgment. Still, the words stabbed through Elizabeth Weir like an icicle and her body reacted with an adrenaline rush the likes of which she hadn't felt since her rookie days in diplomacy. As far as she was concerned, the question was a challenge, yet again calling into question her motivations for continuing to support John Sheppard as military commander of Atlantis.

She was not a rookie, however, and was too experienced now at control, too good at hiding any discomposure, so it took only a moment's pause for her to turn back to Caldwell and reply calmly but sincerely, "We've been through a lot together, yes."

"You've got the best team in two galaxies…." The colonel spoke on, but Elizabeth's mind buzzed with the anxiety she was still experiencing and she barely registered what he was saying. Finally making her exit, albeit curtly, she fled the room and found herself walking, almost desperately, away from the encounter. Walking felt good, relieved the pounding of her heart, eased the tumbling of her thoughts, so she bypassed the transporter and turned instead down the long, lightly populated corridors of Atlantis back toward Stargate Operations.

As the exertion calmed the fight or flight response of her body, she forced herself to explore why she felt so threatened by Caldwell. There had been no accusation in his manner, and he seemed to be making an extra effort to be friendly these days. As she thought again of his parting words, "If you need someone to talk to..." her anxiety trickled into anger and she quickened her steps yet again. Only seconds later she berated herself and forcibly unclenched her hands… "WHY does he annoy me so much?" she whispered the words aloud to herself, punctuating the question with a stab of her hand.

The easy answer came quickly so she allowed the thought to surface uninhibited. "Because he wants John's job and I feel like he's manipulating me, like he's trying to become my buddy so I'll accept him in John's place". It had taken all her resolve to ask Caldwell to fill in for Sheppard while he fights the Iratus retrovirus. To indulge in her childish impulse to ignore Caldwell's offer and lay the burden on Sheppard's usual 2nd in command would have been nothing less than a slap in the face. As much as she might relish the wicked thought, she would never actually jeopardize Atlantis' security in that way, she was too good a diplomat… Still, it rankled that Caldwell had accepted so quickly and eagerly. She wanted him to make her beg him to do it. She wanted him to say, "are you sure?" and "why don't we wait a few more hours before it comes to this". She wanted him to be brusque and professional, not syrupy and sympathetic as if John had already died. She Wanted…. John.

Back. She wanted John back.

"You two are close, aren't you."?

A gasp escaped from her that might have been a sob and she realized she had stopped completely, standing still in the corridor so completely lost in her thoughts she wasn't even sure where her steps had taken her. Hearing footsteps behind her and cheerful conversation, she stepped to a window and gazed at the city below spreading out into the gently lapping ocean waves. Her contemplative pose did not invite salutations and the footsteps passed on by without pausing or interrupting their chatter.

Ruthlessly, she again forced herself to examine her fear. Why was she so afraid of someone else in Sheppard's place? In an effort to be honest with herself, she painfully admitted that she feared losing her position and her authority over the Atlantis mission. Since day one, she had been a civilian in a military establishment that respected her diplomacy and her political connections and little else. During the siege her worst nightmare had walked out of the Stargate in the form of Col. Everett, taking Atlantis away from her within 10 steps and fewer minutes of arriving.

Sheppard however was not like any other military commander she had yet met, and she realized in a rush of insight that she had never felt threatened by his leadership. Oh, they had argued…fiercely, but he never made her feel as if he doubted her authority or her vision for the expedition, never seemed ambitious for the bigger job. Even in their extremely uncomfortable standoff during the fiasco with the nanovirus plague, she sensed his insubordination was driven by an overwhelming urge to protect, rather than to usurp her. Later, upon reflection, she even thought she had understood his reaction at the time: it had been only weeks before that he had stumbled off a jumper with a bloody, infected gunshot wound and two broken ribs to report that two of the scientific team had died under his command.

So much about John was unexpected in her experience. He was intelligent, as Rodney put it to her once "Brainy smart, not 'Figure out the best way to shoot someone' smart." She thought she knew what he meant. Caldwell was a brilliant military mind, but not in the creative, intuitive and tangential way Sheppard was. Yet it wasn't as if John wasn't a competent soldier. He defended Atlantis and his team with deadly professionalism, sometimes even frightening violence. Elizabeth idly wondered if the fact that he was a Pilot, an intellectually demanding and training intensive career, could account for the seeming incongruities. He even looked different from the Marines under his command, his lean lithe form moved in a loping prowl rather than the stick-up-the-ass strut she considered military standard. She could never describe him as burly. Oh yes, he was strong, but with a wiry athleticism she associated with surfing and skateboarding and youthful sports. In her mind's eye she could see his long body leaning against the doorframe in her office during staff meetings, his weapons belt slung low across his slim waist, a slight smile playing along his lips underneath the tousled mop of his dark hair…

With a jolt and a blush she retreated from that dangerous and inappropriate line of thought. No matter how honest she wanted to be, that was a topic she could not broach, not even to herself…yet.

Where had she been before? Oh, yes. Sheppard was not like Everett, and she was beginning to understand what she appreciated so much about him. It was true that Everett had come around, that he had in the end granted her equal status both professionally and even personally. But it had been a battle, helped not a little by Sheppard himself who went to bat for her in those critical first moments. She smiled slightly in gratitude at the memory of John standing beside her, risking the ire of his newly arrived commanding officer, declaring the loyalty of her expedition team and his own respect for her.

Only hours later, her respect for him had soared even as she drowned in grief watching a Wraith hive ship along with John and a lone puddle-jumper explode into nothingness.

Elizabeth closed her eyes against the thought of losing John Sheppard, again, and the despair bordering on panic she had been feeling since he had found the first Iratus bug scales threatened to overwhelm her. She placed her hands against the cool glass and cursed the way idle thoughts led from one to another to another to somewhere she did not want to go. For a while she just rocked on her toes, hands against the glass, crushing the fear back into a little box and storing it away, deep deep into her mind. Finally she took a deep breath and began to walk again, slowly, as if the weight of her thoughts were dragging behind her.

"You two are close, aren't you?" "We've been through a lot together."

This time her smile was rueful as more memories flashed unbidden into her mind:

John's voice, raspy with suppressed pain, filtering over the radio "I'd like to say something while I still can."

John holding out his hand and jerking her off the gate room floor, asking "Are you all right?…You will be."

John standing on the stairs to the jumper bay, determination etched into every line of his being, his eyes more than his voice saying "I have to…and you know it."

Her disbelief giving way to undignified joy when she heard his voice over the radio, "How many Sheppards do you know?"

Her impulsive hug as he stood beaming at his arrival home by transporter onto the gateroom deck.

Immersed in reflection, she suddenly found herself at the conference room doors where she heard the voices of Major Lorne and Dr. Beckett filtering through in deep conversation. She paused a moment to gather her composure.

She owed Sheppard so much more than a job. She needed him for more reasons than simply because she feared someone else in his position, some professional, some not so legitimate and barely admitted. And HERE was how she could help. This was what she did well, finding solutions to problems. She would stay by his side declaring her respect no matter what came to pass, as he had stood by her during the siege.

"Caldwell better watch his steps", she thought fiercely, a wry smirk crossing her determined face. Her professional focus restored, she took a deep breath and strode into the room to discuss options with Dr. Beckett.