Elizabeth Weir stood alone on the balcony, in her usual spot overlooking the sea. She leaned against the railing and took several deep breaths, hoping the cool night air would help calm her mind.

Never had the mantle of leadership lain so heavily on her shoulders at it had today. Never had it been so great a burden as it had this afternoon when she stood in the control room holding John Sheppard's life in her hands.

She was accustomed to the habit of command, to the responsibility of making difficult decisions. It was a solemn obligation, a sacred trust that she held from Atlantis and her inhabitants. Few of the choices she had made as the city's leader had been easy – at the time or even in hindsight. Yet never before had she faced a dilemma that left her feeling so isolated, nor one in which there had been so much personally at stake.

In trusting Ladon Radim she had gone against Ronon's instincts, and Rodney's, and even Telya's ever-rational input. She told herself she would have done the same if it had been any of them in John's place. And that was true. But she wouldn't have felt the same. She wouldn't have felt the same terror, the same raw agony that the one person in the entire galaxy to whom she was the closest – the one person who helped her realize she wasn't alone – was about to be taken from her. Wouldn't have felt the same sick remorse in knowing that by refusing Kolya's demands she was sealing his fate. The understanding that there was no other choice didn't make it any easier to bear.

For an instant she wondered if the image of a pale Wraith hand sucking years of life from John's chest would be forever burned into her retinas, to be relived each time she closed her eyes.

It was true, what she'd told Ladon – if it had been solely up to her, her decision might well have been different. For the first time in two years, she had hated having to be strong.

She had to sternly remind herself that they had found him, that he was alive and well. She had seen that for herself when she'd met them in the jumper bay, aware that she couldn't relax until she knew for certain he was safely back home, yet bracing herself for the worst…

Carson had told them that a large percentage of those who survived a partial feeding died anyway.

She'd told herself she was prepared for that – almost believed it – but she had in no way been prepared to find him hopping out of the jumper looking just the same as he had before the whole nightmare began. The explanation of how he'd managed to pull off that particular trick had filled the entirety of their walk down to the infirmary. Which was where he was now, at Dr. Beckett's insistence, probably driving the entire medical team crazy…

She heard footsteps behind her and turned to find him sauntering towards her, as though her thoughts had conjured him out of the night.

If only it was as simple as that, she thought tiredly.

"Hey," he greeted as he approached, and her heart lifted to hear the carefree note in his voice.

"Hey yourself," she returned, her own voice almost steady enough. "Shouldn't you be resting?"

He shrugged. "No need. I feel fine. The Doc says I'm better than ever."

Seeing him standing beside her, young again, restored – after what they'd been forced to witness earlier in the day…she closed her eyes in a silent prayer of thanks for John Sheppard's uncanny ability to charm, that worked even on a Wraith.

She felt a brush of a hand over her arm as she leaned against the railing, and her eyes slid open.

His voice was hushed, muted by the darkness. "Thank you."

She shook her head mutely, staring out over the shimmering ocean. "Don't –"

"I mean it, Elizabeth," he interrupted firmly. "You made the right decision. I knew you would. And I knew you'd send a rescue team after me. You did the right thing. All the right things."

She shook her head again, unable to look at him, not just now when she was beginning to realize what she had so nearly lost. As a result she was caught off guard when he leaned towards her and took her hand, his strong, lean fingers tangling in her own. She looked down at their twined hands with a frisson of pleasure – realizing that it was the first time he had ever initiated contact between them.

"I know how hard this must have been for you," he said softly, giving her hand a gentle squeeze. "You're not military, you're not accustomed to having to order people to die. And believe me, I'm grateful for that."

She shuddered, the thought sending chills up her spine. "I don't ever want to become accustomed to that," she confessed in a low voice.

"I know."

To her considerable surprise, he kept his hold on her hand and slipped his other arm around her waist, gently pulling her back against him. With a sigh she leaned into him and rested her head on his shoulder, permitting herself a moment of greatly needed comfort.

They stood for a long moment, letting the silence wash over them. Then he whispered into her hair, "I told Kolya he had underestimated you."

Startled, she squirmed out of their half embrace, turning around to face him, and he took a short step back to allow her some space. She slowly searched his eyes, seeing the unmistakable pride shining in their depths. "He underestimated you," she returned, allowing her own fierce pride in him to surface.

He smiled his crooked smile. "Yeah. We make a good team."

"The best," she replied. It came out more seriously than she intended.

He ran a hand through his already rumpled hair, watching her closely. "So - are you okay?"

"No." She shook her head. The unsettled feeling in her gut would take some time to disappear, of that she was sure. Too much had been out of her control, too much had nearly gone so wrong…

She felt him take her hand again, and the slight tug on her fingers pulled her away from her morose thoughts. She wasn't okay, not completely. But they were here, they were alive, and somehow the world was once again spinning on its proper axis. She summoned a slight smile. "But I will be."