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Despite the incredible weakness in her fragile body, Elizabeth could not prevent a twitch of both annoyance and bemusement as she listened to Rodney and John Sheppard bicker above her. She took a shallow breath and sighed. She had known Rodney for some time, first meeting him in Siberia when she was part of the American delegation dealing with the amazing discovery in Antarctica. Even though he was arrogant and a little abrasive, he had so much life and energy in him. He treated each discovery like a child unwrapping toys at Christmas, and that joy was infectious. The other scientists might have moaned about his less desirable qualities but they had to admit that working with him was an amazing experience, learning so much from the internationally acknowledged genius.

She learned very quickly that Rodney had plenty of colleagues in his chosen field but none were his peers because they simply could not keep up with his incredible mind. In truth, Elizabeth was not sure he would know what to do with a friend if he ever gained one. He was the most socially underdeveloped person she had ever met - and she had met plenty of despots and dictators in her career. Still, there was something about him that called to her and once she decided to treat him like a three-year-old, smacking him down like an adoring mother disciplining a beloved child when he made some inappropriate remark towards her, he reacted quite positively.

She asked for him to be transferred to Antarctica and she made him her chief scientist, never regretting that decision.

In the months that followed, she prided herself on becoming his friend and confidant, and on helping him open the door to finding other friends in Carson Beckett and Peter Grodin. His interactions were still childish in many ways but he was learning and growing as an individual.

The hardest moment of her life had been listening to the control room doors slamming shut and hearing Rodney tell her that the gate room was flooding and he had no way out. He had drowned that day trying to save everyone, including her, refusing to give up hope and though this Sheppard had smugly remarked that he had ultimately failed, she knew that simply was not true. Her presence here - but mostly their presence - was the proof of that.

Tiredness overcame her but they were still there when she opened her eyes again, she took another breath and told them more of the story of the failed expedition and her sadness at losing John Sheppard and Radek Zelenka.

And so they bickered above her about ultimate failure - the soldier and the scientist - and her lips twitched again as she realized that this was not rivalry in the same sense that she had felt between her and Colonel Sumner. This was a deep and caring friendship that had blossomed under the duress of life in the Pegasus galaxy.

More amazingly, this was the most unlikely friendship she could imagine for either of them. Even though she had known John Sheppard for but a few weeks before they left on this mission, it was her chosen skill to decipher the people she met, to find their weaknesses and strengths and use it for or against them according to her mission. Sheppard was an anomaly, a loner who allowed few people into his inner circle of friends and then held onto them with all his heart. He had risked everything, including his career, to save two of those friends, ultimately failing because McMurdo was not the kind of assignment given to promote or praise a pilot. At McMurdo, he was a glorified taxi driver albeit in a helicopter, working from a dead-end outpost on the furthest, coldest reaches of the world. Basically, he was one step from being kicked out of the military altogether and had been given the assignment in the hope that he would resign his commission.

Jack O'Neill had known all of this, and perhaps that is why he had not made too much of an argument against Sheppard joining the Atlantis expedition and was even willing to give him the extra nudge he needed.

She knew she didn't have long now for even though her mind told her she was still a vibrant woman in her mid-thirties with a lifetime of achievements and greatness ahead of her, her body felt every one of the ten thousand years held in stasis. With little strength remaining, she spent her waking moments watching two men who, according to her mixed up time frame, should have been strangers but acted more like lovers. She saw the subtle looks and small touches that spoke of a closeness that went beyond platonic friendship. She heard the teasing in Sheppard's voice and the pleasure in Rodney's and felt sorry for her alternate self who had not registered the relationship. Perhaps it had come on so slowly and silently that it had yet to ping on the younger Elizabeth's radar, whereas she had woken up expecting them to still be strangers and found so much more.

She wanted to laugh because she had entertained ideas of finding more than friendship with Rodney should the expedition prove to be a one way ticket with no means of ever returning home to Simon. Then she wondered if this anomaly of soldier and scientist finding everything they needed in each other was truly such an anomaly at all because she had seen the same love and understanding between Jack and Daniel Jackson; the dashing colonel and an anthropologist with such differing personalities, not even allowing death to come between them. Now that same pattern seemed to be repeating in the dashing major and a genius astrophysicist.

She opened her eyes again only to discover that night had fallen. She drew in a happy breath as her younger version indicated towards the two little boys who had insisted on staying up past their bedtime. Rodney was fast asleep on another bed with a blanket draped over him while John was stretched out on a seat close by. She recalled speaking to John alone earlier, and smiling when he told her it was her birthday, and then Rodney had come into the infirmary and John's eyes had lit up with a love so profound that she could not help but adore him for giving Rodney what he needed most - someone to love him.

She wished she could put her alternate self at ease, wished she could take away some of the pain that would fill her younger version once she realized that John and Rodney had found each other. All she could do was tell her younger self to enjoy each moment...and to breathe as if each breath might be her last.

As Elizabeth moved to tell Rodney the significance of the five gate addresses, Elizabeth drew in her last deep breath, smiling as she released it for the final time.

THE END