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Chapter 6: My Brother's Keeper

Elizabeth had lost track of time since the first radio contact with Rodney and Dr. Beckett. It could have been ten minutes; it could have been several hours. Time seemed to have stopped, and her world felt as though it was condensed into a microcosm consisting only of this room. In reality, it had only been a scant thirty minutes since she spoke with the rescue team. Thirty minutes in which the major still lay unconscious by her side, oblivious to her ministrations as she rechecked his bandages and used a pad of gauze to wipe as much of the filth from his face and forehead as she could.

Needing to feel in someway useful, she once again took inventory of the meager med kit as if expecting its contents to have magically transformed into a fully stocked trauma center. Finding only the same bare bones medical supplies, she put the kit aside and ran an anxious hand over her troubled brow, pushed a wayward lock of hair out of her worried eyes, and let out a sigh of despair. Not knowing what else to do, she got up and stepped gingerly over the rubble, carefully negotiating her way through a minefield of broken rafters, tottered wall supports, and crushed ceiling panels. The doorway they have previously entered was no longer recognizable, having been blocked by collapsed beams that crisscrossed the former passageway and turned it into a tangled jumble of metal and stone. If the rescue team were ever to get to her and John, they would have to dig their way in.

A soft moan coming from across the room suddenly yanked her attention back to the man lying in the corner. Returning quickly to his side, she bent over him and gently touched his shoulder.

"John, can you hear me? It's Elizabeth. Please wake up." She softly urged as she watched his eyes slowly open and blink several times as he struggled to regain consciousness.

"What?...hmmm...Where am I?" The major answered groggily as he tried to focus on his surroundings and comprehend what had happened.

As awareness set in, he suddenly started as he remembered the walls tumbling down around them and recalled the imminent threat to Elizabeth's safety. Not yet registering the full extent of his injuries, Sheppard called out her name and tried to raise himself up in an effort to make sure she was unharmed. The abrupt movement sent a swift wave of agony rolling through his body, making him gasp in surprise.

"Ah, Christ!" He fell back hissing in distress as he gritted his teeth against the intense, stabbing pain.

Elizabeth tried to comfort the groaning man, wishing there were some way she could ease his suffering. "Shhhhh. Take it easy, John. I'm here. Try not to move or you'll begin bleeding again."

"Elizabeth? Are you all right?" Sheppard asked as he squinted up at her and took in her disheveled appearance.

"Don't worry. I'm fine. Thanks to you. You know, you really have to stop making a habit of saving me, Major. It's not healthy for you." She tried to use humor to distract him from the pain.

Sheppard's brief snort of laughter dissolved into a choked fit of coughing as he wrapped his arms around his midsection to ease the painful spasms.

As she helped settle him back down, he looked at her and asked. "How bad is it?"

"It's bad, but nothing Dr. Beckett can't fix." She tried to reassure him.

"Well, that man does love a challenge."

The major tilted his head back down against her folded jacket as the pain gave way to dizziness and nausea. He could tell she was lying through her teeth and that his injuries were life threatening. In all the times he earned himself a trip to the infirmary, he had never felt such unrelenting physical torment. Not to mention, one of his legs was painfully wedged under a beam, effectively preventing his escape. He wasn't in good shape, and he knew it.

As soon as Sheppard settled down, Elizabeth keyed her radio headset to call Beckett and inform him that John was now awake and alert.

"Dr. Beckett here. Elizabeth, how are you holding up? How's our patient doing?" The doctor asked as he responded to her call.

"Carson, the major just regained consciousness." Weir informed the physician.

"Good to hear. Is he lucid?" Beckett inquired before he requested that she check the major's responses to a few simple questions to determine his neurological status.

"The major doesn't seem to be suffering from any memory loss. He knows who he is, what day it is, and he remembers everything that happened. He's in extreme pain though. There are some ampoules of morphine in the emergency field kit. Should I give him some?" Elizabeth asked.

"No, I am afraid not, lass. Pain meds are not advised in cases of possible head injury. Is the major experiencing any nausea or dizziness?" The Scotsman replied.

As if on cue, the major started retching. Easing him over to his side until he emptied his stomach, she spoke into the mike as she rolled him back to prevent pressure on his damaged side. "That's an affirmative on the nausea."

She turned to the injured man. "John, are you feeling dizzy?"

When he nodded weakly, she informed Carson. "Yes to the dizziness too."

"Well, Elizabeth, it certainly appears Major Sheppard has a concussion at the very least. Listen, lass. This is very important. I need you to keep him awake. We need to prevent him from possibly slipping into a coma. And keep him from moving too much in case he has broken ribs. We wouldn't want him to be puncturing a lung or vital organ." Beckett instructed her.

"Carson, what if he's bleeding internally?" Elizabeth asked the doctor, almost afraid to hear his response.

"Well, let's just hope that is not the case. Best to stay steady and deal with one problem at a time. Are his wounds still bleeding?"

Elizabeth performed a cursory inspection of the dressings on his side and head before answering. "They haven't stopped completely, but they have slowed considerably."

"Aye, that's at least a hopeful sign. You're doing fine, lass. Just keep him calm and awake as best you can until we get there. I will be a radio call away if you need me. We are making good progress and will get there soon." Carson stated before they ended the radio transmission.

"They're coming, John. They're coming." Weir didn't know whom she was trying to assure more, herself or the major.

"I know they are. You're all doing the best you can. Thanks for being here." John was leaning back with his eyes partially closed, trying to save his strength.

"Where else would I be?" Elizabeth was concerned that Sheppard was slipping back into unconsciousness when the last part of his reply grew slurred and trailed off into a whisper.

She tapped his cheek slightly to rouse him again. "John, don't fall asleep on me. Come on, stay awake for me. You don't want me to have to talk to myself now do you?"

"Hmmm...What did you say?" Sheppard was momentarily disoriented as he was forced to become alert by the repeated soft slaps on his cheeks.

"I need you to stay awake for me, John. Talk to me." Elizabeth urged.

"About what? The weather? The weather's nice outside. I shoulda went to the south pier to read. Might have made it up to page 25 by now." The major was
rambling somewhat incoherently. But as long as he stayed conscious, Elizabeth wasn't about to complain about the topic of conversation.

"Well, when we finally get out of here, I will tell Carson to keep the nurses from bothering you. That way you can read your book while recuperating." Weir suggested.

"Actually, that sounds like a plan. Looks like I will be stuck in the infirmary for a while this time. Carson will put a name plaque on one of the beds to designate it as my own personal space after this visit. I know he will. That concerned and dedicated physician persona is just an act. I know from experience the man has a twisted and sadistic sense of humor."

"Why do you say that?" Elizabeth asked puzzled.

"Because he won't let me sleep. I am so tired right now, and he's making you keep me awake. You're sadistic too. I just wanna sleep...so tired." The major's mumbled reply faded off as he lapsed back into unconsciousness.

"John, wake up! Come on. Don't fall asleep on me." She shook his shoulder.

Elizabeth worriedly tried to no avail to keep him from succumbing to the darkness, but her efforts failed. She could only watch helplessly as his eyes closed and he lay still, leaving only the soft sound of his breathing to keep her company.

An hour had passed in which Elizabeth held vigil over the injured man. Periodically she tried again to wake him, but he continued to remain unnaturally still. During that long hour, Carson checked in several times, worried himself that his patient was unresponsive to any stimuli. But just when Elizabeth thought the major would never again awaken, she heard him begin to stir.

Sheppard announced his return to consciousness with a groan. "Crap, I was hoping this all was just a bad dream."

Elizabeth leaned over to meet the major's sluggish gaze. "John! Thank God you're finally awake. You had me worried when you would not respond. You need to stay alert."

"Remind me again why that is supposed to be a good idea?" He muttered. The throbbing in his skull was growing worse and the rest of his body felt on fire. It was getting harder to fight the pain.

"John, I wish I could give you something to help with the pain." Weir never felt so helpless in her entire life.

"Yeah, I hate to admit it, but I would give anything for one of Beckett's super potent pain pills right about now." Sheppard's face was sweaty and pale from the effort it took talk through the discomfort.

Seeing her look of distress over his condition, Sheppard tried to steer the conversation in a different direction. He couldn't stand watching her grow
increasingly worried about him. It was his job to worry, not hers.

"Elizabeth, you know, I never thanked you for giving me the opportunity to come to Atlantis for a fresh start. I don't think I ever mentioned how much I appreciate you taking the chance on me."

"I have not once regretted the decision to have you on my team, Major. You are an invaluable and integral part of this expedition. Don't you ever forget that. Many of us owe you our lives, myself included. In fact, it was my fault you are now laying here. I should have never run into the room. If you hadn't come after me, you would not have been caught in the collapse." Elizabeth stated in self-recrimination.

Grimacing with pain, the major spoke with as much force as he could muster. "Nothing is your fault, Elizabeth. Nothing! I'd do it again in a heartbeat. It is my job to protect you, no matter what. Even if it wasn't in my job description, I'd still do it."

"Yes, when we get out of here, we need to talk about this over-protectiveness of yours. Why are you so willing to put yourself on the line for others?" The leader of Atlantis asked her ranking military officer.

"I told you. It's my job to look out for each and every member of this expedition and keep them safe." Sheppard answered as though the question was unnecessary.

"No, there's more to it than that. Most people would not be as self-sacrificing as you are."

"I protect what I care about. What is so wrong with that?" Sheppard said defensively.

Elizabeth shook her head. "Nothing up to a point, but you need to take care of yourself too."

"I do. If nothing else, I am a survivor." The last part was stated with a touch of self-reproach and guilt at having survived situations others hadn't.

"Many would say you tend to throw yourself in harm's way too quickly as if you have no sense of self worth." Elizabeth pointed out.

When the major remained silent and did not respond to her last statement, Weir decided to press the issue further.

"I am serious, John. You are incredibly driven to make sure no one gets left behind. Why is it so personal?" She asked.

"Because when people get left behind, they are in essence being sentenced to die. You don't let people die if you can help it. You just don't." Sheppard looked away, but not before Elizabeth saw the flicker of pain in his eyes. Pain this time, she suspected was more emotional than physical.

"Is that why you did what you did in Afghanistan? I read your military records. Up until that little black mark you earned with your actions, you were on the fast track to a stellar career. Why would you throw away everything by disobeying a direct order to rescue two men you didn't even know? Why you, why not let someone else go in to get them?"

"Because it was easier for me to go. If anything happened to me, no one would be left grieving." The major admitted.

"Why would you even say that, John?" Weir tried to understand his reasoning.

Again the major fell silent. For several long moments, only the raspy sound of his breathing was heard as he found it increasingly difficult to draw breath against the pain of his injured ribs. As time passed, his breathing was becoming somewhat labored, making Weir suspect there may be damage to one of his lungs. Elizabeth sat quietly next to him trying to keep the worry from showing on her face and wondering if he had noticed the fear in her voice.

He sounded tired and weak, the words barely a whisper when he next spoke. "Because they're all dead."

"Who, John? Who're all dead?" Elizabeth asked in confusion.

"My family. My father. My mother. My brother. They are all dead." Grief tinged his quiet voice as he answered.

"Oh, John. I am so sorry. Is that why you never mentioned your family before?" Elizabeth said.

"There didn't seem to be any point. They're dead. They have been dead a long time, and nothing I can say or do will change that fact."

"I've found no matter how deep you bury grief, it will come back to haunt you unless you talk about it. Maybe it's time you talked about them to someone, don't you think?" She advised.

If he were in less pain, he would have shrugged. "Playing shrink now, Doctor? I didn't think your PhD was in psychology."

"It's called being a friend, John. Don't try to play it formal with me, either. Haven't we been through enough together that you can trust me with the story of what happened to your family? I can see how much it still hurts you. The grief will only continue to eat at you unless you face it and allow yourself to go on."

"You know I trust you, Elizabeth. I trust you more than anyone, even more than Rodney, and I count on him to watch my back."

"Then trust me on this, John. Talk to me. Tell me about your family." Weir quietly insisted, not wanting to let the matter drop.

The major coughed painfully before clearing his throat. "Fine. I can see you will not give up on this, and I don't have the energy to argue. My parents died when I was seventeen. My brother, Thomas, was fourteen. I had graduated from high school a year early, so I was already enrolled as a freshman at MIT. My parents had come to Boston to visit me on campus. Luckily my brother stayed home with a friend. We were heading out to do some local sightseeing when a drunk driver crossed the median strip on the highway and slammed into our car. We never knew what hit us."

"Oh my God, John. That's horrible." Elizabeth exclaimed.

"My mother was killed instantly. My father lingered in a coma for three days before he joined her." Sheppard tightened his jaw at the still raw memory.

"What about you?"

"They told me I was the lucky one. I was knocked out and had a few broken bones, but I survived. Like I said before, I am a survivor. Lucky me." The major winced as he shifted slightly to ease the growing ache in his side and abdomen.

He continued after taking a wheezing breath. "After I got out of the hospital, the task of settling my parent's estate fell to me. My grandparents had all died either before I was born or when I was a baby, so my brother and I were all that was left of our family. I went back to MIT, and my brother enrolled in a private boarding school nearby so I could look out for him. He was a senior in high school when I joined the Air Force."

Elizabeth watched the emotions play across his face as he recounted his past tragedy. "You said your brother was also dead. What happened to Thomas?"

"For some idiotic reason, he tended to follow big brother's example. He never learned how much that was a bad idea until it was too late. He decided to also join the military after graduation." Sheppard answered.

"So he enrolled in the Air Force too?"

"No, he signed up with the Marines and became a regular grunt. He was killed in action in an ambush outside Kabul."

"I'm sorry, John." Elizabeth touched his shoulder in sympathy.

"That's not the half of it. He should have never died. He was trapped behind enemy lines, and his CO left him when he ordered a retreat. That gutless son-of-a-bitch left my brother to die." Sheppard clamped his eyes shut against the hot tears that burned them as his voice choked on the long-repressed grief and anger.

"So that is why you are so adamant about never leaving any of your men behind." Elizabeth could now understand what caused this particular code of honor to be so ingrained in the major's personal makeup. Sheppard never wanted another soldier's family to experience the loss that he did.

Sheppard's voice had a hollow ring to it as he answered. "I couldn't be there to save my brother. I will damned if I will let somebody else's brother or sister die if it is within my power to help."

Elizabeth was about to comment when the major was wracked by a fit of violent coughing that momentarily took his breath away. Struggling to take in enough oxygen, he attempted to sit up. It was a mistake. The added movement only served to increase the discomfort until his entire body felt tortured. An agonized cry of pain escaped his lips as the protracted bouts of hacking overcame his debilitated body. As the spasms finally passed and he was able to catch his breath, Elizabeth held his shoulders and eased him back down to rest.

"Don't you give up. You're a fighter, so just keep fighting! You're the strongest person I have ever known, John. I know I haven't told you, but I rely so much on your strength. I don't think I could lead this expedition without you. You're my rock. I need you." Weir choked back tears as she spoke.

Biting back the pain, Sheppard tried to make light of the situation for her sake as he managed to softly quip. "I am not going anywhere. Besides, I couldn't at the moment even if I wanted to. I lay before you as your captive audience."

Smiling in spite of her tears, Elizabeth gently chided him as she patted his arm with one hand and held fast to his hand with her other. "Gallows humor is so not funny, John."

"But I made you laugh anyways. You need to smile more, Elizabeth. Whatever happens, promise me you'll still laugh and smile. I want you to be happy no matter what. Promise me." Sheppard tried to shoot her a reassuring grin, but a sudden spike of pain lanced through his gut and made him reply with more asperity than he intended. Wincing in agony, he grasped her hand back as he looked at her intently with pain-ravaged eyes.

Choking back an unrelenting feeling of trepidation, she caressed his cheek and pushed back the sweat-dampened hair off his brow. "I will only be content when you are healthy and whole again. If you think for one moment I can be happy otherwise, you are sadly mistaken, Major. So if you want me to be happy, you have to concentrate all your energy on getting well." Elizabeth turned her head to the side, trying to hide the tears she quickly wiped from her eyes before she turned back to look at him with a forced smile on her face.

It was breaking his heart to see her so upset, especially when her emotional distress was on account of him. She deserved so much better. He just wished he had swallowed his pride sooner and let her know how he felt. He wished he had told her earlier how much she meant to him. Damn his stupid, foolish pride and his fear of letting anyone ever get too close. Damn the walls he built around his heart after everyone he ever loved had died. Only now he could finally see those walls had never protected him, but only served to trap him in a self-imposed emotional prison instead. She'd never know she alone held the only key to unlocking the prison and setting his lonely soul free.

Now he was running out of time. He could feel it. He regretted not having the chance to explore their relationship further. He so wanted to know her better. He cherished the time they already had, however short a span it was. He treasured their quiet moments on the balcony, their private talks, their silly jokes, the meals they shared, the challenges they faced together, even their infrequent disagreements. But those were all the moments they were ever going to have. Unless a miracle happened, he was not getting out of this. The major had been caught in many predicaments in his lifetime, but this was ultimately one situation he knew he was not walking away from. His strength was sapped, and he was growing weaker by the minute. But he had to tell her one last thing, before it was too late.

Sheppard closed his eyes briefly as he fought down the pain. Then gazing back up at her, he spoke with a sudden intensity. "Elizabeth, there's something I have to say..."

She interrupted him just as she had on a similar occasion. That time, he had been trapped in the jumper that had gotten lodged in the stargate while his life was being drained away by the wraith-tick clinging to his neck. She hadn't wanted to hear his deathbed confession then, and she didn't want to hear it now.

"Don't say it, John. Please."

"I need to. I may not get another chance." He took a deep breath to try to ease the pain before continuing.

"You will. You're going to get through this, John. We're going to get through this together. I am right here, and I won't leave you. Not now, not ever. So you just stay with me. Please stay with me." Elizabeth pleaded with weakening man lying alongside her.

"I just want you to know that I love you, Elizabeth Weir. I will always be with you. Always and forever." Sheppard's voice dropped off as his eyelids fluttered while he tried not to surrender to the encroaching darkness, and he fought a losing battle to keep his mind and body from sinking back into oblivion.

Frightened by how rapidly the major's condition was deteriorating, Elizabeth gripped the wounded man's hand tightly and closed her eyes as if to will her own strength over to him and keep him alive.

"You hang on, John Sheppard. You hear me? Carson will be here any minute. You just keep hanging on. I...I love you too." She uttered the words almost as a personal mantra, hoping against hope that help would arrive in time.

The jagged sound of his breathing gave a little hitch and then grew softer. So gradually at first, she did not immediately notice when it finally trailed off completely. Opening her eyes at the deathly silence, she noticed his eyes too had closed. But it was the stillness of his face and the cessation of the normal rise and fall of his chest that truly alarmed her. Quickly releasing her grip on his now limp hand, she placed her hand over his heart and then checked the side of his neck for the pulse that was no longer there.

"NO! Don't you dare do this to me, John. Don't you dare! I will not let you die on me. I will NOT!" Elizabeth cried out before frantically beginning CPR.

She bent over his motionless body while she performed several rounds of rescue breathing. Then changing position, she determinedly started chest compressions. As she pushed down on his chest, she fought back the fresh tears that threatened to spill down her face.

"NO! Breathe damn you! Don't you leave me like this. Not like this, John. No. Not now!" She sobbed out in fear as she continued to work on him and fervently prayed Carson would come.


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