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For A Day of Laughter

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chapter one - rescue

 

From the word GO it had been deliberate and determined; a military operation executed with exquisite timing to a achieve a single, absolute goal.

But the reason for this suicidal raid only struck them squarely in the chest - in the heart - when they finally entered the interrogation cell.

Ten days had passed since the fight in the bar; if it could have been called a fight. A lamb attacked by wolves; defenceless and weak he’d fallen slowly, fighting even as the drug had exploded through his system and brought him down from within as the brutes attacking him brought him down from without.

 

The band of rescuers rushed the cell, killed the three interrogators, found their prize. And Garibaldi’s heart broke anew.

Despite being held by metal restraints at his neck, wrists and ankles, Sheridan still slumped in the straight-backed metal chair. His eyes, barely open, attempted to focus first on Stephen, then on Michael. Words crumbled from his dry lips, mumbled and disjointed yet audibly a vague threat aimed at Garibaldi. Michael heard it, tore his eyes from the man he’d once called ‘friend’, unable to look at him, to meet his milky, uneven gaze.
Not daring to fire at the control panel lest he should fuse it, Garibaldi used a few of their precious seconds figuring out the correct command key to release the prisoner, and freed, John fell forward into waiting arms.

Hurriedly checking for any injuries that might halt their escape, Stephen tried to talk to him, to make him understand what was happening. At the same time, Lyta crouched by the side of the chair and reached with her mind into Sheridan's.

She lasted a single moment before she was forced to pull back from the mangled chaos of his thoughts. And she too glanced at Garibaldi, her look almost blame but not, almost despair but not.

Murmuring words of safety and encouragement, Stephen hauled the captain to his feet, having to force himself to ignore the pained protests torn from the man who was now his foremost concern. His fingers dug gently into John’s side, expert touch feeling for broken ribs and any other obvious signs of injury.

To his horror he found not just broken bones but swelling, a possible sign of dangerous internal bleeding. He said nothing, knowing it would accomplish nothing in that place. No choice, they had to get Sheridan out of there, they had to move fast.

 

Michael stayed out in front, Stephen and Lyta each supporting Sheridan while still keeping their weapons up. This was their one chance. If they were captured they would die. Michael had sworn that he would take John with him if that happened, that he wouldn’t let Clarke’s men harm the man any further.

 

The guards were never going to fall for the limp explanation Garibaldi had fed them.

In the sudden, quick firefight, Stephen had to release his hold on Sheridan to turn and fire at the guard closest to him before he himself was killed. At the same time, another man made a grab for Lyta as he fell and she pushed the captain away to fight off the grip on her leg.

Sheridan lurched forward, vision skewed, and collided with the wall with a hiss as he tripped over the leg of the guard Lyta was grappling with. Out of the corner of his eye, Michael saw him steady himself, saw him eye the PPG lying discarded on the ground.

Apparently Sheridan was going to fight this time. Michael's words got caught in his mouth as he watched John bend to picked up the weapon, watched him weigh it in his broken hands. He knew what was coming and he managed this time to force John's name in a shout over the quiet mayhem, but even as he succeeded himself in wrestling his attacker's PPG from him, he knew it was too late. He heard Stephen say they should get going, but knew John hadn't heard it - or wasn't listening.

Time stood still for just a moment. Sheridan seemed to study the two other guards for just a moment, like the victim of a science experiment meeting its designer for the first time. Michael had no clue if the two were personally responsible for any of John's injuries, for a single second of what he’d endured, but they wore the same uniform as those who had been. They wore that uniform and Michael knew it was important, because in John's mind at the very least, they were as guilty as those who had committed the crimes against him.

One of them moved, stupidly, perhaps aiming at Garibaldi or perhaps not. But John fired, like Michael had known he would. He shot the first guard twice before aiming at the prone figure on the ground and firing five PPG shots in quick succession.

Michael cleared his throat, watched John turn unsteadily and for the first time since his betrayal looked into the eyes he'd known so well.

"I'm fine," John said, impossibly. It was a lie. Ten seconds later, he dropped to the hard ground, strings finally cut, all reserves finally depleted.

Initially, Stephen thought the captain had been shot by an unseen assailant. But there was no one else in sight and there had been no sound.

He helped Michael as they dragged the unconscious man up between them and followed Lyta as she led the way back through the labyrinth of tunnels that had brought them to this hellhole.

There was only one further encounter with the enemy before they cleared the main staging area. Not one of their aims was off this time. Their purpose had made them crack shots. In their wake they left four men dead. Whether guilty or innocent, the deceased had chosen the wrong side at the wrong time.

The unspoken question of choice sent a shiver down Garibaldi’s spine. Accountability was something he’d thought a lot about in recent days. But the worse pain was still to come, and he would willingly accept it if he had the knowledge that Sheridan was alive to cushion his fall.

 

They continued through the grey, soulless passages out toward the main perimeter. There were the inevitable small firefights, but it seemed like no one had been expecting a rescue attempt here, not while they were still on Mars, and security beyond the staging area wasn't tight. Perhaps Clarke had imagined that the resistance would wait, or that there would be no rescue, that the rebels were too busy to risk their lives for the life of one man.

But that one man was important, he was special. And they had Michael Garibaldi masterminding their moves. Having himself only just been released from his own prison, he would have stopped at nothing until Sheridan was either free or dead.

Outside the main perimeter only a few guards awaited them. Exhausted from half-carrying, half-dragging their ward through the maze from which they’d escaped, Garibaldi and Franklin should have been flagging. But they were close to relative safety now. They’d come this far and to fail was unthinkable. They carved their way through the men, killing every one of them, spurred on by the proximity of this one small triumph.

Their second wind took them away from the place from which they’d stolen the most precious of items.

 

They stopped as soon as they got underground. Stephen and Michael deposited their ward rather unceremoniously on the hard, dusty floor against the rock wall.

Franklin did not hesitate. He started a quick yet thorough examination of the man they’d plucked from right under EarthForce’s nose. Seeing John drop as suddenly as he had had frightened the doctor. But his tertiary exam found plenty of evidence to explain it.

Stephen didn’t need a toxicology scan to tell that Sheridan had been poisoned. The colour of his skin and the dilation of his eyes pointed to drugs having been administered to him.

Rather than starving him, Stephen guessed that at least some of the food Sheridan had been given had contained toxins that were still ravaging his system. After a couple of doses, he wouldn’t have been able to keep even clean food down. He’d been given fresh water presumably, or he would have been dead by now. But by the marks in his arms and the state of his lips, dry and cracked as they were, it looked as if IV lines had been used to administer liquids and more than likely a concoction of drugs.

But there was very little Stephen could do about it here. He had counteragents back at the resistance base that would start to combat the toxins, but there was still a way to go before they reached that level of safety.

Beatings had taken their toll on Sheridan’s body. Bones broken in the initial bar brawl had started to knit with deformities. Cuts sustained in that same fight and no doubt in subsequent displays of brutality had become septic and were slowly leaking their own poisons into John’s depleted bloodstream. Bruises caused by the boots of men were clear on his arms and under his torn clothing. Burns from what Stephen guessed had been small electrodes mottled his wrists and chest.

"He should be dead."

But the comment was uttered under his breath and only Michael heard it because he hadn’t left John’s side.

"But he isn’t dead." Garibaldi looked up, eyes begging. "Don’t let him die, Stephen. Please. He can’t die."

Franklin momentarily met the intense expression but he didn’t answer. What answer was there? He wasn’t going to give false reassurances, false promises he might not be able to keep.

He cleaned and field-dressed John’s open wounds as best he could out here. But against the need to quickly treat his patient’s injuries was the desperate need to get him proper medical help before those injuries killed him.

Returning from her brief scout around the immediate vicinity, Lyta crouched beside them. "We have to move."

The two men knew she was right, they didn’t have the time to wait. The trail of dead guards that they’d left would soon be noticed and followed like breadcrumbs back to Sheridan’s empty cell then out to them.

Apologising silently to his captain as they hauled him once again to his feet, they started on their way.

*

Felicia, the one resistance group member Number One had assigned to the rescue, was waiting for them. A raised eyebrow was the only sign that they received to say she was impressed. She either hadn’t expected them to return with Sheridan, or hadn’t expected them to return at all, Stephen summised. But she said nothing.

When they finally reached the resistance base, Number One’s reaction was much the same.

She showed them to the makeshift infirmary without comment and immediately Stephen shifted from hero tp doctor. With Michael’s help he made Sheridan as comfortable as he could on the low, blanketed bed before starting into the task of prolonging the man's life.

He undressed John slowly as the patient lay inert, careful not to reopen any raw wounds. When the full story was revealed, when everything was explained, Stephen cursed anyone whose name came to his lips. ‘Bastards’ didn’t seem fierce enough to revenge the battered body, the shattered man who lay in front of him. But it would have to do for now. They would eventually have retribution, one way or another.

The stench of his clothes was on John's skin. Stale sweat, urine, excrement, vomit. Basic hygene was something they'd definitely deprived him of. Before Stephen could do anything, he had to wash his patient with luke-warm water and the gentlest of touches. Cleaning away the dirt revealed a catophany of injuries - burns, cuts, bruises that painted a purple-black picture over the canvas of his torso - enough to shake the doctor's faith in the human society. He was momentarily ashamed of his own species.

It brought tears to his eyes, as unprofessional as that might have been, to put yet more needle-marks in Sheridan’s pin-cushion flesh, but he had no choice.

Getting an IV line set up was the first hurdle. The veins in John’s arms wouldn’t be raised and finally Stephen had to opt for putting in a central line; a semi-permanent IV running straight into a chest artery.

"It’ll be over soon, John, I promise." It was all the comfort he had for the seriously injured man, and he wondered if it was anywhere near enough. .

He swabbed, stitched and dressed cuts that were more like tears in the almost translucent skin. He administered injections through the IV that he hoped would combat the drugs wreaking havoc on Sheridan’s internal organs, against his reluctance to add to the concoction there.

Finally, hours later, after he'd done all he could without the technology available to him back on board Babylon 5, he dressed in dry, clean, loose clothing lent to them by a resistance member who was two sizes larger than Sheridan used to be. Then he crouched by John’s head and spoke directly to him, tipping a glass of water to his lips, hoping to coax a response. Who knew what, if anything, was going through John’s disrupted mind.

He got no response. The water dripped from the rim of the glass, over John’s lips and down his chin. Stephen swore softly, wiping the liquid from the cold skin with his finger.

"Come on, John," he muttered uselessly. "I need your help here."

He rubbed his eyes and glanced up, seeing the empty saline drip hanging from the rusted pole they were using to hold it. Rising to his feet, he stretched up to remove it in order to put in a fresh one, to keep the liquids flowing into Sheridan's parched system.

 

For a man in his condition, John was lightening fast. His arm shot out and grabbed the PPG from the holster strapped loosely around Stephen’s waist. Stephen backed away with a shout that was more surprise than anything but it brought Garibaldi and Lyta running into the room.

Sheridan’s hand on the PPG was, incredibly, rock steady as he aimed at Franklin, broken, disfigured fingers already starting to heal wrapped around the handle which was gripped into his palm, one awkwardly rested against the trigger.

Once again, like when they'd been in the staging area, John’s muddled brain had apparently decided that he was going to fight back.

"I know wha’you’re doing." His words were slurred but despite his state he seemed determined to put his point forward. "Y’can stop it. I won’t do what you want…. I’ll kill you all first."
As he spoke, a cut in his top lip opened and blood began to drip from it into his mouth, another wound in a cast of thousands. Stephen wondered if John was used to the metallic taste of his own blood or if it still churned his stomach as the warm fluid ran down his throat.

John might have been the instigator of a rebellion or the leader of an army fighting a war for the freedom of millions, but to his doctor he was a captured and broken man, hurt and afraid. His hand was starting to shake with the effort of holding the weapon and he added the contorted fingers of the other for support.

Hands half up in the air, Stephen glanced back at Michael and Lyta before trying to reason with his patient. "John, it’s us. You’re safe now, this isn’t illusion, it’s real."

An expression of mocking curled the captain’s bleeding lips. "You won’foul me again. I know…." He turned his head slowly, looking at where Garibaldi stood with Lyta. "You think he’d be here if’is was real?" A pitiful laugh, a harsh, painful sound, escaped his throat, miserable and despairing. But an odd light was on in his eyes and he swung the PPG to point in Michael's vague direction. "I could kill him. Wouldn’t do any good but I could…."

He choked for a moment, throat too dry for all these words. His eyes shone, wanting to be wetted with tears he deserved to cry. But his body would not give up its dwindling reserves.

Tensed, Stephen glanced at Michael, watched him waiting for John to think it through, make up his mind.

Stephen himself dared not move. Sheridan’s actions were expectedly unpredictable. But he wondered… would Michael make any move to save his own life? Or would he allow himself to be killed? Did he feel that he deserved that fate at the hands of this one man?
A glance at Lyta and he caught her momentarily concentrating, probably reaching into Sheridan's mind. But it was only for a second. He was relieved. He could imagine the mess, the entangled web of reality and illusion, and any wrong move on her part could so easily make things a million times worse. It didn’t take a telepath to imagine the thought patterns criss-crossing in Sheridan’s mind.

Or to guess at their eventual conclusion.

After an eternity in which no one moved, John looked down at the PPG, seeming to have forgotten Michael was there at all as he stared at it.

"I could kill me."

The delicate sorrow in his voice touched them all. Yet none could think of anything to say.

"Even if this’snt real." He spoke quietly, as if thinking aloud. "I could die, and you’d never have me."

It happened too fast. Stephen's mouth opened, shout of denial rising from his throat as the familiar PPG whine cut through the silence surrounding them. But it was Michael's cry of "NO!" that they all heard. In the next second Garibaldi had somehow got from the archway to the bed, launching himself over Sheridan, knocking the weapon from the weak hand at the moment it powered and fired. The shot miraculously missed both of them, scorching the wall behind the bed, just above where Michael landed, the breath punched from him.

Sheridan too had moved, scared by Garibaldi's actions. He'd scooted back to the very end of the bed, pulling the IV line from the port in his chest, the tube hanging from under the large threadbare sweater, and was panting; shallow, pained breaths accompanied by strangled sounds from his injured throat. Eyes wide in terror.

"Even... even in this place... you betray me." His broken voice added the sting where he didn't have the strength for anger. "Why do you... hate me... so much?"

Garibaldi pushed himself up, shaking his head, denying it all but unable to find his own words, and Stephen watched as he reached out a trembling hand to John who just sank back further.

How could they make him understand?

Slowly, Stephen crouched beside the bed and with infinite tenderness, placed his hands over Sheridan’s, mindful of the disfigured fingers.

"John," he spoke quietly, keeping his voice low, "you’re no longer being interrogated. You’re free now, safe. This is real."

He glanced up at Lyta and she joined the trio, coming to kneel by the captain’s side. "Careful," he warned her, and she nodded.

Reaching up, she touched the hair at the side of his forehead, stroking her fingers over the dry strands. Stephen watched John as the telepath touched the very edges of his mind, knowing she wouldn't try to unscramble the mess, would instead add something to it. A certainty he could cling to.

‘We are real,’ she told him in a single whisper of knowledge. ‘You are safe. You are among friends.’

Then she withdrew. And once again the strings were cut.

The result was no less dramatic. John dropped forward into Stephen’s arms, head lolling onto the doctor’s shoulder. From awake into a deep sleep in a moment. Stephen carefully laid him down, covered him in the lighest, warmest blanket they'd been able to scare up, and sat down into a long vigil.

*

Garibaldi studied the plans the resistence had managed to steal or sketch of the enemy bases set up on Mars. Out of the corner of his eye he could see Number One pacing the outer hall, waiting impatiently for something, anything, to happen. There was still a war to be fought, still battles to be won, still millions to be freed. For Michael, John's freedom was enough. For her, it wasn't even close.

"We don’t have this kind of time to waste!" she muttered at him. "We rescued him so that he could lead the way for us."
Michael glanced at her. "As I recall, you couldn’t spare the resources to rescue him at all. Stephen, Lyta and I did that. And what state exactly did you expect us to find him in? He wasn't being kept in a hotel suite with hot food, running water, room service and a fucking bathroom!" He took a deep breath. "He's been tortured! We found him locked in a metal chair, with all the fluids that should have been inside on the outside, get what I'm saying?
He's been beaten so bad there isn’t an inch of him that isn’t black, blue or purple. His reality's destroyed, picked apart so they could rearrange it how they damn well liked! He's been through hell. So what he gets now is time, all the time he needs."

"Time's something that's in short supply around here, Garibaldi."

"I don't care."

She stared at him, standing inches from her, nose to nose with her, voice deadly quiet. And then she looked away.

"I admit, I didn't expect him to be in such bad shape." She stepped back a pace. "Even I didn't expected it, and I know what they're capable of." The guilt was evident in her confession despite it not being hers to take. "I'm sorry."

Michael shook his head, backing away. "Nah, I’m sorry." He took a deep breath. "I caused that," he pointed to the corridor a little way from them, off which the infirmary was situated. "And it’s not what I was expecting either. It’s a million times worse. I didn’t see that coming in my baddest nightmares."

Looking across at him she smiled slightly. "Baddest?"

"’Wery, wery, bad." Garibaldi watched a little sadly as she forced a smile at his Elmer Fudd impression. Eternity seemed to have passed since he had last cracked a joke. He remembered an old saying, if they couldn’t laugh, they were dead anyway. He wondered if John would feel the same way.

 

Along the corridor, through the archway, Stephen dropped into a crouch by his patient’s bed. The voices risen in anger only yards away had disturbed John’s peaceful sleep and now his eyes were open and he was silently, eerily staring straight ahead of him at nothing. Deliberately placing himself in the captain’s line of sight, Stephen smiled.

"Hey." He spoke the one word that had greeted so many waking patients over the years he’d been a doctor.

John focused on Franklin with some obvious difficulty. Stephen read the pain in the creases around his eyes and mouth, the suspicion and fear clear in his gaze.

"Can I have some water?" John's scratchy voice remained low, respectful. Stephen knew exactly what it meant. But for now he just told him of course he could, reached back and took up the glass he'd put on the table.

"Here you go." John lifted his head as Stephen put the glass to his lips, controlling the drinking pace. He didn't try to take it himself. "Easy, now. Just sip it."

Sheridan drank a few swallows and lay back slowly, watching Stephen cautiously. The doctor waited, and gradually the fear gave way just a little to a small amount of wary trust. Franklin wondered how many others had seen that expression recently and had been far from deserving of it.

For a short time John simply seemed to be gathering his thoughts and Stephen let him, understanding how much time he was going to need now.. Knowing, even if he hadn't heard Number One's outburst before, how little of it they had.

Finally a word formed on Sheridan’s lips. "Where…?"

"We’re at the resistance base on Mars."

Unbelieving. "How…?"

"Garibaldi." Stephen spoke the word quietly. "He came to us, told us where to find you. He helped rescue you."

With some considerable effort John pushed himself up into a sitting position and cautiously, Stephen allowed it. He'd been denied his freedom for long enough.

"John?"

Sheridan was staring down at himself, at the strange clothes he’d been dressed in, clothes far too big for him, chosen so as not to aggravate his injuries further. He shifted carefully and with difficulty, but Franklin remained quiet, letting him sort himself out for the time being. He drew his knees up, lifted his hands to stare at his fingers. Stephen had put a small brace on each of the six broken digits, designed to give John at least some basic use of his hand. His little finger, on his right hand, had been badly shattered, the bones crushed dangerously, probably in the bar brawl because the fragments had just started to knit making it look like he had three knuckles. Stephen had strapped it to the one next to it, braced them both, but he was sure eventually he'd have to replace it with a prosthetic, he was sure it wasn't going to mend.

Stephen watched the disfigured hands start to tremble, watched as that clear symptom of shock drove its way through Sheridan’s body. "John...." He took a seat on the end of the bed, reaching out to once again take Sheridan's hands into his own, holding them with professional care. "It’s all right."

"Why…?" A whisper, almost accusation.

"Why what?"

John looked up from his hands to the man who was supposed to heal him. And the light dawned.

"You mean why haven’t I reset these?" John nodded, the movement jerky. Stephen ached for him. "I will, John. But I don't have access to x-ray, and can’t do it unless I anaesthetise you. I don’t want to put anymore drugs than absolutely necessary into your bloodstream quite yet."

"This is real?"

Stephen nodded. "Yes, John, this is real. You know that, don’t you? You can sense it." He hoped Lyta's message had remained strong in his head.

John nodded and closed his eyes, rubbing them carefully with the heels of his hands. "What about… the fleet?"

Franklin hesitated. He knew he shouldn’t hold anything back now; they didn’t have much time. But to put his patient, one still so weak, into a position where he had to act was something he was loathed to do.

"It’s fought its way here, to Mars. There were heavy casualties, but they’re ready. They’re waiting…."

"Waiting?"

"For you, John. For what has to come next. Everything’s in place."

John took a deep, shuddering, rasping breath. "Then I have to go."

He couldn’t help but argue the point. "John… you’re not in a good state, you know that as well as I do. I can pump you full of anti-toxins, anti-inflamitories, slow-release meds, but I'll be honest with you, I don't know how much more time you have. You have serious internal damage."

"I have to go, Stephen." His voice cracked, and he swallowed, mouth dry. "You know that."

He did, all too well. "You need time."

"I know. But I don’t have it, do I?"

Reluctantly, Franklin gave in. "We have to take the bases before the White Star comes in. There’s a transport ready to take you to the Fleet. The last message from Ivanova requested that you dock with the Agamemnon and command the battle from there."

A smile touched John's lips but it faded quickly, and once again he rubbed his eyes with this hands.

"They bothering you?"

"They itch."

"You're incredibly de-hydrated. Your body's put what little moisture it has where you need it most. You have a catheter in, you have a central IV port in your chest." You're in no state to command an orchestra, never mind an army at war.

"I know you've done everything you can."

Stephen watched his patient, already starting to beat himself up over the decision they were making. "Tell me how do you feel. And for once, John, tell me the truth."

John dropped his hands to his knees carefully. "I’m really tired, exhausted…." He paused. "I feel… like this body doesn’t belong to me. It’s broken. I'm broken."

Stephen swallowed back on tears pushed to his eyes by an intensity of emotion so powerful that it surprised him. Yet there was nothing he could do because there wasn’t time. His heart and mind engaged in a battle neither side could win. He was a doctor, he could not knowingly harm another living soul and yet here he was, about to send a traumatised, terribly injured man into battle.

"You’ve been so strong," he murmured softly, "and we need you to be strong for just a little longer."

John nodded, looking at Stephen like he wasn’t sure he could keep his word this time. "I’ll try."

*

Before the rescue, Garibaldi had been like a man on hot coals. Now he was content just to wait, to see what happened next. Damn the universe. Damn them all if Stephen couldn't get Sheridan on his feet in time.

Number One was passing him, heading for the infirmary for an update on the captain’s condition, when John and Stephen appeared in the corridor.

Michael looked up, looking directly into John's eyes, seeing the terrible suspicion there. There hadn’t been time to explain, there still wasn’t time. But John at least knew that Michael had come for him and for now it had to be enough.

Garibaldi kept it all business. He stepped up to them, eyes remaining on Sheridan, trying for something somewhere between deep concern and some level of joviality. "How are ya?"

"I’m…." John swallowed, shaking his head. "I’ve been better," he surrendered in the end.

Michael looked him up and down once. His right arm was crossed over his chest, a saline bag grasped with difficulty in his right hand, in fingers cased in braces, the line still draining the fluid into his artery. He was standing with his weight on one leg. His eyes were unevenly dilated, cheek bones more prominent than they had once been, lips dry and cracked. His whole expression betrayed the pain he was enduring.

Garibaldi smiled a smile that only served to highlight the misery in his eyes. "John…."

But the other man shook his head and reached out shakily, putting one trembling hand on Michael’s arm. "I give you my word that we’ll do this later."

Michael didn’t feel the tears until they spilled onto his cheek. He swiped at them harshly. "I’ll hold you to that."

John nodded. "Good."

*

Stephen stepped down from the transport having strapped John inside. It wouldn’t be a comfortable or easy ride and the doctor was worried sick. He instructed the pilot to go gently.

"You have a very precious passenger," he told the man, voice thick with emotion. To Sheridan, he said, "Drink as much water as you can without making yourself ill but only…"

"Only water and no food." John repeated the orders Stephen had given to him countless times. "I know, Stephen. I’ll be fine."

Franklin nodded. "Okay." The door of the small transport vessel closed and locked. There was nothing more he could do, and he headed off to join the others for the final push.

*

Only one man was there to meet Captain Sheridan as the transport docked aboard the ex-EarthForce cruiser Agamemnon. He watched Captain John Sheridan step off the small vessel, even that little effort exhausting him, saw the misery and pain in his face.

"Johnny."

Sheridan looked up, losing the battle with his waning control when he set eyes on the one waiting for him. A single tear blossomed in the corner of his eye. "Stinky…."

Etiquette out of the airlock, Captain Jack Maynard wrapped his arms around his old, dear friend and held him while he cried. There were few tears; John’s body still couldn’t spare the moisture. But the sobs came anyway, from deep within him.

There was nothing Jack could say. Nothing that would heal the wounds inflicted upon this man at the hands of his enemies, people who were part of a government he had once been sworn to protect. Those who had done this to him were his own people, his own kind who should have been on the same side. Somehow that made it all the worse.

After a time Jack loosened his hold without taking away the offered and obviously needed embrace.

"You must want to kill them all."

John nodded against his shoulder, too tired, too emotional to hide the truth from his friend.

"We have to do this, Swamp Rat. We have to win this. But I’ll be here with you. Take whatever strength you need from me."

John dropped his arms from around his friend’s back, pulling the sleeves of the sweater he wore down over his hands. "I’m glad you’re here."

"Where else could I be, Johnny?"

Jack gave Sheridan the time he needed to pull himself together as best as he could.

And a minute later, John looked up. "I could do with a uniform."

"Of course."

 

Of course.

But the reality wasn’t as simple. Many of Sheridan’s wounds were fresh; he’d only been free for fifteen hours. The clothes he’d been given were light, comfortable and soft. EarthForce uniforms were none of those things. And with six out of ten fingers in braces, he couldn’t get his borrowed clothes off, never mind the shirt, heavy jacket and trousers on.

The physical state of his friend had shocked Maynard perhaps more than the mental state of him. How Sheridan was still standing baffled him.

"Johnny, no one is going to question your authority just because you’re out of uniform."

But John’s expression was one of pleading, and Jack had to relent. He dressed his friend, trying to leave Sheridan with as much dignity as possible. Carefully removing the empty saline bag from the IV port, he fastened the clips on a large sized white shirt, carefully avoiding the valve fixed into John’s chest.

With some effort he got the captain’s arms into the sleeves of the jacket. But the material was heavy, and when it was dropped down onto Sheridan’s bruised shoulders, he flinched, face contorting.

"John!" Jack stepped in front of his friend. "A compromise?" He found himself staring into dark, frightened eyes. "Please, Johnny. You’re hurting yourself."

The silence fell between them until John nodded, accepting his old friend’s help to shrug off the jacket. He would command this battle in the snowy white shirt he’d worn as an EarthForce captain and the leader of the Army of Light.

 

They stepped onto the bridge together ten minutes later. When they faced the crew, Sheridan looked outwardly in control at least. He gave his speech. And Jack reiterated his ancient blessing. And then the first signal came in from Garibaldi on Mars, and Sheridan sent Marcus and Ivanova in for the first hit.

 

* * *

 

They won.

The cost of triumph had been so very high. Too many had died. Too many had suffered.

Sheridan gave himself over to the authorities on Earth and Maynard remained at his side, ensuring he wasn’t alone.

So much was happening in the aftermath that with Sheridan was under lock and key where he wasn’t going to cause any more trouble for a while, the politicians were happy just to ignore him for the time being.
From the other ships, Marcus, Ivanova and Delenn followed his example, handing themselves over to an EarthGov that actually seemed to have more important things on their minds than taking prisoners.

And from the moment they did so, Ivanova demanded to see Sheridan. She stared by asking, at first quietly and then louder, as loud as she could get to gradually more and more important people.

She was worried that he was locked up somewhere, worried he was back in a damned cell. In her mind’s eye she could picture him, sitting on a cold, hard floor, recent wounds still causing him pain, recent experiences still flooding his memory, intruding on the private places behind his closed eyes.

She imagined his silent screams, his unending his suffering. He was only human! How much more was he supposed to take before he broke? His enemies hadn’t succeeded. Would those whose lives he had saved inadvertently finish the job?

Despite the promises made by everyone who deemed to speak to her, Ivanova refused to be silenced. The ideas formed in her mind were much louder than the voices and words of the people giving their word that he was fine. How could he be fine? Less than a day ago he was being brutally abused by Clarke’s interrogators.

 

Finally, after two hours of her hearing her concerns, her persuasions and by the end, in the face of her desperate anger, they caved in. One General Carter, who had been her target for most of the morning, released her from custody and handed her a key and waving his arms around he gave directions to a conference room in the East Wing.

Susan stared at him. "Conference Room?"

"Like we’ve been trying to explain to you for the last... gods know how long!"

She looked down at the key in her hand. "Oh."

And he stared at her, arms starting up again. "Are you going or what?! We have a lot to do here!"

 

There weren’t even any guards outside the conference room when Susan approached with Marcus and Delenn in tow. She put the key in the lock and turned it, opening the door, still expecting something terrible.
At the far end of the table, Jack sat comfortably. Next to him, John lay flat on his back across six chairs lined up together, head pillowed on Jack's thigh, eyes closed. Finally having found some peace.

Jack looked up at the small party. "He needs the sleep," he murmured to the entourage, at the same time holding out his free hand for Susan to grasp when she reached them.

Tears slid down her cheeks when she saw John and he understood her reaction. He looked like hell now. The battle itself, holding the facade of strength together in front of the troops and in front of the enemy, had all taken its toll. And taking that final decision to sacrifice his life and those of his crew, by taking out the last remaining defence platform, had been made with the last ounce of his determination.

Now what he felt on the inside was clearly visible on the outside. The pain was etched into his expression even as he slept. His skin was grey rather than white, pale and stark contrast to the blood on his white shirt; proof of reopened wounds that had been joined by new ones inflicted by shards of spaceship during the fierce battle.
Delenn stepped forward. "Does he need medical attention?" she asked, certain now that they could get him anything he needed if Ivanova made enough noise.

Jack smiled gently. "He needed medical attention when he arrived on board the Agamemnon. I mentioned it when they showed us in here but obviously I wasn’t convincing enough."

 

Ivanova, on the other hand, was convincing enough.

An EarthForce doctor took one look at Sheridan and had him immediately transferred to EarthDome’s infirmary.

Jack again went with him, staying close by as he was made comfortable and another saline IV was set up.

He might have been medically more comfortable, but his sleep had been again disturbed and his equilibrium upset. His mental balance still unstable, he woke disoriented.

Jack didn’t hesitate to take John’s hand into his own, to brush fingers gently over those bent out of shape.

"It’s all right, Johnny," he promised, "we’ll have you home soon."

Standing by, Susan hoped he was right. They’d done what they’d set out to do three years ago. Now they wanted to go home, John deserved to go home.

 

"Commander Ivanova."

Susan turned. Acting President Luchenko stood in the doorway of the MedLab.

She straightened herself, finding a salute from her past and passing it off with success. "Madame President."

Luchenko looked around the small group and finally at the man restless on the bed.

"I was informed that Captain Sheridan had been brought here." She stepped around them then, eyes lowering when she saw for herself the pain inflicted on this man by her own people. "Gods...." She stopped at the foot of the bed and met Captain Maynard’s gaze. "You were with him, on the Agamemnon?"

"Yes, Ma'am." He paused. "He gave the order to ram the ship into the final defence platform. If the Apollo hadn’t come along.... He was willing to give his life, my life, and those of his crew, to save the lives of everyone on this planet. The war’s over, Clarke’s dead. He needs to go home now."

The president nodded. "There are... formalities. The chiefs are still making up their minds about Sheridan’s fate."

Jack’s eyebrows rose. "His fate?"

"He may have to stand trial for his crimes."

"Trial?" The captain shook his head. "Look at him. You don’t think he’s already stood trial?"

*

Safe on Mars, Garibaldi and Lise sat in the Edgars’ living room, perched on the leather sofa.

Michael played Lise’s fingers in his hand, hoping he was explaining clearly enough.

"I would love to stay with you," he told her emphatically. "I miss you more than I missed myself."

"But...?"

"Lise... there’s been someone... very special. And I’ve caused that person more harm, more hurt and pain than I could ever have imagined." He watched the gentle smile cross her face. She understood, and he breathed a little easier.

"It wasn’t your fault, Michael."

"I know." He nodded. "I know. But... I still did it. I have the memories. I only have to close my eyes to see... to see them take him down in that bar."

"Michael...."

"We were close," he admitted. "Before all this, before he went to Z’Ha’Dum. Bester... that bastard... he used me, used us against one another." Michael shook his head, his anger almost unbearable. "I have to go back, Lise, because I have to put it right."

Taking her hand from his she put her arms around him, hugging him close. "I know you, Michael. I know you have to do this but please stop taking the blame. You need him to forgive you but first you have to forgive yourself."

He hugged her back. "I love him. I’ve loved him for a long time. That’s why... what Bester did to us was more cruel, more barbaric than he could ever have meant it to be. When I turned my back on John I was turning my back on more than my captain, more than my commanding officer. He was my friend. And once in a while, when things got bad, he was my lover."

She pulled back, letting her hands slide his arms. "When things got bad?"

"When we needed one another, needed... a warm body to lose ourselves in." He swiped at his leaking eyes with his hand. "He could be everything I needed. Gentle, kind, submissive, rough, forceful, dominant.... He was the best thing I’d ever known." He met her hot stare directly. "I destroyed that."

"Not you."

"Lise, while he sat in that cell do you think he cared, even imagined, that I wasn’t responsible for my actions? You didn’t see him when we pulled him out. I’d guessed they weren’t treating him as well as they claimed on ISN, but hell.... Lise, the things they’d done to him shocked even me."

"You all won the war," she reassured, "and he’s alive. You saved his life."

"If it hadn't been for me, I wouldn't have had to. And you don't know him. Whatever state he’s in he would have played the facade for all it was worth. When Stephen put him aboard the transport from Mars he still had a saline IV in his chest. He hadn’t eaten safe, clean food since his capture and there was no way he was eating anything the state his system was in. He was far from okay when he left to join the fleet. I doubt he’s okay now."

Taking his hands, Lise held tight. "They’ll look after him."

"I know. But I have to be there. I’m the only one I trust to protect him from the fallout of the war. Whatever happens next, if he’ll have me back at his side that’s where I need to be, where I want to be. It’s the only place I want to be." He regarded her hopefully. "I’m sorry, Lise. I love you more than any other person alive. But I owe John my heart and soul."

She nodded, understanding in her gentle smile. "How could I ever compete?" There was no anger or bitterness. "Just promise me one thing and it’s all I'll ask."

He squeezed her hands. "Anything."

"Come back once in a while?"

He nodded, he promised, and then he kissed her.

*

Stephen met them when the transport docked at Babylon 5. Sheridan stepped off the vessel, Jack on one side, Susan on the other, Marcus and Delenn flanking them.

Stephen smiled wanly as he stood in front of his captain. "You look like shit."

John returned his smile. "Thank you, Doc."

"What was the outcome?"

"A quarter of them wanted my resignation, a quarter wanted me shot and half hadn’t made their minds up."

"They’re still trying to dig themselves out from under the red tape." Ivanova put in helpfully.

"So I’m still captain of this station until we hear otherwise." Sheridan finished.

Stephen nodded once. "Good. In that case, from this moment on, until I’m satisfied you’re fit for duty, I’m putting you on medical leave."

Stephen saw the sudden tears blossom in John’s eyes. He sighed gently, smile fading. He understood as he’d understood on Mars.

Stepping forward, closing the gap between them, he murmured, "Let us take care of you now, John."

Sheridan nodded, trying to contain the emotion. It was over, finally. It was all over. Whatever came next, he was in the hands of his family. Here, now, finally, he needed to let himself break in two.

More and more tears formed in John’s eyes now that they could. Too many for him to wipe away. The cracks that had been obvious when he’d stepped aboard the Agamemnon split open.

Unable to hold Stephen’s gaze any longer, John lowered his head, his shoulders starting to tremble. Like he’d been there before, Jack put his arm around Sheridan’s shoulders and lowered them both to sit on the boarding platform.

The others silently left the three alone in the bay. Jack Maynard had been dragged into this situation by virtue of being aboard the Agamemnon when all this had blown up. Stephen could only thank the gods that he had been there. Jack was someone who would have stood by John no matter what, would have reassured and comforted him when he needed it and backed him up when the time came.

John leaned into the embrace, eyes screwed shot, the sobs rising from him unstoppably. More exhaustion and stress than any real sorrow, more relief than misery, he couldn’t have held back if he’d tried. It was all over, and in the safe haven of his friend’s arms he cried.

*

Five hours after docking at B5, John Sheridan was fast asleep in his own bed.

Despite his injuries, Franklin knew he’d be more comfortable, more at ease in his quarters. With a little effort they could care for him as adequately there as they could in MedLab.

It had taken time for Sheridan to calm, to cry out all that he needed to. Jack had accompanied him to MedLab where Stephen had subjected him to a full medical examination and then took him under to perform several surgical procedures – one to break and reset broke bones, one to clear blood from his intestines and two to test liver and kidney functions.

While he'd been moved into Recovery to wake from the anaesthetic, Doctors Franklin and Hobbs had done a couple of alterations to the captain's quarters to ensure they'd be able to cope with a medical emergency there.
Stephen had started Sheridan on a course of treatments designed to realign his various bodily functions. Fixing him physically would be difficult enough. Stephen couldn't begin to guess how they would help him heal mentally. He had already started to charted the abuse their captain had been subjected to from the injuries he had and their stage of healing, and it told a very unpleasent story.

Once he'd been transferred to his quarters, John had insisting on stripping and showering, meaning that Stephen had had to redress a few of his wounds immediately afterwards. That small mischief was a tiny peek of the sense of humour they could only pray he’d managed to keep a hold of. Even as the doctor had been applying the fresh dressings, John had fallen asleep on his bed.

Finishing up, setting yet another saline IV to drip slowly into Sheridan’s parched body, Stephen pulled the quilt up over his patient and slipped out of the room silently, leaving his captain to begin to catch up on some of the rest he desperately needed.

*
The door to the bedroom was closed between the sleeping man and those keeping a constant vigil.

Stephen and Susan had collected Chinese take-away from the Zocalo and were slouched on John’s comfy, battered leather sofa, feet up on the coffee table, wine glasses hanging from their fingers.

"How long do you think he’ll sleep for?" Her voice was kept quiet, as they had been for the whole evening, not wanting to disturb their ward. In the background, a favourite disk of John’s was playing softly; white noise that they hoped would aid in keeping his sleep as undisturbed as possible.

"I would say twenty-four hours give or take. The medication I gave him will kick-start his system. We’ll need to get fluids into his body then, more than the saline lines."

"He will recover, right?"

Stephen nodded. "Eventually."

Both had their heads dropped back against the sofa, their eyes closed. They were on the brink of nodding off themselves, but the soft bleep of the door surprised them both to temporary wakefulness.

 

Jack dropped down into the armchair, pinching a prawn cracker from the basket on the table. He turned down Susan’s first offer of a glass of wine, ‘ummed’ and ‘arrred’ to the second offer and accepted the third. He couldn’t remember when he’d last had alcohol and warned them that he’d probably be asleep and snoring after just one sip.

"Just snore quietly," Stephen instructed.

Jack smiled. "I’ve been walking," he told them idly, "just taking in the station. People kept stopping me, asking me if the captain was okay, giving me messages for him of thanks and congratulations and best wishes." He was smiling with his own amazement. "You know, once upon a time I told him he would be wasted here, wouldn’t be able to make the difference I know he wanted so much to make." He stared into the pale green liquid in his glass. "I don’t think, in my whole life, I’ve ever been so wrong."

Susan shook her head. "He wasn’t sure at first about being here. He was a pilot, a starship captain. He wanted to feel space beneath his feet." She smiled at a private memory. "He kept taking out Starfurys just to experience flight."

"I have never served under a CO who has been so much trouble," Stephen mused as he settled deeper into the sofa.

Susan could still hear Garibaldi's message, "...bringing our wandering captain home." She let out a deep breath and for a while they just sat in silence, each with their own memories.

 

The Babcom unit interrupted the varied thoughts. "Go ahead," Susan commanded quietly.

Zack seemed ever-present on Babylon 5, and seeing his face appear on the screen now settled her further. The war had been won, celebrations and commiserations were happening on the station, on Mars, Earth, outposts and colonies throughout the galaxy and yet Zack was on duty as if tonight was just another night. She wondered if there was a party hat she couldn’t see, hidden just out of sight of the camera.

"Commander Ivanova, Doc, sorry to disturb you. I thought you’d want to know, Garibaldi’s ship has just docked."

*

No one was going to stop him. He asked only one question. "Where’s the captain?" But no one would answer him.

*

Ivanova moved to get to her feet, but as soon as she did so Stephen’s hand shot out to land on her thigh.

"Susan, wait." She turned to face him but he still had his eyes closed, was still maintaining the issue of being relaxed. "Garibaldi came to us on Mars, he begged us to listen and when we wouldn’t, when I threatened to kill him, he begged Lyta to scan him. Bester programmed him, flipped his mind inside out, convinced him that everything he stood for, everyone he loved, was wrong, was against him. Bester never planned on him handing Sheridan over, but when it became obvious that he could be pushed into it, Bester pushed. He continued, playing Garibaldi to the end, getting what he wanted from right inside Edgars Industries. And then he called Garibaldi to him and undid what he’d done, leaving Michael with the knowledge of what he’d caused and no method of retribution."

He gave the whole speech without moving. "Michael got John out of that cell. Without him, without who he was and what he’d done we would never have gotten close."

"Stephen, without what he’d done, John wouldn’t have been in that cell."

He opened his eyes then and looked at her. "I know. But Bester is an evil bastard. We knew that before. If I ever lay eyes on him again I will kill him myself, and that’s me talking. Of course, there’s a queue…." He enjoyed her smile. "But Bester is the one to blame, he is the one that put John in that cell. He’s the one that hurt both our friends."

*

Michael rounded the cRorner and stepped in to MedLab one. It was quiet, one or two patients recovering from various ailments. Doctor Hobbs was at her desk and when she looked up he saw the expected accusation and hatred in her eyes. She said nothing, just stared at him.

He found this harder than he’d expected. People he’d considered friends had been regarding him with at best hatred, at worst disgust. He needed people to know, but more than that he needed John to know, everything, the truth. That was his goal now, everyone else could wait. "I was looking for the captain." He stammered out. "I thought we would have been brought here."

"He was brought here. Stephen checked him over quite thoroughly and operated before we tranferred him to his quarters. He’s under maximum protection, Mr Garibaldi…."

But Michael was already ahead of her. It made sense. John hated MedLab. Stephen wouldn’t have kept him here unnecessarily. "Thanks, Doc."

He was out of MedLab and missed whatever reply she’d given.

*

Susan was at the door when it chimed. When it opened, she didn’t say a word, just opened her arms to him.

Garibaldi accepted the embrace happily, utterly relieved. He wasn’t sure, hadn’t been certain that he’d even be allowed to dock at B5. But obviously someone had told someone who’d told someone else... and he was standing here, where he hadn’t believed he’d ever be welcome again.

"Susan.... I... I’m sorry." He felt her shaking her head against his neck.

"Don’t apologise when it wasn’t your fault. Stephen explained." Michael opened his eyes, smiling thankfully at his friend over her shoulder. Franklin looked up and smiled, shrugging once before he went back to his snoozing. When Susan pulled away from him, he saw the emotion in her expression.

He mirrored that on his own face. "John?"

She indicated the sliding doors closed between the living area and the bedroom. "He’s sleeping."

"I have to see him."

Susan started to stop him, but her hands dropped as he opened the doors as quietly as he could. She stepped behind him. "He’ll sleep now, for about a day."

Michael felt his heart squeezed. His John was sleeping peacefully, lying curled on his side, the quilt pulled around him closely for warmth or comfort or even safety, he couldn’t tell.

Stephen had shaved off the ten-day-old beard to perform a full examination of his throat and futher bruising was coming out now, the visible skin on his face and arms mottled in purple and black.

"I’d like to sit with him, just for a little while."

Susan glanced at Stephen who opened his eyes and nodded once but warned, "He’s had little or no privacy for the last ten days. Just be careful."

Michael closed the doors behind him, frankly touched that the people outside trusted him enough to let him alone with the precious life they cradled between them.

He took a chair from the corner of the room and turned it around, placing it next to the bed and straddling it. Folding his arms across the back, he set his chin on his hands and let out a deep breath. He couldn’t do as Lise had asked, couldn’t forgive himself until John had forgiven him. Reaching out, he brushed his hand over the hair dropping down across John’s forehead.

"I hope you can forgive me," he murmured. "I hope you can help me forgive myself." He brushed the back of his fingers over the captain’s face, barely touching warm skin.

He sat for a long time just watching John breathe.

For the first time in all the time he could remember, it was peaceful. The station, perhaps the universe itself, was resting. Perhaps it was giving John time to heal. It owed him at least that much. He’d done everything it had asked of him. He’d fought, losing friends in the process. He’d gone to Z’Ha’Dum, sitting in a ship full of nuclear explosives, and died while blowing up the enemy’s homeworld. He’d been given twenty more years of life by the grace of the eldest of the Ancient Ones, and by the grace of the one who’d loved him more than any other, the one who had died to give him what he’d asked for in the name of the Light. And after all that he’d continued fighting, continued until the Shadow war was over and then turned his attentions to freeing Mars and Earth.

Michael felt exhausted, drained by the events of the last six months. The gods alone knew how Sheridan felt.

Michael stroked his hand over greying hair. "Rest easy now, John," he whispered. "You have all the time in the world."

 

He stepped out into the living area, pulling the doors closed behind him. Susan crossed the carpet, two mugs of tea in her hands. "You okay?" she asked him.

"Yeah. You got some more of that tea?"

"Sure." She handed a mug to Stephen who was somehow still awake and giving Michael hers she went back to the kitchen. As she passed him she hesitated. "We all need time," she told him, not to push him away but to bring him closer.

"At least now, we have time."

He sat down, making himself comfortable in the second armchair. Across from him, Jack Maynard was sleeping without snoring. His presence surprised Garibaldi slightly, but he guessed that over the years Sheridan had touched a great many people deeply. Jack presumably was one of them, a friend from the past who'd got caught up in the horrors of the present..

"Is he still sleeping?" Stephen sipped at the tea.

"Yeah. Susan said he’d sleep for a day?" Stephen nodded. "Has he eaten?"

"No. His system’s all screwed up. The poison they fed him decimated the lining in his stomach and intestines. We need to fix that before he can eat. He’s getting all he needs from the saline and nutrient lines for the moment."

"He’s in a bad way." Michael murmured to himself. He stared into his tea. "How much longer would he have lasted?"

"Couple of days. No more. We’ve got him on medications to combat the poison and the psychotropics. He is healing, Michael. He’s going to be okay. It’ll just..."

"...take time. I know."

*

Susan dumped the four bags of supplies on the counter in the kitchen and started to unload, pondering on what she could put together for tonight. Stephen closed the bedroom doors behind him, meeting her questioning gaze and answering her unspoken query. "He’s still asleep. Temperature’s a little high, blood pressure’s a little low. Just about what’s to be expected. Anything from EarthGov?"

"Nothing. I guess it must be slightly chaotic in EarthDome at the moment." She pulled out the ingredients for Cannelloni. "How does pasta sound?"

Stephen leaned on the work surface surveying the collection of foods. "You don’t think you might have gone just a bit over the top here?"

"No. And not a word about nutrition or diet! None of us have eaten a proper meal for weeks! We need to start worrying about ourselves now."

The doctor in him frowned. He picked up the Choc & Orange Mousse. "And this is your idea of a proper meal? That’s worrying."

She took the desert from him. "It’s good for you," she insisted.

 

Michael seemed to think so too. When midnight struck he could be found curled into an armchair in John’s living room, huge bowl of mousse in one hand and a spoon in the other.

He was almost through scraping the remaining chocolate from the bottom of the bowl when there was a noise from the bedroom, and the smashing of a glass.

All four of them reacted at once, but Stephen was the first to his feet. He put both hands out, palms down. "Stay here," he instructed quietly. And for all the right reasons, they obeyed.

 

Franklin opened the doors and closed them behind him.

John was lying on his side, staring down at the broken glass and water on the floor. When Stephen stepped into the room he turned his head, fear and apology clear in his eyes.

"John." Stephen approached slowly, hands out. "It’s all right."

Sheridan glanced down again at the floor. "I’m... sorry."

"It’s all right. It’s just a glass, it doesn’t matter. You’re safe, John. You’re on Babylon 5." He stepped forward, slowly. "It’s not a trick, I’m real, you’re really here."

Sheridan eased himself up, his weight on his elbow. But his body refused to sustain him and he collapsed back, a fit of coughing overwhelming him.

Crouching down, avoiding the glass, Stephen touched his fingers to the captain’s forehead. "You have to take it easy now," he murmured. "You’ll be very weak."
Following routine, Stephen checked the IV, took blood pressure and temperature. All procedures non-invasive, trying to put his patient as ease. John watched him, sometimes flinching away if he made any sudden moves.

Satisfied that at least things weren’t getting worse, Stephen filled a clean glass with water from the sink in the bathroom. He left it on the side while he cleared up the shards from the floor, giving John time to stabilise.

By the time the doctor finally crouched beside the bed and offered his patient a drink, he was confident enough to accept it. He took the glass between his shaking two hands, Stephen assisting him in sipping at the cold liquid. If anything he seemed in a worse state than he had been on Mars after his rescue.

"How do you feel?" Franklin asked, holding the glass himself for a moment.

Sheridan gave that some thought, head dropped back to the pillow. "I don’t know."

Stephen sighed thoughtfully. "On Mars, you said that your body felt broken. Does it still?"

Another pause, then nodded. He brought a hand up to touch his own face. "I’m tired."

"I know." He nodded. "You will be. You hadn’t slept in days and your body’s been stressed to its limits for over a week. You’ve been asleep for twenty-four hours and you'll sleep much more over the coming days." John’s brow furrowed. "It's what your body needs." Sheridan’s eyes closed for a moment and Stephen touched his arm. "You’re going to make a full recovery."

"Am I?" His question, murmured as it was as he slipped back into sleep, wasn’t actually a serious query. It was almost bordering on sarcasm. And it brought a tear to the doctor’s eye.

 

Stephen sat out a vigil.

On the floor with his back to the bed, he took up the captain’s chart from the dresser. Low blood pressure, high temperature. That was how it had been from the moment they’d stepped aboard Babylon 5. He could only hope that he could change that. Yet pumping Sheridan full of drugs hardly seemed the best route to take.

"Stephen."

The doctor turned, smiling at his patient. "Hey there. All right?" It was a pointless enquiry. "Drink?"

"Yes, please." The words were whispered roughly. Again Stephen helped John with the glass, watching while his patient took a couple of sips.

John pulled back when he’d had enough, and slowly he sat himself up as he’d tried to before. This time his body allowed it. Stephen sat up on the bed with him, watching for body language that would tell him something about John's state of mind and body.

But for a minute or so John just sat there, settling, looking around him.

Perhaps he was searching for signs of deception. Perhaps he was just gathering his thoughts. Stephen waited. And after a time he covered one of John’s hands with his own.

"You can talk to me," he reassured. "You can just talk if you want."

John smiled slightly, not pulling his hand from the contact. "Is it just... me and you?"

"Here? It’s just me and you in this room. No one’s watching us if that’s what you mean. But out there," he indicated the doors, "Susan, Jack and Michael have kept an almost constant vigil here since you got back."

This time, John’s smile was sincere, all the more striking because it was his first real smile in several weeks. His eyes, still rimmed darkly with red, lit up for just a moment. "Can I say hi?"

Stephen’s expression also brightened. "I guess I could let you loose for a few minutes. But John… there’s something I have to tell you first, and it won’t be easy to hear."

*

Doctor’s orders were one thing, but Michael and Susan were both on edge, Michael being the worst. "What’s he doing in there?"

Jack glanced from one to the other as Susan reasoned, "He has to look after his patient."

"I did this to him, Susan! I need to..."

"No, you didn’t." She sat forward to make her point. "You know you didn’t. Don’t start taking blame that rightfully belongs to Bester. I want enough to pin on him so that he never gets near any of us again." Hatred crept in to her voice.

Michael eased off like it helped somehow to knowing that someone else shared his rage. Maybe it made sense, Jack pondered.

Michael Garibaldi was the man ISN had been thanking publicly for handing John over to Clarke’s men. But if what Stephen had told Susan last night was true then Michael had been cruelly used and if Susan and Stephen were comfortable with him being there then he was too. Who was he to judge these people? And if it was true, then it must help Michael to have back some of what this man Bester had taken from him.
He said nothing. He’d been made welcome here, but these were people who had been at John’s side through the whole battle, into one war, out and into a second. The relationship between Susan and John went back years and years, Jack knew. But John's connection to Michael was something he knew nothing about. He guessed he'd find out eventually.

 

Stephen slid open the bedroom door and watched Susan and Michael spring to their feet. They were ready to pounce on him, by the looks of them, but when John stepped around him into the lounge, they were thwarted, held back, uncertain of John's mental state at that moment. Stephen saw their hesitation in their eyes, then saw Jack too get to his feet, reach out and touch John's arm gently, simply anchoring him, and it spurred Susan into movement.

She stepped forward and wrapped her arms around her captain - her friend - holding him as tight as she dare, joyous at the feeling of his arms coming around her.

"Whoa… easy." Stephen put a warning hand on her shoulder and she loosened her hold immediately, looking up at John, wincing and Stephen wondered if she'd felt him shaking.

"Sorry. Welcome home."

 

John felt the pain of a multitude of injuries and ignored it as much as he dared, remaining silent, happy to just breathe her in. She was his friend, pure and simple, and he loved her. Perhaps more than anything else the feel of her in his arms was the one thing to give him hope that this was indeed real and not part of the coercion Clarke had in store for him at the hands of his interrogators.

As if reading his mind, she turned her face into his neck and kissed him lightly there. "I’m real, John, I’m here, I promise you."

He combed his fingers through her long hair, enjoying the closeness, needing this just as much as he needed to be alone. "I missed you," he whispered finally, inadequately.

"Gods, John…." She was determined not to cry, but her emotions were beginning to betray her. "I missed you too." There was a smile in her voice, as if that could say everything else she wanted to say, as if that in itself could put over to him the desperate worry she’d felt at his capture and her anger at the lies ISN had fed them.

And as if reading her mind in return, he murmured to her, "It’s over."

As she stepped back, his head came up and his eyes locked onto the man who stood behind her. Everything around him seemed to fold in on itself until there was just the two of them and a whole mountain of pain in between.

"Michael…."

 

Garibaldi watched John put one foot forward, lose his fragile balance and quickly reach out to steady himself against the armchair. Stephen and Jack immediately reached out in turn to steady him, and Michael stepped forward to offer support, as if John would accept it.

But in his usual style, John waved them all off. "I’m okay." He took a couple of deep breaths. "Michael, Stephen told me what happened." Michael nodded, grateful for that at least, throwing a glancing smile over Sheridan’s shoulder at the doctor. John’s next words brought his attention back. "I should have known."

Michael stared at John across the gap that he'd believed would be too wide to ever cross. For a moment he couldn’t speak, couldn't get words passed the not unexpected lump in his throat. Then finally he found his voice. "John… don’t, please." Don't take any more on to those narrow shoulders.

But Sheridan was nothing if adamant. "Why not? I should have seen it."

The others faded into the background, giving the two of them some space. "Why the hell would you think that?"

"I turned my back on you."

No. The lump melted, became tears that leaked from his eyes and he reached back to touch one or two of the memories Bester had uncovered. "I didn’t fight it, I couldn’t fight it. I don’t even know if I tried."

"You had no idea what they’d done…."

"I should have!" Michael tore his eyes from his captain’s face. "When he released me, I felt this surge of horror, a knowledge of what I’d done. I knew it had happened but it was as if for the first time I knew that I’d been responsible, that I’d been the cause. If I could have moved then I would have killed him with my bare hands." His voice shook, the emotion close to being overwhelming. "I am so sorry, John."

Sheridan stared at him, eyes glistening. Finally, silently, he reached out his hand.

Crossing the space, nervous, anxious as hell, Michael cautiously wrapped his fingers with loving care around John’s hand, fingers gentle, effectively shattering the animosity that had been forced between them with their strength of their sorrow.

Slowly and with infinite gentleness, Michael gathered John into a loose embrace and was unutterably relieved to have it returned.

They held on to one another for sanity’s sake.

John felt painfully thin in Michael’s arms, a subtle trembling pulsing through his whole body in waves - just the effort of staying on his feet and as soon as he realised, Michael pulled back, drawing John with him until they collided with the edge of the sofa and dropped back into it, Garibaldi guiding his captain. He could feel Stephen's eyes on them, all the time watching for signs that John shouldn't be out of bed.

And as if to back up his theory, John closed his eyes as soon as his body was supported in the sofa’s comfort.

Michael watched as John attempted to find some hidden reserve of strength. During his journey from Mars, he had run a speech through his mind a hundred times. He’d expected anger from John, hatred, blame… anything but the complete acceptance he was faced with now.

Finally he gave up trying to work things out. "How do I apologise?"

John’s eyes opened, regarding him with nothing much beyond exhaustion. His reserves were all used up, he had nothing more to draw on and his system was demanding rest. He was fighting a lost battle and he knew it.

"You don’t, Michael. Because you’re not to blame for any of this." His eyes closed again, his breathing evened out.

Stephen stepped back into Michael’s perception. "We should get him back to bed."

Michael nodded once. Carefully he moved to slide his arms under John’s arms and behind his knees, lifting him, mindful of his injuries. His captain weighed half of what he had before.

Depositing his ward on the large bed, Michael pulled the duvet over John and for a few seconds he stood and watched Sheridan sleep. There was so much between them now, so much pain and hurt. To him, it was all flashbacks. For John, the memories were frighteningly real and very close to the forefront of his mind.

He only hoped there was some way back.

* * *

Ivanova linked her hands behind her back and waited for the Babcom unit to put the message through. Two seconds later, President Luchenko’s face appeared before her.

"Commander Ivanova."

"Madam President."

"We’ve come to a decision. Finally." So, no small talk then. Susan tried not to fidget. "No one denies what Sheridan did was right, and no one will say that he went about it in the right way." She seemed loathed to be saying this. "Personally, between you and me, I think he should be shot at dawn in public to make a statement," she held her hand up, palm out in a gesture of quiet, "but he did save the lives of everyone on Earth at the end. And things are better, there’s no denying that either. We’re sending someone to Babylon 5, not a replacement, but someone who will mediate between the station’s command staff and EarthGov."

"Captain Sheridan…."

"Is still the captain of B5." She sighed. "To remove him at this moment, after everything that has happened, would be a politically suicidal move."

Ivanova smiled widely. "Thank you, Madam President."

"Well, that’s all. Expect Commander Lochley to arrive with you tomorrow."

"We will. And, in case you were wondering, the captain’s making a slow but steady recovery."

The president scowled, and then the image winked out.

*

One of the measures put in place by Franklin before he’d agreed to John recovering in his own quarters was a panic button. John wore a loose strap around one wrist which, if squeezed, would sound an alarm in MedLab.

Stephen hadn’t been aware just how intensely he’d been listening out for it until it went off. Doctor Hobbs took over from him immediately as he practically ran out of MedLab.

 

"John?" Stephen stepped inside Sheridan’s quarters, the door closing behind him. He looked quickly around the main living area before sliding open the bedroom door.

John was sitting against the far wall, knees drawn up under his chin, head bowed.

"John?" Stephen approached his patient slowly, taking care not to startle him. "John. It’s me, Stephen. What happened?"

The doctor had crouched down in front of Sheridan before he heard the quiet words being whispered. "I just wanted to go to the toilet."

"You didn’t want to use the bed pan." Stephen could understand that. "What happened?"

"It hurt like hell. And everything started to spin."

Lifting his head, at Stephen’s gentle coaxing, stretching his legs out and parting them slightly, John sat in silence for a few moments and allowed the cursory examination.

"You have a urinary infection," the doctor told him simply. "I’ve given you something for it in the concoction you’ve been taking. It’ll clear up real soon, but for now you need to keep drinking as much water as you can, even though it hurts to pee. I can put a catheter back in if you want me to, but I seriously doubt you do." Sheridan nodded emphatically. I’m having some solutions made up for you, they should give you the nutrition you need."

John nodded once. He understood all that. He just wished that for a moment all the pain would go away.

Stephen helped him up and back to the bed. Leaving him for a minute, giving him space, Stephen went through to the living area and took another bag of saline from the cooler.

"I’m going to hook up another IV," he explained when he came back into the room.

John was sitting up, leaning back against the headboard. "It hurts, Stephen," he complained quietly. It was a moment before the doctor realised he wasn't talking about his groin any longer.

"Can I see?" Sheridan nodded and pulled up his grey sweater with only slight difficulty. Pushing the material the final few inches, Stephen looked at the site around the central IV line. The skin around where the long, thin tube feed into John's body was red, irritated by the invasion.

"I’m sorry, John." The last thing Stephen had wanted was to cause his patient any more discomfort. He shook his head. They’d had so much to worry about that he hadn’t considered he might have introduced new infection.

Pressing an antiseptic swab to the area, Stephen pulled the tube out from John’s chest and treated the small injury.

"I’ll set another semi-permanent line into the back of your hand," the doctor explained as he worked.

John watched, forcing himself to keep his eyes open.

"Stephen?" Dark eyes met John’s. "Thanks. For coming to get me. I… couldn’t have held out… too much longer."

Closing his own eyes for a moment, Stephen shook his head. "We almost killed Michael when he first came to us. I hated him so much for what he’d done to you, to us…." He looked up, really looking into John’s eyes. He could see the remnants of fear still lingering there, the shadows of what he’d endured. Every time he thought about it, he wanted to kill someone, anyone, preferably Bester.

"Before we got to you, as we were making our way to the staging area, we agreed that… if they captured us on the way out, we would kill you to stop them hurting you any more."

Sheridan’s features crumpled as he heard the truth. "Thank you," he whispered, utterly sincere.

Stephen smiled softly. He completed fitting the new IV line and taped it in place, hooking up the new saline bag.

Still holding John’s right hand in his own, Stephen lifted his free hand and touched the soft, greying hair at John’s temple.

For a time they just sat together. And then Stephen sat back. "Try to get some sleep, okay? The more rest you get, the better you’ll feel."

John nodded, and carefully slid down under the light duvet. The simple activity of going to the bathroom had obviously exhausted him and his eyes closed. Stephen watched as he brought his right hand up to the edge of the duvet, inadvertently pulling on the IV line, wincing as the action pulled at his flesh.

Stephen loosened some more of the transparent tube and John settled quickly.

The doctor stayed for a while, watching his patient sleep. He remembered back, just one week, when he’d been trying to come to terms with the hardening fact that the next time he saw his captain, Sheridan might well be standing on a podium betraying everyone and everything he held dear.

Like the Shadows before him, Clarke had taken away this man’s support system and left him alone and defenceless. Then Psi Corp had used his best friend to capture him.

More than him being alive, they were lucky John was sane, still had a mind of his own.

Shaking his head, dislodging his own thoughts, Stephen got up slowly from the bed and wondered through into the living area, closing the bedroom door behind him.

Activating the BabCom Unit, Stephen paged Michael and asked him to come and babysit Sheridan for a few hours.

*

Eighteen hours later, Garibaldi looked up from his book when the frosted glass door slid open and Sheridan stepped through, still wiping the sleep from his eyes.

"Michael…." He seemed surprised to see his ex-security chief sitting there. Surprised and a little concerned, a little jumpy.

"Stephen called me, asked me to do the babysitting detail. He was worried about you."

John nodded and cautiously wondered to the armchair. Michael watched him lower himself gingerly into the chair.

"Want me to call him?"

A shake of the head this time.

"Should you be up?"

And a shrug. "Don’t tell Stephen and we’ll never know."

It was good to hear that dry humour again. Michael closed his book and dropped it to the glass table next to him. Swinging his legs off the sofa, he sat up. "Can I get you anything?"

"A glass of water?"

Michael winced at the polite tone of his request. He got up and went into the kitchen, boiling the kettle to make tea.

"Stephen dropped in some of his ‘solutions’ while you were sleeping. He suggested – in his own commanding way – that you should drink them." He chuckled at the face John pulled. "Want some in your water?"

"Why not? I’m sure it’ll taste wonderful."

John let his head fall back against the back of the chair, absently rubbing the tape on the back of his hand.

"That bugging you?"

John opened his eyes again at Michael’s gentle question spoken close to him. He nodded, taking the proffered glass.

"I’ve had enough things stuck into me recently." Michael smiled at his captain’s tone and at his expression when he saw the colour of the liquid in the glass. "It’s green."

"Yeah." Michael returned to the kitchen to make his tea. "He’s not known for making his medicines easy to stomach."

Waiting for Michael to come and sit back down, John held his question in his mind.

"Are you all right, Michael?"

"Me?" Garibaldi shrugged. "I have an almost permanent headache from Lyta’s fishing about on Mars – Stephen says it’ll pass." He smiled, tilting his head, gaze settling on the pale man across from him. "Seeing you there, John… that’s enough to make everything okay."

He had no response to that. Silently, he sipped from the glass, almost spitting it out again. "Ugh. Gods, that’s… revolting!"

Michael chuckled. "I did warn you."

"It’s worse than I imagined."

Garibaldi glanced back toward the kitchen. "You better get used to it. There are three kilos of the stuff."

*

Returning from the Zocalo with some supplies, Michael pressed the door chime a fourth time and waited.

When no one answered, he over rode the ID and let himself in. There was no one in the living area and a glance through the open glass doors told him there was no one in the bedroom either. He frowned, and was about to leave when he heard the distinct sound of someone being violently sick. It was a sound he was all too familiar with.

Stepping into the room he crossed through to the bedroom. The bathroom door was open and he saw John immediately. He was kneeling on the hard floor, arms rested on the bowl of the toilet, hands gripping the sides. As Michael hesitated, the retching took Sheridan again and he leaned forward, throwing up God only knew what.

Michael approached the bathroom, not wanting to startle the other man.

"John...."

Sheridan turned his head, and Michael’s stomach did a flip-flop of its own.

He was grey, as grey as he'd been on Mars. His eyes were brimming with tears. His hair was plastered to his head with sweat. No longer worried about intruding, Michael stepped into the bathroom, grabbing a cloth from the sink and holding it under the cold tap to soak it. With the other hand he took a glass from the small shelf and filled it with water.

Then he knelt beside the captain, watching as Sheridan glanced at him, expression somewhere between desperation and terror.

"Some might think you didn’t have anything to throw up," Michael said lightly, trying to diffuse the tension there, wanting to take the fear from the man’s eyes.

Michael held the wet cloth to John’s forehead, catching John’s left hand ever-so-gently with his free one when it came up to push him away.

"It’s all right," he told him meaningfully.

John looked away but he at least let Michael continue. Picking up the glass, he offered and John took it. The moment his fingers closed around the glass, his hand started to shake uncontrollably. Michael covered it with his own, helping him raise the water to his lips and sip.

A second later, he pulled it away as John leaned forward and vomited harshly into the toilet yet again. Michael could do nothing. He touched his hand to John’s back, uncertain if his presence was a comfort or a hindrance. But he wasn’t going to leave the man alone in this state.

There was nothing for John to bring up, Michael wasn't convinced there ever had been, and his retching soon turned to dry heaves that were painful to hear. Michael rubbed his hand over John’s shoulders, easing him back slowly.

"Take it easy," he murmured. "Just relax. Take a couple of deep breaths."

John did as he was told, accepting the advice, just wanting the pain to stop. He sat back against Michael’s arm, relaxing his body, releasing his grip on the toilet bowl.

Reaching up, Michael flushed the toilet. He helped John put the glass to his lips. "Don’t swallow it," he advised, "rinse and spit."

John followed the suggestion. And then when there were no adverse effects he did it again. Michael wiped the cloth over his face, cooling him. He was grateful for that. He was so hot. His clothes were damp with sweat.

For a few minutes they sat like that.

"Anymore?" Michael asked casually. John shook his head, no. "Okay."

Taking the glass, Michael got to his feet, aiming to refill it. John moved his legs and tried to stand, but they gave way. Michael watched him sway, watched the expression change on his face, and knew what was coming. He retched, hands reaching out to grab at whatever he could find to stop himself from falling.

Michael managed to catch him before his head hit the toilet bowl.

"John! Jeez…."

Slowly, he lowered them both the short distance to the floor, cradling John. The man should have felt like a dead weight, but Garibaldi bore him easy, sliding one arm around his waist, settling his hand over the man’s stomach, cushioning John’s head against his shoulder.

He was trembling, and Michael knew it was taking physical and mental effort to allow himself to be held. But he closed his eyes when he touched the cloth to his face again, and told him quietly that they would stay here for a while. The last knots of tension went very, very slowly from John's frame, and he very slowly fell asleep.

*

Stephen keyed in his override and stepped into John’s quarters. "Michael?"

"In here, Stephen."

The doctor rounded the corner and stopped, unable to prevent the sad little smile that turned his lips. Garibaldi was sitting up against the wall, legs out to one side. John was asleep his in arms, head rested against him, hands wrapped over Michael’s arm which was loosely around his waist.

"You took your time," Michael accused.

"Yeah, we’ve had a few emergencies. And you did say that you had the situation under control." Stephen fished a couple of things from his bag and crouched down beside his patient. "He was sick?"

"He was being sick when I got here."

"So," Franklin mused, presumably to himself, "what brought that on I wonder?"

He took John’s temperature and blood pressure. His temperature had sky-rocketed. More worryingly, his blood pressure had fallen further. "Damn," he muttered under his breath.

"Is that the most constructive thing you can think of? ‘Damn’? He can’t be comfortable like this."

Stephen regarded his patient. "I don’t know," he observed, "it’s cool down here. He’s sleeping, which is good."

"This floor’s hard. That can’t be great for his bruises. His saline pack’s empty. And there’s no blood left in my legs."

Franklin chuckled. "Okay." He put down his equipment. "Let me take him."

Putting one arm under his patient’s knees, one arm under his shoulders, Stephen lifted John easily. He’d lost so much weight it was frightening.
Michael assisted in lowering their ward to the bed and he and Stephen removed John’s damp clothing carefully and in Michael’s case fairly deftly. John slept through it all. They pulled the cool quilt over him and almost immediately John curled himself onto his side, remaining asleep yet gathering the edge of the covers in his weak fist.

"What is that?" Michael asked quietly.

"Security. I think." Stephen touched his patient’s hand briefly. "I’ve seen it in other victims of torture and abuse. A grasp at something which implies safety."
With professional care, Franklin continued to set up yet another IV line. "He needs liquids," he explained. "I need to get his temperature down."

He fastened a monitor to the end of John’s right index finger, setting up a small readout instrument on the bedside table. It was silent and the readout simple. Blood pressure, temperature, heart rate.

"An alarm will sound here and in MedLab if any parameter drops or rises dangerously."

Garibaldi nodded. "I’ll stay with him."

Franklin nodded. "I’ll be needed in MedLab. But I will drop in later to check on him. And call me if you need anything. Okay?"

"Okay."

Once Stephen had left, Michael lay down on the other side of the bed, settling on his side, careful to stay clear of John. He closed his eyes, and for the first time in ages he slipped easily into sleep.

It was to be a dreamless sleep and when Michael woke up several hours later, John had turned over and was lying facing him. He looked peaceful and Michael hoped that no nightmares would intrude on this peaceful calm. He silently dared the universe to try anything at that moment.

*

 

Chapter Two - Conflict

 

G’Kar looked up from the book that Garibaldi had bought him. The door chimed a second time. "Come."

He was surprised to see Sheridan step cautiously into the candle-lit quarters, looking a little apprehensive. "If it’s not convenient…."

G’Kar put down the book and unfolded himself, getting to his feet, amazed. "Captain, it’s never inconvenient as far as you are concerned. Come in, make yourself at home."

He watched as John glanced over his shoulder when the door closed behind him; an unconscious gesture that G’Kar easily understood. "I can leave the door open…."

"No. No, it’s fine." John sounded like he was laughing at himself, a nervous edge to the sound. "I’m… a little jumpy I’m afraid."

"Of course you are." He spoke matter-of-factly, to him it was the most obvious of observations. "Please, sit down. Can I get you some tea?"

"Water, please."

"Doctor’s orders?"

John nodded, and a few moments later G’Kar handed him a glass. As did so, he saw the bulge on John’s right arm, under the long, loose sleeve of his deep blue sweater. He touched the soft material quizzically. And John saw it.

"Saline IV," he explained quietly, pulling up his sleeve from where it fell over his hand to his knuckles. "Stephen has allowed me out of his quarters only under certain conditions. I have to wear a medical monitor and I have to keep up the saline drips. I can't eat, can't drink, they're kinda the only nutrition I'm getting at the moment."

G’kar’s tried not to let his empathy show on his face, but he wasn't sure he'd been entirely successful. "How are you? And I mean it. I don't want to hear the sugar-coated explanation."

John hesitated. "Stephen’s worried about this and that, but isn’t he always?"

He didn't point out that he hadn't asked how Stephen was. He didn't push it. Instead, he pointed out, "He cares for you. He has a right to worry."

But his gentle words hit a nerve and a single tear formed in John’s eye, which he wiped it away, muttering something under his breath. G'Kar reached out, touching his arm.

"Don’t hold in what must be released."

His touch lingered for a moment before he sat back. "You wanted to talk."

Sheridan nodded. "Susan… mentioned that you’d… spoken to her."

He had. "I told her that if you needed an ear, someone who had been through similar trials as you had, then I was available whenever you were ready."

"I appreciate that. I don’t know if I am ready. But I do have some questions, if that’s all right?"

"Of course. What would you like to know?"

John looked up, straight at him. "How do you know what’s real anymore?"

Perhaps for the first time in a long while, it hit G’Kar just how vulnerable humans were. Many times he’d wondered at how much pain they could cause one another, but to do this to one of their own was, in his mind, abominable. At least he could blame the enemy. At least he could see himself as a prisoner of war, as a casualty of battle.

But Sheridan had suffered at the hands of his own people. He had suffered because he was considered a threat to his own government. He looked into dark, tired eyes and wondered where the rage was, how deeply it was buried and how long it would take to surface. He was struck by the sudden uncertainty that Sheridan didn’t know it was there at all.

"John…." G’Kar started softly. "This is real. This is where you are and where your friends are. They played mind-games with you, played with you until you weren’t sure of anything. But you can be sure of this, you can be sure of me and of them. They love you, John. That is something you can believe in."

He paused, watching for a reaction, only seeing a slight nod. "Tell me, what’s your clearest memory from before? What’s the thing that haunts you most? The ‘what if’ that plagues you, plagued you from the moment you were incarcerated?"

John closed his eyes, and G'Kar knew that in his mind he was seeing a smokey bar and hearing an old friend's betrayal.

"It's the greatest pain I've ever known," John whispered. "Greater than any of this."

 

(flashback)

Sitting down, John searched Michael’s expression. "You heard anything more about my father?"

Cagily, Michael leaned closer. "Just that he's being held on a facility here on Mars. He's not being heavily guarded ‘cause Clarke hasn't announced that he's got him yet."

"We need to move before that happens."

He nodded. "Yeah."

Sheridan opened his hands. "What do you want me to do?"

"You've already done it."

Michael’s hand was suddenly flat to the back of John’s. There was a moment of sharp pain and then his vision tilted. The ambient sounds around him dulled, and a static buzz started far away that quickly closed in on him.

"What…?"

Confused, he looked at Michael, nausea spreading through him like wildfire.

Michael kept his hand on John’s a moment longer, trying to calm him in a way, trying to make it easier. "It's a tranq."

"What? What?" John looked around him, saw the men closing in, and knew. ‘What have you done? Gods, Michael, what have you done?’ But the thoughts never found voice.

Michael was quietly talking to him.

"Don't fight it. Just give it up or they are going to hurt you."

John’s voice wouldn’t respond now, but in his mind the panic started to overwhelm him. ‘Hurt me? No… not now! Not after everything we worked for? NO!’

When the first fist struck him, he could barely control his limbs. He tried to fight but he couldn’t, he didn’t stand a chance.

And Michael was still sitting, watching him, watching as he was beaten….

(end flashback)

 

Sheridan sat forward and G’Kar could read the plea clear in his eyes. "They beat me, Clarke’s men. Until I was unconscious and maybe beyond that. And Michael watched. I tried to fight, I tried! But they were too strong! And I…."

"You had been drugged."

"Yeah." John released his breath, deep and uneven. "And all I could think, all I could get through my mind was one question – what had I done to make him hate me that much?"

G’Kar waited a moment, giving John a chance to compose himself as best as he was able.

"Do you feel guilt at yourself for not seeing through Mr Garibaldi’s behaviour to the cause behind it?"

Sheridan swallowed, nodding. "Yeah, in a way I do. I feel terrible because the whole time I was in that cell, the whole time they were beating me or questioning me, that whole time I just held onto the rage I felt for him. Until I couldn’t hold on to any thought, until I’d forgotten why I was in there…."

G’Kar felt for the human captain. Sheridan had always been a friend, despite their differences. Everything that had been done to him, before his capture and during his detention wasn’t deserved by anyone. The worst criminals could expect better treatment at the hands of their wardens. He’d done what he’d believed to be the right thing. And he’d suffered for it, was still suffering for it.

"What do you feel now? Regarding Mr Garibaldi."

John looked away as more tears blossomed then fell. "Stephen warned me... about... emotions."

G'Kar knew what the good doctor had said. "Chemical imbalances in the brain caused by the toxins in your blood stream and the lack of nutrition over time. They always put it so scientifically, but in the end it means the same thing. You're hurting, and everytime someone asks if you're okay you want to scream."

*

At the gate to Docking Bay 2, Ivanova met Commander Elizabeth Lochley at sixteen hundred hours that afternoon.

They shook hands, all friendly and polite. But Susan’s whole demeanour was protective and proprietary. This was John’s station, and while he was recovering it was hers. They’d fought long and hard for this place and she was not going to give it up for some mediator appointed by EarthGov.

She showed Lochley around, starting at C&C and ending at the quarters they’d assigned to her. She was a straight-forward woman, apparently very clear in what she was doing here. As long as she stayed out of the way, Ivanova didn’t much care.

"If there’s anything else you need, please don’t hesitate to contact me," she told the commander as she turned to leave her to settle in.

"There is one thing. I’d like to see Captain Sheridan as soon as possible. We have a lot to discuss."

"The captain’s on medical leave at the moment, I’m in charge while he’s off duty."

"Still, my orders are to see Captain Sheridan."

Ivanova stepped back into the room, eyes locked with the hard gaze of the other woman.

"And I said that you will work through me." She spoke deliberately. "Captain Sheridan is on medical leave. If you have a problem with that I suggest you speak to Doctor Franklin."

*

Stephen put the scanner down onto his desk rather harder than he meant to. "…and I will not have my patient put under further stress! I don’t care what your orders were. Commander Ivanova will handle any queries or problems you may have. You were told to interact with the captain of this station and for the near future she will be in that role."

Lochley dropped into the nearby seat, frowning and sighing with frustration, watching as Doctor Franklin also sat. He leaned toward her, trying to put his point across.

"You’re going to have to learn to be accommodating for a while." He felt for her slightly. The command staff had closed ranks. For some time at least any outsiders were not going to be welcome. "He needs time to heal, we all do, to recover from the pressure and stress they’ve been under for almost three years."

"I have a job to do, Doctor."

Stephen sat back, smiling gently. "And who do you have to thank for that?"

*

"While I tried to hold everything together, my own life was shattering under my feet. Everything I thought I could believe in and rely on was taken from me." John shook his head, side to side. "I remember lying awake one night, thinking how unfair the universe was being, thinking that after Michael walked away it couldn’t get any worse. I thought I’d lost everything I ever loved to the damn war I was trying to win. And then I lost myself."

G’Kar sat forward, hands resting lightly on Sheridan’s arms. "You didn’t lose yourself. You just… misplaced yourself for a while." He winked his one red eye. "You will find yourself again, I’m sure of it."

Sheridan smiled. "Thank you." G’Kar sat back, looking pleased with himself. John knew it was only skin deep. "I appreciate you... listening to me."

"The need to talk is... unpredictable. Whenever you feel the need, I am here."

John put his glass down on the table next to him, rising to his feet. "Thanks. For.…" He shrugged. "Well, just for."
*

"Stephen." The desperation in John’s rough voice got the doctor’s attention. "Stephen, you have to allow me back to work!"

Franklin looked up, dropping the file to his desk and stepping around. "Absolutely not."

"Stephen...."

He shook his head adamantly. "No!"

John’s face fell, and Stephen saw tears blossoming in his eyes. "You don’t understand," he begged, "I can’t just... wait around. I have to do something! I have to work! Please, Stephen, please."
"John," drawing his patient to one side he managed to settle him on the edge of a bed, started to draw him back from the edge of hysteria. "Calm down, okay? Listen to me. Your liver isn’t coping well. You taking on the stresses of command will not help. You. Have. To. Rest." He met his captain’s tearful eyes, taking in the miserable expression. "All right. For one minute just consider the basics. Can you wear a uniform?"

John looked away. "It’s too heavy. The bruises…."

"Exactly my point." But that lost-puppy-dog look of John’s had always had the same effect on him. "I can’t let you back to work." He sighed. "I am telling you that any further strain on your system will have a detrimental effect. John! I’m talking complete failure. I don’t want to have to transplant your liver!"

"If you don’t allow me to work, you’ll have more than my liver to worry about." But there was a faint smile on his face now. "How long?"

"I don’t know." Stephen ran his hand lightly down Sheridan’s arm in a simple gesture of comfort. "You’re ill, John. Believe it or not. All you can stomach are the solutions I’ve got you on. You can’t eat. You haven’t eaten in twelve days. You’re still be on saline and nutritional IVs." He touched John’s sleeve where the half-empty pack was attached to his arm. His expression softened. "We almost lost you, John. I don’t want to have to go through that again."

"You’re not the only one."

That at least brought a smile to both their faces. "So will you rest?"

"I have to do something!" Despite the calmer facade, Stephen could hear the edge of desperation return to his patient’s voice.

"Okay." He sighed. "But it’s against my better judgement."

The joy that lit John’s face lifted Stephen’s heart, and for a moment he wished he could believe that his and Sheridan’s hope was enough to heal this man.

"I’ll allow you back on restricted duty only. Paperwork only - behind a desk, absolutely no meetings. You can work with Commander Ivanova side-by-side but you will not take back command of this station until you are 100% fit. Is that clear?"

John nodded, the smile almost touching his eyes. "Thank you."

"Any pain and you come and see me immediately. Understand?"

"Yes."

"I mean it. I’m serious, John."

"I know."

He blinked for a moment, and in that unguarded gesture Stephen saw the worry on John’s face for himself.

"I’ll look after you," he reassured, "I can help you make a full recovery, in time. I just need you to work with me. The IVs, the foul-tasting solutions that I know you hate." Sheridan nodded. "I’m not forcing those on you because I’m a sadist, no matter what you all think sometimes." He winked, grinning.

"So this is where you’re hiding out," Garibaldi’s mock accusation came from just over Stephen’s shoulder. "I have been looking everywhere for you."

John looked up, met the twinkling eyes of his friend and smiled. "Stephen’s allowing me back to work."

Michael’s eyes widened, eyebrows lifting as he looked from Sheridan to Franklin. Stephen shook his head. "I’m allowing you back to restricted duty only, no high-stress or even low-stress situations, just remember that." To Garibaldi, he added, "He did the lost-puppy-dog thing."

Michael sighed, shaking his head in understanding. "The lost-puppy-dog thing is dangerous." He cocked his head to one side, wiggling his finger at the doctor. "You shouldn’t give into it."

"I know, I know."

They both glanced at John who was frowning. "Is this anyway to talk about your commanding officer when he’s sitting right in front of you?"

"Oh, it’s ‘commanding officer’ now, is it?" Stephen teased.

"So, you’d rather we talked about you in this way in private, behind your back?" Garibaldi permitted himself a long look at his CO, indulging himself the way he used to, before their relationship went to hell under Bester’s cruel direction. He buried the rage. "Is he clear?"

"Yeah," Stephen stepped back, giving John room to slide off the edge of the bed to his feet. Luckily he hadn’t moved too far, and when the captain’s knees gave way he was there to catch him. "Whoa…."

Despite his sudden grip on the doctor’s shoulder, John stood upright, steadying himself. "I’m all right."

Both Michael and Stephen regarded him with doubt, but neither pushed the issue.

Michael stuck his hands in his pockets, gazing at John. "So."

"So what?"

Garibaldi shrugged. "Where do you want to go today?"

John smiled. "The gardens?" The closest he could get to being outside. And the most open-air place on the station.

*

They headed for the gardens, silent until they reached the privacy of the quiet surroundings. "How are you feeling?" Michael asked finally.

John thought for a moment. He was running out of replies to that now-familiar question.

No one wanted the real answer. The real answer, the way he actually felt, was one so dark he couldn’t bring himself to face it. In the end he picked an adjective. "Sore."

Michael nodded. "John, they battered you half to death." Try as he might, he couldn’t quite keep the anger from his voice. "You’re bound to be sore for a while."

They walked for some time, Michael matching Sheridan’s pace. The silence was comfortable; John gathering his thoughts, Michael just enjoying being by his friend’s side again after too long.

Garibaldi only spoke when the thought came into his mind. "EarthGov’s assigned a mediator to B5. Commander Lochley. I saw Ivanova just after Lochley’s arrival and I don’t think they hit…."

John interrupted him. "Elizabeth Lochley?"

Michael nodded. "That’s the one. You know her?"

John shook his head, mock-laughter laced with irony bubbling from his chest. "Gods… the universe really hates me, doesn’t it?" His voice caught on the last words, raising Michael’s concern a notch.

"Who is she?"

"She’s my ex-wife."

Michael couldn’t help but stare. "Jesus, John, how many have you got?"

The other man smiled. "Just the two. And I’m not so sure Liz counts. It only lasted three weeks."

"I gather… you haven’t seen much of her since then."

"Nothing of her," he confirmed. "I’m sure she isn’t the… the person she was before. I could have done without this, that’s all."

In a purely reactive gesture Michael went to put his arm around his friend, and then stopped. Instead of pulling back completely, he rested his palm against the captain’s back, rubbing lightly.

A hundred things went through his mind at that moment, a need to blurt out everything that he felt, to set right all the wrongs he had done this man in the past ten months.

He was aware that John didn’t need to hear any of it.

"We need to let it go, don’t we?" John asked suddenly. "We should... release it all, everything we feel about what happened, our... anger and hatred, our guilt and pain." Not for the first time, Michael wondered if John was reading his thoughts. "We need to, because otherwise it’ll drive us insane. We’ll live the rest of our lives with all this weighing us down. But we can’t do that, we can’t let it go. We want... something, anything. Revenge, retribution, someone’s atonement for what we were made to endure."

Michael hesitated, wondering if this wasn’t a small , sneak peak at the rage G’Kar had warned him about after John's visit.

"There are too many reminders to be able to let go like that," he agreed finally, letting his hand slide from John’s back. "We both have nightmares. We both have the scars. And I... I’ve lost everything precious to me. We can’t release it, John, because it won’t release us."

Sheridan stopped, sagging down as gracefully as he could on to the bench to the side of the path while Michael looked around before following. There was no one around as far as he could see in any direction.

"I know. You’ve lost your freedom, yourself, any certainty you might have had about what’s real and what isn’t." Michael thought he might have been speaking as much for himself as he was for him.

He sighed, straddling the stone bench to face him. "I’ve lost you, John," he spoke without pause. "You remember how we were? I remember. Bester gave me that back when he undid whatever he’d done in my mind. He unveiled memories he’d blocked from me, memories of the two of us, of how I felt about you. He gave them back to me. And when I... knew what I’d done, when I could see my actions of the last months next to what we’d had... I wanted to kill myself. I’d have eaten a PPG shot had I not known where they were holding you and how to free you."

John reached out his left hand, raising in to curl his fingers around the back of Michael’s neck. "Then I’m damned glad you knew where I was. Because if you’d shot yourself I’d never have known that it wasn’t you who betrayed me. That it was Bester who deserved the hatred I’d gathered around me."

Slowly, he pulled Michael toward him until their foreheads rested against one another, Michael’s arm this time going around his shoulders. "You haven’t lost me, Michael. I just... I need time, that’s all."

Michael found himself swallowing tears. "The very least that I owe you is all the time the world has to offer."

"Then all we’ve really lost is ten months of our lives together."

Ten months. Almost a year. And John only had twenty at most. "Let’s not do that again, okay?" Michael’s voice was choked, and John could only nod. Tears fell between them, unheeded by both.

*

Jack spent most of the evening in the Fresh Air Restaurant with Stephen. They talked, swapped stories from back when life had been simple and the command structure they had followed was clear and known. They parted company late. Stephen returned to MedLab and Jack headed for the observation dome to watch the stars as he used to aboard the Courtez and the Agamemnon.

It was beautiful out here he had to admit.

He’d fallen in love with Babylon 5 when he’d first visited John here. But as he stood and watched the silent space beyond he started to understand a little of what his dear friend had fought so hard to protect. From here he felt he could reach out and touch each star, every planet that sent aliens here.

This place was the greatest melting pot of them all, so many cultures and languages, so many societies and races. The beauty of that was not lost on him and it was worth fighting for.

John had been the right person in the right place at the right time. But when he looked into those bronze eyes now, he wished to the gods that his Swamp Rat hadn’t been that man, because the cost had been enormous and John would be paying it for the rest of his life.

Maynard returned to Sheridan’s quarters a little after two am. Michael had his PPG primed and aimed before Jack had a foot through the door, but after establishing who their visitor was he soon fell back to sleep, stretched along the sofa.

Jack made himself a cup of tea and was ready to settle into an armchair when he heard a sound coming from the bedroom. He waited, listening carefully until he heard the next soft cry. Then he placed his tea on the table and opened the doors quietly.

"Johnny…."

He whispered at first, not wanting to startle the other man. But John was still asleep, body twitching in the hold of some nightmare.

Jack crouched by the bed, placing his own hand over John’s right where it clawed into the quilt.

"Johnny," he called again, louder this time, "Johnny, wake up. Come on, it’s just a dream, wake up."

Reaching out he touched the sweat-damp hair and John woke suddenly. He grasped Jack’s arm, eyes flicking from one corner of the darkened room to the other. "Lights, lowest setting."

The electronics obeyed Jack’s command and the illumination was enough to at least ease John’s breathing.

"A nightmare," he reassured, "nothing real, nothing that can hurt you."

A nod, but it took longer for the other to settle back. Jack made himself comfortable on the floor, keeping his hand on the bed, there if his friend needed it. And he waited.

Finally John’s hand moved under his. "Jack?"

Immediately, Jack turned. "It’s okay, Johnny, I’m here."

Sheridan fell quiet again for a time. "Thanks," he murmured eventually.

"Don’t mention it."

Minding the tube still snaking into the back of his hand, John pushed himself into a sitting position. "You know, you lot don’t have to baby sit me." His words were certain, but voice betrayed him a little. Jack could hear the anxiety there.

"It’s okay, Johnny. I don’t mind, and Michael’s out there asleep on the sofa." Jack snorted. "At least I think he’s asleep. I think he was when I arrived yet he still would have shot me if I had been someone else."

Sheridan nodded once. "Yeah, he' a little over-protective."

Jack regarded Sheridan curiously. "Listen, John.... When you were... captured, ISN were praising Michael Garibaldi like he was the second coming. Now I was there when Stephen told Susan what that Psi Cop Bester had done, and they trust him, so I trust him. But... he’s barely left your side since we got back here. Is it just the guilt trip? Or is it more than that?"

John sighed and Jack could read the confession in his eyes, knowing how difficult the words were going to be, even with a friendship as old and deep as theirs.
"We worked closely together," John started to explain, chosing his words carefully. "I learned to trust Michael with my life, my soul even. Our friendship... grew quickly. From each of us being suspicious about the other to us spending time together, sharing... dreams, hopes...." John shifted, trying to make himself more comfortable on his side. "It gets lonely sometimes."

Jack nodded his understanding, wrapping his fingers around John’s hand, hoping that simple gesture would show that this changed nothing between them. "I’m pleased you found someone."

John smiled his thanks, but it faded fast. "Bester... that bastard used what we had and twisted it. He couldn’t have hurt either of us any more deeply than he did, Jack, you have to understand that."

Maynard understood. How could he not? The pain was clear as crystal in his friend’s grey gaze each and every time he looked at him. He wished he could make it go away.

*

"Jack?" Lochley hurried toward the man who’d just walked straight passed her. "Jack?"

He stopped and turned, frowning. And then recognition dawned and he held out one hand.

"Liz...? Gods.... What brings you here?"

She took his hand before pulling him into a hug and he hoped she hadn't noticed his slight hesitation before he went with it. They separated after a moment, him pulling back slightly uncomfortably, and she crossed her arms proudly in front of her.

"I’m here as mediator between the Babylon 5 command and EarthGov. They wanted someone in place here if Captain Sheridan... John was going to remain in charge."

Jack didn’t attempt to hide his surprise. "Does he know you’re here?"

She sighed. "Probably, by now. I wanted to see him myself but Commander Ivanova wasn’t exactly accommodating."

"They’re concerned for him, that’s all, being protective."

She tilted her head to look at him. "Have you seen him?"

Jack wasn’t sure whether he should tell her that he’d spent each night since his arrival sleeping in John’s living room. He didn’t really want her involved either. John did not have the capacity for socialising at the moment. He needed people around him who knew, who could understand if he suddenly fell silent, or abruptly left the room.

"He’ll pull through." It was all he could think to say.

"That’s it? Jack, I loved him."

He frowned, head tilted to one side "Liz, I’m sorry, but you had sex with the best man at your wedding."

She snorted. "It was a long time ago."

"You’re right." He nodded. "You’re right. And since then he’s been hurt so much worse. Liz, the truth is I think you’re the last person he needs to see now."

He saw the anger flash in her eyes but she bit back whatever words she’d formed and stormed away from him.

*

Chapter Three – Release

"It’s good to be here again." Bester sat down, accepting the cup of tea from Lochley’s hands. "I like Babylon 5, it’s a home away from home for me." She nodded, understanding. "They’ve given you your own office, I see. They’ve never been quite so nice to me."

Lochley frowned. "I had to get EarthGov to authorise this. They haven’t exactly welcomed me here."

"You’ll find they don’t like anyone from EarthGov." Bester shrugged. "I tend not to take it personally."

Elizabeth smiled, relaxing finally in his company. They’d met before, a few years ago, and they’d got on... very well indeed. She wasn’t sure what reaction she would face now, but he had been nothing but courteous and friendly.

"Why don’t you tell me about your little problem, and I will see what I can do to help."

She told him about Byron, about his band of telepaths and his association with Lyta Alexander. She told him of the problems the station had been having, and the support the command staff was giving to the telepaths.

"I can’t do anything official for you," she said by way of an apology. "They won’t go for it."

Bester placed his empty cup on the coffee table in front of them. "I’m used to working around the bureaucracy and hypocrisy of this place."

He sat back, crossing his gloved hands in front of him, good one over bad.

The first thing they knew of Garibaldi’s presence was a yell from the corridor. He barrelled into the room, voice raised, eyes flashing with rage and hatred.

In between his shouts of accusation and threat, all directed toward Alfred Bester, Lochley managed to order a security team into her office.

But the two men who arrived were hesitant about arresting their ex-chief.

He was closing in on Bester, ranting, overriding what the commander was threatening to do to the security men if they didn’t obey her orders.
So finally they took him by the arms, grip merciless. "Come on, Chief."

Lochley watched as Michael gawked first at one man then at the other before yelling at them, "You’d side with him?!"

She raised her voice above his. "Get him out of here!"

 

Michael looked up, seeing her for the first time. So this was Elizabeth Lochley. This was the woman who’d married John Sheridan and then left him during their own party to fuck the best man in linen closet.

He looked from her to Bester and back. Suddenly he had two targets for his fist. But the security men pulled him back, finally doing as the commander was asking.

*

Garibaldi found it easy to relax once he was locked in the cell.

He lay back, closed his eyes and imagined tearing the Psi Cop limb from limb with his bare hands. He passed the time that way for what might have been minutes or might have been hours. And then he heard a voice outside, a very familiar, very wonderful voice. The voice of command.

"No! You listen to me!"

Even through the cell walls Garibaldi could hear the underlying tremor in the captain’s voice, the tremor that spoke volumes of what he’d endured, what he was still enduring. Yet the power of his command, the essence of his very presence, contained the strength he needed put across.

Michael’s heart swelled. At that moment he didn’t believe he’d ever loved anyone quite as much.

"My order countermands any order anyone gives you aboard this station. I am captain of Babylon 5 and don’t you ever forget it. Now, release him."

Garibaldi sat up. In the next second the door opened and John was standing before him, unutterably gorgeous.

He leant against the doorframe, arms loosely crossed. He looked exhausted, like coming down here to release his security chief had tired him out absolutely. But his smile... Michael would have died for that smile. It was a combination of mischief, pride and maybe a little love.

"You’ve been a naughty boy." John wiggled his finger. "What were you doing raising hell in Commander Lochley’s office?"

Garibaldi couldn’t help the smile on his own face, a weak mirror of John’s. But he was surprised; they’d both been made to suffer by Bester’s actions, both been hurt, torn apart from the inside out.

"I wanted to kill him," he admitted frankly. "If you think for that I deserve to be in here...." Sheridan was frowning, and Michael let his words fade off. Dread filling his stomach as he crossed to where John was standing, blissfully ignorant. "You don’t know, do you?"

John frowned, forehead creasing, smile disappearing. Michael cursed himself because maybe, just maybe, that had been the first smile to light those grey eyes in a very long time. "Know what?"
Michael had to stop himself from taking the captain’s hand where it had dropped to his side. "John... Bester’s aboard."

"What?" He seemed to fall forward without actually moving. His face crumpled, eyes darkening. Michael reached up, hands going to John’s arms, mindful of his injuries.

"I won’t let him harm you," he reassured. "I won’t let him hurt either of us again."

But there was a wild look in John’s eyes and before Michael realised, before he could stop him, Sheridan was running.

Later, Michael had to assume that it had been his own cry of "Captain!" that had warned Bester of the impending confrontation.

When he rounded the corner into Lochley's office, only seconds behind the other man, Sheridan was standing face to face with the Psi Cop.

They were watching one another, just staring.

"What the...?"

The half-asked question was out of his mouth before his brain caught up. By then he'd realized that they were fighting, silently and more deadly than any punch-up.

"Oh God...." Bester was pushing, harder and harder judging by the expression on his face. And Sheridan... Sheridan was blocking him, calmly and seemingly without even trying.

Michael glanced at Lochley. He knew what she was going to do the instant before she did it, but he was too far back to stop it, too far away to catch her hand before it touched John's shoulder.

The moment her hand touched him, Sheridan’s concentration was lost.

 

Bester slipped in passed his defences and screamed into the fragile places in his mind.

John’s hands flew to his head as his knees buckled under him and he collapsed to the carpeted floor, face contorted with the white hot agony piercing his every thought.

 

Garibaldi flew at Bester, hand snagging him around his neck, driving him back against the wall. Yet the Psi Cop only smiled.

As he met Michael’s hating eyes his assault on the captain didn’t waver.

"You bastard! Let him go!"

Garibaldi slammed the man’s head against the wall, trying his best to wipe the arrogant grin from his face. John screamed, fingers twisting in his hair.

The two security men who’d earlier been called in to arrest Garibaldi were called back, but this time they were even less sure what to do.

One of them approached their ex-security chief, unsure whether or not it was a good idea to intervene. In the seconds he took to make his decision, Garibaldi had reached back and grabbed the PPG from his belt. In one graceful movement he raised it to Bester’s head.

"Now let. Him. Go."

The corners of the Psi Cop’s mouth turned up and he blinked once.

Behind them, Sheridan fell to his side, hands going limp, falling to the floor. He’d lost consciousness, and Michael thought he might be able to see blood on his face, just below his eyelids.

In the background he heard Lochley shouting into her link for a medical team to come to her office, that it was an emergency.

Michael turned back to Bester. Despite the collapse of his victim, his concentration didn’t seem to have diminished. Michael felt the anger surge through him and without another thought he pulled the trigger.

But he didn’t. It didn’t fire.

And when he glanced at the primed weapon in his hand he realised that it hadn’t fired because he hadn’t pulled the trigger.

He tried again, yet his finger wouldn’t tighten, wouldn’t fire the PPG.

Furious, he turned, firing easily at the far wall, blowing apart a glass vase in the process.

Wheeling around he aimed once again at Bester’s head. But he couldn’t do it. He couldn’t kill him.

Bester pushed away from the wall, the concentration leaving his eyes.

"Mr Garibaldi," he stepped over to the sofa, kicking the unconscious captain out from under his feet at about the same time Stephen ran into the room closely followed by his team.

Bester seemed not to notice. "On a scale of one to ten... just how stupid do you think I am?"

*
Stephen stroked his hand over Sheridan’s hair before he stepped away from the bed. He checked the softly bleeping monitors that were constantly tracking their captain’s condition then stepped back, unable to walk away right at that moment.

When he’d found John, there had been blood pooling in his ears, dripping slowly but steadily from his eyes, nose and mouth. The internal haemorrhaging had been severe yet it hadn’t been in the brain itself. Blood vessels in his inner ear, behind his eye and in his sinuses had burst.

Stephen could only surmise that Bester’s attack had done it deliberately. He wasn’t sure whether or not the Psi Cop had meant to kill Sheridan.

What Bester had done in the man’s mind was anyone’s guess.

Against his better judgement he’d asked Lyta to carefully perform a gentle surface scan of John’s mind. She had been almost sure that no permanent damage had been inflicted.

 

But in Michael’s mind she’d found something very different. A mental block, one placed in a very dangerous position. Standing in Medlab 1, they were arguing about what to do with it.

"If I try to tamper with it, the side effects might be fatal." Lyta was shaking her head. "He may have booby-trapped it. If I attempt to meddle with it anything might happen."

"I don’t care," Michael responded, hissing, insisting. "Do it."

"I could kill you."

"I don’t care. I can’t hurt him! I can’t kill him! What life have I got if I can’t ever get my revenge? How can I live knowing what he did to me and unable to do anything about it?"

"I won’t attempt something that could kill you!"

"This will kill me!"

Stephen stepped out from the small room in which John was still lying unconscious.

He glared at Michael, opening his mouth ready to say something but changing his mind. Instead, he took a hold of his friend’s arm and dragged him to his feet and across to the glass window.

"You see that man," he jabbed his finger in John’s direction, connecting with the glass. "That man needs you, Michael. That man is the most important thing on this station. Don’t you dare leave him, don’t you dare walk away from this."

 

Michael watched as the doctor stalked off. He glanced at Lyta who only shrugged.

And for a time he stood and watched the monitors around their captain through the glass panel. After a few minutes he stepped around the partition and approached the bed. He rested his hand against John’s temple, stroking his thumb over the soft hair there.

"I’m useless to you," he murmured under his breath. "I said I wouldn’t let him harm you but here you are, back in MedLab because of me." Leaning down, he kissed John’s forehead lightly. "I promise, I won’t put you in danger again."

With that, he turned and left the room, left MedLab, and headed Downbelow.

*

Babylon 5 switched over to night time, such as it was.

In one of the cells in the brig, Bester sat on the hard bed, his eyes closed, reliving in his own mind the torture he’d found in Sheridan’s.

He was able to feel the pain not as his own, but as the prisoner’s, as if he had been a voyeur during the whole cruel, sordid interrogation. And he was impressed. Mundanes were crude in their techniques, but nevertheless effective.

Clarke’s men had seemingly tried everything. Beatings, poisonings, starvation, humiliation, deprivation of sleep, lack of privacy, of silence, sanitation, cleanliness; torture, mental and physical.

Repetition of the interrogation was an idea that Bester liked. It instilled into the prisoner a terror of the inevitable and an absolute belief that there’s nothing he can do to break the cycle until he himself is broken.

Of course, had Sheridan been held by Psi-Corp they would have simply raped his mind until all that was left was what they wanted to leave. It was neater that way, less time-consuming and definitely less messy.

But what had happened in Lochley’s office did bother him. Sheridan wasn’t a telepath, he knew that for a fact, so how was the man able to hold him off? He’d searched for the answer as he’d been busy riffling through the captain’s mind, but it had alluded him.

Finally he got bored of watching the ritual humiliation and torture of the station’s captain like a film reel playing in his mind. (He had considered planting the knowledge into the minds of the others as a gift, but as yet had refrained.)

He turned his thoughts instead to the beautiful Commander Lochley.

As far as he’d been made aware Lochley and Sheridan had history, yet she hadn’t shown any loyalty toward him at all. She’d even gone so far as to break his concentration when they’d been fighting... unless of course she hadn’t realised what had been happening.

It was a shame, he’d have quite liked to take her out from under the captain’s nose. But such small pleasures were transitory at best and it didn’t matter.

Carolyn was still on the station. He’d found that out from Doctor Franklin. He’d been worried that they’d used her during the war as one of the telepaths planted aboard the EarthForce ships at the end of the war. But they hadn’t. She was still on the station, still in stasis, still frozen until they could find a way of saving her life. She would always be the one and only in his heart.

His lover, his beloved.

But Elizabeth was a possibility for temporary relief to his aching heart. He could read her desire for him coming from her in waves. He’d never before considered intimacy with a mundane but she fascinated him in a way no one had for a long time. She saw him as more than the black, evil, dead-hearted monster that the rest of them saw him as. It surprised him how attractive that was now.

He made up his mind that when they released him he would find her and take her out to dinner.

*

In MedLab Stephen sat at his desk, looking up from his reports every so often to gaze for a moment through the glass at his sleeping patient, and at Jack Maynard as he sat in a chair by Sheridan’s bed.

Not for the first time he wondered at the EarthForce captain’s continued presence at John’s side, and at the bond kept him there.

On one occasion Jack also looked up and smiled at the doctor. Stephen went back to his work, his thoughts turned now to where the man’s anger went. Because he’d been with John through this as they all had and he was the only one of them who’d remained calm and controlled throughout, as far as he knew.

An hour or so later, Stephen broke off and took two mugs of hot caff through to where John slept. Quietly he handed one to Jack.

"He’s going to fine," he told the captain, "this is a healing sleep. Lyta was sure Bester didn’t do any permanent damage. From what she made out, he was just reading... watching... bringing memories to the surface."

Jack nodded. "She said. She’s a lovely lady."

Stephen nodded. "That she is," he agreed.

"I don’t like to think of Johnny waking alone here. Despite the mask, the illusion he presents every day, he isn’t doing any better. He’s haunted by nightmares, those memories that man Bester presumably found so entertaining wake him at night, follow him in the shadows." Jack glanced at his sleeping friend. "He so needs to heal but he won’t allow himself to. I don’t understand it and I don’t want to leave until I know he’s going to be all right."

Stephen sipped his caff. "He’s a proud man," he murmured, "to admit he needs to heal, to admit he’s still scared isn’t easy for him."

The doctor’s words gave Jack confidence that they would look after his Swampy once he was gone.

"I always knew he was meant for something. I just didn’t work out what. I didn’t know. I wasn’t sure what he could do here." He shook his head, thinking back. "The day Clarke declared martial law we were coming in from the rim, and picked up the news. I turned her around. Later, we met up with the Alexander, and Major Ryan told us about the battle here for Babylon 5’s independence. He spoke so highly of John," he smiled to himself, "couldn’t find a wrong word to say about him. And I remember... shivering. Because I knew that John was getting his chance to make his mark on the universe."

Stephen snorted quietly. "The problem now is that the universe has left its mark on him."

"It's left its mark on all of us."

*

In his own quarters, Garibaldi stared at the bottle on the table in front of him. Slowly, calculatingly, he reached out and unscrewed the top.

"Hello, old friend," he murmured.

*

Susan finally finished the last log of the night and sat back in the leather chair in John’s office.

Sighing, she closed her eyes and silently thanked a god she no longer believed in that she’d reached the end of the paperwork.

At least it was quiet. For three years they’d been fighting one war or another. It seemed now that there was nothing left to fight for, and they could sit back for a while and enjoy the quiet they’d won as the victors.

She found herself thinking back to the day Captain Sheridan had first arrived and those first few weeks of the command staff getting to know their new CO.

She’d known John for years, from serving under him at Io.

After approaching Sheridan regarding the alien healing device and his idea to use it to help Michael, Stephen had developed a strong liking for the captain.

But Garibaldi had taken an instant dislike to him.

Michael and Jeff had been close, they’d all known that. And waking from the coma to find his lover had been reassigned and that EarthGov had appointed a war hero in his place hadn’t done wonders for Garibaldi’s mood.

But Sheridan attracted people the way a naked flame attracted moths. And somehow he had won, first Michael’s wary trust, then his friendship and later on his love.

Susan could never work out what it was about B5’s captains and her chief of security.

Jeff and Michael had definitely been an exclusive relationship, whereas Michael and John were more out of comfort, need and desire.

She knew John was blaming himself somewhat for what had happened in the last ten months with Garibaldi. They’d been so close that John had convinced himself he should have seen something wrong. Michael had already tried to talk Sheridan out of it taking this blame upon himself but he’d failed. They were all to blame, and in that they atoned for what they’d all been responsible for.

They’d been used. And the one whose fault it was that Michael was turned from them, that John was placed in the hands of the enemy, was sitting in a cell in the station brig.

How easy it would be to go down there, have one of the guards open the door and just pull the trigger on a PPG before Bester could sense that personal danger he was always going on about.

No one denied that he deserved it.

But it was murder, premeditated and cold-bloodied.

Six years ago she’d thrown a telepath out of a third storey window on Io, missing John Sheridan’s head by four and half feet.

Three years ago she’d activated the station’s defence grid and trained it on Bester’s Starfury. Sheridan had stopped her from blowing him to hell.

She wondered, if they could go back to that moment, knowing what they knew now and having the ability to prevent it from happening, would John let her fire? Would he hold back and allow her to give the order? Would he give it himself?

She stopped her mind from its meandering.

They couldn’t go back. It had happened, and they had to get through it. John and Michael were at least finding a way to forgive one another for whatever they had to deal with the aftermath of Bester’s meddling. She knew that she too had to find a path through the pain and put the past behind her.

Leaning forward, she waved her hand over the desk lamp, killing the light. She lingered just a little while longer in John’s chair before rising and heading out.

*

Sitting in MedLab 1, Stephen double-checked the results being displayed on the monitor.

It had taken a long time to separate this one chemical from the other components of John’s blood and to take a measure of it.

Then he’d gone back and found a blood sample from Sheridan from before he’d been taken to Mars. He’d done the same analysis on that.

When he compared the volume of chemical in John’s blood between then and now, he found a depletion of twenty percent.

*

From the observation dome Lochley watched the stars beyond the station. Slowly she became aware of someone behind her, standing, waiting. She imagined it might be Bester.

Her regard turned inwards, her mind’s eye imaging him there, dressed in black with that perfect smile on his face. How many times had she thought about kissing him, having him show her exactly what it meant to love a telepath. Could he step into her mind? Could he see her fantasies painted there in lush colours of desire and passion?

But Bester was locked in the brig for the near future, until she could work out what had happened between he and Sheridan in her office that afternoon.

She turned and smiled in quiet surprise at the Narn who stepped up to stand beside her.

"Command Lochley." He introduced himself, "Ambassador G’Kar." He crossed his arm over his chest, fist clenched.

She inclined her head. "I’ve heard a lot about you, Ambassador," she told him in way of a greeting.

"Not all good, I expect," but his smile was genuine.

For him, things had improved immensely on Babylon 5. The war was over. His friendship with Londo was surprisingly rewarding. And unusually, the station was quiet. No crisis’, no emergency meetings, no fights breaking out - above and beyond the norm. The universe was taking a break.

The silence stretched out between them until Lochley turned to him again. "Did you want to see me, specifically, Ambassador?"

G’Kar ducked his head slightly. "I’ve just come from MedLab," he told her gently. She glanced at him before looking back to the stars. "John Sheridan still has not regained consciousness."

The news shocked her. "Really…?" She hadn’t checked up on his condition, uncertain how welcome her presence would be. "I’m sorry." She shook her head. "I’m not sure what happened."

G’Kar crossed his hands in front of him. "They fought, from what I hear."

Lochley stepped away then. "No. That’s impossible. Bester’s a P12, a Psi Cop. John’s... he’s the least telepathic person I know!"

"Absolutely correct, Commander," the Narn agreed. "He isn’t telepathic. But he was Ambassador Kosh’s protege, a powerful Vorlon. John died at Kosh’s word and lived at his will. The essence of Kosh still lives on in John’s soul, whether he knows it or not. My guess is that it was Kosh who held Bester off. And it was you who disturbed that balance and allowed Bester into John’s mind. If I was you, I would step carefully where Bester is concerned." His voice lowered. "He is a dead man, existing only on borrowed time. When he goes down, those who ally themselves with him will go down with him."

With those words of caution, he turned and walked away, leaving Lochley staring in his wake.

"Now what the hell was that about?" she murmured to herself.

*

"Jack…."

Immediately, Maynard rose from his chair, going to stand beside Sheridan’s bed, touching his hand. "Johnny, it’s all right, you’re in MedLab."

Sheridan closed his eyes again for a moment. "What happened?"

Jack ignored the question for now. "How do you feel?"

Pulling a shaky hand out from under the blanket that covered him, raising it to his temples, John complained, "My head… feels like a… whole colony of Narns… stood on it."

Jack smiled affectionately. "Let me get you something for that, okay?" He moved to the doorway. "Stephen?"

 

Franklin asked his patient the same question and received a shortened answer, "headache." He administered a very gentle pain killer, watching as the creases very slowly faded from John’s face.

Sheridan rested for a moment, the fast-acting medication taking hold. But he wanted to know, "What happened?"

Stephen knew he had to tread carefully. "What’s the last thing you remember?"

"I… I remember… Mars. You and I sitting in my quarters. You were offering me coffee…."

Jack glanced at Stephen, confused, but the doctor recognized an implanted memory when he heard one.

Stephen rested a hand on his patient’s shoulder. "Take it easy. What you’re remembering is from your imprisonment on Mars. It’s over now. You’re on Babyon 5. You faced off Bester in Commander Lochley’s office. You and he… fought, I think. From what Garibaldi told me, you were keeping him at bay until you were… distracted. Do you remember?"

John thought about it for a short time, and then he grimaced. "Yes, I remember now. Michael had been... arrested. I went to the brig, and he told me Bester was on board."

That was good. Stephen felt relieved. "Are there any… inconsistencies? Anything bothering you, beyond the obvious?"

John knew what the doctor was referring to, despite the obscure questions. "I don’t think so."

Still he kept his eyes closed, waiting for his head to become a bearable place to be. Finally, when the pain eased, he opened his eyes again and started to sit up. Stephen’s hand on his shoulder suddenly became a weight that held him down.

"Oh no you don’t!"

"Stephen…"

"You were unconscious for twelve hours. You’re staying put until I’m satisfied you’re fit to go back to your quarters. Are we clear?"

The only answer he got was a ‘harumph’.

*

Satisfied that John was sleeping peacefully, Jack wondered around into the main MedLab area.

Stephen looked up as the captain approached his desk and pulled up a spare chair.

"You okay?" Franklin asked quietly.

Jack nodded. "Stephen… what he remembered, about you and him sitting in his quarters…?"

"Implanted memory. I would take a guess that it was something from one of their mind-games."

Sighing softly, Jack glanced over through the observation window at his sleeping friend. "You know… I saw tapes of the first ISN broadcasts. They said he was being treated well, humanely. I knew they were lying, but I never expected this. I can barely believe…." He shook his head, letting out a deep breath. "Sorry. You’ve heard it all before."

"No," Stephen put down the data pad and leaned back in his chair, "don’t apologise." He too cast a glance through the observation window. "During the rescue, we had to go through the main staging area. The first fire fight… he got hold of a PPG and shot the hell out of one of the guards. Gods know how many shots in rapid succession. At that moment, I honestly thought he was okay… in fairly good health apart from the drugs. And then… he just collapsed. I don’t know where he imagined he was, who he thought he was shooting…."

"Maybe it didn’t matter be then."

"Maybe not. When he regained consciousness, he tried to shoot himself." Stephen met Jack’s widened eyes. "I’m not even sure… if he’s totally convinced that this is real."

*

Stephen carefully extracted the needle, dabbing the abused area gently. "You can open your eyes now."

John looked. He hated needles. Especially when they were being stuck into him.
Handing the tissue sample to the nurse to run the analysis, Stephen assisted the captain in sitting up on the examination bed. He’d already checked most of the healing injuries. Taking a sample of stomach lining tissue had been the last of a string of surgical procedures he’d subjected John to this morning.

"I’ll have the results of the tests back later today, I’ll call you when they come through." Sheridan nodded his thanks, accepting Stephen’s help with his sweater. "In general, I would say your condition was improving."

John frowned, grey eyes looking up at his doctor. "But...?"

"But your blood pressure’s still too low. And I know you’re not sleeping well."

He looked away. "The nightmares...." He shook his head. "I wake up alone and it takes time to re-orientate myself."

Stephen shrugged. "Then find someone to sleep with." John wasn’t sure he’d heard right. "You need to rest, John. It’s the best medicine I can prescribe."

Sheridan nodded, wondering whether or not to ask Stephen to clarify his previous statement. "I’m still so sore."

"You will be." Stephen put a hand under Sheridan’s arm to help him stand. "The bruising will take time to heal. The good news is that if these tests results show that your stomach lining and intestines have recovered adequately you can start eating properly but only foods which I tell you are safe."

The expression on John’s face worried him. The phrase, ‘kid in a candy store’ came to mind. "That means absolutely nothing that’s been cooked by Garibaldi." Stephen wiggled his finger, watching his patient’s face fall. "And don’t try that lost-puppy-look again!"’

*

John woke, suddenly. The scream in his nightmare scream broke into the room as nothing more than a whimper.

It wasn’t the first time and it wouldn’t be the last.

Tears welled in his eyes, of exhaustion, of frustration with himself. He pushed himself up on one elbow, leaning forward, drawing in his breath slowly. Once he’d settled, he threw back the covers and got out of bed.

Jack looked up as the glass doors opened. "John?"

The captain shrugged. "Couldn’t sleep."

Jack smiled once. "Me neither. Now you’re up, do you want some Minbari tea?" Stephen had dropped John’s diet sheet in earlier along with the results of his tests.

Sheridan hesitated. But he nodded his thanks. He made himself as comfortable as he could on the sofa. Then he looked up.

"Jack… since when did you know how to make Minbari tea?!"

"I have many hidden talents," the EarthForce captain smiled secretively.

"Where’s Michael?"

Jack heard the question asked as quietly as it was and turned.

"I don’t know, John. No one’s seen him since after Bester’s attack on you."

John frowned to himself, but his tired mind wasn’t up to thinking through where his friend was at that moment. It fought to shut down, and finally he began to give in.

When Jack eventually deposited the tray on the glass table in the living area, John was stretched out on the sofa, fast asleep.

*

Commander Lochley sat by herself at the bar in the Zocalo nursing a drink.

She was drowning her sorrows. Or rather, her self pity.

She was severely pissed off with station command and with the people who had sent her here in the first place.

Continuing lack of co-operation had finally pushed her to contact EarthDome. She didn’t know what they’d do or say, but she’d hoped for something more than she got.

"They’ve been under a lot of pressure," General Carter had told her. "It’s best to let things settle for now, to let them handle this their way."

"Then why am I here?" she’d asked, incredulous at this change in attitude.

"Because we’ll need you there soon enough. Now I’m sorry, but we’re very busy."

And that had been the end of the conversation.

She sipped at the strange green/brown liquid in the small glass she held. It was very nice, whatever it was, and very strong.

General Carter hadn’t been lying to her. She wasn’t to know that back on Earth they had found a stack of reports from Clarke’s interrogators sent to the corrupt president. She couldn’t have guessed that one of those reports had detailed their treatment of one Captain John J. Sheridan, EarthForce deserter. The treatment and the results.

Not one person who had read that report was willing to interfere with Sheridan or Babylon 5 for some time to come. Best to let things quieten down in their own time.

 

But Commander Lochley wasn’t privy to such information. All she could do was sit in the Zocalo and drink and wonder what her own government were up to now.

There was commotion at the end of the bar and she looked across to see Michael Garibaldi, with a drink in his hand, talking loudly to a small group of humans and aliens.

She watched for a while and a thought struck her.

At the same time, Stephen Franklin leaned on the bar next to her, all smiles.

"Commander."

She turned. "Doctor Franklin."

He glanced at her drink but said nothing, ordering himself one when he caught the barman’s eye.

The same, raised voice that had distracted Lochley now got Stephen’s attention. He looked across and his heart sank.

Pushing away from the bar, leaving his drink, Stephen headed around to where Garibaldi was seemingly holding court. He tapped his friend on the shoulder and Michael turned.

"Stephen!"

Michael’s hand came down onto the other’s shoulder in a hard but friendly pat.

"How are you?" He turned back to the small group he had been drinking with. "This is my friend, Stephen," he introduced them.

There was a general murmur of drunken acceptance of this information.

Franklin tightened his grip on Michael’s shoulder and pulled the man toward him. Garibaldi went, no hint of anger in his stance despite being drawn from his drinking circle.

"Stephen, what’s up?"

"You’re drunk." It was a calm accusation.

"Yeah, I am." His expression hardened. "And ya know, Stephen, it makes life a helluva lot easier to deal with."

"Right." Franklin let him go. "Great. I’m glad. As long as your life’s easier to deal with...."

Michael span on his heels, stepping up close to Stephen.

"You don’t know how difficult it is! There’s a man out there walking around free, a man who wrecked my mind, who took everything I was and screwed around with it. I can’t hurt him, I can’t touch him! Have you any idea how that feels?!"

"And you think the answer lies at the bottom of that glass?"

Michael’s smile was ugly. "No, Stephen, I don’t. But for once I don’t know where the answer does lie. So I thought I’d drink a little."

And with a small toast he turned back to the crowd.

Stephen reached out but hesitated. Instead of bringing Michael back into the argument he walked away, leaving him to his band of temporary friends. For now.

He headed to Susan’s quarters.

*

Half an hour later Stephen wound up at the last place he really wanted to be. He’d traced Ivanova to Sheridan’s quarters.

He didn’t want John to know about this.

He pressed the door chime and waited. When asked, he told them who he was, answering Jack’s ever-present voice.

Inside, John was asleep on the couch. Jack and Susan were sitting in the armchairs, talking quietly. He greeted them both, and asked Susan if she minded if they talked. Outside.

He told her about Michael. And she freaked.

"Drunk?! How dare he?!" She was ready to go to the bar, to yell at him, to pound into him the deck until he realized the error of his ways.

But Stephen calmed her. "He feels he’s lost control of what happens to him. After what Bester did, and then finding the neural block in his mind, I think he just lost it."

Susan shook her head.

"Gods, Stephen.... I can’t deal with this too. I’ve got... a station to run! And John.... It’s not like he hasn’t got enough to be going along with." She shook her head, tears in her eyes, and drew in a long breath. "Sorry. Can’t imagine where that came from."

Stephen squeezed her arm in understanding. "We’re all under stress here. We’ve been through a lot and we need time out. Time we’re not getting. I don’t intend for John to find out about this. We’ll work it out. I’ll work it out. I just...." He sighed. "I wasn’t sure I could deal with this alone right now. Sorry. I shouldn’t have told you, shouldn't have involved you."

But she was putting her arms around him now, hugging him. "I’m glad you didn’t keep this to yourself. You’ve been through as much as the rest of us."

He nodded, holding him against her. "Thanks, Susan."

She felt good in his arms, and they stood for a time together, just being together. Friends. Long trusted friends.

*

John looked down at the meal before him.

Opposite him, Stephen sat, arms crossed on the table.

They were in the Fresh Air restaurant. It should have been closed but the chef had come in specially this morning. He was standing back, a good distance from the two men, waiting. He’d made a small meal to Doctor Franklin’s specifications. Minbari Tulba Pod salad with Premurr, followed by a little ice-cream as a treat.

John hesitated, glancing at Stephen, not at all sure.

Stephen didn’t need telling. "It’s okay. Just go slowly."

Nodding, Sheridan picked up his knife and fork.

"Right."

Stephen had had his own favourite meal prepared too. Centauri Zoolow Fish, prepared by the best chef in the galaxy as far as Stephen was concerned. Zoolow Fish was better here than he’d ever had it on Centauri Prime.

He tucked in, trying to make John feel at ease.

And in turn, Sheridan cut a little hylax seed and speared it with a fork. He hadn’t eaten in thirty days. The last thing he had eaten had been laced with poison and he’d been throwing up half an hour later. So it was understandable that he was a little nervous.

Or so he told himself. Not that he would admit that to Stephen.
"You’re nervous."

After a moment’s pause, John nodded silently.

"It’s understandable. But there’s nothing to be scared of. I just need you to take it slowly. If you feel any discomfort, just stop eating."

John nodded. And he took his first mouthful in over two weeks.

He ate half the small meal which Stephen considered good going for a first. As the waiter took away the plates, John’s eyes flashed with just the hint of mischief. "Do I get desert?"

Stephen adopted a thoughtful expression. "Well, I don’t know. You didn’t clean your plate...." He smiled, simply happy and proud to have John eating again. "Okay."

The ice-cream certainly was a treat. The nutritional solutions that Franklin had been mixing for John hadn’t exactly tasted pleasant. The sweet vanilla pods in the home-made ice-cream were heaven.

And the expression on John’s face was worth every credit Stephen had paid to the staff of the Fresh Air to open this morning. "Good?"

"Ah, Stephen," John was grinning, "that was the best."

"Good." The doctor couldn’t help smiling too.

*

Dressed in his favourite light-blue sweater and soft trousers, John did something else that day that he hadn’t done in too long.

He stepped into C&C.

He was nervous here too. But the welcoming applause he got as Susan announced ‘Captain on deck’ put him at ease.

He was happy to let Ivanova continue holding the fort. He just stood, looking out of the observation dome, listening to the usual sounds of Command and Control.

The meal Stephen had arranged for him had settled and he felt fine. He felt soothed.

That last night he’d got more sleep on the sofa under Jack’s watchful gaze than he had since returning to Babylon 5.

But something was up. Because he hadn’t seen Garibaldi for almost four days and previous to that he hadn’t managed to get Michael out of his sight.

After several aborted attempts he gave up trying to get Susan to one side. He left C&C quietly and walked slowly down the corridor to his own office.

He smiled at the site of his paper-free desk. Ivanova had been clearing his paperwork, the part of his job he hated more than the debates, the negotiations and even the fighting.

It seemed like an eternity since he’d last entered his own office. He could barely comprehend what had passed between then and now.

Stepping up to his desk, he picked up the small silver photo frame Susan had given to him as a gift. It held a photo of them – he and Susan, Marcus, Stephen and Michael. The station’s formidable command staff with their own personal ranger.

It had been taken over a year and a half ago.

Not exactly happier times. But different.

He’d still had Kosh looking over him, watching him sleep, stepping now and again into his dreams.

He and Michael had been become lovers the night after he’d returned from Babylon 4.

He’d gone to Z’Ha’Dum, following the ghost of his wife and a memory he hadn’t quite been able to let go of.

And he’d died. Lost his life as it had been and had it replaced by a contract that lasted twenty years. Had done. Baring illness or injury. He wondered how long he had left now.

But worse than any of that, Michael had been taken from him and there hadn’t been a damn thing he could do to stop it because he hadn’t known. Hadn’t worked it out.

John placed the frame back on his desk, gathering himself before he fell apart all over again.

They were all back now. Together. The peace had been hard won, but for a while it would stand because no one had the energy to threaten it.

 

"John?"

Sheridan turned, momentarily surprised to hear the voice.

He hadn’t even seen her when he’d rushed in to her office and faced off Bester. But she stood in the doorway, long dark hair pulled back into a pony tail, large dark eyes reflecting her smile.

"Liz." Uncertain of what else to say he relied on pleasantries. "How are you?"

"I’m fine." She smiled, looking him up and down. "And you?"

He opened his mouth to give the same practised lie that he’d been using on everyone else who’d asked him, and then stopped.
He shrugged. "I’m sorry, I’ve run out of answers to that question." ‘You don’t want to know,’ his mind added silently in its own attempt at sarcasm. There was still that tiny part of him that wanted to scream every time he heard those three word. ‘I don’t know,’ it cried, ‘I have to push out passed this stone wall each and every time I want to feel something. They locked me up, they tortured me, they promised me over and over and over that eventually they would break me and I would betray everything I believed in and loved. Exactly how do you think I feel?!’

Lochley nodded at his simple admission. "I was worried about you when I heard. I didn’t quite believe what ISN were telling us. I’m not sure anyone did."

John had his doubts about that. But it was over now. He was fighting to accept that, because perhaps then he’d be able to catch a full night’s sleep.

"Were you... looking for me?" he asked her uselessly.

She stepped into the office. "John, we haven’t seen each other in... ten years? Can’t we talk?"

He shook his head. He was unsure about a great many things still, but not about this.

"Talking... isn’t good for me at the moment." He prodded the surface of his desk absently with a fingertip, looking anywhere but at her.

She came closer, reached out and touched his hand, taking it from the desk.

"This is me, John. We used to love each other, remember?"

He remembered. And for a time he hadn’t thought he would ever forget.

And then he’d met Anna, loved her, married her. And lost her.

Through Garibaldi, he’d found Jeff and then he’d had to let go of him too.

Michael... Michael had been amazing. And then even he had been torn from him.

Whatever pain he’d felt over Liz, it had been swallowed a long time ago in the pain he’d been dealt since.

"It’s been a very long time, Liz." He extracted his hand from under hers.

She took it as a rebuff and backed off. "Well, perhaps you could explain what the hell you were doing in my office the other day."

He had to think back. "You mean with Bester?" His whole demeanour changed, hardened. "Why don’t you tell me what he was doing on my station in the first place?"

"I invited him, to deal with the telepath situation, which, I might add, isn’t improving while you keep Bester locked up in the brig!"

He stared at her, unable to believe what he was hearing.

"Have you any idea what that bastard did to us? What he did to Michael?" She shook her head, a little uncertain at his sudden outburst. "He programmed him, buried who he was and used him, played him until he betrayed everything he had once believed in, including me."

Liz frowned. "Well... that would explain his behaviour the other night."

This was news to John. "You had another run in with him?"

"Not personally." She shrugged. "I thought Stephen would have told you. Garibaldi was in the bar, obviously drunk, talking too loudly, laughing too loudly. At least he didn’t get violent...."

John side-stepped her, leaving the office for Michael’s quarters as quickly as he could. Leaving her staring at the open doorway.

*

Michael opened his eyes and groaned.

He lifted his head slightly, trying to get his bearings. It took a moment or two to work out that he was lying on his own bed, feet on the pillow, head at the foot. He was still fully clothed and next to him a bottle had emptied what meagre contents had remained inside out on to the sheets.

Michael dropped his head back and closed his eyes again.

He had sworn to everyone he’d ever known and loved that he wouldn’t do this; that he wouldn’t turn back to the bottle to try to find the solution to whatever problem had ensnared him.

But had any problem ever been as great, as impossible as this one?

He’d initially thought he would be okay.

Leading John’s rescue, helping Sheridan’s army win the war, being accepted back into the open arms of those he had once considered his closest friends, his adopted family; all these things had made him believe that he would be all right.

But seeing Bester had made him realize that an idea, a small notion, had been hiding in the back of his mind all this time.

The idea of taking his revenge on the Psi Cop.

Yet at the same moment the hope had been born, it had died. And now he knew that he would never be able to repay Bester for the hurt and pain he’d caused.

Michael hadn’t been aware of the importance of that small hope until it had been ripped from him. And now he felt that he was drowning.

Once again he’d lost control of his own destiny, his own life and he wanted that control back more than he could ever remember wanting or needing anything before. Without it, he couldn’t see what use there was in being alive. Because he wasn’t sure whose life he was living anymore.

Turning his head, Michael looked up at Daffy Duck. The duck stared back, accusingly.

"Don’t look at me like that," he muttered at the poster of the cartoon character. It seemed a long time since he’d talked to Daffy.

As he lay there, he thought about some of the things those unseeing eyes had witnessed.

And finally his memory settled on Jeff. And on John.

 

(flashback)

Michael and Jeff stepped into the welcoming party, both smiling like Cheshire Cats. Jeff’s eyes tracked over the crowd, looking for familiar faces. But it wasn’t on a friend that his predatory gaze settled, but on a stranger.

Michael followed his lover’s stare. And smiled.

"Knew you’d spot him sooner or later." Michael’s voice held a teasing edge.

"Who is he?" The heat from before was back in that deep, smooth voice. It lit an answering flame in Garibaldi.

"He’s the station’s new captain."

Michael was rewarded by Jeff actually glancing away to check his expression. "That’s Sheridan?"

Michael nodded once, deliberately.

The corners of Jeff’s lips turned up, and with a grin at Michael, he strode into the crowd with one goal in his mind.

Within minutes, Jeff had John’s complete attention. Thirty minutes later, pleasentries and politics were far from the minds of both captains and they were both looking for the first opportunity to escape.

Michael watched, fascinated.

No jealousy. He’d had Jeff to himself for over a year, and now he was back, Michael was willing to share. Besides, he’d been looking for a way to find out if John was interested in some extra-curricular fun.
Jeff had done in half an hour what Michael hadn’t managed to find the courage to do in twenty months.

 

And then, in the early hours of the morning, he’d woken alone. And when the others had got back, Jeff hadn’t been with them. He’d gone. A Minbari not born of Minbari. It didn’t matter what he’d become or where he’d gone. Michael was alone again, and by Gods, he’d taken it out on Sheridan.

 

"How dare you?! How could you let him go from me without saying goodbye?! Damn you, John, you know what he was to me!"

But Garibaldi’s anger was dissipating, melting into tears.

Weakened from his experiences in the grip of the timeshift, John leaned heavily against the bulkhead. But he wasn’t going to walk away from this, from Michael.

"He said... if you came with us you would die. I couldn’t let you die, Michael! I had to believe him. Wouldn’t you have expected me to believe him? After what... what we shared, what we did?"

"But... I love him!"

Sheridan pushed off the bulkhead and stepped toward Michael, only slightly off-balance.
"I know. Gods, Michael, I know. And that night we shared meant more to me than you’ll ever know. But I need you... and he made me promise. What was I supposed to do?!!"

A wave of nausea passed over him and he put his hand out to steady himself.

 

Michael came closer, unable to completely bury his anger and misery but aware perhaps for the first time that Sheridan was hurt.

"Are you okay?"

"Yeah...." But his face contorted with the sudden pain in his stomach. He lurched forward and was scooped into waiting arms.

"Okay," Michael muttered as he lifted Sheridan, "we can continue this later."

"Come." Michael looked up as Sheridan stepped into his quarters. "Captain... should you be up and about?"

He smiled meekly. "In my opinion, yes. In Stephen’s..."

"No." Michael indicated the seat next to him and John took it. "Look, I’m sorry about earlier. I... everything I said...."

"You were upset and you had every right to be. I should have forced him to talk to you, to say goodbye, to explain at least. I didn’t realise that he wouldn’t be coming back and by the time I did it was far too late."

Michael nodded, looking away. "Did he say anything, at the end?"

John smiled gently. "He told me to tell you that he loved you. That he would always love you, throughout history. And he told me to tell you ‘thank you’, for that one night. For allowing it to happen. I wanted to thank you too." He met Michael’s eyes, sparkling with tears. "I’ve never felt like I felt when I was with you two."

Michael smiled, blinking away the tears so that he could better make out the beautiful grey of his captain’s gaze.

"You... you should have seen his face when he first set eyes on you." He shook his head, lips tilting up into a grin, "I thought he’d drool down the front of his uniform. I knew he wanted you, one more adventure... I didn’t know it would be his last. No wonder he... threw himself into it with such enthusiasm."

Michael remembered the first orgasm, and the second, and then waking to see Jeff lying beside him with John’s cock in his ass, taking it deep, and the expression on John’s face not of triumph or victory but of pleasure, of delight in giving what was so obviously wanted.

"Watching you two," John was murmuring, smiling at the memory, "watching him loving you, making love to you.... You’re so...."

He stopped himself just in time, unconsciously shifting on the sofa, hand going to the top button of his silver-grey shirt, unfastening the top button there. It was warm in Garibaldi’s quarters.

The gesture wasn’t lost on Michael. He reached out slowly and captured John’s hand in his own. He couldn’t forget the look on Jeff’s face when he’d first laid eyes on the station’s captain.

"I told him about you," Michael confessed. John’s eyebrows rose. "When he arrived, he came straight to my quarters. We... we jumped on one another, literally." He glanced up and John smiled. "Later on, over fresh coffee, we just talked. He asked about you, what you were like...." John frowned, and almost blushed. "And I told him... you were one of the most gorgeous, intelligent and sexy men I’d ever met. Barring him, of course."

John couldn’t quite believe what he’d heard. "Michael..."

"He didn’t believe me, of course, not until he saw you."

For a moment, John was speechless. He opened his mouth but the right words were lost to him. Michael grinned. "You and him last night... you were so beautiful together."

"And you, Michael.... You burned yourself into my mind. Your mouth on me... it was exquisite, more than I’d ever known in my life...."

"Maybe... we could do it again sometime.... For Jeff."

John leaned forward just a little. "How about we do it again for us?"

Michael started to close the gap between them, wanting nothing more at that moment than to push his fingers through John’s soft, greying dark hair. He had memories of John’s kisses seared into his mind. The reality didn’t disappoint.

"John...." Michael looked up into the intense gaze that was regarding him. "Are you sure? With Jeff... I thought it was a one-off."

"Is that what you want?"

"Truth?" Michael combed the fingers of both hands into that wonderful hair, pulling John’s mouth slowly down onto his own. "I want to make love you to again and again until the universe implodes at the end of time."

John chuckled as his lips touched Michael’s, as the tip of the other’s tongue pushed into his mouth. He soon turned the tentative caress into a deep kiss, one that didn’t end until they lay naked and sweating on Garibaldi’s bed two hours later.

(end flashback)

 

The door chime cut straight through his brain, ringing bells in his head that wouldn’t be silenced.
He managed to put two feet to the floor and to sit up without bringing up the contents of his stomach. Very carefully he stood, putting one foot in front of the other until he reached the living area. A fourth chime, and whoever it was didn't wait to be invited it. The door lock was overridden, and Garibaldi reached for his PPG that he’d left on the arm of the sofa the night before.

But instead of grasping the gun he knocked it to the floor.
"Michael."

He glanced up to see John watching him, his heart in his eyes.

"John! What are you doing here?"

"I didn’t want to believe it."
Michael looked down at himself. For some reason he couldn't fathom he’d bought the bottle from the bed with him, and he followed Sheridan’s line of sight straight to it. He raised the now empty vessel.

"You mean this? John, this isn’t...."

"Don’t lie to me!" The raised voice stopped Michael in his useless explanation. "Don’t you think we’ve been through enough?! Michael, Jesus, this is just what Bester wanted when he set us up against one another."

Tears sprang to Garibaldi’s eyes. The bottle dropped from his fingers to the carpet and Sheridan’s eyes followed it.

"He didn’t do it to you!" Michael’s voice betrayed his desperation, his devastation. "He did it to me! He messed with my mind not yours!"

A million feelings shaped John’s expression. Anger, for the most part, distorted by pain and humiliation.

But his voice gave away of none of those things. It was calm, almost deadly so.

"Oh he messed with your mind all right. He messed it right up, so the next thing I know you’re arguing with me, you’re hitting me, you’re swearing at me, you’re turning your back on me and everything we’d stood for and fought for." He shrugged. "But, hell, that was okay. Because you were you and I was me and all you were throwing away was us. And then, Michael, my dad was arrested. And there you were, offering me hope. But instead I found myself being beaten up, in that bar, on the transport to my cell, once I was there…. I was fed poisoned food and watched while I vomited. I was chained, locked in a chair and left there, denied sleep, denied privacy," his voice rose, emotions becoming clear, "denied somewhere to take a piss!"

"John...."

Tears were spilling down his cheeks now. "Don’t think you’re suffering alone, Michael, because you’re not! You’re not the only one who wants to blow Bester’s brains out."
"John." He took two steps forward.

Sheridan kicked at the bottle on the floor. "This isn’t the way out." Pleading with his eyes he reached out with his hand. "Please don’t turn your back on me again."

Shaking his head, Michael gathered the other man into his arms while the captain tried to do the same. Shaking, crying, one clinging to the other, they held on, knowing John was ignoring the sudden, painful protests of his abused body, not caring at that singular moment.

"He hurt us both," Sheridan murmured roughly, "he violated us both, me through you. We can’t let him win."

Michael squeezed his eyes shut, tears soaking John’s shirt. "I can’t kill him," he rasped, "I tried but the bastard’s blocked me with another mind-trick."

"Then maybe I can," John murmured, almost too softly for Garibaldi to hear but he heard it anyway. "Maybe I can."

Michael held him tighter, fingers twisting in the wool of John’s sweater. He released everything that was inside him, everything that was clawing at the ravages of his mind. He could feel John’s hands on his back, stroking over his shoulders and neck. He heard words of soothing compassion, words spoken softly to him about nothing in particular. All of this coming from the one he’d so desperately hurt.

Finally Michael’s sobs became shuddering breaths and he started to talk.

"I remember waking." He tried to drag the memories from the pit of his mind into which they’d been pushed by Bester’s continuous brain washing.

Once were brought to the fore, the words came tumbling out. "The last thing I knew was I was in a Starfury outside the station. And there were shadow ships everywhere. I know the pilots were scared, hell we all were. But the shadows just sat there. I radioed in to C&C just as the ships broke off and I heard Susan whisper, ‘he’s gone.’ I knew she meant you. I knew what you were going to do, I thought... you weren’t coming back. And I knew, at that moment, when the Shadows pulled out, you were dead. You’d sacrificed yourself for everything and I hated you for a moment for walking away from me for the good of the bloody universe. Just like Jeff did."

John hugged him tighter. "I’m sorry...."

But Michael shook his head. "When I woke, I was in this circular room of made of concrete. There was a chair and that was it. And a voice kept asking me what I remembered after I was taken from the station. I said I didn’t remember anything because I didn’t! But they wouldn’t believe me! I tried to smash my way out several times but they’d just gas me until I passed out and then the whole circle would start over. I had no idea what I was doing there, who they were, what they’d done to me, why they kept asking the same question over and over. I just wanted to go home.

"And then... I was in this life-pod, and I knew I was heading back to Babylon 5. I felt odd... but I couldn’t voice it. I tried to think about you, about how I felt about your death... it scared me that I couldn’t feel grief for you. And my memories of you seemed to be just out of reach.... Ah, hell, John...."

He gripped his friend to him, harder than he meant to. John just held him back, hugging him as tightly as Michael needed him to.

"Bester used me! I hate him, I hate myself for letting him do it. I never, ever meant you any harm. I tried to escape from where he’d locked me in my own mind, I almost clawed my own brains inside out." Words finally out, he pulled himself back into one piece, even managing a slight smile. "I’m sorry."

John loosened his hold slightly, rubbing his hand down his friend’s back.

"I don’t need an apology. You don’t owe me an apology. And Bester... an apology could never make up for what he’s done. But I can’t face this alone. I need you. I know it’s selfish but...."

Garibaldi shook his head, looking John straight in the eyes, meeting his tearful gaze. "No, John, it’s not selfish. You deserve to ask this of me, you deserve to ask anything."

"Don’t put yourself down, Michael. You’re worth more than that."

Michael stepped back and John stumbled forward slightly. Garibaldi caught him. "Whoa... John?"

"I’m okay..." but the colour had faded from his cheeks and his head was starting to spin. "Maybe not."

"Perhaps you should sit down for a bit?" He helped John onto the sofa.

"It’s nothing, Michael, just…."

"…just that you’re seriously ill and you’re already over doing the stress." He took a seat by his captain’s side. "And I haven’t exactly helped matters, have I?"

"It doesn’t matter. Just… just be with me," he implored. "Even if it’s just for a little while." He dropped his head back against the sofa, just resting his eyes for a time. "Let me deal with Bester," he reassured quietly. "I give you my word that I will."

*

Bester woke slowly, coming out of a peaceful, dreamless sleep.

He stretched. He felt good. The hard bed in the cell was excellent therapy for his back. The food hadn’t been all that bad. And they’d release him eventually. He had time. There was no rush anymore. He found he liked that.

Sitting up he saw that someone had deposited breakfast on a nicely laid out tray sitting on the table in the centre of the room. He smiled to himself.

To the command staff of this station he was the devil incarnate. But to those looking after him down here he was just another prisoner.

He pulled a chair up to the table and sat down, straightening the things on the tray before picking up a knife.

Just as he was about to start eating, the door hissed and opened. He looked up, and his eyes widened.

It took a few moments but then he wiped the surprise from his face and smiled gently.

"You are most definitely the very last person I expected to see."

 

Sheridan stood in the doorway, not so sure anymore that this was such a good idea. He held up one finger. "Don’t... don’t try to scan me. Okay?"

Bester in his turn held up one hand, palm out, in a gesture of amnesty. "I won’t scan you. I give you my word, for what that’s worth."

John nodded and stepped inside, struggling to control his reaction when the door closed behind him.

For a long time he stared at Bester, and he felt tears brimming in his eyes. The intensity of his own emotion surprised him. "Can I tell you something?" he managed.

Bester inclined his head, smiling softly. "Of course. Would you like to sit down?"

A shake of his head. Sheridan looked about, looking at anything but at the Psi Cop.

And then he looked only at Bester.

"Eighteen months ago, we were caught between the Shadow war and the corruption on Earth. Everywhere I looked, there were people who wanted me dead. And I was fighting a war I knew we couldn’t win. I asked Ambassador Kosh to involve the Vorlons in the war. And he did. He was frightened, he knew what would happen but he did as I asked and it cost him his life. The next day, the day we found Kosh’s body, Doctor Franklin resigned. I remember standing in MedLab one, feeling... so alone, more alone than I’d ever felt before."

He met Bester’s dark gaze directly. "For my whole life, my greatest fear was loneliness. I thought I could cope with anything else. During the Earth-Minbari war I was stranded in my Starfury for eight hours. I didn’t know if anyone would ever come for me, or if I would die there. I was scared. But it wasn’t dying that I was afraid of, it was dying alone."

"All our fears are vested in the past, Captain," Bester told him quietly, with feeling.

John nodded. "They were, yes. But not any more."

Bester put down his knife. "I know where you’re going with this," he told him softly. "Before you go there, could I ask you something?"

"Yes."

"Why didn’t you use Carolyn as one of the telepaths you put on board the EarthForce ships at the end of your war?"

John shrugged. "We picked those... who wouldn’t be missed." The sad edge in his voice communicated the impossible choice they’d been faced with.

"And if you knew then what you know now?"

Sheridan’s expression hardened. "If I’d known what you’d done to Garibaldi?" Bester nodded. "Probably. Just to revenge him."

The Psi Cop sat back. "I appreciate your honesty. And what about you? Do you want revenge for yourself?"

John swallowed. "A part of me does."

Bester’s smile was cockeyed. "The part that wakes at night screaming?" John nodded. "I know what they did to you."

Sheridan was helpless to stop the shiver that drove down his spine. Bester knew. For some reason that felt wrong, shameful. He turned away.

"There’s no shame in what you survived, Captain. They failed to break you. You should be proud."

"Proud?" John hated himself for the catch in his voice. He gritted his teeth around the words, "I feel filthy."

"Of course. That’s psychological. If you had more control of your emotions, more control of your mind, you would be able to dismiss that."

Bester’s simplicity served only to infuriate Sheridan. He came forward, gripping the edge of the table, leaning toward the Psi Cop.

Bester didn’t flinch.

"Thanks for that, Bester. You want to know what my fear is now?" A slight smile curled the Psi Cop’s lips and he nodded. "Dark, light, crowds, empty places, silence, noise and ham and fucking mustard sandwiches!"

Bester sat still through the sudden outrage. He gave John a little time to settle down, knowing he wouldn’t leave. "Why did you want to talk to me, Captain?"

Sheridan sat down. Taking a deep breath he let it out slowly. "I wanted to know if you meant for Garibaldi to turn me over to Clarke’s men, or if that was just a side-effect."

Bester frowned. "If you think I had some reason to want to hurt you, you’re wrong. I never meant you any personal harm. I used Garibaldi for a reason. Having him hand you over..."

"Was a bonus."

Bester shrugged. "Was that all you wanted to ask? May I eat my breakfast?"

Sheridan pushed his chair back, getting to his feet sharply. "You don’t care, do you? I wanted - nbeeded - to know whether you felt any remorse, whether you cared at all that you’d all but destroyed Michael’s life, his mind and his soul, cared about what you’d done to me. I don’t know why I ever thought you would feel anything."

He turned, heading for the door.

"Captain," that steady accented voice brought John to a halt, inches from the door sensor. "Thank you for keeping Carolyn alive, such as she is."

John shook his head, and stepped forward, ducking out of the door as soon as it opened.

*

"We're going to have to make a decision about that finger of yours," holding John's hand in his palm, Stephen stroked once the little finger of his fight hand, still braced with metal pins. "I don't think I can mend it, John."

Nervously, John looked at his doctor. "You want to... amputate?"

Stephen grimaced. "We rarely amputate any longer, John. There are lots of options. Don't worry about it."

He placed the blood sample he'd just taken in to the receptacle while John pulled on his sweater.

"How am I, Doc?"

"Why don’t you tell me?"

It was the kind of answer Sheridan was used to by now. For a month he’d been under Franklin’s care. "Stephen...."

He gave a little, shifting his weight to his right leg, looking at John as he spoke.

"Okay. Your liver’s functioning normally, your stomach and intestinal lining has recovered enough to allow you to be slightly less strict about your diet and all in all I would say your body has made a remarkable recovery." There was always a ‘but’. John waited for it long enough so that Stephen had to continue without the prompt. "Michael tells me you had another bout of vomiting last night."

John sighed. He'd known Garibaldi would speak to Stephen about that. "I was sick, that’s all."

But Stephen was waving some pointed instrument back and forth in front of his face. "Now, now, you know how much I hate it when my patients lie to me."

"Aw, Doc..."

"Don’t ‘aw, Doc’ me! You’ve been having these sudden attacks of nausea since your return to Babylon 5. The first time I thought it was just a reaction to the nutritional solutions, and the second time I thought you’d eaten something you shouldn’t have. What was it last night, John?"

Sheridan let his hands drop to the bed on either side of him. "You already know."

Stephen sighed and stepped forward, closing a little of the gap between them. "My guess is that it was a physical manifestation of a psychological problem."

John almost laughed. "Translated, I remembered something from Mars and threw up."

"Couldn’t have put it better myself. Would you care to elaborate on what happened?"

Sheridan started to pick at the clean sheet on the mattress. "Michael brought a package to my place, some things he’d had shipped from Earth. He unpacked them, and I remember he said something about a couple of the items not being stuff he’d ordered." John sighed. "Later, Jack came over and he... he made himself a sandwich."

Stephen titled his head, sympathy etched deep in his features. "What was it? A trigger?"

John nodded. "Ham and mustard."

"Is that how they fed you the toxins?"

Sheridan nodded. "The first time. I had no idea. And I was... so ill. They let me go from the chair and the interrogator said he’d be back after they’d cleaned up. I couldn’t stop, Stephen. I think I threw up everything I’d ever eaten. In the end it was just blood. And when the interrogator came back in, he gave me some water, just a couple of sips. He was nice to me, and I... for that single moment I would have done anything for him. That scared me more than anything they’d done up till then."

"It’s tactics," Franklin told him gently, "getting you to into a state where you’re reliant on them, where you feel you want to please them."

John’s voice grew quieter, as if he was speaking thoughts he wasn’t quite sure belonged out in the open.

"I was scared," he murmured, grey eyes pleading for understanding now. "But since then I’ve been scared of what they might have done to me if you hadn’t rescued me. At nights, I remember it all so vividly, I dream I’m back there in that cell and when I try to wake up I can’t. Like all this isn’t real."

The words, his voice, the terrible pain in his eyes all pulled at Stephen’s heart. He reached out, putting his hand on John’s arm, squeezing very gently.

"This is real," he told his patient, locking his gaze with the frightened one looking back at him. "All this, including the hell they put you through, is real. The nightmares are real. Your pain is real. We’re real. You can believe that and hang on to it when it becomes difficult. I doubt it took you long, John, to see through their deception to the games they were playing."

John tried to remember. He remembered sitting opposite Stephen at a desk, remembered the doctor questioning him, remembered a coffee mug... and then nothing else.

But he did remember that while he’d been talking to Stephen, while they’d enacted their little scene, there had been no pain. And there definitely had been pain since.

"I think... I think I knew."
Stephen smiled. "I'm proud you, John. I know difficult this must be for you. That you're talking about your captivity on Mars is a good sign. You have to know you can talk to me, to any of us, at any time."

"You don't want to hear...."

"Stop right there. You can tell us anything you want to, talk to us about whatever you need to. We will never think any differently of you. What you survived, what you have lived through, was hell. But you're here, you are still alive, still with us, and we still love you. Never think there's anything we don't want to hear, because if you lived through it, we can survive hearing about it."

Touched, John nodded. "Thanks, Stephen."

"You’re strong, John, you’ll...."

A shout, and then a cry, and suddenly MedLab was plunged into a chaos which took a PPG shot to settle.

Stephen headed out into the main lab to confront the men who were proceeding to barricade themselves into MedLab 1, two lab technicians at their shoulders.

"No one interfere and these people might live," one of them offered.

"Look, you can’t do this," Stephen approached the one who appeared to be in charge. "This is a medical facility!"

The man stepped forward, waving the PPG in the doctor’s face. "You’re not in a position to tell me what to do, Doctor."

"Hey, Thomas! Look who we have here!"

Stephen turned, his stomach flipping over. A second man was coming out from the private examination room, practically dragging Sheridan with him.

John’s eyes were wide with fear and the change in him struck Franklin hard. Gone was the courage it had taken to tell Stephen what he had, gone was the hope in his eyes and the blossoming pride in his stance. The doctor’s heart sank.

Thomas grinned, throwing his current hostage away, cracking the MedLab technician’s head against the doorframe, in favour of the more valuable pawn.

He grabbed John’s arm roughly, taking him from the other guy as John grunted in pain, pulling him forward. Stephen intervened, putting himself next to John.

"Look, if you need a hostage, take me. He’s no use to you."

Thomas laughed in his face. "Are you kidding? I know Captain Sheridan when I see him! They’ll do anything to get him back!"

"What do you want? Who are you bargaining with?"

"That’s for us to know and nothing to do with you." He pulled on John’s arm hard. John bit off his cry.

"Please... look, he isn’t well. If you’re not careful... what use would a dead hostage do you?"

The comment looked to terrify John further and he looked across at the doctor. The man frowned, pulling his hostage around to look into his eyes.

John screamed and Stephen immediately knew what the telepath was doing - tearing into John's mind, turning his vision into a bright white flash of agony, his hearing into an unholy shriek.

"Don’t!"

Stephen tried to stand between John and Thomas, trying to interrupt the line of sight. But before he could, Thomas threw the captain to one side. Only Stephen’s hand on his back stopped him from falling.

"John, are you okay?"

He took a moment to gather the pieces of his mind back into one coherent place. Then he nodded shakily.

But Thomas wasn’t finished. His hand clamped down into John’s shoulder.

"Come on, Sheridan. It’s time to play victim. Again."

Ivanova’s face appeared on the screen and the moment she saw John in the telepath’s hands she tapped her link and called security.

Thomas let her, waiting until she was done before he gave their terms succinctly.

"Commander Ivanova. As you can see, we have taken your MedLab facility. Anyone attempting to enter the facility by force will be killed. We want free passage off this station, for us and for the telepaths barricaded in with Byron. We want ships that will take us from here and in search of a home of our own. And we want all of this without the intervention of Bester or his bloodhounds."

Ivanova shook her head without considering. "We don’t deal with terrorists."

"Fine. Then I’ll just shoot Captain Sheridan."

On the screen, Stephen saw Susan’s eyes widened as John was dragged hair-first into shot, eyes wild. "That won’t get you anywhere."
"But it won’t get us nowhere." He raised his PPG to the captain’s head, pressing it into his hair.

"What good is a dead hostage?"

"What good is a live hostage if you won’t listen to us?"

She heard the whine as the PPG heated up.

"All right!!!" The whine died down. "All right. I’ll see what we can do. But it’ll take time, you have to give us time."

Stephen, standing off to one side and worried sick about his distressed patient, hoped the desperation in her voice was an act.

"If you kill him, you’ll have the whole station down on you and none of you will walk away alive."

Thomas seemed to accept that. "We’ll give you an hour. If I don’t hear back from you in that time, I will kill him." He shook his head. "If you allow Bester to take us we’re dead anyway."

*

Garibaldi was on his way to the Zocalo when he found himself face to face with a fast moving assault team of security officers.

Zack was bringing up the rear, shouting orders as they went. Michael grabbed his friend’s arm, pulling him to a halt.

"Zack!"

"Chief! We’ve missed you!"

Michael nodded. "Yeah, I’ll be back." He indicated the men disappearing down the corridor. "What’s going on?"

"A group of Byron’s teeps have locked down in MedLab one. They’ve got a couple of hostages in there."

Michael instantly thought of Stephen. "Have they made demands?"

"Yeah, they want off the station and they don’t want to see Bester’s ugly face on their way."

Garibaldi shrugged, "Well, you can’t blame them for that."

"Susan’s handling it from the command end, we’re going to see if they’ve left any front unprotected."

Michael let him go to work and headed up to Command & Control.

*

Stephen could only be glad that MedLab had been quiet that day.

There was only one other patient in apart from John, and that was a Pak’ma’ra. The telepaths didn’t seem too keen to go near her and she had been largely ignored. He and Sheridan were enough for them.

Once they’d laid down their demands, Thomas had pushed the captain away, something that Stephen was grateful for. He’d led John quietly over to his desk and pulled up a chair.

"Are you doing okay, John?"

He, but the expression on his face was one Stephen couldn’t work out. It was sorrow, mixed with defeat.

"What do they want?"

"They want passage off the station." He was a little confused. "You didn’t hear what they said to Susan?"

John shook his head, dismissing the answer and the question.

"I mean, what do they really want?" He sounded tired. "I can’t give it to them," he continued, his tone beaten. "But I can’t fight any longer. I thought.…" He lowered his head sadly. "Never mind what I thought." Once again he looked up. "Tell them. There’s nothing more they can do to me. They can kill me."

Stephen frowned, crouching to bring himself to eye-level with his captain. "John, what are you talking about?"

"They want the confession signed, don’t they?"

For a few moments Stephen was still clueless. And then it hit him.

"Oh... no! John, that’s not what this is about...." He grasped Sheridan’s arms tightly, careful not to cause any further pain but wanting his full and undivided attention. "John, you really are aboard Babylon 5. These are the telepaths Bester’s after." He tried to think quickly. "You remember Bester sitting in Lochley’s office? Do you remember that? He attacked you and you fought him off. These are the ones he’s after, the ones he’s come for. This is real. We are their hostages, John, but for no better reason than we were here and they need to make a point. This isn’t about EarthForce or Clarke or the war. It’s about them."

*

"Susan!" Garibaldi rounded the corner into Sheridan’s office and found Susan in conference with Lochley and Bester. He ignored them both. "Zack told me. What’s the status?"

Susan took a deep breath, she’d hoped to keep Michael out of this. But then, she told herself, she should have known better.

"They’re demanding safe passage and ships… or they’ll kill him."

Michael tried to think logically. But he could only think about Stephen. "Have they hurt him?"

"Not as far as we know… but he looked scared."

"I’m not surprised." He nodded, thinking to himself. "He’ll be okay." That surprised Susan but she said nothing. "So what are we doing about it?"

"We were just discussing that."

"I won’t allow them to leave," Bester interjected strongly. "They’re criminals, Commander, and they’re terrorists. They should be treated as such."

Garibaldi eyed Bester thoughtfully. "Maybe we should negotiate an exchange of hostage."

Bester, like the two women, wasn’t sure whether it had been a joke or not. He scowled. "That’s not funny."

"Actually, the idea kind of amuses me." Michael caught Susan’s look and let up, for now. There were lives at stake here, and one of them was Stephen’s.

"We’ve never negotiated with terrorists before, and we shouldn't start now." But Susan’s expression was grim. "The only thing is... these people don’t seem like they’ve got that much to lose."

*

The hour was almost up. Security had surrounded MedLab but after one brief firefight in which one man had been seriously wounded, they’d abstained from any further attempt at force.

Thomas approached Franklin and Sheridan.

For the most part they’d both been quiet.

Stephen had spent the time talking to John, calming his fears, trying to convince him that what was happening here wasn’t a false scene planted in his mind, enacted for his benefit by EarthForce interrogators.

He’d refused to answer Stephen’s queries and finally the doctor had stopped asking, starting instead to just talk, to explain where they were, to try to nudge recent memories in John’s mind.

For a time it had seemed that nothing was going to bring him out of this.

Until Stephen had mentioned Jack’s name.

And then a light had come back on in John’s eyes. They hadn’t used Jack’s image against him. They probably hadn’t looked deep enough to find a memory of the man.

Once he had a hook, Stephen coaxed John gently out of the haze of painful imaginings back into the real world, not that it was much less frightening there at the moment.

'Safe' was a relative word. And for John, even sitting in the shadow of PPGs was safer than being back in that awful cell.

"I want to see Jack," Sheridan managed at last, his first words in three-quarters of an hour. Stephen felt the relief almost overwhelm him.

"You will, John, soon, I promise."

That, it seemed, would be enough. John looked up and around, careful not to make eye contact with their captors. He smiled at Stephen, a cautious smile of thanks.

"I think I... lost it there, for a while," he offered nervously by way of an apology.

Stephen rubbed his arm, returning the smile ten-fold. "It’s okay, John. We’ll get out of this somehow."

Thomas bore down on them, a PPG in each hand, one aimed at each of them, a grin on his face.

"What is going on with you two?" he asked around a laugh.

"I’m a doctor, he’s my patient."

"He’s a pain in the ass. Clarke should have had him killed when he had the chance. Can’t think why he didn’t." The grin curled into a cruel smile. "I can see everything they did to you in prison," he drawled. "you’re leaking all over the place, you know that?"

John didn’t say a word. He clung to the truths Stephen had told him, knowing within himself that they were real, that he was in MedLab, not being mind-fucked by Clarke’s goons.

But in that case, the threat of the PPG was just as real.

"You want to know what I can see?" Thomas was asking him, "You want me to show everyone here?"

"Just leave him alone...."

Stephen stood, putting himself between Thomas and the chair in which John was sitting.

With a swipe of his hand faster than any of them could have moved, Thomas knocked the doctor to one side, knuckles colliding with his cheek and the edge of his jaw. Stephen lost his balance and fell against a trolley of medical equipment, but he stayed on his feet.

Just as he was about to continue the fight he saw an image in his mind, as sudden and as unexpected as the slap to his face. And a thousand times more painful.

Thomas had attacked and this time John had blocked him as he had Bester.

But then a second and a third telepath had dived into his mind and he wasn’t strong enough to hold them all back.

Thomas got passed John’s defences. And while the other two kept their victim busy, he found with ease the memories he wanted.

A moment later, he picked a scene and broadcast it out to every person in MedLab, mundanes and telepaths alike.

 

For a second, they all saw themselves as a bystander yet at the same time as the man on the floor.

They watched rather than felt his pain as he threw up time after time.

They smelt the foul stench of vomit yet it wasn’t their own, it was the filth of the man being sick on the ground.

They felt the wrenching pain of retching nausea as it forced broken ribs one against another, burned his throat, nose and tongue, left a bitter, awful taste that remained because there was nothing to take it away.

 

And then it stopped. And they were all back in MedLab, alive and unharmed.

John clutched at his head as if he could pull the other minds out of his own by sheer force.
"Stop!!!" Stephen recovered quickly and launched himself bodily at Thomas.

They went crashing back into a unit behind him and the whine of a PPG sounded through the breaking glass.

One shot was fired, but the only damage caused was a black scorch mark on the ceiling.

Before either Thomas or Stephen could inflict any further harm, the two telepaths who had assisted in their leader’s attack on Sheridan hauled Franklin off. They held him firmly between them while they waited for Thomas to get back on his feet.

He was furious. Raising the PPG he aimed at Stephen’s head and tightened his finger.

"Don’t!" Sheridan was suddenly standing in the path of the shot. "If you’re gonna kill someone then kill me. You’ve been wanting to since you set eyes on me so just get it over with."

Thomas wavered. But he lowered the weapon and grinned.

"You’re so anxious to die, let’s see what Commander Ivanova has to say about it shall we? Maybe she’d like to watch."

He reached out and grabbed John once again by his hair, dragging him over to the Babcom unit.

*

"We’re running out of time!"

And Susan had run out of ideas. Bester refused to give in to the rogue telepaths and Lochley had no insight to offer them. Garibaldi had disappeared twenty minutes ago to look into something and no one had seen him since.

The Babcom unit behind her calmly reported an incoming message from MedLab. Time had run out.

"Commander Ivanova. You’ve had one hour. What’s your answer?"

She tried to stall him. "You have to give us more time! Finding ships isn’t easy now, they’re in short supply."

"Really? You seemed to find enough to blow up during the war with Earth."

"Exactly!"

Thomas smiled. "Do I take it that your answer is no, Commander?"

She hesitated just a moment too long.

At Thomas’ side John was forced to his knees by the two other telepaths.

"I obviously need to prove to you that we’re serious. It’s clear you think we’re bluffing and we won’t get anywhere if you continue to think that."

John’s head was pushed forward as Thomas placed the tip of the PPG against the back of his neck.

"So to prove our point, we will execute your captain. And then you’ll have another hour. And after that, we’ll execute the doctor."

Susan heard the PPG whine over her own cry of denial. It was too late. John was going to die and his blood would be on the hands of them all. "No! Please!"

There was a single PPG shot just a moment before chaos ensued in MedLab one.

*

Garibaldi knew Babylon 5 inside out.

He knew where every access panel, every hatch, every air duct led from and to.

He could get into MedLab passed the telepaths, passed security, without anyone knowing he was doing it until he dropped in unannounced.

But he knew his limits.

Five rogue telepaths wouldn’t think twice about adding him to their list of hostages. But there was one man Michael knew wouldn’t be shot on sight.

He found Byron, and he found Lyta, and between them they talked the leader of the telepaths into crawling down half a mile of tight access tunnel to speak face to face with Thomas and to end this peacefully with no one being hurt.

But they had missed the opportunity for a peaceful end, if indeed one had ever existed.

Byron dropped to his feet inside MedLab just as Thomas heated up his PPG against Sheridan’s spine.

Without a word of warning, out of time, he opened fire upon one of his own, killing Thomas instantly.

The PPG shot from the man’s weapon singed the ends of John’s hair and burnt a hole in the floor of MedLab.

"You seek to kill a man in my name?" Byron asked them desperately. "When I would have no blood on my hands, you offer me a human sacrifice? Why? Why won’t you learn from me? Has nothing I’ve said, nothing we’ve been through meant anything to you?"

One of the telepaths stepped forward. "We’ve lost, Byron, can’t you see that? We’ve failed. They’ll hand us over to Bester and he’ll kill us all, or worse. I refuse to go back to that, I’d rather die first and I’d like to take a few mundanes with me!"

Challenging, Byron closed the gap between them, stepping up until his face was only inches from the other’s. "Why? What gives you the right to torture them as Psi Corp have tortured us?"

"They created Psi Corp! Their own fears incarnate!"

"Their fears, and ours." Byron laid a hand on his comrade’s arm. "We have a common enemy. This is not their fight, it’s ours." He back down, turned to address the others. "I taught you that violence was wrong, that it achieved nothing, yet Thomas’ death had to be dealt by my own hand. You have caused me to abandon my own morals and beliefs because you were not strong enough to follow where I led. This day is a sad one indeed."

"John...." Stephen knelt down, carefully wrapping his arms around his trembling patient, turning Sheridan into his embrace and holding him tight. "It’s over," he murmured softly, "it’s all over."

*

It seemed like forever before the commotion died down in MedLab.

Susan stood in the office, eyes glued to the Babcom screen, searching for some clue as to who was dead and who was still living. Even when Garibaldi appeared at her shoulder she didn’t turn from the images before her.

Finally, Byron’s flushed face filled the screen. "Commander Ivanova."

"Byron, what happened? Is...."

"Sheridan’s fine. I killed...." She didn’t hear what else he said because Michael had stepped up to the screen and turned and now he was saying something....

"Sheridan? John’s in there?! Why didn’t you tell me?!"

Susan looked at him, confused. "You said you knew, that Zack had told you."

"He told me they’d taken MedLab, I assumed Stephen was their hostage...." The truth hit him hard. He spun on his heel, facing Byron again. "If he’s hurt in any way...."

Byron tilted his head.

"I understand your concern, Mr Garibaldi." Stepping back he indicated where Stephen was kneeling with their captain, rocking him back and forth now. "I would say he wasn’t in a good place. I will free him immediately. Meanwhile, I’d like Commander Ivanova to consider another proposal, one which I believe will be easier to agree to."

*

For the time at least the siege in MedLab looked set to continue, although they had Byron’s word that no one else would be hurt.

Once the new negotiations had been set in place, Byron deactivated the Babcom unit and turned his attention to the stricken officer. Crouching next to Stephen he kept his mental distance from Sheridan. It was difficult, but he didn’t want to know the source and history of the terrible things he was sensing at the edges of his mind.

"Is he all right?"

Stephen shook his head slightly. John’s body still shook in his arms, but there were no tears and no words. "Can you... sense him?"

Byron nodded. "It’s impossible not to. Strong emotions can be easily read without even trying. He’s very scared. And for that, and that alone, am I so very sorry." Stephen reacted unconsciously, tightening his embrace a little. "I told the commander I would release him. Michael Garibaldi and Jack Maynard are coming to fetch him. I’d appreciate you staying, just for a while longer."

Stephen nodded. John was being released from here and that was all that mattered right now.

 

A couple of minutes later, Stephen coaxed John to his feet and led him slowly to the door. It opened to reveal a small group of telepaths facing off a larger group of security officers. Between the two groups, Michael and Jack waited.

Stephen led John, the latter keeping his head bowed as he walked. When they met up with the others, he explained.

"He’s confused. Part of him’s convinced that he’s back on Mars. I pushed him to remember recent things that had happened since his rescue, but I’m not sure how successful I was. I think Clarke’s interrogators used me, used us all, to confuse him when he was in custody. But they didn’t know about you," he indicated Jack. "You’re the hook he needs to believe everything else is real."

"Is he all right, physically?" Michael watched while Jack touched Sheridan’s arm, quietly trying to coax him out of the silence.

Stephen glanced at them. "He’s just shaken, that’s all. In shock. Give him time and room. Make him some Minbari tea, keep him warm. Don’t leave him alone."

He hesitated, loathed to let his patient out of his sight.

But he had given Byron his word and he would keep that promise. John was safe in their hands. He nodded, mostly to himself, and headed back to MedLab.

Michael cleared the way back to Sheridan’s quarters.

Just once, just before they started off, John had looked up, first at Michael, then at Jack.

And in a small voice he’d asked, "Is this real?"

Jack had assured him that it was, and since then he hadn’t spoken. He walked between the other two, Jack’s hand on his back, comforting and reassuring and when they reached John’s quarters, Sheridan stepped away from them.

"I... I’d like a shower," he murmured by way of asking.

Michael nodded, as he seemed to be the one being asked.

"Okay."

He tried to keep his tone light, but as soon as John had closed the glass doors between the living room and the bedroom, Michael turned and slammed his clenched fist down hard on the kitchen work surface.

"Why?!" He shook his head, letting his anger come simmering to the surface.

Jack didn’t have an answer.

It wasn’t easy for either of them to see John shrink back into himself after he’d come so far.

He just leaned back against the counter, arms crossed.

The unit took another hard hit before Michael’s seething cooled. He knew anger wouldn’t do Sheridan any good he just needed to release it. He dropped back into the sofa, eyeing Maynard now.

"What is it with you? You’re... so calm. And you’re here. You... know somehow when he needs you."

Jack smiled, inclining his head. "We used to be close. When Anna died I was with him. He fell apart and all I could do was be there as someone for him to shout and rage at, to cry on, to just sit with him in silence. He needs that same support now. We can’t dictate his feelings or his path of recovery. We can only be here, and help him heal in his own time and his own way."

Michael nodded his agreement. A tiny, tiny part of him was jealous that Jack’s presence had such a calming effect on John. But the man made sense.

"Are you channelling your anger somewhere I should know about?"

Another smile. "I’m storing it all up," Jack murmured. "When I get back into space I’ll find a small planet and blow it to hell."

*

John turned off the shower and towelled himself dry, mindful of the injuries that still plagued him.

A broken rib that Stephen had had to reset still nagged at him even thought the doctor had reassured him that it was healing normally.

‘It’ll take time,’ Stephen had told him, ‘your body’s been traumatised, it won’t heal as quickly as usual.’ Typical doctors.

He had scars, scars that wouldn’t go away unless treated with skin grafts.

He had bruises that still looked black despite the time that had passed.

But these were just physical signs. They would eventually heal or could be made to vanish with simple surgery.

His memories, things forced to the fore in nightmares and flashbacks, thrown into public view by Thomas, felt as if they would never leave him.

Standing in front of the mirror he let the towel drop from his body and stared at the image of himself as it stared back.

Self-consciously he ran his fingers through his grey-brown hair. It had grown again.

He’d come back from Z’Ha’Dum looking like he’d felt; revitalised, reborn.

As usual, he hadn’t had too much time to enjoy it.

The Shadows, and Clarke.

And Michael.

Initially he’d thought it was simple jealousy of Lorien and of the time he’d had to spend with Delenn. Then he’d tried to speak to him, tried to ask him, and it was if... as if they’d never loved one another. Later it was as if they’d never even known each other.

And then, in that bar....

The tears started and wouldn’t stop.

He brushed his hands over his face but more tears replaced the ones he’d managed to wipe away. Sobs rose from him and cascaded out, washing away the defences he’d erected in their path.

He moved to sit on the corner of the bed, put his head in his hands and let the emotion rise from within him, letting it overflow.

He could feel the hysteria bubbling up, pushing forward all the reasons he had to be angry and upset, with himself, with others and with the universe.

He wanted to forgive, had tried to forget and go on. But how could he when it still hurt so much?

Clutching at the quilt from the bed he wrapped himself in it as he dropped to his side, curling in the warmth and comfort of the covers.

His tears ran in streams into the material. He vaguely wondered if could wrap the quilt so close around him that nothing would be able to touch him.

"Please," he sobbed quietly, "please just leave me alone!"

 

In a break in the conversation, both Jack and Michael heard the sobbing.

They both hesitated, both wanting to help their friend. Finally, Michael dropped back into the sofa. "You go. If he’s flashing back, I’m the bad guy."

"Michael..."

"I’m not going anywhere. I just don’t want to freak him out."

Jack nodded, and got up.

He opened the door to the bedroom, looking at John where he lay on the bed twisted up in the quilt.

Despite everything he’d told Michael, it did hurt to see his friend in so much pain.

Crouching by the bed, he stroked his hand over John’s quilt-covered shoulder.

"John...."

Sheridan looked directly at him. "I’ve given everything I can, everything I am, I swear I have." Pleading eyes searched Jack’s soft gaze.

Jack didn’t understand, but he didn’t have to understand.

"Johnny, we can give you all the time in the world."

There was silence, and then John shifted, moving to sit up.

Jack reached over and took the bathrobe from the chair. He handed it to his friend before turning his back, allowing John at least the illusion of privacy. When he turned again, John was sitting up on the mattress, sniffing, pulling the quilt up over his crossed legs, wiping his eyes on the corner of it.

For a short time, he picked at the edge of the quilt. Jack made himself comfortable on the bed, one leg dangling, the other tucked under him. He waited for John to speak, but when he didn’t, Jack found a question in his mind and asked it.

"You said... you’d given everything you had. To who?"
John looked at him through dark, hooded eyes. "To the universe." He took a deep breath and released it. "When I first came here, the Vorlon Ambassador, Kosh, he... he told me that I was important, that I’d been brought to the station for a purpose. And so... I fought. I led the battle, the war against the shadows. I brought all the races together. It wasn’t easy. It was hell. Every few hours something would happen that would threaten the... fragile balance. Gods, Jack, it was like..." he remembered his own phrase, "stacking marbles in a corner."

Jack chuckled. "You were always good at finding the most difficult challenges life had to offer."

"Yeah, well... for better or for worse we went into that war and we fought. But in the end the universe didn’t want a fight, it wanted me. So I went to Z’Ha’Dum and I blew it to hell. I died on that planet, died after falling down a two mile deep hole."

Jack guessed John had seen the expression which was on his face a hundred times. But he didn't quite understand.

"I can barely understand what happened. I woke... at least, I thought I’d woken, in this warren of passages. Lorien was waiting. He asked me if I knew I had a Vorlon inside me. Kosh had... touched my mind the night he died. He’d left a part of himself within me. Lorien said the two of us were clinging to life and that we both had to let go. I was so scared... I didn’t want to be alive, but... I didn’t want to die either. I couldn’t bring myself to simply let go of living. But I did as I was told, like I had a choice...." He sighed. "When I woke again, I was healed. I’d have had first degree burns from the nuclear fallout, broken bones, cuts and bruises from the fall. They were all healed. But... I had died. Lorien gave me some sort of energy, but I only have twenty years. Max. Now, after Mars…."

Staring, Jack frowned. "What are you saying, Johnny? Twenty years? You’ve only got…?"

"It’s long enough," but John’s voice caught on the words.

"You’ve got less than twenty years to live?"

John smiled, tried for a small laugh to lighten the tension. "I know, hardly worth their rescuing me, was it?"

Jack suddenly felt the emotion and his grated feelings rush at him, everything he’d told Garibaldi he’d been storing away. He swallowed against the lump in his throat, and let his hand slide down John’s arm to rest over his hand. "I...."

Sheridan turned his hand over, curling his fingers around Jack’s wrist.

"I know, Jack," he murmured quietly. "Have I come to terms with it? No. I had, until my time in that cell. I wanted to die as I sat strapped into that chair. And now I’m free I want a million years. I died because the Vorlons chose me to."

There was no pride in his voice. "Lorien said to me, ‘Your friends need what you can be when you’re no longer afraid.’ But I am afraid. I was afraid when I went to Z’Ha’Dum, I was afraid when I came back. I had to... let Kosh go, to let him fight another Vorlon. They both died in that fight."

"I’m sorry. You must miss him."

John nodded. "Kosh was… a father to me. When he left me... I was alone again. And Michael.... I didn’t know what was going on with him. But I didn’t get time, I wasn’t allowed the time to find out what the hell was happening. Because there was the shadow war to end, and the Vorlon artefact leading into Thirdspace to destroy, and then Clarke to fight. I haven’t stopped for three years. I’m tired, Jack. I have given everything. I don’t have anything left for me, let alone anyone else." He shook his head, a smile playing on his lips. "You bored yet, with my life history?"

Jack smiled, inclining his head. He returned John’s hold on his wrist. "I’m glad you can talk to me. You need to talk."

John smiled, but he shook his head. "I can’t talk about that. Not yet. Maybe... not ever. I’m sorry."

"It’s all right."

"It’s not all right...." John’s tone rose. "They need me... this station... they’re still looking to me for... answers, reasons, a promise of peace. I can’t... take that responsibility any more, I don’t want it!"

"They love you, John. They won’t force it on you. They just... they have you to thank for everything, for their freedom and in some ways their lives." Jack watched the sadness cloud John’s face and he thought suddenly that perhaps he understood. "You don’t want to take back command, do you?"

"I... I don’t know what I want anymore. I thought I could go back to work, bury myself in running the station and somehow forget.... But I can’t. I can’t make it go away. I can’t stop the nightmares. I don’t know how to. And I can’t... talk about it, because it hurts too much to remember."

Jack found himself thinking that this wouldn’t ever end.

John and his crew had come aboard with new hopes and dreams.

They’d ended the war that Clarke had started by assassinating Santiago.

They’d freed Earth and Mars and all the other colonies that had been under threat since declaring independence.

Everyone had their dreams back, everyone had their hope restored.

Everyone except for the one man who’d made it all possible. His dreams lay broken at his feet, unfixable and irreplaceable. His hope had been beaten out of him, taken from him while they tortured his mind and body trying to prevent him from doing what he’d sworn to do.

Never, not once, had he asked for anything in return, and every time he believed he had been given something it had been cruelly ripped from him.

Anna, Kosh, Michael, the knowledge that he fought for the side of good, the safety of his command, the family he’d found in the command staff of the station. Finally the peace of his own mind, the flesh of his own body.

Now, surely, he could ask for some recompense after everything he’d been through and all he’d given up.

But life went on, worlds still turned and it was already looking once again to its nexus for leadership, guidance, and permission to do whatever the hell it wanted until yet another war broke out.

"I’ve had enough, Jack," he murmured plaintively. "I need time, too much time, more than I’m allowed."

"No." Maynard shook his head decisively. "You have all the time you need. You’re allowed all the time it takes for you to heal. That’s the price the universe has to pay, Johnny. Don’t back down on that one. Don’t let it give you a bum deal."

He was rewarded with a small chuckle and it made everything seem worthwhile.

He remembered someone saying to him, ‘you make him laugh and suddenly your whole life seems like it’s been worth it.’

It took him a while to recall where he’d heard that. Michael. Michael had said it one night of their on-going vigil, one night when they’d been sitting in John’s living room talking quietly.

The words had stuck in Jack’s mind, he remembered, because they’d answered the one burning question he’d had on his lips, ‘why do people follow him the way they do?’

"You won’t lose your friends," he told John sternly, "they’ll always be here."

John nodded slowly. "Thanks... all this...."

"All this is... easy. Commanding a space station, piloting a Starfury, taking a ship out to the Rim to search for ancient enemies, those things are hard. Spending time on Babylon 5, eating out, playing baseball, exploring the markets, wrestling Susan’s Choc & Orange mousse from Michael in the evening... these are all easy things. I don’t have a problem with an extended vacation. Besides, I don’t actually have a ship at the moment."

Another smile, another laugh. "Have you noticed that it always takes people around here an hour to get to the point?" John rolled his eyes. "Me, especially."

From the outer room they heard the door chime and heard Michael answer it. They caught Susan’s voice and Stephen’s voice. It seemed the MedLab siege was over. John unfolded himself and swung his legs off the bed. "Would you give me a minute?"

"Sure." Hoping he’d said all the right things, Jack left John to dress.

*

"For now it’s all quiet," Susan explained to the others as they sat sipping the fresh coffee Michael had rustled up.

"Tomorrow morning at o-nine-hundred Byron will lead all the telepaths into cargo bay five. The command staff will meet them there and the telepaths involved in criminal activities aboard the station in the last couple of weeks will give themselves up into our custody. The rest will leave the station unhindered."

Stephen’s eyebrows almost rose from his forehead.

He was sitting on one end of the couch, close to his patient. John was curled into the other corner, cradling a mug of hot chocolate in his hands. No one had asked Michael how he’d managed to get his hands on it. To John, it tasted heavenly and that was all that mattered.

"Bester accepted that?!" Stephen couldn’t keep the question back, despite the icy cold that seemed to descend at the mention of his name.

Susan shook her head. "He argued against it but it’s legal. And it satisfied Commander Lochley, whatever she has to do with the situation."

John leaned forward. "I’d like to be there."

Susan stared at him for a moment, and then she shrugged. "Sure. No problem."

Jack was amazed, but he kept it to himself.

And the subject was allowed to pass. Any sign of John showing interest in the day to day running of the station was a good one. Then again, he had been pulled into this situation thanks to Thomas. Perhaps he just wanted to see an end to it all.

 

It wasn’t late when Susan rose and stretched.

John had fallen asleep almost an hour before, his head fallen against the back of the sofa. When Susan made a move, Michael decided it was time John got some proper rest in his bed.

With Stephen’s help, he lifted John from the sofa and bade the others goodnight.

 

Stephen too had considered leaving. But when Michael had taken John to bed, he’d finally made a decision to tell someone about what he’d found days ago in the analysis of Sheridan’s blood.

Sitting forward on the cushion, the doctor linked his fingers, pressing his palms together. "Listen, Jack…. Has John told you about Z’Ha’Dum?"

Jack uncrossed his feet on the coffee table and crossed them again, right over left. "Yes. He told me… that he died in a nuclear blast, he… threw himself down a hole and there was someone waiting at the bottom – Lorien." Jack’s expression brought a smile to Stephen’s face, like he almost expected Stephen to look at him as if he’d lost his mind.

Instead, Franklin just nodded. "Lorien added some chemical to John’s system. He gave him enough for twenty years, but he warned him that it was baring illness…."

"…or injury." Jack nodded. "And then Clarke’s men got their hands on him."

Stephen nodded. "I did a comparison of samples taken a couple of months ago, and two weeks ago."

Jack rubbed his face. "How much has he lost?"

Stephen regarded the other man. "Twenty percent."

It took a second for Maynard to calculate that. "Oh Gods…. Four years? He’s lost four years?!" Swallowing, he brought his sudden grief under control. "He’s got sixteen years to live?"

The doctor sighed softly. "How do I tell him, Jack?" His voice was nothing more than a whisper. "He’s been through hell. How can I add to that?"

"I have no idea. But… you have to. One of us has to. You can’t let him live his life believing he has longer than he really does. He deserves to make plans."

Stephen nodded. "I know. But… it doesn’t make it any easier."

 

For a long time Michael just sat silently in a chair next to John’s bed. He was content simply to watch his friend sleep for a few minutes.

With each day that passed a little more of the pain faded, another slice of the previous nine months was banished to the past, to memory. It would never be forgotten. But their lives were too short to let Bester destroy the future the way he’d destroyed their past.

It got to a point where he couldn’t hold in his words.

"My John," he whispered softly. "Where do I start, umm? How do I tell you all of this? When we got back... after everything... you wouldn’t talk to me, you avoided me and that hurt. Now, I know... I could have come to speak to you, forced you to talk to me. But then... Bester’s programming I guess. And you had Lorien hanging around you the whole time. A small part of me was as jealous as hell. The rest of me... didn’t trust. I didn’t trust you, Lorien, anyone anymore." He shook his head, pressing his lips into John’s fine hair. "I love you."
"I was scared," the words were whispers in reply. Michael’s eyes widened but John’s remained closed just as he remained wrapped in the duvet. "Lorien had given me his own life force. He stayed close because he wasn’t sure if my body would reject what he’d given me. It could have killed me outright. And I was scared that at any moment I would die."

Michael smiled gently. "I thought you were asleep."

"I like listening to your voice."

"Sorry. I just...."

"So much to be said." Michael nodded. "I know."

John opened his eyes and reached out, taking his friend’s hand when it was offered. "You can just talk, I can listen."

"Or you can talk, and I’ll just listen."

A moment’s hesitation before John pulled on Michael’s hand. Smiling, Michael went. Kicking his shoes off, he made himself comfortable on the bed, lying on one side, propped up on his elbow. John turned over to face him.

"Or we could both shut up."

Almost shyly, John lifted his head and touched his mouth to Michael’s.

The kiss was slow, long and deep. It wasn’t so much about sex or sensuality as it was about friendship, healing and love. It was a re-establishing of their feelings.

John reached up, stroking Michael’s head, over his jaw, following the line of his neck. Michael touched his fingertips to John’s hair but that was his only movement.

When John broke the contact, Michael settled his shaking hand to John’s head. "I didn’t think... I didn’t expect to ever have this again with you."

Sheridan’s head dropped back to the pillow, but his fingers stroked lightly across the other’s lips. "Is it something you want?"

"Aw, John... you have no idea."

John nodded once and smiled. Closing his eyes, he took Michael’s hand in his own and let sleep claim him.

Michael remained awake for a long time, finally beginning to believe that everything could be all right between them sometime, somewhere in the future.

*

As arranged they met in the Cargo Bay.

Ivanova stood side by side with Lochley for the first time since the latter had come aboard. In front of them, Sheridan and Garibaldi stood side by side, Michael in uniform, John still not able to wear one.

A security team was posted throughout the bay. And at nine a.m. the telepaths walked in as a group, led by Byron.

All went as planned, and Ivanova thought that perhaps something might work out right for a change.

And then Bester arrived.

And everything went to hell.

As the whines and blasts of the PPGs exploded into the air all around him, Sheridan looked across to the other side of the hallway, to where Psi Corp’s bloodhounds were hunkered down behind the barrels and crates.

Bester was amongst them, on the side nearest to Sheridan. The Psi Cop was aiming and firing, whether at anyone in particular, the captain did not know. But once he’d spotted him, he couldn’t take his eyes off him and the rest of the firefight and everyone around him faded from his vision until that one Psi Cop was the only thing he could see.

He glanced down at the PPG in his own hand.

 

‘No one would know,’ he told himself, ‘no one would care. At any moment he could catch a shot from anyone’s PPG. The teeps aren’t firing at particular targets, they’re just shooting randomly at the Psi Cops, at us. No one would question one more death this morning when there are already so many dead.’

‘But it’s wrong. It’s murder, isn’t it? You can’t just kill him in cold blood, can you?’

 

‘Who would ever know? He died in a firefight against his own people. Perhaps even at the hands of his own protege. No one would question that because they’re here, and they’re in the midst of a battle for their lives.’

 

‘The screaming in their minds must be unbearable. How much can they hear that we can’t? Do they deserve more pain than they’re already inflicting upon themselves?’

 

Sheridan turned his head slightly and glanced over at Garibaldi.

The man was holding his own defence, probably grasping this chance to take out as many telepaths as possible. But that wasn’t fair. Michael didn’t look as through he was actually firing at all.

 

‘He won’t kill them because he doesn’t blame them all. Only Bester. And he can’t kill Bester.’

 

John wondered if he’d tried. If he’d turned that PPG in the direction of the Psi Cop and attempted to pull the trigger. He wouldn’t be able to. Michael couldn’t harm the man who’d done so much damage, caused so much pain.

‘But I can. I can end this, for him and for me and for all the others Bester’s hurt on his journey to this moment in time.’

 

Standing straight, Sheridan lifted the PPG, one hand cradling the underside, the other, his left, wrapped around the handle, one finger curled over the trigger.

‘One shot, that’s all it would take. He’d be dead, unable to hurt anyone else.’

‘It’s murder!’

 

‘So what?! The bastard deserves to die! He took Michael against his will. He brainwashed him, locked him away in his own mind and replaced him with a usurper. With another personality that overrode him at every turn, that took over while Michael clawed at the confines of his brain, screaming in silence while he watched himself do what he would never have done, while he watched himself hurt the people he loved, the people who loved him.’

 

A memory flashed into his mind, louder than the voices arguing in his head. For the voices that replaced them belonged to he and Michael, voices that were choked with emotion, laced with anger, blame, a terrible need to hit out at someone, anyone for what had happened to them both. Anyone but each other.

 

(flashback)

"You stood there and watched!" Tears streamed down his face but he did nothing to hold them back. "You watched, Michael, while Clarke’s men beat the living shit out of me and you did nothing! That hurt more than any kick, any punch, any broken bones or torn skin."

Michael wiped moisture from his eyes but those tears were only replaced by more. "John... I watched. And I screamed louder than I can ever remember screaming in my whole life. I yelled and fought but nothing came out, and I didn’t move. I was as much a prisoner as you were, and for a lot fucking longer. When he released me, when that bastard finally broke the cell walls down and let me out, that scream echoed around me, echoed in my own ears for a very long time before I realized I was hearing my own voice."

Anger subsided as quickly as it had surfaced, John reached out tiredly. "Michael...."

Garibaldi took a hold of the hand held out to him and grasped it tight. "If I could take us back, change what happened I would give my life to do it, but I can’t. I can’t...."

(end flashback)

 

‘That expression on his face, I will never forget that as long as I live. Bester held him a prisoner in his own mind, with no means of escape, no hope of ever taking back the things he was doing. I was held for eight days, he was held for nine months. I owe him this as I owe him my freedom, my soul and my life.’

‘...’

 

‘So you finally see my point?’

 

John heard the whine of the PPG in the distance and suddenly realized that it was his own. He was about fire when he was stopped by a hand on his arm. He knew without looking that it was Garibaldi’s. Slowly he slackened his grip on the trigger.

All around them the firefight continued.

John was ready to reiterate his argument, that he had to end this, that if he didn’t they wouldn’t ever be free.

But as he opened his mouth to speak, Michael put his other hand over John’s where it held the weapon.

Silently, he pushed his own finger between Sheridan’s and the warm metal of the trigger. And only then did he look at his captain with a sure and exquisitely peaceful expression.

Sheridan re-aimed the PPG. Michael’s hand was as light as air where it covered his own.

Once again he tightened his trigger finger, pressing Michael’s finger onto the trigger itself where it dented the skin.

The whine accelerated and became a single shot fired from the barrel. A moment later, that shot hit Alfred Bester square in the chest.

Had an autopsy been performed later, it would have shown that the shot came from the side, not from the front. That given the way the rival factions were organised in the room there was no way a teep could have fired the shot that killed the Psi Cop.

But no one performed an autopsy. Perhaps they didn’t have to. Perhaps they already knew.

Bester knew.

He looked up, more in surprise than anything else.

And then, as he dropped his own weapon and clutched his hands to his burning, fatal wound, he smiled, almost proud.

Both John and Michael felt, at that moment, a singular, amazed laugh in their minds.

But then it was gone, and Bester was dead before his body collided with the metal floor.

It was a good few minutes before any of his colleagues noticed his death, their minds already overloaded by the screams of the dying in the fire all around them.

* * *

Epilogue

Jack found John sitting quietly in the upper observation deck.

The Agamemnon II was in stationary orbit close to B5, awaiting its new captain’s arrival. Maynard was ecstatic to have been granted command of the first of the new exploration-class cruisers. He was impressed that they’d been able to roll one out in the time that they had.

"She’s beautiful, isn’t she?" There was pride in his question.

John turned. He was sitting on the seating that ran the circumference of the deck, his legs tucked partially under him. His arms were folded on the back of the seat and he had been admiring the ship.

"She’s magnificent." He smiled as Jack moved to sit beside him, mirroring his own comfortable position. "When are you leaving?"

"In the morning." He too gazed out for a few long moments at the ship that was to be his home for the at least the next six months. "Johnny…. If you want me to stay…."

John took a deep breath. "I’m okay, Jack. I think…" He looked up and smiled. "I have so much to thank you for. You’ve been… my support, my lifeline. I’m not sure what I’d have done without you on the Aggy, on Earth, here on the station…."

Jack reached out, patted his friend’s arm with meaning. "You’re one of my oldest friends. I’ve tended to think of you as the son my career never let me have. And I am so proud of you…."

"They almost broke me."

Jack wondered where that last statement had come from. But he wasn’t going to question it. John hadn’t spoken to anyone in any real detail regarding his experiences on Mars.

"You held out," he told John carefully. "You didn’t betray yourself, or anyone else. You have to be proud of that."

John lowered his eyes, shaking his head slowly. "I don’t know how much longer I could have gone on."

"Johnny, you’re here. You survived. They say the first obligation of a prisoner is to escape. The first obligation of a victim is to survive. And you’re doing good." Sheridan smiled his thanks. "No one knows what you went through while they held you. Even if you talked to someone, described your experiences they still wouldn’t know. We won’t ever know. But you are surrounded by people who care, who’ll listen and do anything they can do to help."

"I think it’s just going to take time." He looked back out at the Agamemnon. "Promise me it won’t be two years this time, Stinky."

Jack drew John into a bear hug, so different from those they’d shared in the last few weeks. "I promise, Swamp Rat. You have my word."

*

From the shadows of the low-lit observation deck, Michael watched John watching the jump gate until the Agamemnon was gone and the gate was deactivated. For longer still, until finally he stepped up and dropped onto the seating at John's side.

"You okay?" Michael thought he understood; Jack was a source of safety and comfort and now he was going away.

"Yeah." John tore his eyes from the exit to look at him. "It’s stupid. But..."

"It’s not stupid. He’s a part of your support system, someone you trust, someone who was at your side while you fought your way out of hell. If you’d asked him to stay, he’d have stayed. If you called the Aggy now he’d come right back."

Sheridan let out a deep, steadying breath. "I know. I’m okay. I have other friends."

Michael smiled. "You certainly do."

"Come on." John rose. And Michael followed.

It wasn’t long before he worked out where they were headed.

Stepping into the batting ground, Michael grinned. "Do you realise how long it’s been since we’ve stood here, played here?"

John nodded, but he said nothing. Bending, he picked up the metal bat that someone had dropped there. "Computer on," he instructed.

Garibaldi leaned back against the wall, watching while Sheridan missed the first six balls. "Elbow up...." he offered helpfully.

John turned and glared at him, and in that expression there was a little more hope. "You always did think you could play better than I could."

"Easily, Captain."

Sheridan lifted his head. "Is that a challenge?"

Michael chuckled. "A challenge? You haven’t hit one yet!"

He feigned indignation. "My aim’s a bit off, that’s all."

"Yeah, well. You hit one and then we’ll talk about challenges."

John rose to the bait. But he missed the next three balls. Michael remained knowingly silent. Sheridan was still weak, his balance and concentration still slightly off.

It wasn’t surprising that the skill he used to excel at was proving illusive.

"I got a message from Stephen." Garibaldi spoke steadily. "He wanted to see us, regarding Bester’s death."

Sheridan lowered the bat. "You should have said."

"I didn’t want to."

"You think he knows what happened?"

Michael shrugged. "So what if he does. He can only suspect that he knows, he can’t prove it to himself or anyone else."

John sighed. "Don’t get me wrong, Michael. I will never regret what I did...."

"...what we did."

He nodded. "Last night, I thought about the times Bester had come aboard, the conversations, the paranoia, and I kept asking myself if we did something to anger him, to infuriate him somehow, above and beyond.... For him to do what he did to you.... Something had to have triggered that, didn’t it?"

Michael shook his head. "I don’t think anything did. I hate to say it but I think I was just an instrument. He wanted to stop Edgars Industries, wanted that virus out of Edgar’s hands so badly that he didn’t think about us, only about himself and his precious telepaths. When he released me he told me that it was the Shadows who took me, to turn me to their side. They also took telepaths, to work on me, and Bester intervened, sending along some of his own people."

John dropped the bat and moved over to crouch down next to where Michael was sitting on the sidelines. "The shadows... I think they meant for me to take your place after your death on Z’Ha’Dum. But you came back. And the way I remember feeling... I was trapped for a time, with only you and Lorien to yell at. And when the Shadows left for the Rim, Bester took over. He pushed all the right buttons. They’d already held me for a time on Mars and accentuated the traits they needed. I started seeing you the way the aliens were seeing you and not the way I used to see you. Before, I could see through the bullshit, the military hero facade you present to the world. I lost sight of that."

Michael shook his head, wondering once more if he’d ever be able to rid himself of his terrible guilt.

He looked up. "What did you say that guy called you on Z’Ha’Dum?"

"A nexus." John’s voice was hushed, as if did not want to interrupt Michael lest he should stop his confession.

"I didn’t see a nexus, I saw a god. And I knew you weren’t one. And so I turned on you. Whatever Bester had in mind when he took me, he couldn’t have imagined how well it would work, how completely I would turn against you. I never for a moment believed that I had capability within me…. The capability of such cruelty, some malevolence and hatred, especially for someone I’d once loved. I worked perfectly. Every so often Bester would send messages that were signals to speak directly to my mind. When I first got back I didn’t even trust Stephen enough to tell him what I remembered about the concrete room Psi-Corp held me in."

He rubbed his eyes. "You never stood a chance, John. And for that, I will be eternally sorry." Sheridan reached for Michael’s hand while he carried on. "I got them their virus, Shadow-engineered to kill telepaths. I sold you out. Then I reported back. And he showed me what I’d done and who I really was. And... all I could remember as I sat there, listening to his voice, paralysed, unable to reach out and put my hands around his throat... all I could see in my mind was you, in that damn bar, fighting Clarke’s men as they tore in to you."

Rising to sit next to his friend, John slowly put his arms around Michael’s shoulders and pulled him close, holding him tightly. "He’s gone, he won’t ever touch us again."

Michael returned the embrace, holding John’s thin frame in his arms. "Don’t ever regret what we did. Don’t ever think that he didn’t deserve to die because he did."

"But are we that important?" John’s voice was barely audible. "Do our lives matter that much?"

And to his surprise Michael pulled away, his hands resting gently on John’s arms, a smile cracking the sorrow in his face. "You’re that important. With my own eyes I can see it as everyone else around you does."

"Michael...." It was the beginning of a distant warning, but Michael wouldn’t listen.

"I know you don’t believe me. This station, ever since you came aboard, has moved to your heartbeat. A whole fleet of ships, an entire army, mobilises at your word. Bester tried to destroy us from the inside out. Maybe he used me to save his own people but he wasn’t sorry at the end. You know, sometimes, back then, I used to look at you, watch you sitting in the war room looking over the latest reports, or behind your desk going through the masses of paperwork before you drowned in it. At those times, like the morning after Kosh died, I just saw a man so vulnerable... and all the universe could do was dump on you. You remember that night Stephen resigned? You just... you looked... devastated. Like you couldn’t take anymore. There was nothing I could do for you, nothing that would make it any easier."

But John was smiling at the memory, shaking his head at Michael’s claim. "That’s not true. From what I remember you made that night bearable."

It took a few seconds, but his words were rewarded finally with a faintly embarrassed smile. "Well, I guess...."

John titled his head in warning. "Oh no you don’t, you can’t deny what you did for me that night...."

"But I was just...."

"You were wonderful."

Eyes met, and silence fell between them broken only by slight sighs. "Did I get anywhere near a point?"

John chuckled. "A very eloquent one. Bester was a manipulative bastard and he deserved to die."

Michael laughed. "Well put. We should go see Stephen, see what he has to say."

"We should."

They both got up, arms going easily around one another’s waists. "Don’t I remember you saying to me once that everything should be seen in shades of grey, not just black and white?"

John shrugged. "Doesn’t sound like something I’d say."

They rounded the corner, pausing momentarily as the door hissed open. "No, you’re right. It doesn’t sound like you at all."

*

John watched the stars from the observation port in C&C. Behind him the humdrum of life on Babylon 5 continued unabated. The station was still in Ivanova’s hands for the most part. He’d made a promise to himself, that he wouldn’t be forced to take back the command he’d fought so hard for. Soon he’d be ready... but not yet. Stephen had been right when he’d said he needed to rest.

If the universe wanted to follow a nexus, it could follow one dressed in jeans and a woollen sweater just as easily as it could one wearing a uniform. And if it did have to be someone in uniform... well maybe the universe would bugger off and leave him alone for a while.

There was so much to be done still.

But for now the Alliance was being held together by Delenn’s expert hand and the station was running smoothly under Susan’s capable control. Garibaldi had made a promise to Zack; he would return to duty when Sheridan did. After all, it was the Captain he was sworn to protect.

They had a lot of time on their hands for what felt like the first time in millennia.

Michael beat John hands-down on the batting field. So John beat Michael at chess.

Michael taught his friend to cook the best Spaghetti Bolognaise the captain had ever tasted and in return John taught Michael to make Flarn. (Not a fair trade-off Garibaldi decided later.)

They both cornered Susan one evening and pestered her until she showed them both the secrets to getting the ingredients for Choc & Orange Mousse on a space station thousands of miles from anywhere.

John rested. He started on the long, long road to recovery.

Michael relaxed. He too healed. Only John’s unfailing trust in him pulled him through sometimes. But he made it.

And some days, when he stood watching the stars from C&C, Sheridan let the doubts surface in his mind.

Nothing was black and white. Alfred Bester hadn’t been completely heartless.

If they ever managed to remove the web of Shadow implants from Carolyn’s head, John vowed to tell her the truth about her lover. No shading, no bias.

He had made a silent promise to the man he’d killed that he would endeavour to ensure at least someone remembered him as the human being he was, and not the monster he’d become on Babylon 5.