FINE

By Cheryl Hathaway

 

 

 

This story is a gap filler. It contains spoilers for "Between the Darkness and the Light" and potentially for everything that comes before.

   This story takes place during the episode "Between the Darkness and the Light." It covers events occurring from the time Sheridan is rescued on Mars through his preparation to leave that planet and go to the Minbari cruiser where Susan is being cared for. It deals with Delenn only in his thoughts of her.

   As always, the characters and the universe are the creation of J. M. Straczynski and belong to him, to Warner Brothers, to PTEN, and whomever else has a legal right to them. The tale itself and a Med. Tech named Trimm are mine.

 

 

 

 

*****

*How the hell do I get myself into these things?* Michael Garibaldi felt like heíd been walking forever.

   The pain in his back had become a dull ache. Stephen had quickly resown the stab wound--that should be a "beaut" of a scar--and applied an anesthetic patch over it, but that seemed to be wearing off now. He just kept putting one foot in front of the other, trying not to think about it.

   Michael had led the small team that had undertaken the job of rescuing John Sheridan. Dr. Stephen Franklin, Lyta Alexander, a female Resistance-fighter named Felicia, and he had gotten in and gotten John out. Now, they were on their way back to safety. They were moving slowly.

   Traveling through the largely uncharted and often identical looking tunnels was treacherous. They were perhaps half way back to the Resistanceís hidden entrance to the high security base where John had been held. The rescue had been a success up to that point, but Michael doubted--just for a moment--that they were going to make it. Some parts of it had been almost too easy. He shook his head ruefully at how simple it had been to just walk in and ask to see the prisoner. When they thought you were on their side, the enemyís defenses were negligible. This, however, was the hard part.

   They still had a long way to go, and both he and the captain were tiring rapidly.

   It was Michaelís turn to help John. He found himself supporting an increasingly larger portion of his friendís weight as the combination of adrenaline from the escape and the stimulants Stephen had administered began to wear off.

   At first John had stood ram-rod erect, refusing any help but Lytaís. He had let her guide him with a hand on his arm when he became confused or unsure. Now, John was fighting just to stay on his feet. Whenever they stopped, he sagged visibly against the person helping him, and when he attempted to communicate, his speech was again slurred as it had been in the cell when they had first reached him.

   "Michael, I was going to kick your butt for...something...but, ...I canít remember.... I canít remember." The memory of the captainís words when he had first seen him in that room hurt almost as much as his back. Whatever Clarkís bully-boys had given John, it was strong stuff. The way his back felt, Garibaldi was beginning to wish someone had given him something almost as strong.

   "Stephen, can you give him Ďanythingí to get us through this last section?" Michael asked, hopefully. He straightened and gratefully turned the captain over to the doctor.

   Stephen shook his head. "Iíve probably given him too much now. The dangerous part is not knowing what the drug interactions will do, especially because I donít know for sure what theyíd given him before we got there."

   Michael felt reasonably sure that somewhere, not far behind them, were Earthforce troops looking for them with blood in their eyes. He could almost sense the unheard sirens and whistles. If they pulled this off, it would be a miracle. Still he had had to try. He couldnít leave John in the hands of Clarkís interrogators. It hadnít been his fault, at least not all his fault--how was he supposed to have known that Besterís forces had messed with his mind? Still, how do you explain that to a friend who was in as bad a condition as John was now, and who had gotten into that condition because youíd set him up to be captured? *Tell him I just wasnít myself that day,* thought Michael. He continued putting one foot down in front of the other methodically.

   Eventually, John collapsed completely. Fortunately they were outside the limits of the Earthforce enclave when he simply slipped into unconsciousness. Franklin fussed nervously for a few minutes checking his pulse and respiration. They had to get him back to a medical facility and quickly.

   They created an improvised stretcher out of a discarded panel and some heavy- duty material Franklin had packed for just such a situation. They had had no idea going in whether or not the captain would be able to stand or walk on the way out. They hadnít planned on Michael being injured, also. So far theyíd been lucky in that both men had been able to walk, and unlucky in that they had had to move at a very slow pace.

   Once John was on the stretcher, they moved a little more quickly. Michael, Lyta, and Stephen took turns carrying the stretcher, while Felicia led the way. The tunnels were lit only sporadically, and they had to depend on the torches they carried for most of their lighting. The person supporting the front of the stretcher could usually see hazards, but the person carrying the back of it was apt to trip on scattered debris or stumble into cracks and potholes in the unfinished flooring.

   After the third nearly disastrous spill, Stephen reluctantly used simple medical restraints to ensure that John wouldnít be dumped unceremoniously onto the hard Martian ground when they lost their footing again. Even in his unconscious or nearly unconscious state, John fretted against the restraints. His wrists moved back and forth, and the apparent eye movements under his closed lids increased. Franklin picked up his end of the stretcher.

   "Letís move," he said. "Weíre not doing him any good here." They picked up speed again, heading once more for safety.

   Felicia shook her head at all the delays. Her short-cropped hair swayed around her head as she paused once more to listen for sounds of pursuit. She heard nothing--no metaphorical greyhounds baying on their trail yet. They had been lucky, very lucky. It seemed impossible that such luck would hold.

   "Maybe God really does take care of fools," she murmured under her breath. They were surely fools, brave fools, to have come so far and taken so many risks for just one man. She led them on into the darkness.

   She sensed rather than saw the automatic closing device that was beginning to iris shut and isolate this section of tunnel from those around it. That was why there had been no close pursuit, they were planning to trap them in a section of tunnel and probably decompress it. Grimly she motioned the small party to hurry. Lyta and Stephen carrying Johnís stretcher stepped over the slowly irising portal. Felicia herself stepped across quickly and grabbing Garibalidís arm jerked him through behind her. The portal which had begun its closure so slowly, finished it so rapidly that Garibaldi who had been about to complain of the rough treatment, turned in chagrin.

   "Thanks! That was close."

   "Too close," Felicia replied. "Weíve got to keep moving. Let me take a turn." She relieved Lyta at the front end of the stretcher. John mumbled incoherently as they juggled and jarred him through the remaining tunnels. Sometimes it sounded like he was cursing, and sometimes his language was gentler. Just once Lyta thought she heard him whisper Delennís name.

   It had been a long trip going in. It felt even longer coming out.

   ----------

   John regained consciousness slowly. He had dreamed again of being rescued. He almost always dreamed that.

   Johnís awareness of his surroundings increased. He realized that he was lying down. That was something of a novelty after days and days of sitting and even sleeping in that damn chair. He felt, for a change, neither hot nor cold. He was incredibly thirsty and almost as hungry. His stomach cramped at the idea of food.

   *Okay, so food wouldnít be a good idea right now,* he thought. Not that it was a choice. There had been very few choices for a long time, and just one that mattered. *Keep saying Ďno.í*

   He took a deep breath and winced. It still hurt to breathe. He wondered how many ribs had been damaged and how badly. Then, he heard someone moving in the room with him. He froze.

   *Oh, my God, not already.* He fought to maintain his composure, to hold onto some semblance of coherent thought, some illusion that things could not get worse.

   He allowed himself to open his eyes, might as well admit to being awake. They apparently already knew that he was.

   They had moved him. He couldnít keep himself from registering surprise. This room was different, a shocking change from the darkness in which he had been forced to survive. Almost everything he could see was white, a white so bright it hurt his eyes to look at it. His eyes squinted shut defensively. He tried to bring up his arm to cover his face, to shield it from the brightness. He could not.

   John discovered that both of his arms had been immobilized. His movements brought the source of the noises he had heard closer. He might be lying down instead of sitting up, but he was still just as much a prisoner, if not more so. He could move neither arms nor legs. A tight band of something was across his chest and another one across his thighs. He could, in fact, scarcely move at all. Grimly he fought the bonds, trying each one. They all held firm. He discovered, in his struggles, yet another IV port and drip fastened this time to the back of his right hand.

   A large figure loomed over him, coming between him and some of the brightest of the overhead lights. It was no more than a silhouette, a stranger--heavy-set with broad shoulders. The silhouette rested a hand on his chest, pushing him back, preventing him from struggling against his restraints. That only made him fight all the harder.

   John cursed the hand holding him down, ...the restraints, the interrogators, Earthforce, Clark, anything he could think of.

   "I wonít sign your damned confession. You canít make me! You may hold me here. You may kill me, but you will not make me lie about...." He felt a burning sensation as a hypodermic syringe was withdrawn from his forearm. "You will not make me...." He thought he heard Stephen saying something about it being for his own good, but Stephen wasnít to be trusted. The interrogators had arranged for him to have far too many Ďconversationsí with Ďtheir Stephen,í a Stephen who twisted his words and hurt him. Johnís speech became garbled gibberish, and the darkness of unconsciousness began to descend yet again. *No!* he cried out, but no one could hear him.

   Just as his perception of the world was slipping away, he became aware of another presence in the room, another voice--not Stephenís and surely not the voice of the burly silhouette. This voice was pitched high. It was a womanís voice, not Delennís. It went with a gentle hand that smelled ever so slightly of lilacs. *Perfume?* he caught himself thinking. The scent of lilacs seemed to go somehow with the words that began, finally, to reach him--words of comfort, words of hope. Maybe, just maybe, this escape hadnít been a dream. The gentle hand rested professionally on his forehead for a few seconds and carefully tucked his rumpled sheets back around his body. Maybe, it was going to be all right. With that thought he was again oblivious to the world around him.

    ----------

   The world was dark when John again opened his eyes. He could see almost nothing. His cell had been this dark. He felt the involuntary revulsion of his body to the thought of that cell--his skin crawled, his hair tried to stand on end, and cold sweat covered him. He could smell the scent of fear, his fear. Why had he let himself hope? Why had he let himself believe the illusion of that gentle hand?

   He shook himself. He had never been afraid of the dark. Now, he had to admit that he was.

   *But it isnít the dark so much,* he found himself thinking, *as the things the darkness hides--all the things that happened to you that you didnít want to admit happened, all the beliefs in yourself that were destroyed, not in a blaze of glory, but with a whimper.*

   Maybe once, long ago, the darkness had been a safe place to hide. Now, it was a place filled with unnamed and unnamable terrors. He shivered and tried to move, discovering as he had before that he could not do so. He clenched his fists and set his mouth in a grim line.

   He wanted to cry out for help, for light. He didnít. He couldnít. *What if crying out just brought another interrogator?* He felt his heart racing, his pulse pounding. Cold sweat continued to pour from his body, soaking the sheets on which he lay. He was trapped in his own fear. Garibaldi would have said, "Damned if you do, and damned if you donít," but John wasnít up to being that philosophical about it. He just lay there and waited in fear.

   A med tech, just a kid really--nobody he would ever have any cause to meet or know, stepped into his room at just that moment. The young tech had been monitoring Johnís vital signs and noted the increase in respiration and heart beat. "Lights--low," he said. The computer obligingly brought the room lights up to a soft glow. John let out a long-held breath. It was the same room where the gentle voice and hands had helped him find peace.

   "How are you feeling?" asked the tech stepping further into the room and noting John was awake and watching him.

   "Not so good." John was still unsure about this strange place, although thankfully it seemed to be consistent. No one had gone out of their way to make it any more confusing than it already had been. He remembered the horrifyingly confusing conversations he had had with Stephen, or someone who had pretended to be Stephen. He still wasnít sure which it had been. The room and the people had kept changing-- sometimes when he closed his eyes, sometimes as he watched them. He remembered people talking to him and about him as if he were not there. He remembered a voice--a female voice, not the one that went with the gentle hands and the lilac scent--talking about "bringing his father in and threatening to kill him" to force him to cooperate. He remembered another voice explaining why they shouldnít do that and talking about wanting "repentance" and "conversion." He shivered again just reliving the bits and pieces of those conversations. He had been so helpless, so unable to do anything.

   "Where am I?" he asked as the med tech checked the intravenous drip and various monitors around his bed. The young man adjusted a few of the gauges, and turned back to John.

   "Youíre among friends," he said. He took a small vial and inserted it into the medical port, sending yet another chemical into the captainís system.

   "Please, where am I?" John fought the sweet-sagging feeling the new drug brought on. "Where am...I?" His voice drifted off.

   "Among friends, captain. Thatís really all I can tell you, among friends."

   John surrendered to the soft blanket of darkness. He needed to sleep, he knew that, and he needed to get something to eat and drink--maybe the IV was taking care of some of that. He did feel a little better, and it didnít hurt quite so much to breathe.

   Sleep he did. This time it was a real sleep--albeit drug induced--not unconsciousness, that awaited him with the darkness.

    ----------

   When John awoke a third time there was some ruddy natural light coming through a window high up in one wall. A window he hadnít even noticed before. The harsh lights were dimmed to a soft glow and the clean, whiteness of the room, instead of being terrifying, was somehow comforting. Staring at the ruddy color of the light he surmised and correctly that he was still on Mars.

   He felt better, not good, but better. His body had the warm, expansive feeling that came with having slept yourself out. He had no idea how long he had been there, how many hours had passed. He only knew that, for now, he was done sleeping. He tested the restraints that were in place across his chest and thighs, they still held him down, but his wrists and ankles were free. *Among friends,* he remembered the young techís voice. *Oh, Lord, let it be true.*

   Gathering a modicum of courage he called out, "Hello! Anybody here?" With a rustling sound, someone swiftly appeared at the door to his room.

   "Hello," she said, "Are you feeling any better?" Her hair was short and dark and tucked behind her ears. She wore a standard medical coverall with a name plate identifying her as "Trimm, G. S. Senior Med Tech." Professionally, she reached up to check the now ever-present IV solution hanging above his bed. As she leaned across the bed he smelled again lilacs.

   "A little better, thanks, and hungry," he admitted.

   "That I should be able to do something about." She smiled and disconnected the intravenous drip. "Iíll have to leave the port in until the doctor says itís all right to remove it, but I canít think of any reason you canít have something to eat, if you feel up to it. How about some coffee?" She loosened the top restraining sheet allowing him to have full use of his upper body.

   John shuddered a the thought of the last Ďcup of coffeeí he could remember drinking. "Stephen" had handed it to him. It had sent him into depths of hell he hadnít known existed. She saw an unfathomable look pass across his features and quickly counter, "...or some tea?"

   "Tea, please. Thank you." He was fairly sure he had seen her before, but couldnít quite remember where. She stepped to a cupboard on the other side of the room. In a short time she brought him a white mug and a small steaming pot of hot tea. It smelled faintly of oranges.

   John accepted her assistance sitting up in the bed. He gladly took the cup of hot liquid from her and began to sip it slowly. She looked so familiar. "Do I know you?" he finally asked.

   "Actually, captain, you do, but I hardly expected you to remember. We met when you were helping with casualties during the food riots." She smiled, and he shook his head. He still couldnít place her. *My name was Matheson then," she added.

   "Gina Matheson. Your brother was one of the Starfury pilots...." He let his voice trail off. That was not a happy story. Her brother had been killed during the food riots on Mars. A lot of good people had been. He almost wished he hadnít remembered, but seeing her face he knew that she had come to terms with it.

   "That was a long time ago." She resumed checking his vital signs and recording them in her hand-held log. "When they asked me if I could spare a few days to help out an old friend--and I found out it was you, I couldnít refuse. You did everything you could to save Terry that night, captain, and we all knew it." John remembered half carrying, half dragging her brother, an Earthforce pilot, into the med/tech facility, and he remembered that it had been too late. He had only been a lieutenant himself then; it had happened a long time ago.

   "And youíre still on Mars?" John asked. He really wanted to know where he was, but after the insistent "among friends" response last night....well, whenever the last time heíd been awake was...he approached the question obliquely.

   "Yes, captain. I expect the window already told you that much." She gestured to the high panes of glass.

   He smiled ruefully and shook his head affirmatively. Immediately he wished he had not. His head and his neck hurt.

   She saw him wince. Immediately she came and took the cup away from him, helping him lay back down against the cool, clean sheets. "If I ask nicely, will you tell me where I am?"

   "Among friends, captain. Thatís really all itís safe for you to know." The comm unit on her wrist beeped, and she responded to it quietly, too quietly for John to catch the words. Shortly thereafter she entered some data from the med log into it and seemed pleased with the response she received.

   "The doctor says you may try to get up and walk if you feel up to it, but we need to leave the port in another day or so." Coming around the side of the bed, she unfastened the last of the restraining sheets. For the first time in a long time he felt like a free man.

   "Thank you," he said. With her help, he swung his legs over the edge of the bed and let them dangle. He felt funny sitting like that. He realized that he was dressed only in a one-piece coverall of some kind which seemed to be "breezy" in the back. *Wonderful,* he thought, not pleased.

   *Why do they always make these beds so high,* he grumbled to himself. Almost as if she read his mind--maybe she did, telepaths werenít all that uncommon--she moved to the head of the bed and activated the mechanism that lowered it slowly toward the floor. When his feet rested comfortably on the floor, she stopped it. She removed a blue robe from a clothes closet set into a recess in the wall and helped him slide it around his shoulders. It fit loosely.

   "I seem to keep saying Ďthank youí to you. Donít I?" He smiled himself this time.

   "Itís all right, captain. I donít mind."

   When he became accustomed to the feel of his feet on the floor again, she helped him try to rise. Getting to his feet was a major chore. Once he was on them, he stood swaying, using the edge of the bed as a steadying point. He felt tired and weak and old, and he hated it. With her guidance he took three or four steps toward the end of the bed and sat back down.

   "I guess Iím going to need a little more time before I can enter any races." He shook his head ruefully.

   "Captain, for the first time on your feet in almost a week, Iíd say you did very well. Youíve been in that bed ever since your other friends brought you here. That was six days ago, and from what Iíve read in Dr. Franklinís report you pushed yourself past all reasonable limits getting here. Itíll come back more rapidly with time. You just need to be a little patient with yourself."

   Patience was not something he felt that he had a lot of right now.

   ----------

   Stephen Franklin, the-one-and-only-real Stephen Franklin, paused outside the door to the captainís room. Slowly but surely a picture was forming of the methods and means that Johnís captors had used. They had not been gentle, and they had not been careful. Stephen looked again at the medical log in his hand. He squared his shoulders and walked into the room.

   John was sitting on the edge of his bed. He looked tired, but determined. Obviously, he had been trying to "get his sea-legs" despite the fact that the seas of Mars had long ago dried up.

   "May I come in?" Stephen inquired.

   When the captain looked up, there were both recognition and fear in his eyes. He looked away quickly. His hand reached down and gripped the support rail along the edge of the bed. He hadnít expected to react so strongly. They had programmed him well and intentionally to fear people who could help him the most. Stephen was one of those people. He strove to fight off his feelings of revulsion and terror. Gradually, by an act of will, he brought his eyes up and faced the doctor.

   "Come in," John said finally. His voice was flat almost without intonation.

   Stephen strode purposefully up to the side of the bed and began adjusting the few monitors still in place. He deliberately kept himself busy and his gaze averted from John. By recording the captainís nightmares and listening to his outcries during them, Stephen thought he had an idea of the tactics the interrogators had used to try to break his friend. The doctor still couldnít believe that they had successfully used his image as a way to hurt and trick the captain. Apparently, they had and it had worked. Rather than greeting him, John was withdrawing. He was clearly afraid.

   "John, can we talk about this...." Stephen gestured vaguely toward his friend. "Or should I go get someone else to come in and do it?" It hurt to make that offer, but if it was too painful, too difficult, to discuss with him, then maybe someone else could help.

   John squared his shoulders. "I think...youíre right," he said pausing often. "I think...we need to...discuss whatís happened...what happened to me." He swallowed. "I really do Ďknowí that you...werenít there. Itís just...I have all these memories...of you being there. Of you saying...." This time the pause was longer as John obviously relived a piece of those memories. "...things...things I know you would never say."

   Stephen stopped his nonessential tinkering with the bedside monitors, and turning looked at John. *That little speech just cost him a bundle,* the doctor thought, *but itíll be worth it if heíll open up now.*

   "John, I wasnít there. If you donít tell me, I donít know what happened." Stephen smiled sadly. "I know, your memories say I was there, but I wasnít. It was all part of the lie they planted to hurt you, to hurt all of us."

   Shaking his head, John rose unsteadily to his feet. Using the furniture and a corner of the wall for support, he began to pace. This was such a John-like thing to do, it brought a smile to Stephenís face. The captain was in there someplace. They just had to figure out how to help him break the walls he had built around himself.

   "Self-protection," the psychiatric texts had termed it. "Reverting into oneself and turning away from the outside world."

   "John," Stephen began. "You are getting better daily. Your ribs are healing and the damage to your liver and pancreas arenít as severe as I first feared. Youíll probably have some trouble with both when you get older"--Franklin pushed on bravely knowing that John would never truly get that old--"but for now youíll be fine in that regard. What worries me is the amount and types of drugs you were given."

   John paused in his self-imposed pacing and looked at the doctor.

   "They used mind-altering drugs, and they apparently used them in large doses. Some of them were hallucinogens. Iíve, weíve, been monitoring your condition very closely since you got here. These drugs can have side effects days, weeks, months, even years later. Theyíre called Ďflashbacks,í and thereís nothing--nothing I know of--we can do to prevent them. Youíve had two so far that weíve been able to document, both when you were either asleep or unconscious."

   John looked at him incredulously.

   "Theyíd appear like very vivid nightmares, and so they are when you have them in your sleep, but you may also have them when you are awake. Anywhere, anytime-- with no warning."

   "Are you talking about brain damage?" John asked, looking at Franklin with consternation more than fear.

   "Yes, and no," Stephen continued. "Youíve had multiple concussions. God knows what they hit you with."

   "A cement floor," John ran his hand through his hair feeling the tender places on his head. "Itís amazing how hard you can hit, when you canít use your hands or arms to break your fall."

   "They beat you after you were manacled?" Stephen asked. He hadnít quite believed theyíd sink that low.

   "Oh, yes," John replied. "I tried to keep my wits about me, to roll with as many of their blows as I could--take them on my shoulders and upper back. It didnít always work, and the way my head and neck have felt lately, it may not have been the smartest thing that I ever did. Sometimes I just couldnít move quickly enough. Sometimes I didnít see the blow coming." Just the memory made him wince. "After a while, I didnít care...it hurt too much to try to move. It went on...and on...and on...."

   Stephen realized that John was beginning to tremble where he stood. He walked over and offered him his arm for support. After a long secondís hesitation, John took it and let his friend lead him back to the bed. Swinging his legs up, he lay down carefully. So many things still hurt.

   "Any idea when I can get off Mars?" he asked. Stephen looked at him.

   "Who told you that you were on Mars?"

   "A little ray of sunshine." John pointed to the window near the ceiling.

   Stephen smiled. "Should have known youíd figure it out sooner or later. Actually, we wanted you off Mars within the first ten hours after your escape, but it took us nearly that long to get back and out of the tunnels. By then Martian air space was closed tighter than...." He noticed the senior medical tech still making herself busy just outside the door and reserved whatever heíd been going to say.

   "The Resistance thinks that within the next day or two we may be able to get you off planet in a cargo shipment. Iím just not sure thatís a good idea. Youíd have to take your own air with you, and there are no guarantees that our people would pick you up in time. It just feels too risky to me."

   "Isnít being here just as risky?" John stretched and turned slightly to face Stephen. Now, maybe, somebody would tell him where he was.

   "John, this is a psychiatric hospital. People donít come here looking for escapees; people look for escapees from here. A part of this building actually belongs to Psi-Corps, which is why weíve had to keep your status so hush-hush. Nurse Trimm has been a real help in continuing the fiction that you are both contentious and unstable. Sheís using her personal time from her regular job to be here with you."

   John turned and looked at Gina Trimm. She was just finishing straightening things that did not need to be straightened on the other side of the room. "Gina, why?"

   "You needed me." Her answer was that simple and that straight forward.

   He smiled his thanks, and Stephen breathed a sigh of relief. John might not like what was coming next, but he should agree to go along with it.

   "If...and I mean, if...I let you leave on the next available freighter, youíre going to need someone to go with you. First off because you may just have a Ďflashbackí especially under the stresses of take-off. It could leave you totally disoriented, unable to remember where you are. It might even make you forget that you need to use the air tanks. Secondly, there is always a chance you may be discovered. If you are, Nurse Trimm can vouch for the seriousness of your condition. Her cover story will be that you took her hostage and forced her to go with you. Hopefully, anyone you run into will buy her story and accept your insanity. Based on what they did to you, it is not an impossibility, John, and if it becomes necessary to play the role--play it with caution. Itís going to be a very thin tightrope you will be walking."

   John nodded grimly. "Thank you, Stephen. Thank you for the advice and the patience, for letting me pace when you knew I shouldnít, and for letting me just lie here and get used to you Ďnotí being the bastard who put me through so much hell. Maybe this place is where I needed to be in the beginning, but right now I have hopes that I can get back to the fleet, back to the war, back to doing my job. Thank you for doing yours."

   Stephenís grin was contagious. They both smiled at each other, and Gina smiled at the two of them. She didnít care if she lost her other job. This assignment was worth it. As Terryís sister sheíd felt she owed it to John Sheridan. Now it was something she wanted to do, not a debt to settle.

   "Do you think I could get a shower and maybe shave? The help around here has been really good." He smiled at Gina. "But I think Iíd sleep better if I could get cleaned up. I havenít felt really clean for a long time."

   Stephen looked at him measuringly. "The shower we can manage, but I think the shaving had better wait. That profile of yours is all too well known, and Earthforce is still looking for you." *And, if you have a flashback with a razor in your hand, I donít want to be the one responsible,* he added silently, to himself.

   Ginaís head came up, and she gave him a judgmental stare. Damn, heíd forgotten that she was a telepath. *No offense intended,* he consciously thought for her benefit. *I just donít want to see him hurt himself.*

   "John, I know it was hard in there, and itís all pretty fresh in your memory right now. If you want someone to talk to, someone whoís a professional in the field, it can be arranged." He cringed at the look in Johnís eyes. "Iím not saying that thereís anything wrong with you, just that sometimes we all need to talk things out with someone...someone who..." Stephen floundered. This wasnít a situation they taught you about in medical school.

   Stephen took a deep breath and began again. "Look, whenever youíre ready, weíll talk about it. It doesnít have to be now or here. You can take as much time as you need, just donít wait too long. Things like this they eat at you if you keep them inside and try to pretend they didnít happen."

   John looked at his friend with more compassion than he would have thought possible even an hour ago. *I wonder what heís been carrying around that hurt that badly?* John thought. Looking up he caught just a hint of a smile on Ginaís face. *Sheís gotta be a Ďteep.í*

   "When Iím ready, Iíll find someone to talk to, Stephen. Right now thereís a battle to be fought, a war to be won, and a dictator--whoís pretending to be president--to be deposed or impeached. Iíd love to stay and chat but, as soon as my ride gets here, I want off this vacation spot." Senior med tech Trimm chuckled at the real thought that accompanied the words "vacation spot." She hadnít know John Sheridanís vocabulary ran quite so colorfully to invectives.

   She moved into the adjoining bathroom and started a warm, but not hot, shower. When it was going to her satisfaction, she motioned to the men that she was leaving.

   Stephen helped John out of bed, out of his clothes, and into the pulsating water. As it cascaded over his shoulders and back, he became aware of a myriad of little aches and pains washing away. He could almost see them float off his skin and down the drain, like tiny miniature Shadow ships.... He shook himself. *Where in hell had that come from?*

   "You okay?" Stephenís arm continued to support him. "You were gone there for just a minute."

   *So, thatís what a flashback feels like...a small piece of waking nightmare.* John shook his head. "Iím fine. Just fine." But a voice in the back of his head was laughing wildly. No way in hell was he fine.

   His knees suddenly felt weaker, and he leaned into the doctor as he helped him out of the bathroom. Pausing only to grab a towel, Stephen got him back to the bed. He let him towel himself off quickly, then passed him a clean coverall. It was typical issue for hospitals and sanitariums--ugly, impersonal, and somehow denigrating. John really didnít want to put it on.

   "I know how you feel, but if someone outside our group walks in here you need to look like you belong." Somehow with his wild, unkempt hair and beard, his pale and jaundiced face, and his exhausted body, John didnít think that would be too much of a problem. Shrugging he allowed Stephen to settle him into the coverall and then into bed. As he looked at his friendís departing form, he felt one final twinge of fear.

   *Please, God, let that really have been Stephen.* Rolling onto his side, a luxury after all the restraining sheets and ties, he closed his eyes with that silent prayer and drifted off to sleep.

   John awoke again a few hours later. He felt clean and human. Night had fallen, but someone had carelessly left a small light burning near the door to his room. *Sheís got to be a telepath,* John thought. *...Or one hell of a good nurse. Maybe sheís both.*

   This time he didnít fear his surroundings, but he might have if he had woken again into the total darkness he had experienced so much of such a short time before. He rolled over onto his back and stared up at the ceiling and the small window so far above him. Through it he could see just a few stars. *Far off suns with myriad worlds, teeming with life or not.* He longed to be up there, away from here.

   *Then do what the doctor ordered,* he challenged himself. *Rest and get well, and take the help theyíre offering. Donít be such a damn poor patient theyíre ready to let you go, just to get rid of you.*

   The sheets on his bed were a rumpled, twisted mass. They were soaked with perspiration, again. He must still be having nightmares. At least he didnít remember this batch. Maybe that was an improvement. He thought very briefly of the ones he did remember--definitely that was an improvement.

   He felt reasonably sure that it was the small hours of the morning. He could hear no sounds from anywhere, except the soft air exchange through vents in the wall and his own heartbeat and breathing. The rumbling of his stomach reminded him of food. He was hungry. That was a good sign. Up to this point, the thought of food had not been a positive one though the tea Terryís sister had brought him had tasted good.

   He thought he remembered where she had put the tea things when she was done with them. Slowly and carefully he levered himself up to a sitting position. Turning gingerly sideways he negotiated the tricky business of getting his feet on the floor. From there on it got a little easier. In small stages he made a trip to the bathroom and then on to the cupboard where he had seen her stow the mug and tea pot. It contained a small unit suitable for heating water and some other cooking supplies. Getting water from the bathroom and returning with the full contraption had been difficult. Sometimes he felt like he needed both hands just to hold on, but he made it spilling only a small amount of water onto the floor.

   While the water was heating he sat down very carefully in the small chair by the table. It still hurt, hurt a lot, just to sit in a hard-bottomed chair. How much longer could he have held out? He was eternally glad he hadnít had to find out the hard way.

   The water steamed and hissed in the little pot. With exaggerated care, John poured a cupful into the plastic mug he had found in the cupboard. He added a teaball. "Not Minbari, but not bad," he said and immediately thought of Delenn.

   He hadnít let himself think about her before. She had been his lifeline, though she probably didnít know it. The worse the pressure got in that damn cell, the more they threatened and cajoled and tried to destroy him, the more he had leaned on her image. *Sheís like an angel, a Minbari angel, my guardian angel.* He had gained strength again and again by focusing on her, by seeing her standing where he knew she could not be. Always she would seem to be watching over him. She was his vision, his hope for the future.

   His captors had tried to use her image to haunt him as they had successfully used Stephenís. It hadnít worked. He loved her too much and, miracle of miracles, he knew she loved him, too.

   He awoke with a start. The tea in the cup on the table before him had grown cold. He had fallen asleep bent over in the chair, dreaming--daydreaming--about Delenn. This was going to be painful. He had instinctively raised his head from the table, now he pushed himself the rest of the way erect using his arm muscles. The pain in his back was bearable, but he needed to pause a bit before trying to go any further.

   *Ginaís gonna give me hell for being out of bed,* he thought. He tried to push himself away from the table, to rise from the chair. He found he couldnít do it. He tried again using all of the strength of his upper body. He could push himself up off the seat of the chair, but nothing below his waist wanted to respond. Those kicks and blows to his back had done damage. Now sitting so long in one position, he had pinched some of the nerves in his spine. Unable to rise, he let himself sink to the floor. *I am the past master of doing things the hard way.* Slowly but surely, he pulled himself back to the bed side of the room. The first traces of dawn were just beginning to show in the window when he reached the bedside stand.

   His legs had gone through the needles-and-pins stage while he was pulling himself along. His circulation had finally begun working well enough again to return lower-body sensations. Unfortunately there had been nothing in the middle of the room he could use to support himself. He had kept pulling himself forward until he reached his goal. Grasping the side of the bed, he laboriously pulled himself up and onto it. He lay and panted. He felt like heíd just done two, maybe three, hard days work. His perspiration this time was from effort more than fear. He wrapped some of the tangled covers haphazardly around himself. He hated being an invalid. He hated feeling sick.

   "Oh, God!" As if the thought had called forth a demon, he wretched. Fortunately there was very little inside of him to come up. But everything that could, did. He rolled on his side, closed his eyes, and involuntarily drew up his knees.

   He wanted to go home. *...to his parentsí place? No. ...to Babylon 5, to his job, to Delenn.* He heard again the rustling sound he had come to associate with Terryís sister. He turned his head toward the sound as the door opened and she entered his room.

   "Are you ready to try getting up again to...." Her voice trailed off and she took in the tea pot and mug sitting on the table, the spills of water between the bathroom and the cupboard, and the mess mostly on the floor beside the bed. "I see youíve been up." He looked as sorry as he felt.

   "Not my brightest move this week. Could you please help me get into something clean?" His coverall was stained with tea and grime from the floor. She shook her head and fetched another one from the closet. Carefully she eased him out of the filthy garment and replaced it with a freshly-laundered one. Her trained eyes noted that he had abused his arms and shoulders getting himself back to bed. Apparently he had crawled all the way from the table, but why? If heíd only waited, someone would have helped him.

   She moved the light plastic chair over beside his bed and sat him in it, pretending not to notice when he grimaced sitting down. She changed the bed and added another blanket. "I think youíd better try to get some more sleep now. Do you want me to give you something to help you sleep? Dr. Franklin left some medication." He shook his head no and, once back in bed, fell asleep quickly. This time he even snored. Hopefully that was normal for him.

   His sleep was restless and filled with dreams. Delenn walked in the garden and smiled at him. She held his hand and whispered his name, "John," so softly he thought he hadnít heard her correctly. That had been a long time ago. Their relationship had grown over a span of months and years. At first he had been somewhat incredulous when she told him about the prophecies of her people. Now, who was he to question her when she told him he was "the other half of her soul." He smiled even in his sleep, and Gina nodded. *A good sign finally. Obviously his dreams are not all nightmares.* She smoothed the covers, restarted the IV, and made notes in her data pad for his medical logs--both of them: the one she kept for Franklin and the one she kept as a cover just in case, just in case. If she could have thought of a better way to protect him, she would have used it, but she could not. So, she maintained Doctor Franklinís fiction that he was dangerous both to himself and to others. She didnít like writing fiction in a med-log, but- -reading what she had written--she had to admit, it was not all fiction. She settled back to enjoy a little quiet time. She had nothing to do now but "watch him sleep."

   She shook herself. She had dozed off sitting in the chair beside his bed. When she looked up, he was smiling at her. "Hi, how are you feeling?" John was obviously enjoying the role reversal.

   "Better, thanks," she responded. "Didnít realize I was that tired." She quickly straightened her crumpled uniform and inspected the read out on the medical monitors surrounding his bed.

   "Are you ready to try some solid food today?" she asked.

   "Last night I thought I was hungry. That didnít work out too well. Guess Iím as ready as Iíll ever be." If last night...well, whenever...had been any indication, this might not go well. "Have you heard anything more from Stephen about getting me out of here?"

   "No," she nodded her head as she went to investigate what was available for a "starving captain." She pulled what looked like juice and a container of flat crackers out of a cupboard. "Try these first. They may not taste the best, but theyíll be the best for you."

   He watched as she unwrapped a couple of the largish crackers and lay them within his reach on the bedside stand. The juice was room-temperature, but proved to be not bad at all. *Small sips,* he reminded himself and cringed inwardly at the origins of that advice.

   "How are things going out there?" He gestured vaguely toward the window high above him. "Have you heard any news of the fleet or Babylon 5? Has the Resistance been able to do anything yet?" He felt just a little silly that yesterday...whenever...he hadnít even thought to inquire about the larger world. *Maybe this is part of getting well, finally admitting that there is a Ďlarger world.í*

   Gina smiled at him and passed over a broken piece of one of the crackers. She didnít answer his questions. She didnít even try. "Those things will take care of themselves for a little while longer. You just need to get well." There was way too much news and much of it was bad. She wanted someone with more authority than she had there when they told John what had happened to Ivanova, about the Shadow-enhanced Earth ships. Actually, if she hadnít been working with Dr. Franklin and the captain, she wouldnít have known about any of it herself.

   His eyes looked straight through her. "You arenít going to answer my questions are you?"

   "I canít. I donít have the authority, and...Doctor Franklin will be here in a little while, Iím sure he will be."

   John broke off a small piece of one of the crackers. Gingerly he tasted it. It was very bland, very flat, but it was food. He managed to finish the first one and a small portion of the second. He felt like heíd had a full meal but, looking at the remains of the two large crackers, realized he really hadnít eaten all that much.

   "It just takes time," she consoled the captain. "Give yourself time. If this stays down weíll try something better in a few hours. And now Doctor Franklin says you are to rest." She discarded the remnants of his meal and began working in the medical cupboard again.

   "But I just woke up. I canít go back to sleep so quickly."

   When she turned back to him, she had a medication vial in her hand. "We can do this two ways: you can take your medicine like this...." She gestured to the small vial of liquid obviously meant to be swallowed. "...And let your body and mind heal, or I can add it to the IV. Which would you prefer?"

   There didnít seem to be a "no-thanks" choice. "Iíll take it orally. Are you sure this is necessary?" Again there was no answer, just a smile and a gentle hand. *Damn, Iím going to get some answers from someone one of these days.*

   He swallowed the contents of the vial in one quick gulp. His stomach felt full and, for a wonder, not argumentative. His eyes felt heavy. As she watched, he drifted back into sleep.

    ----------

   John awoke realizing that someone was manhandling him out of the medical coverall and into something that felt more like real clothes. The inside of his mouth tasted terrible, but his stomach still seemed to be behaving. He shook his head to clear it, and opened his eyes.

   "What the...?" Two figures he didnít recognize at all were dressing him. Socks and shoes were being pressed onto his feet. A shirt pulled over his head and buttoned. He was already wearing pants. "Who are you? Whatís going on?"

   Neither man answered him. They were doing a job they had been assigned, and talking to the inmates was not a requirement of that job. "Get him up and get him dressed." That was what the supervisor had said.

   "Look, I need to use the bathroom. Please, this is ridiculous. I can dress myself." Well, he thought he could, if he had to. There was no belt for the slacks and he noted no shoelaces in his shoes. Why were they dressing him? Where were they taking him?

   "Who are you?" he shouted into their non-responsive faces. "Why are you doing this?" He felt the sharp sting of a tranquilizer patch and looked down to see one on the back of his left hand. All the memories came flooding back: Michael, his betrayal, and what had come after.

   John fought them then with every ounce of strength he possessed. Fortunately for the two of them, he didnít have much. Still he did some damage before passing out and, when he awoke again, was not really surprised to find himself once more restrained-- wrists, ankles, and the tight bands across his chest and thighs. The only good thing was, he was still in the same room, still in the same bed. *Why?* he wondered.

   "Busy day, John?" Stephen inquired He walked into the room and frowned seriously at John. "You didnít do badly for a test run, but I can tell you now...if those had been Clarkís men...theyíd never have bought your act. At least not the first part of it."

   *Act?* John remembered talking about having to act the part of someone who belonged in this kind of hospital, but he hadnít realized he was going to be tested. "That was an act?" he asked. His voice was full of disbelief.

   "Well, not really. They were regular staff just following orders, and you were acting way too normal in their eyes, until you started swinging at everything in sight. Right now theyíd both sign statements that youíve lost it totally." Stephen sat down in the chair beside the bed forcing John to crane his neck to the side to see him. "Was any of it an act, John?" he asked quietly.

   "Honestly," John looked embarrassed and sad, "no. I just reacted to what was happening, and when they put that Ďtranqí on my hand...I...I was back...in the bar...where...." His voice deepened and trailed off into silence. He blinked his eyes rapidly several times trying to clear his vision. *Damn.* Just one tear escaped and left a mute track down the side of his face. He turned his face away from Stephen.

   This wasnít the way it was supposed to be. He had gone through everything-- every damn thing--they had done to him and never shed a tear. Now, he knew he was very close to crying like a baby.

   "Itís okay, John. What youíre feeling is normal. Just means youíre still a human being like the rest of us." Stephen reached up and released Johnís restraints--not some of them--all of them. Still John didnít move. He held himself rigid by a sheer act of willpower. He fought back the tears and found himself shivering nearly uncontrollably.

   "Stephen, whatís happening to me?" he finally asked.

   "Delayed shock would be my first bet," Stephen guessed. "Too much held in for too long, and now itís all trying to come out at once."

   John shook his head, at least that made some kind of sense. "Can I sit up now?"

   "You should be able to, and itís all right with me. What do you want to do?"

   John harumphed and almost sounded like himself. "I want to get the hell out of here. I want a steak dinner with a real baked potato . I want to kiss Delenn until our lips hurt. I want to know what happened to Michael and Lyta after we got out of the tunnels. I want somebody to answer my questions. I want to know whatís going on." He shifted himself into a sitting position facing the doctor.

   "Makes sense," Stephen affirmed. "Even sounds healthy to me. What do you want to know first?"

   John thought, what did he want to know first? "Is Delenn safe? Did she make it back to Babylon 5 all right?"

   "Yes and yes. She arrived from Minbar the same day you were captured and has been doing a commendable job of holding things together on the station."

   "And Michael and Lyta?"

   "Theyíre both still here on Mars. Michael is in hospital. He was stabbed deeply during your rescue. When I finally got him to lay down, he collapsed. Heís convalescing nicely and making the nurses crazy."

   Stephen pressed on. "Lyta scanned him, John, a very deep scan. She had to break level twelve blocks. I donít think it did any permanent damage. At least I hope it didnít. It did prove he was telling the truth; he was used by both Bester and William Edgars. I know youíve still got reason to be angry with him, but you need to take what Lyta found out into consideration."

   "Lyta is getting ready for her part in the 'big plan.' Iíve been working with her creating a temporary interface she can use to communicate with the Shadow-altered telepaths."

   "What about the fleet? Are the White Stars and the Earthforce ships in range of Mars yet? Has there been a battle? Did we win?" Johnís eyes searched Stephenís face.

   "Whoa," said Stephen. "Letís see if I can sort that out." He knew he was going to have to tell John and soon about the Shadow-enhanced destroyers, the Black Fleet, and about Ivanova, but he played the game of answering Johnís questions.

   "The whole fleet is now within range of Mars, but there hasnít been an attack on Mars yet. Theyíve been waiting to get the telepaths into position and, truthfully, to get you out. Folks figured that Earth Gov would go totally bonkers once thereís an attack on Mars. If you were still here then...well, it might have proven fatal."

   John nodded.

   "The fleet has taken some losses. Ivanova was as good a commander as you expected her to be, John. She ran into some very heavy opposition. Actually, she found out that Clark was planning an special ambush for the Earthforce ships thatíve joined us. She took the White Stars and sprang the trap. The ships she faced were Shadow- enhanced ships--something new Earth came up with--blending Shadow technology with Earthforce destroyers. They are the ugliest and the scariest things Iíve seen since the Shadow War--black as the dark places between stars and covered with those sensor spines."

   John looked down. He had to replay some of that in his own mind before it made any sense. *Was?* Stephen had said, "...was..." when he was talking about Ivanova. John turned his gaze fully upon the doctor. "What arenít you telling me, Stephen?"

   "Iím not telling you," Stephen drew a deep breath, "that Susan has been badly hurt. She fought a brilliant battle, John. She used the speed and agility of the White Stars to defeat a superior number of Black Fleet ships. She did everything right, until the very end of the battle. She wouldnít pull back. She was afraid if even one ship got away, Earth would send reinforcements. She destroyed her target, but an explosion-powered piece of one of those black ships ripped into the White Star she and Marcus were on. Only one escape pod made it out before their ship blew. She and Marcus were both on it, crammed in like sardines." Johnís face was totally white.

   "Are you okay?" Stephen asked.

   "Yeah, go on. Tell me all of it."

   *How the hell did he know there was more?* Stephen wondered, but he continued. "Sheyís dying, John. The Minbari physicians on the cruiser where she was taken after the battle believe itís inevitable. Marcus did everything he could in the first few minutes, but he had to move her, the ship was coming apart at the seams. I havenít been able to get off Mars to see her myself. I suggested they send her to Babylon 5 where Doctor Hobbs could evaluate her case. Human and Minbari metabolisms are similar but not identical. I keep hoping thereís something we can do, but I donít know what."

   John steadied himself with one hand. "Oh, God. I sent her to take command of the fleet. I sent her out there to face those hellish ships. I sent her...to die."

   He lay back down on the bed, clearly shaken by Stephenís news. His breathing had become quick and shallow. Perspiration covered him again from head to toe...cold sweat. He found himself thinking, *Oh, Susan. Iím so sorry.*

   People die in war. John knew that, he was a soldier, but somehow Susan had been a rock--a bastion of defense against the stupidity of life, a compatriot, a friend. He would miss her so much.

   The tears came silently, slowly at first, turning into a torrent that soaked the pillowcase and pillow. Stephen stayed with him the whole time and waved Gina out of the room when she started to come in. He didnít touch John or try to offer false comfort or hope. Instead, he stayed as a friend, a companion through the dark times, another human being who knew and remembered. Eventually, gradually the storm of tears passed.

   "Sheís still alive," John asked finally. He pushed himself back up to a sitting position and let his legs dangle over the side of the bed.

   "Yeah. Sheís on one of the Minbari cruisers at the jumping-off point, maybe an hour out from Marsí orbit." Stephen handed him a box of tissues.

   "How long will it take us to get there?" He wasnít well. He knew that, but he also knew he had to see Susan before she died. It wasnít a choice. It was something he had to do.

   "Not long, but are you sure youíre up to it."

   "More sure than Iíve been about anything in a long, long time."

   "Itíll take a little while to make connections, but I think we can probably get you out of here by tonight. The original plan was to ship you out with Nurse Trimm early tomorrow morning."

   "Do the best you can, Stephen. I need to see her before...." He held his chin up. He was an officer, she was an officer, and they had both been fighting, in their own ways, for what was important to them--for freedom, for justice, for the rights of sentient beings. He almost smiled at the expression he remembered on Susanís face the one time he had unfortunately called them "the rights of men." *Oh, Susan. You will be missed.*

   After keying in the necessary codes in his comm unit, Stephen verified that they could arrange transport in just over three standard hours. He informed Nurse Trimm of the new departure time and turned back to John. "Would you like your own clothes?" Stephen asked.

   "I would, but is that a good idea?" John was thinking of his Army of Light uniform.

   Stephen grinned at his expression. "I brought some of your civilian clothes from the station, back in the good old days when we thought getting you out of the detention center was going to be more difficult than getting you off Mars. Right now, you need to get cleaned up."

   John agreed. His quasi-battle with the attendants and his reaction to hearing about Susan and Clarkís Black Fleet had done nothing to improve the condition of the clothing he was wearing.

   "Can you find me a belt and some shoe laces?" John asked.

   Stephen looked at him quizzically and then noted the absence of those items from his current wardrobe. "Yeah, I think I can find both for you, and even a razor if youíd like to get rid of those whiskers." He was taking a chance and he knew it, but he figured being able to shave would finally make John feel like a human being again. Until his captivity, the captain had never been anything but clean shaven.

   John appreciated the offer. Like Stephen he realized that even giving him a razor, with the very real possibility of flashbacks was a major concession on the doctorís part. He fingered his chin. He had grown quite a beard, and it had finally gotten long enough so it didnít itch all the time.

   "I think Iím going to keep the beard for a while." Stephen looked at him wondering what Delenn would say. "Itís kind of a symbol to me right now. It helps me remember what it felt like to be in that room, in that chair, in the power of Clarkís forces. Right now, I donít want to forget what it felt like--to be helpless, to be used, to be trapped. Too many good people are still in there. I wasnít alone, Stephen. I know these next few battles are going to require lots of hard decisions. I donít think itíll hurt to have a reminder of what Iím fighting for and what Iím fighting to prevent.

   "Later, maybe, Iíll let Delenn decide whether I keep it or not." Stephen smiled at him and helped him get ready for his trip back into the "world." The freighter was set to rendezvous with a White Star ship just outside of Marsí orbit. In a few hours John and Gina would be off Mars. By this time tomorrow, heíd be back with the fleet.

   *I always knew heíd be fine,* Stephen told himself, and mentally uncrossed his fingers. *Heíll be fine. Just fine.*

 

*****

 

 

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