WAKE

By Gentle

 

 

Disclaimer: Most of the characters in the piece that follows belong to jms, Babylonian Productions and Warner Bros. I've just borrowed them for a while.

Summary: Takes place after season 5. John Sheridan has gone, and David Sheridan is having trouble accepting the manner of his leaving.

Feedback: Always welcome - the good, the bad and the ugly.

Rating: PG - maybe, for language which occasionally borders on the colourful.

Thanks: To my beta readers -- I wouldn't be able to do this without you. Any mistakes still in here are all my own.

 

   

   David walked the path through the Ranger compound, straining beyond his ability to hold his head high. His kit-bag felt heavy on his shoulders, and he was looking forward to dropping it off in his quarters. He wished he felt the same way about what would come afterwards.

   As he walked he looked around him at the stark buildings, their straight crystalline edges softened by the lush green of the bushes and plants abutting them. It was an orderly, business-like place, the silence punctuated with the sharp calls of would-be Rangers, excited, and energised by their training. At least that's what it was like most of the time, but not today. Today it was quiet, and those who moved about its perfect lawns and buildings seemed devoid of purpose. It felt as though someone had reached in and ripped the heart out of the place.

   People were watching him. He could see them out of the corner of his eye. They would spot him, and then speak to a companion, or turn their heads slightly, and pretend they hadn't. Some of them templed their fingers and nodded to him as he passed, even though they were too far away to actually greet him. A lot of them tried to look the other way.

   He clenched his teeth in concentration and raised his head, and that's when he saw P.J. approaching. He slowed his pace and finally came to a halt, carelessly dropping his bag at his feet. Aware that he was under the scrutiny not only of his fellow trainees, but quite possibly of many of his instructors too, he made the sign of the triluminary and bowed in formal greeting. Custom. Ritual. Respect. This place had been built on them.

   He didn't want to stop, and he definitely didn't want to talk. Conversation was painful, and he felt sure that anyone who spoke to him right now would be regarded, by some of the others at least, as something of a black sheep. But P.J. had never paid as much attention to the formalities as he might have. He returned the Minbari salute, but then pulled him into a strong embrace. David shook off his own stiffness and returned the gesture. This wasn't just a colleague, a fellow Ranger-cadet, this was his friend. He deserved to be treated as such.

   'Ah it's good to have you back, Davy. If there's anything I can do….'

    P.J.'s lilting Irish brogue drifted off on the breeze, his sentence unfinished. David took a step back, and tried to hide his reaction, but P.J.'s face told him he that he hadn't been quick enough.

   'Thank-you,' he said. 'I appreciate it.'

   P.J. gave him a half-smile. 'Sure you do. And your face says you're sick of hearing people saying it.'

   'Am I that transparent?'

   'Always, Sheridan.'

   David sighed heavily, the trouble he was experiencing in talking to one of his closest friends only serving to underline the difficulty he was likely to have in talking to others. One other in particular.

   'I've only been back a few hours. I believe that you stood up in my place, and spoke on my behalf. Thank-you for that.'

   'Hey, that's okay. I'll admit I thought I was going to need a change of underwear at one point, but when all is said and done it's no more than you'd have done for me.'

   David looked past him, at the ground beneath his feet, the sky, anywhere but at P.J.

   'I have to go,' he said, at last. 'I have an appointment to keep, but we'll talk later, okay? Assuming I still have a tongue, and a pair of lungs by the time she's finished with me.'

   'Ah, so that's what it is. I thought ye had that look of death and desperation about ye.'

   P.J. swallowed back the rest of his ill-chosen words as he caught the subtle change in David's expression that flared and was then quickly extinguished.

   'Sorry,' he said. 'If my mouth was any bigger ye could get your boot in it.'

   'Don't tempt me.'

   P.J. squeezed his shoulder. 'Look, I am sorry. And I mean it, if there's anything I can do, ye only have to ask.'

   David smiled as he picked up his bag. 'You can take this over to our quarters for me if you would. I'm already late.'

   *******************************************

   David stood in front of the huge wooden door that bore the Minbari inscription "Anla'shok Na". He'd been through that door a hundred times but right now it couldn't have looked any more forbidding than if it had been blood-spattered and the sign had read "Prepare to meet thy doom" in ten foot high letters.

   I always imagine them in the tub, playing with a rubber-duck. They look just as stupid naked as you do.

   He squared his shoulders, smoothed down his cloak and then knocked. He might not be a Ranger for much longer, but for now he'd act like one.

   There was a brief pause, and then a voice that had put the fear of God Almighty into tougher men than he called out, 'Come in!'

   This was it. He opened the door, took two steps into the jaws of Hell and closed it firmly behind him again.

   She looked up at him from her desk, and for a moment he thought he saw a glimmer of compassion, but if he did it was gone as quickly as it came.

   'Ranger-Cadet Sheridan,' she said, looking pointedly at the time-piece on her desk. 'How good of you to drop by. Please sit down.'

   Always try to negotiate your way into the best position.

   'I'd rather stand.'

   Susan Ivanova, Ranger One, stared at him. He was a good six inches taller than her; it was hard enough giving him a dressing down, especially at a time like this, without having to look up at him while she did it.

   'I expect you would,' she said. 'Now sit.'

   You're not going to win them all.

   He sat, at attention, in the chair arranged opposite her.

   She let him sweat for a moment, watching from the corner of her eye as she pretended to finish reading a report that lay on her desk. He didn't move, he didn't even blink, and he knew better than to open his mouth until he was invited.

   With a heavy heart she slipped the report back into its file and pushed it to one side, and then looked straight at him.

   'You know why you're here?'

   'Yes, Ranger One.'

   'So, do I get an explanation for your actions?'

   If you have to, plead the fifth.

   David swallowed, and the muscles of his jaw tensed briefly, but his gaze didn't waver.

   Susan snorted, stood and moved around to lean on the front of her desk, reducing the distance between them to a matter of inches.

   'You went tearing off across the galaxy, put us all through Hell, turned up again a day late for your father's memorial service, and you have nothing to say?'

   He looked her straight in the eye. 'No, Ranger One.'

   She slapped the flat of her hand against the desktop. 'Not good enough!'

   This time he flinched and his gaze flickered away from her, but only for a fraction of a second. Then it was back. Cool and sure and steady again. She sagged a little, on the inside at least. He was hurting. He was hurting and he was hiding it, and he was barely twenty. He shouldn't be that good at hiding it. He shouldn't have to be. John never had been. Her resolve wavered for a second. She didn't want to do this. She wanted to talk to him, really talk to him, not read him the Riot Act. Nonetheless, he'd chosen this life, and if this were any other Ranger she would have already sent him packing. All right, this wasn't a hanging offence. It wasn't as though he'd deserted his post during a combat situation. It wasn't as though anyone had been physically hurt by his actions, but there was no doubt he'd let everybody down, badly. She deserved to learn the truth, and he deserved whatever she threw at him.

   When you're wrong, admit it.

   'I'm truly sorry for my actions.'

   'I don't want an apology, David. I want an explanation. And before you leave this room I'll have one.'

   He gazed at her with a hint of his father's fire in his eyes, giving her a look that said he hoped she was comfortable because it would be a long night.

   She turned back to her chair and sat down, resting her wrists on the desk in front of her, trying to glare him into submission. When it became apparent that he wasn't ready to say anything she returned to her paperwork, the atmosphere between them thick as a fog.

   When she had first learned of David's disappearing act she'd been ready to take off after him herself, but a few well-chosen words from Delenn had calmed her down sufficiently to keep her on Minbar. They knew how badly David had taken John's passing.

   His passing.

   She hated the word. It was a euphemism she would normally have no truck with. But in this case, it worked well enough. John wasn't dead.

   Oh, he was, she knew that, but there was no body, no sign of his departure, nothing to hold on to, or grieve over; he just wasn't there any more. A month had passed, and it was only just beginning to sink in. On a personal level, the only thing that had helped on that score had been watching the decommissioning of Babylon 5. She had found the violence of the event upsetting but at the same time strangely comforting, and it had marked the end of the Sheridan era for her in a more tangible way than John's last voyage into the unknown.

   Susan had never before taken over a command where morale had been so low, and it was particularly tough in view of the circumstances. The Rangers needed to find a way to accept the passing of their last C.O. before they would be able to accept a new one. And so, at a loss to know what else to do, she had suggested that there should be a memorial service for John before she was formally sworn in. One month after John's death every Ranger not involved in essential duties had been recalled to Minbar to take part in both ceremonies.

   And then David had pulled his little stunt.

   It was a confusing, heart-breaking time, for all of them. No-one had expected David to put a brave face on it, no-one had expected him to carry on as though nothing had happened. He'd bust a gut trying, Susan knew that much. He'd been there for Delenn when she'd needed him the most, but he'd gone back to his ship after a few weeks, too restless to stay. Like John, he found it hard to just sit around twiddling his thumbs. But he'd gone about his business and carried himself well. His Captain had only had good things to say about him. He'd handled it, or he'd seemed to, which was why it had been such a shock that he'd bolted off like that. It was totally out of character.

   It had troubled Delenn greatly, more than she was ever going to admit, and it had infuriated Susan, but they'd both agreed that he had to work this out for himself. Now that he'd done what he had to do, he had to face the consequences.

   They'd both agreed about that too.

   Susan let half an hour go by and then set down her light-pen and leaned back in her chair. When she looked up she could see that he was still staring at her. She wondered if he'd actually moved at all while she'd been pretending to work. Probably not.

   'I think I understand why you did what you did, David, but you let me down.' Flicking her head back towards the window, she added, 'You let them down too.'

   His eyes softened a little at that, but it barely showed.

   'And him.'

   She watched as he clenched the fists that were resting on his knees, but he kept his peace. From the solid determination on his face she reckoned she could grab him by the balls and he wouldn't so much as wince. She hated herself for doing this, but she was going to do it, because he needed it.

   'You spat on his memory.'

   That one got a reaction.

   'No!'

   'Sit!'

   Recognise bait when it's dangled in front of you, and don't bite. No matter how badly you want to.

   She could see his knuckles whiten as he gripped the hard wood of the seat and forced himself to sit back down.

   'They're not my words, David,' she went on. 'That little gem was from ISN.' She picked up a flimsy and pushed it across the desk towards him. 'You can read the rest for yourself.'

   He didn't move.

   'Go on, read it. It's fascinating stuff.'

   When he still didn't move, Susan picked up a stack of flimsies, in Minbari, Drazi, and Centauri scripts as well as English. She shook them at him and then dropped them on the desk, letting them cascade off the edge onto the floor.

   'I don't give a flying fu…!'

   'Well you damn well should! David, you are part of something here. I know you didn't ask for it, and I know just how hard these bastards can make it when they have a mind to, even at times like this, especially at times like this. You know that if you so much as sneeze the Press will pick up on it and claim you have pneumonia. You've lived with that all your life. What, did you suddenly forget?'

   There's always someone watching you, son. Even if it's only the cat.

   David looked at her with an expression of total bewilderment on his face. His voice was low and shaking as he answered her. How could they say this about him? How could they dare to believe he'd do anything to bring dishonour to his name?

   'Everyone who matters a damn to me knows how much I loved him,' he said. 'They know why I wasn't there. And you do too. You just want to make me say it. Well, I can't!'

   'Find a way! Because you're wrong. You're dead wrong. Not "everyone who matters" knows why you did it. This article may be the biggest pile of crap that's ever come out of ISN's bulletin room, but as far as your average Joe is concerned, until you prove otherwise and maybe not even then, it's the truth. And you'd better change your attitude David, because the man in the street IS the one who matters. Not me, not Delenn, and not your Ranger buddies, but Joe Public.'

   David held his tongue. He was so mad it wasn't difficult; he wasn't sure he could speak anyway. Dimly, he was aware that Susan was still talking.

   '…Some of them will see it for what it was. Others are calling you a coward.'

   'I am not a coward!'

   'It doesn't matter what you say. Most of them will see it exactly the way ISN want them to see it, and from some of these bulletins it looks like they're using it to spread rumours of division in the Alliance. They're saying you weren't at the memorial service because you don't approve of the way things are going down here.'

   'That's total bullshit!'

   David got up and angrily snatched one of the flimsies up from the floor. He began reading it but didn't get very far. The words 'dishonour', 'fake' and 'division', leaped out at him, blurring, and he couldn't focus on anything else. He folded the bulletin lengthways, stuck it in the waistband of his pants and took two steps towards the door. He was going to sort this out. This was slander. His father wouldn't have stood for it and he'd be damned if he would. He'd had his reasons for doing what he'd done, and they were no-one else's damned business.

   'Stop right there, mister!'

   Don't you ever turn your back on me, son!

   He stopped, and his head dropped half an inch before he straightened his shoulders. He took in a deep breath and then let it go. Even with his back to her he could feel her steely-eyed gaze boring into him.

   'You can do whatever you need to do about the inter-galactic press on your own time, but we're not done yet.'

   Slowly he turned to face her. If she wanted to play it this way, then he could play it this way too. He'd give her what she wanted. He could do humility. He formed the sign of the triluminary and bowed to her. As he straightened up he stood as tall as he could, kept his gaze sure and level, and his response automatic.

   'Your forgiveness, Ranger One?"

   You stick your chin out like that often enough, and someone's going to try to break your jaw.

   'Dream on!'

   When she'd first summoned him she envisaged a short meeting. She'd ask him why he'd gone. He'd tell her. They'd talk about the future, he'd take whatever punishment she doled out, end of story. And then the press reports had come out. It had all gotten very public very quickly, and it had to be dealt with. Now that he was actually standing in front of her she was afraid she was going to give him such a roasting he'd never forget or forgive it.

   With a gargantuan effort she reined herself in and forced her vocal chords back under control.

   'Take off your stat bar.'

   David felt the heat drain from his cheeks.

   His eyes followed a desperately lonely trail from the badge pinned to his uniform, and from there to the pin that she wore, a more elaborate version of his own.

   Before John had become Entil'zha the cadets had all been given the traditional Ranger pins as soon as they presented themselves for training. John had changed the rules.

   I'm not handing out cookies here today. This pin stands for something, and you will earn the right to wear it--in blood, sweat, and tears if necessary.

   Susan watched his reaction. It wasn't easy. The expression on David's face was pure John Sheridan, frozen in one of those rare moments when he feared that the Universe had finally caught up with him.

   'The badge. Go on. Take it off.'

   I was so proud of that uniform, David. When the Civil War came…well, it takes a soldier to know how hard it was for me to give it up. One day you'll understand.

   David could feel the muscles in his neck and chest strain to breaking point. She couldn't do this to him. She wouldn't.

   His eyes begged the question. Please? But her expression didn't alter.

   She could do this.

   She was doing this.

   He'd behaved poorly. He knew that. He'd do anything she asked to make this right, but even as the panic welled up inside him he'd knew he'd be damned if he'd beg.

   There are some mistakes you can never amend. You can only live with them.

   This was it then. He watched as her eyes focussed on the badge, and then travelled slowly back up to his face. He'd run away, and Ranger's don't run away. They run toward. He didn't deserve to wear it.

   'Take it off.'

   He knew his hand was moving, and he knew that he was about to unclasp the fastening that held his badge in place, but the only thing he was really aware of was the blood pounding round his body, and thumping in his ears.

   Surely she wouldn't go through with this. One mistake. A stupid mistake, but in Valen's name, wasn't he allowed one? Especially given the circumstances? It wasn't fair.

   Who told you life was fair, huh?

   Her hand covered his, and she took the badge from his fingers, eyeing it for a second before slipping her hand beneath the front hem of his cloak and shoving it back into his pocket. Without saying a word, she carefully removed her own cloak and threw it casually across the back of her chair. Then she sat back down on the edge of the desk.

   David's voice barely edged above a whisper. 'What...happens now?'

   'Now we both stop hiding behind our uniforms, and you talk to me.'

   He could hardly breathe, but he had to know. 'And then what?'

   'That depends on you. It always has. Either you walk out of that door a civilian, or you put your badge back on, we go back to hiding behind our uniforms, I'll dole out your punishment, you'll take it like a Ranger, and we'll go on from there.'

   She paused to study his face for a moment, and found that she still wasn't really sure what she saw there. It was time to find out.

   'You're special to me, David. As a friend, I want to help you. As your Boss, I have to know that you can accept that help, and that you can get over this. The simple fact that you're John's son puts a lot of pressure on you. I know that. But I also have to know that you can take it, because if you can't, then we need to work things out, and you need to think about what you really want to do. If you're here because you want to be here, then I'll support you in anyway that I can. Just like I'd support any one of your buddies out there. But one way or another we have to sort this out. I can't just sit back and ignore what you did, either as your friend, or your Boss.'

   He sat down, partly in response to her gesture for him to do so, but also because he wasn't sure his knees would take the strain much longer. She could give him any punishment she liked if it meant he got to wear that badge again. He smiled to himself as the thought went through his head, and although he hid it well she was quick to pick up on it.

   'What?'

   He hesitated, and his smile slowly faded away.

   'Don't stop to think. Just talk to me.'

   He opened his mouth, closed it, and shook his head. Then he tried again. 'I'm not sure this is going to make any sense, Aunt Susan.'

   'You can stop with the 'Aunt' for a start,' she said. 'It makes me feel as though I'm pushing fifty. And you know it.'

   He almost responded to her smile. She was pushing sixty, he knew that for a fact, but although he appreciated her attempt to lighten the load, he was still feeling the weight of the world on his shoulders. He looked down at his hands which were clenched together. Slowly, he forced his fingers apart and then laced them together again, flexing them as he spoke, staring at them in preference to looking up.

   'My Dad always said that it was important to do what you felt was right. He said you could rationalise all you wanted, but in the end it was your gut instinct you had to follow.' He swallowed, thinking about the implication of what he was about to say. 'My gut instinct was to take off.'

   Susan raised an eyebrow, but didn't say anything.

   'Yes, I know, it wasn't the most sensible move in the world, but I wasn't really thinking straight. I wasn't really thinking at all. I knew what the Press would make of it, but I couldn't…if I'd stayed and stood up to speak at that memorial service…it would have been ten times worse, believe me.'

   'You could have just said something to me, or to Delenn. No-one was out to make you do anything you didn't want to do.'

   David's eyes flashed. 'Not intentionally, no, but everyone assumed. No-one asked me what I thought. It was just expected of me. It wasn't as though it was difficult! All I had to do was stand up there and wax lyrical about my father, tell everyone what a great guy he was, and then go off and tuck into a vast banquet it'd taken some poor soul all week to prepare. It was simple enough, huh?"

   'David, if you felt that badly about it why didn't you just tell someone?'

   'If I'd told you how I felt…ach, it doesn't matter.'

   Susan frowned. 'Of course it matters. C'mon David, spit it out.'

   David looked up at her through haunted eyes, and she could tell that it was killing him to have to go through this, but she wasn't about to let it go.

   'Please, don't misunderstand this. I loved him, you know? But there were times...I just...couldn't.'

   'Go on,' she prompted gently.

   David stood up and took a few paces away, and then turned back to face her.

   'The last few years it's felt as though the whole galaxy put me on a pedestal so high it gave me vertigo. He never said it. He wouldn't ever have said it. But I felt it. And he rode me so damned hard here. You don't know what it was like.'

   David, don't make the mistake of believing I can't be your father at home and your biggest nightmare at work.

   Susan gave him a sardonic smile. 'You weren't expecting any favours from him with regard to your training were you?'

   'No! And most of the time I'll admit, maybe it wasn't him doing the pushing, it was me. But I was up there on that pedestal, with everybody watching, and I had to be good. I had to be better than good. Whatever I said, or did, wherever I went, I knew they'd compare me with him, and I'd never measure up. I could kill myself trying, but I'd never be the man he was.'

   He moved across to the window, just watching for a moment as his brothers in arms went about their business.

   'Did he know you felt that way? Did you ever talk to him about it?'

   'No, because the worst part of all this, the part that's making me feel so...lousy...is having to acknowledge that I could possibly feel this way about him.'

   'I know.'

   David didn't say anything for a few minutes, and then the faintest of smiles shifted across his face.

   'D'you have any idea how it feels to be Entil'zha's son? Twice? I had my fill of it in Temple, when I was a kid. First Delenn's son, then Sheridan's. I even look like him! D'you know how annoyed I was that he wasn't going to be around long enough for me to outgrow him? Just another half inch. At least then I could've looked down on him from time to time. But it wouldn't have mattered anyway, would it? I could have grown to be ten feet tall and he would still have towered over me.'

   'Oh, David,' Susan said. 'That wasn't how it was. That's not how it is.'

   He pressed a finger to his temple. 'In here, I know that, but knowing it doesn't make it any better.'

   'I didn't have a clue you felt this way.'

   'Nor did I. And I think that's what the real problem was. Still is. For a while, I was doing okay, you know? I held it together. For my mother. For my crew-mates. Even for myself for a little while. And everyone said how well I was coping, but I wasn't coping at all. I wasn't even grieving. I was so angry with him I thought I was going to explode! Angry enough to stand up in front of the whole Universe and tell them why! I didn't trust myself to get up there to that podium and say the things they wanted to hear from me. Running away wasn't the answer. I know that. But I didn't do it with any intention of bringing dishonour to his name. I went away because that's exactly what I knew I would do if I stayed, and as mad as I was I didn't want that to happen.

   'I couldn't have stood there and told them all what a great father he was, because right then I'd forgotten all of that. Right then I wanted to tell the world what a bastard he was for doing what he did, for staging it all like he did, and most of all for keeping me out of it.'

   By now he was very close to tears, and he turned away momentarily, unable to face her, but now he'd come this far he couldn't leave the rest of it unsaid.

   'That's what hurts the most. I thought he'd call me back, Susan. I just wanted to see him one last time before he went, but no. I waited for that call. I prayed for it. Never came."

   'I never asked him, but I suppose he just wanted you to carry on as normal.'

   He laughed bitterly at her comment.

   'Normal? Since when was anything related to my family been remotely normal? All that stuff about not disrupting my training was total crap and you know it. He didn't worry about disrupting everybody else did he? You all got to see him. It wasn't an inconvenience for the likes of the Centauri Emperor, or the CEO of the biggest corporation on Mars. It wasn't too much to drag you all out to Minbar for one last supper together, but a Ranger-cadet's training, that was far too important. Right.'

   'I guess he was trying to protect you.'

   'From what? D'you think being there at the end would have been any worse than sitting on my bunk, wondering what was going on, wondering how he was, a hundred thousand klicks away? You know, when the call came through, when my mother called and the fleet was informed that he was missing, I had to sit there with my crew, and pretend, Susan. I had to pretend that there was hope, hope that he was coming back. As far as they knew he'd just been out on a routine flight! The news was patchy, and full of rumours, and I had to pretend I knew nothing more than they did. You know I actually sat there one night and wondered if keeping me at work was part of his master plan. After all, if his only son didn't know anything about it..."

   Susan rubbed her brow. 'Now wait a minute. I can't tell you what was going through his head in those last few days, David. But I refuse to believe that he left you out of the loop because it was part of some complicated pre-planned scheme. That doesn't sound like the John Sheridan I knew.'

   'I know, but all I wanted was to talk to him, just one last time, and what did he do? He sent me a message. A recorded message. Something I couldn't reply to. Can't reply to. Ever.'

   'What was in it?'

   David shook his head.

   'No…that's all right…I'm sorry, I shouldn't have asked.'

   When he looked up at her, finally, there were tears in his eyes. 'It's just a lot of words. Wise words, probably. I don't know. I've never finished it.'

   Susan stared at him. 'Don't you think you should?'

   'Maybe.'

   'Maybe it explains why he did what he did.'

   David nodded, staring at the polished wooden floor. 'Maybe it does, but I can't play it.'

   He paused for a few moments, trying to keep himself under control, but his voice cracked anyway.

   'I've tried. I get as far as putting the crystal in the port, but the moment I hear him...I can't bear it. Pathetic, isn't it?'

   'No, it's not.'

   Susan waited quietly, giving him the space and time he needed to regroup. Then she reached out to touch his hand. 'Are you still angry with him?'

   He shook his head, no, and then shrugged. 'Some days, yes, I'm furious with him. Some days, when my mother is at her worst, I swear if he were here I'd kill him anyway for putting her through this. But mostly I just hate myself for feeling that way.'

   'Give it time.'

   'Oh, I think I could give it a hundred years and still never figure it out. Why? Why did he just go like that? How could he do that?'

   Susan shrugged helplessly. 'It's what he wanted, and although we may not have agreed with it, after all he'd been through don't you think he deserved to get a little of what he wanted? And you have to admit, strategically, it was a brilliant move.'

   'Brilliant. Sure. It's still a lie, Susan. We know what really happened.'

   'Do we?' She smiled slightly. They knew where he had gone, they knew there was no sign of damage to the ship, and they knew very little else.

   'You're splitting hairs. We don't know what happened at the end, but we know what led up to it. We knew he was dying, Susan, and we knew why.'

   'Okay, I take your point. But if you feel that way then why don't you say something. Give the game away. No-one's stopping you.'

   'He staged it so bloody well that it's a little difficult, don't you think?'

   'Yes. As I said, strategically it was brilliant.'

   David snorted. 'Parentally, it sucked.'

   'And that means you're going to spend the rest of your life hating him?'

   'Sometimes it feels like it.' He sighed, smoothing down the creases in his cloak he'd just left there by scrunching up the material in his fist. 'No, I'm not going to hate him forever.'

   'Then what are you going to do with the rest of your life?'

   After a minute or so he took the cadet's badge from his pocket and weighed it in his hand pensively.

   'It's funny...I'd thought about resigning. I wasn't sure, but it was an option, you know? But then, when you told me to take this off...let's just say that I hadn't realised what I was about to throw away until I thought you were going to take it from me. You really had me worried, and I mean really worried.'

   Susan looked a little shame-faced, but only a little.

   'When you've been around as long as I have you pick up a few tricks like that one. Your father taught me most of them, by the way.'

   'Figures.'

   'Stick around here to the point at which you no longer need your ass kicking and I'll pass the rest of them on.'

   David nodded, and even smiled, despite vividly recalling those few seconds when he'd really believed she was going to throw him out.

   'I fell for it didn't it? Hook, line and sinker.'

   Susan held out her hand, palm down, and rocked it backed and forth. 'Mmm, I don't know. From the look on your face I thought you were about to take it off and tell me to shove it where the sun don't shine.'

   'I may be stupid, but I'm not that stupid.'

   'We'll see. But you never answered my original question. What do you want to do?'

   David sighed. 'I want to finish my training. I want to get out there and do some good. I want to make a difference. And I think I can. But I can only do it if I can be me. I'm not him. I'm never going to be him. If I'm going to do this then I have to do it my way.'

   'No-one's ever said otherwise,' Susan said. 'Maybe the only person who ever even thought otherwise is you.'

   He looked away again, wondering if she was right.

   You're your own man now, with your own life to lead, and your own memories to make. Make 'em good ones, son.

   'You know, I remember when I first came to visit you all on Minbar. I had a hold of you, you were so small, and your Dad came in from work and bent down to kiss you. "How's my little soldier today?" he said. I laughed at him and said I was fine, and then I asked him how he'd feel if you turned out to be a poet, or a ditch-digger, or, I don't know, a shoe salesman. "He's my son, Susan," he said. "No matter what the rest of the Universe expects of him, and I'm sure they'll expect a lot, it's enough for me."

   'He might have had a hard time getting that message across to you, but he never wanted you to feel you had to do anything you didn't want to do just to please him. Nor does Delenn. Nor do I. I want you to take your time and think this through. Properly. Okay? I'm not going to give you your marching orders, but if you don't want to be a Ranger, no-one's keeping you here.'

   David nodded. 'Does Captain Andrews want to see me?'

   Susan smiled. 'Oh, I expect he has a few words to say to you.'

   'He was really kind to me, you know…when I went back to my ship, after Dad died. The rest of the crew didn't know how to treat me, and I wasn't really ready to...I didn't want company. Captain Andrews gave me some space. He found ways of letting me be by myself when I needed to be. When it got bad he'd send me off on my own in a flyer, making out it was some training exercise for the benefit of the rest of the crew. He didn't have to do that. I picked a fine way to repay him that kindness.'

   'I've talked with Andrews,' Susan said. 'At first he wasn't too sure whether to be mad at you for going off like you did, embarrassed at falling for the trick with the false distress signal you pulled, or ticked at himself for not teaching you well enough to do it properly.'

   David stared at her.

   Susan nodded and half-chuckled. 'What, you think we hadn't worked it out? You took Andrews by surprise that's for sure, but we all knew where you were. You see, it turns out that when we salvaged your Dad's White Star, Garibaldi left a listening probe out at Corianna Six. Just in case. He never really believed it would do any good, but...anyhow, it gave you away, I'm afraid.'

   'But I scanned the area when I first arrived there....'

   Susan gave him a wry smile. 'The rest of us didn't know a thing about it either, and Michael was a little embarrassed to admit that he'd done it in the first place, but when you showed up there it set off the alarms and he called me. Your Uncle Mike's a pain in the butt, but you know what he's like, he could bug God's bedroom without being found out. As soon as we knew it was you out there I sent out a ship to bring you back, but at the last minute your mother asked me to belay that order. She wanted us to monitor your situation, but to leave you alone to figure things out for yourself.'

   'I don't even know why I ended up there. I just needed to think, and Corianna Six seemed like the best place to do it. And I thought maybe...oh, I thought a lot of stupid things. It seemed like a good idea at the time.'

   'Delenn was so scared she'd lose you. But she loved you enough to let you go, and had just enough faith to believe that even if John couldn't come back, you would.'

   David breathed in noisily. 'I wouldn't do that to her.'

   Susan patted his shoulder. 'I know. She knows it too, but she wanted you to have the freedom to make the choice. She said you couldn't do that if I was out there breathing down your neck, and she was right.'

   He looked up at her suddenly. 'I didn't mean to hurt her.'

   'Hey, she knows that. Grief takes people different ways, David. She knows that, and so do I.'

   He pushed his thumbs together, letting his hands fall back on to his lap. He snorted softly. 'I may never be able to fly as well as he could, speechify as well as he could, or fight as well as he could, but I can screw up better than he could.'

   'John Sheridan wasn't renowned throughout the galaxy for his ability to screw up, that's true. But we both know that he did from time to time. And if it helps you any, he hurt all of us by leaving the way he did; you should have heard Michael on the subject when we woke up that morning and Delenn told us he'd gone. But the more I think about it, and I'll tell you now I think about it a lot, the more I realise he didn't have a choice. It was going to hurt anyway, no matter what he did. Your Dad knew that, and so did we, even if we didn't want to acknowledge it. Don't be angry with him for that.'

   David cleared his throat, and was drawn once again towards the window. 'I'll get over it, I just wish now...I should have attended the service. I hadn't realised how it felt here without him. They needed something, they still need something, and the ceremony would probably have helped. I spoiled all that.'

   'Then the first thing you should do is go out there and put it right. But there are enough people on your case just now. Stop punishing yourself, mmm?'

   She moved back around to the other side of the desk and pulled on her cloak again, feeling its heavy weight around her shoulders before adding, 'That's my job.'

   There's always a price, David. Always.

   David stood up to face her. He looked down at the cadet badge in his hand, went to fix it back to his cloak and then hesitantly returned it to his pocket.

   'You can put that back on if you want to.'

   'I know,' he said.

   *******************************************

   'So, how did it go?' P.J. wanted to know. 'Sure, it looks like ye have all yer limbs intact, don't tell me she's getting soft in her old age?'

   'I'd like to hear you say that to her face.'

   'Do I look like I could use a lobotomy?'

   'No, you look like you've had one....'

   David ducked as a pillow hurtled towards him, and he stumbled back against the bed, sitting down on it hard.

   P.J. sat down beside him, trying not to let his concern for his friend show through. 'So, what's happening? I'm supposing she didn't tell you to say three Hail Mary's.'

   David flopped back on the bed, and said quietly, 'No, but you got the three part right.'

   'Well, that figures. When did anything ever come in twos or fours around here?'

   David smiled, but his quietness was disturbing P.J. a little. Whenever life turned round and bit David's backside David's normal reaction was to turn around and bite it right back. His first reaction wasn't generally to run away. He must have had his reasons. If he waited long enough he'd probably tell him all about it, but P.J. wasn't well known for his patience.

   'C'mon, man. Maybe I can help.'

   David sighed, but didn't get up from his supine position on the bed. 'She didn't fire me, not yet anyway. I have to find a way to convince her that I really want to be here, and my punishment…if you can call it a punishment…comes in three parts. First, I have to find a way to make up for the fact that I ruined the memorial service…'

   'Ah, ye didn't ruin it.'

   'Missed it then. Whatever.'

   'All right. So what's second?'

   'Second, I have to find a way to forgive him.'

   'Forgive him? Forgive who?'

   David turned his head slightly. 'It's complicated.'

   P.J. didn't press it any further, he just nodded. 'And the third?'

   'Mora'dum.'

   P.J. swivelled around. 'What?'

   'You heard me.'

   'But that's nuts. What the hell happened to compassion for fuck's sake? Has no-one round here ever heard of mitigating circumstances? I'll admit that running off like that wasn't the smartest thing you ever did, but Jesus, Mary, Mora'dum?'

   'I thought the last one was Joseph?'

   'Don't blaspheme.'

   David smiled. 'Sorry. Don't worry, P.J. It's not what you're thinking. It's not really Mora'dum. It might as well be, but it's not whatever it is you're thinking. There's just something I have to do that…I'm afraid of doing. If I want to stay here I have to do it, and I have to do it before sunrise. That's the condition.'

   'So, what is it you have to do?'

   David leaned up on his elbows. 'Can you round everybody up for me?'

   'What d'you mean, round them up?'

   'I want to get all the cadets together, and I want us to get out of this place for a while. Will you help me?'

   'If I can, but I have no idea what you're asking.'

   'Just pass the word around. Tonight, after sunset, up at the monument on Bre'fa'lak.'

   'What about curfew?'

   David narrowed his eyes and smiled. 'We're Rangers, aren't we?'

   'Not yet, hence the curfew.'

   'I just want to gather everyone together, and explain…if I can. At least, to those who want to be there. I know I'm not exactly flavour of the month at the moment, but it's the only thing I can think of. We can't do it here without the instructors getting in on the act, or Ranger One getting to hear about it, or Valen forbid, my mother finding out. I want to keep this between us. Pass the word around. Those who want to make it will make it, and those who don't…I'll make my peace with them some other way.'

   P.J. smiled. 'It'll be like a wake.'

   'A wake?'

   'It's an Irish tradition. There's usually a lot of drinking and eating that goes on alongside the grieving, and when the funeral service is done it's traditional for a group of the deceased's nearest and dearest to climb up a hill, or go down to the beach, or just go sit together somewhere quiet to get totally shit-faced and tell stories and sing songs until the sun comes up.'

   'Shit-faced?'

   'Well, there's no chance of that here, granted, we'll just have to make do with a flask of tea.'

   P.J. grinned at David's puzzled expression.

   'Never mind. I'll take care of the wake. They'll all be there. And what are you going to be doing while I'm out persuading our cadet friends to go over the wall for the night?'

   David became serious. 'Just ask them, P.J. No arm twisting. I mean it. I haven't been exactly…I know that most of them resent me. I'm not blind.'

   'That's a load of old bull.'

   David studied his friend's face. 'Is it?'

   P.J. kept quiet.

   'Just tell them that I want to make amends for what happened at the memorial service. Tell them…oh, tell them what you just told me, about the wake. But if they don't want any part in it, that's fine. Understood?'

   P.J. nodded. 'All right, no arm twisting. But if it turns out to be just you and me and that flask of tea....'

   'Then we'll have this wake of yours on our own. And one more thing. Have you still got that portable holo-player?'

   'Sure.'

   'Bring it with you.'

   'A bodhran or a set of spoons is more traditional.'

   'A what?'

   P.J. grinned as he got to his feet. 'Doesn't matter. I'll see you later.'

   ******************************************************

   Delenn looked up at him sharply. 'And she was quite correct. You have to learn to forgive him. If you cannot, you will never get over this, and you must.'

   'How did you do it?'

   'I loved him. There was no need of forgiveness.'

   'And I can't forgive him, ergo I didn't love him enough?'

   'I didn't say that.' Delenn's eyes shone, but her voice was clear and strong. 'It hurt me a great deal to watch him walk away, David. It will always hurt. I didn't want him to go. I didn't want to lose a moment of the time that still remained to us, as short as it was, but I knew, we both knew, that he had to go alone.'

   'But you could have been with him at the end.'

   Delenn smiled and then bit her lip as it quivered ever so slightly. 'I only had to find the strength to let him go, David. He was the one who had to find the strength to leave. Think about that, think about what it meant to him, think about what it took, and think about what it would have required of you to have made that journey with him. Perhaps then you will find the strength you require to forgive him.'

   ***********************************************************

   P.J. and David walked side by side up the hill, towards the monument that honoured the dead on both sides of the civil war that had riven Minbar twenty and more years before. It was a place of peace and tranquillity, a place David had always felt drawn to, somewhere he'd taken to visiting when he needed some time on his own. This was the first time he'd ever been up here in the middle of the night though.

   'Maybe the rumours are true after all,' P.J. said, panting as the going underfoot became rougher.

   'What rumours?'

   'That Rangers have balls of steel. Sure, mine are so cold I can believe it! C'mon, race you to the top.'

   P.J. loped off at an easy run, taking a head start and leaving David trailing behind him, but not for long. It worked, anyway. By the time they reached the crest of the hill both of them were a lot warmer.

   P.J. grabbed David's arm as they neared the top. He had an idea of what was waiting on the other side of the hill, and didn't want to run into it breathless and flustered. The tradition might be new to the Minbari, and to David, but it was an old, old tradition, and it deserved to be treated with a measure of decorum, at least to start with.

   'Wait a minute. Let me get my breath back.'

   They stood still for a moment and then P.J. led David over the top of the hill.

   They were all there. The entire cadre. As David approached they stood up, encouraging him to walk into the centre of the rough semi-circle they had formed in a natural hollow that provided some shelter from the wind.

   David just stood and smiled at them, unable to find the words to tell them how much he appreciated their company. P.J. tugged at his sleeve, and as the two of them sat down, closing the circle, the rest followed suit. Some of them, his own crewmates, were more familiar to him than the others, but he was grateful to each and every one of them for the simple act of turning up.

   P.J. sensed that his friend was going to take a little while to get his act together.

   'I explained what this is all about, didn't I?' he said in a voice loud enough for the others to hear. 'There are no rules. Anyone who has anything to say should say it, but no-one should feel they have to say anything at all, okay? I wish we'd chosen a more hospitable location than the top of a hill in the middle of the night, but beggars can't be choosers.'

   There were several smiles at that comment. The ground was damp with the rain that had fallen earlier, and the air was chilly.

   P.J. turned towards David, wanting to start things off, and knowing that he was speaking for everyone there anyway. 'We all miss him, my friend, and we're sorry for your loss.'

   David nodded. 'I know. And you stayed here and faced his passing together. I ran away when I should have been standing up with you to honour him. I let you all down, and I wanted to apologise for that. I'll apologise to the rest of the Universe when I'm ready, but you all deserve better than that. I wanted to come up here, to…neutral territory if you like…and say I was sorry. To you, and to him too, maybe.'

   He looked up, taking in their expressions. He didn't see any resentment there, and he'd half expected to. All he saw was compassion, and a sadness as deeply felt as his own.

   He gave a half laugh. 'I'm sorry I dragged you all out of your beds and up here too…I don't know, I thought it might…help somehow, though I'm not sure how. To be honest, I didn't expect many of you to be here. I know I haven't…lets just say I could have done better by some of you in the past, and I know that my actions brought dishonour to you as well as to myself. If P.J. twisted anyone's arm…I…you didn't have to do this.'

   Bilar said, 'Yes, we did.'

   'There was no need for duress, Sheridan,' said Bravell. 'We are here because we wish to be here." He took a candle from his pocket, buried it into the soil beside him, and lit a taper. 'O'Sullivan explained that, among his people, this is a ritual that helps those left behind to deal with the pain we feel when a loved one passes beyond the veil. We are here, perhaps, just as much for ourselves as we are for you, but that does not matter. It only matters that we are here.'

   'Amen to that.'

   Bravell passed the taper along, and soon there were fifty candles casting a soft glow across the faces of the company.

   'Itzil'zha.'

   'Indeed. That's what he used to call us,' Bilar agreed.

   'That and a lot of other things,' P.J. added, laughing.

   'Pea-brain.'

   'Ne'er-do-well.'

   'Greenhorn.'

   'Donkey.'

   P.J. laughed. 'He called me a slimeball once, mind you he had a grin the size of a White Star on his face at the same time.'

   'The day that you gave him a soaking,' Bravell said. 'I remember it well.'

   'That bucket of water was meant for David here, and you know it. Sure, it was David's fault. He was the one who ducked!'

   'He chased you all over the compound.'

   'He caught me too,' P.J. chuckled, 'I've still got the Denn'bok marks on my arse to prove it.'

   'And I still got wet,' David said.

   'That's right. That's right! He made me tell him why I was mad enough at you to be throwing buckets at you….'

   'Yes, and he never said a word more about it until the next day, when we were going home, d'you remember? A group of us were walking home up the path beside the lake, and he came strolling up behind us, "You know, if you're going to play with fire you're going to get burned. If you're going to play around with water…shove…remember your towel."'

   It was a perfect impersonation, and although it may not have been a perfect illustration of the man he was, it summed up their Entil'zha for them. A peal of laughter wafted across the early morning air, taking down any remaining barriers between them with it. The night grew colder as the stories continued, but after a while, they stopped noticing.

   'He'd just have to look at you sometimes, just look, and it was written all over his face. You could tell he was thinking he'd never make a Ranger out of you, but he'd die trying.'

   John Dorn piped up. 'Oh, but when you got something right, he'd let you know it too. D'you remember that day we were trying to set up a communication relay between here and Yedor, using those old radio devices he had found?'

   P.J. chuckled. 'Old? They were ancient! He might as well have given us all tin cans and lengths of string.'

   David laughed too. 'Hey, I told him you said that, and he got that glint in his eye and said he'd try it on the next cadre.'

   'It took us all of one night and the whole of the next day to get that relay set up. And then your voice,' John continued, pointing at P.J., 'suddenly came through clear as a bell and you said, "Is there anybody at all worth speaking to on the other end of this heap of shit?"'

   'Yeah, and before any of us had time to react he picked up the receiver and said, "Hearing you loud and clear, O'Sullivan. And the words you're searching for are "Come in, please."'

   'Sure I nearly died of embarrassment. I had no idea he was even there. It was the middle of the night. Any sane commanding officer would have gone to bed and left the rest of you to it.'

   'Not him. I wish you'd been there to see the look on his face when your voice came through. You'd have thought he'd just heard that intergalactic peace had broken out.'

   One by one, each member of the group recalled a story about something that Entil'zha had said to them, or something they had seen him do. They all had a tale to tell, and David was touched by the genuine affection that was evident in their voices.

   'I wonder what he'd say if he could see us now.'

   Trebbien smiled and rubbed his forearms. 'He would probably advise us to get in out of the cold and go back to our beds.'

   'True,' said David, 'and he'd bawl me out for getting you to come up here in the middle of the night in the first place.'

   'He'd want to know who was hiding the hooch!'

   There were a few smiles at that comment, particularly among the humans. One of the hardest parts of moving to Minbar was the lack of alcohol. When Sheridan had first arrived on Minbar alcohol had been a banned substance. Gradually though, as more and more outsiders arrived, the rules had been relaxed. Everyone was aware of the problem, and people tended to police themselves. It still wasn't exactly easy to come by, but those off-worlders who made their homes on Minbar generally knew how and where to find it. Unfortunately, the Ranger compound wasn't one of those places.

   'He'd have us lined up on charges in the morning, that's for sure.'

   P.J. laughed. 'No he wouldn't! Sure, he always turned a blind eye when someone broke curfew.'

   John Dorn smiled. 'Have you forgotten the night I slipped out to meet up with my Kate? He caught me on the way out AND on the way back.'

   'Aye, and what did he say when he caught you?'

   Dorn gave them a shy smile. 'He told me if I was serious about her it should be taking a lot longer than half an hour, that she deserved better than the likes of me, and if it happened again and I came back before dawn there'd be hell to pay.'

   'You see?'

   'But there were special circumstances with John and Kate,' David countered. 'I always wondered if he turned a blind eye because he hardly ever found out in the first place.'

   'No, he was a fair man, and if he thought no harm had been done he wouldn't just uphold a rule because it was there and for no other reason.'

   'Trust me, Bravell,' David said, with a knowing smile. 'There were times he just didn't have a clue about what went on around the compound.'

   'And there were times that he knew exactly what was going on. He also knew about the gaps in the fence, including at least one that we didn't know about, behind the maintenance shed.'

   'What?'

   'When did he tell you about that?'

   Durenn shook his head. 'Forgive me. I shouldn't have started this conversation.' Unintentionally, he'd dredged something up they had all tried to put behind them.

   'You can't stop now, man,' P.J. said.

   'Come on, tell the rest of it.'

   'As I said, I shouldn't have spoken of it.'

   'What are you talking about? When was this?'

   'It was the night I…decided I didn't belong here.'

   He glanced around their faces and their expressions told him that they knew what he was referring to.

   David had his own memory of that night, or rather, the following morning. It wasn't a very pleasant one.

    I had a very interesting conversation with one of your colleagues last night.

   Oh?

   Mmm. Durenn. Big kid. Swollen lip? You wouldn't happen to know anything about that now would you?

   He's such an idiot, Dad! He's a barrel of fat. He hasn't got the first clue about astro-physics, or math, or geometry, and every time, every time, we have a test and he screws up one of our group assignments, we have to go through half an hour's extra hand-to-hand. With Kendar! All because of him! Have you seen the bruises I've got?

   Rangers work as a team.

   I know that, but he's pulling us down. You keep saying, 'You're only as good as the worst member of the squad'. So that means if he's crap then we're all crap.

   Absolutely.

   Then I don't want him on the squad!

   Does he screw up because he can't be bothered, because he doesn't care?

   No, he screws up because he's useless!

   But he tries, yes?

   Yes, but he's not good enough, and whenever we fail an assignment it's all because of him!

   You've been here for four weeks! Cut him some slack! Did you ever stop to consider that you might be letting him down, that it's just as much your fault as his?

   How can it be my fault?

   I suggest you think about that. Hard. Especially the next time you feel like solving the problem with your fists. And no, he didn't tell me who hit him. He didn't have to, it's written all over your sorry face.

   But he…

   Enough! One day, son, and I absolutely guarantee it, the Universe will put you in a position where you find out that you're the one who's letting the squad down, and the guy you've been beating up on is the one with the smarts. I hope when that day comes you'll recognise it, and I hope he proves to be a better man than you are right now because if he doesn't you'll be in deeper trouble than you ever dreamed of, mister, and you won't have anyone but yourself to blame!

   I'm sorry. I didn't mean…I just lashed out.

   Save your apologies for Durenn! And if I get hear about anything like this happening again, Kendar's training sessions will be the least of your worries, and you'll be off this compound so fast your feet won't touch the floor. Am I making myself perfectly crystal clear?

   'I didn't even know he was there,' Durenn went on at P.J.'s prompting. 'He followed me out to the back field and asked me what I was doing. I didn't tell him, of course, but he just looked at me, and smiled, and put his arm round my shoulder and told me he felt like running away too sometimes. Anyway, that was when he showed me the hole in the fence. He told me if I wanted to use it he wasn't going to stop me, but then he said that there were many doors, and many choices in our lives, and mostly, if we were lucky, they opened both ways. Then he said his door was always open, for all of us.'

   'It was a bit difficult to walk through that door when the problem you needed help with was his son, though, I bet,' David said.

   'He never heard that from me, David, I swear it, and I never used that invitation to walk through his door, either. I never needed to, after that. I may have been the class clown, but I was never the class sneak.'

   'You weren't the class clown, Durenn,' P.J. said, serious now, 'and you've proved yourself over and over since then. We were the ones who were behaving like eejits, not you.'

   Durenn smiled. 'That is almost exactly what he said, although I believe he used the word "assholes".'

   'He was right.'

   'He was always right.'

   'Hmm. No he wasn't, but he was right about that.'

   They froze, and then jumped to their feet as Susan Ivanova stepped into the circle.

   'As you were, please, all of you. I didn't come all the way up here to yell at you. If I was going to do that I'd have had the sense to wait down there in the warm until you all trundled back into the compound. I just thought you might be a little chilly, and I thought there might be some wolves around, and I wanted to make sure you'd taken the proper precautions.'

   They were still a little unsure of their position, but when David gestured to her to sit down with them they began to relax a little.

   'Wolves?'

   'It's a Russian thing. Russian wolves you pacify with vodka, Minbari wolves, I don't know, but I think they prefer tea. Whatever.'

   She passed around two flasks, one marked with hazardous substances flashes, the other in a plain thermos, with a stern warning not to get them confused.

   'So, you knew we were up here all along?'

   She smiled. 'Absolutely. Don't worry about it, like I used to tell the last person to do this job, when something goes on around here I don't know about, then you should worry.'

   'He got that from you?'

   'What, he used to say it to you guys?'

   'In exactly the same way you just did!'

   'All the time!'

   'The weasel! That was my line!'

   They all laughed, the flasks continued on their way from one to another, and the group fell quiet again.

   Susan was beginning to regret interrupting them. The sombreness was back with a vengeance.

   'It used to feel like this every time he left Babylon 5, you know. It didn't matter whether he was away on a mission, or he'd just gone out on fly-by, to stretch his wings as he put it. It always felt as though we were just running around keeping the place ticking over, ready for him to come home to. So I know how you've all been feeling these past few weeks. He was the best commanding officer I ever had. By far.'

   She looked around at their sad faces. Most of them were no more than twenty cycles old, and for some of them she knew that this would be their first taste of bereavement. She didn't wish for them to become accustomed to the feeling, but the life they had chosen made it inevitable. She shivered, putting away her maudlin thoughts for fear of expressing them out loud.

   'If he could see you tonight, all together like this, he'd be extremely proud of you. But you know, he would also tell you that it's time to stop moping around and get on with the job.'

   David nodded towards the horizon where the first signs of morning were beginning to lighten the sky. 'Literally, as well as figuratively,' he said. 'The sun will be up soon, and there are some things I promised I would do before it rises.'

   He turned to Susan, retrieving the crystal that contained his father's last message from his pocket as he did so.

   I know that this was supposed to be about me facing up to things, but…is it okay if…can they stay with me while I play this?'

   'If it's personal, David, are you sure you want to?'

   'If there's one thing I've learned here tonight, it's that I wasn't my father's only son.'

   Susan smiled at him. 'It's taken you long enough to work that out,' she said, raising herself up on to her knees and then standing. 'But this is something you have to do alone. We'll be here for you, afterwards, but that recording was made for you.'

   P.J. took out the portable holo-player and set it up in the centre of the circle. When he'd finished, someone shoved the flask of vodka into his hand. He passed it to David and then took a generous swallow himself, before re-joining his colleagues who were in the process of moving just over the crest of the hill.

   One by one they had risen, snuffed out candles and gathered up their belongings, as the first rays of sunshine slithered over the mountains to the west. Nobody had hurried over their task, and no-one had hurried anyone else. When they were settled some of them turned to face the dawn light, some to meditate, some to pray, or just to think, and they all waited together in quiet contemplation, for David to face his fears and start the recording.

   ***********************************************************

   'David. I know that today, above all days, you're going to be wanting some answers. There aren't any. This is one of the hardest…no the hardest decision I have ever had to make, but I have to…do what I have to do…and I have to do it my way.

   'I will always love you. You know that. I hope you know that. I haven't always been able to be the father you needed. I haven't always been able to be there for you. But I always wanted to be there for you, and sometimes all I could do was hope that that was enough. I have a feeling that you're going to have a hard time coming to terms with what I'm about to say, and I apologise for it, but...this is one of those times when I have to hope it's enough, son.

   'If there were any other way, believe me I'd take it. There isn't. Delenn is my past, and my present, and my life, but you...are my future. Leaving the one behind is going to be hard enough, but giving up on the other...I...if you were here too, I know I would never be able to do it. I want to be there for you, and I know you want to be there for me, but I...don't think I'll be able to handle that.

   'But that knowing, that knowing that each of us wants to be in a place where we can't be...that need we have to be there for each other...we built that, you and I. Whatever happens in the days to come, try to hold on to that.

   'I am so proud of you. Your mother always said I gained two inches across the chest the day you were born, and that feeling has never wavered. Granted, there've been times you've said things, or done things, I haven't exactly approved of. But I always felt that whatever problems you had, you'd work them out, and in that you have never let me down.

   'You haven't always had it easy, son. I know that better than anyone. Life in the Rangers isn't going to be easy either, but you'll get through your training, and the friends you're making now will stay with you for the rest of your days. They're good people, David. Look after them, and when you need it, allow them to look after you.

   'One last piece of advice. Stop trying so hard to be the best darn Ranger that ever lived. Just concentrate on being the best *man* you can be. Stop worrying about what other people think about you, and stay true to yourself. If you can do that, the rest will follow.

   'There's not much left to be said that we haven't said already. So, I'll leave you with this : May God stand between you and harm in all the empty places where you must walk. And may those empty places never be as fearful or as empty as they seem.

   'Good-bye, Itzil'zha. I love you.'

   ***************************************************************

   It was Ranger One who broke the silence. 'Pass me that flask. No, the other one.'

   David smiled at her as he walked over the crest of the hill, wiping his sleeve across his face as he did so. 'Thank you,' he said. 'All of you.'

   P.J. put an arm around his shoulder and hugged him roughly. 'No problem,' he said quietly. 'Are you okay?'

   'I think so. Did you hear any of that?'

   'Some.'

    David squeezed his shoulder. 'I think it's time we got going.'

   Bravell said, 'And I think it's time you put your badge back on.'

   A few of the others raised their heads at that comment. Some of them hadn't noticed that David wasn't wearing it.

   'Until tonight…after what happened…I wasn't sure I had a right to. I wasn't sure you'd want me to.'

   'Where is it?'

   David fumbled blindly in his pocket and tried to pin it back on, but his fingers were almost numb, and his eyes too teared-up to see properly.

   Durenn stepped forward to finish the job for him. 'We could not prevent the last Sheridan from leaving,' he said, 'but we would be unwise to allow ourselves to lose another one so soon.'

   Susan smiled into her hand at Durenn's seriousness, but her heart was warmed by it. John had been right. They weren't Earthforce soldiers, and all of this was going to take some getting used to, but she was going to be very, very proud of these people.

   P.J. grinned at her and then turned to his friends. 'Come on, assholes, we've a muster to make in a little under an hour. Let's get moving.'

   Susan cleared her throat, and wiped her eyes. 'Oh, I think we can forget parade today, just this once,' she said. 'And I've cancelled all of your classes. You've been up all night, you're cold and you're tired. I don't see any point in making you sit in a class room in this state. Get cleaned up, get something to eat, and get some rest.'

   She waited for the inevitable smiles all round, and acknowledged the muttered words of thanks.

   Then she added, 'Oh, don't thank me. I may be getting a little sentimental in my old age, but I haven't gone completely soft. I believe there's a fence down there on the compound that needs fixing. When you've had some rest you can get to work on it. When you've done that, I suggest that those of you who are able to string a paragraph together without the use of an expletive can help David with his statement to the Press about his disappearing act. Since that lets you off the hook, P.J., would you be good enough to pay a visit to Shai Alyt Kendar and ask if he wouldn't mind dropping by to see me this evening. Any questions?'

   Fifty stiff backs straightened, and fifty faces fell at the very mention of the name Kendar, as she had anticipated. Her only intention was to invite him to tea, but they didn't need to know that.

   'No, Anla'shok Na'

   'Good. Sleep well gentlemen.'

   She returned their half-hearted salutes then set off back down the hill.

   P.J. stared after her for a moment and then turned back to David.

   'D'you think she heard Durenn's story, about the hole nobody else had spotted?'

   David nodded. 'I think we can count on it. Don't you?'



 

*****[END]*****

 

 

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