Disclaimer: Babylon 5 and its characters don't belong to me. They belong to JMS. I'm just borrowing them, and I promise to put them back only slightly more scarred than they were before.
Author's Note/ Background: I recently finished watching Sleeping in Light for only the second time ever, because it makes me cry like a baby. But it's hella inspirational.
Quick primmer if you have NOT seen The Lost Tales: Voices in the Dark: 2271 – Sheridan is approached in a dream by Galen the Technomage and told that Prince Regent Dius Vintari, the teenage son of Emperor Cartagia (we remember that whack job, right?) will bring about the destruction of Earth in roughly 30 years if he is not stopped. Galen tells Sheridan he must kill the prince regent to prevent this, but our hero chooses another route and instead invites the young man to come and live on Minbar with his family (awww!) He takes Vintari under his wing in an attempt to teach him a way of life that will lead him down a path which will NOT include the destruction of Earth. But he promises Galen that if he can't turn Vintari around, he will kill the young Centauri himself. Um, but you do the maths – by the time said destruction does or does not come about, Sheridan is LONG dead. Hence the part of this story that talks about Dius Vintari. About 9 percent of my purpose in writing this was to fix JMS' arithmetic. The rest of the purpose… was for funsies.
A Walk in the Light
Who are you? What do you want? Who are you? What do you want? Who are you? Who are you?
John Sheridan sat bolt upright in bed. He was drenched in sweat and his heart was pounding, and in the darkness he felt completely disoriented.
Darkness. Z'ha'dum. The dream.
The memories came flooding back – the fall; the death; the return to Babylon 5; victory over the Shadows and Lorien's promise of 20 years.
"John? What is it?" Delenn pushed herself up on one arm beside her husband and looked at him with worry.
"Oh, nothing." He gave her a tired smile. "Just a bad dream, that's all." His voice was quiet but gruff. He reached for her. "Hey," he said, lifting her chin so he could look into her eyes, "It happens. I'll be fine. Go back to sleep."
Delenn gave him one last concerned look before lowering herself back into a reclined position, but she did not close her eyes. She'd been with him through nightmares in the past – in their first years of marriage, he'd been haunted by memories of his captivity and torture on Mars; in later years, those were less frequent but were joined by nightmares of an endless fall, or of danger coming to their son. Most recently, they'd both had bad dreams about their ordeal on Centauri Prime. This was different. She could tell.
"I do not like it when you lie to me, John."
John fell back roughly onto the bed and they lay parallel, both on their backs, staring up at the ceiling in the darkness in silence. "David leaves in a few days," he said finally, by way of changing the subject.
"Yes, and we have known this for months." The reply was flat.
So much for a change of subject. He let a few more minutes of silence fall between them, hoping she would fall asleep. Finally, when it became apparent that she would not do so, and that she was still waiting for an explanation, he spoke into the darkness. "By the Earth calendar, it's been… 19 years, 10 months and four days," he said without looking at her.
She sighed heavily. He knew that her eyes had filled with tears.
"I love you." He struggled to keep his voice steady.
"And I, you." Her voice was weak but determined. You knew all along this was coming, she reminded herself.
John rolled onto his side and she instinctively sought the comfort of his embrace. As they had a thousand times before, she curled into him and he held her close, his chin resting on top of her head. They stayed like that until morning, lulled to sleep by the familiar gesture.
Morning came, and John woke first – he almost always did. Years of trial and error had taught him how to disentangle himself from Delenn without waking her. He did the dance now, kissing the top of her head, lifting the arm she used as a pillow, curling her in on her own arms and gently rolling off from his own side of the bed. He looked back once he had freed himself and gave a satisfied nod at his still-slumbering wife before pulling on a robe and slippers and tip-toeing out of the bedroom.
He was surprised to find David awake and dressed, bent over a book at the dining table. He watched for a moment the child he and Delenn had nurtured for the last 18 years, and saw him for the man he had become. He had no doubt that David, as strong and determined as he was, had only begun to discover what life had in store for him… but he wondered if David knew that. He suspected his son may need a little nudge, and if John was going to nudge, he had to do it soon.
The young man mouthed a few words from whatever he was reading, shook his head and flipped back a few pages. The way he clenched his jaw as he read over… whatever it was… made John smile. He touched his own face instinctively. That's my son, he thought.
Most of his features were human, but David was unmistakably Minbari – his bone crest jutted out the back of his head, three distinct points appearing like a crown amid light brown hair. And his eyes were his mother's. But his body build was John's – a soldier's body, strong and muscled, with broad shoulders and a sharp jaw.
Maybe today, he thought. Maybe I'll give that nudge today.
On this thought, John cleared his throat and entered the room. "Good morning."
David looked up. "Dad." He smiled and set aside the book. His smile, too, was his mother's – sincere, loving, honest.
"You're up early." John crossed the room to join his son at the table, but he didn't sit down. "What are you working on?"
David flipped over the book so that his father could see the cover. "Figured I'd brush up on my Drazi," he offered.
John nodded. "Ah." David had learned all he could from the Anla'shok instructors in Tuzanor without being taken out on a full-fledged mission. When he left in a few days, it would be for a mission in Drazi space that would keep him there for the equivalent of four earth months. John clapped a hand on David's shoulder before he sat down in the chair opposite his son. "Interesting language, isn't it?"
"Easier than English or Minbari though," David replied.
"It definitely is at that." John agreed. "One of the many reasons you shouldn't worry so much. I've conversed with you in Drazi, and you can hold your own. And you've… you've been to the Drazi homeworld, so you know it's hot, crowded, and dry; the rooms are small and the people are militant; and you know to steer clear of anything with the word Bor'kaan in its name. …How long have you been at this, anyhow?"
David glanced at the clock. "Couple hours."
"Couple ho—" John shook his head and took the book from the young man. "Look. I wanted to spend the day with you anyway. I've got some… things I want to talk to you about before you go. Let me get dressed, and then we are going out for a walk, hmm?" John gave his son a pointed look and left the room, still clutching the book.
Delenn was just rousing as John entered the bedroom. He shoved the book into a random drawer in his nightstand and leaned over to kiss his wife. "Good morning," he said with a smile.
"And to you." She was smiling as well, seeming to have forgotten their early-morning sleep disturbance and the verbal tap dance that might have been an argument. She watched as he hurriedly dressed – not in the robes of Ranger One, but in traditional human clothing. "Where are you going?"
"David and I are going out for a walk. I found him awake and studying this –" he pulled out the Drazi dictionary and handed it to Delenn – "Already this morning, and he said he's been up for at least two hours."
Her brow creased in her familiar look of concern as she regarded the book. "He is pushing himself too hard."
"And that is exactly why I am taking him out of the house. I… had some things I wanted to talk to him about anyway." He sighed and sat back on the edge of the bed for a moment before pulling on a shirt. "This may be the… last time I get to see him, and we have some unfinished business."
She reached out and ran her hand over his strong back – weathered by time and circumstance, but still she remembered every vertebrae, every scar, every tiny imperfection. "What kind of unfinished business, John?"
He stood again and pulled the shirt on, then buttoned it to the top. "I think it's better you don't know for now." He kissed her again lightly and offered a small smile. "We'll be back in a few hours." And he turned and exited the room before he could take into account Delenn's expression.
John kept his eyes straight ahead as he walked beside his son through the gardens outside Interstellar Alliance Headquarters. "So."
Silence. David frowned. "You said you wanted to spend the day with me. I didn't realize you meant we'd spend it without speaking to one another."
John still did not respond, and David said nothing further. They walked in silence for another five minutes.
"First things first!" John pronounced loudly at last, and it jolted David so that he stumbled a bit in his step. John smiled at this. "First things first," he repeated in a regular, conversational tone, and now he stopped walking and turned to face his son. "Always be prepared, even when things seem quiet."
"Be prepared for what?"
"Exactly." John started walking again, not waiting for David to do the same. He again smiled as his son jogged back up beside him a few moments later. "Second. Your Drazi is fine. Don't go in there feeling like you have something to prove because of who you are."
"Don't I have something to prove?" David asked, and now he was the one who stopped. John was surprised, but paused in his step and faced his son. "Everyone knows I am the son of the Entil'zha and the Alliance President, of John Sheridan and Delenn, descendent from greatness, child of Valen, et cetera ad nauseum… I feel I most certainly have something to prove. These have been the definitions of who I am for my whole life. Now I am about to leave the shelter they have provided and I feel I… may not be prepared. Everyone knows who you are. But really… who am I?"
Who are you? What do you want? Who are you? Who are you?
John realized his son was still speaking. He shook his head slightly. "I'm sorry."
"Always… be prepared?" His son remarked with a curious raise of one eyebrow. But he rested a hand on his father's arm. "Are you all right?"
"Oh fine, fine. Just…" Who are you? "You're right. Your mother and I… well, we have provided you with all the opportunities we could manage, but in doing so we… may have missed the boat on allowing you to find out who you are when you are allowed to stand on your own."
"I want to be Anla'shok because of the values you gave me… not because I'm the continuation of some great legacy."
"Mmmhmmm." John sighed and reached out to grasp David's shoulder reassuringly before starting to walk again. David matched his father's stride, slow and rambling. "You know I was… more than twice your age before I had half your wisdom. The credit for that, on both our accounts, goes to your mother." He was quiet for another moment, eyes focused straight ahead. "I have no doubt that you'll bring honor to the Rangers. And you'll do that all on your own. Look to your mother for guidance, but follow your heart. You've been blessed with a good one, David. It won't let you down."
David smiled – his mother's sad smile. "Something's going on. Something you're not telling me."
John didn't answer right away, and when he did, he avoided his son's observation. "I want to give you something," he said, and again he paused in his step. They had exited the gardens and were now walking down the streets of Tuzanor. Heads turned to look at them, but without John's Entil'zha robes, he looked just like any other aging human – and humans were becoming a more common sight on Minbar every day. Now they were standing near a park, and John crossed into the grassy retreat, beckoning David to follow.
"I used to bring you here to play when you were a boy," John remarked, stopping under a large tree. He looked up through the branches and smiled as his face found the sun. "You had so much energy, it was difficult to keep you inside. Even when it was cold, even when it rained… I brought you here, wrapped in layers of robes and overcoats… you'd splash in the puddles, you'd roll in the mud or the snow…" David watched his father curiously as the older Sheridan reminisced. "And every now and then, you and your friends would stage battles with one another in play, and you always insisted on being the Army of Light, the good guys. You were missing something then, in your play… something you will need as you go forward and those battles become more real." John reached into his pocket and produced a small metal tube, which he handed to his son.
David grasped it in one hand and ran the other over it reverently as he recognized it for what it was. "This is your denn'bok," he said quietly, still looking down at the tubular object he now held.
"But… won't you… don't you…"
"This is the fighting pike your mother first gave me when we first came to Minbar and my involvement with the Rangers became more hands-on and less tactical planning… and when my PPG seemed less of an appropriate every-day accessory." John again looked up through the branches of the large tree, squinting and smiling into the sun. "Before that, it was hers. Now I'm giving it to you as you… as you head out to find your destiny. I think you'll find that when you're far away from home… it's good to have something with you to remind you of those you left behind."
David met his father's eyes. "Valen said… a half-truth is worse than a lie," he said quietly. "Why are you giving this to me now?"
"Because it's the right time. Because you're ready." John paced a slow heel-toe path to the tree's wide trunk and leaned against it. "And because… I won't get another chance."
"What are you talking about?" David joined his father against the tree's trunk. They stood adjacent to each other, backs against the tree, in similar postures. David glanced at his father long enough to realize the older man was not looking back at him, but still up through the tree's branches and into the sun.
"I haven't told you a bedtime story in years," John recalled. "But… when you were a boy… your favorite… was about the Vorlons and the Shadows and the day they left for the Rim."
David laughed uneasily. He remembered, but he hated his father's evasiveness. It gave him a sinking feeling in his gut. "It was the story you told whenever I was afraid of monsters. You always started with… 'There are no monsters. Know how I know? Because I drove them away.'" He was old enough now, his voice deep enough, that his tone almost matched the one John had always used to say those words.
John drew his gaze out of the tree now and focused it on his son. "There is more to that story," he said quietly. "A part I never told you back then because… it wouldn't have made a very good bedtime story." Almost in unison, father and son sank down to sit at the base of the tree, each still using the trunk for support to keep them upright. John had always known this day would come, but his son was about to be blindsided. He had tried to soften the blow, but… news like this was difficult to swallow, even sugar-coated. David's brow was furrowed in confusion, and John felt suddenly very old and tired. "As you got older I… we… We felt it was more important that you be allowed to live as normal a life as possible. It was hard enough on you growing up, trying to figure out where you belonged, without… the rest. Now I think I owe you the whole truth."
"I don't understand."
"David I…" John swallowed hard, pushing down his emotion. "I have always told you to fight for what you believe in. And I stand by that. But one thing you will learn, something I can tell you but that only experience can teach you, is that… sometimes during those fights, you will be forced to make sacrifices for the sake of the people and the things that mean the most to you. It will always be your choice, but… sometimes, you will have to choose the more difficult path, the more painful path, in order to do what's right. And… almost 20 years ago, I went to Z'ha'dum, the homeworld of the Shadows, and I made one such sacrifice."
"You always said… you went to Z'ha'dum… and you dealt the Shadows a crushing blow. That after that, you lured the Shadows and the Vorlons to the Coriana system, and you and Mom gave them a what-for, and they left for the Rim." In disbelief that his father may have lied to him, David felt anger rising in his gut. "I believed you."
"And it's true. All of that… is true. But I never told you what happened, what exactly happened, when I went to Z'ha'dum. Think back. I told you I blew the planet to smitherines with two thermonuclear bombs."
"Yes!" David was crying now, tears falling freely, and he didn't even entirely understand why.
"Think, David. Forget what you think you know about life and death and think. I detonated those bombs from the planet's surface."
David's eyes went wide through his tears and he froze, eyes focused on his father. "I don't think I want to know the rest."
John bit his lip and looked down at his hands. He was quiet for a few moments. "OK," he said finally, and pushed himself to his feet. "Come on. There's something else we need to talk about." He started to walk away, and after a moment, David wiped his eyes and followed.
"I need you to do me a favor."
"Are you kidding me? After that? After-"
"This is important, David. Probably the most important thing I have ever asked you to do."
They had continued down the streets of Tuzanor and were now just blocks from the Ranger training facilities. David sighed lightly. "Anything." His voice was barely a whisper.
"It's about Dius."
David's thoughts shifted to Prince Regent Dius Vintari of the Centauri Republic. He'd lived in the Sheridan home for nearly eight years, and had only returned to his homeworld about six months prior. In his time in their home, he had become part of the family – an older brother figure for David, and a mentee for John and Delenn, who did their best to instill in him some very… un-Centauri beliefs and behaviors. They had encouraged him to join the Rangers, but in the end, he said, he could do the most good for his world if he returned home and prepared for the role he was expected to take. "He's… returned to Centauri Prime. He's safer there, with Vir in charge… I haven't heard from him in several months."
"I know." John sighed. "In roughly ten years, he will become emperor."
"How do you…?"
"How is not important." John paused. "I need you to keep an eye on him. For as long as you are both alive… don't lose touch with him. Watch him. Be aware of his activities, both on the record and off. And if he… if he starts to fall into darkness…" John looked away. "I made a promise that I would do my best to put him on a better path. And your mother and I made good on that promise, but I have no way of knowing if what we did was enough to stop him. Now I… I won't be here to make good on the rest of my promise if necessary."
"Your promise to what?"
Another lengthy pause, and then a quiet declaration. "To kill him."
David covered his mouth and staggered in his step.
"So you'll have to do it. The fate of everyone on Earth depends on it. Now… we may have done enough to turn him into the kind of person who won't… who won't create weapons of mass destruction, who won't turn those weapons toward other planets, but if we didn't… if his eyes turn toward Earth… you'll have to take him out in my place before he gets the chance."
"And I can't ask anyone to help me or tell anyone else about this."
David nodded, but then shook is head hard and turned angry eyes on his father. "Do you have any idea what it's like to be your son? Huh?" He exclaimed, and John guided him by the elbow off the path and behind a corner as they reached the training grounds. Away from prying eyes, David felt free to lash out, and he began to pace frantically. "Forget for a second that people expect certain things from me because you're my father. Forget the glances I get from everyone because I look different and because they all know why I look different. Forget that I'm the only one of my kind. I've dealt with all of that all my life, and it's fine. What gets me, what really gets me, is that… all my life, despite everything you and Mom accomplished before I was even born, before I was even thought of, it's as if you're still chasing some destiny. You say things to me that don't make any sense, you try to teach me lessons I don't begin to understand… why couldn't you just teach me your curveball and leave it at that?" David paused and met his father's eyes. John didn't speak. "And now you're telling me, without pretense or explanation, that I might have to kill someone who was a very good friend to me, someone you – you – brought into our home of your own free will. I have half a mind to think you're insane, and I think… I think it's about time I got some answers."
"All right." John nodded and put his hands in his pockets. "Remember what I said about always being prepared?"
"Didn't make a wit of sense."
"Yeah, well… Here's the thing about that. You'll think you're prepared. You'll think you're well trained, and you'll be out there with the Rangers, and then one day, you're walking down the streets of Narn and there's a Vorlon talking to you in your head. Or you'll fall asleep one night with space beneath you and suddenly there's a technomage in your dreams, yammering on about stopping the destruction of Earth."
"Technomages don't yammer. They—" David paused to give his thoughts time to catch up with his mouth. "Wait. Hold on. They're… real?"
"As real as you and me. And you, unfortunately, because of who you are… I know you want to find your own way, but you're going to have to accept that some of this might be inherited. In particular one nutcase named Galen. He's popped into my head twice uninvited, and both times he did most definitely yammer. He's… he's the one who told me about Dius."
"You sound crazy, you do know that."
"Uh huh. And it's about to get worse." John looked upward toward the sun again, still talking to his son as he leaned against the crystal enclosure that was the Anla'shok training center. "Remember when you said you didn't want to know the rest?"
"Well, now I'm going to tell you the rest, whether you want to know or not. See, another thing I've learned that I can tell you but that only experience can teach you is that… the impossible… is always possible. You look for the signs and the portents, you listen to your dreams, and you believe… and 'impossible', and other damning terms just like it, become subjective. Terms like truth… and sacrifice… and… death."
"Death is subjective?"
"Yeah. Yeah… it is." And John began to talk, for a long time, uninterrupted. He talked about Z'ha'dum and the fall and his death and finding something worth living for. He talked about carrying a Vorlon around inside his head for almost six months. He talked about Sinclair who was Valen; about Anna who was a Shadow Agent; about Lorien the First One who gave him back his life; about Galen the Technomage; about Lyta the Doomsday Weapon; about other things that didn't seem possible and yet… they were. And his son watched, and listened, and banked away everything unbelievable that his father was saying – for later use or for evidence to have the old man committed to an asylum, he wasn't sure yet. Either way, he knew this was all very important… and so he hung on every last word.
It seemed John had finally run out of words. He didn't end the conversation… he just simply stopped talking and looked up again at the sun before he began to walk again, headed toward home.
David followed, his simple question the only one he could think to ask, phrased in the only way he could think to ask it.
"I was bargained… 20 years. And I really do feel I've made the most of those years. If I could do them over again, there is very little I would do differently. But now… when you leave for your mission I…" For all the talking John had just done, he suddenly seemed incapable of words. They had been conversing all morning in English, but there was no word for 'goodbye' in Minbari, and years of not using the word made him incapable of saying it now.
"Entil'zha veni," David declared stoically. He faced his father, rooted to the ground where he stood. John stopped, too, surprised by the declaration. "In Valen's name, I will honor you… until we meet again."
Tears threatened in John's eyes for the first time since their journey began. Now it was almost over, their circle nearly complete back to the beginning as they could see IA headquarters, and by association, their home, on the horizon. For all that he had set out to teach David when they'd taken their first steps this morning, John suddenly felt that perhaps he was learning some final lessons, as well.
"I only hope that when that day comes, I have done enough to make you proud."
"Oh, David." John shook his head ferociously, still bravely holding back the tears. "You… you have made me proud… every day. And earlier, what you said about wanting to find your own way, to figure out who you are… you have no idea how proud I was to hear you ask that question. It's the most important question there is, and I sincerely hope that wherever your journey takes you, someday, you find the answer."
David squinted against the sun's rays as the pair reached the intricately carved crystal steps that led up to the grand entry of IA headquarters. They faced each other. "Did you?"
"It took me most of my life, but yes."
"And who… are you?"
Images flashed across his mind in a montage. I am John Sheridan – son of a diplomat, son of a farmer; hero to Earth, traitor to Earth; warrior, priest; Starkiller, Entil'zha; soldier, politician; peacemaker, rebellion leader; son, father; dead, alive; widower, husband; I am the One Who Will Be… I am the end of the story. But all he said, as his gaze sought the sun's light, which warmed his face and brought forth his smile, was, "I am the sum of everything that has brought me here, to this moment, with you. I am all that I will ever be. You, on the other hand… your journey has just begun."
David watched. He watched as his father seemed to make eye contact with the beams of sunlight that made him turn his own face away after only a few moments of bright contact. He watched John Sheridan grow older and wiser right before his eyes. He watched, and he knew… everything they had talked about today was true. His journey began now; his adventure, his life, began with this sendoff. The world belonged to him, and it was time for him to write a story of his own. Maybe he'd hear a Vorlon in his head someday; maybe… he'd hear his father. Maybe he'd kill Dius Vintari to prevent the destruction of Earth; maybe the Technomage Galen would find him, too. Maybe he'd live and die a member of the Anla'shok and nothing more. Maybe… maybe the possibilities, when there were no impossibilities, would take a lifetime to explore, and maybe that was the point his father was making.
"Don't be afraid," John said now, as though he'd read David's mind, and the young man startled back to reality. "Never be afraid."
A pause. "A little."
"For the first time?"
"No." John sighed and finally brought his face away from the sun. He looked at David. "Maybe that's something you'll have over me, when history remembers you. And it will remember you. I have no doubt about that."
"I'll miss you."
"Unnecessary." John reached out and grasped his son's hands in his own. "I'm a part of you. You carry me everywhere you go. And… as long as you're here… I'll always be here." He held the younger man's gaze for a moment longer before releasing his hands and walking past him, up the steps and toward the double doors.
David did not follow. He had done enough following today. Instead, he walked back out into the courtyard and looked up at the sun overhead, shielding his eyes, squinting… trying to see what his father had been looking for all day. There was nothing but the brightness and the warmth of the rays.
Maybe that was all it had ever been.
David couldn't wait to find out.