Author's Notes: I almost didn't post this, because it was too close to my heart. But I figured that since all my stories come from my heart why should I hoard one away. This is a follow up to "Toy Soldiers" but does not attempt to explain Herrick's fate. It's just a conversation between friends. I could not leave this episode on the battlefield and though "Dear Earth" was helpful in mending the wound, I couldn't help wondering how Nathan got to where he was in that episode. "Toy Soldiers" for me was about the grief of growing up, loss of innocence, and letting go. And to some extent the senseless devastation of war. Marilyn Osborne did a wonderful job with this episode; as painful as it was, at least it was great storytelling.

This is the second in what I hope will be a "Verses" series of stories; missing scenes or scenes spawned by events in a certain episode of S:AAB. Disappearing Act (during "Who Monitors the Birds") is the first and I'm working on a third. Since the fanfic list seems to have worked out it's kinks, for now, I'll repost "Disappearing Act" for those who might not have read it

Standard Disclaimer:This is a work of amateur fiction not meant to infringe on copyrights held by Twentieth Century Fox Television, Hard Eight Pictures, Inc or anyone involved in the making of the TV series _Space: Above and Beyond_. The song lyrics for "Covered in Roses" were borrowed with love from the brilliant band (despite their goofy name ;-)) Toad the Wet Sprocket. No infringement was intended. Whatever its fate; Space: Above and Beyond will continue to live in our imaginations. Thank you Glen, JamesW., Morgan, Kristen, Rodney, JamesM., Lanei, Joel, and Tucker.

VERSUS:
From DISTANCE TO RELEASE
by
Paula Sanders




When this boy
Becomes a man
Then you will know
"Covered in Roses"
by Toad the Wet Sprocket ©1988


Another routine mission for the books, another boring debriefing suffered through.

The 58th Squadron scattered about the orientation room, breaking up into small groups, chatting, as usual. One member hung back, fussing with his notebook, deliberately taking his time shutting it and sliding the pen into the slot. Nathan West's back was curved as he stood facing his seat, his eyes to the ground. There was a permanent crease in his brow. It had been there for days. Since Neil's death.

Shane Vansen watched as the others dispersed, heading out the door. Soon, only she and Nathan were left in the room, alone. As she stood there, barely breathing, not moving a muscle, watching Nathan, she wondered if he knew she still was there.

She couldn't shake the memory of the sight of Nathan cradling his brother's lifeless body in his arms, the desperation of it. He had done everything in his power, and then some, to save his brother's life. Ultimately, it had all been for nothing. They had been too late. She wondered at the guilt Nathan must be feeling.

Guilt was an easy, painful abyss to fall into. The questions repeated, undying. Shane herself wondered if there wasn't something more she could have done, to save those four young lives. But she knew they had done all there was to do. None of them had said anything on the return trip to the Saratoga. Nathan wouldn't let them offer him any words of comfort. Herrick had been secured in the rear of the ISSCV, away from them. The evac team knew the 58th and they knew the brass would want Herrick back in one piece. Nathan had just sat there, eyes fixed on the body bags, face drained of all color.

Shane forced her mind back to the present.

Slowly, Nathan's head rose and he gazed out of the window into the flight deck. It was dark; flickers of light from the instruments glowed, and the emergency lights cast eerie shadows over the deck. He spotted her reflection in the glass. She stared back at his.

A flash of panic and he spun, hurrying for the door.

"Nathan, wait," she called after him, hoping to stop him.

She succeeded but the eyes he turned on her seemed a reflection of her own.

She knew that haunted look in the depth of his eyes. He was bottling it up, hoarding his pain away. She had seen how distant he had become, more quiet then he normally was. And his entire body radiated sadness and grief. She knew what he was doing, she did it every day. But her grief had been dealt with, and dissipated over the years. Nathan had lost so much in such a short span of time; his dreams, his love, and family. She could only imagine how lonely he felt out here.

Still, until now she had not seen that loss reflected so nakedly. The powerlessness that he felt at Neil's death had been a crushing blow. More so than what Aerotech had done to his dreams by removing him from the Tellus mission. Or the guilt she knew he must have felt for insisting that Kylen be the one to go on the Tellus mission. She knew what Nathan was feeling, having two younger sisters, she knew that protective streak, that overbearing, I'm-going-to-keep-you-from-making- stupid-mistakes- whether-you-like-it-or-not, behavior. She also knew from experience that sometimes you have to let go if you want to hang on to them. Maybe this time, though, she had been wrong. Neil West had died. This time, it wasn't like losing a race, or not going to *the* party of the school year.

"What do you want, Shane?" Nathan asked, his voice tired and defeated.

"I...." she suddenly felt at a loss for words, but forced herself to find them. "Look, I know you don't want to hear this from any of us, but I'm sorry about Neil."

"Fine, thanks. That's great. I'll send my mother your regrets," he spat. "I'm sure that will make her feel so much better about losing her son."

"Dammit! You're impossible, Nathan," she threw back, hands on her hips. "I'm trying to help. But, as usual, all you can do is lash out. If this is how you always react, I don't know why Kylen ever put up with you."

She knew her words would hurt and that she had a nasty habit of speaking before she thought, ending up with her foot firmly lodged in her mouth. She instantly regretted them when she saw his body give a slight jerk, as if her words had physically hit him. Maybe they had. He turn stiffly, injured, and headed for the door.

"Shit," she muttered, one hand rising to her forehead. "Nathan, I'm sorry." She reached out to him. "You know I didn't mean it. God, I'm an idiot."

"No," he said, his back still to her, but at least she had stopped him. "I deserved that. Thanks for caring. I just wish...... you didn't have to say those words."

"I know." She softened again. "Are you okay?"

Dammit, that was the lamest question she had ever asked, but she didn't know what else to say. She never expected an answer, at least not an honest one.

He nodded, but she could almost hear the reply that lay hidden in his eyes, *But you won't believe it. Just please let me go.*

"Nathan, you're always there for everyone else, let me be here for you."

He remained silent, but she could detect the tightly contained emotions in his entire body. It seemed a permanent state for him, ever since she had met him that hot, humid day on that tired, old bus.

"Why did you enlist?" she'd asked, trying to strike up a conversation.

"I just did," he'd replied coldly.

Her first impression; not very promising. She had no idea then what she'd find under that cold, protective exterior. Beyond that she had found a sensitive, loyal, fiercely protective, stubborn, and yes, passionate person; someone who's friendship she valued highly. He was there when she needed him, always seeming to know when to hang back and when to kick her. They had become a team, learning to anticipate each other, learning to detect when the other needed someone to put his or her back up against.

She had been able to feel Nathan's fear for his brother and those other soldiers under Herrick's command. But she had to think of their squadron and what was best for the mission. She had done her best to keep Nathan's ass in line and safe. He wasn't going to do anyone any good by running off and getting himself killed. Was he angry at her for keeping him down in that fox hole? She didn't care. All she cared about was that he was here; safe and alive. That it wasn't any of the 58th who had been out there, being gunned down by Chigs. She knew that was selfish but it was honest. Those young, green soldiers had lost their lives foolishly, and she and the Wild Cards had done everything they could to protect them while knowing that they had to keep themselves alive.

"Listen, Shane. I don't need this, okay." His voice was taut and angry.

"I think you do," she returned.

He nodded, a few short bobs of the head, pressing his lips together and looking away from her. She shifted uneasily, wondering how she was going to get through to him. There was no one here he trusted with his feelings. She knew that. Kylen had probably been the only one he had ever trusted enough to let share his grief. He hardly ever talked to the 58th about anything but the mundane. None of them really opened up to each other, but they didn't hide. And that is what Nathan was doing. He was hiding from the people whom he needed the most. Thinking he was strong enough to handle his grief by himself. As Honcho of her squadron Shane knew this distance could jeopardize the cohesion of the group. That was unacceptable.

"Nathan, if you keep on like this," she began. "One day it's going to blow up in your face and then where will we be?" She stepped closer to him, seeing the recognition in his eyes, he knew the ploy but he was letting her get away with it. "You are pulling away from us. And I can't have that. The Wild Cards are a team, thick and thin. We rely on each other." She stopped, a nervous grin toying with the corners of her mouth. "Haven't you heard this speech enough? You probably don't need it again. But remember, duty comes first, Nathan."

"What do you think I've been doing, Shane?" he shot at her angrily. "I've flown the mission. I followed the orders. I haven't failed you, yet."

"Yet.... That's the key, Nathan." She jabbed a finger at him. "How do I know you won't go off on me?"

"I won't." His face was determined, his stubborn jaw set. "You can trust that."

"I'm not sure that I can. Not if you keep bottling up this pain."

"The loss of my brother has nothing to do with my ability to get the job done."

"I think it does," she softened and he nodded with a long sigh, walking away from her. This time he didn't head for the door, but back into the room. She turned to follow him. "Nathan, I've been where you are. Remember Icarus? Who was the one who got me to step back and see the bigger picture?"

"Yeah, sure you listened to me," he scoffed. "You blew that AI freighter all to hell. That's not such a great example, Shane."

Levity - oh, when he got flirtatious how her resolve would weaken - she saw the corners of his mouth quirk, but the light mood didn't reach his eyes. *Nice try, Nathan.*

"If I weren't just as stubborn as you, you might have been able to shake me," she told him, returning a playful smile. "I know you think I can't understand what you're feeling, but I do.....at least a little. I have two sisters and I don't know what I'd do if I lost them. I'd probably go crazy. They're the only family I have. At least Neil's death meant something."

In the space of a micro second, the pain in his eyes grew in infinite measure; anger etching his features, lighting fire in his eyes. A sickening wave crashed over Shane, nearly washing out her strength.

"His death was a waste," Nathan spat. "If you think it stood for anything you're fooling yourself."

"Your brother stood his ground, Nathan. He held his position. Neil would want you to be proud of that." She had moved to stand by his shoulder. She could feel the tension in his thin frame, heard the shaky breath he let out, the anger gone replaced by grief, loss, regret.

"If I hadn't tried to hold him back....."

Her hand was gripping his sleeve, even before she knew she was doing it.

"No," she said swiftly. "You did what you had to do. And Neil did what he had to do."

"All I wanted to do was protect him."

"And all he wanted to do was prove himself to you."

Nathan's breathing became shallow, quickened, as if he were hyperventilating. She panicked, feeling miserable. She had never intended to do this to him.

"I gotta get outta here," he gasped, spinning away from her and hurrying blindly for the exit.

Shane stood there, impotent, desperate, as Nathan rushed away, but he didn't get far. He lurched up the steps, colliding with the wall, leaning his shoulder heavily into it, for support. Shane felt the sudden urge to be that wall, be his support.

"Fuck!" he breathed. "That son of a bitch!" The heel of his hand slammed into the wall beside him and as he turned, his forehead came to rest against it's hard surface.

Of it's own free will, Shane's body lunged forward at the outburst, but she held back. She and Nathan had always held a physical distance from each other. Neither understood quite why, it was just better that way. So, she stopped herself, before she got too close, and stood at the bottom of the steps, staring up at Nathan, stunned.

"Herrick knew just what buttons to push, exactly how to get what he wanted out of those kids." He had swiveled to face her again. "They didn't stand a chance."

The desperation and fury in that final statement stabbed deeply into her soul, and began to bleed. She would have strung Herrick up herself if he had been within her reach, if he were within her reach now. Four young men had lost their lives, four families had lost sons and brothers. Herrick had deliberately gone against her direct orders, and lead those four inexperienced soldiers to their deaths.

"No matter what I said, he swung around with his speeches to get them all fired up. I could've killed him for using Shakespeare to manipulate those kids."

An involuntary smile quirked the edges of Shane's mouth as she remembered the look in Paul's eyes when that asshole had quoted the St. Crispin's Day speech from _Henry V_. If looks alone could kill, Herrick would have been dead a million times over.

"Nathan," she began evenly. "You go up against a guy like that, a guy who thinks he's invincible, that he's going to make a name for himself no matter what the consequences, nothing you can say is going to stop him. We all tried. You and I talked our voices raw to try and bang some sense into him and his Marines. The only solace we can possibly take is that he learned his lesson... the hard way. And he won't be wasting any more lives."

"Why did the lesson have to be learned at the cost of *my* brother's life?" He asked, the anguish in his voice cutting into Shane.

She just shook her head, watching the tears glisten in his complicated eyes. He leaned back against the wall staring up at the ceiling. A short, painful laugh floated out of him.

"I would give anything to have Neil here, right now, chewing me out for treating him like a baby, for dragging him back to the Saratoga kicking and screaming. Ruining his reputation forever."

"I know," Shane sighed, her own tears tightening her throat.

"I was supposed to protect him."

With swift, careless motions, Shane let her feet carry her to him, and before either of them could stop her she had wrapped her arms around his shoulders, practically pinning him to the wall.

"Shane?" He struggled against her, trying to push her away, but she could not let go. He needed her, needed this physical support. She didn't do this kind of thing often and she believed that when she felt the need to offer it, she was right.

"No, Nathan," she whispered. "Let it go. Give it to me. I can take it."


"Give it to me. I can take it."

The words drove into him, deep into his core. Kylen had said those exact words to him, when he had been so grief stricken, but determined to shoulder that pain alone, over his maternal grandfather's death, just six months before they were due to leave for Tellus. That was when it had all suddenly hit him; how far away they were going to be from Earth, their homes and families. Who would be the next to die? How long after would he find out, robbing him of the opportunity to say goodbye?

He remembered Kylen's warmth, her soft voice, the way she had cradled him in her arms, caressing his hair and shoulders, the delicate, loving kisses she'd laid on his temple and cheeks. She had shared her own fears with him and her presence had driven away the pain. Her strength had always added to his own and visa versa. He felt so alone out here, been forced to rely on his own strength and the memory of her to get him through. As much as the 58th was his family, they would never be able to replace her.

Would that it were Kylen now who held him, helping him to chase away the grief and pain he felt, sharing the loss of someone she was as close to. She had always been considered a part of his family. Neil and John were like her own brother's. But she was far from here, far from his reach and had no idea of the tragedy he was faced with.

But there was someone here who did know.

"Give it to me. I can take it."

Shane's deep, hushed tones and Kylen's dulcet timbre mingled in his mind as he stopped fighting and wrapped himself around Shane, sinking into the support she offered. He wasn't alone, he didn't have to be.

He didn't want to feel pride at his brother's senseless death, but Shane was right. Neil had defended his position and died honorably on the battlefield. He deserved to be remember in that way. The void left in his life by Neil's sudden death would never be filled, but it could be accepted. Nathan faced the fact that he would never get to throw a football around with Neil, again. Never get to share an inside joke, never get to fight with or pick on him, again, but he did have the memories. He had twenty years worth of memories, he carried with him.

The End

Paula Sanders
1996