VI: When a Plan Comes Together
Jim had made it through the whole nightmare of Pilgrimage Day- the explosion at the portal, the hasty triage, the desperate rush back to the colony to try and cut off the invaders, the skirmish and retreat to a defensible position when they discovered they'd been outmaneuvered- all of it without once veering out of professionalism, despite the desperate urge burning in the pit of his stomach to check Taylor over, every inch, and make sure he was really in one piece under all that scuffed armor and Commander attitude.
It was irrational, Jim knew, but he'd never exactly been accused of being rational when someone he cared about was in danger. The minute the camp was secure and they were shrouded from the soldiers' sight by the camouflaged walls of the command tent, he reached out to flatten a hand over Taylor's chest, stepping close enough to watch the way the other man's pupils dilated.
Deeply and without reason, right. Caught in his own noose.
"Shannon. What...?" Taylor blurted, scanning his face in concern.
"That was damn close," Jim said, voice shaking as he remembered the moment of the explosion. "If either of us had been out there when that bomb went off..."
They'd been close enough to the portal as it was; when the seventh pilgrim had detonated his vest on arrival, it had rocked the rover they'd been stationed behind, half-deafened them both, and left them covered in bruises and scratches from flying debris. The soldier who'd emerged from cover to guide the sixth pilgrim to the med tents had been killed instantly, and the girl he'd been escorting had been so severely injured Elisabeth hadn't been sure if she'd survive.
That could so easily have been him. What if he hadn't confronted Josh when he did, and Mira had gone through with her agreement to put Kara on the Eleventh Pilgrimage? Her contacts would have known what the girl meant to his family. He wouldn't have put it past them to use her to draw him from cover before sending the suicide bomber through.
Or even from targeting him in some other fashion. He still wasn't entirely comfortable with functioning as Taylor's alternate SIC when Wash was busy, but half the colony seemed to think of him as Taylor's new right hand already, and that could only make him a more valuable target to the enemy. If the assassin had been carrying, say, an RPG instead of a bomb... things could have gotten very, very messy.
Taylor swallowed. "Can't say I was expecting them to blow the portal," he said, gruffly. "But we both knew something would happen." He stood still for a moment longer as Jim brought up his other hand to skim both palms over the black matte surface of the body armor, seeking out the fastenings; then he stirred and reached up to snag one of Jim's wrists, plainly uncomfortable with the contact.
"Right," Jim said lightly, tugging his wrist free to get back to his self-appointed task. He made quick work of the central zipper, tugging it down with soot-darkened fingers as he vented the rest of what he'd been thinking. "That's why you wanted me sitting right next to you, where a lucky shot could have taken us both out."
"It was a risk, yes, but no more so than our being there to begin with. We were always going to be fighting a retreating battle. And I can undo my own damn armor, Shannon," Taylor said, temper flaring, grabbing for his wrist again as he moved to push it off the man's shoulders.
"Taylor," Jim replied carefully, turning his hand in Taylor's grasp until they were both clasping each other's forearms. "Nathaniel. I know you can undo your own damn armor. But after what happened today... why in the hell would you want to?"
"And what's that supposed to mean?" Taylor replied stiffly, the muscles in his jaw working in concert with the tense lines around his eyes.
Jim took a calming breath. Taylor was a paranoid bastard, as Jim well knew- but he was also nearly as impulsive and passion-driven as Jim himself, if something disrupted his iron control. It just remained to be seen if Jim could do so.
"You know what I mean. I can't possibly be any clearer about how I feel; even my son has noticed, and believe me, that was an awkward conversation. And I was under the impression that I wasn't alone in this. Wash all but told me to be careful with you."
Taylor's eyes widened, but he kept an impressively straight face for a long moment. Then he let his tight grip soften, dropping Jim's hand to flatten his palm against Jim's armor in an echo of his initial gesture. "Funny thing," he mused. "Your wife said much the same to me, when I first gave you that badge."
"I know," Jim snorted, letting his smile widen a little at the touch. "Believe me; I heard all about it. She's been teasing me ever since."
Taylor shook his head, then started echoing Jim's other gestures without another word, stripping the sonic-baffling, bullet-deflecting pads away to join those already on the floor. When the last unstrapped holster finally hit the pile, he let his hands settle on Jim's shoulders, studying his face with narrowed, wintry eyes.
The slight pressure of those callused fingers seemed to burn through the thin grayish-green cotton of Jim's undershirt, and he knew that they'd finally reached the do or die moment. It was going to be touchy, whichever way Taylor jumped; but then, what wasn't with him? The one thing Jim was sure of was that it would be worth every moment of effort. He had never meshed so well with another man in his life, both professionally and personally.
"I don't understand how you can do it," Taylor finally said, frowning.
"Do what?" Jim asked, skimming his own hands down over Taylor's black tee to settle on solidly muscled flanks. He'd never have guessed, if the outline of Taylor's bio hadn't been plastered all over every reference to the colony back in 2149, just how old the man was; he was fitter at fifteen plus years Jim's elder than Jim was. The idea of all that strength and focus yielding to his touch- well.
With Elisabeth, it had been her stubborn brilliance. And it didn't hurt that neither of them was difficult to look at. But in both cases, it was the challenge that really got Jim's motor going; it always had been. The challenge they represented- and their challenging him in return.
"Hold onto each other so- loosely, I suppose," Taylor frowned. "It's obvious you adore her, and she thinks the world of you. But I've noticed she spends at least an evening a week with Malcolm- and, well. You're here."
He sounded more confused than offended, just as Wash had predicted, and Jim smiled, ruching up the hem of Taylor's shirt with seeking fingertips as he formulated his response.
"Ah. It's not for everyone, I guess. But- we come from pretty different backgrounds. Remember what I said about her parents? Yeah. She's dome-born, I'm not; she went to college. I didn't. Her family's religious, mine wasn't. We had to make a lot of compromises when we first got together. But one of the things we both agreed was that marriage is only a prison if you build it to be. We vowed for better and for worse, 'til death do us part; not cleave only unto, and we meant every word."
"I don't think I could ever have agreed to that with Ayani," Taylor admitted, the taut skin of his abdomen jumping a little under Jim's touch as he lifted his arms to shuck the shirt off, then tugged at Jim's. "She was my refuge, my safe harbor; the day the Somalis forced me to choose between her life and our son's killed something in me as surely as it did Lucas."
"Different people," Jim shrugged, breath coming quicker as his blood rose. "Different needs. Different circumstances. I'll be honest, I have to fight not to be jealous sometimes myself; but I know Elisabeth will always come back to me. And there are, hmm. Some benefits to the arrangement, I think you'll agree." He reached out, fingers drawn to one of the scratches that had made it past Taylor's body armor, and gently stroked a thumb over the reddened line.
Taylor took a sharp breath; his eyes had darkened considerably in the last few moments, dilated wide with arousal in the low light. "Yes, I can see that," he drawled, amused. Then he returned the gesture, seeking out each purple-black mark of discolored flesh along Jim's ribs, each seeping line of torn skin where something had struck between the panels of his armor, and marking them with his own touch.
"Well?" Jim chuckled, a deeply seated tension he'd been carrying around for months starting to uncoil at last under Taylor's appreciation. "What's your verdict. Think there's enough of me to go around?"
Taylor huffed a laugh, on the verge of giving in as he stroked the line of a bruise over Jim's hip. "Well, if Elisabeth doesn't object, and even Wash is throwing me at you..."
Jim chuckled, then sobered a little, stepping back to put a little space between them before things went any farther. He'd promised to keep Wash's secret- but that didn't mean he couldn't, or shouldn't, drop a few hints before they took an irrevocable step. "I wouldn't say throwing. More like, willing to make the same kind of allowances my wife is. If you're interested."
Taylor went still in surprise, eyebrows raised at the implications. "But Wash and I aren't..."
"Maybe not now. But like I said- I talked to her." Jim shrugged, still keeping the tone light. "Key thing, here: honest communication with all adult parties concerned."
He was treated to the entertaining sight of Taylor's cheeks taking on a distinctly reddish hue, before he stopped himself, glancing aside. "Just how much did she- no, no don't tell me. I doubt she had much to say that I'd care to hear. I haven't exactly been the best of company since I killed Philbrick- and I didn't even do her the courtesy of telling her why. She's the best second a man could ask for; and she's a hell of a woman. But I just couldn't..." He shook his head, at a loss for words.
"You'll have to talk to her yourself, but I'm pretty sure she understands," Jim replied. "Just because Philbrick didn't succeed in knocking you off didn't mean she might not have ended up having to answer to some other Commander anyway. There's no chance of that now that Hope Plaza is lost, though. There'll be no answering to anyone but ourselves from now on."
"Provided we win," Taylor allowed, letting out a long breath.
"Of course we'll win," Jim smirked, then dropped to his knees. Enough self-denial; that was a clear enough signal to satisfy his conscience, and he was only human. "We're too pretty not to."
It was Taylor's turn to hiss as Jim brushed his fingers lingeringly over the bulging zipper of his uniform pants- before reaching down to tackle his boots. "I'm not done with this conversation, Shannon," he managed, breathing unevenly as Jim made quick work of the task.
"Neither am I," Jim smirked up at him, then sat back and reached for the zipper again. "But there'll be plenty of time to finish it later, don't you think?"
That was the last coherent word either of them said for quite awhile. They only had a couple of hours before Taylor had to be up for his watch, and Jim the one after; and Jim was determined to make the most of them. He didn't think Taylor would regret it in the light of day- but he knew from past experience how therapeutic sex could be after a day of death and disaster, and he wasn't going to deny either of them whatever release they could find.
They didn't finish the conversation the next day, either; or the next, while they fortified their position and tended their injuries. One or both of them was always out with the patrols, on watch, or in meetings, and the few minutes they caught alone before or after meals or in their few overlapping hours of rack time were too short to spend on anything more emotionally taxing than reaffirming that they were both still alive. But Taylor didn't take a step back, either, and Jim tentatively took that as a positive sign.
On the third day, his wife finally got a message through to the camp, and the pace of activity picked up even more. Jim had taken a moment to slip her his comm before they left her and the other doctors with the wounded at the blown terminus, just in case, but he'd cautioned her to make absolutely sure she had a secure frequency if she had to use it. The Commander had taken to having the soldiers scratch the details for their code sequence on a batch of old-fashioned bullets before each exchange of fire with Lucas' hired mercenaries, and she must've finally gotten the message from one of the wounded that passed under her knife.
She was still alive, and free within the boundaries of the colony. And in contact with Wash, who had deciphered the message. But that was the only good news she had to share. Lucas and Mira had set up shop in Taylor's office, Malcolm was being forced to put new terminus equipment together, and the surviving Terra Novans only lived as hostages against Taylor's return. Twenty-six people had been killed in when the invaders broke in; added to the two Taylor had lost to Carnos, the deaths at the portal, and the fact that they'd only received six of the Eleventh's anticipated pilgrims, their overall losses were well over one hundred personnel and climbing. With the portal under enemy control, every life lost was a blow against the colony's continued viability.
Taylor wasn't the type to mourn overtly. But Jim picked up more than a few new bruises- enthusiastically earned- over the next several evenings in lieu of talking.
The days became a blur of skirmishes and retreats, planning sessions, messages exchanged with the nucleus of resistance growing around Elisabeth and Wash, and the endless tension of waiting for an opening. They nearly died when one of Skye's friends snuck out to warn them about a pyrosonic bomb Lucas had brought to clear-cut a nearby valley, and in any of half a dozen firefights after the kid snuck back with a fistful of trackers to plant on the enemy's trucks. The mercenary soldiers seemed to target Jim and Taylor especially any time they showed their faces, and they ended each day more exhausted and frustrated than the last.
And then the message came that Josh had got into a fistfight with Lucas trying to defend Skye Tate's honor, and proved that the situation could always get worse.
"Damn it. I should have been there for him," Jim fretted, pacing back and forth along the tree line while they waited for Wash to break his family out of the colony. Elisabeth had manipulated the mercenary leader into letting Josh out of jail, but Lucas' men had installed a fancy new perimeter detection grid since the invasion; if they couldn't find a way past it, the whole resistance would end up paying. He didn't fancy the odds of Elisabeth holding out if they threatened Zoe or Maddy to make her talk- and he wouldn't blame her.
"Of course my damn temper's genetic, and Elisabeth said he's been on a slow boil ever since they taunted him about never getting to see Kara again. I should have been there!"
"Then you'd just have got yourself in trouble too," Taylor growled, clapping a hand on his arm, and handed over his binoculars. "There's movement between those containers along the fence. Looks like they're on their way."
Jim swallowed and focused the image, zooming in on the face of his eldest daughter peering toward him around a corner, lit briefly by the flare of a search light. He held his breath for a moment, drinking in Maddy's worried features- then winced as the small screen abruptly whited out. He jerked his head back to see a column of flame in the ring of buildings behind her. "What-?"
"Must've needed a distraction to get out," Taylor said tersely, taking the binoculars back and refocusing along the fence. "There they come. Dunham? Bring them in."
Jim shifted, wanting to be the one to bring in his family- but Taylor was no more going to allow him to expose himself there than he had back at the portal. He threw Jim a sharp glare, and kept a hand on his arm until his family arrived. Luckily, it didn't take very long.
Jim wrapped his arms around his wife and buried his nose in her hair for several seconds, then dragged in each of his kids, spending an extra jaw-clenching moment with Josh when he caught sight of the boy's fresh wounds. Taylor, beside him, had broken his reserve to clutch a disheveled-looking Wash close and brace his forehead against hers; but it only lasted for a few breaths, while Wash choked out the story of how Boylan had insisted on staying behind to catch the blame for disabling the grid.
"I'd have done it myself, but he insisted. Like I ever needed anyone to play the strong man for me," she snorted- but Jim could hear the suppressed grief in the words, and it finally dragged his attention back to what was going on around them. Boylan was nobody's favorite person, except for the few drunks and gamblers in the colony, but he'd been an essential part of the resistance, and he'd just put his life on the line for Jim's family.
An echoing shot rang out, and Wash flinched, bracing herself against Taylor's chest as his incipient question was answered.
No other questions were aired that night; instead, Jim slept wrapped up in Elisabeth's arms, while distinctly more feminine curves moved against the lamp-lit walls of Taylor's tent, much to the evident surprise of several of the soldiers. No one said a word aloud to any of them, though. Not even Reynolds, who was incredibly obvious in his attempts to sneak a few moments with Maddy in tree-screened corners of the perimeter Jim had previously explored with Taylor.
Maybe they all felt the same way Jim did: that there'd be time to settle the future after they were sure there would be one. In any event, the only changes to the camp's routine were the added contributions of their new residents. Elisabeth had acquired new edges in her time behind the fence, and she and Wash had picked up the disconcerting ability to practically finish one another's sentences; they joined in on the planning sessions with enthusiasm.
Finally, Malcolm transmitted word that he'd finally put the finishing touches on the terminus, and Lucas' men had lined up a shipment for 2149. The best strategy they had come up with was to swap one of their trucks for one of Lucas's- a truck containing an agent who would sneak through to Hope Plaza and sever their link to the future for good. It was the only way any of them could see to give themselves a fighting chance before even more invaders could come through. It was practically a suicide mission, though- and therein lay the problem.
They all knew who the best possible choice would be, but none of them wanted to give the order. The agent would have to first wait for someone to open the truck; wake the Carnosaur; somehow evade it as it rampaged through their uptime welcoming committee; plant a bomb to blow the particle accelerator; and make it back through the portal before the explosions shut it down for good, all without getting caught by any guards. It would be a tall order for anyone. Much less a man some might see as Wash's professional and romantic rival.
God only knew what the rumor mill would make of the situation. But it had to be done. And Jim was the one who knew Hope Plaza best, and that was that. If either of them let personal relationships or public opinion alter their behavior, then they really would be letting Taylor down, and they both knew it. He smiled at Wash, and volunteered without hesitation.
Elisabeth understood too, he knew. All that remained was to clear the air with Taylor. He waited until the time came to be sealed into the stolen truck's container, then drew the Commander aside for one last private moment. Elisabeth gave him a knowing look as he waved Taylor over, then pressed the syringe of stimulant into his hand with a quiet word of instruction and gave him a shove; Taylor followed along with a puzzled frown.
"Last minute second thoughts?" Taylor asked, brow furrowed with concern, the moment they were screened from casual observation. "Dunham volunteered, too, you know."
"Nah," Jim shook his head. "We all know I'm the best one for the job. It's just, there was that conversation we never managed to finish..."
Taylor's frown escalated into a thunderous scowl. "It's waited this long, it can wait 'til you get back," he said firmly, as if daring Jim to say otherwise.
Jim was briefly taken aback, not sure whether he had meant that to be encouraging or discouraging- then snorted. "Ah, fuck it," he said, and hooked his hand around an edge of Taylor's armor, dragging him close.
Who needed conversation, anyway? They were both guys, after all.
Taylor chuckled into the clash of mouths, then sank his teeth in Jim's lower lip just enough to leave a sting before pulling away. "Fuck it," he agreed, then swatted his shoulder with a glint in his eye. "See you in a few hours, Shannon."
"Aye, aye, Commander." Jim grinned, tossing off a casual salute, then turned himself over to Corporal Reilly's brisk care.
His lip was still slightly swollen when he stepped back through into a clearing outside Terra Nova hours later; and he was still smiling when he walked through the gates of the liberated colony, greeted by his children, his wife, her boyfriend, his boyfriend, his boyfriend's warrior fiancée, and all the others who made up their community.
His community. His home. Built stronger on those bonds of connection than Jim had ever found back in polluted, oppressed Chicago. Lucas Taylor really was crazy, to have willingly cut himself off from that in rejecting his father.
Then again, maybe he did understand in his own, warped way. Hate wasn't the opposite of love; it was the other side of the same coin. Too bad- for him- he'd run out of minions with similar motivations between bringing the Sixers through and hiring Weaver's profit-focused soldiers.
Because it wasn't greed that had driven the Terra Novans to defeat their opponents, any more than it drove Mira or Lucas.
No. It was something a good deal more dangerous.