Author's Note: This is NOT set in the context of my other stories – it is, I warn you now, Ayani/Wash/Taylor, then just Wash/Taylor. I'm branching out here, a story that's been knocking around in my head for ages, one I was encouraged to write.
There is back story on Wash here. I intended that it be short, but that didn't happen. This one is long by my standards – I could have broken it up, but I like it all in one shot. This is a lot more introspection than you usually get from me, and a lot less dialogue – hope it's OK.
I'll be back to And Baby Makes? shortly. : )
Disclaimer is the same as always – don't own them, just borrowing, no profit here.
Alicia Washington adjusts her at least third-hand rebreather as she trudges towards the military recruiting office through a weak, dirty rain. It's not cold exactly, but she still feels a chill down to her bones. She'll be seventeen in a few days, and she's been on the streets for over two years now. The chill she feels is nearly constant. She honestly can't remember what it feels like to be warm.
When her mother, Grace, lost her fight with cancer two and a half years ago, Alicia was fourteen and officially completely alone. Since her father had died years earlier, and since she didn't have any extended family to speak of, no one stepped forward to take her on.
Life outside the domes was often capricious and hard on a good day, so given that Alicia was quiet and stayed out of trouble, no one seemed to notice the young girl without a guardian. Thinking back, Alicia guesses that she might've been put in a group home or some sort of foster care if she'd asked for help, but she knows that path would have been littered with potential abuse or neglect.
In the end, she didn't really make a decision, she just kept surviving. She floated from shelter to shelter, grabbing what sleep and food she could get. One bit of luck was the fact that her mother, a trained nurse, had made Alicia learn emergency medical care. She even taught her some basic diagnostic medicine. By the time she was ten years old, Alicia could tell the difference between the sound of a cold and the sound of pneumonia or TB; she could tell when an injury needed stitches or just bandages; she knew how to handle hypothermia or infection.
Those skills probably saved her life. Alicia basically spent her days moving through the same neighborhoods she used to frequent on weekends with her mother. Grace had worked at a clinic for a meager salary, just enough to keep them clothed and fed and to pay for their single room apartment. On the weekends, they went out to the neighborhoods to help where they could, and people gave them what food or other items they could spare in trade. Alicia has kept that up, and it has kept her alive.
With the explanation that Grace had adequate income without them, her father's death benefits from the military disappeared not long after his death. Grace tried to fight to get them back, but with no leverage and no counsel, she lost. Grace fought lung cancer for two years. She got minimal treatment from the charity hospitals, but it was barely enough to prolong her life even for a short time.
Alicia held her mother's hand as she breathed her last tortured breath. They came and took her body, and Alicia was left with nothing but memories and a small collection of clothing and keepsakes. She has yet to cry for the loss. She doesn't have time to break down, and with zero privacy, she can't show the world that kind of weakness.
From what was left, Alicia sold what little there was of value. All she kept was her mother's wedding ring and a silver locket that contained a picture of Alicia as a baby being held by her beaming father. It is one of only two pictures she has of him, the other a small photo from her parents' wedding.
Along with a dog-eared copy of To Kill a Mockingbird, her few photos and the jewelry live in a small plastic bag in Alicia's backpack. A med kit and the few clothes she has take up the rest of the space in the pack. She only has one pair of shoes, her heavy boots, and she wears them every day.
For the last six months, Alicia has visited the recruiting office at least three times a week, trying to convince the soldier on duty there that she should be allowed to join at seventeen. Without a signature from a guardian – which she obviously can't obtain – the minimum age is eighteen, and they have repeatedly turned her away.
She refuses to give up. She knows that her only way out of this monotonous hell that she lives in is to join the military, and she's not sure she'll be able to survive another year on her own. She is borderline starving all the time, and as a young girl, no matter how scrappy and strong she is, she'd be a fool to believe that she isn't vulnerable. Alicia may be many things, but a fool isn't one of them.
The bell on the door rings as she pushes it open, and the young soldier, at most five years her senior, looks up with a smile. Without speaking, he motions to the chair near his desk and goes and makes her a cup of weak tea. The flavor is minimal, but it's blessedly hot. As she takes sparing sips, drawing it out as long as she can, he says, "Alicia, you know I can't take you."
"You'll change your mind and help me find a way, Ryan." She speaks with a certainty she doesn't feel, but he'd never know it by looking into her determined face.
Whatever he might've said in the next moment is drowned out by a commotion in the street outside the small storefront. She hears shouting, and she and Ryan, Sergeant Myers, to be exact, exchange alarmed looks when the shouts are followed by gunfire. He pulls out his sidearm and says, "Stay here."
She nods but doesn't obey. As he heads out the door, she follows, hanging back a bit. From the doorway she can see two people, a man and a young woman, down in the street. The woman is near the sidewalk, but the man is out in the street and unmoving. Another shot rings out from their right, and Ryan goes in that direction, ducking in and out of what cover he can find.
Alicia's eyes follow him for a moment before going back to the man in the street. She realizes that all the usual foot traffic is gone, and then she sees a truck approaching. Between the rain and haze, she's certain that the driver doesn't see the man.
Without another thought, Alicia drops her pack and darts out the door. She is to the man in a matter of seconds, looping her hands under his arms and mustering all of her strength to drag his dead weight out of the street. The truck finally sees them, but it's a moment too late. Alicia barely gets the man out of harm's way in time. She wrenches her own shoulder and scrapes her face badly as they tumble backwards to the pavement.
To the sound of screeching brakes, Alicia turns the man over. He has a nasty cut to his shoulder, likely made by a knife, and a goose egg on his head. The latter injury explains his lack of consciousness, but the former injury is what could make him lose his life. As both Sergeant Myers and the truck driver get to her side, she's already barking orders.
"Ryan, get the med kit out of my pack, now! And get me something to put pressure on this." She turns to the driver. "Can you call emergency medical services and then check on the lady?"
They both immediately do as she asked, her sudden authoritative air removing any questions they might have has as to her capacity to handle this. She tears the man's shirt and uses the fabric to staunch the blood flow, and once she has the med kit, she cleans and puts gauze in the wound, packing it to stop the blood until the ambulance arrives.
Hours later, she sits in a hospital. The ambulance drivers insisted that she come with them to be checked out herself. She's fine, the scrape cleaned and a shot in her shoulder to stop the inflammation. But she's beside herself and as close to tears as she has been since before her mother's passing, because in the chaos at the recruiting office, she lost her pack – she lost everything.
Ignoring the sting in her shoulder, she wraps her arms tight around her midsection and wills herself to keep it together. Someone sits next to her, and she shifts away from them instinctively. She looks up in surprise when she hears a familiar voice. "I thought you might need this."
Ryan is sitting there, and he's holding her pack. She blinks back the tears and grabs it, holding it tight to her body as though it's a matter of life and death. She swallows hard and whispers, "Thank you."
"Are you hungry? I bet there's a crappy cafeteria here." He looks concerned, probably because he's really never seen her express much in the way of emotion.
She looks down at the floor, clutching the pack even tighter. "I don't have any money. I'll be fine, they'll probably have something at the shelter. But I don't know where we are; I've never been to this hospital before."
He's silent for a moment before standing. "Come on."
She looks up at him, confused. "Where?"
"Food, and then I'll take you home, er, I mean to where you're staying."
"I said I don't have any…"
"It's on me. I'm your guardian, after all."
She furrows her brow. "What are you talking about?"
"Alicia, if we're going to pull this off, you can't look confused when I say I'm your guardian. If anyone asks, we're distant cousins and I just found out about you. I'm looking after you, and I'll sign your paperwork. With skills like you have, I'm recommending you be fast-tracked into the field medic program. I talked to the emergency services guy. You saved that man's life twice – it was a street robbery, by the way – once by pulling him out of the street, and then you kept him from bleeding out."
He offers her his hand, and she tentatively takes it, letting him pull her to her feet. "I need to know how you learned to do that, because I need to be able to answer why you should go to the medic program. I also need to know more about you and you about me, so if we're questioned, we can answer with at least some degree of accuracy."
Hours later, as he's dropping her off at the shelter, she asks, "Why are you doing this?"
He eyes her carefully. "When you first started showing up, I figured you were just a street kid desperate for a way out. Then I thought the same thing, but thought there might be more to it. Now I know there is. I also saw your pictures, and maybe more importantly, your book." At her sharp look, he says, "I'm sorry, but I'm taking a risk here, kid. I had to be sure of you. I am now."
He ignores her question. "How long have you been on your own?"
She blinks. "Two and a half years."
He sighs and shakes his head. "You're seventeen on Monday, right?" At her nod, he passes her an envelope. "I ship out tomorrow. I've arranged for someone to pick you up at the recruiting office, his name is Tom Boylan, and he's a friend. He'll take you to processing. Your signed forms are there, along with my recommendation that you go in the medic program. One of the emergency services guys also wrote you a rec. Your guardian form is there too."
She can't hold back her smile, and when he holds out his hand, she takes it. "I don't know how to thank you."
"Just be OK. That's enough. You're quite a kid." He releases her hand and walks to his jeep. Before he pulls away from the curb, he gives her a wave. "See you soon, kid. Good luck."
She wants to say "you too," but she can't find her voice. She didn't know it then – is honestly glad that she didn't – but less than a year later, he'd be killed trying to shield a member of his unit from an RPG. She never saw him again, but she was notified of his death because of their claimed familial relationship and his attested guardianship. The day she received that black-bordered message was the first time she cried since before the death of her mother.
One Year Later
"Washington! We got wounded coming in. Get to the triage area and take a bleeder." Alicia nods to the doctor in charge. After six months at boot camp and two more months of specific field medic training, she was deployed to southeast Asia as part of what is essentially a MASH unit.
She's been here four months now, and she has two basic functions – one, she gets the soldiers who need sewing up and significant trauma care. She's just good at dealing with them. Her other function is odd for a medic, but when they're on the move, she's one of their snipers, something she showed a ridiculous aptitude for at boot camp.
She washes her hands and heads for triage. The first few wounded who come in appear to be minor injuries, and other medics take them. Suddenly, she hears loud complaining and grousing from a deep, gravelly voice. A moment later, a man wearing the markings of a lieutenant commander stumbles in, the sergeant attempting to support him being batted away. "I'm fine, Sergeant. Get back to the unit."
Alicia is momentarily confused, as the sergeant also wears the markings of a field medic. The man looks, at best, hassled, and at worst, completely pissed off. "Commander, you need to sit. I told you that."
The superior officer, who Alicia can now see has ghostly blue-gray eyes, turns back to the sergeant. He growls, "I said go, Wilkerson. Now."
The man rabbits, and the lieutenant commander turns back towards the group of medics standing there. Alicia can now see that he has one hand to his side, and his shirt is sticky with blood. The others look nervous, so Alicia just rolls her eyes and says, "Commander, please come with me."
His eyes rake over her, taking in her long black ponytail and lightly tanned skin from their recent walk here from the neutral zone, stopping when they meet her own amber colored eyes. "Are you kidding me?"
Her eyes narrow, and she points to a raised cot. "Believe me, Commander, I may be many things, but a comedian I am not. Sit and remove your body armor and shirt." His own eyes narrow, and before she turns to get her suture kit and other supplies, she rolls her eyes again while huffing out an annoyed breath and adding a less-than-respectfully intoned, "Sir."
If she didn't know better, she'd swear that he actually chuckled at that, and he does mumble, "Yes ma'am."
As she silently cleans and sutures what must be an eight-inch gash to his side, he eventually asks, "How old are you, Private?"
"Almost eighteen, sir." She doesn't look up at him, just keeps stitching.
"So you're seventeen."
"For three more days, sir."
"And how long have you been in the service?"
"My one year anniversary is my birthday, sir."
"Why in God's name did your family let you join up at seventeen?" His voice echoes his clear disdain for the idea.
She looks up at him, anger flashing in her eyes. The ache of Ryan's death and of her years alone shoots through her, but she swallows hard, refusing to let this arrogant, judgmental jerk see her pain. "My family is dead, sir," her voice twists with blatant disrespect on the "sir" this time, "And you're good to go. Keep it clean and try not to run into any more KA-BARs." She thrusts his shirt at him, tosses the bloody gauze in the trash bin and stalks away.
She gets to the back of the tent, stopping at the sink to rub angrily at her hands. She then goes out the back of the tent and paces, irritated with herself for letting the man bother her. She's been out there ten minutes when a hand on her shoulder makes her jump. She spins towards whoever touched her. "What the hell do you want?" She blinks when she sees that it's the lieutenant commander.
Before she can say anything, he holds up his hands. Quietly and with a small amount of amusement in his voice, he says, "Don't call me 'sir' again, at least not if you're going to say it as if you're actually saying 'jackass.'" She furrows her brow at that, wondering why he isn't yelling at her for insubordination. Even more puzzling, he then looks contrite. "I'm sorry for how I sounded, Private. My wife would kick my ass for being such a presumptuous S.O.B."
She's still a little confused, so she stays silent. He sighs. "I'm Lieutenant Commander Nathaniel Taylor. What's your name, Private?"
"Alicia Washington." He lifts an eyebrow, and she goes with her gut. "I didn't say sir because I still think you're a jackass, sir."
He breaks into a grin at that. "Touché, Private Washington." He looks thoughtful for a moment. "That's too much of a mouthful. Do you have a nickname?"
She winces; her mother always called her Allie, but she's not sharing that. "No sir."
"How do you feel about Wash?"
"Short for Washington, Private?"
"All due respect, sir, why do you need a nickname for me?" She challenges him with her eyes.
He grins again, and she's not sure whether to be amused or terrified. "Because I read your jacket and got you transferred to my unit. That idiot Sergeant Wilkerson just got shit-canned. Welcome to the field, Private Washington, well, make that Corporal."
"I need you to be able to boss folks around. Since you look about twelve, I needed to bump you up a bit. Consider it a field promotion. I can do that, you know. Now go get your crap and let's go, Wash."
"You're insane." At his raised eyebrow, she just huffs out a breath again and crosses her arms across her chest. "Fine, you're insane, sir."
He laughs and turns to leave. It seems to take him a moment to realize that she's just staring at him. "Coming, Wash? I'd hate to have to write you up for going AWOL on your first day with the unit."
"You're actually serious, aren't you?"
"I actually am. Where is your pack, Corporal?"
She shakes off the disbelief and heads for her small area of the large medical tent. She grabs her pack and shoulders it after stuffing her book inside. He stands by, watching, as she picks up her jacket. She examines it for a moment. "Sir, if I'm a corporal now, where are my new insignias?" She smirks at him.
He snorts. "Are you always this demanding?"
"I'm a regular pain in the ass, sir," she deadpans.
He snorts again. "I think I'm going to like having you around, Wash. Let's go."
Mind still reeling, she follows him out. She can't quite wrap her head around the idea that she's now a corporal – a seventeen year-old corporal. She suddenly gets a small smile on her face as she thinks about her mom, dad and Ryan. For some reason, the fact that she knows all three of them would be proud of her makes her stand just a little bit straighter.
What she doesn't notice is Nathaniel watching her out of the corner of his eye. If she'd noticed she would have seen the smile light his eyes at the sight of her own happiness. For him, he can't explain it, but the moment that she wasn't intimidated by him, the moment she all but told him to go to hell, he knew he wasn't leaving the med tent without her.
"Wash, why are you still here?" Nathaniel leans his head into her tent.
"Because I'm not going anywhere, sir?" She lifts an eyebrow at him. The unit has two weeks of leave, but Alicia is staying put. This little tent she has to herself – one of the perks of being the only female in the unit – is the closest thing she's had to a home since her mother died. She's fine with hanging around the next two weeks, reading e-books and some new medical journals she just got downloaded to her plex.
"Why the hell not?" Unbidden, he steps into her tent. She learned early on that boundaries aren't exactly his strong suit.
"Sir, where exactly do you think I'm going to go?"
He runs a hand through his hair. She's been with his unit now for nearly four months, and he has yet to figure her out. She's so damned quiet most of the time, keeps to herself, almost seeming shy. He looks at her, boots off, curled up on her bunk with a plex, and he makes a decision. "Fine. See you in a bit, Wash."
She nods, figuring he'll drop by before he heads out himself. Less than an hour later, he's back at her tent. "Pack up your stuff, Corporal."
She looks up in surprise. "Excuse me, sir?"
"You're coming home with me."
She stares at him, and when she doesn't move, he grabs her pack and starts putting her things in it. She crosses her arms. "I was right."
"Come again, Wash?" He keeps packing.
He barks out a laugh and plucks her plex from her hands, stowing it in the front of her pack. He hands her jacket – now complete with her corporal insignia – to her. "Boots on, Wash. Ayani and Lucas are waiting for us. And in case you want to argue, consider it an order."
She stares at him a moment longer, irritation settling deep in her stomach, but she complies. She already knows that you can't dissuade the man once he has made a decision. Moments later, she follows him out of the tent. They're making their way to the high speed transports to get back stateside when a voice rings out behind them. "Taylor!"
They both stop and turn. Nathaniel approaches the man who called to him. Alicia eyes him; she feels a flash of recognition, and she goes cold all over. Nathaniel shakes his hand. "General Philbrick. How are you, sir?"
"Good, Commander. And who is this?" The general motions to Alicia. Alicia stiffens, but neither of the men seems to notice.
"Corporal Washington." Nathaniel motions her forward.
She steps up and stands at attention. "Sir."
The general's eyes widen as he looks at her. "Little Allie? Jason Washington's baby girl?"
Nathaniel looks at her in surprise as she grinds her jaw. "Yes sir."
"He was in one of my commanders' units. How are you here and a corporal? You can't be more than eighteen."
"I joined at seventeen, sir." She keeps her face neutral and her eyes forward.
"Your parents allowed that?"
She can't keep her eyes from narrowing. "Dad died when I was eight, Mom four years ago. My guardian, also deceased, signed for me, sir."
"I didn't realize. I'm sorry to hear that, Allie."
She goes even colder. "Thank you, sir."
Nathaniel clearly senses her discomfort in the presence of his old mentor and friend, and it baffles him. Alicia is usually aloof, but she's rarely emotional like she appears to be now. He clears his throat. "We're heading out, General. Ayani invited the corporal home with us, so we need to hop the zero nine hundred transport."
"Of course. Take care, Taylor, and look after Allie." The general gives them both a nod and walks away.
Alicia starts towards the transports, Nathaniel close behind her. "Corporal, what was that about? And I thought you didn't have a nickname?"
She turns on him, dismayed by the tears forming in her eyes. She ignores his first question. "Only my mom and dad called me Allie. No one else. It's not his name to use, sir, it's not anyone's name to use."
He furrows his brow, feeling bad immediately. "I'm sorry, Wash. But what was the rest of that? I've never seen you that angry."
She's surprised that he realizes how upset she was. "It's nothing, sir."
"Bullshit, Corporal. Don't lie to me. That man was my mentor and is a friend. What did he say that was so bad?"
Her anger bubbles over. "He said he didn't realize that they died. That may be true about Mom, but it's horseshit about Dad."
He gives her a warning look. "Careful there, Wash. He's a general. How would he know about your father?"
She puts her shoulders back and looks him in the eye even as a lone tear escapes and leaves a track down her cheek. "Because he was the one who signed every letter denying my mother's requests that Dad's death benefits be reinstated. The military claimed that we had enough income without it, so they pulled the pension."
She takes a deep breath, and goes on, "We lived in a crap one room apartment outside the domes for years. We could barely afford food. Mom couldn't get the care she needed when she got cancer, and she died. And he just said he didn't realize Dad was gone. That tells me one of two things, sir, neither of which speaks well of him. Either he forgot or he never paid attention to whose lives he was ruining when he signed those letters. He has the balls to call me Allie, but he wouldn't give my mother the time of day. He can go to…"
"Corporal." She stops short, more tears in her eyes. He looks around to see if anyone heard her. No one seems to be paying attention to them, so he says, "I'm sorry. Let's talk about this at home, OK?"
He looks genuinely upset, and she realizes that it's on her behalf, not the general's. She swallows hard. "Yes sir."
They settle in side by side seats, in the officers' section of the transport owing to his rank, her in the window, him the aisle so he can stretch is long legs. He looks closely at her. She's staring out the window, still clearly upset. The crowd on the transport is pretty raucous, clearly happy to be going stateside, but the officers' section is empty except for them. He leans towards her. "Are you all right, Alicia?"
She ignores the question. As the transport lifts off, she murmurs, "My mom never flew anywhere her entire life. She and Dad met when she was a nurse on a base near where she grew up. She stopped working when she had me, because we had base housing. When Dad died, we lost that, and Mom had to take an awful job in a clinic. I went to the public school while she worked, and then we helped people on the weekends, basically trading triage for food or clothes. And even though we missed my dad and didn't have a pot to piss in, we didn't care. We had each other. But maybe if we'd had more, she'd still be alive." She turns wide, vulnerable eyes to him, clearly surprising him. "I miss my mom, sir."
He looks around to be sure they're alone, and then he reaches down and takes her much smaller hand in his. As his fingers weave together with hers, he says, "I know, Alicia." They pass the rest of the five hour trip in silence, something she appreciates.
Somewhere over the Pacific, she notices that he's asleep, still holding her hand. She smiles, and it dawns on her that, for the first time in over three years, she's no longer alone. That realization makes warmth bloom in her chest, and the feeling is so foreign, so forgotten, that she can't breathe for a moment.
Once she regains her equilibrium, she leans towards the window, marveling at thought of something he said earlier, that they'd talk at home. All at once she's terrified and excited, wondering what it might be like to have a home again after all this time. Stealing one more look at Nathaniel, an odd thought crosses her mind, one that truly surprises her. Home, now, is wherever this man is.
If Alicia was surprised by her feelings about Nathaniel, she's even more surprised by her feelings about Ayani Taylor. She and Alicia could not be more different. Lithe and blonde, light eyes like Nathaniel, the daughter of a relatively wealthy family. She is happy and optimistic, and she is open and friendly. Her only true commonality with Alicia is that she is as protective as a lioness when it comes to her family.
Alicia is intrigued and puzzled by Ayani from the start. Alicia's natural, cautious reserve around most everyone – except, inexplicably, Nathaniel – is no match for Ayani's determined joyfulness. She gives Alicia no room to keep her out; she simply crowds her until she lets her in. Over the course of a few different leaves over eighteen months, Ayani just bashes down her walls.
First, it's just by getting stories about her parents, then the story of Sergeant Ryan Myers, who, in Alicia's opinion, saved her life. Later, it's talking about Alicia's first boyfriend, another orphan in the shelters, and on about her most recent experience, a man from her medic training. She and Ayani sit in the sunroom on the house, knowing it's too toxic to sit outside, and they actually just gossip.
Sometimes, Nathaniel sits nearby. He'll read or clean his guns, pretending not to eavesdrop. He's there when Alicia tells Ayani of a recent rendezvous with the fellow medic, at a training they both had to attend. Even as Alicia confirms to Ayani that while it's nice, it's still just sex, Nathaniel huffs and leaves the sunroom.
Alicia looks at Ayani in confusion, but Ayani just laughs, taking Alicia's hand and putting her head on Alicia's shoulder. Alicia will never admit to the woman that she's secretly happy at Nathaniel's discomfort with her talk of other men. Deep down, Alicia has a shameful secret – she is completely and hopelessly in love with Nathaniel.
Like just about everything else in her life, she doesn't know when or how it happened. She won't act on it, has no desire to betray this lovely, gentle woman who has taken her in. In her heart, they both have taken up residence, though in different ways.
As the visits pile up, Alicia begins to refer to the Taylor house as "home." It's not a conscious thing – it just is. She has things in a cupboard in her room there, the first time since her father died that she's had an actual room of her own. Every time she comes, there is a new book on the nightstand, gifts from Ayani, often at Nathaniel's direction.
About eighteen months after the visits begin, it happens that Alicia ends up home before Nathaniel. He gets called to a command meeting shortly before they were set to leave; he tells her he will follow on the last transport of the day if he can, and if not, that he'll be there in the morning.
When Alicia gets there, the house is surprisingly quiet. Ayani greets Alicia with enthusiasm, and she explains that Lucas has started a new school, one inside a dome, a boarding school with a program difficult enough to challenge him. Ayani has dinner on the table and an open bottle of wine.
Somehow, doing the dishes turns into a war of soap bubbles and snapped towels. In the middle of the fray, Ayani does something that will stun Alicia to her core. She leans up and kisses her, not a platonic familial thing, but a passionate, fiery connection. What happens next, though, shocks Alicia even further – as Ayani's soft, insistent mouth plays over hers, Alicia suddenly begins to kiss her back, deepening the kiss until they are both dazed and breathless.
The next memories are a blur, but the aftermath is not. Somehow, Alicia finds herself naked, pressed against a sleeping, naked Ayani, and the most surprising part is that it feels comfortable and completely normal, as if this is how the world is meant to be. But under it, Alicia feels a short-lived sting of guilt over the notion that as nice as this is, it lacks the most crucial element. It lacks Nathaniel.
The guilt is short-lived for a simple reason. As Alicia stretches out with the smaller woman tucked into her side, she almost drifts off to sleep, but that sleep is interrupted by the creak of a footfall outside the door. Alicia is horrified a moment later when the bedroom door swings wide, revealing them to Nathaniel's gaze.
She tries to scramble away from Ayani, but Ayani, awakened by the sound of the door, holds her still. Instead of an explosion of outrage, Nathaniel drops his pack and simply smiles a Cheshire Cat grin, coming up to Alicia's side of the large bed and perching next to her. His eyes are a darker blue than she's ever seen them, and even as Ayani's hands trail up to Alicia's naked breasts, Nathaniel leans in and murmurs, "She finally made her move, I see," and then he presses his lips to Alicia's in a bruising, possessive kiss.
The next several hours are like heaven. Nathaniel makes love to her for the first time with his wife looking on, gently kissing and caressing Alicia's upper body. She later returns the favor when he makes love to Ayani, and she falls asleep, tucked between them, with both of them whispering vows of love in her ears.
After that night, nothing changes and yet everything does. Except when Lucas is home from school, Alicia spends every night of leave in the bed of Ayani and Nathaniel Taylor. At one point, she offers to stay in her room, to give them a night alone together. They both flatly refuse, and they both proceed to make it clear just how very wanted she is.
Those years all flow together. In the field, she and Nathaniel are as casual and sarcastic with one another as always. She frets over every injury he manages to sustain, nearly losing it when she has to put sixty-seven stitches in his side. That might seem suspicious to others, but the truth is that she fretted over him from the start. Even if their unit suspects something, they are fiercely loyal and protective of their leader and medic.
Over the years, Nathaniel is promoted to full commander, and Alicia his sergeant and eventually master sergeant. She is also the nominal 2IC of their unit, notwithstanding the fact that others there outrank her. When Nathaniel is injured or simply absent, they look to her. In the field, they are of one mind, moving with such fluidity that others can only look on in wonder. At home, they are the same, only Ayani flows with them.
Then, in a blazing hot summer in Somalia, the military deems it safe for families to come live on base. Alicia is worried, reticent to allow Ayani and Lucas there. The idea makes her slightly ill with concern for them, but he overrules her. Ayani and Lucas arrive there in July of 2138, but only one of them will see the end of the summer.
When the guerilla soldiers overrun the base, Nathaniel has been called away to a leadership team meeting. Alicia and the rest of the unit drop back, they get the civilians hidden as well as they can, but in the end it's not enough. By the end of the battle, Alicia has attempted to get the attackers to take her instead of Ayani. Most of the unit is dead by then, and Alicia nearly joins them. The soldiers pump three rounds into her before dragging the civilians away.
The last thing she remembers of that day is Nathaniel hovering over her as they load her on the medevac chopper. He looks broken, torn, and Alicia does her best to set him free, whispering, "Go after them, Nathaniel," before succumbing to unconsciousness. She is later told that she 'died' twice in the chopper, and twice they brought her back.
Outside of herself and Nathaniel, only two other members of their two-dozen plus person unit are still alive. Nathaniel avoids Alicia's hospital room, and Alicia can't help but think it's because she disappointed him by failing to protect Ayani and Lucas. Despite that, with the help of the other two survivors of their unit, she leaves the hospital AMA and attends Ayani's funeral.
As they wheel her into the service, Nathaniel's eyes meet hers. She knows in that moment that they are lost and yet found at the same time. He sits, broken, at the front of the room, and she is wheeled up next to him. His hand finds hers just as it had on that first transport home, only this time it seeks comfort instead of offering it.
It will be many long months before she sees him again. The months, for her, are lonely and painful. Her injuries end up requiring her to spend seemingly endless hours in physical therapy. When he finally reappears almost a year later, he still looks lost, but something else now burns in his eyes. He rescues her from her horrifying, monotonous desk job, and he makes her his 2IC and lieutenant for a mission that is crazy, even by their truly questionable standards.
Professionally, they return to what they once were – a seamless team, working with one mind. They don't even try to recapture what they were beyond friends. She still loves him, and she knows, deep in her heart, that he still loves her. But the pain of loss and crushing guilt are things they can't seem to face. They simply push it aside, relying on their innate bond to lead them to a place that works for them.
Alicia realizes that they've found it when they end up ripped apart again. Nathaniel walks into the past only to end up trapped there alone for nearly four months. When they're finally able to follow him, it's Alicia who goes through first and sets out alone to seek him out. When she finds him, he doesn't believe that it's her. He has had so many fantasy conversations with her and with Ayani and even Lucas that he simply assumes her to be another figment of his imagination.
It's only when he tries to walk away from her, and she takes him down by sweeping his feet that he believes her to be real. She's fairly certain that the subsequent hug she receives from him bruises a rib or two, but she's never been happier to be so damnably sore. Surprising her again, it's an embrace that speaks of their connection, and it's certainly an embrace of love – but not of passion.
In that moment, their new relationship finds its path. They fall into their easy rhythm, her borderline insubordination, his gentle mocking, but with no sexual undercurrent. She knows now that the undercurrent existed before, she was just far too young and inexperienced to see it. Now, when she'd know it on sight, it's no longer there on the surface.
It's enough for her, but she won't pretend that she's more than content. Despite their being punctuated by war zones, her years with Ayani and Nathaniel were almost ridiculously happy. This doesn't begin to approach that, but it's enough. They both seem to have found a measure of peace, and Alicia thinks that alone is something of a miracle.
But late at night, when she's alone in her bed or when she's prowling her small house, she can admit in the dark what she can't in the light. She misses him. She misses him like a lost limb, but she knows that they're both likely too broken to ever love anyone again, even each other. She does miss Ayani too, so much that her heart aches at the thought of her, but it's Nathaniel she longs for.
Over the years in the colony, there are moments when they must comfort each other. The worst one, the low point, is Lucas' betrayal. That it comes with a betrayal by Philbrick is a vindication of Alicia's dislike of the man, but that is of little to no comfort in the face of Nathaniel's anguish.
After that, he lets Tommy Boylan retire. He's here because Alicia saw his name on a list requesting a spot here and remembered him as the friend of Ryan's who came and took her to boot camp after Ryan was deployed. Nathaniel, more than a little familiar with the story, didn't object to her letting him join them.
Neither she nor Nathaniel seem willing to change things, to upset their delicate balance. Their friendship is deep, and they depend on each other entirely when it comes to work. The fact that neither of them date is well known in the colony. That doesn't stop people from trying, though.
Alicia gets frequent offers, and she has watched Nathaniel subtly rebuff many an overeager colony woman. So, when the harvest festival rolls around in 2147, Alicia can't help but be brought up short by something she witnesses. A newer female colonist, one who arrived last year with the seventh pilgrimage, throws herself at Nathaniel rather obviously. While he's usually quick to shut such women down, this night, he allows the woman to touch him, whisper in his ear.
When Alicia sees this and sees him not reacting as he usually does, her heart sinks. Pain so acute that it actually makes her cringe washes over her, and at that moment, Nathaniel looks up and catches her eye. The hurt and disappointment in her face must be clear, because he blanches and immediately heads in her direction. Alicia shakes her head and bolts out the door, and she's relieved when she hears Nathaniel waylaid by one of the men asking him a question.
She considers going home, but she knows he'll seek her out there. Instead, she climbs the steps to one of the guard towers. She did the duty rosters for tonight, and she knows this particular tower will be empty. As she sinks down against one of the walls of the tower, she can't stop the hot tears from sliding down her cheeks. The feeling of loss stings at her soul, even though she knows that they are no longer who they used to be.
When she hears boots on the stairs, she knows it's him. She tenses defensively at the sound of his worried voice. "Wash?"
She considers staying quiet, seeing if he'll move on, but she's no longer a young girl, and she won't indulge in that kind of immaturity. When she speaks she tries to bury the hurt, but she knows he'll hear it in her voice. "What do you need, Nathaniel?"
He enters the tower and approaches her carefully, almost as though he is afraid she'll run from him again. "What was that about back there? What got you so upset?"
If he doesn't know, she sure as hell won't be the one to tell him. "It was nothing, Nathaniel. You can go back to the party. I'm fine."
"Bullshit, Alicia. What was that?" He sounds irritated, and for some reason it enrages her.
She jumps to her feet and stalks away from him. "I'm so sorry if my failing to maintain my usual complete and utter stoicism put a damper on your night. I'm sure if you go back you'll be able to find someone to comfort you." She gets to one of the half-walls of the tower and stops, looking out into the dark moonlit night.
He sighs and comes up behind her, putting his hands on her shoulders. "Alicia…"
She wrenches away from him. "I'm fine. Please leave me alone."
"Not until you tell me exactly what's going on."
She remains silent, and the seconds of quiet stretch into minutes. She can feel him behind her, and she knows the moment that he steps away. It's in that moment, when he begins to walk away from her, that she cannot control the pain-filled words that escape. "It's supposed to be me." She hates herself for her need, for her brokenness. It's her fault Ayani died, so she supposes that it's only right that she be the one to end up alone and heartbroken.
"What?" He sounds genuinely confused.
She turns to him, and the moonlight only serves to make the tears on her cheeks shine. She swallows hard and places her cards on the table. "When you're finally ready, I'm supposed to be the one you move on with."
When he just stares at her, stunned, her heart breaks even more. She goes to move past him, but instead of letting her escape, he catches an arm and spins her into him. Before she realizes what's happening, his hands are in her hair and his lips crushed to hers. After several minutes, they pull apart, breathless. He presses his forehead to hers. "How long?"
"What do you mean?"
"How long have you been ready? It's been a while for me, but I didn't want to scare you off. You were always just slightly reserved, and I'd rather have you as my friend if the alternative is not having you at all. I'm sorry about the colonist. She was drunk and aggressive, and I didn't want to embarrass her. I never meant to hurt you – please believe that. There will never be anyone but you, Alicia. Ayani was my heart, but you, you're my soul. There never could be anyone but you."
She shakes her head. "How can we be so good at communicating at work and suck so bad at it when we're off the clock?"
He laughs quietly and takes her hand, leading her out of the tower. She entwines their fingers. "We should get back."
He squeezes her hand. "Yeah, I guess we should, but I have a better idea."
She snorts and lets him lead her. His destination doesn't surprise her, but the ease with which their connection is renewed does. Where she expected hesitation and awkwardness, there is only a shared sense of reunion and the notion that they are precisely where they should be.
After, they curl tight together, twisted up in the damp and rumpled sheets on her bed. When all is said and done, the only thing missing is the small woman who used to nestle between them, the force of nature protected by her soldiers. They've spoken of her little over the last nearly ten years, but somehow, returning to this helps them return to her.
He runs a hand through her hair. "She'd be pissed as hell at us, you know?"
She smiles, nestling into him, her head pillowed on his shoulder. "Because we waited this long?"
"Exactly." He falls silent before going on, his tone more serious, "I'm sorry for pulling away like I did, Alicia. I'm sorry you suffered through your rehab alone. Ayani would have kicked my ass for that."
"It's OK. I had a lot to come to terms with, Nathaniel. And I'm the one who owes you an apology." She looks up at him, and he looks confused. "It was my fault. I couldn't protect her. I even begged them to take me instead. I couldn't…"
"You what? You tried to get them to take you? Damn it, Alicia, how would that have been better?"
She's surprised by how angry the idea makes him. "At least your family would have been intact, Nathaniel."
"God, after all these years, you still don't see it, Alicia." He shifts, pinning her under him, making her meet his gaze. "If you were gone, we wouldn't have been intact. An Alicia-shaped hole in my life wouldn't have been any better than an Ayani-shaped one." He leans down, kissing her hard. "I've loved you since the first day in the medic's tent. Ayani loved you just as much. I admit that one of the reasons I've stayed away was that I thought maybe you'd been with us to be with her."
She blinks up at him, shocked. "Nathaniel, I did love Ayani, so much that it still hurts to think about her, but it was always you. That very first night, I was there with Ayani, and I felt guilty because I wished it was you instead. It wasn't that I didn't love and want her. It was that I loved and wanted you more."
He rolls back to his back, taking her with him, tucking her back into his side. He presses a kiss to her forehead. "You and I really do need to work on the communication on this stuff." She goes to sleep, truly happy for the first time since 2138, secure in the knowledge that she's where she should be.
By all accounts, everything they'd been through up until the eleventh pilgrimage should have been enough. They'd both had more than their fair share of heartache. It should have been someone else's turn. But fate and life clearly don't keep score, and so it was that Nathaniel had to watch as his own son pointed a gun at Alicia's head and pulled the trigger.
No amount of consoling from the youngest Shannon, satisfaction derived from the destruction of the portal or their retaking of the colony can stop the nightmares. Every night in his dreams, he watches Lucas execute her over and over again. Sleep becomes the enemy, and he avoids it like the plague, if for no other reason than because he can't bear the sight of her empty bed. Even so, her small house becomes his home, and he gives his house to a family displaced when their own house was destroyed in the siege. When he does sleep, it's often on the sofa.
He goes through the motions of rebuilding the colony, and to the casual observer, he is as he ever was. But to the few who know him well, they see the cracks and fissures of pain in his eyes, they sense the anguish. Most days he is fine, but some days he is drowning with no lifeline in sight.
But then, life turns on them again. Less than eight weeks after he watched Lucas shoot her, a rag-tag group of Sixers, led by none other than Carter, arrives at the gate in a Phoenix Group supply truck flying a white flag. Carter gets out and walks to the gate, hands raised, clearly unarmed.
When he talks to Nathaniel, he explains that the situation with the Phoenix Group had become untenable, particularly for the young. Mira stayed behind, hoping to gather intel, but honestly hoping more for Lucas to find a portal home, a portal back to her daughter. As much as Nathaniel hates to admit it, it's something he understands. Carter then says that he actually has something to offer in exchange for asylum for his little crew of a dozen or so men, women and children.
He makes a motion towards the back of the truck, and one of the Sixers lifts the flap. A moment later, his breath leaves him and he calls up to open the gate. In a flash of black hair and amber eyes, his world is righted again. In seconds, he is wrapped around her as she settles into his embrace, trying to apologize for not finding a way to contact him.
Instead of replying, he simply kisses her for all she is worth, and he then tells Carter to get his people to the clinic. He takes Alicia there as well, and Dr. Shannon tells them that Alicia's head is fine, that her intermittent headaches should subside soon. She then blinks in surprise and tells them that their twins are also doing well and, if carried to term, should be born in about six months or so. He marries her the next day, and it's almost a year before he allows her to be out of his sight for more than a few hours.
Five years pass, both eventful and quiet at the same time. Alicia and Nathaniel, by now used to things going in a surprising way, have just rolled with things as they came. Deciding that their numbers are too few to support punishment or ostracism, they just let the former Sixers blend into the colony. Even Mira eventually shows up, exhausted and heartbroken after finally accepting that she'll never see her daughter again.
The Phoenix Group and Lucas meet their end, mostly due to illness and starvation. For all of their firepower, they were ill-equipped to survive here. It's on an OTG trip that they encounter some of the few survivors, Lucas among them. He is raving and delusional, and his body riddled with infection. He dies a few days later, restrained to a biobed in the Terra Nova clinic.
Though few outside of Alicia understand, he gives Lucas a proper burial, and he visits the grave more frequently than one would expect. Oftentimes, Alicia and the children join him there. Their fraternal twins were born a few weeks early, one of each, a daughter and a son. They're almost four and a half now. He'd lobbied her to have at least one more, but she declined, noting that the 2:2 adult to child ratio works for her.
They added on to her house at his insistence. She'd said they could just move into a bigger one, but he refused. He wanted to keep the place based mostly on sentimental attachment. His reasoning was simple – it was the place where he first felt truly happy again after Ayani. When put that way, she stopped arguing, likely because the same was true for her.
She stands on the patio now, watching Nathaniel rough house with the kids. Their daughter, Grace Ayani, is clinging to his leg, and Nathaniel holds their son, Ryan Nathaniel, upside down by his legs. Both kids are shrieking with giggles, so loud that passers-by stop to look and smile.
Alicia shakes her head and laughs softly to herself. She leans against the door frame, smiling and thinking about the fact that a million different things could have happened to lead them to a different place from where they are now. She refuses to dwell on the things they've lost, the people they've lost, because doing so might force her to mentally and emotionally prioritize still having Ayani and Lucas alive, whole and happy against her children. She can't, she won't do that. If anything, she won't do it because it really would piss Ayani off at her.
"Mama! Help! We need to rescue Ryan!" Grace's little voice pulls her out of her thoughts. With a grin, Alicia bounds up to them. Instead of "rescuing" Ryan, though, she scoops Grace up, holding her as Nathaniel is holding Ryan, prompting more shrieking giggles.
"Like this?" she asks innocently. Nathaniel laughs, and they exchange smiles as Grace protests being captured herself. Their eyes hold, and it's almost like he knows what she was thinking about a moment ago. He just nods and starts to tickle Ryan, his tacit agreement clear that the place where they've arrived is, for them, the right one.
Nothing is simple, but no amount of regret will change the past. The past shaped who they are, both as individuals and to each other – and for them, all they can do is enjoy the moment, because they know, probably better than anyone, how easily things can change.