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Make My Way Back

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It was far too early in the day to be drinking. Alicia looked down at the amber liquid in her glass (both items gifts from Ayani), nearly laughed at the sight of it. It was too early in the day, but it was too late to even try not to, with the stiffness in her side returning after a few days sedentary and the avoidance of her pain meds. Self-medication through the use of excessive alcohol.

Her new speciality.

She gave her reflection in the kitchen window (a tired, deflated mess that couldn't really be her, could it?) a sarcastic salute before she shuffled out to the living area, fell into the support of her couch and just sat. She couldn't tell if she'd been there a few minutes or an hour when the knock on the door sounded.

With a sigh, not even bothering to put down the glass, she stood carefully and made her way to the door. A quick glance out of the peep-hole made her breath leave her body in an inelegant whoosh.

Taylor.

His eyes slightly red from walking through pollution with no rebreather, coughing to clear his parched throat. But still... Taylor.

Her heartbeat quickened, her breathing deepened, all of the horrendous clichés she read in the romance novels that barely held her attention. She felt warm with affection and then, almost instantly, completely chilled. Every memory of the times she'd avoided his phone calls came to mind at the sight of his face; guilt over Ayani, lingering pain from her brush with death, the resulting drug-induced haze, all things that added up to avoidance seeming the best option.

She hadn't seen him for more than half a year now, not since he was reassigned back to the base in Chicago they'd been stationed at for years prior to Somalia.

And here he was, on her doorstep.

And here she was, suddenly realising the depth of feeling she held for this man hadn't lessened during their separation, his wife's death, their family (both inside and outside the military) breaking up. It had only, pitifully, increased.

Ignoring the desire to rip the door off its hinges to get to him quicker, Alicia instead opened it with all the calm and control had she prided herself on for years. There was no other way to describe it than to say that his face literally lit up when he saw her, despite how awful she knew she looked. It was more than welcome to have another instance of his smiling face to file away in her mental album, and she found the corner of her mouth tugging up in response.

"Wash." He greeted, same low gruff tone somehow lighter now it wasn't lined with grief and regret.

She leaned against the side of the door, watching him relax in front of her eyes. "Sir."

"Can I come in?"

The urge to tease him returned so naturally she almost didn't notice. "What's the matter sir? This fine southern air not good enough for you after a few months in the north?"

"Forgot my damn rebreather, this was all a bit last minute." He explained, then smiled. "I would truly appreciate your hospitality." He said in a forced drawl.

Despite herself, she felt her spirits lift. "How long are you here for?" She asked, stepping back to let him inside.

"Barely a day." He admitted.

Those three tiny words made her heart sink as she closed the door behind him. The very definition of a flying visit. It should have meant enough that he came to see her in the first place, but knowing he wasn't going to be sticking around made her initial optimism fade.

"Little early for scotch isn't it?" He asked, following her into the apartment as she walked quietly away from him.

Alicia took a seat back on the couch, raising an eyebrow at the way he was still standing in the middle of the room. "Back at work on Monday. Figure I should indulge while I still can."

He didn't say anything else – though the way his brow knitted at the sight of her, low on sleep, rumpled and drinking the hard stuff in the morning said more than enough. He simply crossed to her and, instead of taking a seat next to her, perched on the coffee table directly opposite.

A few inches more and their knees would brush one another's. This close she could see the stubble forming on his chin, the weariness in his demeanour. This was a man recently off of a long distance transport. Had she been his first stop?

"Sorry I haven't been around much." He said quietly. "I've been working on something that has the potential to be..." He trailed off, the happy gleam in his eye making him look almost like his old self again. "Really exciting."

Alicia nodded, sipping her scotch despite his immediately stern look in response. "Can you tell me?"

He looked almost impossibly torn, and she knew the answer before he even opened his mouth again. What she didn't anticipate was the way his hand snuck out to squeeze her knee, and she couldn't ignore the resulting shock of pleasure such a simple act of human contact inspired in her after so long without.

"No, Wash. I'm sorry." He said, his grip tightening, fingers curling around her in a way that was almost too intimate to bear, given the recent distance between them. "But be damn sure the minute I can, you'll be the first to know."

Another nod, the only emotion she found herself capable of that wasn't hideously inflated by the joy of his presence and, therefore, wildly out of character. "Until then, what? It's a desk for me, for as long as they can manage. We both know it."

He smiled, something that struck her as cruel given the circumstances – based up in the military hub of Chicago, he was lucky enough to live in a dome despite his relative lack of importance, while she was stuck down in San Antonio with the grunts for her PT - until she noticed the flash of mischief cross his face. "You're not wrong." He said and she huffed, taking another sip. "But it won't be down here."

It was a struggle to not let a smile of frankly epic proportions spread across her face at this news. A million questions flooded though her head, the whys, hows, and wherefores of what his words truly meant. But instead of enlightening her, Taylor stole the remains of her whisky and swallowed it in a quick gulp, putting the glass on the table beside him and standing. Alicia watched, still a little stunned, while he paced over to her bookcase, picked up her prized signed baseball and started tossing it between his hands.

"I hear you've not been going to physio."

The immediate flash of anger at being so betrayed was tempered by the shame that flooded her when she saw Nathaniel's disappointment at having to speak such words.

"Caffrey?" She asked, receiving the expected nod in reply.

Of course. It could only be him.

Her former comrade was one of the few survivors of their unit; the man had been brought to the same medical center as her for physiotherapy a few months after she arrived. Caffrey had been with Taylor when he had to make the decision between his wife and son's lives, had been the one to break the news to Alicia even as he was recovering from surgery to amputate his left leg below the knee. Consideration of the well-being of both Nathaniel and herself had always been at the top of his agenda no matter the scale of his own problems. He was the sole reason she found out about Ayani's death in time to attend the funeral, and now apparently he was the one to rat her out to their former leader.

"He's worried about you Alicia. We all are." He said. Using her name was a low blow. One she wasn't afraid of returning.

"I'm fine Nathaniel." She insisted. "I don't need to go any more."

"Really." He said. A statement, not a question.

Her instincts were still good enough that when he threw the baseball at her, she caught it with ease. But the consequences of such a quick action were as they ever were; her side felt like it was on fire and the pained groan that left her was unbidden. Maybe with pain meds she might have been able to disguise it. But without them she had as high a chance of successfully lying to him as she ever did.

Taylor heard. He always heard.

"You're fine." He repeated, thoroughly unconvinced, as he walked back over to her. "Are you taking your meds?"

She shook her head, considered the distance to the kitchen to get another glass of scotch.

"Why?" He asked, sitting opposite her once more. His expression turned cold in the face of her elusiveness. "I'd like to know, soldier, how exactly you plan on getting back to being field ready if you don't complete your recovery."

"What's the point?" She spat, the memory of every moment spent in the hospital, every moment desperate for her old mobility to return to her, colouring her ability to be civil to the one man who deserved it. "I don't need to be at my best to work a damn desk."

"And if you were needed elsewhere? What then?" He questioned. "You're better than this, Wash."

Alicia once again felt the aggression leave her in the face of Nathaniel's disappointment. She hated that he was able to affect her so easily but at the same time knew she wouldn't have survived half as long without him there to guide her, teach her, lead her to a better version of herself.

"I need something to fight for." She said quietly. "Do you know how hard it is to push yourself to get better when there's nothing waiting for you other than more of the same monotony, day after day after day?"

Taylor's mouth quirked in an impression of a smile. "You know I do. Dare say without Lucas, I wouldn't even have tried after Somalia." He looked down at his hands, clenched together between his open legs. "But you're going to have to trust me on this. You do have something to fight for."

Such a non-committal response should have riled her further, sent her demanding more answers. Instead she felt herself soothed by his assertion. "I do trust you." She said eventually. "But you're going to have to give me more than empty promises sir."

He smiled, a little chagrined if she had to pin him down to an emotion. "Suppose I do."

He reached for her main plex and handed it to her. "Check your comms. There's full details of your new assignment in there. It's not active duty but it's a start."

Alicia scanned the information quickly, her breath catching in her throat when one particular word stood out. "Chicago?" She read, looking up to find his smile growing. "You did this?"

He nodded. "I might not be able to tell you everything right now. Anything, even. But you have a part to play in my new mission. If you accept, that is."

"What's the odds of that not happening?" She said, drawing laughter from him. "There's a full PT schedule here too?"

"There is." Taylor confirmed. "And I'll be right there to keep an eye on you, make sure you're going."

Alicia thought over the proposal in her hands carefully. It was still grunt work, nothing to get excited about. Her former CO had given her nothing more than his word that it would be worth her while to go, to get better, stronger. To return to her former self.

But Nathaniel's word was enough. It was always enough.

"I look forward to it, sir."

"Good." He grinned, hand impacting with his thigh as he stood. He nodded, looking down at her with something very close to fondness. "Good."

He reached a hand down to help her stand and she raised an eyebrow at it before taking it, letting him pull her to her feet. His assistance was given freely, openly; there was no need to read more into it than him helping an injured friend.

"You have to go?" She asked, looking up at him and ignoring how close they were to each other. To focus on it would be downright dangerous, given her mild intoxication and the lifeline he'd given her.

"As much as I want to, I can't stick around." He confirmed, looking a little reluctant to move himself, before crossing the room to stand by the door. "I'll see you soon though." He said as she opened the door to let him exit.

"Guess so sir." Alicia said, watching him walk away from her with far less sorrow than she felt at their last parting.

He turned to her one last time. "Just like old times." He said. "Looking forward to it."

"Me too." She confirmed and with one final smile he was gone, if only for a little while.

She shut the door behind him and leant up against it, head spinning with all of the information she'd just received. She looked around her apartment with none of her usual apathy, started mentally packing only the things she'd need in her new life. She certainly wouldn't miss this place.

For the first time in far too long, she smiled.

##

Four Months Later

Alicia grimaced, pushing the bar up slowly and then controlling its descent back down to her chest.

Over the months she'd been in Chicago, the therapists had learnt (sometimes the hard way) not to coddle her. They now watched from the sidelines as she went through her exercise, only stepping in when it was absolutely necessary. A few had taken to calling encouragement to her and she found that helped in a strange way. She could certainly use it now.

Pressing the bar up once more, her arms told her this would be her last rep. Her usual spotter was too far away to assist so she would have to get it back up to the rest on her own. Which she could do. She could.

It was an inch away from being secure when her muscles really started to tremble and the first fluttering of fear beat in her chest.

And then strong, tanned hands encircled the bar to pull it back into place in her stead.

"Careful there Wash." She heard in a familiar tone and fought the urge to smile (she had a reputation to maintain) as she eased herself to her feet and turned to find Taylor waiting.

He had his arms crossed over his chest as he rocked back on his heels, BDUs rolled up to his elbows displaying his particularly fine forearms. She had to force her eyes up onto his face, a fact she thought she covered quite well by grabbing her towel and swiping it over her forehead.

"I had it, sir." She retorted.

"Sure you did." He responded, a twinkle of humour in his eyes as she narrowed hers at him. Alicia skirted around him towards the locker room, stopping when he called her name. "Are you free? There's something I need to talk to you about."

She'd been in Chicago for months now without any further information on whatever big secret mission Taylor was working on. It was almost possible to forget, given the little time they spent together, that he was keeping something potentially huge from her. Her first thought after his words was that maybe now she might get to know; the possibility brought a smile to her face that the therapist at the side of the room noticed and grinned knowingly in response to. Rolling her eyes at him, she pivoted on her heel until she was facing Taylor again.

"Can it wait sir? I need to clean up."

Taylor nodded, looking entirely too pleased with himself. "Sure." He said, looking around the room. "I'll just wait out here for you."

Alicia felt another insubordinate huff building but managed to tamp it down and forced a cheeriness onto her face that she knew he would see right through – and by the smugness in his expression, she could tell he did. "Fine, sir." She said, her tone clipped. "I'll be right back."

#

Once Wash was back from the locker room, wet hair up in a ponytail and slightly creased BDUs on, Nathaniel led the way to his office and found himself filled with a profound sense of peace. The return of the absolutely certainty that she was following him soothed something in his fractured soul, took him back to a happier time without any of the pain he was slowly learning to deal with.

Having her with him in Chicago had been a major catalyst to him truly regaining a hold on his emotions, the ones that still hit him with every morning, still drove him to the bottle every night. Though he might not see her every day (his schedule put paid to that, let alone her being located halfway across the base from him) he knew she was close. Closer than she had been for years, and closer than he had any right to expect her to be after the way he'd cut himself off.

And she herself was improving every time he was lucky enough to set eyes on her. Even just seeing her across the way while walking to his next meeting was enough to steel him to make it through whatever the rest of his day would bring. She was shining brighter than she had for months after proper care and life in a dome and a simple wave could make his heart swell with affection for this woman, this unbreakable creature that had made it through the worst of times with him.

He opened the door to his office and crossed to his desk, waiting for her to enter the room behind him and shut the door. He looked over his shoulder to find her eyeing up the room with something like envy so he leant up against the desk, crossed his arms over his chest and waited for her to remember he was there.

"I bet desk duty doesn't seem so bad when you're in an office like this." She grumbled, walking over to stand in front of him. "Nice digs, sir."

"Thank you." He laughed. "Don't start thinking I earned them though. Reckon it's all to sweeten the deal."

She grinned, cocking her hip and crossing her own arms. "And are you finally going to tell me what exactly the deal is?"

He left it a beat too long to reply, drinking in her expression of guiltless pleasure. It faded when she took in what he expected was probably a rather foolish look on his face and he composed himself before speaking again. "I will." He said. "But there's something I need to do first."

Standing, he gestured to the couch at the side of the room and allowed her to seat herself first before joining her. Once settled, he held out a small wooden box for her to take. "I shouldn't be doing this now. But I need your agreement before I can tell you everything."

Alicia nodded, gently opening the box to reveal lieutenant pips. Her promotion was long overdue, delayed only by the severity of her injuries. He had resubmitted his recommendation once he had her agreement to relocate, and it had finally been approved.

"Congratulations lieutenant." He said quietly, conscious of the way she was still staring mutely at the object in her hands.

"Sir..." She whispered, voice thick with emotion. She cleared her throat and started again. "I can't."

He found himself genuinely confused. "Why not?"

Her hands tightened around the box, looking down at the gleaming pips. "I don't deserve these."

"I think you do, lieutenant." He said, tone brooking no argument. To expect that from her would be foolish, but he wasn't going to back down.

She frowned. "I don't want any promotion that glorifies our actions out there just because some member of the brass thinks so."

"It's a good thing the recommendation came from me then, isn't it?" He said sharply. "I wanted your bravery and skill to be recognised. And I need my second for this mission."

Alicia looked a little taken aback by his tone, by the revelation of his actions. There was something in her eyes now, a reservation that he wasn't used to seeing in his usually so put-together medic. There was another reason she was so hesitant to accept her promotion and he wasn't sure he didn't already know it.

"Wash. Be honest with me, please." He said, leaning towards her. She shifted, bringing one leg up onto the couch so she could face him. "Tell me why you don't want something you earned ten times over."

Her hands slipped the box closed and she clutched it with a death grip in one hand. "Ayani..."

He took a deep breath. His next words were going to be some of the hardest he'd ever had to say. "Is gone, Wash." He said, voice quiet, reverential; full of hurt, and longing.

Alicia's chin dropped and he moved one hand to tip it back up, bring her eyes back on his. "You loved her..." She said.

"So much." He agreed.

"And because of my actions, she's not here with you now."

He sighed, rubbed a thumb thoughtlessly over her lower lip. "You know that's not true." When she went to speak, something akin to a growl sounded in his throat. "It's not true, Wash. You can't think that way any longer."

Alicia huffed, sitting back into the support of the couch and wrapping one arm protectively around her stomach. Neither of them missed the positioning, the way she covered her scars. "I can think how I damn well want, sir."

He snorted, a hint of humour in the way he settled back also, regarding her with interest. "Hell if I don't know that's true."

She rolled her eyes, a liberty he could have reprimanded her on if he so chose. Instead he simply waited. Their gazes locked and he saw her uncertainty, her indecision. He knew now that he wanted nothing more than to comfort her, to keep her safe – a strange proposition with a woman like Wash. She didn't need it, wouldn't want it. But the feeling lingered, tauntingly out of reach.

"Talk to me." He murmured, reaching out to cover her hand with his own. The request was barely audible but combined with his touch it sent a visible shiver through the woman across from him.

Her eyes fell shut and he watched as her forehead creased. She remained silent, thinking. "Did you know..." She started eventually, taking a deep breath before continuing. "Did you know I loved you?"

It was an unexpected change of direction, one for which Nathaniel thought he managed to keep the surprise, the delight he felt out of his expression. He regarded her with forced impassivity, saw the flicker of fear in the depths of her eyes at exposing herself to him, decided in that moment that he never wanted to see it again.

He could tell she was fighting back tears, her eyes shining as she blinked repeatedly. "In my weaker moments, I let myself imagine what being able to be with you would be like. But she was my friend, how can I even think about daring to..."

"To what?" He asked, changing tack and letting his face become more open and honest than she'd probably seen from him for years. "Come between us? It's a bit late for that."

"Nathaniel..." She whispered, the sound of his name on her lips sending a hot rush of pleasure through him.

"I miss her every day, Wash." He said, squeezing her hand. "Every morning I wake up and expect her to be there. The realisation she's not there is more painful than you know." He continued. "But I know... I know that she would want me, hell, would want both of us to be happy. To move on. It's just... not going to happen overnight."

"It doesn't feel right..." She said, looking down at their joined hands. "To consider being happy again."

Nathaniel nodded. "I know how you're feeling, I do. But at the same time... I think I could be happy again."

He watched her expression carefully, hoping against hope that she got his meaning, that she felt the same. After what felt like an age of waiting, he saw the first flicker of hope, the quick transition to happiness which she tempered for fear of insensitivity.

"I think I could be too, sir." She said, looking up at him.

His smile in that moment was almost painful in it intensity and it inspired something of the same in Alicia, her mouth curving up in genuine satisfaction. The temptation to do something stupid was great but instead he forced it down, noting the way she also wrested control back from the devil on her shoulder.

"Can I know what the mission is now?" She asked cheekily, more than back to her old self, if only for a while.

"You gonna accept those?" He countered.

Silently she handed the box back to him, stood and came to attention with a smart salute. "Sir yes sir."

Joining her on his feet, he eased the pins out of their box and started to affix them to the shoulders of her BDUs. "This isn't official you know. You're not escaping the ceremony."

Annoyance flared in her dark brown eyes but she contained it as her position demanded, saluting as he did the same once his task was complete. "Full uniform, sir?"

"Naturally."

Her eyes took on an almost feral gleam as she let her eyes drop down his body before snapping back up to his face. "Can't complain sir."

He barked out a laugh, pleasantly surprised by the chance she took, pleasantly surprised by how happy it made him to hear, to flirt once again. "Back at you, lieutenant."

She chuckled, falling out of her strict posture and into something far more like herself. He reached around her for a plex on the desk and brought up the classified mission summary. Finally, the secret would be out – at least to the one person he trusted most in the world.

Turning the plex over to her grasp, he watched and waited. She took in the words with eager eyes, skimming the information presented to her. A grin started to form when her mouth slowly fell open, her eyes widening as she processed what she was reading. Eventually she reached the bottom of the page and looked up at him, gaping.

"You're kidding!"

##

Three Months Later

If he thought having Alicia nearby was good, having her finally involved in the mission was beyond anything he could have imagined.

She was there to make meetings bearable, there to help him keep his head when someone was being obnoxious (often). They shared ideas constantly, so often on the same wavelength. Grabbed meals were eaten together, early morning coffee, late night drinks.

It was nice. It was simple, easy, a reforming of their bond.

So why did he want more?

He shook his head ruefully, smiling at his own lack of focus as the traitorous thoughts cleared his head. Such ponderings were hardly the thing to be indulging in late at night in his own home, let alone in the office. As if on cue, Alicia walked quietly into the room and set a mug of coffee on his desk, smiling briefly before she left with her own steaming mug to see to her day's tasks.

Turning his attention to the computer (ignoring that the first sip of coffee informed him that it was absolutely the way he liked it, without ever having to remind her) he tentatively looked over his communications inbox. He'd done his best over the past year or so to set it up to maximum productivity, with multiple filters, folders and alerts to ensure the masses of pointless information didn't get in the way of important things. Alicia had her own folder, as did the surviving members of their unit. The latter stayed empty for the most part given that there were so few people to fill it - and those that could were already back out serving or rehabilitating. But today there was an alert for the first time in months. One new message.

The communication was from Caffrey, informing Nathaniel that he would visiting Chicago in a few day's time to see family and asking if anyone would be free to meet him for dinner. Nathaniel admired the way the man only inquired indirectly about Wash's availability; he too would never dare to think or even suggest that she needed looking out for, wouldn't risk appearing to coddle her in any way.

Nathaniel fired off a quick reply saying that he was free and copied in Wash for her to have her own say – he had no right to speak for her in this instance, knowing that she still might be sore with the man since he let slip about her PT.

When her reply came through a few minutes later there was no mention of it, just a hearty agreement and a suggestion of a place to go – a bar in the dome that was popular with the guys in the barracks, whenever they were lucky enough to get the chance to go off-base.

Friday night rolled around without any further discussion, though Wash was clearly back in constant contact with Caffrey if the way she laughed while reading her emails on her plex was any indication. It was so precious to steal looks at her in those moments, to see her open and free and herself again. No matter the length of the road that took her there he had his Wash back, like she'd never even left.

A quick shower was all it took for him to be ready after he completed work; he'd barely seen Wash for the entire day but a short stolen conversation had fixed upon a place to meet. Shrugging into his leather jacket he let himself out of his quarters and set about locating his second.

She was already waiting as he approached their meeting spot and as her back was to him he took a moment to drink her in. Dressed much the same as him, she was wearing dark jeans, a deep red tank and the leather jacket he'd bought her for Christmas one year after hers got left behind in a rush evacuation a lifetime ago. She looked stunning, despite the simplicity of her outfit – hell, they almost matched and he was damn sure he didn't make it look that good. Even though he'd seen her dressed the same way a thousand times before, back then it hadn't even occurred to him to think of her in any other way than a dear friend, a capable soldier. But now... now it was different. Now he wanted to look.

And it was becoming clear that she wouldn't mind him doing so.

She turned to him instinctively as he approached and it was impossible, even in the darkened parking lot, to miss the way her gaze roamed his body, the way her mouth quirked into a pleased smile. He felt oddly warmed by her approval, made sure his own was clear on his face when she finally looked at him properly.

"Looking good, sir." She said in a light tone that betrayed her intentions – it was a genuine compliment covered up by some good natured teasing.

Inclining his head in thanks, he smiled and gestured towards the vehicle he'd arranged for the evening before she had a chance to see quite how deep his appreciation went in return.

They travelled into the city in companionable silence, leaving the vehicle in a lot a short walk from the bar they were headed for. They passed through familiar streets on their way, walking perhaps a little too close together to be appropriate. Arriving at their destination perfectly on time – unsurprising, for them – they found their friend not yet there.

"Think he got lost?" Wash asked after several minutes of waiting. She looked at him in amusement – Caffrey wasn't the best navigator.

"Give the man a chance." Nathaniel laughed. "He wasn't that bad."

Wash snorted. "Caffrey couldn't find his way with two functional legs and a map."

"Only because I was too busy staring at your ass Wash."

Nathaniel watched Wash's face split into a blinding grin at the voice from behind them. They both turned to find Mark Caffrey standing steadily on two legs and a cane, looking the very picture of health.

"What, no hug?" He asked when both remained standing still in front of him.

Alicia laughed, stepping in close to wrap her arms around their old friend. Nathaniel would deny under oath the pang of jealousy that passed through him when Caffrey wound his free arm around Wash's waist, holding her close with a content expression.

To be that free with her again was something Nathaniel dreamed of; something that was impossible, at least for now, now that his thoughts towards her were turning less pure. He wanted to hold her and to show his affection, but it would never be like it used to be, like it was between two old friends.

"Now this is all very nice." Mark said. "But I was talking to the Commander."

Alicia huffed, moving out of her friend's embrace and glaring as she smacked his shoulder.

Mark held up a defensive hand. "Hey hey, just kidding! Don't hurt the invalid!"

Nathaniel watched Mark and Wash play off of each other as they always used to with a nostalgia that was oddly welcome. He wasn't reminded of an easier time but it was a happier one, all things considered. He gestured towards the bar and the three fell into step to head inside.

"How's the recovery going?" Nathaniel asked, scouting the room for a suitable table once they got into the building.

"As good as can be expected." Mark said, turning serious for a moment. "It's not been easy... But the ladies love the cane."

Alicia narrowed her eyes. "Remind me why I missed you again?" She asked, walking away from the men towards a booth.

"Love you too Wash!" Mark called after her, making Nathaniel chuckle. The younger man turned to him with a smile. "She looks better."

Nathaniel returned the smile, full of pride in the way she'd returned to herself. "Yeah, she is."

Mark hummed, nodding. "You always were good for her." He said, starting over to Alicia's destination. He turned back when he realised he wasn't being followed. "Sir." He added cheekily.

Nathaniel shook his head with a wry chuckle. Somehow Caffrey had always known exactly what to say.

Slowly he trailed after them, reaching the booth to find Mark sliding in opposite Wash. The younger man raised an eyebrow at him when he saw Nathaniel was contemplating where to sit. There was something taunting in his expression and a threat in his gaze - sit next to Alicia or never hear the end of it. To punctuate their silent conversation, Mark leaned his stick up against the rest of the seat next to him, blocking any chance the older man might have to choose that as his perch.

Nathaniel slid into the booth with a smirk, purposely ignoring the way Caffrey was grinning and focusing instead on the way Wash looked up from the menu in surprise as she felt the chair dip beside her, on the way she looked at him in confusion and then something like satisfaction, the corner of her mouth quirking up as she ducked her head once more.

"So. This dome air looks like it's agreeing with you two." Mark said with a faint smile. "My trip up here is the only thing stopping me getting tan lines from the rebreather."

"If anyone could make that work it'd be you." Wash said.

"Hey, enough with the hostility. We all know I'm pretty." Mark replied with a winning smile. "I wasn't suggesting you were getting soft."

Wash rolled her eyes indulgently and Nathaniel could see the slight waver of uncertainty in her action. "Didn't think you were."

"Yes you did." He said, astute as ever. "I might have no idea what you're doing, you're probably sitting in meetings all day considering where you're based. But not you two. Never."

He reached for Wash's hand and squeezed it reassuringly. She smiled, nodding. "How do you do it? How do you always know what to say?"

"Just one of my many talents." He winked, squeezing one last time and sitting back with a happy sigh. "Now, what's everyone having? First round's on me."

During the course of the next couple of hours (and several drinks) Nathaniel noticed that either Wash was getting closer to him, or he was getting closer to her. Possibly a little of both. At one point her hand found its way to his thigh clearly without thought on her part and it was the simplest thing in the world to not say anything, to let her leave it there as a warm comfort, a reminder they were there together.

It was a strain, then, to have to leave her to go to the bar, but it was his turn to get the drinks and the three of them desperately needed food if they were going to go on much longer. But the smile she gave him as he collected their empty glasses and stood ensured he wouldn't hesitate in returning.

#

"Hey Wash."

Alicia turned her attention from watching Taylor depart to find her friend looking at her with a curiously unreadable expression - she hadn't exactly been transparent with the redirection of her line of sight and expected him to notice, if not comment.

"Yes Mark?" She said obligingly, leaning in close to him.

"See that woman by the bar?"

Alicia looked towards where Caffrey was indicating, found a pretty brunette roughly her age sneaking looks at their booth. "Yup." She agreed, sipping her drink.

"What do you think?"

Alicia snorted. "She's not really my type."

"No, mine neither." Mark said, earning himself a disbelieving look. "She's not exactly interested in me."

Alicia frowned, struggling to grasp his meaning... until it hit her. Her jaw dropped a little and she looked back at to see the woman wave at her shyly. Mark was laughing himself silly beside her and she shot the woman an apologetic look before smacking his shoulder for the second time that evening.

"You should go talk to her." He managed through his chuckles.

"Not going to happen, Caffrey."

"Why not? Live a little!"

"I'm not gay. It seems a little rude to get her hopes up."

"That's the only reason?" He queried, openly cheerful and apparently interested in her response.

"What are you suggesting?"

Mark smiled, chucked her under the chin. "I think we both know the answer to that, Wash." When she looked down at the table in confusion, he sighed. "Look, you two were always a hell of a team. If you weren't such damn good people and didn't love Ayani so much, I would have expected something to happen years ago. This thing that you're working on, it's a mission right? Is it far away, out of prying eyes?"

Alicia smiled, sensing the man knew what he was talking about, had probably heard at least one of the copious rumours floating around the military. "You could say that."

"Then what the hell is stopping you?" They both looked up at the sight of Nathaniel approaching them. "Just think about it, please. For my sanity's sake if nothing else."

"What sanity?" Nathaniel joked, placing down three fresh glasses of whiskey and scooting in next to Wash once more.

Caffrey chuckled, noting the look Alicia shot him imploring him to keep quiet. For once, he honoured her request."God knows you did your best to relieve me of it sir."

It was hard to work up the effort to leave. Alicia knew, deep down, that it was more than likely they would never see Caffrey again. They were only a few months from going through the portal now, final decisions were being made every day. The team was being finalised, the second and third pilgrimages already mostly mapped out. There was no place for Mark, much as it made her heart ache.

Their hand was forced by the bar closing. So much had been remembered, laughed about, commiserated about. It was perhaps exactly what she and Nathaniel needed, what Mark needed to aid the final steps of his recovery. But there was melancholy in the air as they walked outside, into the artificially fresh air of the dome.

"Look, can I be honest with you two?" Mark asked, turning to face them both. Upon receiving nods of assent, he looked down at his feet and then back up, face lined with sadness that seemed quite wrong there. "I know where you two are going. There's enough talk of it going around, no matter how classified it's supposed to be. And I know that there's no chance of me following, not yet."

"Mark..." Alicia said, stepping close to him and gripping his arm reassuringly.

"No, don't worry. I'm happy for you two. You have to promise me you'll make the most of this." He said, looking between her and Nathaniel. "Don't waste this chance."

Alicia nodded shakily, leaning in to place a kiss to Mark's cheek. "We won't."

Nathaniel moved in close to shake Mark's hand, a forced happiness in his expression that didn't quite make it to his eyes. "Be safe, Mark."

"I'll try. But it's the both of you who need to remember that." He said, chuckled a little. He started to back away, forcing every step. "Just don't forget about me, huh? Drop of a hat, I'm there."

Alicia just smiled, watching him go and using Nathaniel's nearby warmth as a source of strength. "Gonna miss him." She said quietly, once he was out of sight.

Nathaniel briefly let his arm encircle her shoulders, pressed his lips to her temple. "Me too, Wash."

#

The buzz from the alcohol meant it took a moment to figure Taylor had stopped, a few steps away from rounding to the parking lot. In the darkened area between two buildings, it was somewhat difficult to make out his expression, so she inched closer to him without thought.

"I had a really good time tonight Wash." He said quietly, thoughtfully. Mark's words had clearly affected him as much as they had her. "Haven't laughed that hard since Somalia."

Alicia supposed it was a good thing that that word no longer made her flinch, no longer inspired great sadness in the cool blue of Taylor's eyes. It had power, but the negative sides were easing as time passed. It was welcome, needed.

He reached out for her elbow with a smile. "Thank you."

"For what?" She asked, puzzled.

"For coming up here. For your patience with all the classified talk. I know how much you hate secrets."

Alicia chuckled. "I didn't have much choice. But you're welcome. Nowhere else I'd rather be."

A tenderness came into his expression as he continued to observe her. He tugged on her arm and she went willingly into his embrace, wrapping her arms around his torso, under the material of his jacket. It was a slight chance to take but one he allowed, his arms firm but comforting around her.

When she went to step away he let her go a slight distance, but his hands remained on her lower back, keeping her in his embrace. She looked up at him with curiosity, took in the heat blazing in his blue eyes and couldn't deny the same was flaring in her own, her inner fire stoked by their closeness. It was always dangerous to deny something like this for so long, even if it was the 'right' thing to do. But there came a time when denial became too much to bear, a time when a friend's words could inspire a necessary change.

When he ducked his head to capture her lips, Alicia found her mind whirling with quite how right it felt, despite everything, despite the damaged, damaged people they were now.

Her arms lifted up to encircle his neck as their lips met for the first time, hers curving instinctively into a smile against his. The first hot swipe of his tongue across her lower lip was almost a dream come true and she opened her mouth willingly to his.

She felt him backing her up as their tongues swiped against each other, welcomed the harsh bricks against her back when it meant Nathaniel pressed the full length of his body to hers. His hands cupped her sides, one holding her close as the other slid down to her thigh. He lifted as she tilted her head to deepen their kiss and a moan escaped her before she could really think about it.

He groaned in response, thrusting the evidence of his favourable reaction against her with enough suggestion to make her breath hitch. She broke away from him to tip her head back into the support of the building as his mouth trailed down to pass along her jaw, down her throat. He sucked at the curve where her neck met her shoulder until she bucked back into him with a cry of delight.

"Sir." She hissed when his hand left her thigh to relocate to her belt. He hummed and she rolled her eyes. "Not here."

He lifted his head to peer blearily at her, but soon came back to himself at the sound of a police siren in the distance.

"Shit, Wash. I'm sorry." He said, stepping back out of the hold of her leg around him and running a hand through his hair. "Don't know what came over me."

She smiled, still leaning indolently against the wall (at the sight of which his gaze darkened anew). "It's fine. Willing partner, right here." She said, gesturing to herself.

"We should get back." Nathaniel said, reaching for her hand.

She took it without hesitation, linking their fingers as they started towards the end of the alley. "Let's... put this on the back burner for now." She suggested. "There's more important things to focus on."

"Debatable." He muttered, but smiled brightly when she scowled at him, raising their joined hands to press a kiss to hers. "You're right. If we do this, we do it properly."

There was a nagging suggestion at the back of Alicia's head as they passed a young police detective regarding them with a mixture of suspicion and amusement. A reminder of her old friend, of Ayani, Lucas; of all the reasons this would be a ridiculous thing to do.

But for tonight, with the pleasure of good company warming her soul and good liquor in her veins, Alicia was content to ignore it.

##

Five Years Later

Alicia stood in the clearing, looking at the metal structure of the portal with an uncommon nervousness. It wouldn't be obvious to anyone other than Guz, who was looking with amusement at her white knuckles where she gripped her gun too tight. He knew what was coming - who was coming, knew how important this was to her and Nathaniel.

It hadn't been easy – two pilgrimages had come and gone with a hell of a lot of negotiation. But Casey Durwin, though he might never know it, had been instrumental in ensuring it was possible. She would be buying the man a drink for this.

The portal had flared into life about twenty minutes ago, and it flickered now as it always did, a precursor to the first pilgrim walking through. She watched as people flowed through, directing them to medical staff, helping out where she could while keeping one eye on the blue light at all times.

They were three people short of their target when he walked through, no longer using a cane, moving with an ease reminiscent of the good old days. A woman followed close behind and he took her hand, leading her over to Alicia. The lieutenant smiled to herself at the sight of the woman who had been a surprise to both her and Nathaniel on the pilgrim list, the woman who had done the impossible, had tamed their unit's most notorious womaniser.

The man beamed at her. "Wash. It's been too long."

Her initial smile turned into a wide grin as he pulled her into an embrace. "Welcome to Terra Nova, Caffrey."