Training was hard, and there was not a crew on any ship in the ocean that enjoyed having to do it. Competition, however, was a very different thing. Like many things, attitude came down to marketing. After a marksmanship challenge on deck, those sailors not on watch gathered on a nearby beach for more physical challenges.
“Not competing yet?” Swain asked, passing Nav and Bomber. The two women were sitting back on a log, watching Buffer and ET roll around on the sand. What had started as “unarmed combat sparring” had quickly devolved to “wrestling”. Their bare chests were now coated in sand, their boardies riding up their thighs as they tussled.
“You should be down there, Swain,” Nav said distractedly, tilting her head as she watched the display. Normally the Nav was as competitive as any of the boys, but today she seemed more inclined to watch.
“I think Buffer’s got that one well in hand,” Swain replied, as the sailor in question flipped ET onto his back.
Bomber was chewing her lower lip thoughtfully. “ET’s faster, but Buff has more upper body strength,” she commented. The bout was over, and Buffer was offering ET a hand, pulling the younger man to his feet. ET was grinning, clearly not bothered by his loss, while scraping sand off his chest and back.
“ET will take them all in the sprint,” Nav agreed, a soft smile playing on her lips.
“Spider will give him a challenge,” Bomber said, her tone almost defensive. “He’s got longer legs, after all.”
“And if he didn’t churn them like a windmill, he might be faster,” Nav agreed. “He’s got the height, but not the technique.”
If either of them noticed Swain roll his eyes and walk off, they didn’t comment. RO and Spider were sparring, now; this contest was much more closely aligned with traditional unarmed combat, though there was much more flailing than actual contact. All the same, Bomber’s gaze was intense as she studied their moves. Figuring her absence would not be noticed, Nav hopped off the log and set her feet on a path towards the crate of bottled water beside the RHIB. As if by accident, she practically collided with ET halfway there, and he reached out to steady her as she staggered.
“Watch out, Nav,” he said, his arm resting on hers a bare second longer than really necessary.
“Sorry, ET,” she said. “Didn’t see you.” A wicked grin crossed her face. “You’re practising stealth manoeuvres, I take it? You seem to be trying to blend into the beach.”
“Funny,” he said, one hand trying to shake some of the sand out of his hair. Up close, she realised that a combination of sweat and seawater had bonded the sand to his skin. She had to clench her fingers together to keep them from reaching out and batting at the stubborn particles herself.
“Water?” she asked instead, grabbing two bottles. He nodded, and she passed him one. He drank deeply. “Don’t weigh yourself down too much, you’ve still got a race to run.”
He lowered the bottle, grinning. “It’s called a handicap, I’ve got to make it interesting somehow.”
“Ever heard of the phrase ‘over confident’?” she asked primly, occupying her fingers by twisting the lid of her bottle back and forth. Charge and Halfy were now sparring, and she wondered which of Spider and RO had won their match; she wouldn’t be surprised if they had given up as soon as the boss wasn’t looking.
“I prefer to think of it as knowing one’s strengths,” he replied. “Now, I don’t deny Spider’s a great shot, and I’m not going to pretend I’m a sack of muscles like Buffer. But I’m the fastest person on this ship, without question.” As he replaced the lid on his bottle, a glint came into his eye. “We could make it interesting, if you like?”
Everyone knew that Nav couldn’t resist a wager, but she surprised him by shrugging. “I wasn’t planning on betting against you,” she said. “Just saying you could deflate the ego a little.”
He lifted an eyebrow. “Alright, how about this. I won’t just win; I’ll win for you . My race will be a token of my affection.”
Despite the ridiculously flowery language, she could hear the real sentiment behind it, and smiled. “How is it for me when you’ve already said you were going to do it anyway?”
He considered. “So, what, something else? Shall I keep your hankie in my pocket or something?”
“You’ve been watching old movies again,” she accused. “No, how about this. You say you want to… prove your affection?” He nodded, and she continued. “Then you have to do something you wouldn’t normally do.”
“Name it,” he said, blue eyes twinkling.
“Lose,” she said bluntly, and the smile fell from his face.
“Lose the races,” she clarified. “All of them. Against Swain, and Buffer… and Spider. Whatever distance you like, but a clear loss.”
“What does that prove?” he asked, looking stupefied. The concept of losing on purpose was entirely foreign to him.
“That you care more about me than about your pride,” she replied, deciding it was an entirely fitting challenge. “Your choice,” she added. She raised an eyebrow and then, before he could reply, walked away.
Unarmed combat continued for another twenty minutes, with Nav and Bomber reluctantly leaving their log for a bout. “Maybe the X had the right idea,” Bomber muttered as they took their positions. The two women were equal in height, but Nav’s lithe frame possessed more strength. Bomber’s impeccable aim for projectiles was no help here, and it took only a few minutes for Nav to sweep Bomber’s feet out from under her, sending her sprawling.
“She wins, I give up,” Bomber growled, sitting there with her arms crossed until Mike laughingly agreed the contest was over.
Nav helped her up, smirking. “Why didn’t you ask to stay on board, if you hate training days so much?”
“The view is worth it,” Bomber replied, waving vaguely at the beach. Her gesture could have been referring to the golden sand and crystal-clear water… or to the dozen shirtless sailors now preparing for the next stage of “training”.
If the purpose had only been to get some exercise, there would have been a single race with all of them running; but Mike knew that a few hours of relaxation was almost as important for the crew, and had organised for the sprints to be between two people at a time over a distance of a hundred metres. Everyone was required to run at least once.
Unsurprisingly, ET was one of the first to go, challenging Swain. Nav found herself a spot near the finish line, from which she could cheer on her crewmates, while the two men walked down the beach. ET had managed to divest himself of most of his sand suit, and Nav amused herself by watching the play of muscles in his back as he walked away. As they lined up, eyes turned towards Charge – who would give the cue to start – Nav felt a flutter of nervousness. She didn’t doubt that he cared about her; but so far he had prioritised his friends and his reputation over their relationship. She knew what she wanted him to do, but she couldn’t guess whether he would actually do it.
“On your marks…” she heard Charge call, his voice carried on the wind. “Get set… Go!”
And Swain and ET both leapt off the start line, leaning forward as their legs carried them down the beach. Their bare feet churned through the deep sand, their arms swinging. Swain probably knew he didn’t have much of a chance against ET, but he was trying anyway, pushing himself hard, just managing to keep abreast…
Then, about twenty metres from the finish line, Swain began to pull ahead. Perhaps it was the deep sand, or the lack of his running shoes, or the tropical heat of the day, but ET wasn’t able to regain the lead. He crossed the finish line a half stride behind Swain, slowing to a walk and clapping his mate on the back in congratulations. Looking surprised, but quite pleased with himself, Swain accepted the cheers with good grace.
Both of them took a breather, while Spider raced Halfy. It was another close finish but, as Bomber had said, Spider’s long legs gave him enough of an advantage. Bomber herself volunteered for the next race, challenging RO. Nav snorted to herself as the two of them jogged calmly down the track, meeting the minimum definition of “run”. Though she was as fit as any of the boys, Bomber tended not to expend energy unnecessarily. Today had found her in a particularly lazy mood; possibly, Nav mused, because she’d been on watch half the night and then had to be up at five to make breakfast for everyone.
All the same, she abandoned RO with ten metres to go, sprinting over the line ahead of him. “Cheat!” he shouted, though made no effort to catch up.
Then ET offered himself again, telling Buffer he owed him for the wrestling match. Nav caught her breath, hearing the comment. Surely he wouldn’t let Buffer win after throwing down a challenge like that? Maybe he thought it was enough to let Swain win, ignoring her demand that he lose everything. She felt a flicker of doubt. Perhaps he hadn’t even meant to lose that race with Swain.
He didn’t look at her as he and Buff made their way up the line. Bomber came to stand next to Nav, not even breathing heavily. “ET’s got this one in the bag,” she said, crossing her arms.
“Buffer isn’t exactly slow,” Nav pointed out, though she privately agreed. ET couldn’t lose this one except through deliberate effort. Again, the two runners lined up, Charge calling the start.
Then they were off, ET pulling ahead immediately. Within seconds, there was a clear gap between them, and Nav felt a shaft of bitter disappointment.
Even from the other end of the course, she saw the slight flicker in ET’s expression; as if he had been struck by a sudden pain. His right arm altered position, pressing against his side, and his stride shortened. He didn’t stop, but there was a definite change to his pace and before long Buffer was steaming past him. ET crossed the finish line in second place, cursing and rubbing at his side.
“Stretch it out,” Swain said, shaking his head in sympathy as ET gave a very realistic grimace.
“Shouldn’t have had such a big drink before I ran,” he gasped out. He still didn’t look directly at her, making a good show of taking several deep breaths and stretching his arms above his head. It took all her self control not to grin like an idiot, and she forced her attention to the next race.
“Get him while he’s still winded,” Bomber was encouraging Spider behind her, and Nav smiled to herself. ET wouldn’t be able to pull off the stitch excuse again; he was going to have to get inventive.
She wasn’t disappointed. As Charge called for them to start, Spider leapt forward with youthful exuberance, while ET jumped up and promptly fell flat on his face. Within a second, he was scrambling to his feet, but the early lead had motivated the young sailor. With a second victory over ET in sight, he shot down the course, finishing several strides ahead.
ET crossed the line, cursing. “There was a rock!” he whinged, glaring as Spider patted him on the back.
“Cheer up, ET, can’t win them all!”
After that, Swain took over from Charge, while the engineer faced off against Mike. Nav was just wondering who she would run against – perhaps Swain – when ET turned to her.
“Come on, Nav, you haven’t had a turn yet,” he said, raising an eyebrow. “I’ll go easy on you. Don’t think it’s my day, anyway.”
She met his gaze, almost losing her composure at the look of calm acceptance in his sky blue eyes. Losing to Swain hadn’t been too hard. Losing to Buffer had required a decent excuse. Losing to Spider had certainly been a blow to his pride, but he had done it anyway.
That was all she had asked for, and he had proven himself more than adequately. He could have retired there without any further damage to his reputation.
Losing a race to her, in front of the entire crew, even after the public declaration that he would “go easy”, was a step beyond what she had expected.
“Alright,” she said, trying to sound as if she didn’t care one way or another. They didn’t speak as they headed for the starting line. There was nothing they needed to say right now – at least, nothing they could say without breaching all sorts of rules. He had chosen her, she kept thinking to herself, feeling a warmth in her chest even brighter than the sun on her shoulders.
And as they lined up, she realised that she didn’t need anything more. He would do it again, and blame it on chivalry if anyone asked, but he had done enough.
“On your marks,” Swain said, and they crouched down, side by side.
“Go for it, skyeyes,” she muttered out of the corner of her mouth.
She glanced sideways, just a fraction. “You heard me. Run. Win.”
For the first few metres, he held back, keeping pace; then she met her limit, unable to stretch any further with each stride, and he pulled ahead. He crossed the line well before her, skidding to a stop in the sand, grinning at her.
“What happened to going easy on her?” Bomber demanded of him.
“No-one goes easy on me,” Nav protested, trying to slow her heartrate. “Besides,” she added in a stage whisper. “You shouldn’t beat men, it hurts their delicate egos.”
ET raised an eyebrow in her direction, as her words were met with laughter from the rest of the crew. She grinned, too, but the look in her eyes was not mocking or teasing, but genuine in its thanks.