There was no mistaking those blonde curls, or the way his body moved as he jumped off the ladder. She felt her fingers curling tighter around her binoculars, hoping her eyes were wrong, that she wanted so much to see him that her brain had substituted him onto someone else. Then he turned to face the boat, and her heart sank. She wasn’t wrong.
“ET’s been posted with us?” she asked the boss, doing her best not to sound as devastated as she felt.
“Good to have the old gang back together, don’t you think?” Mike replied, oblivious to her inner turmoil.
She swallowed. “Yep.” No longer needing the binoculars, she continued to stare as ET settled in the RHIB. Her heart pounded in her ears, and she could feel the anger rising in her veins. He wasn’t supposed to be here! His last email had come through just yesterday, and he hadn’t mentioned anything about a transfer. The Navy didn’t move that quickly; he had to have known.
When the RHIB moved out of sight around the back of Hammersley, she slowly made her way to the other side of the ship, knowing it would be expected that she watch him come on board. Below her on the main deck, the boys whooped and cheered; they were ecstatic to have their friend back, the foursome complete once more. The annoyance built when she heard his nonchalant response to their teasing; he was acting like it was nothing, like his return wouldn’t change a thing.
But it would change everything.
Restraining some of the fury and taking a casual stance at the railing, she glared down at him. He looked up at the boss with a grin, then his gaze turned to her. Instantly, the smile faded. While her heart jumped around at the sight of those sky blue eyes, she kept a tight rein on her body, not moving a muscle. The playfulness disappeared from his expression, replaced by earnestness as he stared back at her, trying to pin her down.
Immediately, she turned on her heel and stalked away. The cool air of the bridge cascaded over her as she went inside, cooling the desire that had flared in her belly at the sight of him. It wasn’t a surprise that he could incite so many emotions within her; the issue was that she couldn’t stay angry with him and look into his eyes at the same time. And at the moment she needed the anger - it was the only thing keeping the hurt at bay.
Distraction also helped, she found as she returned to her duties. As Officer of the Watch, there were a thousand and one little things she could do to keep her mind off him.
Until he joined her on the bridge, that is. For a few seconds, she avoided looking at him, using the awe and innocence in his tone to fuel the fury. They had agreed he would transfer off the Hammersley, he found a perfectly acceptable reason to leave, and had been gone for weeks. Now, suddenly, he was back. With no notice or preparation. Though she wasn’t sure if any amount of prior warning would have prepared her for the way her heart had dropped when he stepped onto the RHIB. They both knew what it meant for him to come back, knew that anything between them would then be fraternisation - at best - and he had returned anyway.
However he kept making stupid comments, and she couldn’t help but respond. He had to have heard her tone, knew she was annoyed, yet he continued to try and make casual conversation. As if he hadn’t ripped out her heart with his cheeky grin as he stepped onto the RHIB.
She wondered how she’d fallen for such an idiot.
When Charge distracted him, she breathed a sigh of relief; having him right next to her was an exercise in self-control, no matter how angry she was. She returned to her work, even as her ears listened carefully to his voice, trying to detect something - anything - other than his normal tone.
“Na-Nav, have you got a pen I could use?”
Another stab of cold fury hit her when she heard the question, delivered with a shade of hesitation; he knew he was in trouble and wanted her to turn around so he could give her the sky eyes. Well, she wouldn’t. She couldn’t. Because if she looked into those eyes she would read all the affection and apologies in them, and her anger would drain away.
So instead she remained focused on her screen, thrusting a pen back toward him. As soon as she felt his hand begin to close around it, she let go, so he couldn’t touch her skin.
“...thank you.” Now she could hear uncertainty and apprehension in his voice, could feel his eyes on the back of her head. Pressing her fingers hard into the plastic of her console, she continued staring at her screen until Mike’s voice drew his gaze off her.
She listened to his footsteps move off the bridge, each step away tightening the band around her heart. Holding onto the anger was exhausting; he’d been on the ship all of fifteen minutes and she was more tired than after a triple overnight watch. For a brief moment, she let go of the fury, and was instantly overwhelmed; hurt, sadness, confusion, desire, affection, apprehension all competed for her attention. Quickly, she locked them away, back in the box that his sudden appearance had opened. She couldn’t let the other emotions in, not while there were other people around, not while she had to work.
She managed to avoid him for the rest of the day, staying on the bridge around the others long after her watch had ended, then going down to eat dinner with Kate and Buffer. As long as she wasn’t alone, he couldn’t corner her. It also meant she couldn’t think too much about why she was hiding from him, but if she could just make it to bedtime, she would be able to think from the privacy of her rack.
However, she’d forgotten that it was her turn for the garbage run on the main deck - even lieutenants joined in the menial chores - and he followed her into the garbage room.
"Hey,” he said when she saw him, voice gentle and apologetic. She stared at him for a second, incredulous that he would choose here, of all places. It gave him the time to move fully into the room; though he kept a respectful distance, at least. “Look, Nikki, you can't hide from me forever."
“We’ve got nothing to talk about.” She raised her hands in a ‘go away’ gesture, and tried to move past him. Of course, he blocked her way, so she had to stop or she’d touch him. And she couldn’t let herself do that, not here, not now.
“I think we do, Nikki.” Those blue eyes were so sincere, her name falling off his lips so easily. She had missed him, so much.
Shooting a quick look outside to ensure no-one was looking, she shut the door. “You want to get us both kicked off the boat?” Instead of looking back up at his face, she stared at the nametag on his overalls, trying to control her racing heart.
“I’m sorry.” They were the words she’d been waiting to hear, had known they would come as soon as he got her alone. The apology was whispered but genuine, causing her to shuffle her feet as she tried to remember the anger. She could feel his eyes on her forehead, willing her to look up, so she pulled down the furious mask and did so.
“What are you doing here?” She was proud that her tone had no trace of a whine, though she couldn’t yell like she would have liked.
The moment he opened his mouth, those eyes staring right through her, she had to look away. “The Commander, Marshall, made the request himself, he knew I wanted a Cairns posting, if I got picky about which one, he’d get suspicious.” But the longer his explanation went on, the more incredulous she became, until she had to glance back up to show him so.
“Oh, you could have come up with something.” She tilted her head and stared daggers at him, daring him to argue. He exhaled, closing his mouth; which told her everything she needed to know. He hadn’t even tried to get out of coming back. Heart heavy, she looked at the floor once more. “But I guess your priorities aren’t with me, they’re with the Buffer and the Swain-”
He interrupted before she finished, the whisper rough, “You know that is not true-”
She ignored him and continued her train of thought, the one she had feared from the moment he had agreed to transfer off the Hammersley, “You just couldn’t stand to be away from your friends, could you-”
His voice continued over hers, “Nikki, that is not true .” The sincerity and emphasis he put into the last two words, combined with his intense gaze, made her stop. Maybe he was telling the truth? About this part, anyway.
For a moment, she found herself lost in sky blue eyes, and wanted so badly to fall into his arms and make up for all the time they had lost. He must have seen it in her eyes, because there was suddenly a glimmer of hope in his. And it caused the rage to come crashing back down.
She wondered if those feelings were all in her head; whether she had pretended to herself how much he seemed to care. Since anger wasn’t making him understand, she decided to let him see the hurt. “I thought the idea of posting you off the boat was so that we…” She trailed off; unable to say it out loud, that would make things all too real, and the garbage room was not the place for the discussion. Looking away, she took a deep breath to gather herself; she couldn’t show him how much it hurt, because then she would have to feel all of it, and she knew if she allowed herself to do that, she wouldn’t be able to stop herself from breaking down. But he didn’t deserve her tears. So instead she went with the brutal truth. “I’ve deleted your emails.”
His whole face crumpled, and he looked like he was about to cry. Maybe he did care? “..ok.”
“I ‘spose that we’re going to cancel that trip to Fraser Island.” Something tickled at her eye, and she hastily wiped it away as she spoke. It was not a tear, she would not cry over him.
“No, we are not going to cancel the trip,” he said, almost before she’d finished the sentence. “We do everything that we’ve wanted to do, we just...” Her eyes widened as he continued speaking, and she glanced at the door, worried someone would hear them. He could not be serious. “Nikki, we just have to be discreet, no-one has to know.” Apparently he was. Had he always been this much of an idiot? Be discreet, on a ship with 21 people crammed in one another’s laps?
She shook her head as she responded, the fury back once more. “Oh, you are deluded if you think we can have a relationship on a boat this size. Even having this conversation could get us both kicked off.” She reached for the door handle, eager to end this conversation. He didn’t understand what he’d done, and she wasn’t going to waste any more time on it. Though it was playing with fire to say anything once she’d opened it, she couldn’t resist a parting blow. “You know what the crazy thing is? We waited ten times longer than it actually lasted.”
With one final glare at his apologetic face - he’d had pretty much the same expression the entire time - she walked out of the garbage room and straight downstairs to her cabin. He wouldn’t dare interrupt her there, and she could finally allow herself to be overwhelmed by all the emotions that were churning in her gut.
Three days later, she woke in the middle of the night and thrust herself out of her rack. Sitting in the desk chair, she quickly opened her laptop and drummed her fingers on the case while she waited for it to start up.
“Nikki, what are you doing?” Kate’s sleepy voice came from the bottom rack.
“I can’t let them be purged,” Nav replied, frantically opening her email client. She could only hope she wasn’t too late.
“Can’t let what be purged?” Kate asked, now sounding very confused.
Nav exhaled in relief. The emails were still in the Deleted folder. Their system had a weekly purge of deleted items, and she hadn’t been sure when the schedule was due. She carefully returned ET’s emails to her personal folder.
Three days ago, she’d been telling him the truth when she said she had deleted his emails. She just hadn’t told him that they were still in the Deleted folder. Though she was still mad at him and at everything to do with their situation, she didn’t really want them gone.
They had been apart for 6 weeks, and he’d written faithfully every two or three days. Much of it was every day stuff; what he was doing in training, how the crew were treating him, the lieutenant who was ragging on him. But at the end of every email came a few lines about how he missed her, or how something had reminded him of her, or something he wanted to do together. Those were the parts she treasured, knowing that he had been thinking about her while they were apart.
Even though things were bad now, she was coming to realise she had invested far too much in their relationship - in him - to be able to switch off the feelings. It wasn’t the right time now, but perhaps someday, it would be.
Emails saved, she closed the laptop and climbed back into her rack. She was just about to drift off when she heard Kate talking in her sleep.
“Relationships don’t end because you say so.”