It wasn’t an order, at least. Instead, Mike Flynn and his roguish grin were taking things a step further. He was asking, and implying that her response would reflect her affection and loyalty.
It was a trick Nav had seen before. This time she wouldn’t be fooled so easily. “No.”
“Please?” He didn’t bat his eyelashes as he leaned against the doorway of her cabin, but he came very close.
“No,” she repeated, just as firmly.
“The Navy team were all from the Wollongong, they were shipped out suddenly, and if the Navy can’t put together a team by tomorrow, we’ll have to forfeit.”
She turned away and continued packing her bag, resisting the urge to throw something at him. Annoying or not, he was her CO. “That’s a shame. Why don’t you ask Kate?”
“Because you’re the best strategist on this ship.”
“She said no, didn’t she.” His lack of a straight answer was telling; she knew that he was trying not to outright lie to her by evading the question. Obviously, he hadn’t asked Kate, probably for a similar reason she was so adamant against agreeing herself.
“Come on, Nav! When do I ever ask you for favours?”
She crossed her arms and looked back at him with a glare. “Daily,” she answered. “Which I never complain about. But now you’re asking me to give up my one day of shore leave to play games with Army grunts.”
“Doesn’t it sound fun?” he said, a little weakly.
She met his gaze patronisingly. “Not particularly.”
“For the pride of the Navy?”
“The Navy has plenty of talented people, and I’m sure there are a half dozen out there who don’t already have plans.” She didn’t elaborate; there was no need to tell Mike that her plans mostly involved hanging out at her place in various states of undress with a certain blonde sailor.
A smirk crossed his face and, as she went to walk past him, he added innocently, “You need a team. Your weekend plan could go, too.”
She resisted the urge to sigh loudly at the polite, but not-so-subtle, attempt at blackmail. Apparently, he was done pretending he knew nothing about her relationship. “Why don’t you do it?”
He ignored the question. “Incidentally, your old mate, Craig Bolt… you’re not on speaking terms with him, are you?”
Thrown by the sudden change in topic, she stopped, looking back despite her resolve to leave quickly. “Not since he tried to blow up Spider. Why?” She never liked to hear about ex-boyfriends, and the self-absorbed, arrogant, insensitive combat engineer was one she had never thought to encounter again. Not for the first time, she wondered why she had gone out with him in the first place.
“Oh, didn’t I mention?” And suddenly the roguish grin was back, and she had a sinking feeling in her stomach, as if she could see her plans crumbling around her. “He’s leading the Army team tomorrow.” She tried to keep her expression blank, but her irritation must have shown on her face. He lifted an eyebrow. “I take it your weekend just opened up?”
Despite the casual clothes worn by the twelve competitors, the division between the two teams was immediately obvious. They had all been called into the adjudicator’s pavilion, at which point the Army team had all gathered on the left side, and the Navy team on the right. Swain considered the opposition thoughtfully. Four men, two women - the same makeup as their own team - but all of them broad shouldered and straight backed. All were dressed in khaki shorts and green or grey shirts, unlike the Navy team’s brighter shore clothes. Swain wondered if they thought it would give them a tactical advantage, or whether wearing camo all the time just sank into their brains. Craig Bolt stood at the front of his group and appeared to have lost none of his swagger in the two years since Swain had seen him. His gaze travelled across to Nav every few seconds, a frown growing between his brows. He seemed puzzled that his enthusiastic greeting had been returned with nothing more than friendly politeness.
A sly smile crossed Swain’s face. The cause of Nav’s reticence now stood at her left shoulder, his expression forcefully blank as he stared straight ahead. Swain could only imagine what she had said to ET to prevent him glowering through the entire day. Not that ET had any reason to be jealous, Swain reflected, but he knew from experience how difficult it was to see your partner interact with an ex, no matter how brief the relationship or how long ago it had ended.
“How exactly did we get roped into this?” Buffer grumbled at his side.
Swain glanced over. “Well, Nav couldn’t resist challenging her ex, and she somehow convinced ET to come along.” Buffer smirked at the intimation. “I wasn’t really looking forward to leave all that much, because Sally won’t be back from visiting her parents until next week. Mandy dumped you, so you had nothing to do, anyway. Bomber has some sort of issue with the Army in general and, once she agreed, Spider of course was going to come, too.”
Buffer frowned. “Why would he do that?”
“He wants everyone to know that he can do anything she can do,” said Swain. It was true enough, though it probably wasn’t Spider’s only reason for agreeing. Buffer’s expression had cleared, though, and Swain decided now wasn’t the time to share his suspicions.
At that moment, Nav glanced back at the two of them. “How about you save the gossip until after we’ve won?” she suggested with a grin, gesturing back to the adjudicator, who was working through a list of rules for the competition.
Pretty straightforward, Swain thought. A basic variation of Capture the Flag - in this case, flags. Forty nine square tokens scattered around a bush arena, almost three square kilometres in size, each one worth between one and ten points. Whichever team collected the most points within three hours won. Each flag also gave directions which would help to locate others.
“However, hidden somewhere in the arena is a very special flag, codenamed the Snitch,” continued the adjudicator, a thoroughly bored looking lieutenant. Swain grinned at the thought of asking him what he’d done to get stuck with this activity. “Each team will be given a clue directing them towards the Snitch. If either team succeeds in bringing the Snitch back to their base, the game ends and that team gains an additional one hundred and fifty points.” The adjudicator’s delivery was so flat, Swain couldn’t tell if he understood the pop culture reference he’d just made. Bomber and Spider were both trying to hide smiles behind their hands, having taken Nav’s “pride of the Navy” peptalk seriously.
“So, basically, get that or you lose,” Buffer commented quietly. Swain nodded in agreement.
“Each person will wear one of these around their waist,” the adjudicator continued, holding up a cloth belt. A long strip of cloth dangled from the end. “Army will be blue, Navy white. If someone pulls off your tag, you are their prisoner until such time as you can reconnect your tag. Any flags being carried by the prisoner are to be turned over to the person holding their tag. Your team will gain fifty additional points for each opponent tag you have in your possession at the end of the game. As a prisoner, you are required to stay with the person who has your tag and to follow all reasonable instructions. You may not remove the tags for any reason; if you lose your tag without it being stolen, your team will lose fifty points.”
Swain saw Spider lean over and whisper something to Bomber, who slapped him on the arm without even turning around. Craig’s expression turned thoughtful as he stared at Nav, and ET, seeing it, glared at him. Swain sighed to himself. It looked like the rest of his team had motivation enough, but it might fall to him to actually do anything about winning.
“Any questions? Alright, each team now has fifteen minutes before the starting pistol indicates you can leave your base. From that point, you will have three hours, or until someone brings in the Snitch. You must attach your belt and tag. Any other time can be spent devising a strategy with your teammates. There is a portable radio waiting for each of you at your base, which can be clipped onto your belt. This is to be used for emergencies only, and not to communicate with team members. All channels will be monitored to prevent cheating.”
Nav led the way to their base. A large canopy was set up, purely to keep the weather off, with no sides to bar either team from seeing what the other was doing. The majority of the space under the canopy was taken up by a table and chair, in which sat an official. He would count their points when the flags were returned to base, and ensure the other team didn’t steal any flags already counted. Another table in the corner held a water cooler, which would enable them to refill their water bottles. While Swain and the others collected their belts and tags from the official, Nav’s eyes were firmly fixed on the map spread out on the tabletop. Swain could see the same look of concentration on her face as the one she showed when she was working. Obviously, she was taking today very seriously.
He peered over her shoulder at the map. Their arena had been outline by a red marker and was a rough square shape. The starting point was near the south-east corner. Along the western edge ran a river. Near the north-western corner it intersected with another river, which flowed in a south-easterly direction, cutting across their arena. Beyond that river, in the northern third of the arena, the ground shifted from bush to swamp. Throughout it all cut dozens of walking trails, lookouts, and even two picnic spots. Swain had the impression that today wouldn’t be as easy as wandering along the trails like a tourist.
“I look like a lemur,” ET muttered as he attached his belt, the tag hanging down behind him like a long, white tail.
“So put it at the front,” Bomber said, smirking at him. After a moment’s thought, he copied her in placing the tag on one side, so that it hung down beside his right leg.
“Alright, boss,” Swain said, looking at Nav. “What’s the plan?”
She stood up straight and buckled on the belt ET handed her. “Why do I have to come up with the plan?” she asked archly.
“Because we’re dumb sailors and you already have a plan,” Buffer replied. She narrowed her eyes at him and he just stared back until she grinned.
“Okay, fine. It’s a pretty simple plan.” Under the watchful eye of the official, she handed out their radios, which clipped neatly onto the belts around their waists. “The plan is to find more flags than the other guys.”
Swain looked at the others, who were as bemused as he was. “That’s not exactly a plan,” he finally said.
“It’s an end goal, which is absolutely a plan,” she replied.
ET groaned. “Don’t ruin this day with specifics. Today already sucks,” he told her with a pout.
Ignoring him, she looked over in the direction of the Army base. Following her gaze, Swain could see them huddled around Craig, who was pointing in their direction. “Here’s the thing. We already know exactly what they are going to do. They aren’t going to waste their time looking for flags. They want the hundred and fifty points for finding the Golden Snitch.”
“I think it’s just a regular Snitch,” Spider interjected.
“This game lasts three hours and this arena is bigger than most suburbs. Mostly bush, two rivers, some swamp,” she pointed out, and Swain was reminded of how good she was at her job; she’d only looked at the map for a minute or two. “That Snitch is not going to be anywhere easy to find.”
“We have a clue, though,” Swain said, taking a piece of paper from the official’s desk.
“Doesn’t matter,” Nav said. “We’re not looking for the Snitch.”
“We’re not? Nav, it’s an instant win!” ET looked at her beseechingly. “You want us to waste the whole damn day running around after flags?”
“No, it’s not. We’re going to play a numbers game. We’ll split up to cover more ground. Bomber, Spider, ET; you look to the north of our current position.” She gestured at the right hand half of the arena. “Swain, Buffer, to the north-west.”
“And you?” Swain asked, though he thought he already knew.
“I’ll see if I can figure out this Snitch clue,” she said. “Your focus should be on the flags, though, particularly the higher point ones. Make sure you return to base regularly to have them added to our total - if you get taken prisoner, we don’t want to lose everything.”
Swain glanced at ET, a resigned smile on his face. “You know, for a moment, I almost believed her when she asked why the plan was her job.”
Nav bit her lip, looking momentarily embarrassed at how completely she had taken charge. “I’ll take suggestions.”
“Here’s one,” said Bomber. She pointed at ET. “Take him with you. I don’t want to listen to him whinge all morning.”
“Why would I be whingeing?” he asked, glaring back.
“Did you want to come?” she retorted, crossing her arms.
He looked around the group, avoiding Nav’s gaze. “Well, no.”
Bomber’s expression told them it was settled, and she addressed Nav. “You made him come. You can deal with him.”
Though she rolled her eyes at Bomber, she nodded, and Swain thought he caught a glimpse of satisfaction on her face. It seemed things were coming together exactly as she had planned.
From the adjudicator’s pavilion came a sudden loud bang, and they all looked up. “We ready to go?” Buffer asked.
“Unless anyone else has another suggestion?” Nav asked, her expression daring one of them to speak up. “Then let’s go.”
“Why did you want to come anyway?” Spider grumbled as he pulled a flag off a tree. The ‘flags’ were squares of bright yellow fabric, which they had found tacked to trees, hanging off branches and pinned under rocks. He checked the directions printed on the flag. “Bearing 020.”
Bomber raised an eyebrow. “I already got rid of one whining boy, I can find a way to be rid of the other.”
He tucked the fabric into his pocket, and stared petulantly back at her. “You’re really enjoying tramping around the woods in this heat?”
“I’ll enjoy the look on the faces of those arrogant, stuck up jerks when we beat them.” She took a bearing off the compass on her watch and pointed the way further north.
As they hiked, he shot her a bemused look. “What do you have against the Army? They never tried to blow you up.”
She smiled and took his hand. “I’m glad they didn’t succeed.”
The moment only lasted a few seconds before they were forced to break apart to negotiate a fallen tree. With Spider’s long legs, he hurdled the tree with ease, then helped Bomber over. “So, what, did you date an Army jerk?”
“I made the mistake of dating two, both arrogant dickheads who thought they were so much better than me just because they were Army.” She pulled a flag out from under a rock and checked the instructions written on it. “The next one should be east.”
“And you finally came to your senses and realised Navy guys are where it’s at,” Spider commented with a grin.
She shoved him playfully in the stomach, then ran away laughing. He lunged at her, but missed, so then crashed through the bush after her. If anyone had been looking for them, there would have been no trouble in locating them, with the noise they were making.
Knowing she wasn’t fast enough to stay out of his sight for long, Bomber took an opportunity when she saw a tree with a sturdy fork only a metre off the ground. With a leap, she was into the branches, shimmying her way into the foliage until she was three or four metres up. She had to clap her hand over her own mouth to prevent a giggle escaping when Spider came into view below her, looking much too forlorn for the situation.
“Bomb?” he called out, making zero effort to be quiet. She remained as silent and still as possible, watching as he searched for her. As expected, he didn’t raise his gaze above eye level, so she was in no danger of being seen. Then she blinked when he hardened his voice and said, “Bomber, I order you to show yourself.”
“Since when do you give me orders?” The words were out of her mouth before she thought through the consequences.
He grinned up at her. “So you can follow instructions,” he said lightly, then held up a hand. For a moment she couldn’t comprehend the strip of white fabric he held, until he turned his hips to show the tag hanging down his leg. Her hand flew to her waist, but all she could feel was the denim of her shorts. He had taken her tag. Comprehension flooded through her as she realised he hadn’t missed her when she’d run - he had grabbed what he had intended to grab.
“You know you don’t earn any points for taking the tags of your own teammates.”
“Maybe not,” he replied, swinging the tag in a circle. “But you still need to do what I say.”
She rolled her eyes. “That only applies to the other team, idiot.”
“No, what he said was ‘as a prisoner, you are required to stay with the person who has your tag and to follow all instructions’. Nothing about which team.” He smirked up at her, then held out his arms. “Now hop down, I’ll catch you.”
For a few seconds, she considered taunting him some more - always a fun past-time - but then she spotted a flag in the tree next to her, and remembered that they had a job to do. Sliding down the trunk until she was back at the fork, she jumped lightly to the floor, then made her way over to the next trunk.
Though he pouted when she chose not to jump into his arms, Spider made no comment, instead joining her at the next tree. The flag was way above her head, but he could probably have reached it - if he had been so inclined. Crossing his arms, he leaned against the trunk and flashed the tag at her again. “Climb up then.”
Scowling, she snatched her tag back and secured it to her belt. She looked at him questioningly, but he only raised an eyebrow and pointed his finger at the flag.
“You want to explain to Nav why we only found two flags?” she asked.
“You’re the one who was monkeying around up a tree,” he retorted, but reached up and grabbed the flag anyway. He checked the message written on it, then indicated past the trunk. “Two more this way. Guess you can run in the right direction without trying.”
She tilted her head and smirked at him.“Haven’t you learned by now that I’m always right?”
He snorted. “Not when you’re going against Nav.”
For a while, they continued following the track to the east, collecting flags as they went. Other than the occasional exclamation over insects, and flag directions, they were mostly silent. Despite her initial hesitation at being paired with Spider, Bomber realised she was actually having a lot of fun with him. Maybe they would need to make plans to go hiking another shore leave.
“So if you didn’t want to do this, why did you agree?” Bomber asked curiously. She knew what she wanted the answer to be, but wasn’t certain.
He shot her a look. “What was I going to do all Saturday without you?”
“What would you have done on leave two months ago?” she retorted with a smirk.
For a moment, he thought about it carefully, and she just watched the process with amusement. He displayed his emotions so openly on his face. That was something she liked most about him; she never had to wonder what he was thinking. “Probably played footy with Buff and ET,” he eventually said, and she dipped her head in agreement.
“So, just think of this as a big game of footy,” she said. “But with flags instead of a ball.”
“And if we win, do I get a kiss?” he asked, moving toward her with what would have been a swagger if he hadn’t looked so unsure. His lack of confidence in her reactions was something she was going to have to work on, if they were going to make this work. Though she loved their banter, she needed him to trust the flirting as well.
She beamed at him and ran a finger down his chest. “Oh, I think a win would earn you more than a kiss.” His face broke into a grin and moved toward hers, and she smirked, taking his hand as she aimed for the next flag. “But first you have to win!”
“Here,” Swain called, grabbing the square of fabric. It was attached to the tree at head height, clearly visible and easily obtained. As such, he wasn’t surprised to turn it over and see a large ‘2’ denoting its point value. “Barely worth the effort,” he added.
“Any instructions?” Buffer asked. Some of the flags they had collected had given directions to three or four nearby flags; others only gave one or two hints. Others gave nothing.
“One,” Swain replied. “Should be… that way.” He pointed to the south, back the way they had come. “About two hundred metres.”
The two men pushed through the light bush, and Swain found himself enjoying the day. The weather was good, he was out with friends, and there was the promise of beer when they were done. It wasn’t really a bad way to spend leave.
“Should be around here,” Buffer commented after a minute. They peered around, searching for the bright splash of yellow. “Unless they’ve already got it.”
“Nav seems pretty sure they won’t bother looking for the little ones,” Swain replied.
“You reckon she’s right?”
“How often is she wrong?” he retorted. “No wonder the boss insisted she run this thing. Remember what she pulled last time we played this game.”
With an aggrieved sigh, Buffer nodded. “We’ll do it her way, then. Doesn’t feel right to be ignoring the big one, though.”
“Ah!” Swain exclaimed in satisfaction, his eyes catching on the yellow flag. “Ah,” he repeated, less enthusiastically. When Buffer looked over, Swain lifted an arm and pointed. The flag dangled at the end of a rope, suspended several metres above their heads.
“Ah,” Buffer agreed, scratching at his chin. “How do we get up there?”
“Climb, I guess,” Swain said doubtfully. The trunk of the tree was smooth and thick, with no other branches within reach. The branch to which the flag was attached was too thin to support his weight, and he wasn’t sure if he would be able to reach it from the trunk.
“Let me try this,” Buffer said, finding a thick stick on the ground nearby. He took careful aim before chucking it at the flag.
“You missed,” Swain said, unable to help himself. Undeterred, Buffer found another stick and tried again. This time, it brushed the yellow fabric, causing it to spin about on the end of its string. “Oh, now that is better,” said Swain, catching a brief glimpse of the number printed on the flag. “Double digits.”
“Trust them not to make the ten pointers easy,” Buff grunted, finding a bigger stick. This time, he aimed higher, knocking the thin branch hard enough to cause it to wobble. The stick, however, bounced backwards, and only his hastily-raised arm kept it from smashing into his face. “Ow,” he said, rubbing at his forearm. “You know, I think Nav’s right.”
“I agree. About what?”
“If this is what we have to do to get a ten point flag, imagine how hard it must be to get the Snitch.”
“Good point,” Swain said thoughtfully. Buffer found a rock, and hurled it at the branch. Even though it struck firmly, the branch seemed indifferent to the attack, swaying gently. “You won’t get enough force.” Swain studied the tree. “Give me a boost, I’ll try to get up there.”
Buffer braced his hands at the base of the thick trunk, then lifted Swain forcefully into the air, just high enough for him to grab the lowest branch. “Wish we had Spider about now,” Buffer commented.
“Probably could have thrown him straight at the flag,” Swain said with a grin, standing carefully on the branch and reaching for the next one. It wasn’t going to be an easy climb, but he could see a way of doing it. He worked his way up, ignoring the sweat dripping down his face. It was like a series of acrobatic chin-ups, which had never been his favourite exercise. Finally, he crouched on the branch directly below the thin stick which held the flag. He definitely couldn’t reach it from here. He reached for the stick, gripped it firmly.
“Just break it off,” Buffer called, and Swain considered the stick. It felt wrong to damage the tree just to get at a flag. Then again, losing one little branch wouldn’t hurt it too much. He tugged at the stick. Despite being thin, it was in good health, and only swayed towards him. Glaring at it, he wrapped his fingers firmly around it, and pulled down. For a few moments, he and the tree battled for possession of the branch. Then, with a crack, it tore loose, and the momentum pulled Swain backwards.
With a yelp, he forgot about the flag and grabbed for the branch he had been crouching on. He didn’t fall, but he wasn’t able to offset his momentum completely, a second later finding himself hanging from the thick branch like a sloth.
“It’s alright, Swaino,” Buffer called up. “We don’t need that big one.”
“Funny,” he shouted back. His arms were aching from climbing the tree in the first place, and he didn’t think he had the strength to pull himself back up. He peered down, studying the ground. “How far, do you reckon?”
“Bit under three metres,” Buffer replied.
Swain tightened his armhold, and unclasped his legs. “How about now?” His boots dangled in mid air.
“One and a half,” Buffer guessed. “Careful!”
Feeling his grip weaken, he braced himself and let go. He hit the ground with a jarring thud, and let himself fall backwards so that his legs didn’t take all of the impact at once. Lying on his back, staring up at Buffer’s grin as he held up the flag, Swain suddenly decided that there were lots of better ways he could have spent this leave.
“You going to tell me where we’re going?” ET asked, following Nav down the path. The national park had several scenic walks, though the flags they were looking for wouldn’t be within such easy reach. Most of them, at least, she thought, grabbing a one point flag from the nearby trail marker.
“Through here,” she said. “I saw it on the map.”
“A hanging rock?”
The path led to a neat picnic ground, with several tables clustered near an outdoor barbecue. A well kept toilet block sat behind a small playground. ET’s eyes lingered hopefully on the swingset for a moment, before he frowned.
“I don’t see any rock,” he said.
“Are you always so literal?” she asked. “The clue said ‘at the hanging rock’. So, obviously… picnic.”
He made a noise of surprised understanding. “Okay,” he said. “So, we’re at the picnic ground. Where’s the next clue?”
She walked towards the tables, gesturing. “Look around.”
With a sigh, he followed her and looked under a table. “We were going to have fun this weekend,” he whined.
“We are having fun!” She kept her voice positive, not allowing her annoyance to seep in. So this hadn’t been his first choice of activity for their shared shore leave; it hadn’t been hers either, but she was making the best of it. At least they could hang out together.
“No, we’re running around the bush.”
“You like running.”
“Not when I could be doing… other things.” The look her gave her left no doubt as to what ‘other things’ he meant. She grinned back, eyes raking over his body; even sweaty and acting like a petulant teenager, he made her pulse speed up.
“We will have plenty of time for that later,” she promised.
As expected, his eyes lit up and he redoubled his searching efforts. She repressed a chuckle. Men were all the same; no matter how serious the relationship, they could always be bribed with sex. It was part of the reason she usually tried to avoid seeing ex-boyfriends. No matter how bad the break-up, they always assumed that they had a chance to get in her pants if they saw her again. Craig was no different. Two years ago, her relationship with ET had been pure flirtation, yet she’d still chosen to toss away Craig’s card. When he had seen her this morning, though, his smile and greeting had told her that, for him, nothing had changed - which was a big part of the reason why she wanted to beat him today.
“Got it,” ET announced proudly, pulling her out of her musing. She looked over to see him on his hands and knees under one of the tables, his bum poking out. For a moment, she admired the muscles in view, then caught herself. She couldn’t very well berate him for having a one-track mind when she so often found her own thoughts wandering in the same direction.
“Well, bring it out,” she told him.
“I can’t, it’s attached. Must be so we can’t steal it before the other team can read it.”
“What’s it say?”
“Come in here and read it yourself,” he called, amusement obvious in his tone. “We both know that you’re going to think I’ve read it wrong when it doesn’t make any sense. And stop staring at my arse.”
Sighing, she crawled under the other end of the table, her bare knees scraping on the concrete. “Want me to check your hair for spiders, after?” she asked, coming face to face with him. “Where’s the clue?”
“Here,” he said, leaning forward to kiss her. She smiled as she kissed back, but pulled away when he tried to deepen it. Without a word of complaint, he raised his eyes. “Up.”
She craned her head up, seeing a piece of laminated paper bolted to the underside of the table. “‘Chase your shadow. DXL. Read the inverted sphere’,” she read. “You’re right, I would have assumed you were garbling that. I’m not even sure I’m not messing it up.”
He gaped at her. “Did the world end? Did you just say I was right ?”
Chuckling, she shoved his shoulder with a palm. “Move out of the way, so I can see this better.”
Instead, he rolled over, so that he was lying on his back. “It’s easier to see this way, don’t have to crane your neck.”
She looked down at him and wrinkled her nose. “Concrete is uncomfortable.” He stuck one arm out to the side, and she lay down, using his bicep as a pillow. “You’re not,” she said, a smile creeping over her face. It was those moments of simple and sincere affection that proved how much he cared.
“We can figure this out,” he said encouragingly. “It’s got to be directions, right?”
“Most likely,” she agreed. “So… chase our shadows… since it’s morning, our shadows are pointing west.”
“Slightly south-west. Does that mean we go that way, or just straight west?”
“Don’t overthink it,” she told him. “We’ll try west, if that doesn’t work, we’ll try the more specific version. DXL... what is DXL?”
“Men’s clothing?” he suggested. “Charge once bought a suit from them.”
“Somehow, I doubt it. If these are directions, we’ve got a bearing, now we need a distance.”
“DXL,” he repeated, his forehead creasing. She waited, a smirk tugging at her mouth as he thought it through. “Distance… Extra… Long?” he said, confused. At her snicker, he poked her shoulder. “Just tell me, Miss Brilliant Lieutenant, you’re h… this ground is uncomfortable.”
“D, five hundred,” she said, letting his near-blunder pass. “XL, forty. Five hundred and forty metres.”
“Roman numerals?” He made a sound of exasperation. “You could have just said that. Hurry up, what’s the last bit?”
“Read the inverted sphere.” She rolled off him and began crawling out from under the table. “Remember that. I think we’ll need it once we get there.”
She checked the compass on her watch and began striding west, forcing him to jog to catch up. “Well, at least we know we’re ahead now,” he said. “As if Explosive Ordinance is gonna be able to figure that out.”
“Shush,” she said, frowning. “I’m counting.”
Travelling in a straight line west was easier said than done. She almost lost count several times as they worked their way around trees and thick tangles of vines.
“Three hundred and twelve,” she muttered under her breath, just as she glanced back. ET was gone. “ET?”
“Here,” he called back, crashing through an overgrown knot of weeds. Her eyes narrowed as she looked at him. He stared back for a moment, then, with a soft smile, brought out one hand from behind his back, offering her a flower.
A silly grin caught her before she could stop it, and her stern posture lost most of its impact. “Now is not the time,” she said, even as she accepted the gift, tucking it behind her left ear.
“There must always be time,” he replied seriously, staring at her with eyes so blue and so wide that she thought she might drown in his gaze. “Romance doesn’t stop just because I finally got you into bed. I love you. And I will always get you flowers.”
She just stared back at him, trying not to fall into his arms like a teenage girl. “You are so…” She couldn’t finish the sentence, but from the smug little grin he gave her, he knew how adorable he was being. It was part of what she loved about him; not just that he was uber charming and romantic, but that he wasn’t shy about flaunting that he knew so. Taking the final step into his arms, she kissed him softly. When they broke apart, she grabbed his hand to stop him wandering off again.
“Two hundred twenty metres to go?” he asked, twining his fingers through hers.
Nodding, she checked her compass again, and pointed the way west. She had almost reached her count of five hundred and forty before he interrupted again.
“Here, here,” he called suddenly, pointing to a large boulder on their left. It was almost as high as he was. “Check this thing out.”
“It’s a rock,” she said, bemused.
“A rather spherical rock, don’t you think?” She blinked in surprise. “Sometimes you need to be literal,” he added, nudging her in the side.
“Alright,” she agreed. “What’s the difference between a sphere and an inverted sphere? A sphere is fully symmetrical.”
He pressed a hand against the side of the boulder. “Not if there’s something written on the bottom,” he said.
She repressed a groan. “Josh, if you’re going to tell me that we need to turn that rock over…”
“We don’t have to,” he said calmly. “We could go back to base and have a nap, let Craig find the Snitch, and surrender the Navy’s reputation to a bunch of musclebound knobs.” He met her gaze, then arched an eyebrow. “If you prefer.”
Rolling her eyes, she pushed lightly against the rock. “I think we’ll let Archimedes help with this one. Look for a lever.”
The first stick they tried broke as soon as they added any force. The second was too short to form a useful lever. Finally, they dragged over a fallen branch, digging one end into the ground beneath the boulder. “You’d better be right about this,” she said, as they hauled on the other end. The rock lifted briefly, then settled back down.
“Together, on three,” he grunted in reply. “One, two… heave!”
She pulled down on the top of the branch, lifting her feet off the ground to lend her whole weight to the problem. With a sucking sound, the boulder pulled free of the dirt and rolled. For one terrible second, Nav thought it might just keep going until the base was back on the ground, but it stopped almost immediately.
“Anything written there?” he asked, rubbing at his shoulder.
“It’s too dirty, I can’t tell,” she said. She saw him open his mouth, and threw him a warning look. Sensibly, he closed it, coming forward to rub at the dirt himself. She grabbed a leafy branch and swiped at the surface. It brushed off quite easily, suggesting that the rock had not been sitting there undisturbed for very long. Dark green spots were soon visible.
“Morse?” he asked, as they cleared enough of the muck to see the pattern of dots and dashes. “Dot dot dash, that’s… uh...”
“U,” she said, poking his shoulder. “You should know this!”
“Who ever uses morse code?” he protested. “I know these ones, these are numbers. One, three, zero.”
“K-G,” she finished. “One hundred and thirty kilograms. The first part says… U-P-H-I-L-L. Uphill.”
“Uphill in which direction?”
She looked down at the ground beneath their feet, which sloped slightly downhill to the east and south. To the west, it looked fairly level. To the north was a gentle rise. “Only one hill that I can see,” she replied. “Come on.”
“Wait, are we just going to leave this here?” he asked, pointing to the rock. “We’ve done all the work.”
“We’d spend more time levering it back into place than they would need to tip it back over,” she pointed out. “Let’s not waste our lead.”
This time, they didn’t have to go far. The gentle rise led them to a small hill, which they scrambled up easily. There, they found what looked like a short see-saw. A thick metal box weighed down one end.
“Hundred and thirty kilos?” ET said, looking at it.
“Guess so,” she agreed. “Seems pretty straightforward. Balance the scale.”
ET jumped onto the other end of the scale. His weight cause it to dip slightly, but wasn’t enough to raise the box. “You get up here, too,” he said. He held out a hand, and she climbed up beside him. Though there was plenty of space on the platform, he pulled her to his chest, wrapping an arm around her as the see-saw began to tilt their way.
For a moment, the scale was level, and they heard a click. Then it continued to tilt, carrying them closer to the ground.
“Too much,” she said, jumping off. “Ah!” As the see-saw tipped back, for a moment it was level again, and this time she saw the central mechanism click open. “The clue is inside, I almost saw it. We need to weigh down our side to keep it level.”
“This is going to mean more rocks, isn’t it?” he muttered, also jumping down. “That’s a lot of rocks.”
“We don’t have to go too far, at least,” she said, pointing. A wheelbarrow stood under a nearby tree, filled with cinder blocks. His eyes brightened.
“Easy,” he said, trying to lift the wheelbarrow. It didn’t move. Grimacing, he heaved on the handles, and it wobbled.
“Stop that before you knock it over,” she scolded lightly. “Just carry them.” To demonstrate, she grabbed one of the heavy concrete bricks and carried it to the scale. She rolled her eyes a moment later, as he staggered over carrying two of the blocks at once. “One at a time would do.”
He dropped them onto the scale with a bang. “All good,” he said, then grimaced, rubbing at his back. “How many of these, do you think? Ten?”
“Sure. Or six bricks and one Josh. Unless you wanted the chance for some weight lifting?”
Chuckling, he lifted her into the air. “Like this?” She just glared at him, though couldn’t stop a smile tugging at her lips. He put her down quickly, then rolled his shoulder. “Ow.”
She narrowed her eyes. If he strained something being stupidly corny she would… probably give him a massage later. Catching her gaze, he straightened his posture.
“Come on. More bricks,” he said brightly, leading back to the wheelbarrow. This time he only carried one, but was apparently trying to make up for lack of quantity with speed. He had it on the scale and was lifting another by the time she put hers down.
When he placed the sixth brick on the scale and turned back to the wheelbarrow, she put a hand on his arm. “Wait, that should be enough. Now you hop on.” He climbed up on top of the bricks, which they had arranged in a single layer. She watched intently as the scale slowly became level and the central mechanism clicked open. Eagerly, she began to read the clue that was revealed, only for the door to close before she’d finished the first line. It wasn’t until she raised her head that she understood; it was again too heavy.
“I’m too much,” ET commented, echoing her thoughts. “Let’s swap, you’ll be perfect.”
Once more, her eyes narrowed at him. “And how much do you think I weigh?”
The smooth grin he shot her didn’t match the wild panic that she glimpsed in his eyes. “Exactly the right amount.” She rolled her eyes, but returned the grin as he jumped down and she took his place. This time, the scale stayed level. “Told you you were perfect,” he said before peering at the clue. “Go 820 metres east-nor-east to the river.” He blinked, then stared up at her.
“Well, is that it, or is that pretty much it?” she demanded, resisting the urge to put her hands on her hips. “Read out exactly what it says.”
“‘Go 820 m ENE to the river’,” he read dutifully.
“That feels… too simple,” she said, brow creasing in confusion.
“You think it’s a trick?”
“I think it’s too easy.”
“Hey, they had to put in a few easy ones, or the Army guys would never have a chance.” He snickered to himself, but she ignored him, hopping off the scale. Why would the clue be that simple?
“Well, let’s do what it says, I guess,” she decided. The compass on her watch quickly gave her the bearing, and she pointed. “River sounds good, at least. It’s getting hot out here.”
“Now, see, if I had suggested we go swimming, you would have told me to stay focussed,” he pointed out.
“We’re way ahead, I think we can take a few minutes to cool off.” She flashed him a grin. “I’ll race you,” she said, then took off before he had even heard the words.
Buffer swore under his breath as he ran through the bush. Things had been going just a little too smoothly. They had scooped up flag after flag without a problem and it was only luck that they had escaped the ambush; Swain had spotted movement on the path ahead of them, and they had already started running as four guys with blue tags swarmed out from behind the trees.
When the pursuit had become alarmingly close, Swain had veered off into the bush, forcing Buffer to follow or risk being separated. He was sure that the rougher terrain was slowing them more than their pursuers, but there was no going back now. Though their physical condition was good, allowing them to maintain the headlong pace, Buffer couldn’t help but think that if there were four people following them, that left two still out there somewhere.
“Buff!” Swain called, and Buffer saw his friend disappearing to the right. He followed, listening to the sound of someone crashing through the bush right behind him.
One hand strayed to his pocket, ensuring that the flags he had collected hadn’t fallen out. If he was caught, the enemy would take possession of all those points, which they had spent the last hour collecting. They would also get an extra fifty points for his tag. All in all, the outcome of the game could well rest on his ability to escape right now. Then, ahead, he saw the trees thin until all that lay ahead of them was a large, flat rock and empty space.
“Jump!” Swain shouted, and Buffer watched in disbelief as Swain leapt off the edge. He didn’t hesitate, however, and had already made the decision to jump when he heard the loud splash below. He braced himself, trying to keep his entry as shallow as possible, not having any idea how deep the river was at this point.
He needn’t have worried; though the current was gentle, the water was deep and clear. He resurfaced, automatically turning to look at the rock from which they had jumped. Three of the Army guys - well, one guy and two girls - were staring down at them, frustrated expressions reassuring Buffer that none of them were so heavily invested that they were going to jump in after them.
“I figured they weren’t in the mood for a swim,” Swain said, treading water beside Buffer.
“Did you know where you were going?” Buffer asked, more than a little concerned. It seemed too big a coincidence that Swain had led them to a spot just above the river.
“Of course. We passed that rock earlier when we were looking for that six-point flag, the one that was half buried.”
Buffer remembered the flag. He didn’t remember the rock, and certainly wouldn’t have been able to lead the way back to it. They continued to float there, catching their breath as the three on the rock muttered to each other. Then Craig stepped out onto the rock, making an inquiry of his teammates.
“Let’s get closer,” Swain suggested. “I want to hear what they have to say.”
“And if they decide the flags are worth the dunking?” Buffer asked darkly. He would have preferred to swim for the other side and get out. To him, there was something strange about swimming in fresh water; it was so dull and lifeless.
“One on one in the water? We can take them.”
The rock overhung the edge of the river, and they paddled forward until they were almost directly below it. Buffer judged that it was at least a three metre drop. “Nice day for a swim?” Craig called down.
“The water’s lovely,” Swain called back. “Why don’t you come down?”
“I think I’ll skip the cholera,” Craig said with a grin. “Don’t suppose you boys have seen any inverted spheres around here?”
Buffer shrugged in confusion when Swain turned to look at him. “What does that mean?” he asked.
“No idea,” Craig replied. “But there’s one around here somewhere.”
“Having a little trouble with the clues, are you?” Swain asked, smirking. “Doubt Nav’s having that problem.”
For a moment, Craig’s face looked intent, as if he was thinking through some new idea. Then he shrugged. “I guess we’ll go back and try again. Have a nice swim.”
Buffer scowled as they left the rock, suddenly aware of the sodden mass of his boots and the tangled water weeds grabbing at his legs. “Let’s get out of here,” he said, looking hopefully at the nearest bank.
“We should head upriver a bit,” Swain said, watching the Army team disappear into the bush. “No point running into them again.”
“Next time, can you find an escape route that doesn’t involve a sudden dunking?” Buffer muttered, reluctantly paddling after him. Nav definitely owed him a beer for agreeing to this.
Spider found that he was enjoying himself much more than he had expected. The chance to run through the bush with Bomber was not usually accompanied by such a relaxed atmosphere. Not to mention, this game - and the chance to get some not-so-personal revenge on the Army - was a much better date than anything he could have planned. So far she hadn’t complained about his typically unoriginal ideas, but things were still fairly new.
So new, in fact, that he still sometimes marvelled at the impossible fact that she had agreed to go out with him. It had only been a drink after work, but it had led to a movie date next time they had leave. He had showed off his mastery of the minigolf scene, and she had dragged him to a cooking class. Things hadn’t progressed beyond casual flirting, however, until he had plucked up the courage to kiss her. Until then, it was as if they were just colleagues hanging out. She had made no overtures and he had started to worry that she wasn’t interested in him as anything more than a friend. Finally, unable to hold back any longer, he had pulled her into his arms and kissed her, and was almost overwhelmed by the intensity of her response. Later, when he’d asked her about it, she said she was letting him take the lead. It had been his first lesson for a successful relationship with Bomber - despite her forward nature, he couldn’t rely on her to do all the work.
“Should be about twenty metres ahead,” she called, and he ran forward, pushing eagerly through a bush, expecting to see the flag on the other side.
He came to an abrupt halt. “Uh, Bomber,” he said, trying not to move his feet. “Small problem.”
“Oh, no, I can see the flag.” She came through the bush more cautiously, and stopped just behind him. He lifted a hand and pointed to the fluttering square of yellow fabric. It was exactly where she had said it should be - about five metres away from his current position. The only problem was the gently flowing river between him and the flag.
“Ah,” she said in understanding. “That presents a problem.”
“It’s in the middle of the river,” he said, too late recalling her dislike of people stating the obvious. “How are we going to get it?”
“A really long pair of tongs?” she asked.
He snorted. “Not likely.” He was lucky, he realised, not to have ploughed straight into the water during his headlong rush for the flag. Another step and he would have found himself swimming. He wondered if there were crocodiles here.
“I have an idea,” she said.
“Yeah, and what’s that?”
“Go get it,” she ordered, and then shoved him forward.
With a startled yelp, he fell, his arms windmilling as he hit the water face-first. Sputtering, he turned around, keeping himself afloat while trying to glare at Bomber with as much venom as possible. “Bomber!” he shouted.
Her giggles subsided, and she looked contrite. “Sorry,” she said. “That was mean.”
“Yes,” he complained. “It was.”
“Sorry,” she repeated. “But. Seeing as how you’re in there already, maybe go get the flag?”
He looked at her position on the bank and scowled. “Fine,” he said. As he paddled out to the flag, he thought over the idea that had occurred to him. The fabric was attached to a long metal pole, which had been planted firmly into the riverbed, and he ripped it off. “Eight points,” he called back. At least he had something to show for it, aside from soaking wet shoes and chafing shorts.
When he returned to the bank, he held up the flag for Bomber to take. A mistake he would not have made, he thought, if he had just pushed her in the river. For an instant, their fingers touched.
Then he wrapped his hand around her wrist, put a foot on the bank, and pulled back.
Her shriek as she hit the water was worth whatever revenge she chose to inflict. Grinning, he trod water as she rolled over. “Spider!” she snarled. Seeing him out of arm’s reach, she splashed him.
“Oh no, you got me wet,” he said in mock horror, splashing her back. “You started it,” he added.
And, at the childish but very correct accusation, her anger vanished and she started to laugh. “I kinda did, didn’t I?” She punctuated the admission with another splash, and for a few minutes the calm of the river was broken by child-like shrieks of amusement as they splashed and chased one another around.
Spider ducked down under the water and grabbed her foot, dunking her. When she surfaced, she scowled and kicked out at him, catching him in the thigh. He reached for her hand and pulled her close to him, then kissed her. There was something about kissing Bomber that always left him feeling giddy. In part, it was disbelief that she was kissing him back, but it was also the sense of complete rightness that he felt when their lips touched.
Neither of them realised they’d stopped treading water until their heads went under. In unison, they pulled apart and kicked for the surface, grinning at one another when they came up. They swam to the bank and climbed out, their clothes soaking wet.
He didn’t think about stripping off his wet shirt, shoes and shoes - until he looked up to find Bomber had done the same. He froze halfway through untying the second shoe, unable to take his eyes off her.
When she caught him staring, she smirked at him. “You’ve seen it all before.”
“And?” he asked, moving toward her. “I enjoy the view every time.” Her eyes lit up with his admission, and he smiled softly as he wrapped his arms around her waist. “You’re gorgeous,” he murmured, then kissed her soundly.
He wasn’t sure how long they stood like that, his bare chest against her wet bra, her arms around his neck as their lips moved. He wasn’t aware of what was happening around them, his eyes closed as he focussed on the feel of Bomber against him.
When someone loudly cleared their throat, however, they broke apart suddenly, spinning to see two familiar figures walking along the river’s edge. “Not interrupting, I hope?” ET asked, smirking at him.
“You haven’t forgotten that there are flags to find, have you?” Nav asked, her hands on her hips.
Spider flushed, unused to hearing Nav speak so sternly. Then he remembered the flag in his pocket, and pulled it out. “Eight points?” he said appealingly.
“Decided to go for a little swim?” ET asked.
“It was out there,” Bomber replied, pointing to the river. “Though it might have been fairer to let him take his shoes off, first.”
Suddenly remembering what he’d been doing when he’d been distracted, Spider undid the other shoe and pulled it off. “She pushed me in!” he exclaimed, brandishing the soaked sneaker at them.
“And then he pulled me in!” Bomber piped up. Nav stared at him incredulously, and he suddenly felt like a child again.
“Nice,” ET said aside to Spider, offering him a subtle low five.
“What are you guys doing here?” Spider asked, trying to take Nav’s attention away from his wet pants. They were clinging to his every curve, making him uncomfortably aware of what their friends had interrupted.
“Following clues,” ET replied. “It’s been an hour and this is the second water clue.”
Nav rolled her eyes and sighed, then walked away, continuing along the riverbank. The other three watched her go, then turned back to stare at one another blankly.
“She’s taking this thing a bit too seriously,” ET began apologetically.
“She has a point, we need to beat these muscleheads,” Bomber interjected, collecting her wet clothes and shoes.
ET motioned Spider to do the same. “Why don’t you two come with us? The next clue is near the waterfall somewhere.” They could all hear the sound of the falls, just a little further along the river.
“She did push me in,” Spider muttered to ET as they walked behind Bomber and Nav.
ET just lifted an eyebrow. “You stood next to the river, pointed at a flag, and weren’t expecting that?”
He sighed. Perhaps he should have seen it coming. Now his shorts were itching at his thighs as he walked. He wondered how clean that river water was. “So, any sign of the Golden Snitch?” he asked.
“Not yet, but we’re getting through the clues. Some of them are riddles for the directions to the next clue. Others you have to solve a puzzle to get to the clue. Like, there was one next to the other river, where you had to pour exactly four litres of water into this big bucket, using only five litre and three litre jugs…”
“Like in Die Hard,” Spider said. To his surprise, ET scowled.
“Can’t someone just give me credit for solving it?” he asked. “Anyway, that was fun. After that, though, was this big plastic ball that we had to break into. I’ve no idea what it was made of, but it was impossible to crack. Eventually Nav poured her water bottle over it, and it just dissolved.”
“What was the clue?” Spider asked, wondering how tough they were.
“‘Beneath the cascade’,” ET quoted.
“So… under the waterfall.” He felt quite pleased with himself for having come up with the answer so quickly.
“Yep. That’s about the easiest one we’ve had.”
Spider’s sense of accomplishment faded. Then he swore softly as his bare foot came down on a pointed stick. “If there’s any swimming to be done, I’m not doing it again,” he said firmly.
“No, we both know she’ll insist I go. At least I’ll have the chance to take off my shoes.”
He was proved correct shortly afterwards, when they rounded a bend and saw the waterfall up ahead. It was at this point that the one river split into two, putting them on the bank opposite the wide spray of falling water. The four of them stood there for a minute, studying the aqueous landmark. Then Nav just turned to ET and smiled expectantly.
“Told you,” he muttered, pulling off his shoes, shorts and shirt.
“It’s hot out here, what are you complaining about?” she said. Then she moved to the bank where Bomber was standing and whispered something that caused both women to giggle as ET finished stripping off.
“You sure you trust me to read it correctly?” he called to them.
Nav looked him in the eye. “I trust you,” she said quietly. Spider noticed that there was some extra meaning behind the words, but he didn’t quite understand. ET obviously did, because he grinned widely.
He took a few steps back toward the trees, then turned and posed like a sprinter. Spider put his hand in the air to shoot an imaginary starting pistol. Then, bare chest and legs glowing in the sunshine, he ran at the river bank. Without hesitating, he grabbed Nav around the waist as he passed her, took the last step to the water’s edge, and leapt in. Spider roared with laughter as they hit the river with a loud double splash, and even Bomber couldn’t keep from snickering. Nav gave a single shriek of outrage, then attempted to beat ET over the head with one wet hand. Grinning like an idiot, ET swam out of arm’s reach.
“You’re a bit overdressed there, Nav,” he called. “You should have taken that all off first!”
Spider thought that might just be pushing it; there was a difference between a delightfully angry girlfriend, and one who wanted to murder you. To his surprise, however, Nav simply aimed another fruitless slap at ET and then reached down to undo her own shoes. “Dry these,” she ordered Bomber, chucking them onto the bank. “I might as well make sure he does this properly.”
“Isn’t this exactly what we just got in trouble for?” Spider asked Bomber, watching as Nav swam toward the waterfall after ET.
“Yep,” she agreed, finding a patch of strong sunlight in which to rest Nav’s shoes. “Now, you going to keep those wet pants on?”
“I…” He swallowed as she removed her shorts, laying them over a branch to dry, and sitting herself on a flat rock. “I guess not,” he said, pulling off the offending clothing. The wet tag around his waist was rather annoying, but he didn’t dare take it off and risk losing points. Bomber was now stretching out like a sunbather at the beach, and Spider’s mouth went dry as he looked at her. Though practical and utilitarian, her wet underwear only served to accentuate her curves, and his memory immediately began filling in the blanks. “Don’t get too comfortable,” he warned, tearing his gaze away. “They’ll only be a minute.”
“Oh, Spider.” He heard the smirk in her tone. “We’ve got time for a rest. Trust me.”
Swimming was one of the few things ET was better at than Nav, so he made it to the base of the waterfall well before she did. He couldn’t see any evidence of their clue above the churning water, so ducked his head under. The clue had been ‘ beneath the cascade’, after all. Visibility was poor below the surface, so he used his hands and feet to feel around.
When he ran out of air, he kicked off the bottom and almost collided with Nav on the surface. Instinctively, she grabbed his shoulders to keep his head from hitting hers. Before she had the chance to berate him for pulling her into the water, he spoke up. “Nothing yet.” Then he took another breath and went back under.
Once again, he found nothing. This time, when he surfaced, he saw Nav smirking at him from behind the curtain of water. “Having fun, fish boy?” she said with a chuckle.
He swam through the waterfall and found her in a hidden cave, a box floating right next to her. The water was shallower in the recess, around waist-deep, so they could both stand. “Guess I was too literal,” he commented as he shook his head like a dog. As expected, she shrieked when drops of water hit her, despite the fact she was already soaked. He grinned at her shamelessly, and grabbed her hands when she tried to slap him. Though she tried for a stern look, there was laughter in her eyes, and her smile soon followed.
“Well, I did say it was hot,” she said, causing him to relax. He wasn’t in too much trouble, then. “Though if I get blisters, it’ll be your fault for not letting me take my shoes off.”
He snorted. “Like you would have come in if I didn’t force you.”
She declined to respond, instead turning her attention to the box in front of them. It wasn’t locked, so she had it open in a moment, then peered inside. “‘Don’t look in the chamberpot’,” she read out. Their eyes met, his thoughtful, hers excited.
“Chamberpot? The toilets?”
“Reckon so. Damn, we are good at this.” She grinned and stepped toward him, wrapping her arms around his waist.
He beamed back and lowered his mouth to hers. Surprisingly, she deepened the kiss right away, her tongue thrusting into his mouth assertively. He couldn’t help the groan that escaped his lips; he loved it when she took control. One leg lifted to curl around his hip, pulling their bodies closer. Automatically, his fingers reached for the hem of her shirt, stripping it over her head when they broke to breathe.
As he gazed down at her, he wondered how he’d even gotten so lucky. The way she looked at him in this moment, the affection shining so brightly in her eyes, he had never expected to receive it, not from anyone. When he’d first realised he was falling for her, he hadn’t understood what it meant; he’d never been in love before. The intensity of his feelings had scared him, especially when she didn’t seem to feel as much for him. But once they finally cleared all the hurdles, the first time he had spoken the words to her, his feelings had been reciprocated. And it was like something inside him clicked into place.
Just as he was moving to kiss her again, they heard Bomber shout. “Oi, did you two forget there are flags to find?”
Giving him one last peck, Nav pulled away with a wry grin. “You are distracting.”
He shrugged. “No harm in enjoying our day off. This game is in the bag, the Army guys have no chance.”
“We still have to find the Golden Snitch before they do,” she reprimanded him lightly, plucking her wet shirt from his hands. “Come on, let’s get going, it’s a fair way back to the picnic area.”
She went to move away, but he kept hold of her hand and stayed where he was, suddenly very aware of how little clothing he was wearing. “You go ahead, give me a minute.”
She gave him a questioning look, and in response he just drew her close, so she could feel his burgeoning erection against her leg. The look turned incredulous. “Are you serious? We were making out for five minutes!”
“It’s not my fault!” he exclaimed; it was true, he couldn’t help his body’s reaction to her.
“So it’s my fault you have the libidio of a fifteen year old?”
He chuckled. “Oh man, my fifteen year old self could only dream of making out with someone as beautiful as you.”
Grinning, she shoved him away playfully. “Such a charmer. Get yourself under control, if we make them wait much longer, they’ll assume we did much more than kiss.”
His eyes turned away from her to focus on the rock wall beside his head. If he wasn’t mostly naked and soaked, it would have been fine, but he knew the wet fabric of his undies would cling to every curve. As he stared at the random pattern of cracks in the rock, he took a few deep breaths, and could feel his arousal subsiding.
After a few minutes he looked back at Nav and flashed her a grin. “All good. Race you back to shore?” She responded by diving through the waterfall, leaving him to chuckle as he followed her.
As he left the water, he tried to position his tag across his crotch like a loincloth. It was way too thin and, because it was also soaked, it just emphasised the slight ridge that was still visible. He twisted the belt back to its original position. To his relief, neither Bomber or Spider were paying much attention to him or Nav. They had stripped off and were lounging in the sun.
“Did it occur to you that you could have gone looking for more flags?” Nav asked, trying in vain to shake some of the moisture out of her shorts. ET tried not to smirk to himself too obviously as he grabbed his dry cargos. As he tugged them on, Nav snatched his shirt and pulled it on, throwing her wet one at him. “Your fault,” she said primly, taking her socks off and wringing them out.
“What was the clue?” Spider asked, springing to his feet and collecting his now-dry clothes.
“We have to go back to the picnic grounds,” ET said. “There are toilets there.”
“Oh,” Spider said. “Me too, actually.”
“I think that was the clue,” Bomber said, brushing herself off. Her clothes had almost dried, but her hair was still dripping.
“Yes,” said Nav. “It said, ‘Don’t look in the chamberpot’.”
“Chamberpot, toilet,” Bomber agreed. “Well, since Spider wants to go that way, we’ll come with you, then drop off our flags at base.”
Unable to fit Nav’s shirt over his head, ET simply wrapped the wet fabric around his shoulders. As he led the way along the walking track, he found himself thinking that this day hadn’t been such a bad idea, after all. It had certainly given him a few good ideas for future leaves together. Besides, he was definitely looking forward to being able to smirk at Craig when they not only beat the Army team, but he got to go home with Nav.
It only took them about twenty minutes to reach the picnic area, having returned via a much less circuitous route than he and Nav had originally taken. He was suddenly aware of just how much area they had covered looking for the Snitch; they seemed to have been almost everywhere in the game area.
When they reached the clearing, Spider raced ahead and disappeared into the male toilets. Bomber chuckled as she and Nav came up alongside ET. “Boy has a pea bladder, I swear.”
“So the clue has to be in there, right?” ET said, pointing toward the toilet block. Without waiting for a response, he strode into the male toilets and looked around, very carefully avoiding Spider’s gaze as the younger man stood at the urinal. He busied himself searching the two stalls, until he heard the flush, then exited to see Spider washing his hands. Together, they searched the rest of the small room, finding nothing resembling any of the clues he’d seen so far. Exchanging a confused glance, they left the room, to find Nav and Bomber exiting the female side. “There’s nothing in there,” he said.
Nav frowned. “Of course there isn’t.”
He threw his hands in the air in frustration. “Then why did we come all the way back here?”
“The clue says it’s not in there,” she answered, her eyes unfocused in a way he recognised as her ‘thinking’ expression. “ ‘Don’t look in the chamberpot’.”
“So, the clue narrows it down to everywhere but here?” Bomber said, looking around helplessly.
Spider, however, understood. “Well, it’ll have to be close by, right? Just not inside.”
“Yes… don’t look in … look…” Her eyes moved upward. “On!” The other three followed her gaze to the roof of the toilet block.
Spider pointed at Bomber. “She likes climbing things.”
Bomber rolled her eyes and shoved his shoulder. “Only when I’m trying to get away from you. You’re the tallest, it will be easiest for you to go up.”
She was right. With ET giving him a boost, it was easy for Spider to grab hold of the roof and scramble up. He yelped when his hands came in contact with the corrugated iron, and the others winced; the roof had been baking in the hot sun all morning.
“Found it!” Spider called out before long. “Hey, we’re getting close to the end!” The three on the ground grinned at one another.
“We’ve used up half our time,” Donald reported, checking his watch. “If we don’t figure this thing out soon, we won’t have the Snitch and we won’t have any flags.”
“We’ll find it,” Craig insisted. “However many flags they’ve got, all we need is that Snitch.”
They were filing along a narrow trail through the bush, returning to the picnic ground to re-evaluate the second clue. “Are we sure there really is a Snitch?” asked Tina. “Maybe it’s like some big joke.”
“It’ll be there,” he insisted. “They can’t just - ”
He broke off abruptly. Donald, at the front of the queue, had held up his hand and dropped into a crouch. The Army team reacted instinctively, ducked down and waiting silently. Up ahead, they could hear voices.
“What are they doing here?” Tina wondered. “Maybe they’re stuck on the clue, too.”
“Spread out, move forward,” Craig decided. “Stay out of sight.”
He spotted a flash of blue, and felt a moment of smugness. His team, at least, had been smart enough to wear bush tones - greys, greens, browns. He shuffled forward until he could see the picnic area ahead. Three of the Navy team, including Nikki and the other girl. The blonde guy he figured to be Nikki’s current boyfriend, and he felt a moment of irritation. What was so great about that guy? His own six-pack was much more defined than the one blondie was currently showing off. More confusing was their wet hair and clothes; what was it about the Navy that meant they couldn’t stay out of the water for two hours?
Then he heard a voice and realised there was a fourth sailor; the tall kid they called Spider. Craig remembered him from Redcliff. The kid was stupid enough to run towards an impending explosion, and he got blamed for it! Looking around, he eventually spotted Spider, crouched on top of the small toilet block.
“Hurry up, Spide!” called the red headed girl. “Just read it out!”
“It’s a long one,” Spider replied, then began to read. “‘I hope you didn’t spend too long drying off after the falls. You are near the end of your quest, but you will need another bath before it’s over. Go where you haven’t been. Look for the net on the southern edge.’”
Craig frowned in thought. Nikki’s team was obviously well ahead. Even if he could find the stupid inverted sphere, he wasn’t going to be able to catch up before she found the Snitch. He shuffled away from the treeline, looking for the other five members of his team. He spotted Tina first.
“I know what you’re thinking,” she said. “You want to skip all the intermediate clues and go for the one we just heard.”
“That’s the general idea, yes.”
“But it said go where you haven’t been . We don’t know all the places they have been, so we can’t know where that is.”
He nodded. “Yes. But they know. So all we have to do...”
“Is follow them,” she finished, smirking. “Alright, that might work.”
“We might let them figure out the next one, too,” he said. “I don’t particularly want a bath.”
After they parted ways with Bomber and Spider, Nav led the way to the swamp. It was the only place of note they hadn’t yet visited, and she figured the next clue might required them to get a bit muddy. Along the way, ET vanished again, and reappeared with another flower - since he “made her lose the first one”. Once more, she grinned at his earnestness and kissed him as she accepted the flower. Even now, almost a year into their relationship, he continued to shower her with affection; barely a week went by without some sort of gift or gesture. From anyone else, it would have been over the top, but somehow ET made it adorable.
Maybe it was because her attention was so focussed on him, but it took her longer than it should have to notice the strange echo to their passage through the bush. At first, she tensed, wondering if they were about to be swarmed by the other team. After a minute, though, nothing had happened. She became more and more certain, however, that they were not alone. It didn’t take much thought to guess what was happening. She had known they were ahead of Craig - they had definitely arrived at several of the puzzles first. Perhaps, rather than playing catch-up, his team had decided to simply follow her and ET to the Snitch.
She glanced at ET and saw that he had no idea they were being followed. For a moment, she wondered how to tell him without Craig becoming aware she knew. Then, sensing her gaze, he turned to her, and blew her a kiss. That gave her an idea. Taking his hand, she pulled him close and wrapped her arms around his shoulders. She pressed a kiss to his jaw, then moved her lips to his ear. “We’re being followed,” she whispered.
To his credit, he didn’t immediately try to look behind him. He looked intently into her eyes instead. “Should we run?” he asked quietly as he wrapped his arms around her waist.
“Followed, not chased,” she clarified. “Looks like they want us to do the thinking for them.”
“Now, why isn’t that a surprise?” he asked, taking the opportunity to kiss the tip of her nose. “So how do we shake them?
“We don’t,” she said, releasing him. “I have a plan.”
“Also not a surprise,” he said, chuckling. “Alright. Let’s head on into the unknown.”
As they continued, she frequently paused to embrace him or drop a kiss onto his neck. Though he was only too happy to cooperate, she didn’t think he knew why she was doing it. Every moment Craig spent following her was time he wasn’t using to hunt down more flags. It also didn’t hurt, she thought with satisfaction, to remind him that she wasn’t available.
“Grab that flag, will you?” she said, pointing to a branch above her head. Just because she was aiming for the Snitch didn’t mean she would ignore the flags in their path. He barely had to jump for it, so she wasn’t surprised to see that it was labelled ‘2’.
The path led them back to the river, a long way east of the point where they had met Spider and Bomber. At least this time they didn’t have to swim across; the path led to a quaint bridge. She stopped halfway across, this time not to taunt their pursuers, but to simply enjoy the view. The river flowed smoothly beneath them, dappled with shadows. Dragonflies darted across the surface, and there was a brief flicker of motion in the water that indicated some sort of fish.
“We should come here again, sometime,” she murmured. “When we’ll just have… time.”
“And spare socks?” he asked, eyes dancing with amusement.
She laughed softly. “If you like. Come on. It should be just past here.” He took her hand as they finished crossing the bridge, pulling her to his side when the path before them narrowed.
The bush around them changed. Where before it had been dominated by tall gums and vivid ferns, here the area off the path was dominated by knee-high grass and small trees which thrived in the wet environment. There was a distinct smell to the swamp, though it wasn’t unpleasant; it was briny and wet, and the plants all smelt very alive.
Then, the path changed. Wooden slats covered the dirt, and a raised boardwalk took over. Nav and ET didn’t step onto it, however, staring at a large tangle of ropes to their left. It was like a laser grid made of rope, and it was immediately obvious that there wasn’t going to be enough room to climb through it.
“There’s the clue,” ET said, pointing. In the centre of the tangle, a laminated sheet of paper was strung along one rope.
“Well, they did warn us we’d need another bath,” she said. “The only way through…” She bent her knees, peering under the ropes. “Is under.”
“So we’ll be swimming through the mud,” he summarised. He pulled off his shoes. “I assume you’re going to make me do this?”
“And make you take the bath alone?” she chuckled and leaned down to place a kiss on his cheek, then pulled off her own shoes and socks. She also stripped off the shirt she wore; being two sizes too big was fine when they were just walking, but it was sure to get snagged on something in the mud. This way, she would have something clean to wear when they came out, too. He placed her now-dry shirt on top of it.
She placed one bare toe into the muddy water, her nose wrinkling in distaste. While only ten centimetres deep, it was the sort of rich, silty water that swamp plants loved. They would be filthy by the time they crawled in, and out.
“You want me to push you?” ET asked, smirking.
“Would you like to keep your hands?”
“You know you love my hands.” He wiggled his fingers at her, then kneeled at the edge of the path.
With a sigh, she went down on her hands and knees, crawling to the edge of the netting. She still wasn’t going to fit. “I swear you had better get in here,” she growled.
“Let me show you how it’s done,” he said, crawling to meet her. Then, squeezing his eyes shut, he thrust his arms out to either side of his body, splashing into the shallow water. She gave a short bark of laughter, cut off as he reached up and smeared one muddy hand against her chest. More sedately, she lay in the mud beside him.
After that, it was easy enough to worm their way below the nest of ropes. Once again, she took her time, flirting with and teasing ET as they crawled, even sharing a muddy kiss at once point. If her calculations were correct, they would win even if Craig got the Snitch. It would be a more comfortable gap if he didn’t, though she was rather looking forward to snatching victory out from under his nose if he did get his hands on it.
Soon enough, however, they reached the centre. Propping herself up on her elbows, she grabbed at the clue, reading silently. Your prize is beyond the boardwalk. Good luck.
She looked at ET. “That’s it, then,” she said.
“Why do you think it says ‘good luck’?” he asked.
“I have a few ideas,” she replied, smirking to herself. “I was expecting it.”
“Of course you were,” he said, sighing loudly. Then, more quietly, “You going to tell me this plan of yours, now?”
She nodded. “Craig’s going to jump us as soon as he hears the location of the Snitch,” she said, subtly moving her eyes back to the path, where she could see a number of decidedly non-tree shapes.
Again, he showed good judgement in not looking back. “Then we better not say it too loudly.”
“On the contrary. We just say it at the right time.”
“And when is that?” He was well past questioning her decisions by now; she had led them quite successfully this far, after all.
“Well, after we put our shoes on, for a start. I don’t fancy running around in bare feet. I’ll draw them away. You get our flags back to base.”
As expected, he shook his head. He always had to play the hero. “No way, I’ll distract them, you get back to base!”
She put a hand on his arm. “No, Josh. You’re the faster runner.”
“Exactly! I’ve got a much better chance of getting away.”
She grinned mischievously. “But I don’t want to get away.” He tilted his head at her, still confused. “Where’s the fun in that?”
“If he gets the Snitch, and a bonus for your tag…”
“Well, yes, I am counting on you to do something about the latter.” She leaned forward to peck him on the lips. “You’re the only one who gets to keep my tag. You might want to find the others, though.”
“Are you going to explain why?” he asked, sounding resigned.
She grinned. “No.” Then she began the slow and messy task of turning around. “Come on. Just follow my lead. When we run, follow the boardwalk. When it splits, take the right hand path; that leads back to the river.”
Sounding incredulous, he asked, “How on earth do you know that?” She heard a grunt as he twisted himself around to follow her out.
“It was on the map,” she said nonchalantly. “Did you even look at the map?”
“I looked at it, yes. I didn't memorise the damn thing.”
“And that is why I am team leader.” She couldn’t keep the smug smirk off her face; this entire day was coming together just as she had planned. She was also quickly developing plans for later. By this point, her front half was so completely covered in mud that she was able to quickly worm her way out from under the net. After all, nothing was going to get her more dirty at this point.
Nothing except ET coming up behind her and pulling her somewhat clean back to his wet chest. He leaned down to nuzzle her neck, tracing a finger along the waistband of her shorts. “Miss me?” he asked cheekily.
“You are really pushing it,” she growled. She twisted around, so she was facing him. “You remember what I said?”
“You’re going to do what I said?” She stared into his eyes, expression serious. None of this would work if he didn’t do as he was told.
He lifted a hand and gently touched her chin. “If you insist,” he said with a sigh. She tucked her flags into his back pocket, then patted his arse gently. Picking up their shirts, he handed hers to her then used his own to wipe the mud off his face and neck.
“I do. I am counting on you to come and rescue me, though.”
As expected, an embarrassed grin met her statement. “And what will m’lady give her rescuer?”
She slapped lightly at some of the mud starting to dry on his chest. “Depends how he does it,” she replied. “Okay. They’re getting restless. Shoes.”
“And put your shirt back on,” he told her, wiping at the mud on her upper arms.
They brushed off as much of the mud as possible, but there was no wiping away the damp smell or the sticky feeling on their skin or underclothes.
“What do you think it meant by ‘good luck’?” he asked again, tying his laces tightly.
She made a thoughtful noise, as she checked that they were ready. “Perhaps we should find Swain and Buffer. We know the Snitch is at the end of the boardwalk, but we may need some help getting it back.”
It was as if he had seen her script and was responding to a cue. Craig stepped out of the trees nearby, blocking the path, watching them smugly. “We could help,” he suggested.
Nav repressed a triumphant grin. Instead, she turned to ET and simply said, “Told you.”
Together, they turned and ran. The wooden boardwalk rattled under their feet, and Nav clearly heard Craig’s steps behind them. At least the swamp made it almost impossible for anyone to flank them from the sides; unless he had somehow positioned someone ahead of them, he would have to catch her the old fashioned way. ET was ahead of her, but only just. She mentally rolled her eyes; he should have outstripped her already.
“Run faster, idiot,” she ordered him between breaths.
“As you wish,” he shot back, and then took off. He pulled ahead, and she felt a moment of admiration. Sometimes it was hard to believe someone so active could be satisfied with the restricted space of life at sea; though it was perhaps offset by the chance to get into the water on a regular basis.
Then, ahead, she saw the path split into two. Without hesitation, ET veered to the right, as she had instructed. For a split second, she considered following him; they could probably both get away, and if the others had followed her plan they would have enough points. But it wasn’t just about winning; it was how they won that she was thinking of.
She glanced behind her. She was sure someone would follow ET, though she was confident he would outrun them. Her plan did somewhat rely on the fact that Craig would follow her, though. She needn’t have worried. He was ahead of his team, and her look back had given him a second’s advantage. This, then, was the hard part; letting him think he had genuinely outsmarted her. It was, she thought with a flash of giddy pleasure, one more reason that she loved ET so much; he would never make that mistake.
She slowed, ever so slightly; enough that each step brought him a little closer. She heard the grunt of effort as he finally lunged, felt the tug on her belt, and glanced back to see him come to a panting stop. “Hey Nikki,” he called, and she paused, turning fully. “Lose something?”
In one hand he held her once-white, now mostly-brown, tag. She stared at him in disbelieving outrage. “Give me that!” she demanded, holding out one hand.
He laughed, and waved it at her. “Oh, no. This time I give the orders.” She crossed her arms, glaring at him. “Now, where did you say that Snitch was?”
“Beyond the boardwalk,” she replied, then smirked. “Good luck, as it said.”
“Plus fifty points for this,” he said, tying her tag to his own belt. “Good game, Nikki.”
“Oh, I wouldn’t celebrate just yet,” she warned him. “There’s something you’ve forgotten.”
He raised an eyebrow. “And what’s that?”
“I have a teammate with a rescue complex.”
Though ET desperately wanted to turn back and make sure Nav was okay, the footsteps behind him turned right with him, so he couldn’t take the risk. There was only one person following him now, he was pretty sure, which meant he could probably overpower them and go back for her. But she’d kill him if he did that. He had to follow her plan; everything she’d planned so far today had worked out perfectly, after all.
An extra burst of speed led him out of the swamp and back to the river, the footsteps behind him fading. He brought himself back to a steady jog. He might have escaped, but he still needed to get back to base, drop off the flags, find the others, and rescue Nav before Craig’s team got the Snitch back.
As he ran, he considered just how perfectly she had planned this entire day. None of them had really known what the contest was before they had arrived, yet in the time it had taken the rest of their team to outfit themselves she had been able to come up with a complete strategy. Not only did they stand a very good chance of winning with her plan, she had also been able to anticipate their opponents’ every move. He couldn’t help but wonder if she would have been able to do the same if the Army leader hadn’t been an ex-boyfriend. Just how long had she dated that tool to be able to understand his train of thought so well? Craig’s greeting that morning had spoken of a wish to rekindle things, so obviously he harboured no hard feelings from their breakup. ET grinned and ran a hand through his hair as he thought back over today. She was rarely so openly affectionate in public, especially when she knew they were being watched. He’d realised the second time she stopped to cuddle that she was taking her time - after all, she’d been rushing him along all morning. The thought that she was flaunting their relationship in front of Craig caused a warm feeling to spread through his chest. She had chosen him.
Suddenly, he stopped and looked around. He should have reached the picnic area already. The bush surrounding him didn’t look familiar; then again, he hadn’t exactly been paying that much attention when they had walked to the swamp earlier. He had just followed Nav. Until she had spoken of being caught, he hadn’t intended to be separated from her, so was happy to let her direct them.
But now, alone, he had to find his way back to the others. There was a bent tree on his left which looked familiar. He had definitely seen it before. He just couldn’t remember whether it had been on the way from the picnic area to the swamp, or on one of their earlier forays back and forth across the park. Deciding to take the risk, he went toward the bent tree and took the path that led past it.
Luck was with him; in a few minutes he arrived at the picnic area. From there, he knew the way back to base. Unconsciously, he picked up speed, eager to find the others and get back to Nav.
When he arrived at their base, he handed his flags to the official and stepped over to the water station. After downing a bottle of water and calming his heartbeat, he refilled it. By pouring his water bottle over his head a number of times, he was able to wash most of the mud off his face and neck. Since he knew he would be going back into the swamp, he didn’t bother trying to clean up properly. Not to mention, he was looking forward to sharing a shower with Nav later.
He was still grinning stupidly to himself from that last thought when Buffer and Swain arrived back at the tent. They passed a handful of flags to the official, then looked questioningly at ET.
“Where’s Nav?” Buff said as he refilled his own water bottle.
“Captured,” ET replied with a grimace. “But apparently it’s all part of the plan.”
Swain chuckled. “Of course it is. Do you know where the Snitch is?”
“Yeah, in the middle of the swamp. But Craig knows too, he’s probably there with Nikki right now.”
“Is that part of the plan?” Buffer asked.
ET gave an aggravated sigh. “Seems to be. Not that she told me the plan. Just told me to get our flags back here and then come rescue her.”
“So we steal the Snitch out from under his nose?” Swain asked, his eyes brightening. “That does sound fun.”
ET moved to the map, following the paths through the bush north. Beyond the eastern river was the swamp. “This is where we found the last clue,” he said, pointing to the change in the path that indicated the boardwalk. He moved his finger along to where it forked. “I came this way, circled around. Nav went left.”
“And where’s the Snitch?” Buffer asked, coming to stand beside him.
“At the end of the boardwalk, according to the clue.” His finger followed the boardwalk north. “Just here. What does this mean?”
Swain peered over his shoulder, studying the shaded area on the map. “A lake?”
“It’s not connected to either of the rivers.”
“Standing water, then. A nice, swampy pond.”
“Good luck,” ET said quietly. “The clue told us where the Snitch was and ended with ‘good luck’. I don’t think getting it back is going to be as easy as finding it.”
Buffer wrinkled his nose. “Smells like you’ve already been in there.”
In response, ET tugged at the end of Swain’s sleeve. “You two been swimming?”
“Not exactly intentionally,” Swain replied dryly. “It was better than being caught, though. Craig’s guys aren’t going to be happy if they’ve gotta get wet.”
“They’re not alone there,” said Bomber from behind them. She studied Buffer and Swain for a moment, taking in their damp clothes. “You two look like you’ve been having fun.”
Spider was handing their flags to the official, and it occurred to ET that they had a huge number of the little yellow squares. A lot of them were probably only worth one or two points, though, so he didn’t know whether they would have enough to offset the Snitch. With Nav’s tag as well, Craig would almost certainly win.
“Where’s Nav?” Spider asked, coming to join them.
“Let me guess,” said Bomber. “She got herself captured so that she can slow down Craig and now expects us to rescue her.”
ET stared at her. “How did you know that?” Bomber just smirked at him.
“Let’s focus on how we’re going to rescue her,” said Swain. “I think we can assume they’ll still be around here.” He pointed to the lake. “The sooner we get there, the easier it’ll be to get Nav back.”
When they reached the swamp, Bomber and Spider peeled off to look for flags. No-one had searched the swamp yet, so there should still be a few points lying around. Swain led Buffer and ET along the boardwalk, listening intently for any sign of approaching trouble. He needn’t have worried; they reached the end of the boardwalk without seeing any other people and stepped into a picturesque park. Several picnic tables and low benches dotted the carefully tended grass around the lake.
His expectation of a stagnant pond wasn’t quite accurate. The lake, though small, was clean and well kept, with marsh grasses encouraging dozens of water birds. At that moment, however, all of the birds had retreated to one end of the lake, due to the activity at the south end. A pole had been sunk into the water, and several metres above the surface sat a fat metal barrel. It was painted a bright golden colour, glittering in the sun.
The sailors had automatically ducked behind the closest trees when they spotted Craig’s team, and were struggling to hold back their laughter. To reach the barrel, a rope ladder had been erected, stretching from the top of the pole to the shore of the lake. One heavyset man was currently halfway up, gripping the rope firmly as he tried to climb. The rope ladder, however, was only attached as a point at either end, and not only swayed side to side but kept twisting upside down. As they watched, the Army man moved his hand up to the next rope rung, shifted his weight, and was promptly dumped into the lake below as the ladder spun around.
“There’s Nav,” ET whispered, pointing to the side.
“Guess he really didn’t want to get his feet wet,” Buffer observed. Craig stood well back from the shore, his arms crossed as he stared at his team’s abysmal efforts at obtaining the Snitch. Nav stood beside Craig, her own hands on her hips, her head turning as she repeatedly scanned the area.
Swain wondered at the nervous behaviour; was she worried about the Army team winning? From what he’d seen, they had no more clue how to get the Snitch back to base than he did. As he watched, Craig turned and said something to Nav, which caused her to check her watch. Swain checked his own watch - forty five minutes left. Perhaps she was concerned they were running out of time?
To his left, ET made to move forward, and Swain grabbed his arm. “We can grab his tag from behind!” ET hissed.
“He’ll hear you coming,” Swain countered. “Circle around - distract him.”
ET nodded and slipped off through the trees, heading back towards the boardwalk. The soft roots around them disguised the faint sounds of his footsteps, so long as he moved slowly enough to avoid splashing. It occurred to Swain that they probably could have started dancing and Craig wouldn’t have noticed; his attention was cleanly divided between the hilarious efforts of his teammates and his prisoner.
“I’m gonna get closer,” Swain whispered, and Buffer nodded. Swain crept out of the trees, keeping himself in a half-crouch as he inched forwards. He was now completely exposed if Craig should turn around but, hopefully, so long as nothing alerted him he would continue to watch the Snitch. Once he was about ten metres behind the pair, Swain stopped, dropping to the ground, keeping Craig and Nav between him and the rest of the Army team. He was now close enough to hear what they were saying.
At that point, another of Craig’s men hit the lake with a splash, and came striding out of the water swearing. Nav was chuckling to herself.
“You want to have a go?” Craig asked, sounding disgruntled.
“And show you how it’s done? Your team might find it easier if they weren’t so worried about keeping their clothes clean.” Swain heard the slight emphasis on the word ‘team’, and thought he could already see how a bit of cooperation might make the ladder easier to climb; Craig missed the reference, though.
“You Navy guys are so obsessed with getting wet,” he muttered.
“Some more than others,” she replied mildly. “ET has to immerse himself at least once a week or he dries out.” Swain had to cover his mouth to stop the chuckle that threatened to escape.
“That’s the blonde guy?” Craig asked in a casual way. Nav must have made some small noise of agreement, because he followed with, “Your boyfriend?”
“I suppose that’s the word for it,” she agreed.
“So what did he do to get you to go out with him?”
Nav’s voice was amused as she replied, “He just kept asking.” Swain bit his lip. That certainly did sum it up.
“No self esteem, hey?” Craig’s smirk was audible in his voice. Nav’s head turned to face him, and it was then that Swain realised she had stopped glancing around the park every few seconds. At this moment, despite being a prisoner, she seemed more relaxed than her captor.
“On the contrary. I like someone who doesn’t give up too quickly.” Craig grunted, heaving a sigh as another of his teammates fell into the lake. For the slightest moment, Swain saw Nav’s head turn, just a few degrees to her right. She wasn’t looking behind her, but she was listening. “Besides,” she said to Craig, “he’s nice to look at.”
Craig scoffed. “If you like the hairless, feminine look. I bet he spends more time at the waxing salon than at the gym. What’s worse, he’s turned you into a silly little girl.” Though he couldn’t see it, Swain knew there was a sneer on Craig’s face.
“Has he?” Her tone was mildly curious, and Swain suspected that she was just trying to keep Craig talking.
“I remember how competitive you used to be, but today you let him distract you. You were so busy putting your hands all over each other that you lost this game before it even started. What is it about him?”
“I know he’ll always be there,” she replied softly, turning to face ET as he stepped into view.
He didn’t return her gaze, however, his eyes firmly fixed on Craig as he said, “Ah, Craig. I believe you have something of mine.” As Craig spun to look at ET, Swain began creeping up behind him. He hoped Buffer would stay hidden until they had the tag; another person behind him and Craig might hear something.
The two men stared at each other, ET carefully positioning himself so that Craig’s back was to Swain. Without even taking a step, Nav shifted her weight so that she stood at ET’s side. Craig crossed his arms, biceps flexing slightly. “This won’t go the way you want it to,” he warned.
ET glanced over to where Craig’s team were working; one of the females had now reached the peak of the ladder and was examining the golden barrel. “You want to call for backup?” he asked.
Craig smirked. “I don’t need help to take down one Navy boy .”
The smile on ET’s face didn’t even waver, though his eyes narrowed slightly at the insult. “But today’s all about teamwork. Surely you didn’t forget that?”
Lunging forward, Swain grabbed at the blue tag. It came free with the sound of ripping velcro. He held it up for Craig to see as he spoke. “I order you to shut your mouth. Give us that.” He pointed to Nav’s tag, tied firmly to Craig’s belt.
Craig’s head whipped around to glare at him, then turned back when Nav spoke. “We don’t need your tag to win,” she said with a smug smile. “But I would like mine back.”
She held out her hand with a raised eyebrow. For a few seconds, he glared back at her, and Swain wondered whether they would have to use force. Then, with a dejected sigh, he untied Nav’s tag and threw it at her. Her grin widened as she reattached it to her belt.
Swain handed her Craig’s tag and she tied it onto her belt. “Follow,” she told Craig. Then she turned to look at ET, her smile fading as she shoved him with both hands. “And I do not belong to you!”
ET’s grin disappeared as he grabbed her hand. “Winning now, yelling later.” In unison, they ran back to the end of the boardwalk. Craig stared after them, a disgruntled expression on his face.
Buffer appeared beside him. “I do believe the lady told you to follow her,” he said, then prodded Craig in the back when he still didn’t move. Swain shot Buffer a grin as the three of them started after Nav and ET.
As they jumped onto the boardwalk, a sulking Craig looked back once more at his team. Having finally made it to the top of the ladder - without any contribution from him - they were intent on detaching the barrel and never even noticed that their team leader had been taken prisoner. Nav grinned to herself as she followed ET down the track. It had taken longer than expected, but he hadn’t failed her.
“What took you so long, anyway?” she asked.
He glanced back at her, his expression sheepish. “Well, I had to get all the way back to base, wait for Buff and Swain to turn up, and then get back here…”
“I know that. What else?”
“I got a little lost.”
Behind her, Swain snorted with laughter. “He didn’t mention that.”
Nav rolled her eyes. “Maybe because you spent the trip out there looking at flowers.” There was no keeping the affection out of her complaint.
“Speaking of.” ET paused, turning to face her as he pulled a round, purple flower from his pocket. “You lost yours again.” He tucked the flower over her ear. She couldn’t stop the grin from spreading over her face, nor her hand reaching for his.
Swain cleared his throat loudly, having come to a stop behind Nav. “If you don’t mind, can we get back to base now?”
She glanced back at him. “Hey, who’s in charge of this team?” All the same, she prodded ET with a finger, and pointed at the path in front of them. There was no real hurry to get back; the Army team would use most of their remaining time just dragging that barrel back to base. They all felt the end of the game approaching, however, and were eager to check their flag count before time ran out. It was also a good idea to put a bit of distance between themselves and Craig’s team - just in case they decided to try and rescue their heroic leader.
They shortly came to the end of the boardwalk and continued down the dirt path towards the river. When they reached the bridge, however, Nav hesitated.
“Hold on a moment,” she said. ET stopped halfway across. She looked back to where Buffer was chivvying Craig along.
“What’s up?” Swain asked.
“I’m counting,” she replied vaguely. They now all stood above the slow moving water. Her brow furrowed as she ran through the calculation again. “Yes, that’ll work.”
“What will?” ET asked. He looked helplessly at Swain. “She always does this.”
“It’s worked so far,” Buffer reminded him.
Nav ignored them, and looked at Craig. “Remind me,” she said, untying his tag from her belt. “What happens if you lose this?”
He scowled. “I lose fifty points,” he replied. “Or you gain fifty if you keep it. Same difference.”
She grinned. “I don’t particularly want to drag you through half the arena,” she said. “But you really, really don’t want to lose it, do you?” The four men all stared at her in confusion. She stepped past Swain to where Craig stood. “Good game, Craig.”
“Why does it sound like you’re about to execute the prisoner?” Swain asked dryly.
“The opposite, actually. I’m going to set him free.” With a flick of her wrist, she tossed the blue tag over the side of the bridge, and they all watched it flutter softly to the surface of the water. It began to drift slowly downstream. “Fifty points, Craig. There if you want it.”
Craig stared at the water in dismay. “Why didn’t you just give it back?” he asked.
“It occurred to me that you were the only one who hadn’t had a chance to fully engage with the environment today. I didn’t want you to miss out.” She glanced back ET, who was shaking with laughter. “It’s drifting off,” she observed, watching the tag. “You might want to grab it before it gets too far. And, you know, I can’t be certain that it won’t sink once it gets waterlogged.”
With a venomous curse, Craig pulled off his shoes and shirt, climbed awkwardly over the railing, and jumped into the water with a splash. ET grabbed one of his shoes and lobbed it after him. “You forgot something,” he called, forcing Craig to paddle furiously for the shoe before it sank.
“Laugh it up,” Craig shouted back. “My guys have the Snitch. You just threw away your one chance, Nikki.”
She leaned against the railing, pointing helpfully to where his tag was floating. “The real winner is the team that has the most fun.” She looked at Swain and Buffer. “What do you think?”
“Worth it,” said Swain, laughing.
“Didn’t you have fun today?” Buffer called.
Leaving Swain and Buffer to watch Craig paddle around, Nav pulled ET to the far side of the river, just off the bridge. Though they weren’t hiding their relationship, she didn’t need the others listening to everything they said to one another.
“You know I don’t like it when you’re possessive,” she said, poking him in the side lightly. “Just because I have chosen to be with you does not mean you own me.”
He nodded seriously, and wrapped an arm around her waist, drawing her close. “And I don’t like it when you’re jealous. Haven’t I proven by now what you’re the only woman for me?”
She smiled and placed a palm on his cheek, then pressed her lips lightly to his. “And then some.” She turned back to the river where Craig was still flailing around, and leaned into ET’s side. “There’s just something about exes that brings out insecurities, though.”
“Nikki,” he said, voice so choked with emotion that she had to turn back to look at him. He was gazing at her as if she’d hung the moon itself. “What I feel for you, it’s more than I’ve felt for anyone else, ever. All those other girls, they were nothing compared to you.” He leaned down to rest his forehead against hers, staring deep into her eyes. “You have nothing to be insecure about. Not one thing.”
His earnestness took her breath and her words. She often wondered how he knew so precisely what to say, whether to ease her fears or merely get himself out of trouble. As she looked into his eyes, seeing the incredible depth of emotion in them, she realised that he had absolutely zero secrets from her. She never had to question what he thought or felt; if she asked, he would tell her, if she didn’t already see the answer in his eyes. It was something she was still working on reciprocating, verbalising her feelings. She found it so much easier to show him how she felt, but knew the words were important to him. “Neither do you,” she whispered, leaning up to kiss him. It wasn’t the pure passion of earlier in the waterfall, but an expression of love and trust and all the other things she felt but couldn’t put into words.
She wasn’t sure how long they stood there, with lips moving gently against one another, but all too soon they were broken apart by an angry yell. Nav looked back at the bridge to see Swain and Buffer sprinting toward them. There was a flash of gold behind Buffer’s shoulder, then she heard Craig yell, “Get them!”
In a split second, she understood that the Army team had succeeded in collecting the Snitch, and had now caught up to her team at the river. She turned and fled, reaching for ET’s hand as she did so. Her hand had barely moved when she felt ET’s slide against her palm, his grip urging her faster.
Unencumbered by the heavy Snitch, her team quickly outpaced the Army team. When they could no longer hear the footsteps behind them, they slowed to a steady jog. Nav checked her watch. Twenty minutes to go.
“Reckon we should look for more flags?”
Bomber leaned back against one of the support posts for their base. “Nah,” she said. “We may not have them all, but I’m not crawling through a bush or climbing a cliff to get any more.” Yes, she’d had a good time this morning, but she was done with running around.
“So where are the others?” Spider asked. He was standing at the edge of their base, peering out anxiously. “There are only five minutes to go.”
“So? They don’t have to be back here within the time. Just that any flags they bring back after time don’t count.” She wished he would just relax, maybe even sit down beside her so she could rest her tired head on his shoulder. But she knew he wouldn’t, not until Nav returned and gave him permission. Most of the time, she liked how respectful he was of authority. Now was not one of those times.
“Look, there you go.” She pointed to the closest trail entrance. Nav and ET were walking towards them, their hands entwined. “They just stopped for a romantic stroll, see?”
Close behind were Buffer and Swain. “And them?” Spider asked.
“If you like,” she agreed sedately.
Then, out of the trees burst three men, a giant golden barrel held above their heads. They were running for the Army base, closely followed by the two women of the team.
“What do you know,” Bomber said, impressed despite herself. “It is golden.” She pushed herself to her feet, moving forward to meet Nav. “Weren’t you going to try and stop them getting that?”
“I considered it,” Nav replied. She looked unusually smug, and Bomber wondered what plan she had now . “But this will be so much more satisfying. Watch.”
Craig stalked out of the bushes behind the rest of his team, and Bomber was surprised to see his expression of fury. His team had brought the Snitch back in time; what could have upset him? Then she noticed the water dripping out of his hair. One shoe left a wet print behind each step. “Did you do that?” she asked Nav, smirking.
Nav gasped in mock outrage. “ I would never push someone into the water.”
Ignoring the none-too-subtle dig, ET snickered, then said, “He jumped in all by himself.”
“Better yet,” Nav added. “Just wait until he finds out that it wasn’t worth it.”
There was a shrill whistle from the adjudicator’s tent, indicating that time was up, and they made their way towards it. As they waited for the announcement of the winner, Craig stomped over to Nav, smirking.
“Well, Nikki,” he said, forcing a smile. “I hope you had fun today, because once again, the Army has shown the Navy what hard work and persistence can achieve.”
“You have indeed,” Nav replied. She sounded extremely satisfied. “Now, you’re about to learn the Navy’s number one rule.”
“And what’s that?” He crossed his arms and raised an eyebrow.
Swain and Buffer grinned at each other, then nodded at Spider and Bomber. “Always,” they all said in unison. “Be on Nav’s team.”
“At least, if you want to win,” ET finished, wrapping an arm around Nav’s shoulders.
“I have won,” Craig countered.
“No,” Nav corrected. “You have the Snitch. That’s a measly one hundred and fifty points.”
“You’d need every other flag on the course to beat it, though.”
“Actually,” began Nav. “Forty nine flags, evenly spread between one and ten points inclusive. If you do the maths, you’d realise I only need about half of the flags to beat the Snitch.” They looked over at the adjudicator’s table, where he was watching the official from Nav’s base confirm the total score. “Though, I admit, it would be difficult to do it that way.”
“Some of us aren’t as good with the maths,” Buffer admitted with a self-deprecating shrug.
“So we just got all the flags,” Swain finished.
Craig stared at them in bewildered disbelief.
“Attention, attention,” called the adjudicator. “We have the totals. The Army team, with bonus points for collecting the Snitch, have earned one hundred and seventy points.”
Craig’s team, unaware of the conversation their leader was having, all cheered and began clapping each other on the back.
“The Navy team have a total of two hundred and three points. I therefore declare today’s winner to be the Navy team.”
The celebrations stopped abruptly. Craig’s mouth had fallen open, and he was staring at Nav. She just smirked at him. “I told you so.”
Bomber looked at Spider, lifting her hand to offer him a high five. Before she could speak, he had stepped forward, wrapped an arm around her waist and pulled her to him. Then his lips were touching hers and she suddenly remembered the kiss that had been interrupted by the river. It occurred to her that now was as good a time as any to finish that.
She enclosed him in her arms and deepened the kiss, until she lost all awareness of where they were and who was watching. When they had gone on their first date, he had surprised her with how good a kisser he was. For some reason, she had expected him to be a little awkward and unsure, the way he was with everything else. Never had she been so glad to be wrong in her life.
An amused cough broke them apart. She turned to see Swain grinning and Buffer gaping at them. Turning so her back was to Spider’s chest, her hands resting on his around her waist, she gave a sheepish smile. “I guess the secret’s out.”
Buffer chuckled and stroked his chin thoughtfully. “You did better at hiding it than those two.” He tilted his head at Nav and ET, who were still wrapped around one another in their own celebration.
“We didn’t try so hard,” Bomber explained. “It also helps that Spider’s form of flirting is the same as a 10 year old’s.”
“Oh, so that’s why he’s always hanging around the galley annoying you,” Swain said.
“He annoys me, too... you trying to flirt with me, Webb?” Buffer turned to Spider with a gruff face. Bomber felt Spider stiffen behind her, then relax a second later as Buffer broke into a grin. “Let’s grab the two lovebirds and go celebrate properly. I need a beer.”
“And a shower,” Swain said.
At that, Nav broke away from ET. “Agreed,” she said. “But beer first.”
And, as Nav led the way towards the carpark, Bomber caught a brief glimpse of ET tucking something long and white into his pocket. Yes, she thought to herself, throwing a glance at Spider, who was still grinning to himself. Beer first. And then they would celebrate... properly.