It had been four days. So far, he had only left Nav’s bedside when forced to. He didn’t want to leave, but he did need to change into fresh clothes. Bomber had offered to drive him, so it wouldn’t take long. The hospital was about as safe as any place could be, but he still worried any time that Nav was out of his sight.
“We’ll look after her,” said Buffer reassuringly as ET hesitated next to his chair. “Trust me, ET, no-one’s getting past us.” Swain nodded in agreement, and this time ET found it easier to repress his automatic response; Where were you when we really needed you? So far he hadn’t actually said it, but the thought popped into his mind every time one of his crewmates tried to tell him that they were ‘there for him’.
“I’ll be right back,” he said to Nav. He looked into her eyes, controlling the surge of anger he felt whenever he saw the heavy bruising on her face. Several days had only broadened the colouring and turned the swelling into a hard lump.
The trust in her gaze didn’t waver. “Shower,” she said, her old humour flashing into view for a moment. “Not too quick.”
He reached out, gently took her hand, and then forced himself to walk out of the room. Admittedly, Buffer and Swain could protect Nav from pretty much anything - now that they were conscious. He also knew that the danger had passed; no-one was left to hurt her. Closing his eyes, he brought to mind the moment he had shot O’Donoghue, the moment the terrorist’s body had dropped to the ground in a twin explosion of blood.
“Coming?” asked a voice from close by, and his eyes snapped open, his fists coming up in front of his chest. Bomber, at least, knew to stand out of arm’s reach. Swain and Charge had learned that the hard way, though they had gotten off lightly compared to the doctor who had tried to push him out of the room while she checked Nav’s injuries.
“Yeah,” he agreed. “Thanks for this.”
“Spider’s waiting in the car. I cracked a window for him.”
He wasn’t surprised to hear that the two of them were spending their convalescent time together. Even if Spider hadn’t yet plucked up the courage to ask Bomber out - and ET was fairly sure he hadn’t - they had been friends for a long time. What they had been through had forged an unbreakable bond, but had also separated them from other people. The three of them had fought the hijackers together, had plotted and bled and cried together. All three of them had deliberately killed to protect themselves and their ship. Even though it was over, recovering from the fear and the violence took longer, and it was something that none of their friends or crewmates could understand. Nav may not have been with them all the way, but she had been in their thoughts the whole time, and had experienced and suffered more than any of them. If ET couldn’t be with her, he would have preferred that either Bomber or Spider - or both - be standing vigil at her bedside. Failing that, he supposed Buffer and Swain would keep her safe. Whatever their intentions, however, they just couldn’t understand.
When he reached Bomber’s car, ET climbed into the back seat next to Spider, who gave him an easy smile. Again, he noticed a new maturity, a watchful intensity in the brown eyes that had not been there last week. “Assaulted any more doctors?” he asked as Bomber started the engine. From anyone else, the question might have sounded reproachful or needling; from Spider, it was concerned curiosity.
“Not yet,” he replied. He looked closer at the shadows under Spider’s eyes. “You okay?”
“Just a bit tired,” Spider replied, forcing a smile.
“I think Nav left some of her coffee at my place, you can have a cuppa when we get there.” ET leaned his head against the back of the seat and closed his eyes. A nap sounded like a great idea right about now. Though Nav had a recliner in her room, it wasn’t all that comfortable, and he couldn’t sleep knowing she was alone in the bed. But neither could he share the bed with her, not with her injuries. The best he could do was the lie his head beside hers on the pillow, his lower body supported by the chair, and let himself drift off while she slept. His shoulders and back were less fond of the position.
“We’re here, ET,” said Bomber, and he blinked in surprise.
Spider nudged his shoulder. “You fell asleep.”
He looked out the window and saw his front door waiting. Naval housing wasn’t all that exciting, but it was a nice enough place. He shared the house with two other sailors and, due to the nature of leave, he rarely saw them. Recently, he’d seen them even less than usual, since he’d been spending the large majority of his shore leave with Nav at her place. The fact she lived alone and off base was definitely a plus.
As he reached for his door handle, his hand stilled. Nav lived alone and off base. Who was going to protect her when she was released from hospital?
“Aren’t we in a hurry?” Bomber asked from behind him, and he shook himself free of the thought. Time enough to worry about that later. He unlocked the door and led them down the hall into the kitchen.
“Coffee,” he announced, digging out a packet of instant and chucking it towards Spider. “Make yourselves at home. I’ve gotta grab a few things.”
“And shower,” Spider said, wrinkling his nose. With a gesture at one cupboard, ET left the room, leaving Spider to investigate the kitchen. In the cupboard were mugs, and Spider chose the largest one he could find. “You want?” he asked Bomber, and she shrugged. Taking that as an agreement, he found another mug and filled the kettle. He’d made her a brew enough times to know how she liked it.
He didn’t understand the curious glances she was giving ET’s home; it was pretty much identical to every other example of Naval housing. As he set the mug down in front of her, he heard a rattle in the pipes as ET started the shower. He sipped at the coffee, wrinkling his nose at the bitter taste.
“Try sugar,” she suggested.
“This is working,” he said, stifling a yawn. “What’s so interesting?” he asked as she peered into the nearby living room. “It looks exactly the same as my place.”
“No pictures,” she said. “No personal items. Not even a magazine. This place is like a clean room.”
“Yeah, so? We spend most of our time on a ship.”
She smirked at him. “I get the feeling ET hasn’t been spending his leave here, either.”
“You reckon he’s been living with Nav?” Spider glanced up the hall, uncomfortable talking about this in ET’s home. He could still hear running water. “What about his house mates, though?”
Bomber frowned. “Good point. Maybe they’re neat freaks?”
“Maybe they moved out,” he suggested. “And ET hasn’t noticed yet.”
Snorting in amusement, she took another sip of coffee rather than reply. Her gaze was fixed at some point on the ceiling, and he found himself studying her. At first glance, she didn’t look any different. Same deep brown eyes, same thoughtful frown. It was a face that both thrilled and terrified him. There was a deeper edge to it, though, than there had been before the hijacking. Her eyes seemed harder, her shoulders stiffer. Though she was staring into space, he could see her head turning slightly at the sound of each passing car on the street, each slammed door and shout.
Suddenly, her head moved and she looked into his eyes. Caught, he just stared back, unable to help wondering if ET was right. What would she say, if he asked her? What would she do, if he just leaned over and kissed her? The faintest hint of a smile played on the edge of her mouth, and he looked down at his mug, his heart racing. Now wasn’t the time, he reminded himself.
“How’s your chest?” he asked, wincing at the words. “I mean, where you got stabbed.”
“It’s fine,” she said. “It hurt, but it wasn’t too deep.” He looked up, and saw her fingers on the collar of her shirt. “Do you want to see?”
He hoped his cheeks weren’t as red as they felt. She might be able to show him the injury without taking off her bra, but he doubted it. “That’s okay,” he said, taking a gulp of coffee and then choking. She went back to looking at the wall as he recovered. Maybe he was imagining it, but she looked a little chagrined. He jumped at a heavy thud nearby, then reassured himself it was just the plumbing. “I guess ET’s out of the shower,” he said, trying to break the silence.
“That’ll do for a start, I guess,” she said, glancing at her watch. “Have you spoken with that hospital shrink, yet?”
“No. I’m supposed to see him tomorrow. I thought counselling after an incident was optional.”
“Depends on the incident,” she pointed out. “He’s just doing the evaluation. Decide whether we’re fit to go back to work.”
“So if we pretend to be traumatised, we get a holiday?” he suggested, grinning.
The smile she gave in return was tinged with sadness. “Sure. If you can pretend well enough.”
“I don’t -” he began, breaking off as a shrill, electronic wailing rang through the air. Without thinking about it, he had jumped to his feet, flinging the chair backwards as he pulled a knife from his pocket. His heart was hammering and he could feel the surge of adrenaline waking him up more effectively than caffeine ever could.
On the other side of the table, Bomber had also leapt to her feet, turning her back to him as she stared out the window. For several seconds, they stood like that, ready for the threat to emerge. As abruptly as it had begun, the sound cut off, and they were left with only the sound of their own heavy breathing. Another nervous minute passed, before Spider glanced over his shoulder.
“I, uh… I think it was a burglar alarm,” he said, embarrassed. “Next door.”
Her fists were clenched as she slowly nodded. “Yeah.” Without meeting his eyes, she slid back into her chair, gripping her half-empty mug in both hands. “You know what those things are like, probably some leaf drifted too close to the sensor.”
“Yeah,” he agreed, gently righting his chair. He slid the knife back into his pocket, and then sat down. If Buffer or Swain had been there, he was sure they would now be laughing their heads off at his overreaction. His only consolation was that Bomber had reacted almost as violently as he had. “Do you think I’m pretending good enough?” he asked, offering her a weak grin, as if it was nothing more than a joke.
“Pretty good,” she replied, her answering smile just as strained. “The knife’s a nice touch.”
He lifted one shoulder in a shrug. “I gotta have something. So what did this shrink want you to do?”
“He just wanted to talk about what happened. Asked about how I’ve been feeling since.” She glowered at the table. “Seems to think it’s strange that I don’t want to discuss it.”
“Sounds reasonable to me,” he said. “I just want to forget about it. I thought, once the debriefing was done…” Trailing off, he gulped down the rest of his coffee. It had cooled more than was really desirable, but at least he didn’t choke on it this time.
“Trust me,” she said sourly. “They are not going to let us forget this. Ever.”
That sounded all too likely. A week ago, he would have thoroughly enjoyed being hailed as a hero. Now, he just wished the attention would go away, and life could go back to normal. Nothing could go back, however. He couldn’t undo the injuries Nav had suffered or the terror Bomber had felt, and he couldn’t give life back to the men he had killed.
Without thinking about it, he reached one hand across the table, to where Bomber still clutched the mug. His fingers touched her knuckles and, when she didn’t move, slid forward so that his palm was flat against the back of her hand. She didn’t move or speak. Swallowing, he started to pull his hand away when she finally released the mug, turning her hand to clasp his.
“If you ever do want to talk about it with someone,” he began. Her skin was soft against his, her fingers holding his tightly. “Well, I’m here.”
There was a short pause, and then she leaned forward, staring at his forehead until he looked up. “What if I don’t?” she asked. “What if I just want to sit there and hold your hand and not talk about it?”
“I’m here for that, too,” he replied, his mouth going dry at the openness of her gaze. ET was right, he realised. Something had changed between them on that day of blood and fear. It had pushed them past the childish arguments and pranks and opened up a whole new world of possibilities. Even now, he could see an echo of terror in her eyes, the briefest glimpse into how vulnerable she still felt. The fact that she was willing to show him those feelings, had in fact insisted that he look at them, meant more to him than anything she could have said. If there hadn’t been a table in between them, he would have taken her into his arms right then and kissed her until the pain went away.
“How about you wash these?” she asked, her free hand nudging her mug towards him. The moment broken, he just nodded and carried the mugs to the sink. It was just as well, he told himself. As much as he wanted her, he also needed her to want him in return - not just as a shoulder to cry on and not just as a lifeboat, but because he was him . Her physical wounds hadn’t fully healed, and they hadn’t even begun to assess the emotional impact of the hijacking. If he asked her out now, he would never know whether she had agreed - if she agreed - simply because she was lonely and scared and he was there . So, he would wait, and try not to think about the moment she had kissed him or how it had felt to pull her body against his.
He spent longer cleaning the mugs than necessary, gathering his thoughts and letting his heart rate steady. He turned back to her, expecting to see her watching him. Instead - and he fought off a moment of disappointment - she was peering up the hall.
“Is it just me, or is he taking a really long time?”
Spider frowned. How long had they been sitting here? After the shower, it shouldn’t have taken ET more than a few minutes to chuck some clothes into a bag. Alarmed, he strode up the hall, automatically pulling the knife from his pocket, holding it ready. The bedroom door was ajar, and he peered in, searching for any sign of danger - or ET.
“ET?” he called, pushing the door open. He stepped into the room cautiously, immediately checking behind the door. It seemed to be empty. “ET, where’d you go?”
He heard Bomber entering behind him. “He’s not in the bathroom,” she said, her eyes round.
“Well, he got dressed,” Spider said, pointing at the bed. A damp towel had been tossed onto it. An overnight bag sat next to it, though it had not been filled. Bomber vanished from his side, he guessed to search the rest of the house. Surely they would have heard the front door if ET had left? Unless they had been too busy staring into each other’s eyes, or if he had done it while the neighbour’s burglar alarm had been wailing…
He checked the wardrobe first, then behind the curtain. Then, carefully placing his knife on a pillow, he dropped to his stomach and peered under the bed. “Bomber,” he called in a careful tone. “Found him.”
ET lay under the bed, on his back. As best Spider could see, his eyes were shut, his knuckles white as he clenched the front of his shirt. Down here, Spider could hear the short, shallow breaths, and recognised them all too easily.
“Spi? Where the hell - what are you doing?”
Spider sat up, looking at Bomber across the bed. “He’s under there,” he said. “I think it was the alarm. He panicked.”
The frustration vanished from her expression, replaced by concern. “Is he alright?”
Lowering himself back to his stomach, Spider called, “You okay, ET?” There was no response. “I don’t think so,” he called up to Bomber.
She got down on her hands and knees, peering under the bed from the other side. “Hey, ET,” she said. “It’s all good, it was just a burglar alarm. Next door. Probably a false alarm.” There was no sign that ET even heard her.
“ET, it’s okay, you’re safe,” called Spider gently. “We are all safe.” He pushed his head under the bed, marvelling at the fact that ET had squeezed into the tight space.
“You don’t have to be quiet anymore,” said Bomber.
Her words reminded Spider suddenly of those hours spent whispering in small rooms, hiding behind their silence, and he shuddered. “No-one’s looking for us, mate,” he said.
There was still no response from ET. They might as well have reassured the bed for all the effect they were having. As Spider wracked his brains, Bomber tried a different approach.
“Hey, ET? Spider’s got a knife. If anyone comes in, we’re all set.”
Spider nodded, forgetting that his head was beneath the metal bed frame, then winced at the sudden pain. “Do you want to hold the knife, ET?”
“Spider!” He sat up to see Bomber glaring at him across the bed. “Maybe wait until he’s actually talking before arming him.” Then she looked back under. “If you come out, ET, I’ll show you my boobs?”
“Hey!” Spider protested without thinking.
Bomber shrugged at him. “If it works?” They both studied ET again. “This might be serious,” she said, frowning.
“It’s not yours he wants to see,” Spider pointed out. That gave him an idea, and he laid himself flat on the ground, worming underneath the bed. “ET? Nav’s waiting for you.” Several seconds passed, and then ET’s clenched hands began to relax. “Come on out, ET, and we’ll take you back to Nav.”
ET blinked, his chest rising as he inhaled. “Nikki.” The sound was so soft, Spider couldn’t be sure that it wasn’t just a loud sigh.
“C’mon, Spi,” said Bomber. He could hear her standing up, brushing her knees. “We are going back to the hospital. If he wants to see her, he’ll have to come with us.”
Watching carefully, Spider saw ET’s eyes flicker. He was definitely hearing them, now. He just still didn’t seem able to move. “Come on,” he said encouragingly. “Just a little at a time, okay? First your feet.” Nothing happened. “How about you just wiggle your toes? Just move something for me, yeah?”
“Alright,” said Bomber, a sharp edge appearing in her tone. “ET? You’re coming out. Now.”
Spider couldn’t see what she was doing from his position under the bed, but from what followed, he was able to guess most of it. With a grunt, she reached down and grabbed ET’s ankles, then began tugging him out of the tight shelter. At that point, ET finally responded. His hands released his shirt and instead grabbed onto the underside of the bed frame, while he kicked furiously at Bomber. Though his mouth was open in a snarl, he didn’t make a sound. For a minute, Bomber held firm, trying to yank ET into the open, until one particularly vicious kick sent her sprawling backwards. Free, ET pulled his feet back under the bed, and locked his toes into place. His entire body was quivering, with anger or fear, Spider couldn’t tell.
Spider inched his way backwards, coming out in time to see Bomber stand up, rubbing at her back. “That didn’t help!” he said sharply. “Now he’s never going to come out.”
“So what’s he going to do? Stay there until he starves?” She leaned down, glaring at ET’s new, more secure position. “You’ll wet yourself before that happens. Sound fun? Now, get up before I drag this whole bed out the door!”
With a significant look at ET’s king size bed, Spider moved over to Bomber, and tugged her towards the door. “You can’t force him out,” he told her, frowning.
“Sure I can,” she said, looking thoroughly annoyed. “Go find a broom and try poking him from the other side.”
“Why don’t you want to wait for him to come out?” Spider asked. “He’s listening, now, it just might take some time.”
She bit her lip, tilting her head as she looked at the bed. “We can’t leave him there!” she insisted. “We have to get him out, before…”
“Before what?” Spider asked, but it had already clicked. The sound of the alarm had caused ET to panic, pushing his mind back to a time when enemies were all around and hiding quietly was the only way to survive. Finding him trapped, however, had had almost as powerful an impact on Bomber; she was desperate to get him moving, and soon, before someone came in and found them. “Listen, he’s safe there,” he said reassuringly. “We’re all safe here. There’s no reason he can’t hide under the bed for a few hours.”
“We need to get him out,” she repeated. Though her gaze had lost some of its urgency, he could see that rational logic was as effective on her right now as it was on ET.
“We will,” he promised. “But there’s no need to rush. Trust me.” He realised he was still holding her wrist, and moved his fingers down until they wound around hers. “Trust me,” he repeated. Finally, she nodded.
“How?” she asked.
“Just like we were. Keep telling him it’s okay, that it’s safe.”
She nodded, a scowl reappearing on her face. “Why’d he go under the stupid bed, anyway?” He could tell that was a question that didn’t need answering. They had all reacted to the sound of the alarm, but ET, alone and unarmed, had gone a step further.
From Bomber’s pocket, something buzzed loudly. “Is that your phone?” he asked.
Pulling it from her pocket, she nodded, and stepped into the hall to answer. Spider moved back around the bed, and lay down on his back this time. He didn’t bother going under the bed, just rested there, trying to understand what ET was feeling at this point. Obviously, he decided after a moment, ET was not feeling the hardness of the carpeted floor.
“ET, you can stay here as long as you like,” he began. “And we’ll be here with you. Just let me know if there’s anything you need, okay?” He turned his head to the side. ET was still braced against the underside of the bed, prepared for any further attempt to drag him out. “Bomber’s not going to do that again. I promise. How about we just talk for a bit?”
Even though there was no reply, he could see ET breathing more steadily. Hearing Bomber stepping back into the room, he sat up again, rubbing at his neck.
“That was Swain,” she said. “They thought we would be back by now. Nav’s starting to worry.”
“Did you tell them what’s happening?” Spider asked.
“No,” she replied. “I just said it was taking longer than expected and we’d be there soon.” She sat down beside the bed. “How about it, ET? We going to be there soon?”
From beneath the bed, Spider heard a soft whimper. He looked down to see ET releasing his hold on the frame. For a second, it looked as though ET would climb out; then he froze.
“Come on, ET,” Spider encouraged. “You heard that, Nav’s worried. Don’t you want to go see her?”
This time, the sound was more like a groan. “Can’t,” ET said, his voice cracking. Spider looked over at Bomber, wondering if she was as shocked by that admission as he was. The day of the hijacking, it had been ET’s drive to reach Nav that had pushed them through. He would have ripped the ship apart looking for her, killed every one of the hijackers to save her. To see him now choose to hide under the bed rather than go to her was almost more than Spider could bear.
Bomber, of course, went with the blunt approach. “So you’re just going to leave Nav? Buff and Swain can’t stay with her forever.” She paused for a moment, letting him think over the implications. “If she’s worried now, what’s she going to be like when you don’t turn up?”
Though he was reasonably sure she was exaggerating the risk - Spider doubted Nav would crawl under the bed if ET didn’t return as quickly as expected - it did seem to be working. They could hear ET shifting under the bed, though he still didn’t emerge.
“Well?” Bomber prodded. “What’s it going to be?”
There was a thump, as if ET had slammed his fist into the underside of the bed. Then, sounding exhausted, he said, “Go.” Spider’s eyes widened in surprise as ET continued, sounding frustrated. “Go to Nikki. Look after her.”
“And what about you?” Spider asked.
“I can’t move,” ET said gratingly. “Leave me. Go to her. Please.”
“We’re not leaving you!” Bomber protested. “We gotta stick together.”
Spider met her gaze thoughtfully. “Maybe he’s right,” he said. “Bomber, you go. I’ll stay with him until he’s ready to come out.”
He watched as she chewed a nail, unconvinced. She looked down at ET as she asked, “What do I tell Nav? She’s going to want to know where you are.”
“The truth,” ET replied with a sigh. “Tell her I’ll be there as soon as I can.”
With a click of her tongue, Bomber finally relented. “Fine,” she said. “But you can drive yourself, or catch an Uber. I’m not coming back for you.” Despite the levity of her words, Spider saw the hesitation as she moved towards the door. On an impulse, he jumped up and met her in the doorway, a question in his eyes. Without a word, she stepped towards him, letting him wrap his arms around her. She rested her head against his chest, a shaky exhalation telling him just how she felt about this.
“We’re okay,” Spider repeated. “I’ll get him to come out.”
“If patience doesn’t work, feel free to try the poking idea,” she said, straightening. “Just use a broom or something.”
“Noted,” he said wryly. As she left, he headed back to the far side of the bed, lying down again. “No brooms, I promise,” he said to ET. “How you doing under there? Can I get you anything?”
“No,” came the short reply. “I… I want to move. I just can’t.”
“There’s nothing to worry about,” Spider said reassuringly. “No-one’s going to hurt us.”
“I know ,” ET replied, and he banged a fist against the underside of the bed again. “I know that. But every time I think about… about coming out there…” The next two words were said so softly that Spider could have imagined them. “I’m scared.”
“I know,” he echoed. “We’re all scared. When that alarm went off, Bomber and I went into full-on combat mode.” He stared up at the ceiling, remembering the thrill of pure panic that had flooded his system when the alarm had started. “I think, if I’d had a bed available, I would have gone under it myself.”
The ghost of a smile flickered across ET’s face, gone before Spider saw it properly. “You wanna share mine?”
“Sure,” Spider said, sliding sideways. Since he was taller than ET, his feet stuck out the end of the bed when he kept his head level with ET’s. “So… what can I do to help?”
“Just keep talking, it’s helping.” Though ET was still looking at the underside of the bed, Spider could see his shoulders beginning to relax. “How’s it going with Bomber? Asked her out yet?”
He sighed. “No. I can’t, not yet.” The silence that followed was as clear a question as anything ET could have said. “She’s… not weak, she’s never weak, but she’s not herself at the moment. I want to date the real Bomber… fire included.”
“You know she may never go back to how she was before,” ET said, a deep sorrow in his voice. “I doubt Nav will. She’s never been… never been hurt like that. Now she barely talks, barely smiles. She’s still here, but I miss her.” He turned his head to the side, so he was looking at Spider. “How the hell do you have it so together?”
Closing his eyes, ET spoke slowly, as if he had to search for each word. “I... I’m having nightmares, I keep flinching at every sound, I worry about Nav every second I'm away from her. I keep hitting people, good people. Friends. How are you still…”
A choked laugh escaped Spider’s throat at that idea. “I’m not. Believe me, I’m not. I keep a knife in my pocket and it’s just as well no-one’s done anything to piss me off, because I'm honestly scared I might use it. I haven’t slept in four days and every time I close my eyes I see Lee, or O’Donoghue, or Bomber, all of them covered in blood. Buffer bought me a bottle of coke yesterday and when he held it out, all I could see was that gun aimed at my face. I screamed.” He took a deep breath. “I… I think I’m scared of frying pans. I can’t even look at one.”
ET had opened his eyes and was staring at Spider. “Well,” he said after a minute. “At least you haven’t punched anyone.”
“Yeah, you might want to stop that,” Spider replied with a quick smile. “How you going? Want to try coming out now?” When ET hesitated, he added, “Maybe a little bit at a time. Why don’t you just stick one arm out?”
There was a tense pause, and then ET slowly extended his left arm, until his hand was on the carpet next to the bed. “Okay?” he said, swallowing visibly.
“You alright?” Spider asked. A second later, ET pulled his hand back in. Spider sighed to himself, then reminded himself they had all the time in the world. This was just going to take a little longer than expected.
Despite the urge to get back as quickly as possible, Bomber came to a stop outside Nav’s room. The entire trip here she had been plagued by guilt. It didn’t feel right to leave ET behind, even if he was perfectly safe where he was. She had a feeling Nav wouldn’t care how safe he was; he wasn’t here, and that was not okay. Nav’s sudden dependence on ET’s presence would have bothered Bomber at any other time, except she understood the feeling all too well. She had spent more off-ship time with Spider in the last few days than she would in a month of shore leave. It wasn’t about reliance on a man or fear of being alone. If anything, it was strictly evolutionary - safety in numbers. She needed to know that there was someone at her back, someone she could trust if everything went to hell. Right now, Spider was the only person Bomber trusted that much. Aside from that, she also understood ET’s reluctance to leave Nav. Spider had a natural gift for getting into trouble and Bomber needed to keep an eye on him. When they were apart, she couldn’t help but remember how close he had come to dying at Gleeson’s hands.
Her attraction to him was another matter entirely. She had been trying to get his attention in subtle ways for a month. During the hijacking, she’d gone a little further. To her surprise and chagrin, however, he didn’t seem to return the feelings.
Shaking herself, she forced herself to approach Nav’s room. Buffer and Swain were still in there and… She glared at the glass door. So was Dr Lowell, the psychiatrist who had wanted to probe her feelings. He sat in a corner of Nav’s room, making notes on a clipboard. Due to the shape of the room, they were all on Nav’s right, between her and the door; that had been an issue for the first few days as her injured ear affected her hearing on that side.
Bomber slid open the door, catching Swain’s look of relief, followed by a frown as she closed the door behind her. At her entrance, Nav looked up, the tension draining away from her posture. “Bomb,” she said quietly. Even though she had recovered from the temporary deafness, she turned her head so that her left ear was aimed towards Bomber. “Where’s ET?”
“He’s coming,” Bomber replied, moving to Nav’s side. “He was just a little delayed.”
To her relief, Nav didn’t immediately panic at his absence. Her expression closed over, her eyes narrowing as she looked at Bomber. “What sort of delay?”
“He’s fine,” said Bomber, and instantly regretted her choice of words.
“Why wouldn’t he be fine?” Nav pushed against her pillow, trying to sit more upright. “Is he here?”
“In the hospital?” Bomber realised that there was no good way of explaining this. “No, not yet. He’s still at his place. But he’s coming.”
“When?” Nav demanded. With her swollen cheek and healing lip, her glare was even more powerful. “Bomber, what’s going on?”
“He’s… uh, he’s…” She looked around, aware of the three men waiting for her answer as well. She sighed. “He’s under the bed.” Nav stared at her, but seemed unable to think of a reply.
Swain was not so limited. “What do you mean, under the bed?” he asked. “Under whose bed?”
“His bed,” Bomber replied, annoyed. “Who else’s? And I mean, he crawled under the bed and now he won’t come out.”
“Why?” asked Buffer, scratching at his head with an almost comical look of confusion. In that moment, Bomber recognised something else. When she and Spider had found ET, neither of them had questioned why he was under there. They knew. Nav also seemed to understand, though she was clearly concerned.
“I’d like to know that, too,” Dr Lowell said from his corner. “Do you know what triggered this behaviour, Rebecca?”
Annoyance faded in the face of anger. It might have been his overly polite tone, or his too-formal language, his use of her full name, or even just his presence in the room; whichever, Bomber levelled a glare at him, then deliberately turned her back on him as she answered Buffer’s question. “It was a burglar alarm,” she said. “He just… panicked a bit. Spider’s with him, so they’ll be along soon.”
“No,” said Nav quietly, pulling her hand away from Bomber’s.
“Maybe we should go round there,” Swain said to Buffer.
“No,” Nav repeated, louder, causing them all to look at her. Her lips were locked together, her nostrils flaring as she stared at Bomber. “I’m going.”
There was an instant outcry; Swain was urging Nav to stay in bed, Buffer was offering to go get ET himself, and Bomber was reiterating that he was fine, and had Spider with him anyway. The combination of voices meant that almost none of it was discernible. The only person not speaking was Dr Lowell, who was busy making notes on his clipboard. Bomber could feel the situation deteriorating rapidly, a feeling magnified a moment later as Nav threw the white blanket off her legs and turned so that she was sitting on the edge of the bed. Her left leg stuck straight out, the thick cast over her knee making it impossible for her to bend the leg.
“Get out of my way,” she said, and if it hadn’t been an octave higher than usual, it might have sounded calm.
With a warning glance at the men to shut up, Bomber stepped forward. “Nav, I promise you, he’ll be here soon.”
“No,” Nav replied, grimacing as she placed one hand against her broken ribs. “He won’t. He needs me!” Then she pushed herself off the bed, her face twisting in pain as she transferred some of her weight to her left leg. Though her feet were on the ground, she was far from upright, leaning back against the bed for support. The drip attached to her right elbow rattled with the movement.
“Nav, Nav, Nikki, no!” Bomber said, remembering what the surgeon had said about taking it easy. “No, I’ll go, if you want, I’ll go get him.”
For a moment, Nav hesitated, and everything could have been smoothed over in that moment, if not for Buffer. Whether it was the fear in her voice or the expression of pain in her face, he stepped forward, reaching out for Nav’s left hand, his warm brown eyes offering her the safety she had known for years. At the last second, she tried to pull her hand away, and instead his fingers closed over her bandaged wrist.
Bomber could only watch helplessly as Nav’s entire body stiffened, her eyes expanding in terror. There was an inhuman shriek as she yanked herself free of Buffer’s startled hold, her other hand flying at his face. He swore, more in surprise than pain, as her nails left three red tracks across his cheek. Nav wasn’t done. She fell back against the bed, pulling herself up onto it, her left leg stuck straight out to the side as she half knelt on her right knee. With a wordless cry, she reached for the bedside table, her fingers closing on the first thing they found. Then she was shouting, primal yells of fear and anger, slashing the air in front of her with a pen. Each movement jerked at the drip attached to the arm, until Bomber thought it might be ripped out completely.
“Okay, out!” Bomber ordered, turning to Buffer first, then Swain. “Out, give her some space!” She put her hands on Swain’s shoulder and spun him forcefully towards the door. Reluctantly, both men left, looking back at Nav’s frenzied defence with concerned expressions. Bomber’s eyes fell on the other person in the room, and was incensed to see him still making notes. With two steps she was yanking the clipboard from his hand, at which point she flung it out the open door like a frisbee. “Bring that back in here and I’ll break it in half,” she hissed, her earlier command reiterated with a stab of her finger. Dr Lowell sensibly darted from the room.
At the sound of the door closing, Nav’s frantic movements stopped, and she sat gasping for breath, one arm wrapped around her chest, the other holding the pen out in front of her like a sword. Each painful inhalation was accompanied by a soft whimper. Bomber took a careful step forward.
“Nikki? It’s okay.” Trembling, Nav met her eyes. “Just think of what ET will say when he walks in and you’ve torn your stitches.” A shaky smile crossed Nav’s face, and she slowly lowered the pen. Reassured, Bomber took another step forward. “He’s not hurt. He’s not in danger. He’s just taking a moment for himself. He promises he’ll be back soon.”
“But he’s alone,” Nav whispered. The awkward position must have exacerbated the pain in her ribs, as she pulled her right leg out from underneath her, re-seating herself on the edge of the bed.
“He is not!” Bomber replied sharply. “Spider’s with him. You trust Spider, don’t you?”
There was a tense pause, and then Nav nodded, her shoulders relaxing. “I do.”
“Right now, you need to look after you,” Bomber said, taking another step. “You’re not up to a cross-city scramble right now. And -” She softened her expression, trying to keep her next words from sounding like a threat. “- if you try jumping out of bed again, they’ll sedate you.”
At that, a single tear slipped down Nav’s cheek. “I wish they would,” she said, biting her lip. “I’m so… tired. I know it’s over but I’m still afraid, all the time.”
Hesitantly, slowly, Bomber reached out her arms, offering the hug without making contact. Nav’s fingers trembled as she dropped the pen. Then she put her right arm around Bomber’s neck and pressed her face against Bomber’s shoulder, her upper body shuddering with stifled sobs. Bomber tightened her arms, being careful of Nav’s injured ribs and abdomen. For a few minutes, she let Nav cry herself out, and she told herself that the tears on her lashes were just out of sympathy.
Then Nav groaned, a sound of pain, and Bomber gently pulled away. Without a word, Nav allowed herself to be steered back to her pillow, and Bomber gently lifted her legs and replaced them on the bed. It didn’t take her long to find the necessary button to lower the top end of the bed. She hoped that a more horizontal position would make it difficult for Nav to get up again.
“It was Gleeson who stabbed you, wasn’t it?” Nav asked suddenly. Her eyes were closed, but her mouth was twisted into a frown.
Bomber looked around the room, and spotted the chair Dr Lowell had been sitting in. She dragged it over to Nav’s bedside, the sound inappropriately loud in the silent room. After she sat, she reached up to take Nav’s hand, then hesitated. She placed the tips of her fingers next to Nav’s, making contact without forcing any kind of grip.
“Yes,” she finally answered. “I thought he was dead. I was stupid , I forgot about the vest, and I was so caught up thinking about Spider…”
“ET says you killed him.”
It wasn’t a question, but Bomber knew what Nav needed. Though she had visited every day since the hijacking, they had kept the conversation light, away from what had happened. “Yes,” she said again. “In a way. He was bleeding from his wrist, where Spider shot him, from his thigh, where I stabbed him. And I pushed him into the water.” She found herself thinking back to that moment, the wind and the smell of salt, and the throb of the wound in her chest as she looked at Gleeson. His expression had been both stunned and outraged as he reached for her from the back of the boat. Even if the blood didn’t attract sharks - unlikely, in those waters - the two injuries would make it extremely difficult for him to keep himself afloat. She had known that to let him fall into the water would be sealing his fate. So she had lifted one booted foot and forced him back, choosing that he should die for what he had done, and almost done. “I don’t regret it,” she added. “I killed him and I don’t feel bad about that. But the other night, I had a dream… a nightmare. I dreamed it was me. I fell into the water, I was bleeding, and then the sharks came. One grabbed my ankle, dragged me under. Another -”
Nav couldn’t have seen or heard the way her throat closed as she though back to that nocturnal ordeal, but suddenly Nav’s fingers were reaching out to clasp hers. The HMAS Picton had found Gleeson’s arm, and the evident blood loss indicated that the limb had been ripped off while he was still alive. Though the thought filled her with a vicious satisfaction, her sleeping mind had turned the tables on the scenario, giving her an intimate understanding of how he had died.
“I can’t sleep without nightmares,” Nav said, sparing Bomber the need to force out any further detail. “The first one I had was that day. They took ET for a debrief, and I was so tired.” Her voice shook, but she continued. “I dreamed that you three weren’t there, that you didn’t save the ship, or me. I was tied to that pole, and when they saw their target on the radar, I tried… I tried negotiating, again. So Don gagged me. I couldn’t move, couldn’t speak, could barely breathe, as they chased down a little yacht and blew it up.” Bomber could only imagine how horrible that would be - to watch, helpless, as someone carried out ruthless murder. “Then they were celebrating, and Gleeson looked at me. He was smiling… this cruel, hopeful smile. All he had to do was look at Don, who looked at me. And he says, “Remember the rules.” Gleeson replies, “No blood. I know.” That’s when I realise, they’re done, and they’re done with me, and he’s going to kill me.”
Nav’s breathing had become ragged, and Bomber reached up to wipe away a tear. “You don’t have to…” she began, but Nav just shook her head from side to side.
“He’s coming towards me and I can’t move, and I can’t speak, but I can scream. At least until he crouches down in front of me and starts stroking my cheek and says - God, it was only a dream, but I can remember every word he said - he says, “Don’s rules mean I can’t do to you everything I want to. But I’m still going to enjoy this.” Then he put his hands around my throat -”
At which point, fresh tears drowned out the rest of the story, and now Bomber was crying, too. Finally, she understood why Nav had said so little the last four days, why she listened to most conversations without comment. Once she started to give voice to the thoughts whirling through her mind, she couldn’t stop them. It was safer, nicer, just to force them aside and keep them at bay. Unfortunately, the depth of fear and pain they had experienced that day could not be brushed aside so easily. The memories, like open wounds, would need time to heal.
More than that, Bomber realised, they needed attention. Ignoring the injury only gave it time to fester. She leaned over Nav’s bed, putting a hand on her friend’s shoulder, resisting the urge to wipe away her tears. “If you have that dream again,” she said, “just remember that he can’t hurt you. Some shark is out there right now wishing it could get the taste out of its mouth.”
Nav choked out a laugh, a smile appearing briefly on her face. “Couldn’t have happened to a nicer person,” she said. “Though I admit to some sympathy for the shark.”
Unable to repress a giggle, Bomber didn’t hear the door behind her open. A tingle on the back of her neck alerted her as someone entered the room, and she leapt to her feet, spinning around so that she was between the intruder and Nav. She relaxed almost immediately, even before Nav placed a calming hand on her elbow. It was ET, closely followed by Spider. In the hall outside, she could see Buffer and Swain scowling at the psychiatrist.
Automatically, Bomber stepped aside as ET surged forward, his hands reaching for Nav. “Nikki,” he murmured. “I’m sorry, I’m sorry, I -”
“Shut up,” Nav said sharply. “Kiss me.”
He obeyed instantly, and Bomber wondered whether that might be the approach to take with Spider. When she turned to him, he was already looking at her, his eyes wide with concern. “What’s wrong?” he asked, reaching out a hand. He held it in the air between them, and she realised that her cheeks must be streaked with tears.
Her hand was suddenly clasping his, though she couldn’t remember moving it. She pulled him around the bed, so that when ET finally broke away, Nav could see all three of them.
“Are you okay?” ET asked, looking between Nav and Bomber with a frown. He might have assumed Nav’s red eyes were due to distress at his lateness, except that Bomber had also clearly been crying.
“Just comparing nightmares,” Nav replied, giving Bomber a tender smile.
ET’s eyebrows rose a fraction. “Can I join in?” he asked, and the quirk of his lips might have implied a joke if his tone hadn’t been so serious.
“I’ll swap with you any time,” Bomber replied. “You in, Spider?”
“As soon as I get some sleep, yeah.”
ET was relaxing into the chair at Nav’s side, his fingers tangled with hers, struggling to establish the contact she needed. Physical closeness had always been one of her biggest comforts, but her extensive injuries made it difficult. Bomber looked at her fingers, still wrapped around Spider’s, then up into his eyes. “How’d you get him out, by the way?” she asked, her free hand wiping absently at her face.
“Oh, well,” he began, and then flushed. “We just chatted for a bit. He seemed to have calmed down, so then I just… left him there.” Nav and Bomber stared at him, and he shrugged. “I figured he’d get bored eventually.”
“He was right,” ET said, hunching his shoulders in embarrassment. “Once I stopped being scared, it just seemed so stupid lying there, until staying became harder than getting out.” He turned to face Nav. “And I had to come back to you.”
She smiled, and tugged their joined hands to press her lips against them. “Next time I’ll be there with you.”
“There won’t be a next time,” he replied fervently.
Bomber shook her head sadly. “Yes, there will,” she countered. “There will be a next time, for all of us. What happened… has left a mark. We don’t just need time to recover… we need help.”
Spider squeezed her hand. “Then next time, I’ll be there,” he promised her. He met ET’s gaze. “I’ll be there.”
His words somehow eased the tightness in her chest, the tension that had been with her for the last four days. She smiled, and reached out to take Nav’s free hand. “I’ll be there,” Bomber repeated. “We all will.”