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Healing Fears

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Josh was here and Don was dead, so everything was going to be okay. Nikki smiled at him and squeezed his hand, then released it. From her position on the chart table, she watched him walk over to the drinking fountain and fill a bottle for her. His eyes met hers, love mingled with concern.

He took two steps back toward her, then his face changed. The bottle slipped from his grasp as pain creased his forehead and then he was falling, hitting the ground like a ragdoll.

“ET!” The scream was out of her mouth before she realised she’d opened it. She pushed herself off the table and almost collapsed as pain exploded in her knee. A moan escaped her lips, but she just managed to keep herself upright, balancing most of her weight on her injured wrists. She tried to take a deep breath, only for her ribs to protest the movement. Through sheer force of will, she managed to control the pain and lower herself to the floor.

It wasn’t until she turned back toward Josh that she remembered they weren’t alone on the bridge. Bomber was already at his side, examining his blood-drenched leg. Nikki half-crawled, half-dragged herself over to them, ignoring the agony of the broken knee against the floor. He was more important. By the time she reached his head, his eyes were open once more, but his mouth was twisted in a pained grimace.

She cupped his cheek in a palm and gazed down at him. “You’re going to be okay.” Her other hand ran through his sweaty curls, then she looked up at Bomber. “Right? He’s going to be fine.”

Bomber looked stricken as she pulled away the bloodied fabric. “He said it was just a graze, but... there’s so much blood.”

“You can fix him, though, can’t you?” Nikki didn’t bother trying to keep the pleading tone out of her voice.

“I’m not a doctor, Nav. I’ll do what I can.”

Turning her eyes back to Josh’s, she saw they were now unfocused and glazed over.

“’M sorry… Nikki… got shot… overboard,” he rambled, turning his face into her palm. His skin felt hot under her touch; he was burning up.

“Don’t be sorry, help is on the way.” A tear slipped down her cheek as she grasped his hand. “Josh, don’t leave me. I love you.”

“Love… Nik…” he mumbled. His breathing was slowing and the light was fading from his eyes.

“No! Josh!”

Nikki’s eyes flew open as she yelled. It only took her a few seconds to recognise that she was in her own bedroom, and less to feel the warm body on her left side. Josh’s arms tightened ever so slightly around her as he pressed his lips to her temple.

“I’m here, it was just a dream,” he whispered soothingly.

The nightmare faded away quickly, even more so when she turned her head to look into his reassuring blue gaze. Exactly two weeks after the attack, she was home. For the first time, she had laid down in Josh’s arms and let herself drift off to sleep, confident that the nightmares would not return. She’d been wrong. His presence at her side didn't stop the nightmares - but it gave her the reassurance she needed when she woke.

***

Later that morning, after Josh had arranged breakfast in bed, Nikki stared at the bathtub. She had been really looking forward to her first bath at home; two weeks of sponge baths in hospital had kept her clean enough, but she still felt grimy. Now, however, looking at the tub, she suddenly wished Josh hadn’t picked out the large spa bath when they’d renovated her bathroom. It would be difficult enough to get in and out with her injured ribs, let alone trying to keep her leg dry.

With a sigh, she lowered herself to sit on the edge of the tub and turned on the taps. Her favourite bath salts and a bottle of bubble bath had been placed next to the taps; Josh had obviously prepped the room before she’d entered. She chose jasmine salt, pouring it and some bubble bath into the now-steaming water.

Just as she was reaching for the hem of her shirt and wondering how she would pull it over her head, Josh appeared in the doorway. “How can I help?” he said as he moved toward her.

He placed a hand on her left shoulder and she turned her head to look up at him. Though she felt silly, she asked, “Close your eyes?”

Immediately, he nodded and obeyed. The hand on her shoulder drifted down to the hem of her shirt and pulled it upward. As he slowly undressed her, by feel alone, she tried to understand why she didn’t want him to see her naked. He’d seen her bare before, plenty of times, and not always in a sexual context either. It wasn’t until he helped her take off her shorts and undies, causing a groan to escape her mouth at the pressure on her sore knee, that she realised. She’d never been this injured before. It was about the stitches and the bruising. Every time he looked at her face, he was reminded of how broken she was. She didn’t want him seeing more evidence of her vulnerability on her bare skin. She had never been one of those fragile girls who wanted a man to rescue them; on the contrary, she was the tomboy who played as hard as the boys. It made her new limitations so much harder.

He wrapped her cast in plastic as the doctors had instructed, turning his back to her so he could see her leg only. She turned off the taps and eyed the bubbles. They would cover her fairly well once she was in the water.

“Let’s get you into the tub,” Josh said, sliding an arm under her knees as he closed his eyes once more.

“Wait. Will you… get in with me?” The shyness that came over her was as unexpected as it was unnecessary.

He grinned widely, but didn’t try to open his eyes. “Of course.” He quickly stripped off his t-shirt and shorts, leaving his undies on. The small gesture made her smile; he was there for her, not to make things sexual. Stepping into the bath, he helped her in and settled them both in the water. It was only when his arms slid around her waist and his chin rested on her shoulder that he finally opened his eyes. “Okay?”

Snuggling further into his embrace, she turned her head for a soft kiss. “Perfect.”

***

After their bath and a brief debate about what she wanted to wear, Nikki asked Josh to help her outside. While she was reasonably mobile on her crutches, the pressure of putting her entire body weight on her injured wrists meant she couldn’t move very far at a time. Stairs were absolutely out of the question.

Having been stuck inside for an entire two weeks, she was eager to enjoy the last of the autumn sunshine. He dragged one of her sunloungers into the middle of her tiny backyard and arranged the two of them on it. Together, they read the newspaper that Nikki had arranged to be delivered each morning. The cocktail of painkillers and antibiotics she was on caused her to be tired all the time, so she soon lay her head on Josh’s chest and let the sound of his heartbeat lull her to sleep. He was safe and her injuries would heal.

The sun was high in the sky when she re-opened her eyes. The warmth of Josh’s body beneath her was absent, causing her heart to speed up momentarily; until she looked up to see him standing beside her.

“Hey, Sleeping Beauty,” he said, kneeling down so she didn’t have to crane her neck.

“You’re still here,” she replied, reaching for his hand.

He twined their fingers together, being careful not to touch the bandage on her wrist. “I promised I would be there when you woke up.” Though the promise had originally referred to her waking up in hospital, she appreciated that he was continuing to adhere to it. She knew that both of them felt calmer when they were together. That morning, he had woken her before leaving the bed, and the speed at which he moved told her he was in urgent need of the bathroom; yet he’d waited until she could understand his words before withdrawing his arms from around her.

“Couldn’t sit still?” she asked, and he shook his head. It had been the same while she was in hospital. Josh was a very active person and was rarely able to sit still for hours at a time. It had annoyed her before, when he couldn’t so much as watch a movie with her without getting up at least once. Since the hijacking, he had slowed down somewhat. Part of it was his injured leg, which caused him some pain when he was on his feet for too long, and part was his refusal to let her out of his sight. Though he was now more content to just sit and hold her, after an hour or so he would be fidgeting again.

“You want to go inside?”

She shook her head and turned it upward, relishing the warmth of the sun on her face. He dropped a kiss on her forehead, then resumed pacing around the yard. As she watched him move, she saw that he looked over at her every few steps, like he was reassuring himself she was still there and safe. Though she wanted to laugh and tell him to go for a run (or maybe a walk, considering his leg), she couldn’t bring herself to say it. She needed to see him as much as he needed to see her. Logically, she knew they were safe and no one was out to get them. If only she could convince her subconscious.

***

The next day was moving day. Though they had discussed moving in together prior to the hijacking, they had agreed it couldn’t happen while they were both on the same ship. Now that the brass knew about their relationship, there was nothing to hide - and they both needed the closeness. Since Josh had lived in Navy accommodation for his entire career, he had never needed to buy furniture of his own. His king-sized bed, however, was his one indulgence. Nikki knew from experience how amazing the mattress was, so she was more than happy to swap out their beds. Her own queen would move into the spare bedroom. Life aboard a ship led to a certain sparsity of living, so his only other notable possessions were his clothes and his Xbox.

As she was still too injured to pack or carry anything, Nikki waited at her place while he went to collect his possessions. Josh had initially baulked at letting her out of his sight, until Bomber arrived and reassured him she would stay. The two women had stared at him until he relented. Nikki wasn’t too worried by the brief separation; not when she would be with Bomber and he with Spider. She trusted them as much as she trusted Josh himself and cared about them almost as much.

Hanging out with Bomber was easy; she didn’t try to draw Nikki into conversation, nor did she try to touch her. Together, they worked to clear some space for Josh’s clothes. Under Nikki’s instruction, Bomber pulled clothes from hangers and drawers, dumping them in a pile on the floor for Nikki to sort through. She’d never realised just how many clothes she had accumulated over the years. Between them, she and Bomber sorted the clothes into ‘keep’ and ‘donate’ piles, with Bomber pilfering a few pieces for herself. Josh called out to them when he arrived back, so they didn’t react to noises downstairs until they heard loud swearing coming from the living room.

Bomber helped Nikki to her feet, then followed her out of the bedroom. It wasn’t until they reached the stairway and looked downstairs that they saw Swain and Spider, pulling frantically at a mattress that was slipping off its precarious position on the railing.

“Push up , Buff!” Spider called as he braced his feet against the railing.

“Oh, now you tell me, I didn’t realise!” Buffer’s stubbled head peaked out from under the mattress on the lower staircase.

Leaning against the upstairs railing, the girls watched as the mattress was slowly stabilised and then pushed over the bannister into the living room. Buffer and Josh joined Swain and Spider on the first floor, all four of them panting heavily.

“Nikki, why do you live in a tower?” Swain called up, gazing mournfully at the second set of stairs.

“It’s a townhouse, not a tower,” she answered, though her ribs didn’t allow her to speak loudly enough for him to hear. Without being asked, Bomber obligingly echoed her statement down to the boys.

“Three floors, plus an attic crawlspace? That’s a tower,” Buffer retorted, without malice.

After a few minutes, they picked up the mattress once more and began maneuvering it around the corner to the next staircase.

“I don’t think it’s going to fit, ET,” Swain said, looking at the space with a critical eye.

Josh rolled his eyes. “Can you please stop doubting me? It will fit, I measured.”

He was right. The mattress did fit around the corner, and up the stairs to boot. Nikki and Bomber moved away from the railing as the guys reached the top of the stairs. However, as they were rounding the final corner of the stairwell, Spider somehow got himself stuck between the mattress and the wall. Nikki had no idea how it happened; one minute, he was pulling the mattress with Swain, the next, he was only visible as two hands flailing above the mattress.

“That hurts, don’t push!” he gasped. Carefully, Buffer and Josh tried to pull it back. “Stop, that’s worse!” Spider screeched, his voice an octave higher than usual.

Unable to hold back, Bomber burst into giggles and slid down the wall until she was sitting on the floor. The three men were also laughing, trying to hold the mattress in place as they laughed. Before she’d realised it, Nikki’s lips curved into a smile. Only Spider. When she felt the smile tugging at her mouth, she realised that this was the first time she been this amused since the hijacking, and felt suddenly lighter.

But apparently it wasn’t enough. Their chuckles fading as they noticed her expression, Buffer and Swain exchanged a concerned glance, then gruffly resumed shoving at the mattress. The smile slipped from Nikki’s face. There was a time when she would have been cackling as hard as Bomber. Now, a smile was all she could manage, and that just wasn’t enough for her friends.

Josh cupped her cheek with a palm and grinned at her. Spider squeezed out from behind the now-tilted mattress and smiled sheepishly at them. Bomber nudged her shoulder, brown eyes warm with relief. Maybe it was just that her old friends didn’t understand anymore.

***

She woke up with a smile on her lips the next morning. Josh’s face was tucked into her neck, his left arm around her waist and his body pressed against hers. They could wake up like this every day from now on. Lifting his arm, she gently rolled onto her back and gazed at Josh’s face. Asleep, the worry lines smoothed from his forehead and the tension was erased from his shoulders. For a few minutes she was content to just stare at him, until she couldn’t help herself and had to press her lips against his.

The exact instant he woke up, she could feel the change of pressure in his kiss. His lips curved into a smile and a hand came up to cup the back of her head as he kissed her back.

He pulled back and grinned at her, those sky blue eyes twinkling with amusement. “What a great way to wake up. Good morning.”

“It’s a beautiful morning,” she agreed, leaning in to kiss him again. The arm across her waist pulled her closer as they made out and her fingers tangled through his hair. Then, as she tried to wriggle even closer, a sharp pain in her ribs caused her to break away with a gasp.

He released her instantly. “Sorry, I got carried away.”

“It’s my fault, but I’m okay,” she answered, wrapping an arm around her ribs. Pressure helped ease the pain.

“You need your pills, hang on.” He was out of bed before she could open her mouth to respond. It was only a minute before he returned with a glass of orange juice and her many bottles of medication. Leaving her to sort out her morning doses, he went into the bathroom in what was quickly becoming their ritual.

After swallowing far too many pills, she picked up the novel on her bedside table and began to read. Josh spent the majority of the day hovering over her, so she tried to give him as much time to himself as he felt necessary. Early mornings were her most alert time, before the pills had time to kick in, so she took the opportunity to enjoy a past-time he found boring.

Today, however, her bladder had other ideas. For a few minutes she shifted around, trying to ignore the pressure. Josh would help her to the bathroom as soon as he was done. But she couldn’t wait that long.

She looked over at the edge of the bed. It was so far away. Suddenly, the king-sized bed didn’t seem like such a good idea. With a sigh, she began moving away the pillows that surrounded her body and inching her way across the mattress. She had to stop every few centimetres to gently lift her bad leg, so it didn’t drag across the sheet. When she reached the edge of the bed, she collected her crutches and twisted her legs out over the edge of the bed. Standing up was so much harder than she’d expected. It never seemed so difficult when Josh was there to help her; apparently he was pulling her a whole lot more than she’d realised.

When she eventually got herself fully upright, she ignored the twinge in her abdomen and grinned as widely as she was able. She’d done it herself. Satisfaction flowed through her body, stronger than the pain. This was the first physical thing she’d done by herself since the hijacking. Though she loved that Josh wanted to help her with everything, she realised that she needed to try doing more things for herself. Just because he would do it, didn’t mean he should .

Moving was relatively easy; she had had plenty of experience with crutches in her youth. Just as she reached the bathroom door - which was half-open as per her request - she heard a hiss of pain. Instantly, she pushed the door open, her eyes searching for Josh. He was at the sink, bare chested, with a towel around his waist as he shaved. And there was blood on his neck.

All rational thought fled at the sight of the red stain. She was back on the bridge, seeing him bloodied and hurt and still in danger. She had to protect him. Her mouth opened and she may have made a sound, but nothing reached her ears. He turned to her, his brow creased in concern.  The crutches dropped from her hands as she took one step, then tried to take a second... only to remember why she had the crutches in the first place. Josh was there before she could put too much weight on her bad knee; she'd barely started to topple before his arms were around her. Her own pain barely even registered as she raised a hand to his neck, wiping off the blood. A tiny line welled up under her fingers, and she pressed down on it instinctively.

“...just a nick, I’m fine.” Suddenly, sound came back and she heard Josh’s reassurance. He seated them both on the edge of the tub and wrapped an arm around her waist to keep her steady.

“You’re hurt,” she whispered, pressing her lips against the cut. It was only when she tasted soap that she saw the shaving cream flecked over his face.

He grinned at her and kissed her fingertips. “But you kissed it better, so it's all good now.”

“The blood, I was so scared.” She didn’t need to elaborate and he pulled her closer into his side.

“We’re safe, it’s ok,” he murmured into her hair, over and over again until the bleeding stopped and her breathing slowed. She rested a hand on his chest, feeling the reassuring thump of his heart beneath her palm. He was here, he was fine, and he was hers. They would be okay.

***

Waking in the middle of the night was a regular occurrence since the hijacking. Whether her own fears or Josh’s, every night they woke at least once. Some nights, they spent more time crying together than actually sleeping. This night was different; Nikki was woken by the phone, not a nightmare. Since she could barely roll over without something hurting, Josh grabbed her phone and handed it to her.

She didn’t bother trying to clear her vision sufficiently to read the caller ID, just pressed the button to answer and put the phone to hear ear. “‘Lo?”

“Nav?” It said a lot about the past few weeks that Nikki instantly recognised Bomber’s voice, though it was thick with tears and sleep. “Can you let me in?”

For a moment, she didn’t understand the question. “Where are you?”

“At your front door.” Realisation flooded through her. She opened her eyes fully and met Josh’s gaze.

“Of course.” She pulled Josh’s arm from around her waist and pushed him toward the edge of the bed. “Go let Bomber in, she’s at the front door.” He stared at her uncomprehending, until she waved her hand at him. “Go.”

He threw her a bewildered look, but obeyed. As his curls disappeared out the bedroom door, she shivered and wrapped her arms around her waist; without his warmth beside her, she was already cold.

It was only a minute before Bomber appeared in the doorway, tears streaming down her face. One look at the terror in her eyes, and Nikki knew what had happened. It seemed that they had been woken by a nightmare, after all. She didn’t say anything, just opened her arms and let Bomber fall into them. Bomber crawled into the middle of the bed, put her head to Nikki’s shoulder and let the tears flow. Nikki stroked her hair and tightened her other arm around Bomber’s back, ignoring the twinge in her ribs.

She raised her eyes to see Josh standing on the other side of Bomber, looking at her with uncertainty in his gaze. He was wondering if he should join them. The exhaustion in his sky blue eyes was something she was becoming all too familiar with; neither of them had had a full night’s sleep since the attack. His head tilted to the side, asking if he should leave, and her eyes widened instinctively as she shook her head slightly. No, she definitely didn’t want him to leave. With a jerk of her chin, she indicated he should get back into bed, then reached for him as he pulled the sheet over himself and Bomber. Their fingers entwined and she let out a breath she hadn’t realised she’d been holding.

For a few minutes, they lay together, Nikki stroking Bomber’s back as she cried. On Bomber’s other side, Josh lay very still, his eyes fixed on the ceiling. Then he turned to meet Nikki’s gaze, and she could see how awkward he felt. His eyes fixed on Nikki’s, he released her hand and began to slide further away, only for Bomber to grab his now-free hand. Without turning to look at him, she pulled his arm back across her waist, until Nikki could grab it once more. Squeezing his fingers, she wordlessly asked him to stay. She allowed her eyes to slide toward Bomber’s head, then back to Josh, trying to convey her request without breaking the silence. Both women wanted him to stay where he was, so he might as well move closer to them and help calm Bomber down. Whether it was her expression or the tug on his hand, he somehow got the message and moved closer to Nikki and Bomber. He mirrored Nikki’s position with Bomber; one arm under her neck, the other across her body as he held hands with Nikki.

Safely ensconced between them, Bomber eventually stopped crying and calmed down. She finally looked up at Nikki, gratitude in her eyes. With a slight smile, Nikki shook her head and kissed her on the forehead. There was no need for gratitude. They would always be there for her, in the same way she or Spider would be there for them. Bomber snuggled slightly closer and threw an arm over Nikki’s waist. Nikki squeezed Josh’s hand and closed her eyes. Explanations could wait until morning.

There were no more nightmares that night. They were healing; slowly, but together.