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The Best Defence

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ET didn’t try to speak. She liked it this way; it was a warm, comforting silence. Trying to talk just worsened the pressure in her chest. She could have listened while he spoke, but there was nothing to say, really. His presence was all she wanted, his bright blue gaze all she needed to bury the memory of what had happened two days before. Every now and then, he lifted a finger to brush a stray lock of hair away from her cheek and, even if it hurt when he touched her face, she couldn’t bring herself to ask him to stop.

She would have liked to have slept; but the only thing as constant as the pain were the visitors. The entire crew seemed to have filtered through her room today, some only dropping by to wish her the best, others staying and trying to draw her into conversation. Kate had not been back since that first night, which wasn’t surprising considering how that conversation had gone.

As the crew had stopped by, they had also brought flowers. Her entire room was filled with blooms of varying shades and now smelled like a florist. Spider and Bomber were the only ones who had resisted; he had instead brought her a blonde teddy bear dressed as a sailor, claiming it would remind her of ET. The bear now sat next to her pillow, on the opposite side of the bed to ET. The flowers had been banished as far away as possible while still being in the room.

The one person she hadn’t yet spoken to was… She groaned mentally, careful not to force the sound through her injured ribs, as her door swung open. The first time Mike had visited, the morning after, she had pretended to be asleep. Now, there was no hiding that she was wide awake. At least he hadn’t brought more flowers. She started to take a deep breath, then stopped with a grimace of pain.

“Nikki?” The concern in ET’s voice sent a wave of tenderness and relief through her. He was here. As well as the emotional comfort of his presence, there was also the physical benefit; he was able to take the brunt of any attempt at conversation, with most of her guests assuming that her broken ribs simply made it too painful to talk. Talking certainly hurt, but the real issue was that she had nothing to say to the those who had slept through the entire incident.

She met ET’s gaze, her eyes pleading. His fingers, never far from hers, squeezed reassuringly, and then they both turned back to face Mike.

“Sir,” ET said in formal greeting. With Buffer, Swain, Charge, even RO, he had been able to muster some semblance of friendliness. It seemed she wasn’t the only one feeling that her superior officers had let her down.

“ET,” Mike said in response, his expression flickering slightly at the unexpected stiffness. “How’s the leg?”

Nikki blinked. It was easy to forget that ET had been injured, a bullet coming much closer to his femoral artery than she liked to think about. He made no complaint about it, nor did he offer to show it off, as he once would have done.

“Fine, sir,” ET replied. His tone suggested that even he had forgotten about the graze.

Obviously giving up on getting any real information from ET, Mike’s gaze moved to Nikki. She tried to smile, but it felt as if her lips were moving wrong. It must have looked alright because he smiled back. “Nav,” he said, and there was so much in that single syllable. Warmth, compassion, sorrow, guilt. “How are you feeling?”

Why did everyone use those words? How did they think she was feeling? She had been taken hostage by terrorists. She had almost been beaten to death. It would take months for the physical damage to fully heal, and nothing would bring her ruptured spleen back. That injury bemused her every time she remembered it. Spleens didn’t really sound all that important. The doctors certainly hadn’t hesitated about yanking out the remains of hers. The injury had almost killed her, however. Overall, she was in a great amount of pain and haunted by the memories of what had happened, and had almost happened.

Mike was waiting for a reply. She opened her mouth, then grimaced. Without even glancing at ET, she squeezed his fingers.

“She has two broken ribs,” ET supplied. She wondered if Mike heard the accusatory note in his words.

“Ah,” he murmured. “I understand.” Then he looked directly at ET. “Would you mind giving us a minute?”

Automatically, her fingers tightened around ET’s. She needn’t have bothered; he didn’t move. “With all due respect, sir,” ET began, his tone anything but respectful. “I’m staying.”

Mike shifted his weight uncomfortably. He clearly didn’t want to make it an order, particularly as his authority wasn’t absolute in this situation. “Josh…”

“No.” Neither of them missed the switch to ET’s name and what it implied. It was one of Mike’s favourite techniques, to make it a personal request, capitalising on his close relationship with his crew. This had to be one of the only times Nikki had ever seen it fail.

It wasn’t that she didn’t trust Mike; she just didn’t want to be alone with him. Aside from the comfort ET’s presence brought her, if he left she would have to answer Mike’s questions herself. She liked and respected her CO too much to do to him what she had done to Kate. ET’s position also occupied the only other chair in the room, keeping Mike standing at the foot of her bed. Every time the nurses brought in a spare, ET found a way to relocate it as soon as they weren’t looking. Chairs invited people to stay a while, which was the last thing Nikki wanted.

Finally, Mike gave a little shrug, as if it didn’t matter to him. “Kate mentioned you were thinking about a job change.”

She was now regretting that conversation with Kate for several reasons. She hadn’t even mentioned her decision to ET, though he didn’t seem surprised by Mike’s statement. She was yet to decide what she would do with herself once her injuries healed. All she knew was that she couldn’t go back to Hammersley.

Either way; Mike hadn’t asked a question, and she wasn’t going to fill the air with sound every time he said something. The silence stretched out.

“Well,” Mike continued, looking uncomfortable. For a moment, his eyes moved to ET, and she could see him wondering if ET’s presence was inhibiting her. If he only knew. “You know you’ll always have a place on my ship. You’re highly capable, resourceful, loyal. Hammersley is still your home.”

The words fell from her lips before she could stop them. “It was.”

She felt ET’s thumb stroke the back of her hand, that single touch showing more understanding than any of what Mike had said since he had walked in.

Mike took a step forward, one hand lifting, then froze as ET turned those burning blue eyes on him. Nikki had always been a tactile person, inclined towards physical contact. The last few days, however, every casual touch had left her cold and scared. Worse, ET saw every hand as a potential threat. Mike was not usually an easy person to intimidate. Perhaps it was just the shock of being glared at by a junior sailor, one with whom he was usually on good terms, but he slowly lowered his hand and took a step back.

“She doesn’t like being touched,” ET said, some of the protective anger fading from his eyes once it was clear his warning had been accepted. “I’m sure you understand.”

“Of course,” Mike replied calmly, but his eyes were on Nikki, a question in his gaze. She was feeling a growing urge to apologise. She had failed in her duty by allowing the hijackers onto the ship. She had been the officer of the watch, and she had not been watching.

Unable to bear the guilt, she turned to ET. He lifted a hand, pushing her hair behind her ear, and nodded. She didn’t need to say anything.

He glanced at Mike. “Thanks for stopping by,” he said. “But she’s very tired.” He didn’t go quite so far as to order Mike out, as he had with Buffer earlier, but the implication was clear enough.

Mike turned back to Nikki, his brows drawn together in concern. “Does he speak for you, now?”

She understood his confusion, but she wasn’t in the mood to explain. “Yes,” she said tiredly, unable to summon any sort of smile this time. Instead of leaving, however, he frowned, looking from her to ET. She had the impression he wanted to say something, or ask a question but, before he could, the door behind him swung open.

For the briefest moment, ET’s hand left hers as he jumped to his feet to stare down the intruder. Her fingers felt suddenly cold. They both quickly recognised Dr Eliza Munroe, the plastic surgeon who had consulted with the orthopaedic surgeon who had treated her broken cheek. As Munroe smiled in greeting, ET’s hand returned to Nikki’s, though he remained on his feet. Mike stepped away from the bed but didn’t take the invitation to leave, instead watching the scene thoughtfully.

“Good afternoon,” Munroe said. She was in her mid-thirties and had an easy smile and an attitude of calm competence. “How are you feeling, Nikki?”

In reply, she shut her eyes. She was coming to loathe that question. Munroe was not so easily deterred. She approached the right side of Nikki’s bed, to where ET stood guard.

“I’d like to check your facial injury,” she announced. The statement was neither order nor question; simply a courteous announcement of what needed to happen. She was irritatingly optimistic, but of the three doctors treating her, Nikki disliked Munroe the least. ET’s presence was keeping Munroe from stepping closer, unable to reach Nikki’s cheek. “Could I have some space here?” she said to ET.

He looked down at Nikki. With a gentle sigh, she nodded, and he pulled away from the bed, just far enough for the doctor to squeeze in against Nikki’s side. She distracted herself from her empty hands by gripping the blanket above her waist.

Munroe’s hands were firm but gentle as she grasped Nikki’s chin and turned her head to examine the injury. Aside from the bruising, the cheek was still swollen, though less obviously than before. Nikki hissed in pain when Munroe probed the injury. Over the doctor’s shoulder, she saw ET’s jaw tighten at her pain, so kept her eyes on him to let him know she was ok.

“Looks like it’s healing well,” Munroe said, her hand still on Nikki’s chin. “You should be very careful to avoid placing any pressure on the left side of your face for the next four weeks. Dr Chang did an excellent job; everything seems to be well aligned. I’m confident that in a few months’ time, there’ll be no evidence of the break. He’s unlikely to remove the screws, but they shouldn’t be visible under the skin.” Nodding, Nikki twisted her head slightly to remove her head from the doctor’s grip.

“Is that all?” ET asked, automatically voicing her thoughts. He knew as well as she did, however, that he couldn’t kick out the doctors as easily as he did her other visitors - no matter how much she wished to be left alone.

“One more moment,” Munroe said, gently lifting Nikki’s right hand. “Hold this here for me.” She held her arm in the air while Munroe began unwinding the bandage around her wrist. Although she managed not to flinch away, she did stiffen. Every touch against her arm reminded her, with shocking clarity, of that moment in which Don had grabbed her hands and bound them, leaving her completely helpless.

Later, she couldn’t be sure exactly what happened first. ET twisted sharply away from her, his attention fixated on the door, which had opened with a soft click. Munroe’s attention slipped as she glanced in the same direction. The bandage, which had been uncoiling neatly, suddenly caught.

Then Munroe, unaware of the unexpected snag, continued pulling at the bandage. Instead of coming loose, the pressure around Nikki’s wrist suddenly increased. She flinched, feeling again that moment of despair as Don tightened the zip ties around her wrists, sealing her fate. Without thinking, she tugged. Munroe, her attention still on the door, tugged back. Panic swept through Nikki as she tried to pull herself free and found her hand immobilised, bound by the bandage and restrained by the firm grip of the doctor. With strength fuelled by desperation, she yanked her arm backwards. Even though the end of the bandage was pulled from Munroe’s hand, the rest of it had twisted even more firmly around Nikki’s wrist, and a harsh cry of fear and pain flew from her lips.

The sound caused ET to spin back around, a snarl on his lips. Unable to see the cause of her distress, he targeted what was closest - Dr Munroe.

The entire sequence took only a few seconds, and then Nikki felt panic fade as the bandage suddenly came free, exposing her lacerated wrist. ET had already jumped into action, however, grabbing Munroe by the arm and tugging her away from Nikki’s bed.

“What do you think you’re doing?” Munroe protested loudly, at which point ET grabbed the front of her coat and lifted her into the air, slamming her back against the closest wall.

“ET!” Nikki gasped, her ribs throbbing as she tried to yell.

“ET, no!” Mike shouted. He put a hand on ET’s left arm, trying to pull him away from the doctor. ET’s hand released its grip as he swung his arm, his elbow catching Mike under the chin and sending him staggering backwards.

Then another hand closed over ET’s fist and Nikki saw Bomber, for the first time understanding who had come through the door before. “Oi!” Bomber shouted into ET’s face. “Stop!”

And, to everyone’s surprise, he did. He blinked a few times, and gently lowered Munroe to the floor before releasing her. She stumbled towards the door, her eyes wild. In the instant of quiet that followed, Bomber took charge. “Out,” she ordered, pointing at the hall, her eyes fixed firmly on her own captain. She didn’t wait for him to obey, turning to ET instead. “Sit.”

He was already back at Nikki’s side, stroking her forehead, his blue eyes shining with guilt. “I’m okay,” she insisted, flexing the fingers of her right hand. “It just… surprised me. I’m okay.” Her heart was still hammering painfully, and she wasn’t quite able to shake the moment of terror that the tight bandage had inspired. For a few seconds she stared into his eyes, feeling her heartbeat slow.

By the time Nikki looked up, Mike had disappeared from the room without protest. Bomber glared at ET. “I said sit ,” she repeated. “Before security drags you out of the building.”

Together, Nikki and ET looked towards the door, where Munroe was speaking quietly to two burly security guards. Swallowing, ET dropped into his earlier seat. “I’m sorry,” he said. He was facing the door and Munroe, but his words were too quiet for anyone but Nikki to hear. She reached out, and he intertwined their fingers, then lifted their joined hands so that he could kiss the back of hers. The half-healed lacerations around her wrist shone like fresh burns.

Munroe cautiously returned to the foot of the bed, one security guard standing between her and ET. “Sir, I’m going to need you to step outside while I finish this examination.”

For a moment, it looked like ET was going to stand and argue. Then Bomber placed a hand on his shoulder and said sharply, “Stay.”

Nikki looked directly at the doctor, wishing she could catch a decent breath. “He stays,” she said as clearly as possible, despite the tightness in her chest.

“ET apologises,” Bomber said, prodding his shoulder pointedly.

“I do,” he said, and Nikki wondered if Munroe could hear the depth of shame in those two short words. “I’m sorry. I thought… I thought you were hurting her.” It sounded even more ridiculous when he said it out loud, and his gaze fell to the floor.

Munroe’s eyes narrowed, and Nikki could see her considering her next move. She hadn’t been injured by ET’s attack, though that was more due to his restraint than anything else. “You may stay,” she relented, nodding to the security guard, who retreated. “But you will need to allow me to finish my examination and rebandage Nikki’s wrists. Otherwise, I will have you removed.”

Nikki had assumed the moment of irrational fear had passed. When Munroe stepped towards her, however, she felt her pulse accelerate, and pulled her exposed wrist back towards her chest defensively.

With a sigh, Munroe stopped. “Please, Nikki, I need to check them. I’ll be careful.”

She hesitated. She didn’t want Munroe - or anyone - to touch her wrists again, but she couldn’t risk them removing ET from the room. Several tense seconds passed, and Munroe held out her hand expectantly. Nikki bit her lip, trying to force herself to hold her hand out.

It was Bomber who broke the standoff. “Let me,” she said to Munroe. “I’m ship’s medic, I can help.”

And, to her relief, Nikki found herself resting her wrist against Bomber’s palm. She still detested the contact, but Bomber’s touch was familiar and almost as reassuring as ET’s. Munroe was less than happy with the arrangement, but wisely chose not to comment, instead examining the healing cuts on Nikki’s wrists without touching.

“I’m going to switch you to a gel wrapping,” Munroe told her as Bomber carefully rotated the wrist. “That will keep the cuts moist and reduce the risk of scarring. I’d like to avoid steroid injections.”

There was a time she would have told Munroe not to bother. A few scars were not a big deal to her; they wouldn’t be her first. The thought of seeing those marks on her wrists every single day for the rest of her life, however, was more than she could bear.

“Nav? You want to do this yourself?” Bomber’s voice brought her out of her thoughts, and she realised they needed to check her left wrist, as well. She held it out to Bomber, who slowly and delicately unwrapped the bandage. Again, there was a moment, just before the fabric came free, where it caught. Nikki grit her teeth, and forced herself not to resist the pressure as Bomber tugged it gently loose.

Her left wrist had been more severely damaged than the right. Two deep grooves had been cut into her skin as she had struggled against the zip ties. Munroe had added a stitch to each, encouraging the wounds to close. “I’ll need to check these again in a few days,” Munroe said. “So I’ll leave the stitches in for now.”

Nikki could only nod. She almost asked if they could leave the bandages off, as well; but worse than the fabric on her wrists was the sight of those livid cuts.

“You’ll find the gel under the bandage more comfortable,” Munroe added. “How’s your pain?”

To that, she could only shrug. She was receiving regular doses of a powerful painkiller. For the most part, her abdominal pain and broken kneecap were reduced to a dull ache. There was little that could be done about the sharp pain in her cheek or the the hot tightness in her ribs.

Though her mouth tightened for a fraction of a second, Munroe’s smile was pasted firmly back in place before anyone other than Nikki could see the concerned expression. “Alright. Just let the nurses know if you need anything more. I’ll send the nurse in to apply the gel bandages.”

She waited a moment, as if expecting a response. Nikki looked at Bomber, eyes pleading.

“I can do it,” Bomber said, nodding firmly at Nikki.

Munroe opened her mouth as if to argue, then apparently thought better of it. She inclined her head in agreement, then left the room.

***

Munroe didn’t allow the frown to appear until she had closed the door behind her. As a plastic surgeon, she occasionally worked with victims of trauma; a man who had been badly burned in a house fire, a child whose face had been mauled by a dog, a woman who had been glassed by her partner. She had recognised the signs the first time she had met Nikki. Military or not, officer or not, she had been taken hostage and brutally beaten. Anyone would be rattled by that.

However, what had just happened in that room was of extreme concern.

“He’s not usually like that,” said a voice to her left, and she looked up sharply to see the captain standing beside the door. He grimaced in apology. “ET, I mean. He’s not… I’ve never seen him like this.”

Munroe nodded in sombre understanding. “He has been through a lot.” She absently rubbed at her shoulder. She had been more surprised than afraid when he had grabbed her; she was starting to feel some of her muscles protesting at the way he had jerked her around. “They all have.”

“I’ve never seen Nikki like this,” Mike continued, staring sadly through the glass panel in the door. “She’s usually so… bright. So confident. And she would have smacked ET if he tried speaking on her behalf.”

“I’m going to get a psych consult down here,” Munroe said. He might not be family, but as their commanding officer he would almost certainly end up reading whatever the psychologist concluded.

“The Navy is already organising a psychiatric evaluation,” he replied, looking at her.

“I understand that. But I don’t believe it’s scheduled to begin until next week?” She waited for him to nod. “I’m not sure if you noticed, but there are issues in that room now . I’ll contact your people and suggest they bring someone in sooner. Preferably today.” She rubbed her shoulder again and lowered her voice as she concluded, “Or, next time, someone might get hurt.”