“Ashe!” Corporal Silver’s voice called from outside her tent. “You in there?”
Abigail scrambled off her cot and dashed to the tent flap, heedless of her bare feet or her still damp hair. She would have enjoyed the shower a lot more if she hadn’t been so anxious about Bones’ status.
“Yeah?” She poked her head out of the flap, reminding herself not to hope. There wasn’t room for hope here.
“He’s awake.” Silver smirked and let his eyes travel down her unbuttoned utility blouse, reminding Abigail of just how revealing her old tank top probably was. Whatever. She’d traveled through the jungle with these men. They’d seen each other in far more compromising situations than this. “You want to see him?”
Abigail rolled her eyes and retreated from the tent flap without answering him. Of course she wanted to see him. Back at her cot, she tugged her boots over her bare feet and combed her fingers through her hair. She patted around her cot and her weathered green backpack, past her camera body and lenses, dirty clothes, beef jerky, and toothpaste, but couldn’t locate an elusive hair tie. For an item that cost pennies, she lost them at the cyclic rate and not enough post exchanges or local stores carried them to keep up with her hair tie needs. She would just have to make due with being seen with her naturally frizzy, wavy hair. Not that she had anyone to impress here.
She bustled out the tent and nearly collided with Silver. He took a step backward, raised his eyebrows with that infuriating smirk he always seemed to wear, and swept his hand out like a proper escort.
They walked side-by-side and a brisk clip through the small camp - a forward operating base, little more than tents for the Marines based here to take naps and showers before returning to the jungle. “You look nice,” Silver said without looking at her.
Abigail’s hackles rose. “I didn’t ask,” she ground out between her teeth.
To her consternation, Silver only got more amused. His hair was several inches of curl too long for any proper military regulation, but at least he shaved. Most days. They got to the tent that apparently served as the medic’s tent, or was at least unused enough to remain a quiet space where an injured man might get decent sleep. The field hospital needed to remain prepped at all times, which did not include catering to convalescing troops. “Oh, um,” Silver’s hand paused on the tent flap.
Before he could explain his reticence, Abigail’s mind swirled into all possible worst case scenarios. “He’s not alright? He’s going to be fine, right?”
“Oh, yeah,” Silver chuckled, “it’s just, well, he’s kind of a big guy. You’ve noticed.” He winked at her. “So, the doc just gave him a bit more morphine than he usually does for the others. He’s fine, no permanent damage, he’s just a little, um. You’ll see.” He gave her his best reassuring smile and held the tent flap open for her. “Cheers!” He cuffed her shoulder and disappeared into the night.
Inside the tent, a single neon lamp hung from the roof, flickering and attracting every moth and insect in a mile radius, which, in Vietnam, was a damn lot of bugs. Six cots lined the tent walls, but only one was occupied and protected by a mosquito net. Billy’s bare feet raised the net where they hung well off the end of the cot.
“Is that Miss Ashe?” his voice sounded somehow wrong. Cracked from dehydration, and perkier than she’d ever heard him.
In a few quick steps she was beside his cot, under the net and holding his hand. “Corporal Bones, how many times have I told you to call me Abigail?” She smoothed a hand over his sweaty brow and her eyes flew over his face and bare torso. Clean white bandages wrapped his ribs. His wrist was set in a rather rudimentary-looking splint. A decent gash dug through his cheek, just under his eye, and a few more bumps, bruises, and scrapes marred the skin she could see, but otherwise he was no worse for the wear. He was still dirty, though. Grime had accumulated around his neck, along his cheeks and forehead, even around some of the cleaned scrapes on his chest and shoulders.
“Only if you call me Billy.” He smiled up at her, loopy and pleased, with glassy eyes. Silver was right. Billy was high as a kite. She found a clean rag, canteen, and a camp stool, and settled in next to him to wash the dirt and sweat away, first around his temples, then working her way as gently as she could down his face. His big calloused hand found hers and squeezed, but not too hard. He applied just enough pressure, perhaps to reassure himself that she wasn’t a morphine dream, and then his thumb rubbed soothing little circles across the back of her hand.
“You had us pretty worried, Billy.” She spilled more lukewarm water on the rag and set to work on his neck. She could still see it so clearly. One minute they were walking down a dirt road between great stretches of rice paddies, the next she was being slammed to the ground with the full weight of Joshua covering her and shielding her head. It was like the world exploded in a great boom of sound and dirt and heat, but it wasn’t the whole world. It was just a single grenade, tossed by an enterprising young teen who thought he was defending his family. Billy had been the closest, taking the brunt of the explosion, and had been unconscious for nearly ten hours after. Ten of the most awful, heart-wrenching hours of her life as they had to wait for a medevac, each minute ticking by, a minute closer to Bones never waking up. They followed the medevac on foot to the nearest forward operating base with a field hospital. He was awake by the time they got there, almost a full day after the helicopter, but dear God he was awake. And, if present inspection served, not severely injured.
All the while, Abigail felt herself descending into madness and grief. It couldn’t be Billy, not her Billy. He was the first one to show any degree of human kindness toward her. That might have been due to some shameless flirting on her part to get her camera and film back, but even after she dropped the facade, he continued to be polite and considerate. He was just too big, too good at being a soldier, to be taken down by something so random. She caught him sharing his food with village kids when he didn’t think anyone was watching. She heard the jokes and sarcasm passed under his breath. He was funny and smart and sweet in a way she didn’t think possible for any man willingly participating in this war.
Billy still smiled with his eyes closed, as happy and relaxed as she’d ever seen him. He started to chuckle.
“What are you laughing at?” Abigail dabbed away at the space around his collarbone, far too content with this activity than she cared to admit.
“You,” his lips shaped the word and his eyes fluttered open. “You thought I was an easy mark. Now you’re worried about me.”
Abigail kept her eyes on the task at hand - easy enough to keep looking at his chest - but her cheeks rushed with warmth. “An easy mark? You make it sound like I swindled you.”
“You thought you did,” Billy grinned, dragging out the first you a few beats too long. “You flirted with me because you thought I was an easy mark. You wanted your stuff back and I got it for you.”
She tipped the canteen over to refresh the rag, fighting to hide her smile. “If you knew I was just trying to get my camera back, why did you do it?”
His thumb was still rubbing circles on the back of her unoccupied hand. “I thought you’d look cute if you won something. I was right. Like a puffed up little bird.”
She had to bite her lip and duck her head to hide both her furious blushing and grin. Had she really been that obvious? How embarrassing. In two weeks, Billy “Bones” Manderly had been pensive, funny in his quiet way, and spoke with a paucity of words that would make Hemingway proud. This was the most uninhibited she’d seen of him, and mentally cataloged every bit to tease him with later.
“I think you are officially turning the tables on yourself now.” Abigail scooted closer, hesitated, then set to work patting the rag against his deltoid.
In the unreliable neon, his eyes were almost black, gazing up at her. “How’s that?” His voice dropped lower, concern wrinkling his brow.
“You’re making fun of me for being worried about you, and now you can’t stop telling me how cute you think I am.” Somewhere in the camp, someone was playing a Beach Boys song on a record player. A year in country, and Abigail still found the sound of cheery Western music surreal.
His grip tightened on her hand and he grew as serious as an opiate-addled person could. “I think you’re very pretty.”
She wanted to hide, but between his ironclad grip on her, the confines of the mosquito net, and her extremely important job scrubbing the weeks of jungle from the hard planes and valleys of his skin, she couldn’t flee. She cleared her throat. “Are you in a lot of pain?” Her eyes flickered to the bandages around his ribs, wondering if they were bruised or broken. Billy was in no condition to give her an accurate report.
Abigail felt the rumble of his words in his chest. Her hand stilled on his arm. She had been working her way, with a tad too much attention to detail, down the shoulder of the arm he used to clutch her hand. That was at least safer than leaning over him to wash the other shoulder.
He was watching her so intently, so directly, she couldn’t look away anymore. His face was, for the first time since she met him, utterly unguarded. Her hair slipped over her shoulder, brushing against his bare skin, and his whole face lit up. “God, you smell so good.”
Abigail sputtered and laughed, then tried to force a sober response. “Well, I did shower. With soap.” He tried to press himself up on his elbows, but winced and hissed in pain, only to collapse back onto the stiff cot. “Easy, easy,” Abigail frowned over him and smoothed the moist rag over his temple again. “I don’t think you should be trying to sit up just yet.”
“I don’t think I should either, but,” Billy grimaced. He wore a look of such consternation, he reminded Abigail of a golden retriever puppy locked out of the house.
It took all of Abigail’s effort to not laugh at his hopeless confusion. “But what, Billy?” She chewed her lip and did not miss the way his eyes flickered to her mouth.
“I want…” he struggled with the words, then curled a finger at her. “C’mere.”
Confused, Abigail leaned forward, inspecting his head for a cut or gash the corpsman might have missed. A frustrated noise rumbled from his throat before his free hand found her cheek.
Abigail’s heart stammered and her eyes closed, reflexively leaning into his touch. His fingers traced her cheek up into her hair, even under her jaw and along her neck. He had absolutely no right, especially while intoxicated, to make a single touch feel so good. He leaned up again, and breathed her in. A shudder rolled through her at the warmth of his breath on her skin. He pulled her down, ever so gently, until his lips finally found hers.
It was tender, tentative, like dipping a toe into the ocean before diving in. The stubble of his three-day beard scraped against her chin, and his lips were both soft and firm, coaxing her closer. Heat seared through her, and all at once she needed to be closer. His other hand left hers to cup both sides of her face, brushing her hair back while his lips moved over hers. His teeth grazed over her bottom lip with a little tug that sent sparks exploding behind her eyes. The sensation felt so good she moaned into his mouth.
Her moan broke whatever dam Billy had erected for himself. With a groan, he pulled her closer and deepened the kiss. His tongue first tested the barrier of her lips, then sank into her mouth when she parted for him. She laved her tongue against his and they dissolved against each other like teenagers, all lips and tongues and hands, unsure but needing to touch each other everywhere at once.
His hand found her ribcage and he pushed and pulled by minute measures, guiding her off the camp stool and onto him. His skin was on fire under her hands, from his neck down his shoulders and chest. Everywhere she touched was hard and solid. Even on painkillers and injured, he would have no problem simply picking her up and putting her where he wanted, but instead he called to her. Just a little bit of pressure at her ribs, asking her to join him, but never demanding.
He’s on morphine, the thought hit her like a truck. She pulled her lips away until only their foreheads were still in contact. She managed to retain her seat on the camp stool, and dragged herself away from him. He blinked up at her in wonder and dismay, eyes dilated by the drugs.
His lips were forming the question but Abigail shook her head. “I’m sorry, you’re on morphine. You’re not yourself right now.”
“No, no,” Billy had to slow down to think about his rebuttal. “It’s fine, I’m fine, please-”
The FOB corpsman chose that moment to burst into the tent, whistling Surfer Girl. “I see my patient has a visitor,” he announced.
Abigail popped up from her seat and straightened her still unbuttoned blouse. “I was just checking on him.”
The corpsman, a shorter man with dark fluffy hair, no older than 21, spun the camp stool around and claimed it for himself next to Billy’s cot. “Whatever.” He slung a saline bag onto a hanger Abigail hadn’t noticed before, and ran an IV into Billy’s arm so smoothly Billy looked like he might have missed the giant needle in his forearm altogether. He then produced a pen light and set to checking Billy’s eyes, then his various minor wounds. “Some fresh fluids and a little night-night medicine. Listen, no hanky panky for at least two weeks, big guy,” the doc spoke to Billy as if Abigail had already left. “That’s plenty of time for you to request special lib and get a love hotel in town like the rest of us. A bed’s better than a cot, am I right, sweetheart?” He grinned over his shoulder at Abigail, who turned a furious shade of red. Billy’s face crumpled in anger but the doc already had the sleep aid in in his IV line, and oh apothecary, thy drugs are quick.
Flustered, Abigail muttered that she’d be back in the morning, turned on her heel and exited the tent as quickly as she could.
On her way out, she heard Billy slurring his way through a string of obscenities about the corpsman, who laughed merrily and cheered, “Man, I love you Brits.”