I have been working on this for ages and I just couldn't seem to get it right. I'm still not entirely happy with it, but I really wanted to get this chapter out there. This story has been dormant for way too long (not that that's going to change because work is hell right now...)
I just wanted to thank everyone who has been following Nina's story so far. I hope the next update will come a bit sooner and I promise that the next chapter will be more action-packed than this one. Suggestions, ideas and constructive feedback are welcome as always :)
Nina was getting better. Gradually.
Sure, she had days where she would forget a meal or two. She had days where she spent two hours cuddling with Mrs Littman's calico and tabby cats on the carpeted living room floor before she could break through the buzzing of morose thoughts in her head. She had days where she hardly interacted with her coworkers outside of a call, too scared to invite vicious jibes or overly aggressive rebukes even though those had stopped weeks ago.
But her good days were starting to outnumber the bad ones.
The blonde was smiling more and could also be observed laughing from time to time. Her connections with Spike and Lou were developing into friendships. The three of them bonded over their time spent in the truck or on less-lethal assignments and often traded gentle ribbing, carefully feeling out the limits. When Nina tapped into her vast network of acquaintances and friends, she occasionally told them the story (or at least part of it) of how she had come to meet that specific person.
She asked Wordy about his family, listened with interest and seemingly never-ending patience as he gushed about his girls. He subtly checked on her in return and asked about Michael Loretz from time to time, knowing how important the man was to the former paramedic. Beneath the ever-present, but gradually decreasing, flash of surprise, Nina shone with affection for her former partner when she spoke of him.
Wordy didn't ask about Nina's family, though. Every time somebody tried, she deflected or clammed up, so he decided not to pry. He suspected that her relationship with her family wasn't stellar. From what he had been able to piece together, from little slips and his own observations, her father had been mostly absent and she had faced considerable pressure to meet her family's expectations.
One of their most recent training negotiations cemented those suspicions into fact.
Jules was pretending to be a young woman holding her father (Ed, in this case) hostage because she couldn't take the pressure anymore. He wanted her to become a lawyer and refused to even consider that she had different ideas.
Wordy was in the ideal spot to observe Nina's reactions. The former paramedic managed to cool the situation a little simply through her body language. Calm, approachable, unbiased. She quickly got a read of the people involved and made decisions based on those impressions. A minute into the negotiation, she had pulled Jules' attention off Ed and onto herself through blunt (shockingly so, in Wordy's opinion - and likely Spike's as well judging by the tech's expression) honesty.
"Look, I know that you're angry and upset, but I need you to listen to me for a moment. There are two ways out of this situation. Either you talk to me and we can figure out whatever seems to be the problem, or you continue screaming at your father and waving that gun around and we'll be forced to shoot you."
The look of shock crossing Jules' face wasn't part of the script, but entirely realistic.
Nina continued. "I get it, you don't want to talk to me. I wouldn't be too eager to tell a total stranger about family issues either. But I'd honestly prefer not to see you die, so would you please consider talking this through?"
Jules had recovered and shrugged. "Why should I?", she countered with attitude. "I got nothing to lose! And it's all his" - a jab with the gun towards Ed - "fault!"
"I'm sorry to hear that." Wordy believed that she really was.
Ed played up the role of the dominant, demanding father and burst out: "My fault?! The cops wouldn't have to deal with your temper tantrum if you-"
"Thank you, sir", Nina interjected neatly, cutting him off politely and firmly, "but please let your daughter speak. Making her more angry only puts you in danger, so please, be quiet."
That was nicely done, Wordy thought to himself. It showed that the blonde had experience in handling unreasonable, volatile and overbearing people. Of which she'd surely encountered more than enough during her years as a paramedic.
As if nothing had happened, she carried on, looking at Jules. "Truth is, you'll lose your life if you continue to be a threat to yourself and others. And with that, you'll lose any chance to follow your own dreams and live your own life."
You could have heard a pin drop at that moment. She had captivated not only Jules' attention, but that of every other person in the room as well.
With a little encouragement from Nina, Jules aired 'her' grievances and while the gun came up several times or twitched in a gesture, the situation was continuously de-escalating as Nina kept the other woman talking.
Wordy was the only spectator with full view of the former paramedic's face when Jules finally revealed that her father was putting immense pressure on her, trying to force her to conform to his expectations. A brief flash of absolute agony and her eyes darted to Spike, a tiny frown briefly clouding her features. But just as quickly, her professional mask was back in place as she continued negotiations.
"I understand how hard this is for you", she said, voice quiet. She exhaled and the look of empathy, of understanding, of knowing on her face had both Ed and Jules pausing for a split second. Nina didn't notice - or, if she did, she hid it perfectly. "It feels like the pressure is going to crush you. You start asking yourself if you're wrong and they're right, even if you know the answer. You think that it would probably be just easier to do what they want."
Jules bobbed her head and Wordy wasn't sure if this was the subject or Jules herself reacting. Possibly both. The gun had remained limp in her hand for a while now. The threat level was steady in the green.
Nina gave her a smile, a sad, tattered, heart-broken shadow of a smile. "I know. But I also know that it would tear you apart and you'd spend the rest of your life cursing yourself for giving in, for not even trying to make your own way."
"How can you know that?", Jules questioned, doing a pretty good job at mixing aggression with curiosity and a hint of desperate hope.
Hazel eyes dipped to the floor for a second, brows puckered together. Then, Nina took another breath, the set of her shoulders tensed as if bracing for something and she responded: "My parents wanted me to join the family business. They always said they'd let us decide for ourselves, but that was an empty phrase. How could we decide if their business was all we knew?" She shrugged, another crumbled smile quirking her lips. "I was lucky, I learned that I did have other options, so I made my choice."
"Weren't your parents mad at you?"
She shrugged her shoulders. "Sure they were. We had a huge fight, but ultimately, they had to live with my choice."
Convincing the subject to surrender was a piece of cake afterwards.
The Sarge announced that they'd take a short break before continuing with the next training negotiation - featuring Ed as the subject, Wordy and Lou as the hostages and Spike as negotiator.
Nina was out the door before anybody else had the chance to take three steps and headed in the direction of the locker rooms.
Confused and concerned, Wordy turned to his team mates, hoping that one of them could offer an explanation. Spike looked plain worried. Jules seemed a bit troubled, probably because the negotiation had stirred up some emotions. Lou was pensive, though the twist of his eyebrows indicated that he was worried, too. Greg was also showing concern. And Ed- Wordy frowned. While his friend appeared to be deep in thought, there also seemed to be a trace of guilt colouring the team leader's features.
"She was telling the truth, wasn't she?"
All eyes zoomed to Jules, who was staring at the door their other female colleague had disappeared through moments earlier.
Heads turned to Wordy. It would have been comical if he hadn't been so preoccupied with the broken expression that he'd seen flash across Nina's face. "You can't fake that kind of understanding."
Nina returned from the locker room three minutes later, her face carefully blank, giving nothing away. She slipped into the room and quietly settled into a place next to Lou.
"Are you alright?", he asked.
She shrugged and murmured: "Doesn't matter right now."
"Spike didn't say anything."
Life stirred in her eyes, the tightness around her mouth softened. "I know."
Wordy couldn't forget Nina's anguished expression. It kept bothering him the entire day. The sky decided to open its floodgates twenty minutes before shift change. Seeing Nina look up and sigh as thunder rolled, he took the chance.
"Do you need a ride?", he offered.
She tried to refuse. "It's okay", she said, "it's only a little rain."
He bargained, told her that he didn't want her to catch something in this weather. "It would make me feel better", he tacked on.
And there was that surprised look again, the one that felt like a punch to the gut. But it did the trick. The young woman's shoulders sagged and she nodded. "Okay. Thanks."
"Can I ask you something?"
The soft question came out of the blue and Wordy was glad they were waiting at a traffic light because he could turn his head to look at his passenger. "Sure."
"If one of your daughters chose a career you're not happy with... what would you do?"
He paused, surprised at the direct way she'd asked. It was a good question, so he took a moment to consider.
Nina must have misread his silence because she looked away and mumbled: "Sorry, you don't have to answer. It- it's a personal question."
"No, no", he assured her, "it's alright. I was just surprised." He cleared his throat and explained. "I would talk to them, see why they picked that job. Maybe I'd have a wrong impression of that career, so I'd want to understand what my girl sees in it. We'd figure it out and either, I'd support my girl's decision or if she realises that maybe another job would be better, I'd help her find one."
Nina made an indistinct noise at the back of her throat. "You're a good father", she hummed distantly.
"Yours wasn't?" Wordy knew that he was going out on a limb here, but he couldn't help but wonder. She had all but said so during the negotiation that afternoon. The light jumped to green and he turned left.
She shrugged her shoulders, blew out a sigh. "I guess he wasn't", she said. She rubbed at her eye. "He wasn't around much when I was little. And afterwards...like I said, my parents pretended to leave it up to us whether we joined the business or not. But they also made it clear when they disapproved of our friends or plans for the future."
He frowned. "So they didn't want you to become a paramedic?"
A humourless chuckle worked its way up her throat. "They didn't know I was considering it. It was more things like telling me I couldn't take piano lessons because it wasn't useful. Or that I wasn't allowed to walk to school with this girl because her father was a tiler."
"That's so ... wrong!" Wordy struggled to find the proper words to express his disbelief and outrage. "You weren't allowed to have a hobby because it wasn't useful?"
Nina's mouth stretched into a sardonic smile. "Yep." Then she shook her head and her expression closed. "But it doesn't matter. I left and found a life for myself. Make a right by that house with the blue shutters."
Wordy followed Nina's instructions and soon enough, he was navigating the tree-lined streets of The Annex. They pulled up in front of an old, but well-maintained apartment building. 111 Howland Ave. He'd have to remember that.
"Thanks for the ride, Wordy", Nina said, slipping out and grabbing her bag from the backseat. "And ... for everything else."
"You're welcome", he smiled. Before she could shut the door, he stopped her. "Listen, if you ever need someone to talk to or, well, if you need somebody: Call me. You have my number."
The young woman nodded. "Thank you. I- I will."
She closed the door, ducked her head against the rain and hurried up the front steps. Wordy was left to the sound of raindrops drumming onto the roof of the car. Nina turned to look back and gave him a smile. Then, she turned the key and entered the building.
It was almost two weeks later - less than a month until Nina's decision day would come - when Nina made use of Wordy's private mobile phone number.
Wordy's mobile went off, buzzing loudly against the kitchen counter.
"...Wordy? It's...it's Nina."
Maybe it was the static, but something about her voice roused his paternal instincts and he found himself asking: "Is everything alright?"
"You said I could call you", she began, sounding nervous. "If I needed- you know what, I'm sorry, I shouldn't be bothering you, I'll, I'll hang up."
"No", he called out, "wait! Don't hang up, Nina, please." A beat and he tacked on a soft: "It's okay", because he knew - he just knew - that Nina needed reassurance. The insecurity in her voice bled through the phone and while it wasn't exactly a good thing, it was better than hollowed numbness. Some of the walls were down and Wordy had learned enough about the former paramedic to know what that meant.
There was a pause. It stretched long enough that he feared she'd hung up even though the line crackled softly at intermittent intervals with each of her breaths and he could practically feel her internal struggle.
Then, she responded, hesitant or reluctant (he couldn't tell which). "Alright."
Pleased, Wordy leant against the counter and asked again: "Now, can you tell me what's going on?"
Haltingly, the young woman explained. There had been a gas leak at her apartment building, making the apartments uninhabitable until the leak was fixed and all the poisonous carbon monoxide had evaporated. Which wouldn't be until tomorrow, meaning she needed someplace to spend the night. And since Spike and Lou were out of town and her neighbours were facing the same problem as her, Nina hadn't known who else to ask.
Wordy didn't mind not being her first choice. He understood and was only too happy that she had considered him an option at all. "Where are you", he wanted to know, already moving towards the hallway to grab a jacket and slip on some shoes. "I'll come and get you."
He paused mid-motion as he was reaching for his keys. "Are you okay?"
"I'm fine", Nina was quick to reassure him, though she sounded tired. "Don't worry."
It did little to assuage his concern, so Wordy promised to be there in ten, fifteen minutes tops before hanging up. "Shel", he said, turning to his wife, who had followed him into the hallway, "I'm going to get Nina from the hospital. There was a gas leak at her house. I told her she could stay the night."
Shelley, being the wonderful woman she was, nodded, concern on her face for her husband's coworker that she'd already heard a lot about. "Of course! She's more than welcome to stay. I'll get the guest room ready."
Smiling and giving her a kiss, Wordy murmured: "Thanks. I love you."
Walking up to the reception desk at Toronto Western Hospital, Wordy gave his name and explained that he was here to pick up Nina Ruben. The nurse smiled when she recognised the name and immediately had a colleague take over for her so she could show him to Nina.
"She's still in the ER", Nurse Odette Masters told Wordy as she led him through the busy Emergency Department. "Don't let the oxygen mask scare you, Nina is alright. She was very lucky."
"What about the other residents of her building?", Wordy wanted to know. A gas leak could be anything from a minor nuisance to a serious hazard.
Odette hummed: "I can't tell you much since you're not family, but they are all in stable condition. Everyone got out quick enough that there won't be any permanent damage or issues."
They came to a stop in front of a cubicle that was cordonned off with a curtain. "I'll be right back with the release paperwork", Odette said, indicating that it was alright for him to go ahead.
Stepping around the curtain, Wordy didn't immediately announce his presence, using the brief moment to take a good look at his colleague. Nina had her eyes closed as she sat with her back to the wall, her posture more relaxed than he had ever seen her. A small voice in his head needled: Says a lot about how comfortable she is with you. Wordy ignored it.
An oxygen mask was fitted over her mouth and nose, though he had been expecting that thanks to Odette's warning. Her blonde hair was down, the tresses loosely framing her face or sneaking out from where they had been tucked behind her ear. A pair of jeans and a soft black sweater added to her casual, placid appearance. Her tennis shoes looked ready to fall apart at the seams, frayed and scuffed. She looked 24 going on 13 like this and his parental side pushed forward.
"Nina?", he asked quietly in case she was asleep.
Hazel eyes flickered open and she blinked at him, the look of puzzled disorientation quickly turning into bashful gratitude. "Wordy", she greeted him, sitting up and pulling the oxygen mask from her face. "I didn't think you'd be here so soon." She reached for the simple brown pair of glasses on the bedside table.
He shrugged, joking: "Thought I'd come save you before they try to feed you hospital food."
Nina chuckled, smiling. "That's very nice of you. Though Odette probably would've let Angus smuggle in some proper food for me." She motioned to the plastic chair by the wall and invited him to have a seat.
"How are you feeling?", he asked, moving to sit down. Carbon monoxide poisoning was no laughing matter and while Nina looked well enough, he knew how deceiving appearances could be. Especially when it came to her.
"I have a headache", she admitted with a nonchalant twitch of her hands, "and I feel pretty wrung out, but otherwise, I'm fine. I think they'll let me leave soon, but you never know..."
Wordy agreed. "I didn't know you had glasses", he commented, deciding that light conversation was best suited for the moment.
"I only wear them off duty." Nina shifted to sit cross-legged, absently brushing a strand of hair back from her face. "In our line of work, they're just not practical. On duty, I wear contacts. That way, I don't have to worry about losing or breaking these."
"Could you manage without them?", Wordy wondered. Had her contacts been removed to flush her eyes during that bomb incident? Had she been forced to muddle her way back home half-blind when she'd been released?
Her head tilted slightly as she considered the question. "I can... but I don't like it that much", she then replied. The amiable smile was still on her lips. "I always keep a few sets of contacts in my locker, though. And a second pair of these" - she gestured to her glasses - "just in case."
Their conversation was interrupted by Odette coming to deliver the paperwork. "Dr Johansson told me that you should take it easy for the day", the nurse informed Nina with a knowing look. "And to come back if you start feeling worse or have trouble breathing."
"Thanks, Odette." Nina signed the necessary forms and handed them back. "Say hi to Verena for me, yeah? And tell Angus I said bye."
"Of course, Nina. Try not to be too much of a stranger, you hear? We miss you around here." The sternness of her words were tempered by the fond smile on her face and the kindness in her tone.
Nina nodded, cheeks turning a light pink. "I promise."
On the drive back to the Wordsworth home, Wordy impressed on his colleague that she should tell him the moment his three very energetic daughters became too much for her. "They can get pretty excited", he told her with an apologetic smile, "so just let us know when it gets too loud for you."
Nina smiled tiredly, but nodded. "Okay."
"Allie doesn't really understand the concept of personal space yet", Wordy continued. He wanted the former paramedic to feel comfortable around his family and giving her a heads-up would hopefully help with that.
"That's alright", she said easily. "I know fully-grown adults who don't understand that either. A four-year-old might still learn."
Wordy was oddly touched that Nina had bothered to remember the age of his youngest child. Though he wasn't too surprised this time. Nina had a mind like a steel trap and soaked up any and all information like a sponge.
Wordy's home was exactly like Nina had pictured it. Nothing extraordinary, a house with a nice backyard and neat front lawn, a loveseat swing on the porch. It looked friendly and welcoming with the box of sidewalk chalk by the bannister, the flowers in the pot by the front steps and the obviously hand-crafted wind chimes, the oddly shaped ornament turning slowly in the light breeze.
The inside matched the outside in its sense of comfort and homeliness. "Shel", Wordy called, "we're home!"
Shelley, the love of his life, stepped into the hallway, her blonde hair tucked behind her ears. "Hello honey", she greeted her husband before directing a warm smile at their guest. "And you must be Nina. It's so nice to finally meet you."
Nina smiled back, unsure what to do in the face of such open acceptance and sincere friendliness. "Um, it's great to meet you, too, Mrs Wordsworth. I've heard a lot about you."
"Please", Shelley said, waving her hand, "call me Shelley or Shel. No need for formalities here."
They entered the kitchen, Wordy inviting Nina to have a seat while he got her a glass of water. Shelley offered to make her something to eat, but Nina declined graciously, insisting that she wasn't hungry.
"Well if you need anything, just let us know, okay?", Shelley said before concern coloured her features and she asked: "How are you feeling? Kevin told me there was a gas leak at your house?"
Nina nodded in confirmation and reassured her that she was okay. "I have a bit of a headache, but it's not bad." The 'I've had worse' went unsaid, but was still heard.
Appeased by the younger blonde's answer, Shelley continued: "I've made up the guest room for you, if you want to lie down for a bit. You probably won't get much rest when the girls come home from school ..."
"That's very kind of you Mrs W- ... Shelley. I don't mind."
Picking up on his colleague's insecurity, Wordy volunteered to give her a tour of the house. He didn't want her to feel overwhelmed, especially by something as simple as being offered a guest room and the possibility to sleep away the headache she was downplaying.
"You have a beautiful home, Wordy", Nina said sincerely, marvelling at how inviting and lived-in the rooms felt.
She also got to meet the youngest of the Wordsworth children, four year old Allie. The little girl studied her curiously, not entirely sure what to make of the unfamiliar woman. That changed ten seconds later when Nina praised how fantastic the dollhouse looked.
"Daddy builded it for us!", Allie blurted proudly, picking up one of the dolls she had been playing with. "This is Penny", she said, "she's mine."
Wordy watched with a smile as Nina made the suitably impressed comments about how pretty Penny's dress was and if Allie had styled Penny's hair so expertly. Clearly, the former paramedic was no stranger to dealing with children. In under a minute, Allie had decided that she wanted Nina to play with her, handing her a doll with blonde hair and a bright green dress.
He decided to remind his daughter that it wasn't polite to just assume people would want to play with her.
Contritely, Allie turned big, pleading eyes - they were the same colour as her father's - on Nina and asked: "Do you wanna play dolls with me?"
Nina's smile was the brightest one he had seen yet. "I'd love to", she said, taking the proffered doll and settling cross-legged on the floor.
Wordy left them to it, the animated chatter of Allie introducing Nina to all her dolls following him into the hallway.
"How bad do you think her headache is really?", Shelley asked her husband as he returned to the kitchen.
He sighed, guilt settling on his features. "Probably worse than she lets on", he said and leant against the counter, watching her stir sugar and milk into her coffee. "But she's playing with Allie now, so I don't think it's bothering her too much."
A smile tilted her mouth. "Let's hope Allie can get her to relax and feel comfortable here." Her lips pursed and she looked at him. "Is she always this uneasy around people?"
Wordy heaved another sigh, scrubbing a hand down his face before he sat down. "I don't know, Shel. She's opened up around Spike and Lou since... since she tried to quit." There was no sense in glossing over the truth.
Shelley joined him at the kitchen table. She took a sip or her coffee and waited patiently while he sorted his thoughts.
"Nina's reserved at work, quiet and pretty cautious when it comes to talking about personal stuff." No wonder, a voice in his head chimed bitterly, what with how you threw everything back in her face. "Some days, she's nervous, especially around Ed. Mostly, she hides it behind a blank mask, but sometimes, she can't."
He wasn't sure which days were worse.
"Has she always been like that?"
"I don't think so. Commander Holleran himself said that she was only a shadow of herself. Whatever caused her to leave EMS, it left her in a pretty bad place and we only made it worse." He shook his head, guilt rearing its ugly head once more.
Shelley rested a hand on his arm, squeezing it comfortingly. "You're doing your best to make up for it, honey", she told him. "And Nina obviously trusts you or she wouldn't have called."
"Spike and Lou are away", he countered with a shrug. "She didn't know who else to call."
His wife tutted softly and said: "Kevin, if she wanted to avoid calling you, she would have found a way. From what you've told me, Nina has plenty of friends and acquaintances in the city."
Wordy considered Shel's reasoning and his spirits lifted at the thought that Nina had truly reached out to him because she had trusted him not to go back on his word. Even if she had only called him as a last resort and had second-guessed her decision almost immediately. She had accepted his offer to stay the night and for now, that was enough for him.
Nina insisted on helping Shelley with dinner. "I'm not much of a cook", she admitted softly, cheeks flushing as if this was something to be ashamed of, "but I can help with preparations, Mrs Wordsworth."
"You don't have to", Shelley was quick to assure her. "You're our guest."
But Nina shook her head and explained that it was the least she could do to repay them for their kindness, so Shelley offered no further protests, especially since she didn't mind. It would give her a chance to talk to the young woman. However, she did say that there was nothing to repay.
Allie, who seemingly had declared her Daddy's coworker her new favourite person, clamoured that she wanted to help, too.
As she set about putting a pot of noodles on the stove and pulling ingredients from various cupboards, Shelley observed as Nina interacted with Allie. Her youngest daughter was currently pouting because she wasn't yet allowed to use the sharp knife. Nina took it in stride and was in the process of explaining to the little girl why she couldn't help slice and dice the assorted vegetables on the table.
For all she claimed not to be a good cook though, the former paramedic expertly handled the knife to cut the vegetables into neat cubes, Shelley noted.
"Kevin tells me you live in the Annex", she commented after a moment of deliberation over what would make a suitable conversation opener.
Nina nodded. "Yes Mrs-" - she caught herself, flashing her an apologetic smile -"Shelley."
"Do you like it there? It's a pretty colourful neighbourhood, isn't it?"
That drew a laugh from her and she said: "It is, yes, but I don't mind. It's affordable and people mostly leave you in peace. A little noise here and there or some oddballs are worth that."
Conversation revolved around small talk like living situation and the latest news for a while before a loud slam of the front door heralded the return of Lily and Holly, who had been over at a friend's house. The noise level ratcheted up exponentially and Shelley didn't miss the way Nina's breath hitched as the two girls called "Mommy, Daddy, we're home!"
Barrelling into the kitchen, the elder Wordsworth children were excited to meet their Daddy's coworker.
Shelley quickly stepped in though before they could bombard Nina with questions. "You can talk more at dinner", she reminded them. "Have you finished all your homework?"
Shelley smiled. "Dinner's gonna be ready in a few minutes", she said. "Allie, be a dear and get Daddy? Lily, Holly, can you set the table, please?"
The girls nodded in stereo and went to do as they were asked. Lily and Holly bustled in and out of the kitchen with plates, cutlery and glasses while Allie ran off to find her Dad.
Shelley studied Nina with the trained gaze of a mother and asked: "Is everything alright?"
"Yeah, sorry. I guess I wasn't prepared for the noise", she replied with a rueful smile, massaging the bridge of her nose.
"Do you need something for the headache? Kevin said they gave you some meds."
Nina took a few measured breaths, hoping to ease the sharp pounding in her skull. "Might be a good idea", she conceded. She made to go and fetch them, but Shelley stopped her.
"Have a seat", the mother said, gently pushing the younger woman into a chair and setting a glass of water in front of her. "I'll get them for you."
Mumbling a thanks, Nina told her that she had the pain pills in the left inside pocket of her jacket.
Dinner was a lively affair, though Wordy and Shelley made sure to curb their children's noise level before it could bother Nina. The former paramedic was grateful for it, even though the pain pill was keeping her headache down to a distant pressure behind her nose.
The three girls asked Nina dozens of questions. What her favourite food was, if she had a pet, which had been her best subject in school, if she liked working with Daddy and his friends... She patiently answered each of them as best she could. Her favourite food was Captain Oehler's Fettuccine Alfredo, she had no pets but often spent time with her neighbour's cats or took her other neighbour's dog for a walk. Her best subject in school had been Science, though she had liked French, too.
"I like working with your father", she said to Holly, her eyes briefly flickering to Wordy. "He's a very good man and a good cop."
Holly beamed. None of the adults at the table missed the fact that she had neglected to answer the second part of Holly's question.
"Nina", Lily chimed in then, hastily swallowing under the reproachful look from her mother, "do you have sisters, too?"
The blonde froze for a telling moment. Then, her expression shuttered into that guarded, neutral wall and Wordy could see her force a smile onto her lips. It didn't reach her eyes, the hazel pools filled with a kind of pain that didn't stem from her headache.
"Now really, girls, enough interrogation", he spoke up, tone gently chiding. "Nina won't get around to eating if you keep this up."
Nina shot him a grateful look, her shoulders tight. Her fork shook slightly in her hand as she focused on her meal while Lilly launched into a story about something that had happened at school. There was something haunted in her eyes for the next few minutes before it dissolved again.
The children practically begged Nina to play with them after dinner, suggestions for different games spilling from rapidly moving lips as the girls bounced with excitement. The young woman hesitated, a questioning glance flitting to the adult Wordsworths. "Well... if your parents don't mind?"
Shelley smiled and assured her that it was alright. She and Kevin would take care of the dishes.
Nina suppressed a pained wince as the girls cheered, but answered the concerned look from Wordy with a reassuring shake of her head as she got up and collected her plate and cutlery to take it to the kitchen.
Lily firmly declared that Nina should get to choose which game they played, her younger sisters eagerly agreeing even as they chattered about their favourite games, each insisting that theirs was the best.
Allie first wanted to continue playing dolls, but Holly quickly protested: "You already got to play with her. Lily and me want to play Monopoly."
"That's not fair!", Allie complained. She was still too young to play that game on her own and she knew it.
"If you're playing a card or board game", Wordy told his eldest, "pick something that Allie can play too, okay honey?"
Lily nodded her head with all the solemnity of a precocious ten-year-old.
Holly pouted. "But I wanna play Monopoly"
"But I wanna play too!" Allie crossed her arms and glared at her older sister.
Quickly, Nina intervened before it could spiral into an argument. Wordy wasn't sure if it was her negotiator or paramedic training or if she had more experience in handling differences of opinion between children. She calmly assured Holly that they could play Monopoly another time. "But it wouldn't be fair to exclude Allie and I don't feel well enough to think about building houses and paying rent, okay?"
That had settled the matter and Wordy was left to wonder how much worse Nina was feeling than she let on. He knew that her headache was not as mild as she claimed, but he really hoped she wasn't hiding any other symptoms for the sake of not bothering anyone. Still, he couldn't help but smile as Nina let herself be dragged off to where the board, card and tabletop games were kept.
The girls agreed on a simple game of Parcheesi and Allie insisted that they play on the living room floor because the carpet was so nice and comfy. Soon enough, the four were installed on the floor in front of the couch and Holly set up the game. Lily went to the kitchen to ask her parents if they could have something to drink and Nina settled another argument between the younger Wordsworth daughters, this one over who would get the yellow pieces.
"But you always play yellow!", Allie whined when Holly picked the coveted pieces for herself.
"Not true!", Holly retorted with a frown. "You always make me play green."
Crossing her legs, Nina leant forward and suggested: "Why don't you let Lilly play yellow?"
"No, Lily is always blue", came the immediate response from both children.
"Okay. So why don't I play yellow and you can choose between red and green?", Nina said, plucking the yellow pieces from their container and twirling them in her fingers.
And just like that, peace was preserved. Lily came back with the promised drinks and plopped herself down on the carpet, eager to start the game. Nina helped Allie with counting the pips and spaces while Lily occasionally added the pips for Holly when the six-year-old struggled.
Too immersed in the game, too unfamiliar with Nina and just a little too young to understand, none of the girls saw the ghosts that lingered beneath the blonde woman's smile. The longing sadness behind the shadows in those hazel eyes. The way her hands stiffened briefly before she deflected personal questions, a hint of uneasy remorse buried in her casual, genuine tone.
But Wordy noticed. He noticed, not for the first time, that under the kindness, generosity and selflessness that characterised Nina Ruben, there was also a young, lost girl that had been hurt too much. He had seen the desolate wistfulness in her gaze when she had looked at his daughters teasing each other and cheering for one another during the game. He had noticed the way her bottom lip had curled inwards just a fraction to tuck under her teeth when Shelley had sternly shooed the girls off to bed.
His co-worker, who he'd like to call 'friend' someday when she was ready, had experienced the ugly and harsh side of life, had suffered from the callousness, cruelty and indifference of people far too much in her 24 years of life. Wordy had been a cop long enough to see that. It was just a shame that Team One had collectively ignored the signs for so long...
He forced the thought away. Wallowing in guilt wouldn't help Nina. He needed to make his peace with the fact that they, that he had screwed up. It was a fact, the past couldn't be changed, all he could do now was move forward. And they were making progress. It was slow and nowhere near steady, but it was there. That Nina had reached out today and asked for help was a huge step for her. Wordy recognised that and even though he felt like he didn't really have the right to, he was proud of her for it. After all, no matter how much it saddened him to see her nervous, uncomfortable and hesitant, in his eyes, it was a whole lot better than when she wore her carefully blank, hollowed mask.
As was their habit, Wordy and Shelley looked in on their children before going to bed. Allie was sleeping curled around her favourite plushie, the corner of her blanket snuggled up to her chin. Holly slept on her stomach in a tangle of blankets while Lily was sprawled on her back, hugging her bright comforter to her chest.
This time, however, Wordy didn't follow his wife as she headed to the bedroom. Instead, he passed it and carefully opened the door to the guest room a little.
Nina was fast asleep, half-buried under the blanket, one hand tucked under the pillow. Her blonde hair spilled loosely down her shoulders and across the pillow. In the dim light seeping in from the window - she hadn't closed the blinds, he noted absently - Wordy could see the dark smudges under her eyes and the slight furrow of her brow. Whether it was the pain from her headache, less than peaceful sleep or the general discomfort of not being in her own bed, he didn't know.
God, she looks so young. Young and vulnerable, even more so than he'd seen her when she and Spike had been caught in that explosion a few weeks ago. She had sounded terrified when she had called for Spike then. And he couldn't get it out of his head how relaxed and trusting she had been around those paramedics. Completely at ease, leaning into their touch, literally blindly following their lead.
Wordy hoped that one day, Nina would feel equally comfortable around Team One.
In the middle of the night, Wordy woke up with a dry mouth and a persistent tickle in his throat. Quietly slipping out of bed, he padded to the kitchen for a glass of water. Navigating the hallway and heading down the stairs, he rounded the corner and only just contained the instinct to freeze when he saw a dark silhouette by the counter. Taking a second to banish the jolt of adrenaline, he reminded himself that it was just Nina.
She was staring at him and there was something off about her posture, the way her body was angled. She'd obviously heard him approach.
"Nina?", he asked quietly, wondering why he got the sudden urge to raise his hands.
She nodded, gestured to the half-empty glass on the counter beside her. "I was thirsty." She sounded apologetic for some reason.
He smiled and stepped closer, moving to the cupboard to grab a glass for himself. "That's fine", he assured her, pretending not to notice how her shoulders sagged or how she shifted into a more relaxed and casual stance. "How's the headache?"
"Pretty much gone", she answered, watching him as he filled his glass and drained it in one go.
In the slightly oversized t-shirt and sweat pants Shelley had given her to sleep in, she looked a lot like the scrawny teen Wordy was sure she had been. That impression was only amplified by her sleep-mussed hair and night-wide eyes. Acknowledging her response with a "That's good", he refilled his glass halfway and asked: "How long have you been down here?"
She shrugged. "Only a couple of minutes."
"Huh", he made. "I didn't even hear you. The floorboards in the hallway usually creak a bit."
Even in the dark kitchen, where the only source of light was the streetlamp by the living room window, he could see a wry smile twisting her mouth before it disappeared behind the rim of the glass as she took a drink.
"I'm good at being quiet", she offered, head dipping slightly. "Had lots of practice."
Wordy's heart broke a little at the tone and the weight of those words.
Shaking her head, as if shaking off a thought, Nina emptied the glass and placed it in the dish washer. "I think I'll try and get some more sleep", she said. "Good night Wordy."
Her blue-socked feet made no sound against the kitchen tiles as she walked away. He waited and listened closely. There was a soft rustle, likely her clothes moving with her. But soon enough, all he could hear was silence. No tell-tale creak of a floorboard, no hollow, soft thud on the third step from the bottom. Nothing.
It amazed and impressed him as much as it puzzled him.
It was well past noon when Nina returned to her own apartment. Wordy's daughters hadn't wanted to let their new favourite babysitter and playmate leave and Shelley had invited the young woman to stay for lunch. Nina had been hesitant at first, not wanting to impose, but had quickly been convinced to stay. After lunch and another hour of playing with the kids, the blonde had sincerely thanked Shelley and Wordy for their hospitality and had promised the kids that she'd colour with them again some other time before asking Wordy if he would mind giving her a lift home.
They didn't speak much on the drive to the Annex, both lost in their own thoughts. Wordy was still thinking about their encounter last night, something niggling at the back of his mind that he couldn't put his finger on just yet.
"Thanks for everything, Wordy", Nina said as they pulled up at her home. "I really appreciate it."
He smiled. "No problem. I was happy to help."
Her lips ticked up and she surprised him by inviting him inside for a cup of tea. "It's the least I can do."
Nina led him up the stairs to the third floor. The carpet was scuffed and threadbare in places, the paint chipped and peeling and one light in the hallway didn't work.
"I know it's a bit run-down", the paramedic said when she noticed Wordy taking in his surroundings, "but we all figured the hallway isn't that much of a priority."
As they walked down the corridor to apartment 3D, a young man stepped out of 3B. His black hair was a mess and his clothes on the shabby side. He looked anxious, but lit up when he saw Nina. "Hey, you're back!", he exclaimed. "You okay?"
Nina nodded. "I'm fine, Gavin, thanks", she smiled. Her hazel eyes flashed over him and she asked. "And you? You look stressed."
Gavin heaved a deep sigh and nodded his head, clouds of worry gathering on his features as he fidgeted with his keys. He hemmed and hawed for a moment before his worries spilled out. "Um... yeah, it's just Chloe y'know? She's still at the doc's and I'm kinda scared cause she didn't look too hot and I really don't want her to die, y'know?"
Gently, Nina assured him that Chloe would likely be just fine. "The doctor is probably keeping her a bit longer as a precaution, to make sure she's alright", she soothed. "She didn't take in too much gas, she should be okay."
Encouraged by the kind words, Gavin nodded and visibly pulled himself together. "Thanks Nina. I'll see you around", he said. Glancing at Wordy, he then tromped down the stairs, his footsteps soon fading out of range.
"That was Gavin", Nina explained without prompt as she let them into her apartment. "He moved here two years ago to go to college. He got into a bad crowd" - she kicked her shoes off and hung her jacket on the hook on the wall - "and only got his life back on track this winter. Chloe's been really good for him."
Wordy took off his own shoes and jacket, following her as she moved further into her home. "His girlfriend?"
Showing him into the kitchen, Nina got some water cooking for the tea and plucked teabags from the large, hand-painted jar on the window sill. "Do you...mind if I go change quickly?", she asked, unease painting the lines of her face. "You're welcome to have a look around. And I won't be long."
"No, of course, go ahead", Wordy said, waving her off with a smile. "It's your home."
She chuckled, gratitude dancing in her eyes, and disappeared to where he assumed her bedroom was.
Turning around, he followed her invitation to explore.
The apartment was small, but cosy. Tidy, but looking lived in with the various odds and ends lying around. The kitchen was well-organised, though on the calendar on the wall, it was still July. Shifts were noted in precise letters, appointments and other memorable occasions sometimes even highlighted. Dominic, 8:15 on July 9 was underlined twice and there was a smiley face doodled beside it.
Wandering into the dining room/living room area, Wordy continued his survey, committing noteworthy details to memory as he went. A bookshelf lined the wall opposite the window. There were medical journals and encyclopedias, novels and an assortment of non-fiction works. By the adjacent wall was the TV, framed by DVD racks. The couch looked comfortable with the bright, quilted blanket and several cushions. On the couch table sat a box of tissues and a small cactus, on the window sill a few more plants in coloured pots.
There were no paintings decorating the walls, but a collection of pictures. Many were scenic landscape pictures, though some had people in them too. However, it was the naked, white outline of a missing picture frame that drew Wordy's attention. He stepped closer, spotting a frame lying on top of the medium shelf, picture side facing down. A faint layer of dust had gathered on it.
He picked it up.
It was a group photo, obviously taken at some sort of off-duty event. A bunch of paramedics were smiling at the camera, dressed in blue shirts with a bold 26 printed on them and black shorts, arms slung over each others shoulders. And in their midst, right between a grinning Michael Loretz and an equally happy young man with wild brown curls, was Nina. She was beaming, looking young and carefree and relaxed.
"That's from the annual EMS softball game", Nina explained from the doorway.
Wordy looked up. Her glasses had disappeared, she'd brushed her hair and exchanged her blue socks for black ones with polka dots. Her eyes were on the picture in his hands, immeasurably sad.
"We came in fourth", she added softly. She pushed off the wall and moved closer.
"You look like you're having fun", he said carefully.
"Yeah. We did." Her voice was hollow, numb. She stared at the photograph for a moment and Wordy swore he could see tears gathering in her eyes even as her expression shuttered.
The kettle clicked loudly and Nina jumped, hurriedly excusing herself to ready that tea she'd promised.
Wordy watched her go, then carefully returned the picture to its place on the shelf. The reminder of her former shift mates, co-workers and friends obviously pained the blonde, so he hid the smiling faces, the radiantly happy Nina, once more by turning the frame face-down.
They ended up in the living room, mugs on the coffee table, vapour curling above them. Nina pulled her feet up as she settled in the corner of the sofa, looking at Wordy with a mixture of quiet dread and nervous anticipation.
"The kids love you", he said by way of broaching what he knew to be a difficult topic.
The blonde smiled. "They're great. You have a wonderful family, Wordy." She trailed off, now looking unsure, almost as if debating whether to say something more. Her fingers picked at the edge of the armrest.
After waiting a moment to see if she would continue on her own, he gently pressed: "What is it, Nina?"
Her teeth nibbled at her bottom lip and she pulled her legs closer to her body. A deep sigh left her. "I'm..." She broke off, twitched her shoulders in a helpless shrug. "My family was very different."
"That's okay." He considered for a moment before chancing it. "Things are complicated with your family, hm?"
The laugh that escaped her was completely devoid of humour. "Something like that", she admitted with a strain in her voice. " You know, my father, he wasn't around much until I was ten. And my mother... um... she was strict. When we didn't meet her expectations, she..." - she shook her head, words getting stuck in her throat - "we had to put in a lot of effort to get back in her good graces."
Wordy felt an uncomfortable swooping sensation in his stomach at that. A mother whose affection for her children was dependent on their obedience and ability to perform to her expectations? He didn't like the implications of that.
Nina caught his look and that sad, knowing smile crossed her face again. It was all the confirmation he needed, but she responded anyway. "I know." She picked up her mug and stalled a moment by taking a long sip before setting it down again. "Looking back I know what it was, but I didn't back then."
That he could understand. A child who had never known anything else probably wouldn't realise how wrong it was. Hating to ask, but needing to know, he carefully questioned: "Did she... hit you?"
It was a huge relief when she shook her head. "No. Sometimes a slap if we really messed up, but that was it. She wasn't the physical type." She brushed her hair back with an absent-minded motion, pulling a pillow into her lap with the other hand.
Something about the way she had phrased her answer had Wordy thinking that other people in Nina's life had been the physical type. His head spun as he tried to process these new pieces of information while anger on her behalf stirred in his chest. Along with a mildly sick feeling when a few things - mainly Nina's reactions to certain people, situations and types of behaviour - began to make sense. The blank expression she'd worn in the face of an angry lecture from Ed or borderline cruel needling from Jules. The calm, hollow responses she had given, the automatic apologies and acceptance of blame even when it hadn't been her fault.
"It wasn't all that bad", the young paramedic continued, her voice still quiet and distracted as she was lost in thoughts and memories. "My brother and sister showed me the ropes so I didn't make the same mistake twice" - another bit of information that put things into perspective - "and..." She paused and frowned at a spot in the middle distance, somewhere beside the coffee table. "I don't know why I'm telling you this."
"You don't have to continue if you don't want to." Wordy wanted her to understand that she didn't owe him anything. Not gratitude, not a favour in return, not even an explanation.
Her eyes flashed over to him and he had a hunch that she hadn't bothered hiding the flicker of surprise. Maybe she was just too tired. But maybe she also trusted him enough to allow herself this small vulnerability.
"You can stop at any time. I'll keep it to myself and never bring it up again if that's what you need."
She smiled a soft thank you and picked up the thread again. "My older siblings taught me the rules, my uncle helped me when I struggled with something and I learned to do and say the right things. And then I figured out ways to get around some rules or break them without anyone noticing."
Curiosity taking over, Wordy shifted to the edge of his seat. "What changed?"
She tugged at the neckline of her sweater. Tucked her knees under her chin, the pillow squished between her thighs and chest.
Jesus, she's so young, Wordy caught himself thinking again.
Her eyes dropped away to study her fingers that plucked at the seam of the pillow. "I made friends with the new kid in school. Cory's Dad was really nice to me and showed me that I had a choice." A soft smile spread on her lips. "My parents told me to stop being friends with him. But Cory was my first real friend outside of my cousins and neighbours, so I lied and made up excuses and continued to be friends with him."
"It-" Her voice flickered and took on a shaky quality. "It worked, for a while. By then, I knew what to say when I wanted my parents to let me do something. I just had to use the right arguments when explaining my idea and they'd buy it. Didn't matter if the reasons I gave them weren't the real ones."
Nina broke off and seemed to shrink in on herself even further, almost as if she were afraid of Wordy's judgement. It took him a moment, but then it hit him that this was exactly what it was. He leant forward, bracing his elbows on his knees, and resisted the urge to reach out and hug the young woman. Instead, he looked at her and said: "That was very brave." And he meant it.
"It was selfish", she mumbled with a small shrug even as the air of apprehension surrounding her bled away. "I just wanted something for myself. Something that...that my parents didn't dictate."
"It's okay to want that", he assured her. "It's natural, growing more independent. And it sounds to me that you didn't make friends with Cory to spite your parents."
She shook her head, blonde hair falling forward into her face. "No."
A stretch of contemplative silence followed. Emotionally drained and tired after a morning of playing with the three Wordsworth girls, Nina shifted so she could rest her head against the comfortable couch cushions. Her eyes stung, but she couldn't bring herself to close them, too aware of Wordy's presence and his thoughtful gaze on her. She suddenly wished she had her phone on her. Right now, she really could have done with somebody telling her that she was doing the right thing, that her impulsive decision to open up to Wordy wasn't coming back to bite her.
But her phone was on her nightstand so she settled for hugging the pillow, taking deep breaths and telling herself that it was alright.
She couldn't contain the flinch. Her head turned as her eyes shot in the direction of Wordy's voice, which sounded a lot closer than it had before. He still sat at a slight distance, and was looking at her with a furrow of concern in his brow.
"Sorry", she stuttered out, "did you say something?"
He studied her for a moment longer before repeating himself: "Does the Commander know? Or the Boss?"
Nina tilted her head in a 'yes and no' fashion. "Holleran...knows some things", she said, forcing herself to relax. "He talked to my captain and Cap Oehler told him the basics. Cap, he...he was the first one I told the truth and he helped me a lot with" - she made a vague gesture - "everything. The Sarge..." Her bottom lip tucked under her teeth in thought. "I'm not sure. He might have an idea, but I know the Commander hasn't told him anything."
It went without saying that neither had she.
"Spike knows a few details because he had to dig for background information on Milo. But you're actually the first person I've told since- outside the guys at station 26."
Wordy smiled, warmth settling in his stomach at her admission. Carefully reaching out, he patted her knee and said: "I'm honoured. Thank you for trusting me with this. It can't have been easy."
"You...made it easier", the blonde offered, smiling at him.
The lull in conversation morphed into silence until Nina dropped her knees to sit with her legs crossed, the pillow still in her lap. "Wordy", she began slowly, choosing her words with care. "Were you- were you mad at me? For not telling you why I joined SRU?"
"No", he replied without hesitation. Catching her unconvinced look, he elaborated: "I was curious, sure, we all were. It was difficult because you're very hard to read and we didn't know anything about you. Plus the top-down decision sort of rubbed us the wrong way. So all that kind of stirred up into frustration which eventually boiled into annoyance." He paused, looking at Nina, who stared at the pillow in her lap, lips pursed.
Shaking his head, Wordy tried again. This wasn't a negotiation, he reminded himself sternly. This wasn't a subject he needed to talk down from a ledge. This was his colleague, who deserved an honest answer without obfuscation and creative wording. "I can't speak for the others and I'll try not to apologise for them or excuse what they- what we all did."
Nina's head lifted at his determined tone, caution mixing with intrigue. Her head tilted slightly to the side.
"I was frustrated at the lack of information. I...I think I was also a bit hurt that you wouldn't tell us anything about yourself" - he held up a hand - "I know I had no right to, but I'm so used to knowing everyone on the team that it threw me. That Holleran just placed you on the team without even explaining why he felt you'd be a good fit, it just added to it."
She looked at him, pensive. "I understand", she said quietly before amending: "At least I think I do." Her fingers tapped an irregular rhythm on the side of her mug and she was nibbling on the inside of her bottom lip again.
Wordy sipped his own tea as he waited for her to organise whatever thoughts were going through her head. His mind went back to the picture lying face down on the shelf. It wasn't too far-fetched to assume that the man with the curly hair next to Nina was her partner Benny. Ed had shared with them all what Nina had told him and Wordy could understand the guilt she so obviously carried with her from that accident.
But he couldn't help but wonder what had led to her switching to a completely different career like that. She didn't strike him as somebody who ran from problems or shied back from difficult situations. So what else had happened?
"I should be more open", Nina said softly, his attention immediately turning to her again. "I don't know why- At the 26, it took me a while, too." A soft smile flickered over her lips and she shook her head. "Milo used to joke about how it took me almost two months to tell him the scents of the air fresheners he liked to hang up in the bus bothered me."
She nodded, lips pursing sheepishly. "Yeah. Citrus or mint. Can't stand the smell of it. Milo was so upset when I finally told him. Asked me why I'd put myself through that instead of just saying something."
"It's a good question", Wordy said with a nod, eliciting a rueful huff from her.
"I should have stepped in sooner", he eventually said. While Nina said she understood, he still felt the need to explicitly apologise.
Her hazel eyes flickered with comprehension and she shrugged. "Maybe", she acknowledged, "but you did eventually. That's what counts."
"It was too little, too late", Wordy maintained. He shook his head. "I wish I could tell you why I didn't say anything sooner."
She looked at him, a hint of sadness around the lines of her mouth. But her expression was calm and honest as she said: "Wordy, we both know that people don't always have a reason for everything. Yes, it hurt that nobody ever defended me or stood up for me. But I didn't exactly make it easy for you guys to like me. And I could and should have stood up for myself. But I didn't."
The blonde took a deep breath, gaze still locked onto him, open and intense in its plea to be listened to. "I'm not angry with you. These past few weeks... you have been nothing but kind to me. I'm not going to forget what happened, but I don't hold it against you. Not when you've done everything to make things right."
He stayed quiet for a moment, digesting what she'd said. Nodding, he told her: "I still want to apologise."
A small smile played on her lips as she tilted her head.
"I'm sorry. For not realising how much pain you were in. For not standing up for you when Jules and Ed cut into you. For not telling Spike to tone it down with his pranks. You're a good person, Nina, and I'm sorry that we treated you worse than we treat our subjects. And with all you've told me today, I can't imagine just how terrible we've made you feel. So... if you want, I'd like to make a deal with you."
"A deal?" Curiosity swung in her tone, with a little confusion mixed in.
He nodded. "If I - or anyone from the team - make you feel uncomfortable or scared, or if something bothers you, you can tell me. I won't ask any questions if you don't want me to."
"Deal." Nina's smile was almost a glow. She cleared her throat. "But only if you promise not to tell the others about what I told you today. At least for now. I... I want to tell them myself when..."
"...when you're ready", he finished for her.
And that was how the third apology was accepted and the third connection formed.