Author’s note: Sincere thanks to Rita for the inspiration – and for the use of Chris James again. You are a lifesaver! As always special thanks to Liz for the wonderful beta and encouragement.
Warning! There is some mild language in this story. Just what guys together might use, IMHO. But if you are in any way sensitive to profanity or cuss words – do not read!
AFFIRMATION OF LIFE
“Oh God!” The moan was heartfelt as he cradled the sweating beer bottle in both hands and brought it up to rub across his forehead. He’d only taken a couple of token sips from the pale brew but already his stomach was roiling and threatened to reject the little food he’d managed to choke down earlier. The mortification. The shame. Beads of perspiration popped out on his forehead and upper lip as he hunched forward on the bar stool, almost curling into himself.
“Come on, it’s not THAT bad.” The other man attempted encouragement but there was a distinct hesitation in his utterance.
Chris groaned, too mired in his misery to hear the compassion in his friend’s voice. His ears only caught the doubt even the supportive words couldn’t mask. A single trickle of sweat – either his own or from the bottle, he couldn’t tell – slowly worked its way down the side of his lean, overly pale face and he shivered despite the heavy sweater and jacket he still wore. He couldn’t get warm, even though the Santa Barbara night was balmy and he knew the bar was a comfortable seventy-plus degrees by the fact that O’Brien had stripped off his jacket and sat with his shirt sleeves rolled up to the elbows. The popular wharf side tavern in Santa Barbara’s upscale side of town wasn’t overly busy this early in the evening, despite it being Friday and, although there were a few couples and threesomes ensconced in the booths, they were the only ones seated at the bar. No chance of being overheard. In fact, the muted sounds of the background taped muzak and the bartender’s occasional clanking of glasses as he pulled them from the dishwasher and wiped them dry then lined them up by size had disappeared entirely as his morose mood had built.
He wasn’t much of a drinker at the best of times but Bobby had insisted on taking him out to drown his sorrows. He couldn’t even pretend interest in the beer that was usually his favourite brand when the guys from his boat got together after a particularly harrowing - or spectacularly successful - mission. Probably because he knew if he drank it, it was quite liable to make a re-appearance in short order and that thought alone kept his stomach churning too much to allow much more than a perfunctory swallow. The near silent plop of the bead of water/sweat as it hit the scarred but highly polished wood of the bar top drew his attention. He watched with fascination as it sat for a moment, a tiny perfectly rounded clear droplet, before it ran with the very slight natural slope of the bar and disappeared from sight somewhere between his knees as he sat, shoulders slumped and elbows on the bar.
He wanted to beat his thick, stupid head off a hard surface – any hard surface. The bar top would do, a wall, anything! But he knew he couldn’t make a scene in public. Hell, he couldn’t even use the excuse of being drunk! And wouldn’t that be fun to explain when they dragged him off to the nearest psychiatric facility or maybe even jail. No, he couldn’t face the puzzled, near-comical look he knew would be Chief Sharkey’s facial expression if and when he came to bail him out. And the thought of a night in the local drunk tank was enough to send increased shivers down his already chilled spine. He was in enough trouble already. No need to exacerbate it by making a show of himself. He just had to get his head together, accept what he was – or what he wasn’t.
Chris swallowed hard, his chest tightening as he felt all his hopes, dreams and his entire future coalesce into a burning pain that had him releasing one hand from the beer bottle he’d been gripping like a lifeline since it had been handed to him over half an hour ago and rub at the spot on his chest where the pain was the worst. His eyes widened as the air in his lungs became seriously constricted. Maybe he was having a heart attack. It wouldn’t be the first time a perfectly healthy, twenty-five-year-old keeled over and died unexpectedly. And it might solve all his problems. A sharp stab in the ribs from an adjacent pointed elbow had him focusing on his recently forgotten companion and he breathed in, air whooshing into his lungs as he sat up on the bar stool. Bobby was waving his beer bottle in a ‘you’re OK but I’m not’ gesture.
“Hey, I’m dry and it’s your twist. And you do know that this is not the end of the world as we know it.” Seaview’s second officer mouthed the words he hoped would bring Chris out of his increasingly downwards spiral. Jeez, he’d taken the younger man out to console him, get him slightly drunk, and make him see that this was not the gargantuan FUBAR that he thought it was - not have him practically ending his career at NIMR as he could see Chris was already seriously contemplating. Heck, the poor bastard hadn’t even managed to down much more than a sip of the now warm beer. Instead he’d been gripping the bottle like it was his saviour in the face of the total morass that was now his entire life. Bob felt a frisson of unease wend its way down his back as he watched the younger man’s taut, all-too-readable face anxiously. This was so not the way this was supposed to go. He signalled the bartender for two more Buds and jostled Chris playfully. “Your shout, pal.”
Seaview’s Weapons Officer cast him a slightly glazed look, his thoughts patently elsewhere. At Bobby’s nod towards the two fresh bottles on the bar in front of them and the barkeep’s obvious waiting stance, he levered himself off the stool and dug into his hip pocket for payment. Tossing a ten onto the highly polished surface, he indicated that he wasn’t expecting change and the barman moved away, satisfied. O’Brien raised an eyebrow as he lifted the fresh brew in a silent toast.
“Nelson must be paying you too much, Lt. James.” He barely restrained a grin at the sudden clenching of Chris’s jaw – even as he silently commiserated with the younger man.
“Probably not for much longer.” The sense of loss he felt as he mouthed the words threatened to overwhelm Chris and he could feel the traitorous tears burn his eyeballs. Not wanting to totally embarrass himself more than he already had in front of his friend, he pushed himself up from his seat and waved in the vague direction of the men’s room. “Be right back.”
Bobby grabbed at his arm as he stood, an unbreakable grip unless he wrenched himself away. The look on the second officer’s face had him doing a swift double take; it was so not the calm, concentrated, expression – a mini-me version of their super-controlled, impassive exec that he himself aspired to – that he was used to seeing on O’Brien’s saturnine features and thus it held him stopped in his tracks.
“Don’t even think about quitting Seaview or NIMR, Chris. Not only would Nelson be totally ticked, having spent a bundle on your training over the past year, but you can NOT imagine how betrayed the skipper would feel or how pissed Mr. Morton would be. And, believe me, you do not want to face the WRATH of the exec! He can make you feel like a five year old who pooped in front of the entire class - without even uttering a single word. They have all invested time and money in your training. They pulled you from the regular Navy because they all saw something exceptional in you. Not for you to bail at the first hurdle.” Bobby hadn’t let go of his arm but he could feel Chris tense under the pressure he’d exerted. Deliberately. To make the younger man think before he reacted. Before he did something that might impinge on his future – either within NIMR’s ranks or those of the regular Navy if he chose to return there.
Chris sucked in a breath, needing the air before he could even formulate a response. In his head – in the part that was still barely functioning through the throbbing that now invaded the stem running from the back of his neck through to his brain – he knew, in his heart of hearts, that his thinking was clouded. That his rational thought processes were compromised by his mortification at failing a test for the first time in his adult life, for the first time where it positively counted, when he actually needed, yearned, to be valued by his peers; to count for something, to show his worth, to excel. Failure was not an option. It was not something he’d ever countenanced or come across in either his undergraduate or graduate schooling or in his stint in the navy. To have it bite him in the ass in his first certification challenge at NIMR was not only humiliating, it totally eroded the confidence he had just begun to feel in his role as Seaview’s third officer.
He wanted to bemoan his fate again, knew he wasn’t being fair to Bob – who only had his best interests at heart – but desperately wanted to be alone to nurse his wounded pride in private and see if he could formulate a plan to save his career before it totally tanked. As gently as he could he pried Bobby’s hand from his arm.
“I really appreciate you doing this, Bobby, but I just need to be on my own right now. I’ve got a lot to think about. Whether I’m right for NIMR and whether I’m Seaview material at this stage in my career. It’s a…a lot… to think about, to be honest.” He drew in a ragged breath. This was so not where he thought he would be this night. “But I’m going to think seriously about what you said and not make any snap decisions. Why don’t you go call Lisa and tell her you can make it tonight after all.” He knew Bobby had deferred a date with his girlfriend to coax him through his blue funk after his crushing failure today. Surely he should be strong enough to get through this, as mortifying as it was, if he was ever to hold his head high in his naval or reserve career. “I’m gonna head home. I’m just not into this. I need to get my head screwed on straight before I present my report to the skipper on Monday morning.” He actually shuddered at the prospect.
Bobby O’Brien winced in relative sympathy – but the skipper wasn’t uppermost in his mind right now. Crane would probably sit down with the beleaguered JO and talk him through his doom and gloom, nudging him back into a viable status quo and downgrading the negativity of his test result. The exec? O’Brien drew in a deep breath and exhaled slowly. Well, that would be a whole other kettle of fish. And seeing that the XO was solely responsible for the JOs’ certification in all areas….
He’d been long enough aboard the boat to shudder in sympathy when their anal, exacting, XO had to annually re-certify the CMO for dive status. That caused major sh-one-t on Seaview, as everyone from the latest newbie to the most seasoned rating knew how Doc felt about being underwater without a submarine surrounding him. He could just imagine Morton’s reaction when he’d received the COB’s report that Seaview’s newest JO and Weapons Officer had failed his firearms re-certification. He hastily downed a large swallow of his cold beer while trying not to let Chris read his thoughts. Suffice to say he was very glad to have been miles away from the Institute when that little gem had surfaced. He stole a quick look at his watch. Not quite 19.45.
“Sit down, Chris. At least let me finish this beer as you’ve already paid for it. Look at this logically. How long have you been aboard? Four months, five? The skipper is not gonna toss your ass because you fluffed your first firearms re-certification. He’s nothing if not fair. He knows how hard you’ve been working to learn your new job and he, above anyone, appreciates that it’s not automatic to just fit in on the boat. It takes work and real effort and you’ve displayed that. Plus it’s not like we can just hit the firing range daily if we’re out on a cruise. You’ve been a bit unlucky that we’ve had almost back-to-back voyages for the past eight weeks. He’ll give you a chance to hone your skills and re-take the test. I know the skipper.” He drew in a relieved breath when Chris slid his butt back onto the barstool. At least he was listening.
Chris picked up his bottle again and toyed with it, rubbing it between his palms, more for something to do with his hands than any actual interest he had in the beer. He sighed heavily, the weight of the world on his young shoulders. “It’s just… it’s been so great…. All of it, being on Seaview, the missions, the skipper, even the admiral – and I’m scared spitless of him! I thought after that incident with the lady cop (*) that Mr. Morton had begun to trust me then I fouled up by hitting the skipper a whack on the head (**) and now this! I just don’t know how I’m gonna face him!”
“You’re more afraid of the exec than the skipper?” There was no incredulity in O’Brien’s tone – simply deep commiseration. Hell, the entire crew was more in awe of the stern disciplinarian that was their XO than they were of their captain – in that regard anyway. At Chris’s miserable nod, it was Bobby’s turn to sigh. He wasn’t a plank owner like Morton but he’d come to the boat just before her sea trials so he’d been there long enough to value and appreciate the man that held the boat together – sometimes with little more than spit and string. Yeah, their exec was a holy terror when it came to getting the job done, and done right, but he was also nothing if not calm, controlled and excruciatingly fair, with the best interests of his captain, boat and crew at heart – and in that exact order.
“You do know that you are obsessing unnecessarily, don’t you?” He felt duty bound to point out. “Mr. Morton might get real quiet – that’s when you know he’s truly angry – and he’ll probably ream you a new one but he’ll also give you a chance to redeem yourself.”
At Chris’s disbelieving snort, he frowned; rolling his eyes at the younger man’s plaintive next utterance. “I don’t think the XO likes me too much any more. You should have seen the look he gave me when I hit the skipper with that baseball bat!”
You should have seen the looks the entire crew gave you when you whacked
the skipper, Dumbo! But who was it who
bailed you out of jail the night the cops pulled you on that DUI? (*) And who was it who invited you to the
barbeque after the skipper was released from
“Maybe this will be the straw. Shit, a weapons officer who can’t pass a rudimentary firearms test. I’d can him myself!” He lowered his head until it was almost lined up with the top of the beer bottle he still held.
“You know, Chris, I never thought you were a quitter. I was just about to offer to meet you at the firing range tomorrow and Sunday but if this is gonna turn into a pity party then you need these!” So saying, Bobby tossed his car keys onto the bar top in front of James and – in an extension of the same move – pulled the nearly full beer bottle from Chris’s grasp and swapped it for his empty one. “And I need this!”
Chris groaned for real now as he pitched his head back on his aching neck. He’d only managed to totally piss off his friend! How much worse could this day get?
He found out PDQ! A glance towards the doorway espied both the captain and executive officer of his boat, from the looks on their faces obviously direly unhappy about something, entering the last bar in the known universe he’d have guessed they’d ever again frequent.
“You want to go where?” The total incredulity in Chip Morton’s usually even tones had his friend wincing. Opening his mouth to give his reasons, he was forced to clamp it shut again in the face of the continuing tirade.
“Have you lost your cotton-picking, freaking
mind? Of all the places in
Knowing from bitter experience that Morton could go on for hours like this, Lee sighed dramatically and tried to head him off at the pass. But the comment about Jamie was hitting below the belt. Chip knew how Lee felt about all things medical. His exec was the same himself.
“No need to get nasty, Chip. Wanna beer?” Without waiting for an answer he knew wouldn’t be forthcoming, Lee strode from the living room into the kitchen of his beachfront condo and pulled open the refrigerator door. A niggle of guilt wend its way down his back. The look of utter disbelief on the blond’s normally impassive countenance would have been funny under different circumstances.
“No! I do not want a goddamn beer! I want an answer, Lee.”
The guilt intensified. Lee hesitated, arm reaching for the beer he really didn’t want either. But his hands needed the prop. So he pulled the bottle from the six-pack, closed the door and popped the top, fully cognisant of the fact that he was stalling. Leaning back against the fridge door he took a long swig from the chilled brew and slowly raised his eyes to connect with Chip’s. The look in the blue orbs almost took his breath away. It was fear; pure unadulterated terror. Not a look he had ever seen before in the calm, contained, stoic demeanour that his friend perennially portrayed. Never. Ever. Not in all the tight corners they had ever been in. Not in the eighteen plus years he had known this man. Shit. This was something he hadn’t factored in. He almost caved. But that wasn’t his nature. And this needed to be dealt with. The fact that it wasn’t going to be pretty was a given. He’d known that before he instigated this. Killing two birds with one stone. Wasn’t that how Nelson had drolly put it? He almost snorted. Let the admiral face the anguish he could see in the cerulean depths of Chip Morton’s eyes. Neither of them had anticipated that.
He exhaled gustily. None of them had realised quite what this would do to their friend and colleague – on what had already proved to be a stressful day.
“It’s time, Chip. That’s the only answer I can give you. Time to lay some ghosts.”
Chip Morton exhaled shakily as Lee’s Shelby Cobra swung into the car park of the popular wharf-side bar. His stomach positively heaved as Lee parked in a spot towards the middle of the half empty lot. This particular bar – once a quiet upmarket tavern on weekends – had gained certain notoriety by dint of Seaview’s captain having a near fatal incident in the car park exactly a year ago to the day. He knew for sure that Lee hadn’t been back here since that night. He had. He’d all but haunted the place, night after night, until Pat Connolly, the senior detective in charge of the investigation into Lee’s shooting, had convinced him that it wasn’t productive. That they’d gotten nowhere in that avenue of their exhaustive exploration into the case hadn’t been for want of trying. It had been the shooter coming forward, realising she’d almost terminally injured the wrong man, that had brought the case to a satisfactory conclusion.
Satisfactory in the sense that someone had been indicted for the crime of shooting Lee Crane. Not a lot of satisfaction in light of the fact that Chip had been the original target of the bullet and Lee had put himself deliberately in its path. Had saved his life, almost certainly. There had been a lot of water under the bridge since that dark night. One positive had been the making of a new friend in Lt. Pat Connolly, a man who had come to mean a lot to Chip in a very short time. That had been amazing in itself. He didn’t make close friends easily – and got the impression that neither did Pat – but there had been something about the older man that had escalated their relationship into a solid friendship within several weeks, perhaps because Lee had been hospitalised and he’d needed the connection with someone who was as intimately involved with the case. That the relationship had meant as much to the older man had been evinced by the fact that he had left a quite valuable collection of sporting memorabilia to him upon his untimely death. Chip had been more than surprised and choked by the gesture. They had both enjoyed each other’s company when their schedules meshed and Chip had experienced both grief and anger at his passing. To come back here, now – today of all days – didn’t sit well with him. He could feel the anger growing; alongside a sick ache that had his stomach in knots and his head primed to explode.
He’d already been stressed to the nines over a series of failures in the inertial guidance system on Seaview that had given trouble on their last cruise and was proving almost impossible to diagnose. Just as he had acknowledged the fact that he wasn’t going to get anywhere this evening and had retreated to his office to catch up on paperwork, Sharkey had handed him the firearms re-certification reports. That had been enough for him to totally blow his stack! Most unusually for him. He’d stormed into Lee’s office and vented his anger at the one person he trusted unconditionally to allow him to do so. Lee had listened intently – without interruption – to his scathing tirade. Then, upon his winding down, suggested that Chip might want to give Lt. James one on one instruction as he was the noted firearms expert on the boat. Completely deflating Chip’s righteously p.o.’d disposition and taking the wind out of his sails with a succinct, not to mention ingenious, resolution. Mad as he was, Chip had to admire his captain’s skill at looking after his people, all his people. Knowing that Chip needed to sound off to a friend not to a commanding officer, each of them equally worried for their junior officer but both showing it in their own way. Morton would be the one to read the riot act while Crane would gently but firmly guide the JO into advancing his skills, his sincere concern making the younger man squirm and scramble to achieve the heights his captain expected and allay any and all evident disappointment. Lee Crane was the best commander of men Chip had ever had the privilege of working with. Both men knew Chris James was a conscientious young man and had the makings of a fine officer. Together they would ensure that he had every chance of reaching his not inconsiderable potential.
Agreed on their course of action, his unusual burst of temper under control once again, Chip had been more than happy to agree to Lee’s suggestion to head out for a drink once they had both finished up and changed into civvies. He’d been totally unprepared upon entering his friend’s condo to have Lee drop the bombshell of their intended destination. It had been exactly a year ago to the day, tomorrow by date, that they had last had a drink together in Bennigans. An evening that had begun so casually but ended so fatefully and now had the contents of his stomach threatening to revolt. Lee had nearly died that night and it had taken all of Jamieson’s skill, and that of one of the West Coast’s foremost thoracic surgeons Seaview’s CMO hadn’t been too proud to call in, to save him. He felt the slow burn of anger, his constant companion all week, begin to re-surface. Usually calm and equanimitible, he was known for his cool composure and stoicism under fire. That had been noticeably absent all week, his emotions in turmoil as the anniversary approached. He had hoped that he’d managed to hide it from his friends. Now, in the face of this recent stunt of Lee’s, he wasn’t so sure he’d been successful. He detected Jamieson’s sneaky hand somewhere in this. Maybe even the admiral’s. For sure Lee didn’t come up with this one on his own! He opened his mouth to speak but had to take a moment to damp down the fury and the nausea that might have him spilling more than he intended.
“She called you, didn’t she?” It came out as little more than a growl, so low as to be barely audible.
But the brunet heard it and stayed the hand that had been reaching for the door handle. He’d been hoping to avoid this but the man sitting next to him, making no attempt to get out of the car, had been as close as a brother to him for nigh on eighteen years, so he should have known better. Chip Morton had no equal in ferreting out information – when it came to family, friends or crew.
“Yeah, she called. It’s a rough day for her too.”
A derisive snort was his only response. And Lee felt his own temper rise. He had thought that Chip would understand by now. A little. He knew his friend, in his more introspective moments, harboured immense anger against Cassie Sommers for her actions against him which, in fairness, had nearly ended Lee’s life. But, when all the threads had been unravelled, it had emerged as a case of mistaken identity and the woman had been acting in defence of her younger sister. Not even close to a legitimate excuse in Chip Morton’s book though. Not when it came to Lee Crane’s life.
“She’s doing her time, Chip. She’s paying for what she did.”
“In a minimum security prison with you and Nelson keeping tabs on her and her sister. Not to mention paying for Vicky’s care.”
Lee sighed, resting his elbows on the steering wheel. “We’ve been over this before and I thought you’d accepted it. She pleaded to Man 2. It was not premeditated and there were extenuating circumstances.”
“She shot you, Lee. You almost bled out in this very car park!”
“We’ve been over this a dozen times! Chip, please. It’s time to move on. Let’s go have a drink. Don’t know about you but I could sure use one.” The last was heartfelt.
Morton made no move to get out of the car even when Lee thrust his own door open. Teeth clenching, knowing he owed Lee some explanation, he ground out the words. “It’s like a slow motion replay. Leaving the bar, her accusations, reaching into her purse and pulling out the photo, the sound of the shot. And the blood, so much blood.” His eyes were locked on the hands he had turned palm up, seeing them coated in slick, glossy, bright red blood. Hands he had had to scrub several times to get rid of the stains that had marked them, rusty smears that had clung stubbornly to the cuticles and under his nails.
“You’ve been having nightmares. Why didn’t you say something?” Lee’s feelings ran the gamut – concern, guilt, anguish – and he rubbed at the spot on his chest where the bullet had penetrated, a phantom pain burning now. But his overriding emotion was one of anger – at Chip for not confiding in him but mostly at himself for not seeing his friend’s now obvious distress. It had taken Nelson and Jamie to clue him in to the fact that Chip was not his usual ‘together’ self recently and to not so gently harangue him into doing something about it. Now he saw Chip’s gold tipped lashes dip as he tried to hide what he knew Lee would see in his eyes. Eyes that were shuttered to those who didn’t know how to read them. But Lee Crane was one of the few who had learnt over the years to interpret those cerulean depths. Now it just pissed him off that Chip would even try to evade him. And the curse word that left his lips was shocking in its profanity.
So totally alien to everything he had always stood for that it had Chip’s head popping up, his eyes widening. While – logically – he knew that Lee had served long enough in the regular navy to learn the lingo he, personally, had rarely heard him use it. And he knew that Lee was anal about foul language aboard the boat.
But right now it was enough to spark his own anger.
“Like what, Lee? ‘Gee, Skipper, it’s coming up to a year since you took that bullet meant for me and I’m having flashbacks?’ Or, ‘hey Lee, remember that whack job that shot you cos you pushed me out of the way the last time we went to Bennigans? Well, I’m sorta having bad dreams about that night so maybe you could come tuck me in!’” He snorted indelicately. “Hell, now I need a drink!” He pushed open the car door violently, wrenching away from the hand Lee had placed on his sleeve.
“Chip, we’ve talked around this but never actually talked about it. I know this must have been a waking nightmare for you.”
“Wasn’t exactly a picnic for you either, Skipper!”
“Don’t be flippant, Chip. Doesn’t suit you.” Lee kept his tone even although it was hard fought. “You saved my life that night. Your quick actions stopped me from bleeding to death and….”
“You don’t get it, do you?” Chip’s temper blazed. It wasn’t often he lost it – count on one hand the number of times in the eighteen plus years they’d been friends – but when he did it was a spectacular sight to behold. “If it wasn’t for me you wouldn’t have been shot!” He was almost shouting now. Luckily the car park was practically deserted.
“It was a case of mistaken identity! How the hell can you be held responsible for that?” Lee’s own temper, always volatile but usually controllable, flared in the face of Chip’s obduracy.
“Shit, I’m not talking about this any more. I’m going to have a beer. Since you insisted we come here, the first round’s on you.” Chip walked towards the entrance, expecting Lee to follow him.
“You’ve avoided this long enough. I’m not gonna let you walk away this time, bro.” Lee forced himself to take a deep breath, recognising Chip’s tactic in getting him to lose his cool so he could sidestep the issue. Chip paused at the entryway, holding the door open so a couple could exit.
“Seems to me you don’t have a choice here, bro. Now, you buyin’ or not?”
Bobby O’Brien chugged a major draught from his bottle as his heart sank to his boots. It was SO not supposed to be like this. Like watching a tennis match, his head swivelled between Chris and his superior officers across the room. He knew the instant the XO caught sight of them – his square jaw bunching, the glare in his blue eyes diamond hard. Even though both men wore civvies their military bearing was evident and several appreciative female eyes followed their progression across the floor to the bar. He would have grinned if he hadn’t been so damn nervous; neither man had even noticed the women present – and several of them were indeed noteworthy. He cast a cautious glance at Chris. Both of them had risen from their seats as the skipper and exec approached but Chris was practically standing at attention. He was so stiff that a push would have had him toppling straight back. Shit, the kid was petrified. Of Morton. It was unfair and unwarranted but he wasn’t the first JO to be similarly affected. Chip Morton just had that affect on JOs. And, truth be told, he used it to his advantage, perpetrating the myth of the unforgiving taskmaster, but never – ever – in an unjust, unreasonable or excessive manner. It was simply his way of getting the very best out of his people. And, like the skipper, he would never ask a crewman to do something he wasn’t one hundred percent prepared to do himself.
Like Chris, he too had been terrified of the strict, seemingly unbending XO when he’d first joined the boat. But he’d learnt over those first weeks and months that the impassive features and apparently emotionless exterior hid a warm, caring and fun loving persona – just not while on the job. And he’d come to appreciate the calmness the exec evinced during times of crisis, focusing the men on their jobs and getting them through whatever craziness was the order of that particular day on the boat – even when the skipper was at the centre of said madness. He’d also seen first hand the terror that had obliterated that mask when order was restored and their captain was once again a guest of doc’s. No, the exec was anything but lacking emotion, it was just that he didn’t let others see it very often. That wasn’t the case now. Anger practically radiated from him.
“Two longnecks. No, make that four. My friend’s in the chair.” Morton barked the order to the bartender, flicking his thumb in Crane’s direction as the efficient barkeep quickly knocked tops off the bottles and lined them up then sought payment. The skipper sighed but obligingly dug in his pocket for cash. It seemed even the captain was uptight tonight if his grim expression was anything to go by. A quick glance at Chris was enough to confirm that the JO looked ready to bolt. Nothing got past Morton and it seemed he’d caught the deer-in-the-headlights look in the younger man’s eyes.
“Sit down, Lt. Before you fall down.” It was snapped out as an order and had the sandy haired man sitting before he even realised it. The look on his face as reality dawned was almost comical but transcended even that when Morton shoved the first bottle in his direction, the second towards Bobby and grabbed the third for himself, leaving Lee to stretch across him to reach for the last one standing. OK, Bobby sucked in a breath and chanced a quick glance at the skipper; they weren’t out of the woods yet.
Oops, the all-seeing exec had caught that too! “Ahhh, a conspiracy. How lovely!” The sarcasm in his voice made O’Brien want to crawl away into the nearest dark hole. “Should I expect the admiral and Jamie to wander in next?”
“Chip.” There was a subtle warning in Lee’s single word.
“Sorry, Captain. But you started it.” Morton swigged back the last of his beer and signalled the barman for another. None of the others had even touched theirs.
Bobby cast a hesitant glance at Crane and what he saw in his captain’s eyes had him almost recoiling. Total anguish. And the genus of a plan gone so wrong. When Crane had asked him to take Chris to Bennigans – as opposed to a number of other bars they probably would have frequented – Bobby had known the skipper was up to something. And he’d known the significance of that particular location to boot. That it had gone FUBAR was no real surprise. He wasn’t a complete fool. But the sense of awe in which he held both his commanding officers had made him want to do whatever he could to help the skipper and – by extension – the exec. He knew, for certain sure, that the captain had only his best friend’s interests at heart. And, not even close to being that fool, he knew that the anniversary of the skipper’s close brush with death in the car park just outside had something – yeah, right! – to do with the captain asking him to choose this very bar to bring Chris James to drown his sorrows in.
Not that anyone was doing much drowning – he’d had a bottle and a half since they’d arrived, the exec about the same, neither Chris nor the skipper had drunk anything worth talking about. In fact, Chris still looked as if the end of the world was nigh and the captain appeared to be trying to control his temper. Bobby knew the signs – Crane had a long fuse but when he blew….
“And I’m stopping it.” Lee’s voice was firm, determined. He’d made a mistake and he wasn’t afraid to acknowledge it. “Now.”
But Morton was shaking his head. “Sorry, Skipper, doesn’t work that way. You wanted me to confront my demons so here I am. Consider them confronted. But one thing you might want to think about next time you and Jamie conspire behind my back – there were more people involved in this one than you gave credit for. The last time I was here at this bar was with Pat Connolly. He was a good friend too. He died. Protecting what we fight for every day. He got caught in the crossfire – a bit like you, Lee. Only he wasn’t as lucky. So it wasn’t just about you and me, coming here. It was about remembering him too. This one is for him – a great cop and an even better friend.” So saying he drained the remainder of his beer in a solitary toast and placed the empty bottle quite deliberately back on the bar top. “I’m gonna catch a cab home. I don’t need a babysitter or an analyst. Shit happens, life sucks. You get over it. Chris, I will see you at the firing range tomorrow at 0800 – make that 0900, in case either of us are lucky enough to need hangover recovery time. And make sure your weapon is stripped down and thoroughly cleaned after today’s use.”
Pushing himself away from the bar he threw a twenty onto the counter to more than pay for the round and walked at a steady pace toward the exit. Praying that Lee would take the hint and not follow.
He left a stunned silence behind him. Neither of the junior officers knew where to look. Lee realised he’d goofed – badly.
It was painful – sort of. Realising that you had miscalculated - shamefully. But that, when it counted, you’d been right on the money. Lee picked up the bottle he’d barely touched, raised it in a toast.
“To good intentions and lousy friends.”
“To well meaning intentions, Skipper.” O’Brien raised his own bottle in appreciation.
Lee grinned wryly. Somehow, the young second officer’s support lacked something – something innate to him and nothing to do with Bobby. “Let’s not coat it, Bobby. I screwed up. And I involved you and Chris in something that I shouldn’t have. Now it’s up to me to rectify that with Chip. Chris, you’ve got an opportunity here to learn from the best. Use it. I expect your revised Sitrep will show you as fully certified. I’ve arranged for you to take the test again next Monday. Mr. Morton has agreed to be your re-certification examiner for the next three quarterly testing periods. This result will remain on your NIMR chart for a full twelve-month period but, if you succeed in passing the continuing quarterly evaluations, it will be wiped from your record then. In the meantime, you will fulfil your duties as Seaview’s Weapons Officer under Chief Sharkey’s and, ultimately, Mr. Morton’s supervision. Are you OK with that? I do realise that we should probably be discussing this more formally but I thought it appropriate that we speak tonight so as to cause you as little discomfort as possible.”
His attempted grin this time was more grimace. “Don’t despair, Chris. You certainly wouldn’t be the first in the history of the Academy to fail the field weapons test in the position you hold.”
He watched both his JOs heads pop up at that – but decided to leave them wondering. He’d done enough damage this night. Downing the last of his beer he grabbed his keys from where he’d dropped them on the bar top. “Sorry, guys, you’re on your own but feel free to drink the exec’s excess.” (Referring to the twenty spot Chip had tossed on the bar before leaving.) Unable to fully discard his role he felt bound to say, “Bobby, make sure he gets home OK. Chris, shoot straight tomorrow and – if you have to – sit up all night and drink water to flush out your system.”
James sat forward. “Sir, I won’t mess up, I assure you. I am very appreciative of this opportunity you and the exec have given me. I won’t let you down.”
“Well, just to ensure that, when Mr. Morton is
finally done with you tomorrow and your arm is spasming from the number of
rounds you’ve shot, I want you to ice it then rest it at elbow height on a
cushion for four hours then ice it again and repeat that sequence for the next
“I won’t let you down, sir. Guarantee it.”
“I’ll hold you to that, Chris. Bobby, enjoy your weekend.”
Both JOs stood as he departed.
Two down, one to go.
He sighed gustily as the man put a single bare foot on the first tread of the steps leading up from the beach. He’d known Lee wouldn’t let it lie – couldn’t. It was that about his friend that had drawn him towards the slightly younger plebe back at the Academy. He had been cited on more than one occasion for his tenacity. As far as he was concerned he hadn’t a nodding acquaintance with the subject in comparison to Lee Crane. In fact, the only surprise was that it had taken him this long to get here. Or maybe not.
“Sorted out the JOs, did ya?”
“What do you think?”
He snorted. “Which lecture did you give ‘em? The one where you’ll oversee the test and you don’t expect him to disappoint you or the one where he should use the opportunity of me being his re-certification examiner for the coming year to pick my brains and learn all he can? Hell, did the kid pass out at that one?”
“Both, in fact. And no, he didn’t.” Lee took it as a good sign that Chip was actually talking to him and came up a few steps, lowering himself to sit sideways on one of the wooden treads, resting his back against one handrail and propping his feet on the other. Like Chip, he had changed into a comfortable sweat suit when he’d arrived home. His was soft grey cotton with the boat’s outline and her name discretely embroidered on the left breast. Chip’s was a navy velour version of same. “I also told Chris he wouldn’t be the first weapons officer to flunk his initial re-certification.”
“Ah, shit, you didn’t….” The disgust in the blond’s voice was heavy.
“I didn’t mention any names. Keep ‘em wondering.” But he knew Chip would find a way to manoeuvre that into one of the upcoming conversations with the JO in an effort to re-centre him. It was just the man’s nature.
“Guess I should be grateful for small mercies then.” He grunted as he took a swig of his beer.
“You got another one of those? Oh, and I also told them to drink the rest of your twenty.”
“Kind of you!” He reached down into the cooler handily located beside his chair and tossed a can to his erstwhile best friend.
Lee popped the tab and took a long drink. His position allowed him both to look out
over the sandy beach to the calm ocean beyond, the quiet lapping of the waves
soothing on this serene night granting him comfort, and to watch his friend. Chip looked laid back, scrunched down on his
tail in the large cushioned
“I’m sorry, Chip. I screwed up tonight. I should have trusted you to work through this in your own way and I didn’t. I knew the date looming was bothering you but I wanted you to come to me and tell me you were dreading it the same way I was.”
Morton raised lowered lids at that admission. “You’re telling me it was affecting you too? I’d never have guessed. Well,” he corrected himself, “you didn’t let it show. I should have known. I DID know. It’s not something you could let slide by. And I knew you’d had a call today from Cassie Sommers – Debbie let it slip that Jason told her you’d had a phone call from Lakeview. I know you track her sister’s progress and I commend you for that but….”
“I know you hate her for what she did, Chip. But I can’t. If I had a sister and I thought someone had done that to her then I’m not sure, if the opportunity arose to confront him, that I wouldn’t do what she did.” His innate honesty forced him to revise that. “Well, I’m not sure I’d go as far as to shoot him but I’d certainly beat the crap out of him.”
“And I’d hold your coat!” It drew a reluctant smile out of him. He had two younger sisters and if a man had treated one of them as Cassie had believed he’d treated her younger sister then he knew his reaction wouldn’t be entirely sane. On the other hand…
“She took it all at face value, Lee. That’s what I find so hard to accept. She knew her sister’s history, yet she took her word for everything. Without question. Without investigating further. If it was Sari or Kate I’d go to the ends of the earth to get the bastard that did that to her but I’d like to think I’d make sure it was the right bastard.” He couldn’t help pounding his clenched fist on the arm of the wooden chair.
Lee sighed and took a minute to answer. He couldn’t refute any of Chip’s angry words. They’d all run through his own head over the several weeks it had taken to get himself back to full fitness. But neither could he forget Cassie Sommers’ abject misery over the realisation that she’d shot the wrong man or her guts in coming forward to admit her crime. The entire scenario had been beyond bizarre. And he couldn’t deny Chip his feelings either. He’d been the one painted with the playboy image and he’d been her intended target. He’d also been the one left to deal with the flack when Lee had been shot and he’d been the prime suspect. That he’d been solely responsible for saving Lee’s life hadn’t been highlighted by the media – they’d had a better story. Chip had also taken as his mission the search for the girl who’d shot Lee and had earned himself a friend for life in Pat Connolly. And even that had been ultimately snatched away from him. Which he, supposed best friend, hadn’t even factored into the equation when he’d come up with tonight’s little plan – conveniently endorsed by Chris’s failed firearms test.
“I’m human, Chip. There are times I resent what she did, what she put me – us –through. And I ask myself if I would have done what she did. If I’d have gone that far or if, maybe, I’d have found another way to make him pay. We’re men, and we think differently than women do. We’re also trained to observe, investigate, question. Would we have done it differently? I have no doubt. Would we have made certain we targeted the right guy? For sure, we’d have tried our damn best. But you need to cut her some slack. She didn’t get the military training we did. Plus she was exhausted – driving back and forth every week and working like hell to pay the clinic bills. She reacted to seeing you – her nemesis – over-reacted, clearly. And, yeah, if it were Sari or Kate I’d be with you. But ask yourself, would you be logical? Or go off half-cocked? Would you depend on me to ensure sanity prevailed?” He watched Chip absorb his words, lay his head back onto the cushioned headrest, blink sombre eyes up at the starlit night sky. He pressed some more. “You’ve got a family – a hugely extended one. There isn’t a man on the boat that wouldn’t be part of a posse to take any man apart that threatened one of your sisters. Cassie didn’t have that support. She’d fielded the burden of Vickie since she was twenty-one years old; practically her entire adult life. Do you remember what you were doing at twenty-one? Where your priorities were?”
They both clearly did. It raised a shared snicker. No need to elaborate!
It was Chip’s turn to sigh. “Truth? I hated what she did to you. But I hated what she did to me just as much. I was shit scared, Lee. More scared than I have ever been in my entire life.”
At Crane’s surprised look, he waved his beer can between them. “I hated that anyone would think I could hurt you. Being questioned like a criminal was pretty horrible but it also hurt that people could judge me from a newsprint article and I really, really resented that even people I worked with daily stepped back from me.”
Lee hadn’t known any of that and he ached for his friend. Of course, he’d been hospitalised at the time and had no way of defending Chip. His only recourse was total honesty. “Not those who counted.”
He saw that took Chip by surprise, made him think on it. “Well, no, there were some…”
“Who reacted to the newspaper articles. But, I’m betting there were a passel load of others who showed their support.” There WAS a God! And he could almost see Chip’s thought processes churning. He stuck the boot in. “You know the entire boat and the majority of NIMR were behind you. Anyone else doesn’t rate on the scale. They’re the sycophants who want to be your friend again as soon as you’re exonerated.” He managed a credible snort even though his vocal chords were almost strangled at the pain he perceived in Chip. “And here I thought you had more sense than to let those assholes get to you.”
The profanity dragged a wry grin from his friend – as he knew it would. “I do – in my saner moments. It’s just sometimes…”
They sat in silence listening to the ebb and flow of the tide, the gentle slap of the surging waves hitting the shoreline and the almost soundless sucking of the sand as it was forced to release the water back to the ocean. They sipped their beer contentedly, bare feet propped on the wooden deck rail, the contrast a study in itself. Lee’s feet were long and slender, olive toned with narrow toes and neatly filed nails. Chip’s were larger, broader, lightly tanned - despite his fair skin - from years spent swimming and diving, his toes bigger with wide, square shaped nails. Their physiques were different too; Lee being longer, leaner, wiry, the musculature not as overtly obvious while Chip was broader in the chest and shoulder area, but slim hipped with well toned muscles, about a half inch separating them in height. Several years ago, Nancy Fitzpatrick, a widowed sometime lady-friend of Nelson’s, had described them as bookends; a pair – almost; but not quite opposites, each strong and capable individually but together fulfilling a role that neither could alone. Chip had laughed outright at the comment, Lee had been embarrassed but Nelson had acquired a thoughtful, contemplative expression.
Finally Lee sighed. “It’s been a tough one, buddy. Hard to believe it’s been a year though.”
Chip merely grunted in agreement, downing the last of his beer and reaching for another, tossing one to Crane also. OK, Lee affirmed, so he wasn’t going to make this easy. Maybe what they needed was what he had proposed for Chris – a good drunk. It had been a long time – more than a year. Perhaps that was the way to loosen Chip up. He couldn’t resist a snicker and saw the blond head swing towards him, curiosity uppermost.
“How many beers you got in that cooler?”
One blond eyebrow rose almost to his militarily short hairline before a slow growing smile spread across the handsome features. “Depends what you’ve got in mind.”
“Was thinking of asking Bobby and Chris to call in on the way home, maybe getting Jamie to stop by and giving the admiral a heads up. You on for a spur of the moment party?”
“Did a grocery run today so there’s plenty of chips and stuff. So, yeah, make the calls. Go for it. Maybe what we need tonight is to get wasted.”
Lee dug in his pocket for his cell phone. That wasn’t all they needed but it was a heck of a start.
(*) Full Circle
(**) Small Mercies
(***) Not so Tender Mercies