By Fidelma C.
Lee Crane glanced sideways at the man standing next to him at the plotting table. Morton was even quieter, more morose than usual. The hands marking notations in pencil on the chart and moving the slide rule accordingly were steady as was the voice that called out co-ordinates to his captain. Receiving no response he raised his head and caught Crane’s troubled glance before the remarkable hazel eyes dropped to the clipboard the captain was holding. Lee cleared his throat and requested the last co-ordinates again, jotting them down as Morton quietly and deliberately repeated them, his face an impenetrable mask, blue eyes patently avoiding contact.
Crane hesitated before speaking, keeping his voice low so that the control room crew couldn’t hear. “Chip, is everything OK?”
“Perfectly, Captain.” Morton moved the slide rule and scribbled some further notes on the chart, not lifting his head.
Lee sighed with frustration. Chip had been like this for weeks, maybe months, and he was tired of it. Tired of getting short, terse answers, fed up with the formal attitude his exec had adopted. He missed the banter and camaraderie, the dry wit and wicked humour so characteristic of his friend. Morton had buried it beneath a mask of politeness and professional formality. There was nothing Lee could fault in his manner. Chip wasn’t insubordinate or rude rather the opposite. He treated Crane with the precise courtesy demanded of their positions as exec and captain – and nothing more. There was no hint of the almost eighteen years of friendship between them, nothing of the bond of brotherhood that had existed up until recent months.
Morton performed his duties as diligently as ever and his manner towards the crew hadn’t changed. His was still the voice of calm and assurance in any crisis, instilling confidence into his men, ensuring they remained focused on their tasks and earning their liking and respect both for his person and rank. It seemed it was just with Lee that he was different and Crane had had enough of it.
Fresh from a gruelling ONI mission that had seen him absent from his beloved Seaview for almost two months - far longer than he’d envisaged when he’d taken on the assignment - he had hoped that his recall of his friend’s attitude had been exaggerated in his own mind. Usually he could read the relief on Morton’s face when he returned uninjured (or sometimes slightly worse for wear) and was forced to endure a lecture worthy of a college professor – his punishment for taking on the mission in the first place. Now he would have welcomed his friend’s rant but aside from a decorous “Welcome back, Captain,” his return had gone unnoticed.
He tossed the clipboard he was holding onto the plotting table, startling Morton into looking up. Azure eyes met amber and the exec saw the spark of anger his captain was unable to hide.
“You have the conn, Mr. Morton.” The control room crew reacted to the harsh tone by straightening in their chairs, eyes firmly locked on their stations. If the exec had done something to tick off the captain, they didn’t want to be to ones to tip his annoyance into outright temper. Their skipper was fair but could be volatile on occasion.
“I was just about to go off watch, sir. I’m handing over to Mr. O’Brien.” Morton’s voice was quiet and reasoned, no reaction in his tone to the anger in Crane’s.
“Very well. Carry on.” Lee checked his watch, realising it was later than he had thought. “Mr. O’Brien, I’ll be in my cabin if you need me.” He swung on his heel and started up the spiral staircase to officers’ country. As he exited the control room he noticed Morton pass the clipboard across to O’Brien and succinctly begin his handover. For some reason his XO’s calm demeanour sparked Lee’s temper and by the time he reached his cabin he was simmering with frustration and rage.
He detoured into the small head and splashed cool water on his face. He braced his
forearms on the sink, head bent and exhaled loudly. Damnit, he was going to get to the bottom of this. If there was one person on the boat Morton would talk to besides – until recently – himself, then that’s where he’d go to find some answers.
“Goodness, Skipper, it must be serious to bring you down here voluntarily!” Will Jamieson looked up in surprise from the medical charts he was updating with the results of the recently completed physicals. Lee Crane was known for his evening inspections of the boat but, unless there were injured or ill crewmembers occupying Sickbay, it was usually the one area to escape his attention.
Jamieson’s surreptitious evaluation noted the tension in the golden eyes and the lines of strain on the young captain’s handsome features. He gave a quick mind check for any possible reason for same. Lee had been on an ONI mission for the past several weeks but had returned uninjured, physically at least. Whether there was something bothering the man, well it looked like he might be about to find out. As he thought about it he realised that Crane had been assigned several almost back-to-back missions over the past twelve months. Maybe it was time to talk to the admiral again about a not so gentle reminder to the powers that be in ONI to keep their hands off Seaview’s captain. However he was forced to concede that Lee hadn’t received a serious injury on any of the missions - in fact it was the longest period since Will had joined Seaview that the captain had managed to remain out of Sickbay.
So to the reason for his sudden visit tonight - there were no overnight inhabitants and, aside from the stress, the captain looked to be in perfect health. Which could only mean one thing – he was worried about one of his crewmembers. And the most likely duo, who would merit a visit by the skipper to the dreaded Sickbay, was Nelson and Morton.
“OK, Skipper, who’s the problem? The admiral or the exec?” He was gratified at the askance look he received in return. Good to show these younger ones on occasion that they couldn’t outsmart him that easily!
“How do you do it, Jamie? Do you read minds?”
Bingo! “Logical deduction, Skipper! Have a seat. Coffee?” Doc always kept a carafe of coffee ready and was usually available to chat – a surrogate father figure, being older than most of the officers and enlisted men. He had a particular fondness for the tall lean young man who dropped gracefully into the chair and accepted the hot brew with a quick nod of thanks – even if he was his worst patient. Jamieson had been waiting for this day for months now, knowing it would come but in the skipper’s own good time. He sipped at his coffee in comfortable silence, letting the younger man take it at his own pace. It took a while but the words, when they came, spilled out slowly at first gathering momentum as Crane’s frustration, bewilderment and hurt poured out.
“It’s Chip, Jamie. I… I don’t know what’s up with him. He barely speaks two words to me anymore. If it’s not about boat’s business then we don’t talk at all. He avoids my company. We never eat together any more. If I walk into a room, it seems he walks out. If we’re ashore then he barricades himself into either his office or his apartment. He makes excuses not to come out with me and he never picks up his phone. He lets the machine take messages and then doesn’t call back unless it’s work related. He doesn’t even give me grief about ONI jobs any more – and you know how he feels about them! And he’s become so much worse in the past couple of weeks. I feel like I’m losing him.”
“As an exec?”
Lee’s laugh was faintly bitter. “No. He’s still the best exec there is. I can’t fault his work. In fact he’s probably more conscientious than ever. That’s part of the problem. He’s working all hours and he’s hardly sleeping more than a couple of hours a night. I can hear him the other side of the bulkhead.” Which Jamie took to mean that the captain wasn’t sleeping much either! “When he’s not in the control room, he’s either in Engineering or working on reports in his cabin. He’s up at the crack of dawn working out in the gym or the weight room. He’s hit the shower every morning this week before 0500 and been over two hours early for his watch every day. And Cookie says he’s not been eating well for weeks. Now for Morton not to eat means something is seriously wrong! Haven’t you noticed the weight he’s lost?”
Jamie frowned, absently sipping at his cooling coffee. In truth he hadn’t noticed any particular change in the XO’s weight but then he tended to keep a closer eye on the captain’s. “No, I can’t say as I’ve seen any noticeable weight loss, Lee. But if Chip’s working out as much as you say then he’s probably building bulk and toning up so it wouldn’t be as obvious, unless you were looking for it.” As the skipper undoubtedly was, knowing Chip better than anyone else aboard. “Have you spoken to the admiral about this?” He already knew the answer but wanted to plant the seed in the other’s mind.
Crane’s head came up sharply, amber eyes flashing dangerously. “No! Chip’s doing his job as well as ever. What am I supposed to say to him? ‘Chip won’t come out and play with me?’ That’d sound great, coming from the captain of his submarine!”
Jamieson’s lips twitched at the skipper’s almost petulant tone. Sometimes he forgot how young his captain was in years although far beyond his physical age in experience. “That wasn’t quite what I had in mind, Skipper!”
“I can’t, Jamie. I don’t want it to go on his record. If it affected command ability then I’d have to but ….”
”But it already has, hasn’t it, Lee?”
“NO! Chip’s as in command as he always is. I’d trust him with my life and the crew’s. There’s no issue there.”
“But what about your ability, Skipper? This is seriously affecting you.” Jamie’s voice was soft but the meaning was clear and Crane’s eyes widened with shock.
“ME? You’re not suggesting….”
“I’m not suggesting anything, Lee. But the very fact that you’re here talking to me means you’re more than just worried about Chip.”
“I don’t want to lose him, Jamie.” Lee’s misery was evident in his tone and shone from his warm hazel eyes. “It’s not the same without him beside me as my friend – more than my friend. Since we first met it’s like I knew he would always be there for me, take care of me, rein me in when I needed it. Even when we were apart, I knew he was just a phone call away. He always seemed to sense if there was something wrong in my life, if I was hurt or injured. And the phone would ring and I’d know it was him before I even picked it up. Now it’s like …like he’s just pulled the rug from beneath me. And I don’t know why!”
“What’s the date, Skipper?”
“The date?” Crane’s brow furrowed in puzzlement at the medic’s totally disparate, soft voiced question. He checked the black and chrome diver’s watch he always wore – a 30th birthday gift from Chip. “July 21st – why?”
Seeing no light dawning in Lee’s eyes, Jamie leaned forward and plucked the half drunk coffee from his CO’s hand.
“Because tomorrow would have been Chip’s first wedding anniversary.”
Lee buried his head in his hands and groaned.
“How could I have forgotten? No wonder he’s been getting progressively more quiet. I should have ….”
“What, Skipper? What should you have done?”
“Cut him some slack. Made him take some leave. Something…”
“Something he wouldn’t have wanted? Wouldn’t have appreciated? That might have driven him away from you, from Seaview, for good?”
“No, Jamie! How can you say that?” Lee was angry, beginning to pace but without purpose, absently as if his heart wasn’t in it.
“Because that sounded to me like you don’t want him around.” Jamieson was ready for the uppercut he could sense Crane wanted to deliver.
“How can you even think that? After what I’ve just said? I need Chip. As my exec, sure. But more importantly as my friend. I want what we had all these years. I need him back in my life, with me, beside me…”
“On your terms, Captain?”
“Jamie! No!” Crane was stunned at the doctor’s somewhat aggressive attitude. He was making it sound like this was his fault! Like he was the one who had changed – not Chip.
“Think about it, Lee. When Chip came back from that four-week leave sporting a wedding ring, what was your reaction? Did you punch him in the arm and wish him well? Did you guys, two old friends of many years standing, go out on a binge on your first shore leave to celebrate? Did you pump him for details of this obviously love-at-first-sight courtship? Were you thrilled at his good fortune? Or did you shut him out? Did you let him explain the circumstance of this very sudden marriage?”
“Jamie!” Crane ceased his pacing, stunned into immobility at the CMO’s suddenly harsh words. “He’s my friend. I always thought that we would be there for each other. Stand up for each other if we were lucky enough to meet the woman of our dreams.”
“So you felt cheated.”
“No! It wasn’t like that, Jamie!”
“Be honest, Lee. You were hurt, put out. Morton, your best, closest friend for years, goes home on shore leave, comes back wearing a wedding ring. This, the guy who from your first day at Annapolis became your guardian to all intents and purposes, whose family practically adopted you, you call his mother Mom, for Christ’s sake, she’s closer to you than your own Mother! Admit it, Lee, you were hurt, cut to the quick, and you handled it badly.” Jamieson’s tone was ruthless, needing to draw out specific hurts.
“Maybe I did!” He clenched his fist and smacked it into the other palm. “Hell, Jamie, I’d always envisaged that we would be best men for each other. Stand up for each other when we married. We’d talked about it! Especially once we came aboard Seaview. It was like… the perfect fit. Like we were always meant to be! Chip and me. We’d talked about it in Groton – when we’d both decided that we wanted to be submariners. The brass often thought there should be rivalry between us because we’d gone through the Academy as number one and two consistently over the years. But there wasn’t! We just each knew where our strengths lay and both determined to play to those strengths. Chip is …awesome! I couldn’t do what he does. He runs the boat better than I could ever do. He’s a detail merchant. I could never do that. I couldn’t supply a boat like Seaview for every eventuality at the drop of a hat, the way he does.
The crew think I know the boat, Nelson knows the boat, we’re not at the races compared to Morton! If there’s a rivet she needs, he’s on it. If there’s a computer software programme to enhance her capabilities, he’s nagging the admiral to get it. He loves her as much, if not more than we do. I couldn’t, Admiral Nelson couldn’t, envisage anyone else in the role of exec.
We need him. Seaview needs him. But I need him more. I need him back as my friend, my brother.”
“Why do you call him brother, Lee?” Jamieson questioned softly. He’d been through this with Nelson, both perceptive enough to realise a showdown was inevitable and had discussed how to handle it without losing either one of them. With Crane’s more volatile personality, they’d reckoned he would be the one to cut loose first. Morton would internalise the problems, withdrawing further into himself, donning the mask he perpetually wore to keep his feelings hidden. Only a very few had been privileged to see beyond the mask and the two men in the Sickbay had considered themselves honoured to be part of that scant group.
“That’s what it’s been like – like having a brother.” Lee ran his hand through his hair, a telling gesture to the older medic. “I never really knew what family was until I met the Mortons. There was always just Mother and me.” Jamieson knew that Crane’s father had died when Lee was very young and his mother lacked the warmth and maternal instincts he’d seen in Clare Morton. He knew from stories the senior officers had told of their days at Annapolis that from the first moment Chip had brought Lee home, he’d been considered a member of the Morton clan. Chip’s mom still sent identical care packages to both her boys.
“And what’s it like having a brother, Lee?” Jamie had to cleverly route the conversation in the direction he wanted it to go if tonight was to be a success and end months of worry and stress for both the captain and exec – and the admiral and himself!
Lee glared at him wondering at the questions Doc was asking. Following a “Humour me!” from Jamie, he shrugged his shoulders and answered as honestly as he could. “You know. It’s great. It’s like knowing there’s always someone on your side, someone who’ll stand by you right or wrong. Someone who’ll take care of you just as you’ll take care of them. Someone to worry about you and for you to worry about. Someone you can count on to share the good times and the bad.”
“And that’s what hurts, isn’t it, Lee? He didn’t share with you. Chip held something back. He went and got married without telling you, without even talking to you about it. And you felt left out.”
“You make it sound so petty, Jamie, when you put it like that.”
“No, Lee. I don’t mean to. I’m trying to put it into perspective. Since your Academy days you’ve both been very close. As you say, been there for each other. You gained an entire family along the way. And Chip got a younger brother to take under his wing. He’s always been a nurturer, a carer. It’s a role he excels at – part of what makes him a great exec. And since you came aboard Seaview it’s like it all came together. Then Chip goes outside the box and does something totally unexpected and doesn’t consult you or include you in the decision. Given your experiences together it’s natural that you would feel excluded. But did you ask him why? Did you check that all was right in his world? Think back, Lee. When he came aboard after that leave did Chip look the picture of newly wedded bliss?”
Green lights flickered in the hazel eyes as Lee pondered Jamie’s words.
He’d been in the control room when Chip had come aboard after four weeks enforced leave following a bout of pneumonia, having aspirated water on a dive gone wrong. Morton had returned home at the urging of his concerned mother and Lee had fully expected a plea for rescue during his leave. But Seaview had been sent on an urgent top-secret mission and almost four weeks had passed before Lee was able to call. He’d gotten Clare Morton. She’d sounded somewhat evasive to Lee but had assured her ‘second son’ that Chip was fine and would be back aboard in time for sailing.
Lee had grinned when the familiar duffle hit the deck as the precisely creased khaki pant legs had eschewed the last three steps and his exec and friend had descended into the control room. The familiar courtesy phrase “Permission to come aboard, sir?” had been responded to with alacrity and Lee had pumped his friend’s hand in welcome.
It had taken one of the ratings, Patterson, who since day one had aligned himself the XO’s man, to spot the gleam of the gold ring on the third finger of his exec’s left hand and ask the question.
Morton had met disbelieving amber eyes with, hindsight being an exact science, a plea for time to explain. Instead his captain’s clipped “Congratulations, Mr. Morton!” had evoked a stiffening in the XO’s attitude and a cursory response to the best wishes he had received from the crew. Lee hadn’t allowed his friend time to elucidate, had turned instead to the task of making the boat ready to get underway and, he now reluctantly recognised, had forged a coolness between himself and his best friend. He’d been unbelievably hurt.
When Sparks had called him to the radio shack some four months later for an urgent message, he’d been numbed with shock. How to tell his now estranged best friend that his wife of some few months had died was beyond his ability. He’d gone straight to Nelson. The admiral’s wisdom and guidance had requested Jamieson’s presence and together the trio had informed the exec. Morton had accepted the news with his legendary stoic demeanour. Jamie had been more than worried at his calm acceptance. Lee, regretting his former attitude, had tried to be there for his friend. Nelson had been the voice of reason, arranging for the Flying Sub to take the exec home. In the short time since their marriage Sophie Morton had remained in Chicago with Chip’s family, not taking up residence in Santa Barbara, Seaview’s homeport.
In fact Lee had only met her briefly on the one occasion when she and Chip’s mom had been waiting at the dock as the boat returned from a mission some two months after the wedding. As captain and exec they had been amongst the last to cross the gangplank having secured the boat and handed over to the security detail. He’d seen the small blonde fling herself into Chip’s arms and had tried to sidestep the reunion but his surrogate ‘mom’ had stepped in, giving him a welcome home squeeze. She’d immediately registered his stiffness and responded with an “Oh, oh” and a swift glance towards her son and his new wife. “Lee, we need to talk!” He remembered his growled response to the woman who had become more mother to him than the woman who bore him. “Not now, Mom. Not right now!” And he’d kissed her forehead with heartfelt love and left her with her true son and his starry eyed bride having wished his friend’s new wife a brief “every happiness”.
His first impression of her had been contrary to anything he’d envisaged of the woman who would woo his friend into marriage. Chip’s usual girlfriends were achievers in their own spheres, leggy athletic types or good-looking computer nerds. Sophie Morton was tiny, clingy, passably pretty and plainly crazy in love with Chip. Her feelings for the tall blond were obvious but, looking back now, Lee had sensed a restraint in Chip as he had slowly closed his arms around her.
Lee, Nelson and Jamieson had accompanied Chip on FS1 to Chicago. Chip had spoken little although Jamie had tried to draw him out. Nelson piloted and Lee had acted as co-pilot, grateful for something to do rather than have to deal with his own emotions. He’d wanted to put his arms around Chip but his friend’s disposition didn’t welcome that familiarity. Every bone in Lee’s body had ached, every nerve end shrieking at the pain he knew Chip must be going through, yet he hadn’t been able to alleviate one ounce of his friend’s agony.
At the funeral and graveside Lee had stood beside his friend who had remained stoic and dry-eyed throughout. But his physical closeness belied the emotional distance. It was as if Chip didn’t register his presence. Forced to remember that harrowing time, Lee recalled the sense of quiet sadness that had pervaded the proceedings. His heightened senses now questioned his recollection – and he looked to Jamieson for confirmation.
The good doctor had watched the play of emotions cross his captain’s expressive features and waited patiently for Crane to work through the memories.
“Jamie, I’m getting the feeling that I really missed something at the funeral. There was sadness but not the overriding anguish I would have expected – either from Chip or his family. Surely they should have been more shocked or outraged at her death?”
Jamieson remained silent allowing Lee to find his own answers. He caught the stunned look when it entered the golden eyes before they closed as Crane sagged against the bulkhead.
“Because they weren’t shocked. They were expecting it. He knew she was going to die when he married her, didn’t he?”
Jamieson leapt to his feet, rounding the desk to grip his captain’s arm and shove him, not ungently, into the chair. The younger man looked as if he were about to pass out, his face had paled alarmingly and Jamie caught his breath at the utter misery in the too bright amber eyes. Crane’s shock was palpable and Jamieson quickly poured another cup of coffee, adding a liberal dose of sugar before placing it into the skipper’s hands and urging him to drink it.
“You knew, didn’t you?” He didn’t expect an answer. “Why didn’t you tell me?” Nor to that question either. “Did the admiral know? Of course he did! I was just too wrapped up in my own hurt and disappointment to look beyond the obvious.”
Knowing his skipper’s over developed sense of responsibility Jamie couldn’t let him take all the blame. “Maybe so, Lee. But Chip should have allowed for the shock and not closed you out totally.”
Crane was shaking his head. Jamieson groaned inwardly. “No, Jamie, can you imagine how he must have been feeling? Knowing he was only going to have a short time with Sophie. And just when he needed me most I went all stiff necked and injured pride on him. Then I went and took all those ….” He broke off guiltily, sneaking a look at the doctor from beneath thick dark lashes to check if Jamieson had caught the almost confession.
Not much got past Seaview’s CMO. Now he knew why Crane was suddenly so popular with ONI. The damn fool had probably volunteered! He sighed with exasperation, shooting his captain a dirty look that Crane knew meant he hadn’t heard the last of this. He swiftly continued hoping Jamieson might forget the near admission.
“After the funeral Mom asked me to take special care of him. I didn’t even do that properly. I should have taken him out somewhere and got him stinking drunk. Maybe then he would have talked to me. But I didn’t. I just let him retreat behind that mask he wears so well.”
“Lee, he didn’t want to let you in then.”
“I should have forced him! Instead I let my stubborn pride stop me. Told myself that he knew where I was if he needed me. God, what a mess!”
Jamieson contemplated the tormented figure slumped in the chair before him, hand raking through his short dark curls in a characteristic movement that always betrayed his agitation. He came to a decision and reached into the bottom drawer of his desk, pulling out the bottle of whiskey he kept for medicinal purposes and two glasses. He pushed both across the desk.
“You have to talk to Chip, Lee. It’s time. Go be his friend, his brother. He needs you. You need each other.”
A weary smile and a soft “Thanks, Jamie” was his reward as Crane grasped the bottle and glasses and exited Sickbay.
Jamieson sighed as he picked up the internal phone, dialling a familiar number.
“Admiral, phase one complete.”
The tap on his cabin door went unnoticed. It was the second sharper rap that brought him out of his reverie.
”Come.” He straightened in his chair anticipating having to deal with a crewmember’s personal problem or Cookie trying to tempt him with some delectable morsel he’d created because he knew Morton hadn’t eaten much at dinner. His renowned appetite seemed to have deserted him over the past months and had shrunk even further in recent weeks. So he was doubly surprised to see his captain enter and push the door to behind him.
Morton shot to his feet, coming almost to attention, his eyes widening as he took in the bottle and glasses Crane held.
“Oh, stow it, Chip.” Lee muttered, hooking a foot around the leg of one of the chairs in front of the exec’s desk, where paperwork was stacked in neatly ordered piles, and dragging it forward. He deposited the glasses on the desktop and poured two generous shots from the almost full bottle. “Sit down!” It wasn’t a request and Morton carefully re-seated himself as Lee pushed one of the glasses towards him.
Chip ignored the gesture, instead watching his CO take a healthy gulp of the amber liquid. While not a dry boat, it was unusual for the officers to indulge except when the admiral expressly condoned it or they had guests aboard, when wine was served with dinner. He noticed that Crane seemed tense, his olive complexion relatively pale, dark shadows under thickly lashed eyes evidence of lack of sleep. He was unaware that similar shaded discs lurked beneath his own striking azure eyes. Eyes that were now cautious and wary. Where once Crane’s presence in his cabin – or his in the captain’s – at the end of the workday would have been a regular occurrence, recently it was somewhat unusual and he wondered at the reason for the skipper’s sudden appearance.
Their relationship had deteriorated over the past months to a level Chip had never believed possible. Now he grieved for what was lost as he looked into the face of the man he had considered a brother since their earliest days as newbies at the Academy when he’d taken the barely seventeen-year-old youngster under his wing, drawn to the shy man-child as he’d never been to anyone outside his family circle. He hadn’t ever envisaged a moment when he would feel uncomfortable in his brother’s presence but now he almost squirmed under Crane’s level gaze and forced himself to stillness.
“Drink!” Again it wasn’t a request. Morton hesitated. He reached out a hand, almost as reflex to the command tone but stopped within inches of touching the glass.
It was the entreaty in that one word that did it and his fingers closed around the cool smooth receptacle, bringing it to his lips and knocking back the generous measure in one go. Almost defiantly he replaced the glass on his desk to find it instantly refilled, as was Crane’s own.
There was obviously an agenda here. He’d known for some time now that the situation was untenable. He’d disappointed his captain, his friend, his brother of the heart but, as the weeks and months had passed, he’d been unable to find words to heal the rift he’d created. He’d known Lee was avoiding him, finding excuses not to work with him. Taking on more assignments for ONI – which he knew Chip hated. But Chip had let him go. Oh, he’d been worried sick the whole time Lee’d been gone but somehow it was almost easier than being around him and feeling the hurt and disappointment encapsulated in his captain’s bearing.
Now Lee was forcing the issue. Chip had acknowledged that it was only a matter of time. His letter of resignation had resided in the middle drawer of his desk for the past six weeks but he’d been too cowardly to produce it, too afraid of what the final toll would exact of him. Oh, logically he knew he could return to the Navy, probably to any command post he chose. Hell, Starke had afforded him enough opportunities. But despite what others thought him capable of, he didn’t seek to command! His heart had never ached so heavily. He grieved for the loss of everything that he held dear, his boat, his friend, his crew, and his coveted position as exec of the best boat in existence. This was more than he could bear. Abruptly he pulled open the drawer and tossed the envelope onto the desk in front of Crane. In an extension of the same movement he picked up the glass and drained it.
“That’s what you came for. Now please go.” His voice was tight, his expression as controlled as he could manage under the circumstances. His impassive façade held, although he had to work at it, and thus he missed the incredulous expression that crossed his captain’s face as Crane eyed with obvious distaste the envelope that lay in the centre of the neat and tidy work space. He knew, without a doubt, what the envelope contained and, mentally, totally rejected it. Then Morton’s words hit him a stunning blow. That Chip could believe he’d come here for that! Anger rose, banishing the pallor and infusing his dark complexion with a tide of red.
“Damn it, Chip. God, damn it!” He slammed his glass back onto the desk, droplets spotting the wood and exposed papers.
Morton, sick and heart sore, gained his feet and rounded the desk, pushing past his captain who’d risen to intercept him, intent on reaching the head. Crane gripped his arms, holding firmly.
“Please, Lee!” The words were wrenched from him as he attempted to circum-navigate the leaner man who held on as tightly as he could. “Christ, Lee, if you value anything we’ve ever had in the last eighteen years, let me go!” The break in Chip’s voice, the first time Lee had ever heard it, finally convinced him to let go of the huskier frame. Morton bolted into the small head and Crane could hear the sounds of the man being repeatedly, violently ill.
Distressed beyond measure, he slumped back into the chair and held his head in his hands. How had he allowed the situation to degenerate to this level? That Chip had already written his resignation was obvious. That he’d thought it the reason Lee had come to his cabin tonight was beyond belief. That tendering his resignation had sickened him to his stomach was both visibly and audibly evident.
Lee heard the toilet flush and the splashing of water and stood, preparing himself for Morton’s entrance. As Chip came out of the small head he was engulfed in two embracing arms, held tightly, the breath almost squeezed out of his lungs. Lee hung on for dear life, not knowing any other way to convince his friend that he was loved and needed. Morton froze initially then closed his eyes, dropping his blond head in abject defeat onto the other’s shoulder. Tears welled, uninvited, as he contemplated all that he was about to lose and an unbidden sob broke forth, almost but not quite stifled against Crane’s khaki clad shoulder. Lee held him tighter as he felt Chip attempt to break away. “No, buddy, I should have done this a long time ago!”
They stood together for several minutes, an utterly drained Chip drawing strength from his friend. With a final squeeze Lee let him go, tipping him gently back into the second visitor’s chair, unwilling to give him the opportunity to put the formality of the desk between them. He studied his friend’s pale features, his elbow propped on the arm of the chair, forefinger and thumb pinching the bridge of his nose in a tell-tale gesture so familiar to Crane indicating Chip’s head was throbbing, his other arm pressed across his flat abdomen, telling Lee that his empty stomach still protested the two measures of amber liquid he’d downed.
Decisively Lee reached for the phone. “Cookie, sorry to disturb you but could you bring some sandwiches and coffee to the exec’s cabin please,” ignoring Chip’s instinctive protest. “And the next thing we do is to get rid of this piece of rubbish,” as he ripped the unopened envelope in half, then quarters, before dropping the pieces into the trash. He watched Chip lift his head, eyes following Crane’s movements, and Lee saw the momentary flash of relief that entered the cerulean eyes, surely reflected in his own golden ones. It was going to be all right.
“That’s what’s been keeping you up nights and stopping you eating, isn’t it?”
Chip sipped at the hot coffee before replying. He’d said little since Crane’s arrival; he hadn’t needed to. Just having Lee here was such a relief, such a joy. He was still unsure he could stomach the sandwiches Cookie had personally delivered, a wide grin splitting his broad face at the sight of exec and CO together, and Morton knew word would have reached the depths of the boat within the hour, but he was grateful for the coffee. He wasn’t much of a whiskey drinker and the raw alcohol hadn’t sat well on his nauseous stomach. Crane urged him to eat and he picked at a triangle to appease his captain.
“I initially thought it was because of tomorrow.” Lee prodded gently. Getting Chip to open up was like asking the sun to rise in the west! But if there was anyone who could do it, it was the dark haired man seated across from him and Chip knew he owed Lee both explanation and apology.
“I’m sorry, Lee.” His voice was low and ragged and coincided with similar words leaving his friend’s lips.
“I’m sorry, Chip.”
Both men looked at each other solemnly for a moment before identical rueful grins twitched the corners of their mouths. “Talk to me, buddy. Please!”
Lee watched Chip straighten in the chair and set the coffee cup carefully on the desk. If anything Morton became even paler than before and Crane noticed the slight shake in his hand. “Want to stretch out on the bunk while we talk, Chip? Need me to call Jamie?”
Chip shook his head to both questions. “No, I’m fine.” Then grinned somewhat sheepishly at the statement – which was something of a Crane-ism – blue eyes locking on golden. Lee grimaced good naturedly, gesturing at Chip to keep talking. Morton sighed, running one hand distractedly through his short blond hair, unsure where to begin. He leaned forward in the chair, both feet planted firmly on the deck, elbows on his thighs, his hands clasped loosely between them. He was absently twisting the ring on the third finger of his left hand, his voice low so Crane had to lean forward to hear him.
“That leave was … tough. I didn’t feel great after the pneumonia. But I didn’t feel bad enough to have to take four weeks leave and miss a cruise! Jamie was insistent and Mom was smothering me – as you know she can!” Lee rolled his eyes; he’d had a taste of Mama Morton’s mothering a time or two and knew where Chip was coming from but grinned companionably at his friend.
The blond took a deep breath not really knowing how or where to start, but Lee deserved a – much belated – explanation. “I’d known Sophie most of my life – she was a friend of Katy’s. I knew she sort of liked me but I wasn’t interested as a teenager and then when I went to Annapolis I just forgot about her. I hadn’t seen her in years. I guess I presumed she’d moved away too. Any time I was home on leave I didn’t bump into her and I just never thought about her. Until last year. She called to see Katy and when she heard I was on sick leave she just kept coming over, bringing me things, stuff to eat, you know. I asked Mom to get her to stop – it was kind of embarrassing. I wasn’t interested but I could tell she was.
Anyway Mom just got this funny look on her face and told me to put up with it! She said I was spoilt!” Morton’s tone was distinctly peevish and Lee had to smother a grin. “Well, she just kept coming over and then I asked Katy to tell her – nicely – that I wasn’t interested. She burst into tears on me, called me callous and hard hearted and a couple of other names – didn’t know my baby sister knew words like that! I couldn’t understand what was going on. Eventually Mom figured out that I didn’t know. Sophie had inoperable cancer and had been given six months maximum. What could I do? I had to just grin and bear it. Mom kept telling me it was only for a couple of weeks. I’d be back on Seaview before I knew it.
But it got worse, Lee. She started dropping in every day for hours on end and then she started talking about making plans when I was well enough to get out and about. She had no other family. She was an only child and her parents were both dead. I didn’t know what to do! Mom was no help – telling me to indulge her, what had I got to lose. If it kept Sophie happy! And Katy, she just kept bursting into tears every time I tried to talk to her about Sophie.” Crane could hear the pain and panic in his friend’s voice and reached across to put his hand over Chip’s clenched ones. His heart bled for his friend, knowing how principled Morton was. The supportive gesture helped Chip carry on and he cleared his throat.
“Then Sophie started talking about marriage. I balked at that and even Mom tried to let her down lightly. She just got this terribly hurt look on her face and left. I felt like all kinds of a heel, Lee. But, hell, what was I to do? Later that day Katy came home and started yelling at me. Saying I’d led Sophie on. Why was I so nice to her if I didn’t want her to read too much into it! I couldn’t believe it. Tried telling her that I’d only been nice to Sophie for her sake. She nearly decked me. Mom had to physically pull her away. The next morning she apologised and then she asked me for a favour – the only favour she would ever ask me in her life. She and Mom had talked it over and would I agree to at least become engaged to Sophie. It would mean so much to her. She had so little time left. She was crazy in love with me and it would make her so happy. She had no one else.”
Lee frowned. He couldn’t believe Mom would put Chip in such an invidious position. She loved her boy – both her boys – and only wanted them to be happy. Surely she’d have known the effect such a request would have on her eldest child? Her-died-in-the-wool, honest-to-goodness big softie! When it came down to it he’d really had no choice. Not Chip. “Mom shouldn’t have asked that of you!” Crane was indignant on his friend’s behalf.
“She didn’t. But I only found that out afterwards! It was entirely Katy’s idea. And she made sure to pick a time when Mom was out of the way to talk to me. By the time I discovered the truth it was too late. I’d already asked Sophie to marry me. But, honest to God, Lee, I never meant it to go that far! I didn’t think she’d start planning a wedding right away. I thought I’d go back to sea and then when my next shore leave came around she’d – and this sounds awful, but honest – she’d be too sick to care. Next thing I know the church is booked, the minister is calling round and she’s bought a dress. I could have killed Katy. Mom very nearly did when she discovered what she’d done. But Sophie was so thrilled. What could I do? There was no way I could back out and not seem like a total cad. In fairness to Mom, she wanted me to, urged me to pull out before it was too late, said she’d make sure Sophie was alright. Dad said he couldn’t see the harm if it made the girl happy.”
“But it wasn’t fair on you! Couldn’t he see that?” Lee could sense the immense strain his friend had been under. God, it must have been pure hell! “Why didn’t you call me, Chip?” Unintentionally the hurt in his voice came through.
“I tried, Lee. But Seaview had already sailed and you were under radio silence. I couldn’t even get a message to you. And God knows, I really needed you!” The last was heartfelt and Lee’s gut twisted. He should have been there for his friend. Logic told him it hadn’t been possible. But you could have been, later, a nagging little voice broke into his thoughts.
“By then it was too late. I had no choice except to go ahead with it. But I made it clear to everyone that I was going back to sea as soon as my leave was over. I couldn’t stay, Lee.” He surged to his feet and began to pace; then stopped, turned and locked eyes with his oldest, closest friend, azure to amber. “I didn’t love her, Lee. I couldn’t. I felt trapped…. I wanted, needed to talk to you; to explain, hell, to cry on your shoulder. Then I came aboard and I’d forgotten to take the damned ring off! Soon as you saw it, I could see the hurt in your eyes, the disappointment. And I knew you’d…..”
“Chip, don’t. Please.” Crane closed his eyes in pain at his own actions and had to bite the inside of his cheek to keep from crying out. “I didn’t give you a chance to explain. I should have at least done that. You deserved that! Our friendship deserved that – and more. And I am so sorry. Sorry that my stiff-necked pride prevented me from coming to you and demanding an explanation months ago. God, what you must have gone through. I’m so sorry, buddy.” Lee reached out for his friend again, needing the physical contact to re-establish that their relationship – brotherhood – was once again back on track, weighed down by the sacrifice Chip had undertaken. “I should have listened to Mom. She told me to talk to you. After the funeral she asked me to look after you. I let her down – and I let you down too. I should have known.”
It was Crane’s turn to drop his hands from his friend’s arms, turning from him, running agitated hands through short dark curls. “I…I’m no good at relationships…. at family. Mom trusted me to take care of you and I…”
“Lee, don’t, please! It’s not just your fault. Heck, it’s never totally one sided! All families have rows, fights, arguments. That’s what being a family is all about. Hell, I’m still barely speaking to Katy! And Mom is well aware what’s going on between us. Why else do you think she hasn’t been on your case? Why do you imagine she cut you slack for Thanksgiving and Christmas? If she thought you were wrong, she’d have ripped into you big time by now. Hey, you know Mom! She doesn’t pull her punches.”
Lee was forced to agree. Clare Morton was no fool. She’d been a schoolteacher for many years and neither Chip, Lee nor her two daughters had ever, but ever, been able to put anything by her. Lee reckoned it was that trait, which Chip had undoubtedly inherited, that made him such a good XO. He could read the crew intimately, instantly knowing where to look for potential problems before they became issues and tackling them, usually before the captain even became aware of them.
But that didn’t exonerate Lee in his own eyes. His own history hadn’t readied him for the instant family he’d gained in the Morton clan. And, although he thought he’d worked though it over the years, this was a classic case in point. He’d allowed his hurt feelings over one, admittedly traumatic, happening to negate all that had gone before in their relationship. Where was the trust? Where was the friendship, the brotherhood; the depth of feeling they’d had? And why had one incident been sufficient to erode eighteen years of togetherness and, yes, love?
Those were the questions Lee Crane needed answers to – and those answers, he knew, had to come from within himself, for the most part. Once again noting Chip’s absolute exhaustion, he tugged on his arm. “Go stretch out on the bunk, you’ll be more comfortable.”
Chip resisted momentarily but allowed himself to be propelled towards his rack. Truth to tell he was wiped but nonetheless needed to disabuse Crane of the notion that he was somehow singularly to blame for this impasse. He allowed Lee to seat him on the covers, shoes off and pillow behind his back. Crane pulled the large desk chair over and leant back comfortably.
“Chip, I need you ask you one question. I can understand that you were disappointed with me. Hell, I’m disgusted with myself!” As Chip attempted to intervene, Lee halted him with a wave of his hand. “No, listen! But why did you think you needed to resign?” Had he but known it, there was a wealth of hurt emotion behind the question.
Chip had to choose his words carefully. Leaning his still aching head against the pillow, he thought for several moments before answering. “I couldn’t perceive any other way, Lee. I’m not blind. I’ve seen what the deterioration of our relationship has done to the crew over the past few months. They tiptoe around us like they’re walking on eggshells! It’s taken some of them longer than others to realise there’s a problem but, by now, the entire boat is aware that we are not communicating on anything other than boat’s business. And while that might be fine for other Navy vessels, it’s not what we’ve come to expect on Seaview. Plus I knew you’d continue to take on missions for ONI to avoid working with me and I was afraid that one of these days your luck would run out and you wouldn’t come back. I couldn’t bear that. So I knew there was only one course of action. I caused this problem therefore I had to be the one to resolve it.” His voice dropped to a level where Crane had to strain to hear the words. “But it’s the hardest thing I’ve ever had to do.”
“And not one I’ll ever willingly allow you to do!” Crane shot back. He resisted the urge to surge to his feet and pace knowing that, if he did, Chip would rise too and his exec needed to be off his feet – even if his respite wasn’t as restful as it should be. “Damnit, Chip, I need you here! For sure! But more than that, I need you in my life! And these last few years here with you on Seaview have been the best ever. I know we don’t talk about this a lot. Hell, if ever! It’s just something that’s always been unspoken between us, but from those first days at the Academy – and, by the way, did I ever tell you that I resented the hell out of you cos you were a full year older and, apparently, more sophisticated than I was? But since then, I’ve always known you were there for me. I’m not…very good…at saying this …but without you, I probably wouldn’t have stuck the course. You grounded me. Centred me. And I’ll always thank you and love you for that. But, if we’re being honest here – and I think we need to be – you’re still the yardstick I measure myself against.”
Chip’s eyes widened and he leant forward on the pillows, mouth agape in astonishment at his friend’s confession. This from the man who had graduated no 1 in his class at Annapolis – with Morton a close no 2 albeit – who had been recruited by ONI straight out of the Academy, who’d had Admirals fighting over him since he left Groton Sub School, and still had, despite Nelson luring him to Seaview.
Waving aside Chip’s instinctive protest, Lee continued. “Hear me out! You are the most upright, moral, honest, truly good person I know. You have tremendous compassion and an incredible ability to instantly read a situation and react in the most appropriate manner. You have awesome command abilities – the men trust you implicitly. Do you know how rare that is, Chip? Most execs inspire either terror or exasperation in their crew. But any man on Seaview would lay down his life for you! Because they know you’d do the same for them. Oh, I know you can flay a seaman at sixty paces – that’s part of being a good exec. And you’re the best! But they know that they can count on you to keep your head and get us home – sometimes despite the admiral and me! And as for me, well you’ve been keeping me out of trouble since the first day we met! And when you couldn’t stop me doing something foolish, you were there to chew me out and make me consider whether what I’d done was necessary or foolhardy.
I know I drive you nuts at times, pal. But I need you there beside me to keep me on the right track, to tell me when I’m being stupid or not thinking straight.”
“To keep you out of Sickbay!” The exec’s tone was wry. “And to help you escape Jamie’s clutches as soon as you’re capable of standing upright, you mean.”
”That too.” Lee grinned back then sobered once more. “I can’t believe we’ve – I’ve – let this go for months without attempting to talk it over before now. All I can say is that I am truly sorry. I’m still not really good at this family thing and I allowed my hurt and anger to blow the whole situation out of proportion. But I can promise you that I will never let this happen again.”
“It wasn’t all you, Lee.” Chip couldn’t, in conscience, allow his friend to take all the blame. “I didn’t give you any opening. I know it’s one of my major failings. I close myself off from people. And I did a very good job of it this time. I totally over re-acted to your response when you saw the ring. All I can say in my defence is that I just wanted to get back to normal. I was still reeling from the shock of finding myself married to Sophie and thought if I could get back on the boat and put everything behind me, it would somehow just – go away.”
“I can understand that, Chip. And I spoilt it for you.” Lee’s remorseful tone drew a small rueful grin from the blond before he became solemn.
“Wouldn’t have worked anyway, Lee. First off, there was Sophie to deal with. As she got sicker she became more demanding. Mom took the brunt of that – I think she blamed herself for not talking me out of marrying her. Then that time she came to Santa Barbara she wanted me to quit Seaview and stay home with her. We had quite a fight about it. I didn’t feel good about fighting with her when she was so ill but she could be quite manipulative when she wanted to be.” Lee had already figured that one out for himself! “Mom wouldn’t hear of it. Took her right back to Chicago and said she would straighten her out. Mom can be quite determined when she wants to be.” Lee knew that one for sure! He’d never seen anyone quite like Clare Morton in defence of her chicks. He owed her a big, huge bunch or flowers!
Shame again overwhelmed him. How incredibly lonely Chip must have felt, under such intense pressure and without his best friend to turn to. Morton had plenty of friends but Lee knew Chip wouldn’t have confided in anyone else.
“Thing is, the disease progressed quicker than anyone had anticipated and that was the last time I saw Sophie alive.” Crane could hear the pain and self-condemnation in Chip’s voice. “Then I discovered that she had left me her house and quite a bit of money.”
Lee drew in a deep breath. That wouldn’t have gone over well with his honourable friend! He was so right.
The blue eyes clouded as Chip recalled unpleasant memories before giving his head a little shake to bring him back to the present. “Do you know how hard it is to give money away? Some of the charities I approached were positively paranoid! In the end I asked the admiral’s advice and he put me in touch with someone who handled everything for me. But it took months!” The exec’s tone was positively plaintive.
Even knowing his friend as well as he did, Lee was again awed at the wonderfully decent human being that was Chip Morton. “I’m glad the admiral was there to help, Chip. I’m only sorry I let you down. Please believe me when I say that I would have liked to be there for you and I truly regret every day that I haven’t cherished your friendship.”
Morton felt a stinging behind his eyes at the depth of sincerity in Crane’s words. He would never doubt his friend’s feelings for him again. “Lee, if there is one thing I’ve come to realise from Sophie’s death, it’s that time is precious. None of us know from day to day what’s in store for us. This last year isn’t one I’ll remember with any degree of pride on my part either. I know I closed you out. And I’ve never really told you how much I value you as a person and as my friend. You called me your yardstick and I am truly honoured that you think of me that way. You are one of the finest people I know, Lee. And the best friend a man could have. Maybe this was a salutary lesson for both of us. We won’t take our friendship for granted ever again.”
“You can be sure of that, Chip. But you should be proud of what you did for Sophie. That one time I saw her with Mom at the docks she looked the picture of happiness. You gave her that. I don’t know many men who would do what you did, Chip Morton. I am proud to call you my friend!”
Chip had to turn away to hide the hide the tears that welled. Looking back at the man he too was honoured to call friend he saw the dampness in the golden eyes that Lee made no attempt to hide. Swinging his legs off the bunk he sat upright and reached for his brother.
They clasped hands tightly; both grips equally strong, and the bonds of friendship previously strained were forged anew.
Crane had to clear his throat before speaking and he could see that Chip was equally choked. “Right now, Mr. Morton, I think it’s time you got some sleep. You’re on watch in about five hours!”
“As are you, Captain!” The exec shot back with the bright grin Lee had first seen at the Academy and had missed for many months now. Then Chip sobered. “There’s just one thing I need to do before I hit my rack. I think it’s time I took this off.” So saying he pulled off the gold wedding band and dropped it definitively into the top drawer of his desk.
“Welcome back, Chip!”
Jamieson’s curiosity wouldn’t allow him to rest until he discovered if his machinations had worked. Tapping lightly on the exec’s door, he softly opened it when he received no response. The dimmed light spilling in from the corridor was enough to illuminate the prone figure, with the thick thatch of blond hair, curled on his side under the blankets, deeply asleep for the first night in months. It was harder to see the figure of the other man sleeping in the large leather chair pulled close to the rack but Jamie caught a surreptitious glimpse of a khaki sleeve atop the dark blanket, a hand resting on Morton’s arm, and gave a silent “Halleluiah!”
Entering his own quarters he picked up the
internal phone and called a very familiar number. “
“Thank the Lord for that, Jamie.”
“Aye, sir. It’s good to have things back to normal.” He heard Nelson’s chuckle.
“Normal, Jamie? On this boat?”